The Missing Week or The Art of Convalescing (by faust)

SummaryThe way to recovery can be stony. But sometimes obstacles come from the most unexpected origins. And just how many times will Doctor Martin have to come to the Ponderosa to patch up Adam once again?  This is the second story in the “Art” alternative universe.  
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,700


If you haven’t read “Horse Selling,” you have to know is this:  Adam was shot and left for dead in a mud hole. He was eventually found and brought home; and while Hoss was going for the doctor, the Ponderosa was raided and Adam, despite his injury, had to defend his friend Juliet against the burglars.

Sunday Evening

Juliet stretched out her long legs under the bedcovers. She yawned heartily, snuggled into her blanket and finally gave in to exhaustion.

After Hoss had delivered her to Mrs. Hawkins’; after the widow had dragged her in crying, “Dear god, what happened to you?” over and over again; after she had thanked Hoss for offering to tend to her horse and send him on his way with the words, “And take good care of Adam!”; after she had given a short but trenchant summary of the day’s event to her host, who was busily fluttering around, heating water, getting towels, and making tea; after she had washed herself and changed into a wonderfully clean nightshirt and dressing gown—Juliet had settled down and drawn up the new series of articles she planned for the next issues of the Territorial Enterprise. She had even fully written the one that would probably be the banner story of tomorrow’s edition: a first hand report of the events leading to the capture of Virginia City’s most wanted criminals. She had chosen not to give away details yet, she had spared the best for the conclusion of her series. She had only stopped writing when the first strays of morning sunlight flickered through her room.

Now sleep engulfed her and led her to an endless swamp that she was supposed to clean out with only a tiny Brussels laced handkerchief. She desperately tried to wipe here and there, but, of course, her efforts had no success. Just when she was ready to give in to frustration, a long fingered tanned hand grabbed her arm and dragged her away. She looked up to see Adam, clad in a Roman toga, with a laurel-wreath on his head; and he gazed at her with warm, sad eyes and said, “I just came to say good-bye. I know you did your best, but once again, your best wasn’t good enough.” And then suddenly the pristine white sheet draped around him was stained with crimson red, and the stain became bigger and bigger until there was no white left, and Adam let her arm go and went to the swamp, and with every step he took he sank deeper into the mud. Juliet watched that in utter horror, and she cried and screamed and begged him to come back, please come back—

She woke with her mouth open, her throat sore from crying. Pushing her covers from her sweating body, she sat up at the side of her bed, pressing her hands to her throbbing temples, silently rocking back and forth until it was time to get up at last.

*****

Monday


After a minor battle with Mr. Goodman, Juliet managed to make it out of the bureau quite early that afternoon. Dr. Martin readily agreed to take her in his buggy to the Ponderosa, since he always found it nice to have some company on the long drive to the ranch house.

Ben Cartwright was obviously relieved to see the doctor, even though Adam seemed to be as fine as anybody could wish, but from the way he greeted Juliet with, “I didn’t expect you to pass by so soon.” it became quite clear that he didn’t assign these feelings on her, too. If Juliet noticed his reservation she didn’t let on. Instead she beamed at her reluctant host with one of her brighter smiles and handed him the hamper she had brought.

“I thought you might not have the time or energy to cook, so I asked Mrs. Hawkins to prepare something for three hungry men… And there’s some broth for Adam, too.”

Ben looked at her, surprised. “That was…very thoughtful of you, Miss Heatherstone.” He considered her for a moment and then, with a tiny smile only the most suspicious would have called mischievous, he added, “If you follow me into the kitchen I show you where you’ll find everything to heat the broth.”

Juliet stared at him, beaten. She opened her mouth, but clearly was at a loss for words.

“Broth,” the doctor filled in. “Very thoughtful, indeed, Miss Heatherstone. I never mentioned it, knowing Hop Sing wasn’t here. That’s exactly what Adam needs now. If you have it ready right after I examine him, that would be perfect!”

Juliet pressed her lips together, crossed her arms on her chest and glared at the two men.

Both Ben and Doctor Martin saw her jaws working and each began to count down inwardly towards the inevitable outburst.

Juliet lifted her chin in that very familiar imperious gesture, raised an eyebrow and announced, “Very well. I’ll do what’s necessary. I hope your cooking equipment meets my requirements.”

And with that she swept into the kitchen, her skirt swishing somehow indignantly, leaving Ben and the doctor nonplussed.

*****

When Dr. Martin descended the stairs, announcing that all was well, and Adam’s wound showed no signs of infection or other complications, Juliet had just emerged from the kitchen, her hair in even more disarray than usual, holding a steaming bowl of heavenly smelling beef broth and a spoon in her hands and with a dishcloth draped over her right shoulder. If not for her sumptuous black and cream striped skirt, her ivory silk blouse and her elaborately embroidered vest, she could have been mistaken for a kitchen maid.

Of course, a kitchen maid wouldn’t glare at Ben Cartwright as he tried to pass her at the foot of the stairs, or use that clipped accent to admonish him, “Excuse me, but this soup is getting cold when not served immediately. And I’d like to talk to Adam alone, if you don’t mind.”

Of course, a kitchen maid would have been send on her way with a month worth of wages at that point, but since he could hardly do this to the Bearer of The Broth—and Juliet seemed to know that very well—Ben just glared back, silently fighting an eye-duel with her for a few seconds, then finally sighed and, shaking his head, gave in.

“Oh, certainly. Just go ahead; you know the way already.”

A regal nod of her head, only a slight tilt, barely visible, “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright”, and she swept up the stairs, again leaving behind two bewildered men.

Juliet stifled her giggle before she entered Adam’s room.

“I don’t bring a basket of goodies, but since you’re not my grandmother, I assume broth is more suitable anyway,” she said by way of greeting.

“And since I’m not the big, bad wolf, I will stick to the broth and spare you, Red Riding Hood,” Adam replied with a chuckle. “I was very relieved when Paul told me about the broth, Juliet. Pa already threatened me with bread soaked in milk.” Adam pulled a face and shuddered at the thought. His wince at the movement was microscopic, but Juliet noticed it anyway.

“Are you in pain, Adam? Do you need the doctor to come back?”

“No, no, it’s all right. I’m fine. As long as I don’t move I’m fine as frog’s hair.”

“As—what?”

“As frog’s hair.”

“Are you sure you’re well?” Juliet put the bowl on the nightstand and bent down to Adam to search his face. “Maybe you’re running a fever?”

“I’m not delusional, Juliet. It’s only a saying.”

“The frog’s hair?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Ha, ha.” She tried a sarcastic face, but couldn’t help sniggering. “Fine as frog’s hair. That’s nihilism, Adam. Pure nihilism.”

“Whatever you say, Mylady. Now wasn’t there some broth?”

“Oh, yes.” She handed him bowl and spoon, and sat down on the bedside. “Careful, it’s still quite hot.”

“Smells delicious. Don’t tell me you made it.”

“You wouldn’t want to eat anything I made, Adam.” She gave him a surprisingly thoughtful look. “At least I assume not. I would rather let Mrs. Hawkins cook it.”

“However, it was very th—“

“If you say thoughtful, I will start to scream, Adam!”

“I’d like to hear that one day, really, Juliet, but not now, please.” Adam chuckled, albeit very carefully, so not to disturb his wound anymore. “What’s wrong with thoughtful, anyway?”

“Your father and Doctor Martin already said that, as if it were a major miracle that I brought it. As if I’m completely inept at caring for others.” She sounded more wounded than Adam thought possible; and she lowered her gaze to study her hands.

Gingerly Adam reached out and lifted her chin. He waited until her eyes finally met his. “You are very apt in caring for others, Juliet. Don’t let anyone make you think differently.” He saw her eyes getting watery. “What’s eating at you, Juliet?” he asked very softly.

Juliet turned her face away and pulled out of his hold. She shook her head. “I…I’m tired, that’s all. I haven’t slept much last night. Just like everybody, I suppose.” She looked at him, nearly pleading to let it go. Then she stood, pulled the rocker from the place at the window, where Ben Cartwright had left it only this morning, next to the bed, sat down on it and leaned back. She gazed at Adam, and suddenly she looked as composed as ever.

“Now eat your soup, Adam, before it’s cold.”

He looked back at her. Well, he could play along, if this was what she wanted. He lifted the spoon in a mock salute. “Aye, Madam.”

Juliet smiled. “That’s the spirit! And if you’re a good boy and eat it all, I shall read you something, after you’ve finished.”

*****

It was late afternoon and Dr. Martin long gone, when Hoss, who had finally finished repairing the barn roof, harnessed the buggy and prepared to drive Miss Juliet back to Virginia City once again; and Joe, who had come home from the north pasture only half an hour earlier, was sent upstairs with two mugs of tea.

When Joe entered Adam’s room, he found his brother reading silently. Joe couldn’t help but laugh. Only Adam would read while having a lady sitting at his side.

“What, have you run out of topics already?”

“Shh.” Adam nudged his head to Juliet, who was sitting on the rocker, her hands neatly folded in her lap, her head lying at a very uncomfortable looking angle on her left shoulder. Her eyes were firmly closed, and her chest was falling and rising in a calm, steady rhythm.

Joe put the mugs on Adam’s bedside table, turned to the rocker and gazed into Juliet’s relaxed face. He couldn’t believe it. “She fell asleep on you?”

“Be quiet,” Adam hissed at him. He watched Juliet for a moment, but she didn’t stir. “Just get out. And, Joe, be smart, don’t ever talk to her about this.”

“What? But—“

“Don’t tease her about this, Joe. Just—don’t.” Adam caught his brother’s eye. “She’s worn out. She hasn’t slept at all last night; just let her rest a while.”

“You mean she’s human after all? “

“Joe…”

“All right, all right, I don’t say a word.” Joe crouched down a bit to look at Juliet again. “She looks different with her eyes shut. Cute.”

Adam chuckled quietly. “Don’t tell her that either. I’m sure she doesn’t want to be seen as ‘cute’!” He gazed at the sleeping lady. Joe was right, she looked somehow cute, and tame, and mild; and Adam fervently missed the spark in her stormy eyes, the sarcastic arch of her brow and her teasing voice. “Now go. Quietly.”

Joe left the room, barely suppressing a giggle, and Adam resumed his perusal of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

*****

Tuesday


From where Adam was tied to an odd rock formation that bore a striking resemblance to a horse saddle, with a particularly pointed edge that represented the saddle horn and poked very unpleasantly into his right side, he had a clear view of the two outlaws who pushed a struggling Juliet back and forth between them. He tried to shout and make them stop, but instead of words his mouth only emitted a hoarse croak that didn’t seem to impress the men in the slightest. Now one of them held Juliet by her upper arm and tried to nestle his face where her neck and shoulder met, while Juliet tried to wriggle free from him, all the while looking at Adam and reaching out for him with both hands. Her eyes were wide and pleading and she whispered nearly inaudibly, “Why don’t you help me?”

He strained against his bonds, trying to yank his arms free, but somehow this only caused the stony saddle horn to dig into his side even more painfully. He cried out in frustration and launched himself against the ropes that kept him in place with all the strength he could muster. And just as if the sheer will to get free was enough, miraculously the bonds fell away and he stumbled forward, reaching for his gun, ready to strike. But when he trained his gun on the man holding Juliet, the scene changed, and Juliet, with a nurse’s hat and a huge white apron approached him carrying a bowl with water and a stack of towels.

“Adam, you’re hurt. Let me help you,” she said softly.

He looked down his body, and he saw a bloodstain on his shirt, and when he gazed up again, Juliet had been replaced by an enormous black bird. The bird—was it a crow?—spread its wings, huge wings that threw a shadow on Adam; and the shadow grew and became darker and darker as the bird came closer, until there wasn’t any light left, and Adam stood in complete blackness. He wondered briefly if this was death after all, when suddenly flames were leaping out of the ground, engulfing both him and the crow, and the bird suddenly gave a shrill cry and, furiously flapping its wings, rose from the ground and pecked at Adam’s side with his big, sharp beak. Adam’s world exploded in agony; he tried to fight the beak, shove the bird off him, get out of the flames, escape from the dark, the heat, the pain, the fear, the unknown.

In the end it was the pain that brought him home. Adam woke up with an excruciating stabbing in his right side. He was bathed in sweat, completely entangled in his bed sheets, thrashing around, trying to get rid of the trapping cloth, and he was hot, so hot. Finally he somehow got his body free from the crumpled blanket, and just lay still, exhausted despite having been asleep only minutes ago, trying to relax, breathing heavily and feeling the pain slowly fading away. The air in his room was stale—and hot!—and he felt as if he was suffocating. Fresh air, need fresh air, became the only imperative in his mind.

When the pain had subsided to a tolerable level, Adam cautiously pushed himself up on his elbows, then into a sitting position. He rode on the waves of dizziness for longer than he cared for, but when his room stopped spinning around, and the walls didn’t look as if they were made out of wobbly jelly anymore, he slid to the edge of his bed, turned and got his legs out. Hot sweat was itching at his skin, and he would have given anything to be able to slip out of it like a snake, leave the sweat and smell behind and feel clean and fresh once again. His eyes fell on the window. Fresh air. He pushed off of the bed and, holding tight to the bedpost, got himself to an upright position. Upright, yes, but he wouldn’t call it standing. No, not really. He clung to the post for dear life, more sweat prickling at him. He was so hot. But he was cold also. And hot. So hot. He couldn’t breath properly, the air was too thick. Thick and hot and thick and—fresh air, need fresh air.

Adam pushed himself away from the stabilising bedpost. For a glorious few seconds he stood on his own power, triumphantly looking at the window that wouldn’t be closed for much longer now. But then the room took a vigorous leap and started to revolt again. Adam felt bile rising in his throat, and the attempt to hold himself upright seemed too much for his weak legs. He quickly turned to get back to his bed, but immediately realised that he had made a bad, bad mistake. The abrupt movement jarred something in his wound and a blinding pain soared through his side. He went down to the floor uncontrolled, banging his right side at the edge of the bed, which caused the pain to rise into unconceivable heights. He pressed a hand at his side in a futile attempt to work against the agony, and, noticing a suspicious warm wetness there, this time he couldn’t hold back the bile, and he puked the poor contents of his nearly empty stomach all over the floor. He would have loved to push himself up and get out of this mess and back into his soft, clean bed, but all he could do was lie there, clutching his side and trying to will away the newly rising nausea and the darkness that threatened to engulf him and take him back to that horrid world of fire and death birds.

Faintly he heard thundering footfalls on the stairs, on the landing, in his room, and voices, well known voices.

“What in tarnation—” That was Pa. Thank god, Pa.

The next minutes became a blurry swirl of shouted orders “Joe, go and get the doctor!” “Hoss, towels!”, hurried footsteps, tender hands that stroked his back and his face and smoothed his hair back, soft words “It’s all right, son, I got you,” of wet towels and strong arms that held him, removed his nightshirt and gave him a new one, of a broad chest to lean on and a voice full of brotherly love that said, “You got yerself in a real mess here, Adam.” And then there were hands under his arms and a force that lifted him up, and he opened his eyes to see his father’s concerned face for a split second before the room collapsed into itself and darkness crept on him from all sides, and then—nothing.

*****

Dr. Martin came down the stairs shaking his head and joined Ben at the coffee table at the great fire place. He gratefully accepted a cup of coffee, and a piece of cake, obviously a left over from the fabulous food basket Miss Heatherstone had provided the day before, and, with a content sigh, leaned back in his chair.

“Ben, your boy has worked himself up quite prettily,” he said. “I thought I made it very clear that he wasn’t to get up for at least ten days? And how long did he stay in bed? Less than two days! Didn’t you say something about taking care of him?”

“Paul, we didn’t let him up on purpose. He was sound asleep when Hoss left the room,” Ben replied in a strange mixture of irritation and defensiveness. “And he certainly seemed too weak to get up.”

“Yes, well, he was too weak to get up, but, of course, he had to try anyway. From what I understood, he had a nightmare and woke up feeling hot and in need of fresh air.” The doctor shook his head again. “All he wanted to do, he says, was to get up and open the window. Ben, didn’t Hoss suggest tying Adam to his bed? Perhaps you should take it into consideration.”

“Paul!”

“I mean it, Ben, he has to stay put. I don’t want to come out here and redo my stitches every second day. If he continues to retard his recovery like this, he will be confined to his room until next Christmas.”

“Well, as I said, we didn’t know he’d even be able to try. I’ll make sure he won’t try again.” The way Ben delivered his last statement it was clear that the topic was closed. “How bad is it, Paul?”

“Could be worse, actually. He opened the stitches, ruining all my good work. I closed the wound again, but this time there will be a scar. He worked himself into quite some fever, but maybe that was even there before he went up. That would be an explanation for the warmth he felt. There is a little infection—” The doctor held his hands up when Ben gasped, and made a calming gesture. “But here the whole incident turns out to be a blessing in disguise: since the wound was already open I could clean it thoroughly, and the infection should subside in no time. All Adam needs now is rest. And I mean complete rest. No exploration to the window, no fatherly scolding for unreasonable behaviour, no commotions, no excitements. Just peace and quiet.”

Ben looked like he wanted to argue, but he swallowed his words and confined himself to glaring at his friend.

“Ben, don’t look at me like that,” the doctor chuckled. “Everything will be all right. Just give it time, and make sure your boy rests.”

Ben sent over another dark scowl. “I already said I’ll take care of that. You don’t have to lecture me, Paul.” He knew he was throwing a tantrum, but he couldn’t help it. He had been terrified by the sight that had greeted him when he’d entered Adam’s room after they had heard that telltale thumping up there. Now he learned that his son was going to be all right he just had to work his anxiety out of his system, and he did it in a way that, as usual, would leave him embarrassed and full of regret once he’d realised what he had done—by lashing out at others. “You had better take care that Miss Heatherstone won’t be ‘passing by’ in the next few days, because as sure as death and taxes she will manage to rile up Adam in no time.”

Dr. Martin knew Ben long enough to not take offense. He merely chuckled and said, “Well, as far as I heard, she spent her last visit here sleeping in the rocker. That sounds like a quite relaxing meeting to me.”

“She was tired. But now she’s rested they will start their bickering again. You heard them the other day, Paul. This can’t be good for Adam.”

“Well, you might be right about that, Ben.” Dr. Martin rested his elbows on his knee and rubbed his chin. “I’m going to see her at the Enterprise this afternoon and tell her that Adam can’t have visitors the next two days. All right?” He gazed at Ben and then frowned. “She won’t be too happy about that, though. She seems quite fond of your eldest, Ben. And somehow I have the feeling Adam won’t like that too much, either.” The doctor leaned back again and smiled broadly at Ben. “But that will be for you to explain to him.”

Ben crossed his arms. “I’m sure he will understand,” he grumbled. “And don’t look so gleeful!”

*****

Wednesday


Hoss leaned back in the rocker. Adam was finally sound asleep. After having insisted on refusing the sleeping powder the doc had left for him, he had tossed and turned in his bed more than Hoss had liked it, complaining about it being too hot in the room, too stuffy, too crowded. Well, Hoss hadn’t been able to help with the last, because he had vowed to his father that, come hell or high water, he wouldn’t leave Adam’s room for even a split second, but he had opened the bedroom window to let in cool and fresh evening air, and this eventually had done the trick, and Adam had finally settled down and drifted off.

The past twenty-four hours had been an ordeal for the whole family, who had taken turns to watch over the reluctant patient. The doctor had left them with a drugged Adam, which inevitably had triggered the dreaded nightmares. Adam had woken up several times, panting hard and sweating. He had refused to tell them what his dreams were about, but from all his writhing and head throwing when he was in the clutches of a dream, it was quite clear that the images they provided were at least unpleasant.

Later that night Adam’s fever had spiked, and that had seemed to provide more fodder for his nightmares. He had thrashed out in a ferocity that had made them fear for the newly administered stitches, and so they had awoken him every time his tossing and turning had gotten too wild for their liking. When being pulled out of yet another disturbing vision, Adam had looked at them with unfocussed, burning, fever bright eyes, clutching whatever piece of clothing he could get a hold on, and had agitatedly asked the same question time and again: “Is Juliet all right?”

Of course, they had assured him that Juliet was fine, that she was safely at home in Virginia City, and didn’t he remember she had been here, at the Ponderosa, only yesterday and slept so peacefully on the rocker at his bedside? Adam had stared at them, slurring things like “Bu’ they wanna hurt ‘er…” or “Gotta help ‘er…” before sliding back into restless sleep.

By one in the morning the fever had raged in Adam’s unresisting body so furiously that it had taken both Hoss and Joe to keep their brother from throwing himself off the bed. He had become even more agitated, demanding to be let out of his room to go and save “Mylady” from “the varmint” (and if all this hadn’t been so scary, Hoss would have laughed out loud at this – he had never heard his brother use this expression before, but from an earlier conversation with Adam he knew perfectly well where this came from). At that point his father had been ready to send Joe for the doctor, despite the dangers of a ride to Virginia City in the dark of the night, and had even suggested Joe might try and ask Miss Heatherstone to come to the Ponderosa, only so Adam could somehow be convinced she was, indeed, perfectly all right; when suddenly Adam had become deadly still, opened his eyes and said calmly, “Either one of you opens the window or you all leave this room. There’s far too much of a crowd in here, and since I designed this house I can tell you with certainty this room wasn’t meant to be a place of assembly.”

They had stared at him, stunned, and then Hoss had reached out and felt Adam’s brow, and had smiled broadly when he had announced, “The fever has broken.”

They had been too exhausted by then to cheer heartily, but had patted Adam on his shoulder and his leg and seemingly everywhere else they could reach him. Pa had given him a drink of cool water and had bathed his face with some more water, and Adam had turned onto his side, sighed deeply and slipped into a peaceful slumber. And then they had organised their watch schedule, and finally gotten some sleep, too.

Adam had slept long into the morning, and when he woke up he had looked considerably healthier and better rested than the day before. He surely looks more rested than Pa, Hoss had thought, but he couldn’t fathom what had kept his father from sleep, after Adam so clearly had been out of the woods.

The solution of the riddle had come later that day. Adam had been reading a few pages of the book from his nightstand, then had asked Joe to give him another one from the shelf, had read a few paragraphs in that, but obviously hadn’t been satisfied with it and asked for yet another book. When Hoss had come into the room for the changing of the guard, as Adam called it, in late afternoon, Joe had drummed his fingers on Adam’s desk, looking quite exasperated, and asking impatiently, “I think there are two or three books left on the shelf, do you wanna have a peek into them now, too?”

Adam had just waved him off with an irritated flick of his hand, and when Joe had opened his mouth to say something that would inevitably cause a major eruption at the sick bed, Hoss had intervened and said, “Why don’cha go an’ hava nice cuppa coffee, Joe, an’ I see that big brother here get what he need. All right?”

Joe had given him a brief relieved glance and had left the room muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, “Ol’ bossy boots don’ even know what he wants.”

Hoss had sat down at his brother’s side, looked at the dozens of books that were strewn on the bed covers and the floor round the bed, and had softly asked, “What is it yer lookin’ fer, Adam?”

“Just something to keep me occupied, Hoss. I need something to do, something to keep my mind busy. But I have read each and everyone of these books at least a dozen times. And I have stayed in this bed far too long already.” Adam had looked at Hoss with a look that could have melted stone, and he had drawn out downright desperately, “I’m bored, Hoss.”

Hoss had had to laugh at this display. Adam had looked and sounded exactly like the twelve year old boy who had been confined to his bed for long weeks with meningitis, who, for fear of overexertion, hadn’t been allowed to read during recuperation, and who had complained (only to Hoss, so not to cause his pa and heavily pregnant ma any more troubles) bitterly, “I’m so bored, Hoss!” And just like back then, Hoss hadn’t had anything to offer to make Adam’s life less miserable than it was but his wide toothy grin and the words, “There’s no way you get outta this bed, Adam. But ya jest calm down, I gonna tell ya some funny story.”

While he had still been searching his mind for a funny story Adam yet hadn’t heard, Pa had entered the room, carrying two steaming mugs of coffee and a broad smile.

“I just heard Paul’s buggy coming in the yard, Adam,” he had said. “If he thinks you’re up to it, maybe you’ll like to have some of the cake Mrs. Hawkins made for you.”

“I just hope he brings Juliet along.” Suddenly Adam had looked far more cheerful. “She promised to bring me a new book she discovered at her next visit.”

Pa had looked uncomfortable. “Um, son, I, um, wouldn’t count too much on that. Surely Miss Heatherstone can’t come out to the Ponderosa every other day. It’s a long way, and she’s got a job in the town and certainly a lot of other, er, occupations, too.” He had spoken uncharacteristically fast, like he had wanted to get it over with, and Hoss had eyed him suspiciously. Pa had glared back, silently daring him to say a word. Hoss hadn’t had any idea what, but something clearly had been going on. He had never considered his father a coward, but something in Pa’s behaviour had struck Hoss as cowardly.

Adam had been oblivious to their exchange. He had shifted himself into a more comfortable position, and looked quite relaxed and content.

“I don’t think Juliet minds the long way very much, Pa. In fact, she promised to make it today. And I have to admit, I’m glad she’s coming. No offense, but it’ll be very nice to see another face.”

Pa had actually stepped from one foot to another. “Well, I’m fairly sure she won’t come today. Paul said you needed rest and absolute quiet, and so we decided—“

Oh, Hoss had thought, that’s what’s going on.

You decided? You decided what, Pa?”

“We decided that Miss Heatherstone’s erratic behaviour was too strenuous to—”

And then hell had broken loose.

Hoss thought back with a shudder at the argument between his father and his older brother, and as much as he sympathised with Adam, who had been disgusted at his father’s interference with his life, he also understood Pa’s rage at being called a “meddling old cockalorum”.

The pandemonium had only stopped when a red faced Doctor Martin had stormed into the room, bellowing at Pa, “You, out here!” and threatening Adam with a “very generously measured” dose of laudanum if he wouldn’t calm down “in an instant!”

For the rest of the day Adam had been grumpy. He had spent quite some time sitting in his bed, propped up at the headboard, his arms crossed, and glaring at everyone who had ventured into his room. When this had gotten too tedious, he had opened a random book and read it without really paying it attention.

While Pa had been fuming downstairs, and Joe had done everyone’s chores just to stay out of the danger zone that had seemed to occupy most of the house, Hoss had brought Adam a bowl of broth and insisted that Adam empty it to the last drop. He had entertained his brother with stories from their childhood, hadn’t spared Adam from a comparison of his recent attitude with that of his twelve year old self, and had finally managed to distract Adam’s mind from the betrayal of which he accused their father. They had talked amiably until long after dark, had shared some long forgotten tales from the days when they had been only two sons, and then two sons and new mama, and eventually two sons and a baby brother. Adam had gradually gone quieter, until he finally had found the peace and quiet the doctor had prescribed and decided to go to sleep.

Now he rested peacefully, without any disturbance, and Hoss closed his eyes to get a capful of sleep, too. Tonight the family wouldn’t take turns to watch over Adam; even Pa had grumpily agreed that it would be wiser if Hoss were there should Adam wake up at night. There would be time tomorrow to sort things out between father and son, but tonight it would be just Hoss and Adam.

Hoss yawned heartily, wriggled himself comfortably into the rocker and tightened the blanket he had draped around his shoulders. The last thing he contemplated before he let himself slip into oblivion was Adam’s sleeping face that reminded Hoss so much of the child his big brother had once been. He decided that Adam hadn’t looked this relaxed since the day he had been shot; and so Hoss wouldn’t have to feel bad when tomorrow morning he would leave the room and the ranch to keep his own appointment at Virginia City with none other than Miss Juliet.

*****

Thursday


“Now ya jest open the loading gate here, like that….” Hoss looked up and gazed at Miss Juliet’s concentrated face. Her eyes firmly set on the Colt in his hand, she seemed to take inner notes on every word he said.

“…an’ now ya see if there’s a cartridge in the chamber or not.”

“I see.” Juliet took the Colt in her hand and, testing, opened and closed the gate until finally she peered into the cylinder. “You really have to know what you’re doing, Hoss. It doesn’t look as if you can open it at all.”

“I never thought about that, ma’am. I jest do it.”

“I suppose you do, Hoss.” Juliet smiled at him disarmingly. “And I have to admit, now in the light of day, it doesn’t seem as enigmatic as it did the other day. I assume, I was a bit, um, stressed back then.”

Before Hoss could stop himself he nudged her upper arm, and, surprisingly, she didn’t admonish him for that, but merely looked fondly surprised.

“Ya was great, ma’am,” Hoss said with emphasis. “Adam told me ya was very brave with them scoundrels.”

“Oh, did he?” Juliet face lit up even more.

“Yes, he sure did, Miss Juliet. He said ya was like a Greek Ama— Amaze…” Hoss trailed off.

“Amazon?”

“Yes, like a Greek Amazon.”

“Well, I hope not.” Juliet gave him a dark half smile. “Since they’ve got only one—” She cut herself off, looked at him as if she had woken up from a dream, and then, with a blush, lowered her face and added a muted, “Never mind.”

While Hoss was still puzzling about her strange behaviour, she returned her attention to the gun, opened the gate once again, and, revolving the cylinder checked every chamber.

“So the gun is loaded and ready to shoot. What do I do now?”

“Jest a moment, Miss Juliet.” Hoss allowed himself to look smug. “There’re cartridges in there all right, but are there bullets, too?”

Now it was Miss Juliet’s turn to look puzzled. “What?”

Hoss took the gun from her hand. “The bullets are in the cartridges, Miss Juliet. With gunpowder and fuse. When ya shoot the gun, the bullet come out an’ the cartridge stay in. See here, when ya can see the primer here, then the bullet’s still in. When ya jest see a hole in the cartridge, ya hafta reload.”

“Oh. All right. I understand. A little technical marvel.” Miss Juliet pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. For a moment she seemed to contemplate Hoss, and then her face melted into a wide approving smile. “And now I have made sure I saw a primer in every cartridge, I…?” she prompted him.

Hoss lifted the gun. “Ya draw back the hammer, like so, aim, and pull the trigger.”

Miss Juliet flinched when the shot exploded right next to her, but nevertheless looked expectantly over at the row of tins, bottles and a bucket on the fence next to the well in Mrs. Hawkins’ front yard. She even gave a tiny whoop when one of the tins was whipped off the fence by the force of the bullet.

“Wal, now ya try, ma’am!”

Juliet seized the Colt, made a show of checking if the gun was loaded, shot Hoss a sarcastic smirk, drew back the hammer, took aim and shot. The bullet went astray, somewhere in the hydrangea bushes.

Juliet looked at Hoss as if this was his fault. “It doesn’t work.”

“Ya jest hafta try again, Miss Juliet. Ya hafta practise.”

She pressed her lips into a grim line, lifted the gun, drew back the hammer, pulled the trigger—hydrangeas, again.

She glared at Hoss.

Hoss opened his mouth, but she cut him off. “Practise, I know.”

In the next twenty minutes she emptied cylinder after cylinder into the hydrangeas, the rose beds and, for a change, into the barn door.

Eventually Miss Juliet handed over the gun, crossed her arms, narrowed her eyes at Hoss and said, “Well…” Somehow it sounded like a threat.

Hoss was at a loss. He had tried to hold Miss Juliet’s hand while she shot, he had told her everything he knew about front and rear sights, he had advised her to stand sideways—nothing seemed to help. He tried to remember how he had learned to shoot. A chubby eight year old boy, watching his elder brother practising with his new gun…then asking if he could try…his brother teaching him…. What had Adam said back then? The barrel is your finger….

“Miss Juliet, now I got it…” Hoss held the weapon out to her with new hope. “When ya aim, jest try ta imagine the barrel is yer index finger, an’ ya point it ta the target.” He nodded to her, encouragingly.

Taking the gun, Juliet shot him a doubting glance, but she stood sideways, as taught, draw the hammer, aimed and—shot the bucket into pieces.

Lesser men than Hoss would have been disappointed by Juliet’s lack of exaltation about her accomplishment. But if Hoss had already learned anything about Miss Juliet, then it was this: expect the unexpected, and be sure it will be even different from that. And, of course, if she’d been whooping and cheering about her success she couldn’t have done what she did. And Hoss wouldn’t have wanted to miss that for the world.

Juliet had watched the forceful destruction of the wooden bucket with a rather amazed expression. Now she turned to Hoss, smiled at him in complete admiration, and said, “We’ve done it.”

She laughed silently, as if they were sharing a private joke. “We’ve done it, Hoss. You’re a wonderful teacher, thank you so much.”

“Err, yes, wal…” He took off his hat and, looking down, he scratched at the back of his head. “Ya welcome, Miss Juliet. Ya weren’t bad either, um…” He swung his hat back and forth and shuffled a bit with his feet. He didn’t dare to look up for fear she would notice his blushing. “An’ I jest told ya what Adam taught me.”

Praising his big brother was much more common for Hoss than being lauded himself; and so he finally was able to look Juliet in the eye again. “Adam’s the teacher in our fam’ly, Miss Juliet. I ain’t not sa smart.”

“What makes you say that, Hoss? That you’re not smart?” She sounded nearly—vexed.

“Ya know, ma’am, I don’ know much about books an’ pictures an’ op’ras an’ stuff. Adam, he’s been ta college, an’ he know all kinda things, them poems an’ that Shakespeare fella, an’ about machines an’, an’ almost ev’rything.”

“And not being as much informed about certain things as your brother makes you less smart, Hoss?” She looked inquiring at him, then lifted a quizzical eyebrow. “Do you think I’m stupid, Hoss?”

“No, ma’am, no, I’d never think that,” Hoss hurried to affirm. “I reckon ya the smartest gal I’ve ever met.”

“Well, I doubt that, but thank you anyway.” Miss Juliet flashed him a short smile. “What I was about to say is, that I didn’t attend college either; and I don’t consider myself less educated than others. And there are some things I know, that the others might not.” She gazed at him intently and held his eyes. “There are a great many things you know that I don’t, do you realise that, Hoss? And this doesn’t make either of us more or less smart.”

He shuffled his feet awkwardly. “Yeah, but most of the things I know I learned from Adam.”

She laughed brightly at that. “But that’s just the way education works, Hoss. Someone knows, and he tells you. You keep it in mind, and that makes it yours! Someone told Adam all these things, too. He wasn’t born with them.”

Now Hoss laughed, too. “Wal, fer times he sure acts as if he was.”

“Oh, I know exactly what you mean, Hoss!” He hadn’t been aware that Miss Juliet was capable of one, but there was no other way to describe what was displayed on her face: it was a big, fat grin. “He can be an insufferable wiseacre.”

They exchanged a conspiratorial smile, that evolved into a rather hysterical giggle. And at just this exact moment, Miss Abigail Jones, local schoolmarm and self-proclaimed custodian of public morals and decency, passed Mrs. Hawkins’ front yard. She paused and looked disapprovingly at the good-humoured couple. Hoss sobered immediately.

“Howdy, Miss Abigail,” he greeted his former teacher.

“Hoss.” Miss Jones nodded in acknowledgment.

Miss Juliet looked expectantly at Miss Abigail. Miss Abigail stared back. Neither of them said a word. Hoss looked from one to the other and wondered what was going on. Why didn’t they say hello? Surely they knew each other. Hoss squinted at Miss Juliet. There was something in her face…. And while the two ladies stood there, fixing each other with stares, Hoss saw Miss Juliet grow. Her back straightened, her chin rose, and she peered down at Miss Abigail with a plain Queen glance. Miss Abigail held her own, Hoss had to grant her that. She gazed back with a nearly comically obstinate expression. And then Miss Juliet lifted her right eyebrow the fraction of an inch.

Miss Abigail’s resistance faltered. “Good morning, Miss Heatherstone.”

“Miss Jones.” A curt nod accompanied Juliet’s regal tone.

Hoss still didn’t know what was going on, when Miss Abigail spoke up, “I’m so glad for you, dear Miss Heatherstone, that you found yourself a substitute escort so promptly.”

Miss Abigail’s smile was as sweet as her voice, only the hard glint in her eye giving her away. Hoss involuntarily took a protective step closer to Miss Juliet, but apparently she felt the need to protect him, too.

“Thank you, Miss Jones, for your concern. I’m sure it is born out of a pure and honest care for my wellbeing.” She smiled her most amiable smile. “But most fortunately I’m not in a position to have to remain unwantedly unescorted for long, so you may return your attention to those in need.”

The slight emphasis Juliet put on ‘I’m’ didn’t go unnoticed by Miss Abigail, whose face acquired a certain sour expression; but Juliet hadn’t finished yet.

“And certainly I wouldn’t discredit such a fine young man as Mr. Cartwright by calling him a substitute.” She took Hoss’ arm and gave him a brilliant smile. “Shall we take a lunch break now at the International House, and then come back and continue our affairs, Hoss?”

Without waiting for an answer she proceeded to the street, bidding a sulky Miss Abigail good bye with a short nod, and somehow dragging Hoss with her. Hoss tipped his hat to Miss Abigail with a muttered goodbye, and saw to it that he kept up with Miss Juliet’s quick strides.

He was looking forward to showcase his new status as the Queen’s escort for everyone in Virginia City to see. It felt incredibly good.

*****

Hoss’ mood had changed entirely by the time, later that day, he was sitting in the great room waiting once again for the doctor to come down the stairs. He studied his fingers, fiddled with the buttons on his vest, did anything he could so as not to meet his father’s scolding eyes.

Joe remained wisely silent, but sat very close to Pa, as if to show which side he was on.

Finally, the doctor came down and took his seat in the blue chair. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table and supported his head in his hands. No one dared to say a word while Paul Martin shook his head, emitting silent groans. Eventually he looked up.

“I don’t know which part of ‘quiet and peace’ this family doesn’t seem to understand. Or why,” he stated tiredly. “First you,” he looked accusingly at Ben, “Then you, of all people.” Now his gaze wandered to Hoss. “Would you care to tell me what made you rile your brother up like that?”

Hoss flinched. “It was…. Wal, he riled me up all right, an’ I jest…. He shouldn’t have….” He looked at the disapproving faces of his father, that hypocrite, and his little brother. “It was all Miss Abigail’s fault.”

“Miss Abigail? As in Abigail Jones?” Joe sounded more excited than he should, Hoss thought. Sensationalist.

Had it been Miss Abigail’s fault? Well, her arrival had altered the events of the day somehow. Hoss still couldn’t figure it out completely, but he had felt immensely good after this day with Miss Juliet, and when he told Adam the whole story about Juliet’s progress in handling a revolver, her quick defence against Miss Abigail, and their pleasant meal at the International House, he had relived all that and enjoyed it a second time. Adam hadn’t seem too enthusiastic about all this, but Hoss had understood that being confirmed to bed and not being able to have a rendezvous himself, might make Adam a mite moping. And since his big brother was his most intimate friend and counsellor, Hoss had asked him, if, hearing all this, Adam thought Miss Juliet was expecting Hoss to court her now. And if she was, how on earth Hoss should accomplish that. Adam’s answer had been very blunt. Juliet, so he had said, had made it very clear that she wasn’t interested in any romantic affairs. Hoss hadn’t believed that, not with Miss Juliet being the way she had been today, and Adam had called him a simpleton.

Hoss didn’t remember much after that, only that he had accused Adam of being a swellhead, that Adam had a few choice words for him in return, and that at some point they both had started to laugh.

Eventually Adam had held his aching side and had asked, “Are you even sure Juliet is the kind of woman you want, Hoss?”

“Adam, Miss Juliet is mighty nice iffn ya look behind her highfalutin’ words. I know, she ain’t very pretty, but I ain’t pretty either, so I figure that’s jest okay. And I kinda like her freckles.” He had blushed and looked down at his hands, and had been very surprised at his brother’s next words.

“I think Juliet is very attractive, Hoss. A woman doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.”

Yeah, that had been just like Adam. “What’cha mean, Adam? That sure sound loco. How can she be beautiful when she ain’t pretty? It’s pretty much the same, ainnit?”

“There’s a significant difference, Hoss. The prettiest girl can’t be beautiful when there’s nothing more to her than pretty looks.”

“And ya think there’s more ta Miss Juliet?”

Adam’s face had lit up. “Oh, yes, there is more. Have a close look at her. She’s got more layers than a puff pastry.”

Hoss had watched his brother closely and asked, “Are ya sure yadon’ wanna court Miss Juliet?”

“I am absolutely sure.”

“Then why don’cha want me courtin’ her?”

“I never said I don’t want you courting Juliet. All I say is that she isn’t looking for a husband. And even if she were, I’d say you are not a very good match.”

At that point the argument had become heated again, especially when Adam had pointed out what kind of man would be a good match for Miss Juliet and Hoss had accused his brother of talking about himself. Adam, naturally, had contradicted him and Hoss had retorted that Adam was just being jealous that Miss Juliet had been kind to him and hadn’t argued with him at all. Hoss had emphasised his every word by stabbing his finger at Adam’s shoulder, something he knew riled his brother up no end, when he had ranted about how all that Adam and Miss Juliet were doing was fighting anyway or Miss Juliet would fall asleep out of boredom. That had been the moment when Adam, beads of sweat on his forehead and a flushed complexion showing that he had already aggravated himself considerably, had lashed out at Hoss and overbalanced when Hoss had ducked. As a result Adam had fallen out off his bed, once again jarring his injured side, opening the newly set stitches and bleeding all over the floor.

The call for Joe to ride and get the doctor had become merely routine by now, as had getting Adam back into his bed and cleaning him up.

So that was what had happened, but Hoss wasn’t willing to share any of this with his family or the doctor. And so he just said, “I teased him with…Miss Abigail an’…things, an’…he got mad an’ fell off his bed, an’ that’s all.”

Doctor Martin frowned at him, shook his head resignedly and heaved a deep sigh. “What are you planning now? Are you taking turns, and Joe will have his go at delaying my patient’s recovery tomorrow?” He warded off the rising complaints with a hand gesture. “No, I don’t want to hear anything. Just make sure your son stays put for the rest of the week, Ben. Or next time I will charge you double for the stitches.”

Hoss looked down at his hands again. The voices of the doctor and his father faded in the background. He thought of Miss Juliet’s silvery laugh, and how she had said, “You’re a wonderful teacher.” Well, he would never understand women. Or big brothers. And it was all Miss Abigail’s fault!

*****

Friday


“You three just look menacing. Let me do the talking.” Adam shot his cronies brief glares. While his brothers lowered their eyes and mumbled, “Yes, Sir,” the lady merely glared back.

“What makes you think you can order me around?” she demanded.

“I don’t know. Maybe the fact that I’m the boss of this little gang?” He smirked at her. “If you have a problem with this, Miss Heatherstone, you can go back to that stinky prison cell where we found you.”

She held her hand up in a defensive gesture. “All right, all right. No need to bite my head off, Cartwright!”

“Don’t know why we got her out anyway,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothin’, Sir.”

Adam narrowed his eyes at Hoss. “And do you have anything to say concerning that matter?”

“Nah, Adam. Jest that I wonder why that gal is ridin’ with us now.”

Adam joined the fingertips of his hands together. “That Lady is the fastest draw north of Texas. And since you two haven’t exactly covered yourself with glory lately, you should be mighty glad she agreed to beef up The Cartwright Bros. Corporation.”

“Adam,” Joe barged in. “There’s somethin’ I always wanted to ask you. Why do we have to go with such a boring name? Why can’t we be The Black Riders. Or The Three Terrors?”

“Well, for one, we are not three anymore but four, and since I’m the only one you can rightly call ‘black’ that other name would be just as ridiculous, wouldn’t it?”

He peered around the corner of the building they were hiding behind for what must be the hundredth time. He squinted his eye at the sight of a woman leaving the bank on the opposite side of the street.

“Okay, that was the last one. Let’s go!”

It was a short and well organized raid. The Cartwright Bros. Corporation, neckerchiefs wound around the lower halves of their faces, went into the bank, Boss Adam asked the cashier in some well chosen and very polite words to open the safe and, please, present them with all the money stored in there. There was a short moment of confusion, when the bank manager left his bureau and tried to intervene, but The Lady stepped forward and wordlessly waved her gun. At one glance at her trademark flowing golden mane, he gasped, “Dear God, Gungirl Heatherstone!” and very eagerly helped the cashier to stack dozens of neatly bundled banknotes into the large carpetbag the gang had handed them. As usual Adam politely thanked both the cashier and the bank manager and wished them good business for the future, and then the gang headed outside and to their horses.

Adam helped The Lady into the side saddle. She took a second to lean down to him. “Thank you, Cartwright.” Her voice was soft and as seductive as her eyes. He moved his face closer to hers, and she didn’t pull back, but leaned to him. Their lips touched, and—

“Wake up, sleepyhead, I got’cha some breakfast.”

A friendly hand shook his shoulder, pulling him out of the scene gently but yet much too abruptly. Adam jolted up, grabbed at his new-stitched wound and looked around the room, still dazed with sleep. His brother Hoss stood next to his bed, a small bowl in his hands, and a goofy grin on his face.

“Boy, Adam,” he said. “That sure wasn’t a bad dream ya jest had, with that smile on your face!”

Adam wiped the sleep from his eyes and yawned heartily. “Well, it was rather weird. We were robbing a bank, and there was Juliet, too, and she was a crack shot, and then…well, then you woke me.”

“A bank robbery? An’ that made ya smile?” Hoss chuckled. “Sorry, I hadda wake ya, but ya breakfast is gettin’ cold.”

Adam peered into the bowl Hoss held out to him and screwed up his face. “What on earth is that?”

“Um, ya know,” Hoss gave the bowl an apologetic glance. “That’s milk-soaked bread an’ eggs.”

“That’s disgusting, Hoss. Take it away.”

“Sorry, big brother,” Hoss looked very contrite, but this didn’t make things any better for Adam. “Pa said ya hafta eat some’in’ and I hafta make sure—“

“Pa? Pa made you a vanguard?”

Hoss gave him a crooked smile. “Wal, he knew why, didn’ he?”

“Isn’t there anything of that broth left?” Adam knew he sounded pathetic, but in the face of milk-soaked bread keeping his dignity wouldn’t get him anything.

“Nope.” Hoss looked even more apologetic than before. “I ate the rest last night fer supper. A mighty good broth. Miss Juliet sure is a good cook.”

“Mrs. Hawkins, Hoss. She made it. Juliet can’t cook at all.”

Hoss mouth fell open. “She can’t—” He stopped himself and looked nearly relieved. “Wal, then it’s good that I….” He trailed off, gazed down at the bowl, put it on the night stand; and sat down at the bedside, looking helplessly at his brother.

“That you what, Hoss?” Adam prompted.

“Wal, Adam, I wanna apolergise fer last night. I shouldn’ have…. Wal, I made ya mighty mad, an’ I shouldn’ have boasted like I did….”

“There’s nothing to apologise for, Hoss. In fact, I should apologise. I was very, um, unfair, I guess.” Adam laid his hand on Hoss arm. “Hoss, if you want to court Juliet, you don’t need my advice. Just be yourself. Juliet seems to like you the way you are.”

“But that’s jest it, Adam.” Hoss shifted uneasily on his seat. “I don’…. I mean, I was thinkin’ about what’cha said last night, Adam, an’ ya was right, ya know. Miss Juliet is mighty nice an’ all, an’ I like her all right, but she’s jest not the gal I want fer a…ya know, fer a…wal, ya know.” Hoss looked at Adam like he was begging for absolution. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, and then he burst out, “An’ she can’t even cook!”

Adam pursed his lips in a futile attempt to stifle a snicker. He looked at Hoss for a short moment under raised brows, and then they both exploded with laughter.

“No, the lady can’t cook,” Adam struggled to choke out. “And we surely don’t want to tie you up with a woman that can’t provide you with three hearty meals a day.”

*****

Despite the fact that the lady couldn’t cook, Juliet brought another food basket along when she arrived at the Ponderosa later that day. Adam greeted her with the air of a long starved prisoner, and dug into the dish of steaming stew she had taken to his room with more enthusiasm than one would have expected from a convalescent.

“Well, you do seem to like the stew, Adam.” Juliet sounded amused and curious, Adam thought, and he couldn’t fathom why.

“It’s very good, and I didn’t have anything solid today.” He smiled at her. “Give Mrs. Hawkins my best, Juliet, she has outdone herself.”

Juliet laughed and nodded, and watched him eating. Eventually she leaned forward, took the now empty plate from him and deposited it on the desk behind her. She gazed at him, obviously assessing something, until she seemed to come to a decision.

She harrumphed, and finally announced, “I helped with the stew.” She looked at Adam almost challengingly.

“You helped cooking the stew?” Well, it had been a good stew. And Adam didn’t feel any ill side effects. Not until now, anyway. But maybe that would come later. He tried to get a look at the empty plate, but Juliet had cleared it away, and, really, what could be found on an empty dish anyway? And honestly, he had to get a grip on himself. What harm could someone do to a stew? Wrong question, Adam, wrong question! He didn’t want to think of that now, most certainly everything was just fine with the stew, it had tasted good, and Mrs. Hawkins had been involved, supervising at least—he had never considered himself the ranting type, but ranting was what he did, and he did it without even saying it out loud, and all because of—

“I cut the carrots,” Juliet pronounced the sentence.

“You cut the carrots.”

“Yes.” Royally, there was no other word, royally.

“You did it…very well.”

“Thank you.” Even more royally.

An awkward pause. Then Juliet, almost annoyed, “I’m not completely incapable,” and far more subdued, “I wanted to…do something for you.”

“Oh.” Adam looked at her. Which had cost her more, he wondered, to make herself useful in the kitchen or to give away that tiny confession? He gave her a smile for her efforts.

“Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Well, royally again.

Another awkward pause. Juliet stood and went to the open window. She seemed very intrigued by something, fumbling on the windowsill and muttering soft noises. When she turned and came back to sit in the rocker again, she held something in her hand.

“Look, Adam,” she chuckled and held her hand out to him. “A ladybird!”

“A ladybug, Juliet.” Adam watched the beetle slowly crawling on Juliet’s ink stained hand. “We say ladybug.”

“Yes, and you say ‘ee-ther’ instead of ‘i-ther’. But that doesn’t mean I have to, n’est-ce pas?” She waved her hand emphasising her words, and the ladybug or ladybird, fluttered up, went for a spin in the room and landed on Adam’s shoulder. Adam tried to chase it away, but the beetle stubbornly came back time and again. Adam looked at Juliet in comical despair.

Juliet sniggered. “Leave her, Adam. Of course, she wants you for a harbour – she’s a ladybird.”

“Well, I don’t see you sitting on my shoulder, and you are a lady-bird, too!” Now Adam chuckled.

“You call me a beetle?”

“I would never dream of it, Mylady.”

“Well, you better not!”

She glared at him mockingly and he ducked playfully, and they shared a knowing smile and a soft ripple of laughter.

Juliet leaned back in the rocker, arranging her skirt and smoothing non-existent wrinkles in the fabric. Her fumbling betrayed her mocking tone, but she smiled when she said, “I’m glad you look so much better, Adam. Although I heard you didn’t do yourself very good, lately.”

Adam looked up, alarmed. “What did you hear? You don’t…. Did Hoss…?” He searched Juliet’s face for a telltale smirk, but her smile was guileless and—caring. “What did you hear?” he nevertheless demanded again.

Juliet smiled even wider. “Relax, Adam. All I know is that you wanted to get up, against the doctors orders, I may add, that your body didn’t like that very much and so it decided to put you in your place by giving you a relapse. And that both you and your body didn’t get tired of that game for the last couple of days.”

“That’s all they told you?”

“Why, yes.”

“Good.”

Juliet all but rubbed her hands. She looked as excited as a little girl with a very large gift box in her hands. Adam usually liked her being so eagerly interested in things—but not this time. If she noticed his discomfort she chose to ignore it, though.

“Well, now I’m intrigued,” and then she did rub her hands. “There’s obviously more to know. Tell me.”

“Juliet…”

“Or shall I ask Hoss? Pry it out of Joe? Make your father talk?” Her attempt at looking menacing was a bit pathetic, considering the grin she couldn’t seem to suppress.

Adam squinted at her. “Are you here to make fun of me?”

“Maybe a bit,” she chuckled, her eyes sparkling in that way he liked so much, and Adam knew perfectly well what she was referring to and rewarded her with an acknowledging smile.

“But I’m also here to give you this most wonderful…” She bent down and picked up a book she must have had with her when she entered his room, but Adam didn’t have noticed because he had been too focused on the steaming, heavenly smelling dish in her other hand. Thank goodness, his brothers hadn’t witnessed this uncharacteristic shift of attention – or Adam would never hear the end of it.

Juliet held the book out to him. “It’s brand new, Adam, I had it sent from England.” She beamed at him. “Charles Dickens’ newest: Great Expectations. Three volumes, I have the others downstairs in the basket.”

Adam took the book with almost awestruck reverence. He smoothed his hand over the cover, smelled at the leather, and ever so slowly opened it at the first page.

“I don’t know what to say, Juliet. You said you’d bring me something to read but I never assumed….” He closed the book, and stroked his thumb over the cover. “You haven’t even read it – are you sure you want to lend it?”

“I suppose you are in more need of entertainment than I am, Adam. I gladly give you the honour of ravishing the books.”

“You have my eternal thanks, Juliet. This will save me from death through boredom.” He gazed at her. “An affliction you don’t seem to suffer from lately.”

She frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“Hoss told me you bagged your first bucket yesterday?”

“Oh, I actually brought down two buckets.” Now she was smiling again. “One on purpose, and the other one when I was aiming for the well.”

Adam gaped at her with a deadpan expression. “Holy cow, just guess what would have happened if you’d aimed for the barn!”

“I would have shot Hoss, since he stood only five yards from the barn. And that would have been a poor way to pay him back for all his troubles, don’t you think?” She let her ringing laughter flow through the room, and Adam thought that it would be nice to have it like this forever.

“Yeah, Hoss deserves better. He had a great day, though. He was very impressed by how you dealt with Miss Abigail….”

“Miss Ab—oh, the teacher. Did Hoss tell you what she said?” The look Juliet fixed Adam with could only be described as scandalised. Adam had a hard time keeping his face straight. He knew Miss Abigail had a sharp tongue, but Juliet habitually used her voice as a weapon too, and the sword she bore was edged and unerring.

“Well, he said she tried to offend you and—”

“Offend me? No. She…tried to imply things; and she most certainly insulted Hoss.” Juliet put on her best royalty-face when she proclaimed, “And I don’t bear it very well when someone bad-mouths my companion. So I kindly suggested that she mind her own affairs.” She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “A schoolmarm should know better than to address people in such an impertinent and pretentious way.”

Oh yeah, Adam thought, pot, call the kettle black. “Especially not the Queen of England, huh?” He winked at her, and couldn’t help but chuckle.

Juliet said—nothing. She stared at him, stunned, her mouth slowly, very slowly opening, and then closing again. She swallowed whatever had been on her tongue and rose from her seat.

“I…have to go now, Adam. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Adam watched her rush out of the room in blank astonishment. What the heck…?

And then it struck him. Oh, darn it!

*****

Juliet made it to the top of the stairs. She stopped dead, when she heard Ben Cartwright’s carrying voice from downstairs. Holding at the banister with a firm grip, she lowered herself to the floor, and sat there, arms around her legs, looking devastated into the nowhere.

She wouldn’t go down into the great room, she wouldn’t let Ben and his sons see her like this, and she would not cry. Roughly she wiped a single tear from her cheek. How does he dare, she thought, how does he dare! She knew about the ridiculous nickname the townspeople had given her, and even though she understood what had made them do so, she despised the name. She knew she was intimidating to some people, she knew she seemed imperious to others, she knew her accent and diction separated her from the locals, but she also believed that in time they would see that she was more than fancy speech and elegant clothes. She had never expected Adam to use that abhorrent title. She had thought…well, she didn’t know anymore what she had thought; she just knew that he had hurt her when she had trusted him.

She would not cry.

“Juliet.” Adam’s voice from the bedroom.

She clenched her teeth. No.

“Juliet, I’m sorry.”

So what?

“Juliet, I know you’re out there. I can smell you fuming.”

She held a hand over her mouth to stifle the snort, but she was sure he had heard her.

“Come back, Juliet. I apologise.”

Juliet envisioned him making puppy eyes. She just knew he must be good at that. She gingerly got up.

“I’m an idiot.”

Now, that was something new. Self-flagellation. She made her way back along the hall.

“Honestly, I didn’t mean it. I’m an idiot, and I—”

He stopped when she looked around the doorframe.

“Where are the ear witnesses when you need one?” Juliet’s attempt at a joke was a bit forced but, Adam noted, at least she smiled.

“Juliet, I apologise. I…really, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean….” He looked into her hurt face, and he knew this wasn’t good enough. “I’d never consider you that way; you know that, don’t you?”

“I thought so.”

“You can be absolutely sure about that.”

She studied his face, puppy eyes, indeed. But honest puppy eyes. He didn’t lie. She sat down on the abandoned rocker, absent-mindedly playing with a lose strand of hair. She smiled at him. “Well, maybe I overreacted a bit. I should have known you meant no hurt.”

“It was a joke. A thoughtless joke; and I apologise.” He heaved a deep breath. “I guess I’m a bit out of practise at being courteous. You know, with being confined to the house while others go out and do things, and then Hoss having you a whole day—”

“Hoss didn’t have me.”

“Pardon?”

“Hoss didn’t have me. No one has me.”

God, she wouldn’t run away again, would she? What was the matter with her today? Or was it him? Adam sighed inwardly. Why was it that the most interesting women always were the most irritating ones as well? On his non-existent list of trying and demanding, yet interesting and worthwhile women Juliet surely ranked on top position.

“Juliet, I didn’t mean—”

“No, listen to me, Adam, and listen good,” she cut him short. “I do not belong to someone. I’m tired of people who try to meddle with my life. I’m tired of men who try to decide for me.” She bit her lips, as if she had said too much, looked down and smoothed her skirt in that already so very familiar gesture.

Adam watched her fingers follow the complicated pattern of the skirt’s fabric, long, slender fingers, delicately manicured but marred with tiny ink spots – she must have been working earlier. Working, because she chose to support herself. A young lady on her own. Surely that gave some men ideas. Some men—not him. He reached out and stopped her hand from roaming.

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” he said softly.

She looked up at him. “You wouldn’t.”

This time she didn’t pull out of his hold. She studied his face for what seemed like an eternity, until finally she relaxed and allowed a smile to slowly conquer her tense features.

“No,” she repeated, very slowly. “No, you wouldn’t do that to me, would you.”

*****

Saturday

Saturday morning was pure bliss. After an entire undisturbed night’s rest, filled with pleasant dreams about a tiny little queen wearing a red, black-spotted mantle and carrying a penholder for a sceptre, who had walked all the way up his arm, sat down comfortably on his shoulder, leaned her back against his neck and dozed off, Adam had woken up on his own account, feeling rested and content. When he stretched his side didn’t bother him as much as it had the previous days, the room didn’t seem so hot anymore, and for once he was alone. He was looking forward to a day spent in the entertaining company of the book Juliet had lent him, and to some more of the regal-cut carrots in Mrs. Hawkins’ stew.

Adam decided not to let his family know he was awake, but to give Mr. Dickens his full attention right now for as long as he’d have his peace. He reached out for the book he had enthroned on his nightstand, but when his fingers were only an inch from touching the promising leather binder, Hoss came into the room

“G’mornin’, big brother,” Hoss declared quite proudly. “I got’cha a real breakfast today.”

“Do I smell scrambled eggs? Bacon by chance?” Adam couldn’t believe his luck. This morning….

“Yep, an’ fried bread.”

Adam delayed his reading gladly to devour the desperately missed treat. Hoss sat on the rocker, watching Adam eat like one would watch a stray cat drinking a well-meant bowl of milk. When Adam had finished the dish to Hoss’ satisfaction, he was rewarded with a wide grin from his younger brother and a mocking, “Atta boy, Adam.”

Adam grinned back, took a sip of coffee (coffee! This was really his lucky day!) and reached for the book again.

“Nah, wait,” Hoss stopped him. “We hafta change them dressin’s first.”

Adam groaned. This was going to hurt, he knew that. Well, here goes a perfect morning, he thought. It had been too good to be true, anyway.

It did hurt, and it took Hoss quite some time to remove the blood stained bandage—soaking it in water to loosen it where it stuck to the stitches and prying it away bit by bit— to wash away all traces of blood and other more unpleasant things and finally to redress the wound. All the time Adam bit his lips so he would not cry out in pain and make Hoss’ assignment even more unpleasant, since his brother already cringed whenever he did something he knew hurt. When Hoss finally proclaimed his work done and eased Adam’s nightshirt back into place they were both drenched in sweat and shivering from exhaustion.

Hoss, noting Adam’s pale complexion, helped him to lie down and tucked his big brother in. That Adam didn’t complain about being treated like a small child was evidence enough for Hoss to understand that his big brother was done in.

“Ya jest rest fer a while, Adam. I get‘cha some more coffee when ya wake up,” he said softly and turned to pull the rocker closer to the bed. Adam was asleep before Hoss’ fundament had even touched the seat.

*****

When Adam woke from his, for once dreamless, slumber he was feeling much improved and eager to finally start Mr. Dickens’ latest work. The rocker was abandoned, which should have made Adam suspicious, but he was so thrilled to have been granted some time for himself, that he missed the implication of this. Sure enough, though, the moment his hand touched the spine of the alluring volume, Joe entered the room, bearing a tray with sandwiches and a cup of coffee.

“You’re awake. Good.” Ignoring his brother’s protests, Joe snatched the book from Adam’s hand and placed it on the desk. He put the tray on the nightstand, handed Adam a plate and sat down, looking cheerfully at his sulking brother. “With best wishes from the kitchen-crew. They are just as you like ‘em, Adam, cheese and mustard and loads of crisp bacon.”

Adam finished the sandwiches in no time. He wasn’t hungry at all, but he knew Joe would try to get the food into him, quite certainly on Pa’s orders, at any cost, so Adam decided to play along. The sooner his lunch vanished from this planet the sooner he’d get to read his book.

Well, man proposes, God disposes. Or at least that was what Adam thought hours later. He couldn’t fathom what had driven Joe, but the boy had seemed determined to entertain his recuperating brother. He had talked at length about everything that had gone on at the ranch the past week, had asked Adam question after question about improving their breeding stock, had shared his thoughts about how Hoss really had a heart for the underdogs if he had bothered to teach high and mighty Miss Juliet how to shoot, and had not even spared his brother from a detailed synopsis of his latest dime novel. He had paused for a moment while describing Miss Molly Malone, saloon girl and the novel’s hero’s love interest, apparently to revel in an image he had conjured in his mind, and that was when Adam had ventured a try to get his book back.

“Uh, speaking of books, Joe, why don’t you just pass me the one you laid on the desk earlier?”

To his surprise, Joe had instantly obliged, and Adam, settling into a comfortable reading position, had opened the much longed for tome.

“What book is that, Adam?” Joe had asked.

“Great Expectations by Charles Dickens,” Adam had answered in a strained voice. “It’s brand new. From England.”

“Oh. What’s it about?”

“I don’t know, Joe. I haven’t read a word yet.”

“I see. I bet it’s boring. It looks boring. Is it like the other books you have of this Dickens guy?”

I don’t know.” Adam had glared at Joe, and he had put some effort in it. “I’ll tell you once I read it.”

“Oh, yeah. Good.”

Adam had directed his attention to the book in his lap. My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip—

“You do have an awful lot of books, don’ you, Adam?”

Argh! Adam had looked up to see Joe standing at his bookshelf, reading the titles on the spines.

“Yes, and I have read them all. The only book in this house I haven’t read yet is the one in my hands. And I would very much appreciate it when—”

“Um, what’s this one about, Adam? It sure looks interesting.”

“That’s…what is it? Ah, Moby Dick. That’s about a man who’s determined to hunt down a whale he feels is responsible for all the hardships in his life. In fact, the whale—”

“A whale? How can a whale be responsible for hardships? Unless it’s the whale that swallowed Jonah. Boy, Adam, imagine you have to live inside a whale!”

“I guess it’d be very dark in there, so you wouldn’t mind if you had no books with you. But most fortunately we are not living in a whale, and I have a book, and that means I can read. Now.”

“Yeah, sure.” Joe had actually ducked his head. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right, Joe. Just let me read now.” And Adam had started anew. My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip. I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister—

Joe hadn’t said another word; it was merely his footsteps as he strolled through the room that had disturbed Adam. Sighing heavily, Adam had observed his brother meandering his way around the desk and the chair, over to the window, pausing there for a moment when his attention was caught by who knew what on the back yard, back to the desk, then to the wardrobe—

“Um, Joe, why don’t you go and, er, help Pa with…something?”

“No, I can’t do that.” Joe had looked at him with a rather sheepish expression. “Pa made me vow to stay in your room until suppertime.”

“What for in heaven’s name?”

“Well, yes, to make sure you won’t get up again.”

Adam had blinked several times and shaken his head. “That’s completely ridiculous. Why should I…. Well, I won’t get up, Joe. You can just as well leave.”

“You say that now….”

Adam had snorted and offered, “I promise?”

“No chance, Adam. You promise now, and then you decide there’s an emergency—”

Adam had felt anger rising. He would have loved to lash out and wipe that smug expression from Joe’s face—but he remembered the last time his anger had gotten the better of him, and it had resulted in another round of pain and blood and stitches. And, God knows, Paul had been called to the Ponderosa often enough these past few days. So Adam had restricted himself to spitting, “What about this – I will get up if you don’t leave.”

Joe hadn’t been impressed at all. “No way, Adam. I’d hold you down.”

“But I’m stronger than you.” Adam had known he was whistling in the graveyard, but maybe—

“You’re as weak as a kitten.”

Adam would have let him get away with that, but Joe had to go one better.

“I could hold you down with only one finger, big brother. Or I could just snatch that book you’re so fond of and—”

And, predictably, Joe had lunged at the book to demonstrate the momentary power over his brother he believed to have obtained. Adam, anticipating his move, had stretched out his long arm and held the book just out of Joe’s reach. Joe, who always reacted very impulsively to everything that reminded him of his inferior size, and quite often acted before he thought, had thrown himself on Adam, ripping at the sleeve of Adam’s nightshirt and trying to gain hold of his brother’s arm and to pull it down.

The agonised cry Adam had involuntarily let out when Joe’s weight had squeezed his injured side had instantly alerted Pa and Hoss. The wave of nauseating pain and dizziness that had followed the new aggravation of his wound had blurred Adam’s awareness of what happened, especially after Hoss had stomped into the room roaring, “Joe, geroff’n ‘im!” and Joe awkwardly had scrambled off him and, in doing so, had jarred his side even more.

When his vision eventually had cleared, the pain had subsided to a tolerable level, and he felt alert enough to follow what was going on, Adam found himself once again prone and neatly tucked in. His father had taken over the guard-rocker, and gazed at him with a strained smile.

“Well, at least this time we didn’t have to alert the doctor,” Pa said, somehow looking guilty. “Are you all right now, son? Do you need anything?”

Adam just wagged his head. He felt incredibly tired. He cautiously turned to his nightstand and looked longingly at the book that had been placed there by, well, whoever. He couldn’t find the strength, though, to reach out for it. He couldn’t find the strength to do anything, and so he constrained himself to staring at the ceiling until his eyes slowly closed.

He detected a short commotion, and then he heard his father’s deep voice, “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip. I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister,—Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair….

And slowly Adam drifted into sleep on his father’s familiar soothing tones.

*****

Sunday


Joe Cartwright was mighty happy with himself and his world. After a long week spent confined to the Ponderosa doing extra chores to compensate for Adam’s temporary incapacitation and tending to his slowly healing brother, he finally had been allowed to go to Virginia City. He had gone to church, all alone and on the orders of his father. Pa had decided to stay at home and watch over Adam, who had felt like a million dollars this morning. Naturally this had alarmed both his father and Hoss, both of whom had felt impelled to stay at home for another Adam-watch.

Joe had been a bit reluctant to attend the service. It had seemed like a waste of time when he had only a few hours of unrestricted fun, but now Caroline Granger was there, too, and Joe managed to acquire a seat next to the beautiful girl. This also saved him from sitting next to Miss Juliet, who in result molested some other unfortunate’s ears with her very creative interpretations of the hymns.

After the service Miss Juliet cornered Joe, and asked how Adam was. Joe didn’t tell her about the book incident, but told her the bold-faced lie that Adam had read the whole previous day and was right as rain. Well, the latter wasn’t a lie, really, because Adam was much better than they had feared after yesterday’s events. Juliet was delighted that her small token had made Adam’s day so pleasant (if she only knew…) and expressed the expectation that he would have another fulfilling day with Mr. Dickens. She told Joe to give Adam her best wishes and an apology, for she would not be able to drop by the Ponderosa this day. Obviously she had to catch up on some articles that had been delayed by her extended visits to Adam’s bedside and the shooting lesson with Hoss. Much to Joe’s relief, since he always felt like a five-year-old when talking to the lady, she excused herself shortly after that, handing him a Sunday edition of the Territorial Enterprise with the words, “Something for the family,” and a rather complacent smile.

Joe was overjoyed to accept a lunch invitation from the Grangers, but wasn’t able to leave the church yard for quite some time. A lot of townsfolk asked him about his brother, and wanted him to give their regards to Adam. Joe received many friendly hand shakes and thumb-ups on Adam’s behalf, and he thought it a bit creepy that Virginia City suddenly cared so much for his elder brother. Eventually Caroline was able to pry him away from the crowds, and he walked her home, letting his horse follow them slowly on a long rein.

Caroline was just as darling as the Sunday before, loaded his plate with roast beef and sweet potatoes and delicious honey-glazed carrots, and peered at him from under coyly lowered lids. Joe bathed in her attention and ate more than in days. This was only partly due to the pleasant company—the simple fact was that they hadn’t had a proper warm meal at the Ponderosa since Hop Sing had gone to visit one of his numerous cousins in San Francisco. Joe would never belittle Mrs. Hawkins’ generosity in providing them with fabulous food baskets, but most of the warm food had found its way upstairs to Adam—or into Hoss’ stomach, of course.

After lunch he spent some splendid time with Caroline on the front porch, telling her how he, all on his own, had brought the nasty brother-shooting outlaw to Virginia City, and how he had ridden into town only days later, faster than anyone else could, to get the doctor and save the life of his elder brother. He exaggerated only a tiny little bit, and Caroline turned out to be a wonderful audience. Her father, too—and that diminished his pleasure in the afternoon somewhat—but all in all it was a very enjoyable time.

When Joe eventually had to head home, Caroline followed him out of the house, and in an unobserved moment she planted a warm kiss on his cheek. That rounded the day off quite prettily, and it would have been even better, had Caroline not bidden him goodbye with, “And give my best to Adam. Tell him to take care.”

Joe’s smile was a bit strained when he said, “Yeah, well, he’s much better, y’know?” but she just thrust the Territorial Enterprise in his hands and said, “Don’t forget your newspaper, Joe, I’m sure Adam wants to read it.”

Joe stashed the paper in his saddlebags and, after a last wave to sweet Caroline, rode home.

He found his big brother engrossed in the mysterious world of English literature and supervised by Pa, who was drinking coffee and reading a book from Adam’s shelf. Joe presented Adam with Juliet’s compliments and her apology, the well wishes from the townspeople, Caroline’s regards, and the by now profoundly battered, coiled-up Territorial Enterprise.

He was thanked and excused from the room rather quickly, since apparently both men were very eager to return to their reading. Joe happily obliged and rushed downstairs to where Hoss had already set up the checkers board.

He contently sat down at his usual place at the fireplace; and while engaged in a fiercely fought game of checkers with his middle brother, as was his habit, he tried to distract Hoss from one of his better moves with a random conversation.

“And how has your day been?”

Hoss looked up with a downright miserable expression. “Oh yeah, it was jest dandy, Joe. I been watchin’ Adam readin’ ferever. Boy, I never saw anyone read as much as elder brother. Couldn’ get a word outta him.”

Joe couldn’t stop himself from snickering. “And I bet you tried your best.”

Hoss smiled sheepishly. “Not fer long. Ya know, that brother of ours gotta nasty glare, Joe.”

Joe could easily envision the glares Adam has sent Hoss—he had been on the receiving end of said glares only yesterday. “Oh, he sure has. I bet he can freeze Lake Tahoe with it, if he put a bit of an effort into it.” He gave his brother a sympathetic smile and silently congratulated himself for having been the first to ask Pa for a day off. It could have been him again…

“Wal, anyway, he made me stay real silent, an’ I fell asleep.”

Now Joe laughed out loud. “Yeah, Adam has that effect on people. First Miss Juliet, now you!” He thought for a moment, then added genially, “You know what, Hoss? I think Adam’s losing it. My girls never fall asleep on me.”

“Miss Juliet ain’t Adam’s gal, Joe.”

“She ain’t? But she’s around here an awful lot of times.”

“Yeah, but they’re jest friends.”

“Oh, yeah, I see….” The unconvinced look Joe gave his brother went unnoticed when both their attention was attracted to the angry voice from the upstairs bedroom.

“She did it again!” There was no question which ‘she’ Adam was referring to, but they both wondered what Juliet might have done “again.”

There was a moment of silence, during which Hoss and Joe looked at each other, communicating with odd combinations of raised eyebrows and mouth grimaces but not daring to make a single sound, and then they heard their father’s agitated voice.

“No, Adam, no. You can’t—“

This was followed by the sound of shuffling, which made the listeners jump to their feet and hurry up the stairs into their brother’s room.

They found their father and Adam glaring at each other with the same expression on their faces—stubborn determination mixed with grim rebuke. Both had their arms crossed, both sat very upright, both looked as if they might start to snarl any second. On Adam’s lap lay the Territorial Enterprise, the Sunday edition that Joe hadn’t spared a glance, showing the front page and a remarkably large headline “Adam Cartwright, Fallen Hero”. There was an illustration underneath that featured a man lying between some large boulders and a horse with its head low, apparently keeping vigil over the prone figure. And suddenly all the well-wishes from people he barely knew, Caroline’s unexpected greetings and Miss Juliet’s unusual hand-out of the newspaper made sense to Joe.

“Hey, that’s great,” he cried out enthusiastically. “You got your own article, Adam!” He made a grab for the newspaper, but Adam snatched it out of his reach.

“Don’t!” Adam’s voice was pure steel. “This is evidence.”

“Adam, calm down.” Pa didn’t quite reach Adam’s level of steeliness, but it was a close call. “We already agreed that you won’t go anywhere before the doctor gives you a clean bill of health. Neither Mister Goodman nor Miss Heatherstone will leave the town anytime soon, so you can easily have your conversation with either of them at a subsequent date.”

Adam said nothing; he just intensified his glare and clenched his teeth. But Joe could nearly hear his elder brother’s mind working, and he was sure Adam would find a way to accelerate the ‘subsequent date’.

Joe couldn’t understand Adam’s anger, though. Miss Juliet had written an article about him, but what the heck could be wrong about this? Surely she had done it just as expertly as usual and certainly she had shown Adam to be very brave and heroic—where was the problem?

When Joe opened his mouth to share these thoughts with his family, Pa silenced him with a warning frown and a shake of his head, and gestured him and Hoss out of the room. The last thing Joe heard as he left was Adam mumbling, “Infuriating, inconsiderate, heedless…”

Oh, Joe thought, synonyms. Uh-oh. Nope, he wouldn’t want to be in Miss Juliet’s shoes.

*****

Monday

Adam hitched his horse to the rail in front of the Silver Dollar saloon and took the folded ‘evidence’ from his saddle bag. He glanced over at the Territorial Enterprise bureau. In front of the big window three boys were playing a game of tiddly-winks, and behind it Adam could make out the shape of Joe Goodman. Well, there was no reason to postpone what had to be done.

The ride into town had taken a heavy toll on Adam; his side was aching like nobody’s business and he fervently wished he could lie down somewhere and die in peace. But—a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, so lying down would have to wait for a while. Suddenly Adam was happy to have been surprised by Hoss when he had sneaked his way out of the house in the wee hours of morning. Hoss, knowing he couldn’t keep Adam from what he was determined to do, had made him promise to stay in town if the way back to the ranch should seem too strenuous. By now Adam realised that he was in no shape to get on his horse again, let alone make it back home. He’d take a room in the International House, rest a night and the next morning go back to the Ponderosa and his father, who undoubtedly was already raging and would have a few choice words for him.

Adam had to clutch his side when he limped over to the newspaper’s office. His only relief was that he couldn’t feel any moisture through his shirt which indicated that this time Paul’s stitches had held up.

By the time he reached the bureau, his anger had fed itself on his pain, and whatever reason he had reached while he had slept over the whole issue had given way to seething, untamable rage. He pushed the front door open with more force than strictly necessary, crossed the room to Goodman in two long strides, chucked the newspaper on the editor’s desk and, pulling together all the strength he had left, roared at the top of his lungs, “Goodman, I demand a retraction!”

Goodman, looking utterly unconcerned, leaned comfortably back in his chair, his hands folded on the table before him. He smiled maliciously, turned his head and called over his shoulder, “Miss Heatherstone, please. Mr. Cartwright has some issues to discuss with you!”

Adam couldn’t believe they were playing that game again; and when Juliet came over from her desk, smiling at him with well-remembered innocence, white hot rage exploded inside of him. His last sensible thought was, don’t look into her eyes.

*****

Juliet stretched out under her bedcovers. After an exceptionally long day she finally had come to rest. That argument with Adam, first thing in the morning, had been not a reprise of their last big battle, but a true expansion. Adam had been…loud. Very loud.

In fact, she had been rather impressed at how loud he could be if he wanted to, and when she had told him that, he had gotten more furious, impossible as it had seemed, and, amazingly, even louder. But the really scary part had been when Adam had become very silent. When his eyes began burning again and had pulled Juliet into their blaze until she had gingerly backed away from him.

By that time, half of Virginia City had assembled before the big window to watch their exchange and the eventual arrival of Sheriff Coffee, who had ended the argument.

Juliet had felt a bit guilty that she had sparked the flames in Adam so much, and tried to prevent the worst, but to no avail. Well, at least she had been able to tend to Adam when he had lain down, completely spent and yet again feverish. And she had kept him company until he finally had fallen asleep.

Juliet pulled the blanket over her shoulders, snuggled deep into her cushion and drifted into a sleep where she and Adam were living in a dungeon quarreling about windmills, while he called her ‘Miss Cervantes’.

Unfortunately in the morning she wouldn’t remember how Adam had ended their quarrel with a long, passionate kiss.

____________

Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy. ~Aristotle

***The End***

A/N:   Beta-read by the wonderful Sklamb – thank you so much!

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