The Cabin in the Woods (by Sierra Girl)

 

Summary: Nothing stays the same, no matter how much we believe we want it to. For a lonely homesteader, life in her remote forest cabin is to be changed forever with the arrival of a riderless horse, a wounded Cartwright and a trigger-happy gunman.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   24,151


 

Chapter 1

 

At the foot of a mountain in the high Sierras, there stands a covered bridge. Its roof keeps the worst of the inclement weather from the deck, although I’ve always wondered why the sides are left open to be battered by the elements. If a traveller was to cross this bridge and follow the forest trail that winds its way up the side of the mountain, they would, within hours, find themselves in the high country. Homesteads are few as it takes a special breed to endure what the mountain can throw at them. To live there means a never-ending battle against the ever-encroaching forest, winters that last half a year, and isolation. It’s the remoteness that has driven more than one homesteader to pack up his buckboard and hightail it down to the lowlands, and the company of people. One has to be a fighter to live there, and I like to think that is exactly what I was.

After half a day on the trail, climbing ever higher, the traveller will see a path branching off in a north-westerly direction; the diversion marked by a White Fir which grows alone amongst a forest of Jeffrey Pine. After the death of my husband, I had stood at the foot of that tree many times taking comfort in its hardiness. It is but one of its species, but it survives apart from its fellows. As did I.

Half an hour up this narrower path and the traveller will see a clearing open out before him, with a cabin on the opposing side. This was my home. I lived here alone in this cabin in the woods surrounded on all sides by pine trees. My single companion was an aged mare called Demelza, and my nearest neighbours were a good few hours’ ride away.

I had chosen this life of solitude after sickness came to the mountain. Within a week of my husband appearing in our doorway nursing a slight cough, my reason for living had been torn from me. Half a year after Marcus died, and while still in a state of tearful desolation, I had taken up the dusty tome of Shakespeare plays he used to take such pleasure from, and happened upon a line in the tragedy of King Lear. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” That line stayed with me thereafter, so indicative did it seem of the unpredictability of life, of how we are at the whim and mercy of powers beyond our understanding. Experiencing one such incident in my life was enough, but it was not to be the last. For on a white-bright afternoon in mid-winter, my life took another unanticipated turn.

And it all started with a horse.

*****

The day had started out no different from the lifetime of days already passed. On waking I had rubbed away the ice from my windows to see giant flakes of snow falling to earth from a leaden sky and several fresh inches blanketing the world outside. I built up the fire and broke my fast with pancakes. My churn of buttermilk was a quarter full, and I’d run out of eggs a week ago, so I decided tomorrow I would make the journey down the mountain to visit Marjorie McKinney. This day would be spent baking sourdough bread which I would trade for milk from Mrs. McKinney’s milk cow, and perhaps a handful of eggs, if her hens were laying in this bitter climate.

So it was my thoughts were in another place and time as I mechanically kneaded dough at my kitchen table, when a loud clattering on my porch startled me from my reverie. To say I was alarmed would be to understate the truth of the matter. At the unexpected noise I took a step back, my heart pounding within my chest, and snatched up my rifle. I stared open-mouthed at the door, half expecting a gang of evil-minded ne’er-do-wells to burst in and do what they will with me. It was a common worry living so high in the mountains and away from anything remotely resembling civilisation.

When a dark form crossed my window and a large eye peered at me through the glass pane, I hefted my rifle higher. But there was no invasion and silence soon settled over my small home once more. I approached the window with caution and saw a riderless horse had climbed the three steps to my decking. As it caught a glimpse of me approaching, rifle in hand, it had the audacity to rock its head up and down as though impatient at my hesitation.

The last thing I wanted to do was to leave the security of my cabin and investigate, but there was nothing for it. I grabbed my heavy woollen coat from where it stayed warm in front of the ever-burning fire and donned my scarf and gloves. Freezing temperatures overnight had frozen the door into its frame and, this being my first venture outside—even my night bucket remained covered in a corner—I had to pull the door open with a violent tug. I was hit with a blast of cold air which took my breath away and I could feel my body heat turn inward in shock. I hefted the rifle stock under my arm and letting the barrel point the way, stepped gingerly onto the icy porch. The horse pawed the wooden decking and every outtake of air produced a cloud of steamy breath. I placed my hand on the animal’s rump and edged my way down its side, murmuring soft asides under my breath as I went. The horse swung his head around to meet me. I took a step back, not being used to such an imposing and powerful creature.

“Woah, boy. You are a boy, ain’t you?” A quick peep confirmed he was. “Where’s your master, huh? You didn’t get here all by yourself.”

I ran my fingers over the intricately embossed leatherwork of the saddle and bridle; they spoke of quality and wealth. It was with a frown I looked out across the expanse Marcus had cleared with his own bare hands all those years before. A silent shield of pine trees ringed my homestead with boughs so laden with snow they curved down towards the earth. Large white flakes drifted at leisure from an overburdened sky and I knew this blizzard would not pass any time soon. I scanned my eyes around the immediate area, observing an occasional clump of snow slide off a branch and thump to the ground. Otherwise there was no sound, no movement, and no apparent sign of life. It was too quiet and I found myself raising my rifle from where I had let it droop in my grip.

I glanced back at the horse. He was a fine looking animal. Tall, unquestionably spirited, with a white blaze from his forehead down to his nostrils. I stroked my palm down that white streak. “Someone’s gonna be looking for you, ain’t they? Unless…” My words tailed off. No rider ever let his horse get away from him. Unless… There was that word again. I refused to think about what I didn’t want to imagine, and it was only an impatient horse snorting into my palm and pawing at the decking which broke into my unease.

“Hold yer horses, will ya,” I said, and took hold of his bridle. I paused and shook my head at my choice of words for this was no time for levity, and then pushed at the horse to make him back up. He complied without any fuss and I concluded he was well trained too. I led him off my porch to a small corral at the side of my cabin. There, in an open-sided shelter that abutted my small home, he was introduced to Demelza, my old mare, who interrupted her feed to eye the newcomer. She nickered and was greeted with a nicker in return. “That’s good, you two are already becoming friends,” I muttered, and hauled the saddle off the newcomer’s back, relieving him of his blanket and bridle. I lugged them to my barn and on my return looked at the two animals standing side by side. The strange horse towered over my Demelza but they seemed happy enough together. “There’s plenty of hay, so help yourself,” I called out, and left them in the shelter.

I turned my attentions back to the tree line. With my rifle back in both hands, I trudged across the clearing, following the tracks the horse had left and which were already covered in fresh snowfall. I knew this patch of land like I knew the increasing number of lines on my face. I could see nothing untoward or different as I crunched through the foot of new snow that had fallen over the last two days. I approached the tree line with trepidation. The silence was starting to unnerve me. The only noise was the snow squeaking with every plunging footstep I took. I stopped where the clearing met the trees, my eyes sweeping across the terrain for any sign of life. It was still. The forest was frozen. No pine needle twisted in the wind, no bird scratched to find the life encased in the frozen earth. I realised I was holding my breath, and as I released a cloud of vapour into the air, a movement caught my eye. About seven or eight yards down the track which led to my cabin, a red fox darted into view. It halted when it saw me, all movement suspended, its ears swivelled in my direction. With a bold eye the creature stared at me, and I returned its gaze with a tilt of my head. A blink, and it was gone.

I frowned at where the fox had stood. There was something there. The snow had started to fall with increased momentum and I had to squint through the curtain of heavy flakes to see. I’m ashamed to say, but I cursed under my breath. What I could make out could only be one thing. Holding my rifle at chest height, I raised my knees high to plough through the drift. When I reached a long white shape, I paused for a moment staring down at it, but then dropped to my knees. I swept the snow away until my gloves were soaked and my fingers tingled, and revealed the body of a man. He was lying on his front with one gloved hand tucked beneath his cheek and the other curled under his chest. Was it divine providence or plain old luck which had kept his hat balanced across his face thereby lessening his skin’s exposure to the icy weather? I heaved him onto his back and pulled away the scarf which covered the lower part of his face. His skin was unnaturally pale; perhaps his black hair made it look whiter than it was, and his head lolled to one side.

I pulled my gloves from my hands and slapped his cheek. God, he was cold. “Hey!” My voice sounded loud in the silence. “Hey, can you hear me?” I slapped him again but there was no response. How long had he been lying out here? I guessed as long as the horse had been on my property and that had been, what, ten minutes? I felt around his neck, trying to find any sign of blood pumping through his veins and was rewarded with a faint throb in his throat. “Well, thank God, you’re alive.” I muttered. “Wake up, would ya,” I shouted in his ear. I grabbed his coat collar and shook him. “Wake up! I need to get you inside or you’re gonna freeze to death.” There was a faint groan, but his eyes stayed closed. I let him go and sat back on my heels. My head spun towards the barn. There was but one option open to me and before long I was running as fast as I could through the snow to the barn, where I grabbed a bridle before heading to the corral.

“Sorry old girl,” I said to Demelza as I slipped the bridle over her head. “I know you’d rather be under the shelter, eating your hay and making new friends, but there’s work to be done.” I led her into the barn where Marcus’ old sleigh sat against the wall with a tarpaulin flung over it. “I know it’s been a while, but you remember how it’s done, don’t ya.” I worked fast, slipping the collar around her neck and tightening the girth around her thickset body. I led her into the doorway and after throwing the tarpaulin to the ground, tugged on the sleigh to move it away from the wall. It was covered in dust and strands of hay but, such was the quality of Marcus’ workmanship, it still slid easily on its runners. Before long Demelza was secured between the shafts and I had taken my place on the wooden contraption. A click of my tongue and we were on the move.

It had been years since I had used the sleigh yet it seemed like yesterday. And it appeared Demelza had not forgotten either as she willingly pulled me across the snow. I was assailed with memories. Of sitting next to Marcus, wrapped warmly in a blanket, laughing into the wind as cold air whipped my cheeks; of the trees merging into a blur as we flew through the forest; of Marcus’ bold profile as he concentrated on steering Demelza along the forest path. But there was no time for further reminiscences; within less than a minute we had arrived in the forest, next to my unconscious guest.

I turned Demelza so she was facing the cabin and backed her up to where the injured man lay, a new covering of snow on his body. How on earth was I going to get him on the blessed thing? Thankfully the body of the sleigh sat low on its runners, so I took a big breath—my throat burning from the iciness of the air—grasped the man under his arms and heaved. Why, oh why, couldn’t he have been trim and slight in build? No, this fella was well-built and heavy. And it didn’t help that his clothes were waterlogged with the snow. As I tugged on the dead weight of his body, I lost my balance and slipped backward. I cursed as he fell on top of me with a light groan. As I picked myself up I noticed a pink trail in the snow, and with alarm I realised he was not merely sick from cold, but injured too. There was no time to waste. I manoeuvred him into a seated position, his head rolling forward as I climbed to my feet, and with a burst of strength born of fear and slight panic, heaved him to his feet. I tried to be gentle but my weariness and the stranger’s lethargy dictated my actions, and we both fell in an ungainly fashion into the floor of the sleigh. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I murmured, extracting myself from where I was lying across him. We might have missed the seat, but at least his body was on the vehicle, and so I folded his legs beneath him, ran to Demelza’s head, and pulled her and the sleigh towards my cabin.

I came to an abrupt halt at the porch steps. “If only you’d wake up,” I pleaded as I looked down at the crumpled figure and up at what looked to be an insurmountable obstacle. But dilly-dallying was not going to get this man inside. And after what seemed like an age of tugging and pulling which left me breathless and sweating, I had him up the steps, across the porch and on the floor of my cabin. I left him there whilst I ran outside and unhitched Demelza from the sleigh and whacked her on her rump. “Sorry, old girl, but you know where home is,” I cried, as I ran back into the warm interior.

The stranger had not moved from where he lay on the floor. My shawl went flying in one direction and I went in the other as I threw several logs on the fire and stabbed at it with the poker to bring it to roaring life. My own bed—the one Marcus had proudly transported a thousand miles across the country—was too far from the fire, and too heavy to drag, so a folded cot not used in several years was pulled from where it had been shoved out of sight beneath the bed and snapped into position in front of the hearth. The thin mattress smelled damp and stale, and refused to lay flat, but I tucked a clean sheet around it which kept it in place. One last bout of dragging and lifting and, at last, I had the stranger on the cot.

He was so cold. Far colder than someone should be who had only been lying in the snow for a short time. And it seemed the moment he landed on the cot, he began to shiver violently. I pulled off his gloves and heavy yellow jacket and dropped them on the floor where the melting snow left an expanding puddle of water. A dark suede vest followed, and then his boots and socks. Thankfully his feet had stayed dry but his toes were pink from the cold, and icy, oh so icy. I rubbed them between my hands for a few moments to try and warm them before unbuckling his gun belt and placing it on the floor beneath the cot.

I hadn’t seen a man undressed since Marcus, but I knew all this man’s sodden clothes had to come off, so I ignored my embarrassment and blushing cheeks. The material stuck to his damp clammy skin and I had to peel the pants from his shaking legs. I threw a warm towel across his middle and yanked his drenched underdrawers down his legs with my head turned so far around I was looking over my shoulder. Last to be removed was a wet black shirt, which soon went the way of his coat and pants.

It was then I saw the wound in his side. My fingers hovered over the bloody hole above his hip, and my mouth dropped open in despair. I had never seen a gunshot wound up close before, but I guessed this is what I was looking at. And there was no denying, this is what had felled him. I shifted his weight onto his side and peered at his lower back. There was a matching hole. Once I had rolled him back down to the mattress, I sat back on my heels. I had no idea how to treat a bullet wound, but surely it was better for the bullet to have passed through him, rather than remain lodged within. It wasn’t bleeding and for that I was thankful; for now my priority was to warm him up, so I laid all the towels I had draped in front of the fire over him and began to rub him down.

I put all my effort into it. I could see the tell-tale signs of early frostbite on his toes and fingers and the pinkness was evident on the exposed skin of his face. I towelled the water out of his hair, and pulled him forward into my arms to dry his back, rubbing briskly all the while to warm his flesh. His head lolled over my shoulder and I could hear his teeth chattering in my ear. But then his shivering abruptly stopped and I felt his breath on my neck as he started to mumble words and names I couldn’t make out. I paused mid-action, straining to understand what he was saying. When he began to repeat ‘pa’ over and over, I felt a rush of pity; he seemed so vulnerable and I pressed my palms against his back, hoping somehow my touch would reassure him. His flesh was cold beneath my hands, yet the feel of his solid body in my arms reminded me of how long it had been since anyone had held me. I hadn’t realised until that moment that I had missed such close physical connection with another human being. I closed my eyes for a brief second.

With a gasp I realised what I was doing; clutching a stranger against my body, and a half-naked one at that. I laid him back against the mattress as gently, and quickly, as I could and rose to my feet, taking a step back towards the fire. A stab of guilt tore through me and I turned to the mantelpiece where a small leather-framed oil painting of Marcus and me was placed. The portrait had been an impulsive act by two young adventurers resting up in Fort Hall before the next leg of our journey. We had let the artist lure us back to his wagon where he displayed examples of his work, and a happy afternoon was spent giggling and trying unsuccessfully to maintain a serious face for the portrait. The look of amusement teasing Marcus’s lips had been caught for all eternity. But now it was his eyes that gazed out at me. I expected them to reprove, or condemn or express shock, but of course they did nothing of the sort. Why would they? His was a kind soul, always willing to help a fellow traveller, a neighbour, an enemy. And he had a forgiving heart. I hoped he would understand, and forgive, my momentary desire for physical intimacy. Taking a deep breath, I resumed care of my patient.

*****

Chapter 2

He was dry. Well, most of him. I draped several blankets over his body and sat back on the hearth, studying his pale features. He was as different to Marcus as a jack rabbit was to a coyote. Marcus was tall and slender, his long face punctuated with blue eyes creased with laughter lines, an unruly mop of dark blond hair and a drooping moustache over which I would enjoy running my finger as I lay across his chest of an evening. This fellow was black-haired, and would be clean shaven if not for the stubble covering his jaw and upper lip. His short black hair had a natural curl to it, all the more obvious now I had mussed it up with a towel. I moved to the side of the cot and knelt next to him. Heavy eyelids hid the colour of his eyes. I imagined they were dark, like his skin should be, like the hair on his head and on his chest. My eyes lowered to shoulders made heavy by work and arms visibly used to manual labour.

What was I doing, staring at him like this? Had I no sense of propriety? I climbed to my feet and stood away from him.

He needed fresh clothing and so it was I found myself in the corner of my cabin, standing before the travelling chest which housed Marcus’s clothes. I hesitated before I opened the lid. I had meant to rid myself of his clothing, but had put it off until I had almost forgotten I still had them. The clothes smelled musty, unused, but a faint scent of his favourite cologne still lingered. I picked up the top item, a cream shirt, and lifted it to my face, breathing in the fading scent of my husband. My eyes filled with tears but I shook my head, refusing to give in to this unexpected display of emotion; I was unsettled by my reaction after all this time. I laid the shirt down and in a business-like fashion, leafed through the various items until, halfway down, I found one of Marcus’s baggy work shirts and a pair of long drawers. I slammed the trunk closed and hurried to my patient.

I lifted him to a seated position and fed his arms through the armholes. It was then I saw that his gunshot wounds had started to bleed profusely, the blood soaking into the thin mattress of the cot. “Damn it!” I cast my eyes upwards. “Sorry Marcus.” My husband had never liked it when I swore. The heat from the fire and my vigorous warming of his body must have started his blood flowing freely once more. I grabbed the first material that came to hand, a freshly laundered cloth I used for drying my dishes. It was clean, it was near, it was soon ripped into several long strips. I knelt on the floor, and pushed him onto his side better to see the gaping wounds, but I was too nervous to touch them.

I had no experience of injuries like this. The only time I had seen anyone in such a condition was on the journey across the prairies. We were unlucky enough to come across a party of travellers who had been attacked by Indians. Men, women and children lay huddled together. The adults had plainly tried to protect the young ones, but the injuries were horrific. Arrow and spear, tomahawk and rifle had all done their worse. Marcus, and several other men in our party, had checked for survivors and in so doing had tipped one unlucky fellow onto his back and revealed the rifle wound that had opened up his chest. I’m not ashamed to say, I looked away and retched over the side of the wagon.

Over time I have become a lot less squeamish. Cutting the heads off chickens and butchering a pig tends to do that. But it’s different in a person. And although my patient’s wounds were nowhere near as violent as that man’s on the prairie, I still felt my gorge rising at the blood pumping over his flesh. I blinked and shook the nausea away. I knew I had to stop the bleeding so I folded one of the strips into a thick pad and pressed it hard against the top wound.

Until now he had been fairly quiet. He had groaned a-plenty as I had towelled him dry, and muttered and grunted as I had manhandled him. But now he let out a howl of pain, his head rose sharply from the pillow and, without warning, his hand snatched my wrist in a vise-like grip. He glared at me and I saw then what colour his eyes were. They were the colour of rage.

“What are you…doing?” His voice was strangled, forced from his throat. I twisted my arm to wrench free of his grip, but it was no use, he had me snared like a grizzly in a bear trap. With my free hand, I picked up the wad of bloody fabric which had slipped from my grasp, and thrust it over his wound. He gasped, his head collapsing back against the pillow. I leaned over him.

“I’m trying to stop you from bleeding to death. Now would you let go of my arm.” My tone was curt and I was met with a pair of creased, pain-filled eyes, but he still did not relinquish his grip. I softened my voice. “You’re hurting me.”

Something cut through the shield of belligerence that pain and fear had raised. His grip loosened, freeing my arm, and his body sank back against the mattress. After a moment to rub my wrist, I continued my ministrations. I soon had another square of thick material prepared and both my hands pressed over his wounds. He sank further into the pillow and I saw his fingers gripping the sheet tightly, pulling it from where it was tucked beneath the mattress.

“You have a bullet wound. Do you remember being shot?”

There was a pause. Without taking my hands from the wounds, I picked myself off the floor and sat on the side of the cot where I could better see his face. His head was turned into the pillow, his mouth gurning as he breathed hard through the pain.

“I remember,” he growled through gritted teeth.

“The bullet went straight through, but you’re bleeding badly.”

“Probably nicked a vein.”

“How do you know that?”

“It’s not my first time.”

A cold feeling clawed at the back of my throat. Who was he? And how did he end up like this? It occurred to me I could be in the company of an outlaw, a fugitive, a desperado. What if I was aiding a wanted man, a robber, a killer, or worse? I could be in mortal danger from the type of man I strived to protect myself from. And I had brought him into my home without a second thought. He said he had been shot before. By whom? By law abiding citizens, protecting their families and their homes? I found myself swallowing hard and breathing heavily.

But then rational thought prevailed. My own imagination had turned him into a villain. He could so easily be a lawman, a sheriff or marshal. Being in the line of fire was part of their everyday life. I shook my head. It didn’t matter. How could it matter? Whether he was good or ill-hearted, I wasn’t going to let him die in my small cabin in the woods. I had a duty to help. Marcus wouldn’t have it any other way.

I peeped under the blood-saturated pads. The bleeding was slowing, but hadn’t stopped, so I kept the pressure applied.

“Who are you? Who shot you? What are you doing on the mountain in weather like this? No one comes up here when there’s this much snow.”

Did I imagine it, or did I see a cheek dimple into a smile?

“You ask a lot of questions.” His voice was losing its strength.

I frowned and leaned over him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

There it was again, a dimple softening his face, despite the pain he was in.

“Nothing’s wrong. Just need water.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and once again checked under the pads. The bleeding was no more than a trickle now, but I took my patient’s hand and placed it over the nearest wound. I pushed down with my palm. “Keep pressing,” I told him as I left him to fetch a glass of water. On my return, he managed to raise himself on one elbow and took several long gulps before falling back onto the cot. I needed to bandage him up, and before long I was tearing a clean sheet into long strips.

“My name is…Adam Cartwright.”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at him. “From the Ponderosa, about two days’ ride down the mountain?”

“You know the Ponderosa, even way up—”

“Way up here, yes,” I interrupted. “The Cartwrights are even known up here in the high country.”

I felt almost elated, knowing this man wasn’t a wanted criminal, and that he had recovered enough to talk. As I raised him up to a seated position to wrap my makeshift bandage around his waist, I found myself directing more questions to him.

“But why are you up here during one of the worst winters we’ve had for years? We can go for months without seeing a stranger.”

He didn’t answer as I supported him to lie back on the cot. I thought perhaps I was being too inquisitive, so picked up the pair of long cotton drawers which had once belonged to Marcus, and raised my eyebrows in a questioning manner. He peered under the blankets and reddened a little, but nodded. I fed his feet through the legs of the garment, pulling them up as far as I could, but the last part he had to do himself. I turned away as he tugged them up to his waist. It was hard to listen to him gasping with pain as he did so.

He quieted for a moment. “You said we?” His head craned a little to see around the cabin.

“Oh.” I hadn’t realised until now I’d even referred to myself in the plural. It had been so long since I’d spoken to anyone except Emmet Hill and his boys, or old Mrs. McKinnie, both of whom shared the mountain with me, that I’d not had opportunity to learn to say ‘I’ instead of ‘we’. I looked over at what I now saw to be a pair of brown eyes waiting for my reply. “I meant me and Demelza, of course, my mare.”

He closed his eyes and smiled. “I fell off my horse.” His voice was quiet, his words becoming slurred.

“I know, Mr. Cartwright. Your horse decided to call on me this afternoon.” I glanced over at the sourdough mixture abandoned on a surface of flour; it might be salvageable. “If it hadn’t been for him, you’d still be lying out there in the snow.” I paused. “You’d most likely be dead from the cold.”

A small hint of a smile warmed his face once more. “He’s a good animal.”

His breathing was becoming slower. I knelt beside him and placed my hand over his. “You need to rest,” I said. “Get some sleep.” A low, affirmative rumble sounded from his throat, and within moments my patient had succumbed to what I hoped would be healing sleep.

I looked around my cabin at the chaos which had taken over it, and as I stooped to pick up strips of bloody material from the floor, and gathered his wet clothing, and cleared the kitchen range of flour and bowls, unanswered questions continued to bother me. Who had shot him, and why?

*****

As afternoon fell into evening and night gathered close, the man who had introduced himself to me as Adam Cartwright seldom moved from the position he had fallen asleep in. I had bustled around him for several hours; prepared a meal for myself; opened and closed the door—letting in icy air on each occasion—to bring in more firewood. I had disappeared outside for a while to settle the horses down for the night and drag the sleigh back to the barn. Yet on my return he still hadn’t moved, but lay flat on his back, his head turned towards the fire, the only movement his chest as he took in long measured breaths.

Night draws in early at this time of year and my usual habit was to sit before the hearth in a well-worn but comfortable armchair to read, or mend, or simply to remember. This night I did spend a few moments in my chair, but it was to lean forward and observe the man sleeping before me. His legs were a little too long for the cot, but he had instinctively drawn them up beneath the blankets. I observed the high cheekbones, the smooth heavy eyelids beneath dark brows and the sensual mouth, the corners of which sank into dark dimpled depressions. He was so different to Marcus, in appearance and, from my brief interaction with him earlier, in temperament and manner. His head jerked and I leaned lower to observe his eyes moving rapidly from side to side beneath closed lids. I left him to his dreams and banked the fire.

After one last glance at the man who lay illuminated by a soft orange glow, I pulled the curtain across the room which separated my bed from the rest of the cabin, then undressed and released my hair from its confinements. Within moments I had blown out my candle and crawled under the quilt. I lay there with my eyes wide open, disconcerted by the knowledge I was sharing my cabin with a stranger, albeit a wounded one. A few seconds later, I threw back the covers and ran barefoot to where I had left my rifle. Returning to the warm comfort of my bed, I propped the rifle within easy reach and, feeling reassured, closed my eyes.

I didn’t sleep easily. Perhaps it was the unexpected company that put me on edge, but I awoke every other hour and on waking would sit up to peer around the half-drawn curtain at my guest. He never moved, not until a couple of hours before dawn that is. I had fallen into a dream sleep but was awoken by the sound of soft moans coming from beyond my curtain. I roused with a start, momentarily forgetting I had a visitor, and froze at the strange sounds. But then the events of the previous day came back to me and I leapt from my bed, wrapped a robe around me, and within seconds was kneeling at my patient’s side. He was breathing rapidly, his head twitching on the pillow. His face and neck shone with sweat and a hand to his forehead told me what I feared. He was running a fever.

I shook him awake and his eyes half opened.

“Mr. Cartwright, I need to check your wound. You’re burning up.”

“So hot,” was all he managed, but he didn’t protest when I turned down his blankets and rolled him with a teeth-gritting groan onto his side. I peeled back his now damp shirt and layers of bandage and inhaled at the sight of the now ferocious wound within a circle of angry red flesh. I touched the edge with the tip of one finger which elicited a gasp and angry curse.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as I sat back on my heels. “The wound is infected.” I could feel my forehead furrowing. “And I don’t know what to do.”

“Is it…both wounds?”

I peered at the wound in his back and ran my finger around the flesh. It was warm, but not hot.

“The one in your back is healing.”

He nodded. “Well…that’s something.”

He raised his head and turned to look over his shoulder at me. “Is there any…” he fell back against the pillow and closed his eyes, “…any blood or pus?”

I nodded. “Both.”

After several long breaths, Mr. Cartwright swallowed, and turned once more to look at me, his brows drawn low over his eyes. “I don’t know your name.”

I blinked. I hadn’t expected that.

“Kate. Mrs. Kate Addington.”

“Pleased to make…your acquaintance, Mrs. Kate Addington.”

He opened his palm and I took the proffered hand in a shake. I thought his grip would be weak and it was at first, but then he tightened his fingers around mine and pulled me down to his level.

“Mrs. Addington…you’re gonna have to cut it…drain the muck.”

My head was rocking from side to side before he’d even finished the end of his sentence.

“No, no, I can’t.”

His fingers became even tighter and his eyes latched on to mine.

“You’re gonna have to. If the infection spreads…” His words were left hanging. He didn’t have to say anything further.

I was still shaking my head, but then his grip softened.

“This is gonna hurt me more than it’s gonna hurt you, believe me.” Tiny orange flames danced over his eyes as he attempted a smile. It was gone in the next breath. “You’ve gotta do this.”

I looked up to the roof. Oh, Marcus, what should I do? The idea of cutting into this man’s flesh terrified me. What if something went wrong? What if he should die? But then it struck me he would die anyway if I didn’t. We were several days from the nearest town; there were no doctors for miles around. When someone was hurt or ill on the mountain, we went to Mrs. McKinnie, who knew the ways of the old country. But precious time would be wasted saddling Demelza and as for finding our way in the dark… I took a deep breath and looked back at Mr. Cartwright. He was staring at me, his expression almost blank. But his eyes were shining with fever, and need.

I nodded. “What do I need to do?”

*****

Chapter 3

The sharpest knife I owned was balanced over a flame in the newly rekindled fire; a bowl of hot water was at my feet and fresh strips of material piled at the side of the cot. One strip had been rolled into a shape resembling a fat cigar—“I’ll need something soft to bite down on. I’d break my teeth on wood,” he’d said.

I reached for the knife—a small one I used for paring vegetables. The blade had turned a coppery black. My heart was pounding and I was breathing hard. I wasn’t ready for this at all, but there was no putting off the inevitable. I wiped a sweaty palm down my skirt, but then Mr. Cartwright’s voice stopped me.

“Whiskey. Do you have any whiskey?”

I frowned.

“I think so. Why?”

He spoke through gritted teeth. “Get it.”

Marcus had always been partial to a small drop of what he referred to as his daily vice—a small measure of whiskey—taken after his evening meal. He had not long opened a new bottle when the sickness came to the mountain.

I found it behind a little-used pan high on a kitchen shelf and presented it to Mr. Cartwright. He waved it away.

“Wash it over the wound.”

“But won’t that—”

“It’ll hurt like hell, just do it.”

So I did, and Mr. Cartwright swore with some of the choicest words I’d ever heard. His hand swung back for the bottle. Once in his grip, he raised his head, pulled the cork with his teeth and took a long swig. He handed me the bottle. “Now you.”

I hesitated. He looked over his shoulder at me. “Drink. It’ll calm your nerves.”

I had never drunk anything stronger than sarsaparilla, but I took the bottle and after a moment’s hesitation, poured a mouthful down my throat. The strident liquid made me cough as it caught in the back of my throat.

“Now you’re ready,” he said. “Do it.” He thrust the wad of material in his mouth and lay back down, his hands clenching the edge of his pillow.

Throughout his ordeal, Mr. Cartwright made nary a sound. I had expected him to cry out, to raise the roof with his anguish. Instead the lone evidence of his pain was a tensing of his body. As I cut into the fresh scar tissue, and a thick trickle of dark blood oozed from the wound, he turned his head into the pillow, his expression hidden from me. But his hands lashed out to grip the side of the cot and in the dim light I could see his fingernails clawing into the wood. His whole body grew rigid and I became aware of a rapid vibration as his body shook with the effort of staying still. I worked as fast as I could, conscious of the sweat breaking out on his skin. I pushed and prodded at the wound to rid it of the invasive pus and once I was convinced the wound was free of it, I applied a square of material and pressed down. If it was possible for Mr. Cartwright’s head to turn any further into the pillow without smothering him, then he did. After a few minutes there was no more fresh blood, so I washed the wound with the hot water. I told him it was all over, and only then did a long low groan escape him. I pressed a fresh pad over the angry wound as he sunk into the mattress.

He had passed out. Why now I thought, when the worst was over. Why did you suffer through your ordeal?

I needed to apply a fresh bandage, so, as I had the previous day, I raised him into a seated position and wrapped a fresh strip of cloth around his middle. Once he was lying down once more, I sat back and surveyed my patient. His skin was shiny with sweat, his cheeks red from fever.

And then I couldn’t hold back any further. Tears welled in my eyes and I covered my mouth with my hand to stop myself from crying out. He looked so much like Marcus had in those last few hours before the sickness claimed him forever. As the fever pushed Marcus’s temperature up, the heat from his body had been unbearable, and his skin had grown fiercely red from fever. Then he had stopped sweating and grown still, and I knew the end was near. Thankfully Mr. Cartwright was wet through and so I knew his body was fighting his injury. But seeing this man unconscious had reawakened memories I’d swept into a corner and done my best to ignore. I couldn’t bear to lose another person—even if he was a stranger—not like this. Emotion and weariness took control of me and I crumpled to the floor. The tears I never cried found release, and with my head resting on the side of his mattress, I wept.

*****

It seemed like hours, but was nothing more than minutes. A hand brushed over my hair and I lifted my head to find a pair of half-closed eyes looking blearily at me. I didn’t want him to see me like this, so I turned away and wiped the wetness from my face with the sleeve of my robe. Once I’d regained my composure I took a deep breath and twisted back to face him.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

Languid eyes blinked. “Like a beef that’s been skewered and roasted over a slow spit.” His voice was sluggish, and a little slurred. I felt his forehead with the back of my fingers, and sighed. He was still too hot. I pushed myself to my feet, feeling as though the weight of the world was pressing down on my shoulders. My emotions were raw and weary. He needed cold water to cool him down, so I wrapped my coat around me and pulled at the cabin door to open it. At first it refused to budge, the freezing temperatures having caused it to ice up again. But one forceful tug later and I was assailed by air so cold I took an involuntary gasp. I crunched over the shards of ice which had shattered from the door frame and wasted no time filling a bucket with fresh snow. Once back inside I stamped my feet on the floor for a few moments to warm myself and nigh on ran to the fire for warmth, placing the bucket nearby to melt.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to let so much cold air in.”

“S’alright,’ he murmured. “It was nice.”

I looked down at him and saw a smile edging around his lips.

“I do believe you enjoyed that, Mr. Cartwright.”

A pair of heavy-lidded eyes turned towards me. “Adam, and yes, I did.”

I dipped a cloth into the bucket. The top layer of snow had already melted to provide an inch of water. It was ice-cold on my fingers, but when I placed the cloth over Mr. Cartwright’s forehead and cheeks, he sighed and closed his eyes, his brow un-furrowing as the ice soothed him.

After a moment he opened his eyes and looked across my cabin. “Do you live here alone, Mrs. Addington?”

I paused. “I’m a widow; my husband passed away four years back.”

Dark eyes met mine. “I’m sorry.”

“No need.”

As I continued to apply the cold compress to his burning flesh, I shook my head incredulously. “How did you come to be like this?”

“What, shot up and bleeding on a cot too small for me?”

“Mr. Cartwright.” I couldn’t keep the recrimination from my tone. He opened his eyes and a cheek dimpled.

“Sorry.” The dimple retreated as he grew serious. “I was chasing rustlers.”

I withdrew the cold cloth from where I was pressing it against his throat. “Rustlers? In the middle of winter?”

His face creased in pain as he shifted position, but then eased as he settled down. “Since summer, my family’s ranch—and others—have been hit by rustlers.” His words were precise and low. I wondered whether his speaking at length was wise, but he continued on. “Thousands of cattle taken with no trace, just, pfff, gone.”

I turned back his shirt to let the water cool his chest. “You’d think that many cattle would be easy to find.”

One side of his mouth quirked up. “You’d think. Two cowpunchers had hired on at some of the ranches affected. But before they could be questioned, they disappeared. Until a few days ago that is.”

A cough escaped him, and I fetched him a fresh glass of water. As he lay back, he continued his story.

“The two were seen in Virginia City by a hand from the Delta D but, instead of going for the sheriff, he went and fetched the D’s foreman, J.T. Miller. There was a confrontation. They shot J.T.”

It was as though a black sky had, without warning, rolled over a sunny landscape, casting the world into darkness. Adam turned his head away from me and looked down. His eyelashes threw long shadows across his cheeks. I sat back, still and quiet.

“J.T. was my friend. I’d known him since he came to the Territory and signed on at the Ponderosa as a ranch hand. He was good at his job, though had a tendency to act without thinking. It’s what got him killed.”

I didn’t know what to say. Adam was noticeably affected by the death of his friend, but he was lost in his own thoughts and I was loath to interrupt them. I dipped the now warm cloth in the bucket and resumed cooling his chest with the ice water. Adam looked back in my direction and took a deep breath.

“My brothers and I joined the posse. We began with ten men, but the snow storm and,” he snorted, “sudden urgent commitments meant they dropped out one by one, even the deputy. By the time we reached the bridge only my brothers and I were left.”

The bridge. Where the low valleys met the high country. A river curled around the base of the mountain and the bridge was the only crossing for miles around. Folks from Virginia City and thereabouts considered everyone who lived on the mountain side of the river to be backward, uncivilised. How little they knew.

Adam had paused but then resumed his story. “My brothers were all for turning back, but I insisted we go on. We found shelter overnight in a cave about halfway down the mountain.”

“Near a creek, curved like a snake?”

He nodded. “You know it?”

“Fool’s Cavern. It’s said a prospector lived there many years ago searching for his fortune, before the gold rush in California lured him away.”

“Yesterday morning—was it yesterday? I have no idea anymore—I was keeping watch when someone took a potshot at me. He missed.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You evidently weren’t a very good watchman.’

A weak laugh left his lips. “I guess not. Even worse, I acted like my foolhardy youngest brother and took off after the shooter without waiting.”

My eyebrow didn’t have a chance to lower. “If that’s not hare-brained, then I dread to think how impulsive your brother is.”

“You have no idea,” he smiled. “I followed the shooter up the mountain. It was snowing, covering my tracks, and it was only then I realised I was completely alone.”

Adam gazed into the middle distance, a look of wonder calming the lines on his face.

“I remember sitting in my saddle on the edge of a small clearing, and the silence…there wasn’t a sound to be heard. I’ve never experienced such absolute stillness, except for these huge snowflakes drifting out of the sky. It was pure white everywhere I looked. It took my breath away.”

He shook his head a little as he returned to the here and now.

“Then I heard a gunshot and my horse bolted. After that it’s just a patchwork of sensations and images. Of being so cold I couldn’t think straight. Of not knowing where I was. And pain, most of all, immense pain, burning in my side and my back.” He met my eyes. “I remember falling off my horse, though. I think I saw your cabin and smoke coming from the chimney and I remember thinking, warmth, no more cold, and just…blacked out.”

I moved the cloth to his face, and while I patted the sweat from his skin, he closed his eyes and his breath started to lengthen. He had told his story and now he could sleep.

I stayed with him for a while longer, sitting by his side. I was struggling with myself, trying not to admit to a bare fact Mr. Cartwright’s presence had brought to the fore. I was lonely, desperately lonely. I had been alone for four years, and had convinced myself I was fine; I didn’t need company, or, more accurately, I didn’t need a man. But this man, of whom I knew so little, had filled the cabin. Even though he was injured, weak, and had spent all his time confined to this one small cot in front of my fire, he had, in an ironic way, filled my cabin with life. And I missed it so. Since I had found him covered in snow in the forest, I had been suffused with purpose; the disruption in my unchanging, unthinking routine had invigorated me, and suddenly the idea of returning to my everyday regimen filled me with horror. But I couldn’t help but wonder, was it this particular man who had had such an effect on me, or would it have been the same with another?

*****

Chapter 4

He slept for hours. I awoke later than was my want and blamed the activities of the night for that. A pile of bloody rags and a bucket of melted snow was an unhappy reminder of what he had endured. His colour was pinker than I had hoped for, and his temperature was still too high, so I let him sleep as I worked around him. I left the warmth of the cabin on several occasions to tend to the horses, collect some more firewood and empty my night bucket, and on each occasion of cold air flooding my home, my patient stayed locked in sleep, not moving a muscle.

Marcus’s eyes followed me around the room from the painting on the mantelpiece. I found myself standing in front of the portrait, closing my eyes and praying for forgiveness. For my weakness in feeling lonely, for craving the company of another man, for crying my eyes out last night, for—

Something touched my leg. My eyes flashed open in shock and I twisted to see Adam Cartwright had turned onto his side in his sleep, reached out his arm and curled his hand around my calf. Even though my skirt and stocking were sandwiched between his hand and my leg, I felt a rush of blood redden my cheeks. I knew I should have removed his hand straight away but it had been so long since I had felt a man’s touch. All my prayers to Marcus were forgotten as I absorbed the sensation of Mr. Cartwright’s long fingers curved around my leg.

I had missed such intimacy. But instead of recollecting the touch of Marcus’s hand on my knee when we sat on the porch of a summer evening; or recalling my husband’s skin against mine as we lay together late at night, I was consumed with the touch of this man, right now. His warm grip, firm but gentle, was all I was conscious of. Overcome, I steadied myself against the mantelpiece. I bowed my head and closed my eyes, and there was nothing else but my calf and his hand.

I was startled out of my reverie by a shout from outside. Mr. Cartwright did not stir, so deeply did he sleep, and it was with regret I peeled his fingers from my leg and folded his arm around his body.

Through the window I could see two men on horseback. One, a big fellow, sat in the centre of the clearing, a rifle across his lap. The other stayed farther back at the treeline, a weapon in his hand pointed idly towards the ground. I pulled on a shawl, picked up my rifle and, remembering Marcus’s directions to never show fear, never hide, confront your foe, I opened the door and strode out onto the porch. Never mind that my insides were quivering, I closed the door behind me, raised my chin, and with my gun in hand, stared the big fellow in the eye.

“What do you want here?”

The big man raised a finger to a large hat pulled low over his eyes. “Ma’am. We’re lookin’ for a fella, he may’ve come through here.”

He was a big brute. His horse looked almost puny with him in the saddle. And he was distinctly unfriendly looking. His eyes were barely discernible beneath the brim of his hat, but they seemed to flash with contained anger. I could tell from his face he was well built, maybe even a little rotund, but his body was hidden beneath a huge bearskin coat that made him look even bigger than he probably was. I cast a glance at the man lingering around the trees. He was smaller, wearing a coat which was clearly too big for him. But there was no escaping the six-shooter he was pointing at my feet. I drew my gaze back to the big man.

“There’s no one here but me. My husband is visiting a nearby family but will be back anytime now.” I tended to blush when I lied and I could feel my cheeks burning. I hoped this large forbidding man would put my pink face down to the cold, and not my body’s tell-tale sign of bending the truth.

He glanced over his shoulder at the smaller man before looking back to me. “Ma’am, we picked up his tracks a little ways back. They seemed to lead right on here.”

I felt a rush of panic. These men must have been the ones who shot him. They looked like rustlers with their prominent weapons and untrustworthy expressions. I raised my chin even higher than it already was.

“They must be my husband’s tracks. I told you, I’m here alone. But my husband is due back.”

The man’s gaze shifted to the corral, and my heart sank. I had let both horses out this morning. I side-stepped along the porch, my rifle still pointing at the big man. Peering around, all I could see was Demelza under the lean-to, her teeth pulling on her feed of hay. I struggled to suppress the rush of air which threatened to escape through my pursed lips. “That’s my mare. Those tracks you were following were most likely my husband’s.” I cocked the rifle and pointed it at the big man. “Now I’d be much obliged if you’d get off my property.”

He raised both his hands and backed his horse away. “Yessum. Sorry to have troubled you, ma’am.

A gloved hand was raised to his hat once more, an action mirrored by the smaller man behind, and together they reined their horses around to leave the way they had come. I stayed on the porch, my rifle unmoving, and watched them ride away. When they both exchanged a few words and then turned their heads at the same time to glance at me, I wondered whether they had believed my story, and made a show of hefting the rifle up higher. I stood there until they were out of sight, and for a good while longer too.

*****

I don’t know how long I stood on the porch with nothing more than a woollen shawl between me and the freezing temperatures. My hands seemed to be welded to my gun, the weapon an extension of me. I stared into the forest to make sure they’d not doubled back to hide amongst the trees. I knew every trunk, branch and leaf like the back of my own hand, and anything untoward would have been glaringly apparent to me.

It was Demelza wandering into my field of vision which distracted me from my lookout. Now where had Mr. Cartwright’s horse got to? I marched into the centre of the corral, looking all about me, and spied a tail swishing behind the cabin. He had tucked himself into a gap—too narrow for Demelza’s round middle—between my home and the smoke house, and was munching on a patch of exposed grass. There was even less room for me to squeeze down there so it took much prodding and cajoling to back him out into the corral. But I wasn’t mad. As I headed back to the warmth of my fire, I raised a glance upwards in thanks for this horse’s keen appetite.

Adam Cartwright was halfway out of his cot when I entered the cabin.

“Mr. Cartwright, what on earth…?” I cried, slamming the door behind me and leaving my rifle and shawl in a heap on the floor. He was on the side of the cot, bare feet on the floor, his body held upright by one outstretched arm. His other arm was wrapped around his torso, a hand pressed over his wound. “You are in no fit state to be getting up.” I pushed at his shoulders to lower him back down to the mattress, but he resisted my efforts.

“Mrs. Addington, Kate, first of all, I feel a lot better, and for that I’ll always be grateful to you; but I’ve imposed on you enough. I need to go; my family will be worried sick. But secondly, and most pressing, I need to, um, I need to…” He gestured towards the door with a nod.

“You need to what?”

“I need to…go outside.”

“Mr. Cartwright, if you think I’m going to let you go outside wearing only those night clothes, with a wound that could break open at any moment, then you’re—”

“Kate!” He took a deep breath. “I haven’t emptied my bladder in over a day, and I’m rather uncomfortable.”

“Oh.” I felt my face redden at my own stupidity and the suggestion of what he needed to do. “Well, you’re still not going outside. It’s not safe.”

His eyebrows snaked low over his eyes and his brow furrowed. “What do you mean, it’s not safe?”

I turned from him and fetched my empty night bucket.

“Use this,” I said. “I’ll, um, check on the horses, again. And then I’ll fry up some bacon when I get back.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I don’t care.” My fear made me belligerent. “If you’re so insistent on leaving when you’re obviously not well enough, then you’ll need to build up your strength. I’m cooking you bacon.”

And with a final shake of my head, I wrapped my coat around me, picked up the rifle and left him alone with the bucket. I leaned against the back of the door, taking deep breaths to calm myself. I was not simply scared of those men returning, but I was shocked to admit to myself, I didn’t want him to leave.

*****

Mr. Cartwright ate the bacon. Well, he consumed half of the plate I cooked up before conceding defeat. He was more interested in the coffee I prepared, taking small sips and seeming to enjoy every mouthful.

He had been sprawled in my armchair when I arrived back. He looked beaten down, and despite his furious fever of the night before, had attempted to pull the chair closer to the fire. I felt his forehead. He was still too warm, but I felt he was on the mend. I tucked a blanket over him, dealt with his night water, and as I had fried the bacon, fended off his questions about why it was not safe outside. I told him in no uncertain words that I would answer all his questions once he had eaten, and not before. His lips had pursed and his eyebrows crawled up his brow, but he had let his head fall back against the chair. I was relieved he had given in so easily. I could sense an impatience in him, and I knew if I had told him of my visitors, he would have insisted on going out after them. One look at him, and I knew he was in no shape to do so.

Once he had eaten, I helped him walk over to my bed where I lowered him down on the edge. Once more I rummaged in the trunk to find some clothes for him to wear. His own were in various stages of dampness drying out around the fire and in the rafters, and his coat was still dripping wet. I handed him the precious cream shirt that had belonged to Marcus and found him a pair of pants. There was much groaning, on both our parts, as I directed his arms into the sleeves, and he batted me away when I tried to help him button up the front. Men and their stubbornness, I exclaimed silently. Or was it this man and his stubbornness? Marcus had been a tall man, well over six feet high, and after turning my back to let Mr. Cartwright tug on the pants, I knelt to turn up the bottom of the legs. As I straightened up, I was met with a pair of piercing eyes.

“Now, will you tell me?”

I sighed and indicated to him to stand so I could help him back to the armchair. I was too anxious to sit.

“Some men came while you were asleep.”

He was instantly on the alert, leaning forward out of his chair, despite the pain it caused him. His hand curled around to hold his side. “What men? Did you recognise them? What did they want?”

I put my hands up against the barrage of questions.

“They were looking for you, said they’d found some tracks that led up here. Still, how they could with all the fresh snow fall?”

Mr. Cartwright was dismissive, his gaze flicking around the floor. “A good tracker can see the signs. I wasn’t exactly compos mentis, and goodness knows what evidence Sport left as he wandered.” He looked up at me sharply. “You didn’t know them?”

I shook my head. “No, but they were nasty looking. I think they were the rustlers, Mr. Cartwright.”

He started to rise from the chair. “I’ve gotta go. I’m putting you in danger by being here. Where are my saddle bags, my gun?” As he looked around frantically, he started to sway to one side.

I was under his shoulder with my arm around his back in a trice. “Don’t be foolish. You can hardly stand, how can you sit a saddle? And besides they didn’t see your horse.” I maneuvered him back into the chair. “For a moment I thought the game was up, as the big one looked over at the corral. But when I looked all I could see was Demelza. Turns out that your—Sport is it—Sport had wandered behind my cabin to where the snow didn’t lay so heavily and found the one patch of green grass that had survived the winter. He was pawing at the ground and enjoying a sweet feed. I swear I thanked providence for being on our side.”

Those dark eyes met mine. “I should still go.”

I dropped to my ankles beside him, steadying myself with a hand on the chair-arm. “Please, Mr. Cartwright—”

“For goodness’ sake, call me Adam.” He sighed and his tone softened. “Just Adam.”

I nodded and deliberated over my choice of words. “You’re not well enough. You have a wound in your side which may still be infected. You can’t stand without help and night will soon be drawing in.” I sat back on the hearth. “It’s not right, or safe, for you with that giant brute with the big hat, dressed like a bear, still out there. It’s just not safe.”

There was silence.

“Big hat?”

I was folding my skirt around my knees and it was his tone of voice that drew me away from my fussing. He had tilted his head to one side and was frowning at me. “Well, yes, he had a big tall hat. I’ve never seen one like it before.”

There was another pause. “Was he riding a brown horse with a white marking down his face?”

I tried to remember. “I don’t know, it was a dark coloured horse, I’m sure.”

Adam shifted forward a little.

“You said there were two of them. Was the other riding a pinto?”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Yes, that I do remember. He was a smaller man on a black and white horse.”

Adam sat back in the armchair and closed his eyes for a few seconds, shaking his head as a small smile curled about his lips.  He blinked back at me. “They were my brothers.” His voice held no recrimination.

My tongue snaked out, brushing over my top lip. “Your brothers?”

“Big man, ten-gallon hat, riding a tall brown horse. He was wearing his bearskin coat when we rode out. That’s my middle brother, Hoss. And my youngest brother, Joe, we call him Little Joe, well, because he’s always been the smallest of the three of us. Rides a paint horse. If memory serves he was wearing his blue check coat. Hoss and Joe, my brothers.”

My hand crept over my mouth and I climbed to my feet. “Mr. Cartwright, I don’t know what to say. I thought…” I walked towards the cabin door, my back to Adam. Oh God, what had I done? I had sent away any chance of help. I turned back. “He didn’t say you were their brother, and they had guns. The little one was pointing his pistol towards me. I thought…”

Adam struggled to his feet, finding his balance, and all the while I stood shaking my head, my heart beating fast with the shame. He limped over to me, his hand once more searching out its customary place on his wound. He hooked his free hand around the top of my arm and led me to the nearest chair at my one and only table, where he bade me sit. He pulled a spare chair away from the wall and slumped down hard, grimacing in sudden pain. The whiskey bottle was on the stove behind and he reached around awkwardly to grab it and a nearby mug. He poured out a shot and pushed the mug towards me.

“Drink.”

“Whiskey doesn’t solve every problem.”

“I know. But it can take the edge off. Drink.”

I took a sip of the foul-tasting liquid, screwing my face up as it ran over the back of my throat. I stared into the bottom of the mug as Adam up-ended the bottle and took a long slug. I could feel his heavy gaze on me.

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know. As for that giant brute, I’ve been at the receiving end of one of Hoss’s looks, and it’s not pretty. I speak from painful experience.” My gaze wandered to his fingers wrapped around the bottle. He took another long swallow. “But…I’m not gonna make it out of here without help.”

The bottle came down hard on the table top, startling me out of my distraction. I had been so preoccupied with my mistake, I hadn’t noticed Adam was slumped to one side over the table, his breaths short and shallow.

“What’s wrong, what is it?”

“I’m pretty sure I busted open my wound when I sat down. It feels like someone is jabbing it with their finger.”

I rose quickly. “We need to get you back to bed, take a look at the wound.” I was halfway out of my chair but he pushed me back down.

“There’s no time, you need to get help.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I can—”

His hand encircled my neck and pulled me down to his level. “Kate, the Ponderosa is two days’ ride from here and I’m in no state to ride. My brothers are less than a couple of hours ahead. If you leave now, you can catch them.”

I disentangled myself from his grip. “That’s madness. What could they do if I caught up with them? Are they doctors, are they medically trained?”

Adam’s hand curled around the whiskey bottle. “It doesn’t matter. Hoss can sew up the wound, and they’ll get me home.”

I stood sharply, the chair skidding across the floor. My anger wasn’t because of his plan. I was angry because he wanted to leave. No, I was angry because I didn’t want him to leave. This was ridiculous. I knew he would eventually return to his home, that his being here had never been planned. But I realised then I wanted to know more about him, I wanted to know about his life, his childhood, his brothers, what made him happy, what his hopes and dreams were. And knowing he wanted to leave, right now, and hearing it so blatantly from his own lips, made me realise I had no hold over him. My disappointment fuelled my response. I leaned over and pulled the bottle from his grip, slamming it on the mantelpiece out of his reach. He didn’t move, his hand remained curved around an imaginary bottle.

My hands found my hips. “And what if I can’t find them? What then? Will you struggle out in the snow, by yourself?”

He leaned back against the back of the chair. His voice was soft.

“You’ll find them. I trust you.”

And what could I say to that. I opened and closed my mouth like a fish gasping for air. The wind had been taken out of my sails. Trust. He didn’t know me, but he was willing to put his trust in me. My lips curled in on themselves, but then I was moving: gathering my coat, a canteen of water, the last of the autumn apples. I bustled around him, unable to meet his gaze which I could feel following me around the room. The last thing I did was load my rifle, and then I paused, saddlebags over one shoulder, rifle in one hand, and canteen in the other. I kept my eyes averted from his, still unable to look at him. It was then I noticed his six shooter, still on the floor by the fireplace. Loading my wares into one hand, I picked up his weapon and laid it on the table in front of him. My eyes drew up to meet his.

“Stay safe, Mr. Cartwright.”

He winked.

I turned towards the door, but before I left, I retrieved the bottle of whiskey from the mantlepiece and placed it next to his gun.

“And don’t get drunk.”

*****

Chapter 5

I had been riding through the forest for less than an hour when I spied movement up ahead. It was a man on horseback, holding the reins of another horse beside him. His head was turned away from me, looking into the trees to the side of the track. He hadn’t seen me so I pulled up and edged Demelza off the path. This man didn’t have the build of the man I now knew was called Hoss, and he was taller in the saddle than the younger brother, Joe. As I squinted through the white landscape, he turned to look up the path and I recognised him as Emmet Hill’s youngest, Jonas. I let out a sigh of relief and urged Demelza down the path towards him.

“Jonas,” I called out. “Jonas Hill.”

As quick as lightning he had pulled his gun from its holster, and for the second time that day, I had a weapon pointed in my direction. I pulled up.

“Jonas, it’s me, Kate Addington.”

Jonas was a simpleton. He had the body of a well-built eighteen-year old boy, but the mind of a child. An accident at birth, his father Emmet had once said to me, which left his boy simple and mute, and his wife dead. So it was with caution that I approached him, though convinced he would not pull the trigger. But then Jonas looked away towards another man who had emerged from behind a clump of trees, fastening the top button of his flies before buckling his belt. It was Clete, Jonas’s older brother.

“Well, howdi, Mrs. Kate.” A wide toothy grin split his face. He was smaller than Jonas, despite being the senior by ten years. “Now what in the blazes would bring you out to partake of sociable discourse with my brother and I on such an inhospitable day as this?”

I paused, my eyes flicking to Jonas’s gun which was pointed steadily at me. Clete punched his brother’s leg. “Put the shooter away, boy. Don’t you recollect to mind, Mrs. Kate from up the mountain yonder?”

It was with begrudging slowness that Jonas holstered his weapon. His hand, however, continued to caress the heel of the gun’s grip in circular motions.

“I’m looking for two men who may have passed this way. One is large and well-built, wearing a bearskin coat. Have you seen anyone like that?”

Clete looked to the ground as though deep in thought. “Why would you be looking for two such gentlemen? You ought to be out of this unfavourable weather, and inside warming your pretty hands by the fire.”

I don’t think I even heeded Clete’s attempt at chivalrous conversation. Instead my cheeks reddened as I recalled what I had done, sending Adam’s brothers away. “Their brother is in my cabin, but they don’t know it. He’s badly hurt; in need of help.”

Clete sidled up to my horse and looked up at me. “May I enquire as to what misfortune befell him?”

Demelza side-stepped and I took a firmer grip on her reins to still her.

“He’s been shot. He’s not in a good way.”

Clete glanced over his shoulder at his younger brother who heretofore had appeared to ignore the conversation happening within his earshot, finding more of interest with his pistol. But his attention was now fixed on Clete and his hand had taken a firm hold of his gun, still secured within the holster. Clete looked back to me.

“Shot, you say. That’s most misfortunate.”

“If I can find his brothers, one of them can ride for help.” A sudden idea came to mind. “Or you could go. It’s a two day ride but I’m sure you’d know shortcuts. His name is Adam Cartwright, of the Ponderosa, near Virginia City.”

Clete rested an elbow on Demelza’s neck. “Adam Cartwright. He’s a mighty big deal around these parts.” He looked out across the forest, his lips pursed in thought, and then nodded a few times.

“I tell you what we’re gonna do. Me and my brother here will help you look. We cain’t be riding all the way to the Ponderosa, not with our pappy in the condition he’s in, having taken to his bed with the melancholia. But we can look, cain’t we, Jonas.”

He mounted up and walked his horse over to my side. “We’ll go east, down the mountain, see if we cain’t find your missing persons. You carry on down the track the ways you were headed.”

I felt such gratitude, I was almost overwhelmed. “I don’t know what to say, Clete.”

“No need to say nothin’, just go on your merry way.” He was already headed into the forest with Jonas beside him, their animals picking their way down the path. “We’ll find what we’re looking for, don’t you mind.”

I urged Demelza on, but after a few yards, I heard a high booming cackle coming from the trees. I turned in my saddle and could make out the two men riding side by side. Jonas’s head was thrown back and he was laughing, the ungodly sound echoing amongst the trees. I had never even seen him smile before, let alone laugh, and the sound put the fear of God into me. I continued to watch as they reached a flat section of ground, brought their horses to a halt and then turned back on themselves to join a steep path which led up to the track I was on. They were no longer headed east. No. There was but one place the track led. And that was straight to my cabin. And to Adam Cartwright.

*****

Demelza struggled to climb up the mountainside. Clete and his brother were ahead of me and with their long-legged mounts were making short shrift of the snow and the elevation. My old lady, by contrast, was heaving with exhaustion as I urged her to run up the hill. I had no choice but to stop, let her regain her breath, and then walk the remaining distance.

As the slope evened out near my cabin, I was startled by the sound of gunshots. At the end of the path where the clearing opened out, I could see a figure bent double at the edge of my porch firing upwards at my windows. It was Jonas. One of the glass panes had been smashed and a hand holding a gun periodically appeared and fired back.

“Adam!” His name left my lips before I could stop myself and I bent forward over Demelza’s neck in readiness to speed her down the track. But suddenly there was a figure in my path, grabbing at my reins, and a great looming form appeared out of the trees. I had a glimpse of brown fur and large grasping hands. A bear! Woken from hibernation, hungry, angry! An arm reached around my waist and pulled me out of the saddle. I was about to scream when a hand clasped over my mouth. My feet didn’t touch the ground as I was deposited behind a tree and found myself staring into a pair of piercing blue eyes beneath a tall white hat.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but it’s not a good idea for you to be riding on up there. You’re likely to get yourself hurt, or worse. And promise me you won’t scream. I ain’t gonna hurt cha.”

I nodded and the big man removed his hand from my mouth.

“Hoss, you’re Hoss,” I managed to blurt out while catching my breath. Over his shoulder I could see a slight figure tethering Demelza with two other horses. “And Joe.” My eyes flicked back to the large round face, now smiling a gap-toothed smile. “You came back. I sent you away. I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Adam sent me out looking for you. But Clete sent me the other way. I saw him turn around. I knew something was wrong. I told him Adam was here.” I took a breath. “I think they’re the rustlers.”

Joe had joined us. “Ma’am, there’s plenty of time for exchanging stories later. Right now, Hoss and I have a brother to rescue.”

Hoss grasped the tops of my arms and pushed me gently down to the ground. “Don’t you move from here; there’s gonna be some shootin’. Stay down and outta sight.”

I peered around the trunk of the tree and watched them trot away down the path. For a big man, Hoss Cartwright was surprisingly light on his feet. But there was no way I was going to stay here when Adam was being shot at.

Joe Cartwright had taken up a position at the treeline and was firing across the clearing into the trees at the far side. His target was hidden from view, only the flashes from a gun’s muzzle giving away the position of the shooter. It had to be Clete. Jonas had retreated behind the barn, and was firing first at Joe, and then at the cabin. I couldn’t see Hoss and so moved up nearer to the clearing until I was across the path from Joe. He saw me and scowled, waving with his hands for me to get back. I ignored him, and so, with a shake of his head, he took a moment to reload and turned his attention back to the two shooters.

There was sudden shouting from the barn. I looked over and could see Hoss Cartwright had crept up behind Jonas. “Put your weapon down, boy, there ain’t nowhere to go.” A bout of firing from the trees was soon silenced by Joe. I looked towards the cabin, wondering about Adam, but all was quiet. A cold, unsettling feeling crept over me, and an image of him lying dead on my cabin floor rooted itself in my mind’s eye. I shook my head to lose the mental picture, and turned back to the barn.

Jonas was standing stock still, his arm rigid, his gun pointing towards the ground. I could see an unyielding finger curved around the trigger and his gaze was fixed somewhere in the middle distance. “Put the gun down, boy,” I heard Hoss say. Jonas didn’t move; he just stood there, his gun arm straight as an arrow. But then he lifted his head, and a slow stupid smile crept over the boy’s face. His arm swung up in Joe’s direction.

A shot sliced through the air. I held my breath. I think everyone was holding their breath. A wisp of smoke trailed from Hoss Cartwright’s gun barrel. Then slowly, oh so slowly, Jonas fell to the ground.

There was silence. And then a long strangled cry sounded from the woods. I ducked down to the ground, more unnerved by this unearthly noise than by the violence and death which had come to my home. Hoss crouched at the side of the barn within touching distance of Jonas. He reached out his hand to the boy’s neck and after a moment turned to Joe and shook his head. At a crouch, Joe moved passed me, and keeping himself shielded behind trees headed towards where Clete had been. I moved out on all fours, ignoring the cold and wet of the snow and peered forward to see what was happening. Joe ducked behind a tree and I watched him study the ground at his feet. As his eyes moved across the snow covered ground, he rose to a standing position. And then he was turning and shouting to Hoss.

But I heard nothing, because then a hand clamped itself around my mouth and I was pulled roughly to my feet.

To say I was sick and tired of men pointing guns at me and putting their hands over my mouth would be a distortion of the truth. I was so fed up with it that my first reaction was to swing my elbow back at the offending party. I didn’t care which part of their anatomy I hit, but as it turns out, it was Clete’s cheekbone which took the brunt of my irritation.

He staggered back a step. “Why you—” He was unable to finish his exclamation, because as his hand rose to his face, I pushed at his body with every ounce of strength I could summon and he fell backwards into the snow. I stood over him, proud of my having felled this villain. I looked behind me to see Hoss and Joe approaching from either side. But that was a mistake. Legs suddenly tangled with mine and I was toppled over, landing hard on my front. A weight fell on me and I was pinned down, a hand pushing my head into the snow. My vision was nothing but flashing lights and cold whiteness. I struggled to catch my breath, to pull my head up from the freezing snow, but all I managed to do was turn my head to one side and take a gasp of air. I felt a hot breath against my neck. “I do not figure to hurt you, Mrs. Kate, you being my guarantee of getting out of this predicament I’ve found myself in.” And then I was yanked up onto my knees, an arm fixed around my neck and the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against my head.

“Don’t you come any closer, boys,” said Clete. “More Cartwrights I presume. Believe me when I say, I do not want to hurt Mrs. Kate. She’s been rightly accommodating to my old pappy, helped him out in his times of dire need. But you take one step closer, and I will not hesitate to blow the top of her head off.”

I had never been as scared as I was at that moment. I thought I knew fear, but I had never experienced the gut churning dread that I was about to die. Clete’s grip around my throat was making it hard to breathe. I gasped for air; my heart felt like it was going to leap from my chest. I was scarcely aware of the cold press of metal pushing into my scalp. All I wanted was air. I beat against his arm, trying to speak, but all that came out was a garbled croak. Keeping my eyes open became an ordeal. Sounds became muffled as the beating of my blood pounded in my ears. I could make out odd words from the Cartwrights who were wildly gesticulating towards me: “can’t breathe,” “choking her,” “we’ll do what you want, just let her go”. And as the colour drained from my vision I saw them throw their guns into the snow, raising their hands in calming gestures. But it was too late for the world had turned grey and heavy and noiseless.

But then a sharp boom pierced my inertia. The pressure was released from my neck and I fell to the ground. A pure, dizzying blast of oxygen penetrated my lungs and I gasped to breathe in as much of that beautiful air as I could. Joe was kneeling by my side, mouthing words to me I could not hear, but then I could make out faint sounds and I nodded I was okay. He squeezed my shoulder and took off towards the cabin. I pulled myself up to my elbows and twisted around to see Clete lying unmoving in the snow, a stream of blood on his brow. Hoss was beside him, fingers beneath his jaw and then he, too, was running.

I turned to the cabin and there, with one arm still pointing a smoking gun across the clearing, and the other wrapped around a porch column, was Adam. His eyes were fixed on me with a look of such ferocity that I understood in that single moment what it meant for someone to lay down their life to save yours. Our eyes met and I nodded. It was as if I had been holding him up. My acknowledgement freed him, and he collapsed down the column onto the porch. I managed to rise to my knees but I was overcome with a wave of dizziness and fell forward into the snow. And as my world turned dark, Adam’s name was on my lips.

*****

Chapter 6

I was lying on my bed when I came to. I blinked up at the rafters for a few moments and then turned my head to see a pair of startling green eyes looking back at me. “How long…” My voice was nothing more than a croak. Joe Cartwright’s green eyes twinkled. “Don’t try to speak. That man had quite a hold on you; your throat’s badly bruised.” He smiled. “And you’ve been out for about five minutes.”

Was that all? I felt like I had been unconscious for hours. I turned to see Adam propped up at the end of my bed against the footboard. He was slumped to one side, his fingers gripping his wound and I could see blood covering his fingers.

“Mr. Cart—!” was all I could manage before I descended into a coughing fit. Furious at my inability to speak, all I could do was frown and point at his side.

“We tried to get him onto the cot but he wouldn’t leave you until he knew you were okay.” Joe’s brows rose. “That’s my stubborn older brother for you.”

“Don’t fuss, little brother, Hoss’ll sew it up.”

I looked over Adam’s shoulder. “Where is Hoss?” I discovered I could talk if I whispered.

“He’s outside taking care of our friend,” said Adam.

“Is he dead?”

“No, just grazed.” Adam shook his head. “My aim was a bit off.”

Joe looked from Adam to me, and then stood. “I’ll go help Hoss.” He paused at the door. “And I can sew you up; I don’t know why you keep insisting Hoss do it.”

Adam rose unsteadily, his hand never leaving his side, and sat heavily at the side of the bed next to me. “Little brother, I’ve seen how you darn your socks. There’s no way you’re coming near me with a needle and thread.”

Joe’s face broke into a grin and he left the cabin. Adam had been smiling, but as soon as Joe left, he grew serious. He stared down at the quilt for a few moments before looking at me.

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“I brought trouble to your door. If I hadn’t come here, you wouldn’t have been hurt.”

I wanted to press my hand over his, stroke his arm, squeeze his shoulder, but my nerves stopped me. “I saw you fall. I thought you were dead.”

He lowered his eyes in a slow blink as he smiled. “A little too much exertion trying to hold off the shooters. I was on the floor behind the door and down to my last bullet when the shooting suddenly stopped. It was a struggle to get up and look out the window. And that’s when I saw the man strangling you.”

“Clete. I don’t think he meant to hurt me; he’d just watched his brother die.”

The side of Adam’s mouth quirked, puffing up his cheek. I think he could understand what Clete had been feeling.

“I think Clete and Jonas are two of your rustlers.”

Adam frowned. “Hoss said you’d thought that.”

“I met them when I was looking for your brothers and told them you were here. Why would they come looking for you unless they were the men who shot you in the first place?” I swallowed, talking so much was painful for my bruised throat.

Adam released his grip on his side long enough to press me back against my pillow. “Don’t talk, rest.”

We passed a couple of minutes in peaceable silence, both of us lost in our own worlds of physical hurt and contemplation. But then there was a thumping and scrapping on the porch, and the door banged open. I jumped to my feet when Clete landed hard on the floor clutching his head, followed by Joe and Hoss. Joe’s gun was pointed lazily at him.

“You shot my brother,” moaned Clete.

My goodness, how indignant he sounded, and after what they had done to Adam.

“You shot me,” Adam said, sitting forward on the bed.

“I didn’t shoot no one.” Clete’s fancy words were strangely absent, I noticed. He shuffled back against the wall and sat hunched over, nursing his injury. His exclamation was met with silence. I looked at Adam and saw him exchanging glances with his brothers.

“It were…” Clete broke off, his face contorting as tears sprung to his eyes. “It were Jonas done shot you.”

Adam frowned. “Why? You would most likely have got away with it. Why shoot me and draw attention to yourselves?”

Clete glared at Adam. “Wouldn’t you get a bit twitchy if you’d been hunted down for days on end.”

I hadn’t moved from where I was standing by the bed, my arms wrapped around my body.

“He was always a little too free with a gun,” I croaked out. “He shot the family milk cow when he was thirteen.”

Clete looked over to me and nodded, wiping his sleeve across his nose. “He weren’t born right. And we figured you’d seen us. So when Mrs. Kate told us she had a gunshot man up here, we knew it were you.”

“So you came to finish me off?”

Clete dropped his head and shrugged.

“Did he shoot J.T. Miller?”

Clete’s expression twisted as he looked up at Adam. “Who?”

“J.T. Miller. The foreman of the Delta D, shot to death in the Sazarac.” Adam’s voice was loud and harsh.

“Ah…”

“Ah, yeah, now you remember.”

Clete hung his head. “Jonas couldn’t help doing what he done. He didn’t think things through. I told him I thought we’d been recognised and that we had to scat, but he just sat there, playing with his gun. And when that fella showed up, pointin’ fingers and shoutin’, Jonas did what Jonas liked to do. I tell ya, he just weren’t born right.” Fresh tears flowed and he batted them away with his hands. I was starting to feel sorry for him.

Adam winced as he shifted position. “So you said.”

Joe crouched down to Clete’s level. “What about the cattle you stole? Thousands of head were taken last summer. And thousands of cows don’t disappear into thin air.”

Clete stopped snivelling and the expression that had started to generate pity in me was replaced with a hard-eyed sneer. “That’s for me to know, and for you never to find out.” His top lip curled back in a sarcastic smile.

Joe reached forward and grabbed Clete’s collar, his hand rising. “Why you—”

Hoss was there, pulling Joe away so he fell onto his backside. “Leave it, Joe. Sheriff Coffee will deal with him.” He pulled Clete to his feet. “For now, he’ll be spending the night in the barn.”

“You cain’t do that, I’ll freeze to death.”

Hoss propelled him towards the door. “You’ll be sharing the barn with six horses, you’ll be warm enough.” He reached out to open the door, but I stepped forward to stop him.

“One more thing. Was your father…was Emmet involved?” I prayed Clete would give me the answer I needed to hear. His shoulders slumped and his head rested a moment against the door. “No. The old man don’t know what day it is most of the time.” Clete’s eyes met mine for a brief moment, and I nodded a thank you, the relief probably apparent on my face. As Hoss reached towards the door handle, Clete turned to me once more. “Mrs. Kate, I’m sorry for what I done, to ya neck an’ all.” And then he was gone, followed by Hoss and Joe. I stared at the closed door.

All of a sudden, I felt so weary. Adam’s eyes followed me as I moved to the bed and sat next to him, leaning back against the headboard. We sat together in silence. I think he passed out because when Hoss and Joe walked back in a short while later, they took one look at him, grabbed the almost empty bottle of whiskey and without a by-your-leave, brought him round with a slap to the cheek. I moved off the bed to the armchair. One last look showed me Adam had grasped the bars of the bedstead, and Joe was holding down his legs. As before, Adam didn’t make a sound as Hoss went to work on him. But at the sound of what had clearly been a long-held breath being released, I twisted around in the chair to see Hoss pulling a blanket over his now unconscious brother, and attempting to squeeze into a kitchen chair placed next to the bed, a job made all the harder by the huge coat he was still wearing.

Joe threw himself down on the hearth beside me. His neck sunk into his shoulders as he tipped his head back, closed his eyes and sighed. “It’s so good to be warm again,” he said. He looked over at me and saw my raised eyebrow. “We’ve been on the trail of the rustlers, and then Adam, for what seems like days. Last night I slept under a fallen tree trunk.” He snorted. “Hoss was too big to fit under it so made do with wrapping himself in both our slickers.”

“I didn’t sleep a wink,” said a disgruntled voice behind me.

Joe shook his head, leant in close and whispered. “He was snoring so loud the bears woke from their hibernation.”

I bowed my head, his attempt at humour wasted on my guilty conscience. “I’m sorry I sent you away. I was tired, scared, I’d had to…” I gulped slowly, holding my hand to my throat, and swallowed the words I didn’t want to say. “He was feverish, I had to cut…”

A warm hand reached out to cover mine. “It’s okay. You did good.”

I blinked away tears that threatened to flow. “And when I saw you both outside, with your rifles and…you looked so threatening. I thought you were the rustlers and you’d come to finish what you’d started.”

There was the sound of a wooden chair creaking behind me and I looked over my shoulder to see Hoss standing over Adam. He rested a finger on his brother’s form for a moment and then joined Joe and me by the fire, holding his hands out for warmth.

“Ma’am, if you knew how many times we’d been threatened, shot at and run off folks’ properties, you’d understand our attitude. We were dang tired of it. I knew mountain folk were wary of strangers, but every place we visited, we got short shrift. Even a little ol’ lady north of here threatened to cut off…” Hoss paused, his cheeks reddening. “She had a real large knife.”

“You…” I coughed, having to clear my throat once more. “You came back, though?”

Joe Cartwright peeled off his coat. “We rode about an hour or so down the track before deciding we needed to turn around. The tracks led here—”

“And you seemed mighty nervous,” finished Hoss.

“We figured you were hiding something,” said Joe.

“Or someone,” I whispered.

Their faces told me I was right. I looked at Adam, at the man I had been hiding. He was knocked out by pain and exhaustion. There was nothing more to do now but wait.

I held my arm out to Joe. “Hand me your coat. And you,” this to Hoss, “take off that monstrous thing. I’ll fix you something warm to eat.”

As Hoss unburdened himself of his thick furry coat, his face lit up with a wide grin that pushed his cheeks up towards eager blue eyes. “Ma’am, that’s the best thing anyone has said to me in days. I ain’t had a hot meal since we left the Ponderosa. I’m startin’ to waste away.”

“It’d take more than a few days to shrink that waistline,” said a slurred voice from the bed. Both Hoss and Joe were by Adam’s side in moments, and after reassuring themselves Adam was okay, and on the mend, fell to much teasing and joshing between them. I felt such relief to see him awake and fooling with his brothers. But I had no place amongst them, and left them alone whilst I prepared the meal I had promised. I pulled a smoked ham down from where it was hanging in the rafters and set to chopping the meat to make a stew.

How could I have been so wrong about Hoss and Joe? The faces they had shown me earlier that day were not their true ones. What I was witnessing and listening to now was the real essence of these men: quick to laugh, full of joy, and displaying a love which could never be acknowledged out loud but shone through with every smile and touch. The care they had for their brother was so strong, so palpable, I felt I could reach out and touch it.

I listened to their conversation. They spoke of their father, and how he would be going out of his mind with worry by now. Little Joe, who I soon discovered was as quick to cry as he was to laugh, picked at the quilt, the concern for his father dampening his previously happy spirit. But when Hoss and Adam started to compare injuries, and who had received the worst ones over the years, and both agreed Joe would take first prize in that contest, Joe was soon returned to his former good mood.

My cabin was filled with laughter for the first time in years. I laid my unfamiliar knife down—it wasn’t the knife I generally used to cut vegetables; that had been used to cut into Adam the night before, and the sight of it now filled me with revulsion—and enjoyed the lightness which imbued my small home. But I couldn’t stop a sadness crawling over my skin as I knew my cabin would soon return to its old lonely state. I determined to ignore that fact, so picked up my knife once more and chopped into my months-old vegetables with increased energy.

That night we ate and we slept; Hoss and Joe wrapped in their blankets on the floor next to the fire. I refused to let Adam give up my bed for me, and so spent an uncomfortable night on the cot.

*****

Chapter 7

The following morning it was clear Adam was in no condition to ride. He woke stiff and sore and grimacing with pain when he tried to move. And so, as I handled out bowls of mushy oats, I suggested he stay with me for a few extra days.

I saw Hoss and Joe exchange a glance. I knew what they were thinking; I had become soft on their brother. But they were wrong. It was for his own good. To even attempt to mount a horse at this time was foolhardy and would likely put him weeks behind in his healing. There was nothing more to it than that. Or so I told myself.

Hoss had seen the sleigh in the barn, and suggested we use that to transport Adam down the mountain. But I told him it was rickety, that one of the runners needed repairing and his brother would be jostled far too much. Besides, they would have to return it which would take up valuable ranching time. Hoss eyed my glowing cheeks and after a moment’s deliberation said, “yessum.” As he walked past me I let out a long silent breath and told myself that a little white lie was forgivable if it meant Adam making a strong recovery.

The sky was ice blue and a large waning moon was suspended low above the trees as I stood on the porch, my shawl hugging my shoulders, and watched Adam’s brothers ride away. Their sullen prisoner was tied to his horse, and the body of Jonas Hill draped over his mount. Adam had said his goodbyes from the bed. “I’ll see you at the bridge in four days,” he said, “there’s no need for you to spend half a day riding up the mountain.”  And hands were clasped in farewell.

I turned to walk back in, and with a sigh saw where the Hill brothers’ bullets had gouged into the wood. I rubbed my fingers over the splinters and then spotted broken shards of glass glinting in the snow which had gathered against my cabin walls. Hoss had already boarded up the broken windows, but more work needed doing to repair my damaged home.

*****

That first day, Adam slept until the early evening. As before, he didn’t move a muscle even though I was not what anyone would call quiet as I resumed my baking. His body was clearly telling him to stay in one position to let his broken flesh knit back together. I would find myself staring at the mop of black hair which was all I could see from my position at the stove, and several times I found an excuse to meander over to the bed to watch him sleep. Those heavy eyelids and the dark tone of his skin—which had returned to a healthy hue—were beguiling me.

The lamps were lit and candles flickering when a stirring, then a sharp groan, told me he had woken, and I helped him up into a seated position to take some water.

“You sleep very soundly,” I said.

He sniffed. “That’s not my general habit,” he replied, taking a long gulp from the glass I held out to him. “I have to contend with my middle brother’s snores for most of the night.”

I looked down at my hands lying in my lap. “Would you do without your brother’s snores?”

Adam looked at me for a long moment, his eyes unwavering in their intensity. “No,” he finally said, “I wouldn’t. We complain about the irritations and annoying habits of the ones we care for, but, if it came down to having a soundless night, or Hoss making the walls vibrate…” He smiled. “I’d take the vibrations any day.” He tilted his head towards me. “And what annoying habits do you miss, Kate?”

His question took me by surprise. My mouth grew dry and I had to look away from his penetrating gaze. I took his now empty glass and rose to my feet. “I’ll fetch you some more water.” And as I stood over the kitchen pump Marcus had worked so hard to install, I recalled his tendency to tap the top of a pencil against his teeth when he was concentrating. I told him many times to stop, until one day I grabbed the pencil from his hand and threw it across the room. After his death, I’d have given anything to hear that irritating tap, tap, tap.

I never did answer Adam’s question. Instead I dished out some of last night’s stew and brought it over for him to eat. He refused to take the bowl, however, but instead pushed away the quilt and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His shirt was unbuttoned, revealing the tightly-bound cloth tied around his middle, and the dark hair that covered his torso. He struggled to rise to his feet and I gripped under his arm to help him stand. As I did so, the back of my hand brushed against his chest and I felt a visceral reaction I had not felt in a long time. I reddened, and then became even more embarrassed that my shame was always so obvious. I reacted with belligerence, remonstrating in a sharp tone that he wasn’t ready to be out of bed. “I won’t eat in bed like an invalid,” he replied. “Help me to a chair.”

I helped him take the few steps to the armchair where he lowered himself with care into the seat. He shifted to find a comfortable position. “It’s not so much the wound as the tightness of Hoss’s binding,” he explained. I handed him his bowl of stew, and sat on the hearth to eat mine. He had taken a few mouthfuls, and then laid the bowl down in his lap.

“You lived here with your husband,” he said. It was more a statement than a question.

“I did.” My answer, though, was a question.

“You must have had another armchair, one for him, placed about there,” and he pointed to an empty space opposite to where he was sitting. I looked, and my appetite faded. I concentrated on moving a chunk of carrot around my bowl.

“Kate?”

I looked up, but not at Adam. I looked back at the empty space. “There was a chair there, but it was the one you’re sitting in, my own chair. When Marcus died, the sight of his chair, empty, never to be sat in by him again…” I bowed my head. “I burnt it. I dragged it outside and went at with an axe, until there was nothing but a broken pile of wood.” I remembered how the air had been filled with wispy strands of cushion stuffing, floating around me like the seeds from a cottonwood tree. I blinked to bring myself back to the present and looked at the chair Adam was sitting in. “I moved my own chair to where his had been, to help me forget what I’d never see again.”

Adam leaned forward, though it pained him to do so, and gripped my shoulder with a gentle touch. I raised my bowl to continue eating, but my meal had lost its flavour.

That night he insisted I have my bed back and he’d take the cot. He was so set on this that I yielded, but unwillingly. It took a while to drift off, so distracted was I by the memories he had resurrected, but also by his scent on my pillow.

*****

Adam Cartwright had a strong body and healthy heart, and this was proved the next day when I was awoken at sun-up by the smell of coffee and the sound of porridge oats being stirred on my stove. I sat up on my elbows and looked across at him. He was leaning against the stove top but didn’t appear to be in as much discomfort as the night before. He must have felt my eyes boring into him as he turned and smiled.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “You’ve been looking after me; I thought it was time to return the favour.”

I pulled my robe about me and joined him, peering into the saucepan.

“I’m not the best of cooks, but I can manage oats and coffee. Here.” And he poured out a cup of thick black liquid. It was strong and bitter, but good.

“You shouldn’t be doing this. You need to rest.”

He pulled a face. “I’ve been resting long enough. I can hardly feel my wound.”

“Umm, that’s why you’re leaning against the stove, because you’re not in any pain.”

He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. “Okay, you got me there. I can still feel it. But I’m tired of lying on my back, doing nothing but sleeping. I’m here, put me to work. I need to be busy.”

And so I did, though, only with his agreement that he’d stay off his feet. I helped him back to the armchair, and found him a handful of jobs to do. My knives were all in need of sharpening, so I handed him every blade in the cabin along with my honing stone and he set to work. Later, with dexterous fingers he braided together the long strands of leather which would make a new set of reins for Demelza. He seemed content as he worked, his body relaxing into the chair.

We talked as we worked. He told me of life on the Ponderosa with his father and brothers, about the adventures they had shared. I couldn’t believe the number of times his youngest brother had fallen in love; or how often they had to thwart threats to their home. He spoke of travelling across the prairies with his father in pursuit of his father’s dream.

“And do you share his dream?” I asked.

He grew quiet, his hands becoming still. “For now,” he replied. And I knew one day Adam Cartwright’s spirit would grow restless and he would need to break free of the restrictions of what was undoubtedly a beloved home.

I was sitting on the hearth with a pile of clothing at my feet, mending several months’ worth of ripped seams, and sewing buttons back on to various garments. Adam was taking apart his six-shooter for cleaning. He peered down the barrel and frowned at the accumulated grime which had built up. I realised anyone looking in would be witnessing a scene of blissful domesticity. After a few moments of activity with a cleaning rod, he laid the gun down and smiled across at me.

“You remind me of Inger, my father’s second wife,” he said. “You have her spark, that need to do what you think is right and damn the consequences.”

I knew he was referring to my fighting back against Clete and even to his own rescue from the elements, an act which could have been considered foolhardy considering I knew nothing of his character. I continued my sewing.

“But you don’t smile like she did. Inger was always smiling; such was her love of life, and my father. And me.” He looked over at me once more. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile.”

“I used to smile, Mr. Cartwright, but the things that once brought me pleasure are gone. I have little to smile at now.”

I glanced up and saw a muscle twitch in his jaw as he heard my words. He looked back to his lap where the different sections of his gun were laid out to clean. After a long breath, he selected a piece to work on but said nothing. I resumed my sewing.

He was quiet for a few minutes but then he dropped his hands on his lap causing the sections of the gun to clatter as they jostled each other. “How do you survive up here, how do you get enough money to live?” He sounded angry, indignant almost. He was undeniably bothered by my life so far away from what most people would call civilisation.

“I don’t need money. I have everything I want right here. And the forest and my neighbours provide.”

“But what happens when you need things that your neighbours don’t have? What then?”

“Let me tell you a story, Mr. Cartwright. It was my husband’s dream to be a woodsman, to live off the produce of the forest. Your father is not the only one to leave behind everything he knew in search of a new world. We left Virginia in ‘51. We brought everything we could possibly carry, including panes of glass for the cabin windows, and that old stove.”

I looked over to the big iron range in my kitchen and recalled the day Marcus and several strong men had heaved it onto the back of our wagon. It had stayed there for over two and half thousand miles. On arrival in the forest it had only been the two of us and moving the stove had seemed an impossible prospect. But my husband rigged up a pulley system and somehow, between us, we managed to manoeuvre it to the ground. It’s no exaggeration to say the cabin was built around it.

I turned back to Adam. “Marcus built this cabin, the barn, the corral, the smoke house out the back. All with his bare hands. He cleared the land, used the felled trees for the walls and roof. We learned to barter for all we needed. He could mend almost anything so he would repair farm equipment or a bridle or a broken window, and in return we were given tins of peaches, apples, piglets, chickens. Once even a tin of ground coffee. Marcus would forage for berries, pine nuts. Hunt for deer, squirrels. Fish for trout. We learned to make tea from pine needles.” I stopped and took a long breath. “And the whole time, I was by his side, learning, absorbing, sharing. His dream became my dream.”

The side of Adam’s mouth quirked. I could see he remained unsatisfied with my answer. “But what about wild animals? These mountains are swarming with bears, mountain lions. Or men? There are men out there who like nothing more than to take, to steal, to harm for harm’s sake. Men like Clete.”

I couldn’t hold back a snort. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m so out of the way up here, the only strangers who travel this far are persistent wandering preachers. And as for Clete, forgive my impertinence, but it was you who brought him to my door.”

Adam hung his head.

“Look, Marcus taught me how to shoot, how to hunt, how to protect myself from bears and wolves, and men. And when he was gone, I was able to live, to survive, because of everything he had taught me. I’m not scared of living here, Mr. Cartwright. This is my life now.”

I could see from his expression he wasn’t convinced by my story. “I’ll worry about you when I’m gone,” he said quietly.

I laid aside my sewing, and rose to my feet. I then picked up a section of his gun, and then another, and as he watched wide-eyed, I reassembled the weapon. I handed it back to him.

“You do not have the right to worry about me,” I said, and walked out of the cabin to escape his questions and the concern that had made my heart beat a little faster.

*****

As I was outside and dusk was starting to chase the light away, I took the opportunity to settle the horses for the night, and grab a handful of firewood to replenish the inside store. When I entered, Adam was beside the stove, drinking a glass of water. He placed it on the stove top and lowered his head, looking up at me through his lashes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you, or imply—”

“It’s alright, Mr. Cartwright. I know what people think. A woman on her own, miles from the nearest neighbour, even farther from a town. She shouldn’t be living by herself when her role is to be a wife, a mother.”

He opened his mouth to speak but I put my hand up to stop him.

“And I’m not alone. Marcus is buried behind the cabin, where the trees begin.”

Adam’s face contorted. “It’s not the same.”

“It is for me.” And I picked up a newly-sharpened knife to prepare our meal.

*****

We did not converse much that evening. I, for one, was too agitated and my thoughts were a-whirl in my mind.

It had been so long since anyone had cared enough to worry about my living here alone that I felt conflicted. My loyalty to Marcus had kept me here, and yet I could admit now that fear did too: fear of falling in love again, of forgetting about my beloved husband, of disloyalty. And it was safer up here, away from society and the outside world.

I wondered what Adam saw when he looked at me. Did he see a widow, who played with her wedding ring when she was nervous? Did he see the lines around my eyes, the calluses on my hands and my cheeks constantly inflamed from the wind, the sun and plain embarrassment? Or did he see the trim-waist and high breasts I had proudly maintained, the red hints that reflected in my hair when the firelight caught it, the brown eyes that sometimes seemed green, like his own? I knew he watched me. I had felt his eyes on me for the last two days when he thought I wasn’t looking. And he wasn’t alone. For when I was sure he had his attention elsewhere, I found my eyes wandering to observe the jet black hair, the olive skin, the face that could one moment look stern and the next playful and boyish. And I was fascinated by his fingers, so long and dexterous. And now he had told me he would worry about me when he was gone. But was his worry for a woman living alone in the high country, or for me, Kate Addington, widow?

*****

Our last day together dawned to a brief flurry of snow. But then the sun broke through and bathed the forest in a golden light which made the snow twinkle like a thousand stars had fallen to earth. I was on the porch, breathing in the icy air and staring with wonder at the scene before me, when I heard Adam come through the door behind me.

“Come back with me.”

His words were gentle. Was there a longing in his voice, or was I just hearing what I wanted to hear?

I turned my head to speak over my shoulder.

“Why?”

There was a long pause, so I twisted and his eyes met mine.

“Why, Mr. Cartwright?”

His jaw twitched. “I wish you’d call me Adam.”

“Tell me why I should go back with you.”

He squinted into the low rising sun. “Because,” he paused. “Because life is about taking part, and you should be with other people.”

It was the wrong answer.

He looked back at me and our eyes stayed locked for several seconds. But then I felt a sigh build within me and I moved to pass by him. As we drew level, I laid my hand on his arm. “And what’s why I can’t go with you.”

I left him on the porch. He didn’t come in until the sun had risen higher in the sky and when I glanced out of the one window which had not been damaged in the gunfight, I could see him clenching his fists around the porch railing, staring out into the forest.

This day would be a difficult day.

*****

We stayed out of each other’s way. He was, without doubt, feeling a lot stronger and took it upon himself to see to the animals, leading them out into the corral and supplying their feed. He rested for a while on the porch steps and then rose stiffly and busied himself sanding down the bullet holes in my cabin walls. It was too early to fill them; I would have to wait for drier weather before I did that.

He came back into the cabin when I called out that I had prepared lunch. He washed his hands in silence and then took me by surprise by squeezing my fingers as he sat at the table. When he smiled at me, I knew we were friends again, and my heart soared.

That night he fell asleep in the armchair in front of the fire. Earlier that afternoon and, despite my protests, he had climbed a ladder, swept the snow off the roof, and mended a couple of holes where water was leaking through. I had stood at the bottom of the ladder, holding it so it wouldn’t slip, and he had looked down at me, a dimpled smile warming his face. But I had seen how he was beginning to favour his injured side again, and how he grimaced when stretching to hammer a nail into the roof.

I suggested he sleep in my bed that night, rather than the smaller cot. He was worn through, and had a long ride ahead of him the next day.

“I’ve slept in worse places,” he said, as he removed his vest. But I insisted, saying I would take the cot. To that, he looked at my bed, back at me, and said it was big enough for the both of us.

My eyes widened at the suggestion, but then he said, “You can trust me.”

We lay side by side with a comfortable gap between us and he bid me goodnight, turning away from me onto his side to give me more privacy. I was stiff and unmoving, my eyes wide open, overly aware of his body so close to mine. It wasn’t long before his breathing slowed and I could tell he was asleep, and I then relaxed into a dreamless slumber.

Next morning I awoke as the first grey light penetrated the curtains. I turned my head towards the window and then became aware of a weight across my middle. Adam had turned towards me and stretched out his hand so it rested on my belly. This was the second time he had reached out in his sleep. Did he know he craved the feel of a woman as he slept? And unknowingly, in my sleep, I had placed my hand over his. I did not hurry to move it. Instead, I watched him sleep, afraid he would open his eyes and see me staring so intently at the long eyelashes resting on his cheeks, or the intriguing scar that cut through his top lip. He was so close and I was struck with a startling thought. The shirt he slept in no longer had the scent of my dead husband. It now wore the essence of Adam. I moved his hand away and left him sleeping.

*****

Later, he saddled his horse in the barn alone. But when he led his mount out I noticed a limp that had not been there earlier. He halted his horse in front of the porch steps and leaned forward over the saddle.“I don’t think I’ll be doing that again any time soon,” he said. “I’d forgotten how heavy a saddle is.” He smiled a lopsided grin.

When he laid his hand over his wound, my worry increased and, as was my habit, I snapped angrily at him to hide my fears. “Don’t you josh with me, Adam Cartwright, you may have pulled apart your stitches.”

I reached across, intent on pulling his shirt out from where it was tucked into his trousers, but his hand caught mine. He did not relinquish his hold, but turned to face me and caressed my hand within his own. My heart started to beat nineteen to the dozen. I don’t want you to leave, please don’t leave, don’t ride out of my life forever. He leaned down and kissed my cheek, his skin rough against my own. His lips lingered but then he was moving away, his gaze lowered as he turned his back to me. He mounted stiffly and only then did he look at me, but it was a fleeting glimpse as he reined his animal around. I couldn’t be certain, but I’m sure I didn’t imagine a sadness in his expression. I saw his shoulders rise and fall, as though taking a long breath, but then he looked down at me one last time, tipped his hat and rode away.

*****

I stood there and watched him until he was out of sight. I don’t know how long I stood there, looking into the forest, my eyes fixed on the path, hoping against hope he would appear. I lost track of time and didn’t even notice the cold.

A snort from Demelza, who had moved down the fence line to stare mournfully in the direction that Adam had taken, brought me back to my senses.

“Missing your new friend already, old girl?” Demelza acknowledged me with a toss of her head.

I turned on my heel and entered the cabin. It seemed bigger than usual. It was my home, but now it seemed nothing more than four walls, a door, two windows and a roof. “This won’t do,” I scolded myself, and without a moment’s hesitation began to restore my cabin back to the way it was before Adam.

I cleaned the spare crockery and cutlery, consigning them to their old place on a high shelf, where they would once more gather dust from lack of use. I wiped over the kitchen table, pushing the spare chair back against the wall. There had been one chair there for four years; one was all I needed. I noticed the armchair was out of position. It used to face the fire, but now it was pointing outwards. I realised Adam had shifted it to face the kitchen area. How had I not noticed before? I moved it back to its former position. But after a moment of smoothing my hands over the chair back, over where Adam had rested his head, I moved it back to the way he had placed it.

The bed needed stripping. Pulling back the quilted cover, I was startled to see several dried blood stains on the sheets. I don’t know why, but I sat down on the edge of the bed and ran my fingers across the marks. “Enough, Kate!” I said and resumed pulling the sheet out from where it was tucked around the mattress. One final yank and the sheet billowed upwards and the distinct aroma of Adam Cartwright assaulted my senses. A scent of leather, soap and that indefinable hint of him. I took a deep breath, letting my hands still holding the edge of the sheet drop to my sides. And as I inadvertently raised my eyes to the rafters whilst releasing a long sigh, I saw, still hanging from the line I used to dry clothes in the winter, his black shirt. My breath hitched as I stood on a chair to pull it down. The two ragged holes made by the bullet which had entered and then left his body were painfully apparent and I could easily poke my fingers through them. I ran my hands over the material, and then lifted it to my face. I inhaled the aroma. His aroma. And then I burst into tears.

*****

Chapter 8

I didn’t need a calendar to tell me it was the first day of spring. When I awoke on a morning two months later, the light shining through my curtains had a vibrant glow which only happened when nature had discarded its widow’s veil and become a new bride once more.

I pulled my robe about me and padded barefoot onto the porch. The sun was a fiery ball of flame sending golden black streaks across the eastern sky and long shadows reached out across the clearing. The sun was not yet high enough to cast warmth across the forest, but overnight the air had lost its bite and, though still chilly, it was soft on my exposed skin.

Yesterday the scene before my eyes had been quiet and still, but today it was as though the birds and forest creatures had all ventured out together from their winter hideaways. A robin was perched on the highest point of my roof, singing a joyful aria to the new day. Finches and wrens flitted from branch to branch in the bordering trees. And in the undergrowth, I spotted a pair of ground squirrels scurrying across the forest floor. The last vestiges of winter lingered long in the high Sierras; piles of snow trapped in perpetual shadow would take weeks to disappear completely, but the sun was already melting away the most recent snowfall revealing new green growth beneath.

I took a long look at what I had seen every day for the last nine years. It was a sight which didn’t need to be burned into my memory; it was already there. Yet today was different. There was a feeling of new life and new beginnings, and I soaked it up, relishing the rare sensation of hope that washed over me.

That day I cleaned my cabin from top to bottom. I swept the floor, reaching those nooks and crannies so often neglected. I brushed down the curtains, beat the rugs, polished the windows. Winter blankets were folded away in the travelling trunk and every plate, cup and pan was washed and stored.

As dusk approached, I laid down my broom and cloth, smoothed my hair back and left my cabin to walk the short distance to where my husband was buried. It had been his favourite spot, a small area in the forest where the sun would dapple the forest floor. He would pull a chair out in the summer evenings, sit in silence and watch the night creatures begin to stir as the sun retired for another day.

I kneeled at the side of his grave. It was marked by a simple stone marker inscribed with his name and the years of his birth and death. I picked away mossy residue which had taken root amongst the letters. New growth was poking through the soil and in previous years I had pulled out the shoots to leave the grave bare. This year, however, I let them be. I looked back at the marker and after a deep breath, brushed away a tendril from a nearby shrub which had woven across the bottom of the stone. There, inscribed beneath the name of my husband, was another name: Lillian Addington, 1853 to 1856. My daughter was buried in the sheltering arms of her father, bonded together for all eternity. She had died three hours after Marcus, claimed by the same malady that took him.

I had stayed at the cabin out of fear. Fear of leaving them. Fear of being alone in a world full of strangers. Fear of loving again, and the disloyalty I had imagined that entailed. But now I knew it was time for me to let them go, and for the forest to claim those I loved. I laid a hand on the warm earth and felt surprisingly calm.

“I’ll always love you, Marcus, but my heart has started to ache for another. And I know now there is room in my heart for two. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I need to start living again.”

I rose to my feet. “Look after our little one.” I walked away, trying not to look back. I couldn’t stop myself, however, and turned many times for an ever-diminishing glimpse of their precious resting place.

*****

The following morning I rose with the dawn. I had packed the few possessions I did not want to leave behind into a single carpetbag which I strapped to Demelza’s saddle. I wasn’t sure what I felt when I mounted up. I stopped at the edge of the clearing and took a long look at my home. I might be back in a few days’ time, or I might not return at all. I had no idea what the imminent future held for me. I felt a lightness in my body, as though everything that had tied me to this one tiny place had been released and I was free to float to wherever the spring zephyrs would take me. My cabin had been such an integral part of my life, but now I felt strangely detached from it. I was no longer bound to its solid presence in the forest. I rode away and an exhilaration I’d not felt since I’d first come to the mountain coursed through my veins. I bit my bottom lip to stop my breath from shaking.

After a couple of hours riding down the forest track, I came to the path which led to Emmet Hill’s old cabin. I paused, looking in its direction, even though the cabin was a good half mile down the path and hidden from view.

Poor Emmet had made the journey into Virginia City to witness the court case of his surviving son, Clete. Thankfully for Emmet, Clete was not sentenced to hang, but to serve a long sentence in the Nevada Penitentiary. It might not have been a death sentence, but it was still enough to cause Emmet’s heart to give out. According to Marjorie McKinney, who had travelled in with him, he had risen to his feet at the sentencing, and cried, “I’ll never see my boy again,” before falling to the ground. Mrs. McKinney said he had died of a broken heart. It was a sad ending to an unfortunate life.

Marjorie McKinney had shared this story with me when I’d gone to visit her to tell her I was leaving the mountain. As Demelza progressed on her steady path down the track, I recalled the old lady taking my hand in hers and saying, “it’s about time.” I would miss her, but she was part of my old existence, and I locked her away as a good memory of my life here.

A couple of hours past the midday, I was approaching the old bridge, the unofficial start of the low country. I heard the water rampaging along the river before I saw it, and soon I caught a glimpse of the covered bridge through the trees. I paused before going any further. This was the farthest I’d been from the cabin in many years, and I shivered with trepidation, excitement and fear. But I had made my mind up, there was no going back now, so I urged Demelza out of the forest and onto the road which led to Virginia City.

I was driven to a halt by the sight of a small camp at the other end of the bridge. A coffee pot sat on a low burning fire, and leaning up against an upturned saddle was a man that I recognised straightaway. I had dreamed of him every night for the last two months. When he saw me, he rose to his feet and walked to the edge of the bridge, his hands resting easily on his hips.

“How long have you been here?” I called.

Adam Cartwright folded his arms across his chest. “Oh, a couple of days, since the last of the snows melted away.” He looked around him. “The thaw hasn’t quite reached the high country though, has it?”

“Cold nights?”

He nodded. “Uh huh.”

For several long seconds we stared at each other from our opposing sides of the bridge, meaningless chit-chat forgotten. I tore my gaze away and gripped Demelza’s reins tighter in my hands. This was what I had thought about ever since that day he had left; of seeing the smile that pushed his cheeks out, curled up the corners of his mouth and warmed those dark eyes; of hearing his voice, so deep, so measured, every word carefully thought out. So why wasn’t I spurring Demelza across the bridge towards him? Stupid pride.

“Why are you here?” Please just say the words, say what I want to hear.

His hands dropped back to his waist. “I came for you.”

“But why, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Because it’s not right that you’re alone up here.”

“I don’t need rescuing.”

He took a step forward, holding his hands out before him beseechingly. “Look, Kate, I don’t want to rescue you. I…” His words trailed off and he looked down to the ground. He took a deep breath. “I…like you. I… I felt there was something between us, and not just because you saved my life, and not just because I want to save you from yourself.” He took another step towards me. “I want to know you, Kate. I want you to be happy, and whether it’s with me, or someone else, it’s not gonna happen while you’re stuck halfway up a mountain and not seeing anyone for weeks on end.”

I stared at him and my chin rose defiantly. “It sounds like a rescue to me.”

His cheeks dimpled slightly. “Maybe. But give it a chance. Give me a chance.”

I started to chew on my bottom lip. I was fighting a battle I didn’t want to win. And all because of my own stubborn pride. Of course I would give him a chance. We had spent a matter of days with each other, and for most of that time he had been lost in another world, battling his wounds and fever.  And my fear. I didn’t know enough about him, but I so wanted to know this man. I nodded and opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off.

“Anyway,” he said, “where were you going?”

“Going?”

“Today, now, where were you riding to?”

My cheeks flamed. He didn’t have to ask; he knew I had been heading for the Ponderosa.

He tilted his head and glanced up at me. “For someone who doesn’t want to be rescued…”

“Adam!”

Adam’s bottom lip curled out, his cheeks dimpled and he lowered his head, a chuckle reaching my ears.

I frowned. “What are you laughing at?”

He looked up. “You. You finally called me Adam.”

I moved Demelza onto the bridge, the sound of her ironclad shoes hard on the wooden planking.

And I smiled.

***The End***

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2 thoughts on “The Cabin in the Woods (by Sierra Girl)

  1. This was a wonderful story! So very Adam, told amazingly through the eyes of Kate. Every nuance was perfect. I have always thought too that the Cartwrights wouldn’t find true happiness with a woman until they stopped trying to rescue them. I’m glad Adam gave her time to think; that he took the time to understand that he needed her, and she used the time to decide that she had to find out what would happen if she stopped living in the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I was very keen not to go for the Adam falls for his nurse type story, and tried to put a different spin on it. Hence the story being told through the words of Kate. I tried to make her as feisty as possible yet a bit sad too. So we can’t really blame her for developing feelings for our lovely Adam! 🙂

      Like

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