The Eighth Day (by Sierra Girl)

Summary:  When Adam encounters a mysterious woman on the shores of Lake Tahoe, his whole world will be changed forever. And just what is the woman’s involvement in the abductions taking place around the lake? This is my take on how and why Adam left the Ponderosa. An AU fantasy set in the ‘real’ world of Bonanza. A story where the lake is the star of the show.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 36,890 words


Seven days. How was it possible the world could spin off its axis so completely in only seven days? One week ago Adam had been a highly respected and well-liked rancher getting on with his own life, a bit bored perhaps, but nevertheless playing the hand he had been dealt. So how could it be that today he had his gun squarely pointed at an angry crowd of men, amongst them his neighbours, and people he’d always considered to be his friends? Seven days on from that morning on the beach when it had all begun, he was up to his knees in the freezing cold lake, a naked woman pressed tightly against his back, and his gun jerking from one sweaty, leering face to another. He stumbled away from the horde that was gradually closing the space between them, his eyes snapping between the violent mass of men and the water surging around his knees. Adam realised he and the girl had only one choice, and it was a choice that terrified Adam more than being taken out by a piece of lead.

There was a shout; weapons were raised. Adam became conscious of the girl’s arm wrapping around his chest, the echoing crack of a pistol discharging, and then he was falling backwards, beneath the icy surface of the water. And as his eyes squeezed tight against the swirling gloom and the unforgiving weight pressing down on him, the last thought that consumed him before the darkness took hold was a desperate plea. “Please, God, not like this, don’t let it end like this…”

*****

Day 1 – Friday

The boy had been missing for two days, and even though his hat and coat had washed up on the shore of the great blue lake, the search still continued; his parents refusing to accept that young Matthew Butcher was dead. The coat had been carefully and respectfully folded and the hat placed on top, and as the items were handed over to Matt’s father, the man had gripped them tightly until his knuckles turned white and, through gritted teeth, he had begged for the search to continue. Many of the townsfolk had given up and returned to their own lives, muttering under their breath that the kid had clearly drowned and they had better things to do with their time than look for a child’s corpse. But not everyone turned their backs on the Butchers that day. And so it was that Adam found himself leading his horse by the reins through a dense thicket of woodland down by the lake’s edge, in an area already picked over a hundred times before. Peering through the tightly-packed trees he could see his brother, Hoss, also on foot, scanning the woodland in a path parallel to his own.

Whether the child had perished or not, Adam couldn’t even begin to surmise. But to his way of thinking, finding a coat and hat was not enough evidence to give up the hunt after only two days. As he kicked his boot through the thick soft bed of pine needles, looking for anything, anything at all, that might offer a clue to young Matthew’s fate, he grew angry at the men who had returned to their homes so soon. By leaving they had made the job for those who remained that much harder, and Adam wanted nothing more than to grab them by their collars and drag them back to the lake to search for the six-year-old.

A movement through the trees caught his eye. Someone was on the narrow beach that skirted this section of the lake. The trees in the thicket subdued the light and he squinted against the brightness emanating from the open water. Moving closer, and staying hidden in the tree line, he saw a woman with her back to him, crouched on her knees, and gently laying something down on the sand. His eyes must have been playing tricks on him—it had been two long and exhausting days—because from where he stood observing her curled over the object, she appeared to be…no, it couldn’t be…she looked…naked! A cascade of wavy autumnal hair—so long the tips brushed softly against the sand—hid her face from view. But Adam could see a long sinuous back, an expanse of pale skin and not an item of clothing to hide her form. He was about to turn away when he saw what she was bending over. It was a child, a boy, and she was softly stroking his face and whispering into his ear. Matt!

“Hey!” Before he could stop himself he had shouted to catch her attention.

The woman jumped to her feet, her head turning rapidly to locate the source of the voice. Adam was moving out of the tree line, one eye on the child who lay motionless on the sand, and the other stunned by the woman who had twisted away from him but stayed frozen on the spot, her face angled towards the ground. He held his hands up in a calming gesture.

“It’s okay, I’m not gonna hurt you.”

With difficulty, he dragged his eyes away from where they lingered over her hair and the round shape of her rump—well, Hoss, she’s definitely not wearing tights—and looked to the boy who was so still Adam couldn’t even see if he was breathing.

He walked toward them, treading smoothly and unhurriedly, in the way one approached an animal that quivered in fear, so keen was he not to scare her. He knelt slowly, his eyes flicking between the child and the woman, and placed his palm over the boy’s heart. The beat was strong. Relieved, he looked up at her. She hadn’t moved.

“He is unharmed.” Her voice was like liquid copper, fluid and warm. “I saved him from the water, kept him until he breathed easy.”

Adam returned his eyes to the boy, keeping a soothing palm on the child’s chest. “Thank you.” He risked a glance at her and saw she was staring curiously at him. But when his eyes met hers, she quickly looked away.

Adam opened his mouth to speak when suddenly there was the heavy sound of someone crashing through the woodland. The woman threw a wild-eyed look towards the trees and bolted. Running a few steps into the water, she dived under and disappeared immediately from view. Adam shot to his feet, astonished anyone would dare to swim in the icy-cold waters of the lake at this time of year, especially unclothed. It might be spring, but the great lake was being fed by the snowmelt from the high peaks, and anyone who became immersed would surely be dead within minutes of entering. He waited to see where she would surface, but the lake remained tranquil and unbroken. A moment later Hoss broke through the trees and onto the beach and immediately spotted the child at Adam’s feet.

“Dadburn, Adam, ya found little Matt Butcher. How’s he doin’?”

Adam pulled his eyes away from where the water was sparkling like diamonds as the early morning sun kissed the surface. “He seems fine. Let’s get him to his folks.”

He gently scooped the boy up in his arms, and as he carried him to his waiting mount, the child squirmed and mumbled.

“Wha’d he say, Adam?” Hoss pulled himself up into his saddle.

Adam handed the child up to his brother, and took one last look out over the water, to the last place he’d seen the woman, and replied that the child’s words had been too slurred to understand. But Adam had lied to Hoss, because the words had been as clear to Adam as if spoken by a Shakespearean actor on the stage at Piper’s Opera House.

“Pretty mermaid,” the boy had murmured. “Where’s the pretty mermaid?”

*****

Day 2 – Saturday

The following morning, for the second day in a row, Adam had found himself riding hard to the lake. And what unsettled him the most was that he had absolutely no idea why.

He had woken two hours before dawn after a disturbed night when he’d been unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time without waking. He had tossed and turned in his bed to get comfortable, punched his pillow, thrown his blankets off as he was too warm, pulled them back over himself again when he felt too cold. Eventually, when he had woken fully about four hours into the new day, he had given up trying to sleep. He had pulled a chair over to his window and sat watching the moon retreat across the sky, as light from the east started to wash the land with a murky paleness. His mind had been awhirl with thoughts, but one that seemed to dominate all others was the desire to ride out to the lake, and more particularly to a small, sheltered bay that had been known, for as long as anyone could recall, as Josiah’s Cove.

As the sun had pulled itself above the horizon, and he had started to hear Hop Sing rattling around in the kitchen below his room, he’d splashed cold water over his chest, arms and face. Then dressing quickly, and stepping lightly down the stairs into the living area, he’d grabbed an apple, told Hop Sing he was going for an early morning ride and strode out into the fresh new day’s air; the early spring day promised to be bright and warm. He knew his father would frown upon his unexplained absence at the breakfast table, but Josiah’s Cove was like the lure on the end of a fishing line; it was tempting him, drawing him near. And so as Adam rode towards the great blue lake, he didn’t hear the myriad of birds as they began their morning siren calls to attract a mate; nor did he take notice of the abundance of spring flowers as they opened their blossoms in thrall to the warmth of the life-giving sun; nor did he see the ground squirrels and rabbits running across his path as he rode ever onwards to the great lake. All Adam knew was he needed to get to Josiah’s Cove, and sooner rather than later.

It was not a place he visited often, being farther away from the ranch house than the other commonly visited spots. If he had a fancy to see the lake, he would usually ride to a rocky viewpoint which revealed the glistening blue stretch of pristine water in all its wondrous splendour, encircled on all sides by forested banks and a ring of distant mountain peaks. It was a sight that would move even the hardest of hearts. And if he wanted to be alone, to contemplate life and its infinite mysteries, he would find himself at a sandy beach, strewn with huge round boulders as though a giant child had abandoned a game of colossal marbles. But Josiah’s Cove was a further forty-minute ride around the lake. And it was hard to get to. As he rode through the dense forest of red and white firs and lodgepole pine, it became apparent to Adam why he didn’t come here that much. The trees were so tightly-packed in places that on occasion he had to dismount and lead Sport in order to stick to what semblance of a path existed.

The trek was worth it, though. When he finally broke through the tree cover and stopped on the lip of the sandy beach, he was faced with a small cove, surrounded on three sides by the forest vegetation and a silence so profound Adam immediately felt calm and rested by simply being there. The only noises of which he was aware were those of the waves as they slapped softly against the sandy beach. The sun had risen higher in the sky, and it was already warm, so Adam tied his thick coat to his saddle, secured Sport to a tree in the shade of the forest and moved down to the shoreline. He bent down to run his fingers through the water. It was as icy-cold as he had imagined it would be. Quickly drying his hand on his trouser leg, he shivered at the very idea of swimming in the freezing cold water and wondered again what had happened to the woman after she’d dived in the lake.

Little Matthew Butcher had been joyfully reunited with his parents, a little cold and shaken, but other than that, unharmed. Young Matt couldn’t remember a thing about the two days he was missing and Adam was unexpectedly relieved there was no mention of ‘mermaids’ as the boy had tried to remember what happened. Adam conjectured to all and sundry that the boy must have wandered off, hidden somewhere, and made his way back to the beach where he’d fallen asleep and been subsequently found. The whole unfortunate affair was laid to rest; although, for several parties, doubts did remain. The boy’s father couldn’t understand how his son, who, though young, knew the woods and lakeshore like the back of his hand, could suddenly get lost. Sheriff Coffee came to much the same conclusion, especially as Adam was so reticent in his account of the child’s discovery.

For Adam, the woman played on his mind like one of those inescapable hums that sometimes start up inside your head but just won’t shift. She had been like a trapped animal, paralysed until she could find a means to escape. But it was only when Hoss had been about to blunder onto the beach that she had run. She had stood like a statue in front of him, her head to one side until she had twisted around to look at him. He had barely seen her face but could remember a glimpse of intense green eyes and a startling exquisiteness to her features. He had tried to keep his eyes averted but she had been so close and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from flashing glances at the tumble of hair falling down her back and the smooth curve of her buttocks and thighs. But as quickly as she appeared she had gone. And now all he had were questions he couldn’t answer and a simmering desire for a woman he wondered whether he would ever see again.

He found a small boulder to sit on and sat staring out at the water. Now that he was here, the urge that had driven him to the cove and overshadowed all thought abated, and Adam found other considerations coming to the forefront of his mind. For several months he had recognised a restlessness within himself, an uncertainty in knowing what direction his life should be taking. He knew his father expected him to take over the running of the Ponderosa with his brothers when the time came, but Adam wasn’t sure that, deep down, that is what he wanted to do. He couldn’t deny he loved his life here, but he also wondered whether there was more to his existence than living and working on a cattle ranch in the middle of Nevada. He had been educated as an architect, and he felt his skills were wasting away as he had little opportunity to use them in Virginia City and its environs. And he wanted to see the world; to go beyond the shores of this great continent. He felt the call of the old country, and a yearning to go further afield and visit the southern hemisphere like his old sparring partner, Mark Twain, had done.[1] Oh, the sights that were out there waiting to be seen.

On the other hand, Adam was also feeling increasingly lonely. He recalled the heart-warming reunion between Matt Butcher and his parents the previous day, and he felt again the familiar nagging anxiety he had experienced so much lately. He was in his mid-thirties and unmarried, and he wondered whether he would ever find himself a wife and begin his own family. It would certainly stop the unsubtle hints dropped by his father about how lovely it would be to hear the patter of tiny feet around the place. He thought back on the women he’d known: Ruth, who had left so he might live (his time with Ruth had been so ephemeral he sometimes wondered whether she had ever been real); Regina and Rebecca, both of whom couldn’t reconcile their beliefs to Adam’s way of living. What was it about women whose name began with R? Maybe he should steer clear of Rachels, Ritas and Rosalinds in the future. And for a moment he speculated as to the name of the woman on the beach, and before he knew it she was there again in his mind, adding to his preoccupations.

He bent to collect his hat from where he’d placed it on the sand and stood up sharply, shaking his head. He still didn’t understand why he had had such a need to come here, particularly as it hadn’t helped to quiet the turbulence that raged in his mind. It had been a pleasant ride out, and refreshing to sit in the secluded quiet of the cove, but he couldn’t sit here all day—he had better things to do with his time—so he turned to begin his walk back to where Sport was tied.

Adam’s attention was suddenly caught by a head bobbing up and down far out in the soft swell of the water. He blinked, looked again, and the head was no longer there. He stared hard at the water for several seconds, scanning the waves in all directions, but there was no sign of anybody out there. Adam told himself his eyes were tired and he was imagining things after his sleepless night.

But then he could hear his name being called. He turned around in a circle, scanning the trees and the beach, and then he saw the head again in the water, closer to the shoreline this time. It was the woman, her hair slicked back over the crown of her head and falling in a tight, wet bundle down her neck. He walked slowly down to where the water lapped gently around his boots, his head cocked at an angle as he stared at her staring at him.

“Hello again,” he said.

The head moved nearer to the shore.

“Adam.”

Adam narrowed his eyes against the sharp glances of light reflecting off the water.

“You know my name.”

The woman’s head moved closer still to the shore and rose slightly in the water, revealing bare shoulders, a long neck and a fleeting hint at what was hidden beneath the water’s surface.

Adam immediately turned around, his face reddening in embarrassment. He had seen too much of her the previous day, and he wasn’t about to let his desire to look at her override decorum.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were…”

He looked both ways along the beach, searching for a pile of abandoned clothing but could see nothing apparent. She must have swum from another cove, although, thinking about it, the nearest beach was a good three miles away.

“Do you make a habit of swimming, uh, au naturel?” He turned his head to one side, speaking over his shoulder. “And aren’t you cold in there?”

“I don’t feel the cold.”

Adam felt chilly simply thinking of her in the water, but her voice, so soothing and comfortable, like warm milk and molasses, made him forget the icy water she was floating in.

“I always swim this way.”

Adam turned his head back to face the tree line. “That’s going to make it a little difficult to have a conversation.”

She was silent behind him. All Adam could hear was the quiet splashing of the waves on the shore, though, in his mind, he could visualise her bobbing head and the water flowing serenely around her bare shoulders. But then she was calling his name again.

He turned his head so it was at right angles to her.

“You appear to have the benefit here.  Miss…?”

There was a pause before she answered. “I don’t have a name, only what others have chosen to call me. And you can turn around, I don’t mind.”

Adam’s head turned closer to the water, but still not enough to be able to see her. He frowned as he puzzled over her enigmatic reply.

“You must have a given name, the name your parents gave you? And, uh, no I’m okay as I am.” He paused. “But you seem to know me, miss?”

“I’ve known you all my life, Adam. I did not realise at first it was you when I saw you yesterday.”

Adam swiftly glanced behind him, quickly looking at the young woman bobbing up and down in the water. He returned his glance to the less incriminating trees at the tree line and laughed.

“I don’t know you. I think I would remember if we had met before.”

“We have never met in person, Adam.”

Adam frowned.

“But you know about me. Well, I guess that’s not hard considering how the gossips in Virginia City like to talk.”

There was another pause.

“I’ve never been to Virginia City. I’ve lived at the lake all my life.”

“Then why don’t I know you? I know everyone who lives around here.”

There was no answer, and for a few moments all was silent behind him. But then he could hear the sound of water splashing and Adam couldn’t stop himself from turning to look. The woman with no name was rising to her feet.  She had been wallowing in the shallows, her body hidden from view. And as she stood up, Adam watched the water course over her limbs and torso as she walked carefully out of the waves and made her way to within a few feet of where he stood. Adam was transfixed, and despite all his upbringing and morals screaming at him to look away, he found his eyes were drawn to her face and her skin and her body. It was as though he was under an enchantment, unable to speak, unwilling to move. He was caught in a spell of this woman’s making, and furthermore, he realised with unease, he was glad to have been enthralled.

She moved closer and stood before him like a golden goddess, the sun making her skin shine in the early morning light. Her hair was the colour of autumn maple leaves, a fusion of burnt yellow, warm orange and ochre that fell in long undulating waves down her back. And it looked as though it was…dry! How could that be when moments before it had been slick against her scalp as she rose from the water? But Adam didn’t ponder that question for long as he saw how her skin seemed to glimmer from a sheen of water droplets that refused to run off her body, sparkling as they caught the sun’s rays.

He saw that her eyes were green, not the hazel green of his own eyes, or the viridescent green of his brother Joe. Her eyes were the colour of a warm green sea under a hot blue sky, the colour piercing in its intensity. And they were large, emanating a warmth and a playfulness that matched the hint of a smile edged around her lips. But as well as the teasing expression, she carried an allure in those tempting eyes, a desire he could feel starting to prickle his own skin and which made him shift in his stance.

He couldn’t help himself. His eyes moved down her body, dawdling over her breasts and the soft curve of her abdomen. He had an almost uncontrollable urge to touch her, to feel her soft, firm flesh beneath his palms. But it would be wrong to touch her, so wrong, this woman who stood before him in all her startling glory. It was all he could do to clench his fists by his sides. He took in her slightly rounded belly and how her hips smoothed outwards in a long curve to strong toned thighs.

He had to drag his eyes away.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”  His words trailed away and he quickly turned his back on this vision that was threatening to destroy the self-control he so carefully nurtured. “You need to cover yourself, it isn’t right for you to be standing here like this.”

“I have no clothing, Adam.”

He dropped his head but then suddenly realised he had a solution to his dilemma. He walked quickly up to Sport and untied his yellow buckskin coat from where he’d secured it to the saddle. It was an awkward walk back to her with one arm outstretched and with his eyes averted, but he managed it, and only when he was sure she’d donned the coat did he feel he could look at her again.

Even though she was only a few inches shorter than he, the coat still swamped her, hanging off her shoulders and down to the tops of her thighs. She laughed as she hugged it close to her body, looking down at herself attired in the strange garment and twisting on the spot to view herself from all angles.

Adam found himself disconcerted by her. She didn’t appear to have any shame, or see that walking around…undressed…was not acceptable behaviour. And yet there was a child-like innocence about her. He smiled at the delight she was displaying wearing his old work coat. It was almost as if she had never worn clothing before and was elated by the sensation of the material against her bare skin. But Adam was also angry at himself for his visceral reaction to her naked form. He hadn’t been able to stop gazing at her, and he felt an impulsive desire to feel her skin against his. It was a lascivious reaction, and one he wasn’t happy to experience because, for once, his thoughts were overriding his education. Society and propriety told him he shouldn’t be anywhere near this woman in her current state. Yet her eyes and body had ensnared him and he was glad to have been caught. At this moment in time, the dictates of the civilised world were hard to contend with. He shook his head in an attempt to dispel the contradictory emotions that were beginning to consume him.

The woman was still distracted by Adam’s coat, and she briefly forgot her reason for wearing it as she held her arms out to either side and began to twirl on the spot, enjoying the feel of the material swinging open as she spun. Adam had to grab her shoulders to stop her and quickly pull the coat across as, once more, he’d been subjected to the sight of her delectable body, and his self-restraint was precarious as it was.

“You realise it’s improper to walk around…as you are?”

“Those are the rules of your world, Adam, not mine.”

“There is only one world. And we both live in it.”

The woman merely smiled knowingly.

“You said you have always known me. How so?”

With one hand holding Adam’s coat closed, she looked down over the length of her body, admiring herself in the old battered garment. And when she turned her head to one side to see the coat from another angle, Adam was dazzled by her profile, considering it the most beautiful he had ever seen. Coupled with that magnificent tumble of gilded hair, Adam concluded hers was a rare beauty, and he was blessed to be anywhere near her.  She straightened and he could see one remarkably clear green eye which she turned in his direction with that inscrutable smile still playing across her lips.

“Adam, do you remember your father bringing you to the lake for the first time when you were but a small boy?”

Adam frowned. Every encounter he had ever had with the lake was engrained on his mind, even the very earliest one from when he must have been about eight years old. He had often wondered why he never forgot things that happened here. He could vividly recall that first sighting when the lake’s size and the surrounding snow-capped peaks and the incredible vivid blue of the water had been seared into his memory. He had run down to the water’s edge with his father calling out behind him to be careful. He had been mesmerised and, without knowing it, had fallen in love at first sight.

He nodded mutely.

“I watched you.”

Adam’s eyebrows drew together. “Whaddya mean you watched me?”

If she had noticed his perplexed expression, she didn’t show it. “I watched you, on that day, as you laughed and delighted in the blue of the water and pointed things out to your father. He was carrying a large child, your brother, Hoss, in his arms. And then as you grew and were joined by a second brother, I saw how you would play hide and go seek on the beach up by MacKenzie Point. I watched as you grew into manhood, courting pretty girls in the hidden rocks at Lizard Bay. I remember one girl slapped you as you tried to kiss her and made you take her back to your buggy. You looked so disgruntled. Poor Adam, the trials of youth. But then you went away and for four years I waited for you to come back. I was sad while you were gone. But when you returned you had grown more serious; you had become a man. And now when I see you, it is only when you come to the lake to think, to contemplate. And you don’t smile like you once did.”

Adam had listened to her speech with astonishment, his frown deepening with every word. His bewilderment made him angry.

“I don’t know how you know all that, and you’re clearly younger than I am, so how could you remember me as a boy? And I’ve never met you. What sort of game…”

“Do you remember when your third mother died, Adam?”

Adam was about to continue his sceptical discourse, but her interruption shocked him into silence. He was flooded with memories of that dreadful time. He had been barely out of boyhood, a sixteen-year-old on the brink of being a man. And he had watched his father fall apart in front of his eyes.

“One night, not long after, you came down to the beach where the rocks jut out into the water. Your horse was black. I remember thinking the colour matched your hair. You jumped from one rock to another until you were as far from the beach as you could be. And you sat down, and you cried, until there were no more tears inside you.”

Her words were soft but they cut through Adam’s heart like a knife. The memory of that day unsettled him and he slowly lowered himself to the sand. She stayed where she was, her head tilted to one side watching him.

“How do you know? I was completely alone. I made sure of it.”

She stayed quiet and then moved to sit behind him on the sand. He twisted around, gripping her upper arms tightly.

“How do you know what you know? That day I…I was alone.”

She gazed serenely at him; the innocence and allure had melted from her features and her eyes seemed to shine with the experience and knowledge of being older than the earth itself.

“I watched you from the water. You didn’t see me because I didn’t want you to see me. But I cried with you.” She looked past him, towards the blue glistening waters. “And all I could offer you was the comfort of the lake. I couldn’t show myself to you then, you were too young.”

Adam let go of her arms and shifted carefully onto his backside, shuffling up the sand until he was by her side, facing the shimmering expanse of the water.

“Who…what are you?” His words were soft. He needed her answer but he knew his beliefs about the world and faith and God and everything was about to be rocked.

“The Washoe called me We’muhu.”

“We’muhu. What does it mean?

“It means,” the woman smiled, “monster.” At Adam’s puzzled expression, she elaborated on her curious statement. “They were frightened of me at first. But when they learned what I was, they lost their fear. And their name for me took on another meaning: waterbaby.” She took his nearest hand, entwining his fingers within her own and then shifted slightly to look at him. “I am the lake’s protector.” She paused, looking down at their interlinked fingers. “I am a naiad. I was born when Tahoe was no more than many tiny streams pouring from the high mountains into a deep valley.”

She looked at Adam’s mystified face, his features creased with perplexity.

“As long as the lake is here, so will I be.”

She wrapped her other hand over their entwined fingers.

“But it can be a lonely existence. Sometimes the creatures of the lake and the beauty of the mountains and hearing the laughter of people on the beach is enough, and I feel immense delight. But I feel great loneliness too as I am but one and have no one to share my world with. In the past I have watched many handsome young men come to the shore and I have even talked to them and let them lie with me. But I willingly let them go.”

She moved her hand to his face, softly laying her palm against his cheek.

“And then you came. You were only a child, but I knew even then you were…different. And I had to be patient and wait. I’d waited an eternity but you don’t know how hard it was to wait that short space of time while you grew into a man.”

Adam could hardly breathe she was so close to him. And the touch of her hand on his cheek was like a red-hot spark against his skin. He wanted to believe, yet her words were so hard to take in, so incredible.

The woman sighed. “You doubt me still. Come.”

She tugged Adam to his feet and pulled him down to the shoreline. She told him to take off his boots and socks, and as he rolled up the bottoms of his pant legs, he watched as she turned away from him, slipped his coat from her shoulders and walked into the lake. He was captivated by how she moved her body in the waves: the strong strides as she lifted her legs over the surging motion of the water, and in the way she carried her shoulders low as she ran her hands through the silky smooth ripples.

She looked over her shoulder and beckoned him to follow her through the lightly slapping waves. He caught his breath and gasped at the first touch of the icy water flowing over his feet and ankles; he was thankful for the sun that warmed the exposed skin on his face and arms. And he continued to puff and pant as the freezing water lapped around his calves. She, however, was unaffected. When the water was up to his knees he could feel the bed of the lake beginning to slope away beneath his feet. She dropped gently beneath the surface in front of him. He could see her in the crystal clear water with her eyes wide open, staring up at him with an open-mouthed smile on her face. It was deeper where she was and he could see her drop to the lake bed, picking up shells and pebbles to show him. She turned back to face him, still smiling, not taking her eyes from his.

Minutes were passing by as she stayed submerged, perfectly at ease. And it suddenly hit Adam that everything she had said was true. She was a naiad, a water nymph, a being that lived in the depths of the lake. His heart began to race as he opened his mind to what he’d only ever believed to be myth and legend, and as his own long-held beliefs in the world around him were smashed to the ground. He reached down and grabbed her hand, and with a small splash, he pulled her out of the water, off her feet, and into his arms.

They stayed locked together on the rocky lake bed. She had her arms clasped around his back, her head falling over his shoulder. And all Adam was aware of at that moment was the warmth of her body beneath his hands where he had them wrapped around her, the smoothness of her skin and how relaxed she was in his arms. He had squeezed his eyes shut and could feel rather than see her hair seeming to dry miraculously beneath his hands. She was pressed, oh so close, against him. And neither one of them wanted to move for they both realised their lives had just taken a 180-degree turn.

But then Adam realised what he was doing; he gently disentangled her from his arms, averting his eyes from her body.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

“Why do you always apologise, Adam? You should not feel ashamed to look upon me.”

Adam turned towards the shore and taking her hand in his and keeping one step ahead he led her back to the beach.

“It’s not so much shame as…well, it’s hard to dispel a lifetime of learning which says it’s wrong to even kiss a girl unless you’re engaged to be married to her. And here you are…like that.”

“As I said before, Adam, this is your world, not mine. I had no such upbringing. I was born as you see me. For such a long, long time I was alone in the lake, with only the creatures of the deep and those that came down to the shore as company. And they had no objection to how I appeared to them. And when man first came here, they were as I was. It is only when other men came from far away and drove the Washoe people from their villages by the shore that I could not appear as I was. That is why I stay hidden.”

They had reached the beach and Adam still kept his eyes turned away as he picked up his coat and held it open for her.

He turned to face her.

“Is that why you didn’t make yourself known to me before?”

A sad smile whispered across her face.

“No. With you it was because…” She looked down and started to poke at the sand with the tips of her toes. Adam couldn’t help staring at her long, strong limbs. “…I was scared.” She looked up at him and smiled. “I had watched you for so long that when you came to the lake by yourself, and I had an opportunity to talk with you, I couldn’t do it. One time I gathered enough courage and was beneath the water not far from where you stood and was about to make myself known and speak, when someone else called your name and you turned and were gone.” She looked down. “I didn’t try again.”

“A pity,” said Adam softly.

They both smiled yet avoided each other’s gaze.

“I need to ask about the boy.”

The smile left the woman’s face.

“There were arms holding him down beneath the water. I got to him as he stopped struggling and I took him and breathed for him. When he was well I took him to the beach. And that’s where you were.”

“Dear God. And we thought he had just fallen in. Did you see who was holding him down?”

“It was a woman, that’s all I can say.”

Adam could feel his body tensing in anger. The idea of someone trying to kill a child such as Matthew Butcher made him feel sick to his stomach.

“Can you describe her? What did she look like?”

She shook her head. “You must remember I was below the water and I only got to the boy as he stopped moving. I just wanted to get him away. All I saw were a pair of arms and the shape of a woman above. She was…distorted.” She looked up at him, her face disheartened. “I’m sorry.”

Adam smiled and gently squeezed her upper arm. “There’s no need. But I’ve gotta go, I need to tell the sheriff about this.”

She took a step up to Adam, resting her hands on his shirt.

“Please, Adam, you won’t tell them about me. Promise me you won’t.”

She was so close to him again, her face inches from his. But gone were the gentle smile and the round trusting eyes. Her face now wore a mask of concern, her eyes wide with anxiety. Adam placed his hands tenderly on her shoulders.

“I promise.” Though how he was going to explain how he knew what he knew was anyone’s idea.

The woman visibly relaxed. She smoothed her hands up his shirt until they had edged under his collar and around his neck, the heels of her hands resting against the soft curls of his chest. Reaching up, she placed a soft kiss on his cheek, lingering there for a few moments. Adam closed his eyes as he felt the smooth skin of her cheek against his. She was so warm, and Adam unconsciously felt his hands moving down her arms. But then she was moving away, and before Adam realised what she was doing she had let his coat slip from her shoulders and had turned and run back into the water. He gazed as though hypnotised at the long shadow of her spine rippling as she moved gracefully through the lapping waves. When she was a few feet into deeper water she submerged herself fully for a few seconds and then her head popped up again.

“Tomorrow, Adam, at the same hour.”

And then she was gone.

*****

Adam stood on the beach in Josiah’s Cove with a look of utter bewilderment on his face, struggling to understand what had just occurred. Everything he had ever believed had been ripped from him, trampled upon and left to wither. He had always prided himself on being a rational and logical person, one for whom empirical evidence was the cornerstone of his everyday life. If it could be proved, then he would believe it. And now this woman—Adam shook his head as he still didn’t have a name for her—had demonstrated, and verified, the existence of what he had always believed to be nothing more than a mythological being: a naiad. She was a living, breathing water nymph; a creature that the ancient Greeks believed lived in rivers and streams. A creature that Adam, and probably everyone who had ever read the tales of ancient Greece since then, thought of as a myth cooked up by the orators and poets of long ago times. But this was Nevada, for goodness sake. How on earth could a naiad be in Nevada?

And yet she knew things about him no one could possibly know. Her appearance was almost other-worldly, with her incandescent skin, eyes of a colour no mortal could possess and hair that appeared wet one minute, and was dry the next. He had watched as she had submerged herself in the icy waters of the lake and stared calmly and blissfully at him from beneath the waves for far longer than any normal person could. And when he had held her she had been warm and instantly dry, as though the water hadn’t touched her.

A naiad. A beautiful golden naiad. And she had made herself known to him. He wondered again whether she had somehow enchanted him, had put him under a spell. Adam snorted. Spells. Up to today he would have scoffed at the idea of charms and spells. Now he was no longer so sure. But he also knew that even if he had been enchanted, he didn’t care. This was one seduction he was happy to fall victim to.

He reached down to grab his coat. It still held the warmth from the woman’s body, and then, feeling a little unsteady, he walked back to where Sport was tethered. He gathered the animal’s reins in his hand, pulling him around to face the rough track back through the woodland. And after taking a moment to look out over the calm waters of the cove again, he pulled Sport away from the beach and into the trees.

*****

Ben was working on his books when he heard the sound of a horse galloping at speed into the yard. Pounding feet on the porch were a precursor to the slam of the front door and then Adam was moving rapidly past his desk.

“Adam! Son! What’s all the hurry?” Ben was on his feet, concern etching his face.

“Sorry, Pa. Nothing’s wrong. Just…something I need to do.”

And Adam was up the stairs and out of sight. A moment later, Ben heard the slam of his bedroom door. The ceiling echoed with several hollow thumps as if items were being thrown on to the floor. Then all was silence. By this time, Ben had moved around the desk and taken a few cautious steps to the foot of the stairs. He paused, staring up at the landing, one hand holding on to the newel post. With one foot placed hesitantly on the bottom step he heard the sound of his son’s bedroom door open and he quickly withdrew and moved back into the room.

Adam took his time to descend the stairs, seemingly lost in thought, but paused for a moment a few steps down when he noticed his father had moved out from behind his desk and was lingering near the gun rack, looking, to all intents and purposes, as if he was intently studying the barrel of one of the rifles. Adam wasn’t fooled.

“Missed you at breakfast, son.”

Adam walked past his father, pausing by the sofa in front of the big wide hearth. It was spring, and a chill dawdled in the air, so the fire had been lit, casting welcome warmth around the large open space.

“I, uh, took a ride down to the lake.” He twisted to face his father. “I’m gonna ride out and see the Butcher kid, Pa. See if he remembers anything.”

Ben blinked. “Adam, he’s home, safe, it’s over. Why do you need to talk to him?”

Adam strode to the front entrance. “Just a hunch, Pa.” And he was out the door before Ben could open his mouth in reply.

As he heard the sound of Adam’s horse depart the yard and fade into silence, Ben made his way up to his son’s room. He turned the handle and let the door swing open to reveal most of Adam’s books lying scattered on the floorboards. He was startled by the sight as Adam had always regarded his books as highly valued possessions, to be treated with care and reverence. He took one or two steps into the room, careful not to tread on any of the volumes at his feet. He bent down and picked one or two up at random, resting them on Adam’s workbench. There was one, though, lying open, face down on his bed. He picked it up and keeping one finger in the page it had been open at, he flicked to the front of the book to the title page.

“Hum. Classical Dictionary by J. Lempriere. D.D.”

He sat on the edge of Adam’s bed and returned to the open section. It was a range of dictionary entries. He scanned down the page, reading the entries out loud.

Nænia, the goddess of funerals at Rome. Nævius, a Latin poet in the first Punic war. Navŏlus, an infamous pimp in Domitian’s reign.” Ben raised an eyebrow at that one. “Naiades or Naides, certain inferior deities who presided over rivers, springs, wells and foundations.” Ben felt none the wiser and replaced the book as he found it on Adam’s bed. Whatever had inflamed Adam’s curiosity to the point of treating his treasured books like Joe’s dime novels would, for the time being, remain a mystery.

*****

The Butchers welcomed Adam’s arrival at their smallholding as if he was a long lost member of the family. Mrs. Butcher hugged him like he was her own dear brother, and Mr. Butcher pumped Adam’s arm up and down with such an enthusiastic ferocity that once Adam had extracted himself from the man’s grip, he had to massage his fingers to get the feeling back into them.

After the obligatory coffee, he was allowed some time alone with Matt who took Adam to the barn to show off his favourite pony. After watching Matt demonstrate what all the various parts of a saddle are called and what they do, Adam asked the boy whether he remembered anything about the days he went missing.

“Mr. Cartwright, you won’t believe me if I tell you, cos no one else does.”

Adam smiled. “Try me, you may be surprised.”

Matt had ceased fiddling with the saddle’s cinch and instead took hold of a nearby hackamore and started running the leather strands through his fingers.

“I don’t remember much but there was a girl, she was real pretty and…” he looked down at his feet, kicking the ground so little puffs of dust floated into the air.

“And what, Matt?” Adam’s voice was soft, coaxing.

“And…she didn’t have any clothes on.”

Adam smiled. “What did she do?”

“Well, I think I was asleep for a long time cos when I woke, she gave me water and somefin to eat, and then, I dunno, but I think I must have fallen asleep again cos next thing I woke up on your brother’s horse.” He looked up at Adam. “Do you believe me, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I believe you, Matt.”

He crouched down on his heels in front of the boy.

“Do you recall anything else, maybe from before you went in the water?”

Matt shook his head.

“Uh-huh. Just bein’ in the woods down by Dead Man’s Creek. I was looking for a big ol’ gopher who lives down there.”

Adam sighed quietly and rose to his feet, mussing Matt’s hair.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Matt. I’m gonna go say bye to your parents.”

He’d moved as far as the barn door before Matt spoke again.

“There was one thing, Mr. Cartwright. I ain’t real sure, but I think there was a woman in the woods at the same time as me.”

“The same woman that gave you water?”

“No, she was pretty. The woman in the woods was old, old like Mrs. Hawkins in town. I only saw her one time and then I found the gopher hole and I didn’t see her no more.”

Adam left the Butchers’ ranch wondering about the woman in the woods. Old like Mrs. Hawkins, the boy had said. Adam wasn’t sure Clementine Hawkins would appreciate being described as old as she was probably only in her mid-fifties by now. He reined Sport in the direction of Virginia City and the sheriff’s office. Roy Coffee needed to be told Matt’s disappearance wasn’t as straightforward as they had once assumed. While he rode Adam resolved not to share the existence of the naiad, nymph, whatever she may be, with Roy. She would be Adam’s secret, and thankfully, no one would believe the fantastical stories of a small boy.

*****

Day 3 – Sunday

Adam was up an hour before dawn the following day. He hadn’t felt the strange compulsion he’d experienced the previous morning; he only knew he wanted to go to the lake, to the woman. But it was Sunday and he couldn’t simply up and leave without making some excuse to his father as to why he wasn’t attending church. He paced in his room, tried to read, stared out of the window, until eventually he heard movement in the hall outside and knew his father was making his way downstairs to breakfast. Adam followed him, feigned a headache and nausea and retired to his room with his father’s concerned eyes following him up the stairs. He then waited impatiently until his family, dressed in their Sunday best, and Hop Sing, who was visiting cousins in Chinatown, had climbed aboard the buckboard and rounded the corner of the ranch-house. The coast was now clear and he moved speedily to the barn, saddled Sport and was soon on his way to where he hoped the naiad—he still couldn’t get used to the idea of her being such a thing—would be.

He was impatient to get through the thick woodland and down to the small sandy cove. He tugged at Sport’s bit, making the animal strain his head forward as Adam pulled him through the closely growing pines. After tying Sport’s reins to the same tree he had used the day before, he broke out into the sunlight. The sun was higher in the sky than on his last visit, and he soon abandoned his coat and unbuttoned the top of his shirt. He was sweating and he couldn’t tell whether that was due to the temperature or his own anticipation of seeing her.

He walked at a measured pace down to the shoreline, not wanting to appear like an eager schoolboy about to step out with a girl for the first time. With his hands on his hips he stood patiently, looking for the bobbing head he was convinced would appear any second in the still waters of the lake. When a few moments had passed and her head hadn’t surfaced, he settled himself down on the sand to wait, fiddling with his hat, and drawing shapes in the sand. After thirty minutes of watching the sun rise higher in the sky and still no sign of her, he climbed impatiently to his feet and started to pace along the shoreline, his eyes fixed on the cold, sun-flecked lake. But as more minutes dragged by he knew he couldn’t wait any longer and turning his back on the cove, his shoulders dropping in disappointment, he walked glumly back to his horse.

He didn’t hurry back, letting Sport lope at his own pace towards home. Adam was disturbed by the intensity of the disappointment he felt in her absence. She had indicated she would be there, and her non-appearance led Adam to realise how badly he had wanted to see her. Two short encounters with her had left him wanting more. Ah, who was he kidding? Yes, he wanted to know more about her, but he also confessed he wanted to see her, to look into those remarkable eyes, to touch the hair that fell like a lion’s mane down her back, and to run his hands over her skin. You’re like a lovesick schoolboy, Cartwright. And with an irritated snarl, he kicked his heels into Sport’s flanks and galloped, like his life depended on it, back to the house.

Adam was home before his father and brothers and took the opportunity to work out his frustration by violently polishing up any saddle he could lay his hands on in the tack room. Normally he took his time, lovingly applying the saddle soap with care, working it into the creases until the leather shone. Today, however, he attacked the task with vigour, scrubbing at the saddle in the same way he used to scrub at Little Joe’s neck when, as a small boy, Joe would appear on the front porch covered in mud, dung—or worse if he’d been playing near the pigpen. It proved a good distraction from his prevailing thoughts. He had spent a couple of hours working on the saddles before the sound of horses’ hooves thundered into the yard. Throwing down the soap jar, he stepped out into the daylight, only to be faced with his father heading at speed into the house, his brothers following at a lesser pace.

“Pa?”

Ben whirled around, surprised to see Adam out of the house, and paced the few steps towards his son.

“Adam! What are you doing up?”

“Ah, the headache passed, Pa.” He hated lying to his father, but knew it was either that or a lengthy explanation as to exactly why he had ridden down to the lake so early in the morning. “I, ah, thought I’d take care of some chores before lunch.”

“There’s no time for chores now. Do you feel well enough to ride?”

“Sure. What’s it all about?”

Ben sighed heavily. “Another child has gone missing: the Lucas boy from up near Thunderhead Falls. He was last seen riding away from his home on his pony. The horse came back, but not the boy. Roy’s getting together a search party.”

The night before, Adam had shared with his father what Matthew Butcher had imparted about there being another person in the woods at the same time as he was. Adam bared his teeth in consternation.

“This can’t be a coincidence, Pa, someone is taking these children.”

Ben blinked and sighed heavily again.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions yet. Just because Matthew said he saw someone in the woods doesn’t mean someone is responsible for their going missing. You said yourself he must have wandered off, gotten lost and then found himself on the beach where he fell asleep. It’s more than likely the Lucas child has fallen off his horse and we just need to find him. I’m going to get changed; I can’t go scrabbling around woods with my Sunday clothes on.”

And with that Ben turned on his heel and strode off to the house followed a moment or two later by Hoss and Joe.

Adam stood watching his family withdraw into the house. He knew the Lucus boy hadn’t fallen off his horse, but how could he share his concerns without exposing the existence of the woman? And later as they were riding towards Thunderhead Falls to join the search party, he knew in his gut they were looking in the wrong place. But he went along with all the other concerned folk, peering under low-hanging trees, looking for clues in the heavy pine needle encrusted forest floor, searching amongst boulders and around the edges of the majestic waterfall up at Thunderhead. Because, deep down, he knew the boy was protected. The naiad would have found him and revived him and kept him safe. All he need do was bide his time until she appeared to him again.

*****

Day 4 – Monday

When Adam had woken before dawn that morning, it had seemed like only minutes since he had crawled into bed, exhausted and weary from a day bashing at the splayed-out branches of mountain alder and canyon oak. He had earned himself an admonishment from his father who objected to Adam’s heavy-handed treatment of the forest shrubbery. Adam had rolled his eyes at the reprimand to which Ben had retorted if the boy was hidden there, Adam could easily take his head off as he continued to swipe at the greenery in the manner he was doing. Adam had calmed down his enthusiastic battering of the bushes, murmuring under his breath it was all a waste of time anyway.

They had searched until dusk, and even continued for a while with lantern light, until eventually all parties made the decision to cease the search that night and continue at daybreak.

Even though his body felt spent, he had endured another restless sleep—waking every hour—until finally his long night was over and he found himself wide awake when the sky was still black outside. The naiad had been a recurring dream at those times during the night when he was able to sleep. She had hovered in his vision with her arms outstretched to him, beckoning him to her. But each time he got close she would dissolve into water and he would be left alone in the dark. He was relieved to escape his dreams, but the desperate need to ride to the lake was heavy on his mind and he knew there was only one place he had to be that day.

Unfortunately, his father had other plans. Insistent they all re-join the search party up by the Lucas ranch, Ben was adamant his oldest boy would not head off by himself.

“They need every able-bodied person to look for that child. And the lake is fifteen miles from Thunderhead. That boy would not have been able to travel that far by himself on foot.”

The moment the disagreement started, a pressure had started to build behind Adam’s eyes that made him more belligerent than he might otherwise have been. He ran his hand over his mouth, willing himself to stay calm.

“Pa, it can’t hurt to look!” He spat the last word out, glaring at his father with black eyes as his anger started to take hold. The urge to go to the lake was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

“You are not going to waste your time at the lake, and that’s final!” Ben could employ volume to good measure when he wanted to and it could cow his younger sons into obedience in seconds. But with his eldest boy it was different. Adam met his father’s irate eyes with a look that said he was way too old to be ordered around like a child. With a small shake of his head, he pushed past his father’s shoulder heading at speed to the door. Unfortunately, he hadn’t counted on Hoss walking through at the same moment he was proceeding out, and with his face staring at the floorboards rather than the opening door, he met his brother’s chest head on and toppled backwards on to his rump. For a moment Ben and Hoss merely stared at Adam as he lay winded on the floor, but after Hoss had pulled him to his feet, his father had calmly walked over to him and, with a soft voice, said, “You are not going to the lake, do you hear me. Now get your things together, we’re going.”

The fire had gone out of Adam’s belly, but his head was now starting to throb as the unrelenting impulse to get to the water started to dominate. And the farther they rode from the lake, the worse he felt. It was as though he was tied to the end of a long rope and the more distance was put between the lake and Adam, the tighter that rope squeezed around his head. By the time they reached the forested area bordering the Lucas homestead, Adam’s head felt like his brain was pressing on his skull. He had to rein in, squeezing his eyes closed and dropping limply over his horse’s neck, gripping the creature’s mane with white-knuckled fingers. At the alarmed sound of his father calling his name, he slipped down the side of his mount and retched violently at the side of the track.

Ben was off his horse in an instant, a worried arm around his son’s back as Adam retched again.

“No wonder you were so touchy this morning, you’re clearly not well.” He stood up, sighing with exasperation and concern. “We’ll have to go back.”

Adam straightened, rubbing his mouth on his sleeve, his face pale and shiny beneath his black Stetson.

“No, Pa, you go on. I’ll be fine.”

“Don’t be absurd, you’re sick. I’m not going to let you ride back by yourself.”

“I’ll go with him.” Joe joined his father and perspiring brother. “You’ll need Hoss to help with the search. I’ll go back with Adam.”

“Honestly, Joe, I’ll be fine,” argued Adam. But with a glare from his father the conversation was at an end, and Joe and Adam were soon journeying back towards home, and the lake.

The closer they rode to the blue stretch of water, the less painful Adam’s head felt. And by the time they reached one of the turn-offs that led down to the shoreline, Adam almost felt like his old self again. He brought Sport to a stop, gazing into the distance where he could see the light shimmering over the water.

“Look, Joe, I feel fine now. I must have eaten something my stomach wasn’t happy with. Why don’t you go back, join the search? While I’m here, I’ll take a look down at the lake; see if there are any signs of the Lucas kid.”

“Oh, no, older brother, it’s more than my hide’s worth to let you out of my sight. Where you go, I go.”

“Joe, you don’t have…” But Joe had already turned Cochise’s head and had loped past Adam and onto the trail. With a sigh and a droop to his shoulders, Adam followed him.

To the observer, their search would have looked fairly aimless as they wandered hither and thither along the lake’s forested banks. But Adam was looking for any excuse to lose his younger brother who was sticking with him like a burr. He knew exactly where the woman would be; like a bloodhound tracking a scent to its source, her draw was too strong to ignore. She wasn’t in the same place as she had been previously and Adam found himself heading farther around the shore from where he’d found Matt. But making it look like he was wandering in an unpremeditated way was difficult with Joe watching his every move. When it became clear to Adam that his younger brother was not going to leave him to his own devices, he made his way toward the beach where he knew he’d find her, and sent Joe up into the trees to scout around. Joe would still be able to keep an eye on his older brother; convinced as he was Adam was about to keel over from whatever had been ailing him over the last two days.

And there she was, as he had expected her to be. He didn’t stop to think how he knew she would be here, in this spot, on this particular beach. No, his first reaction when he saw her head dipping gently up and down in the water was one of soul-soaring elation. He stopped at the tree line as he spied her and was consumed with a feeling of unadulterated joy. He felt his face relax as his eyes lit up and a broad smile transformed his face which moments ago had worn a look of perpetual frustration at the continuing presence of his little brother. As he thought of Joe, he quickly turned to see where he was. He was high up the forested bank, his eyes scanning the ground as he carefully directed Cochise down the narrow wooded trails.

Adam sprinted quickly down to the water’s edge and adopted an expression of feigned irritation.

“Did you do this?” he said, pointing at his head. “I felt like my brain was going to explode.”

She ducked beneath the surface of the water, reappearing a few feet away from Adam. He dropped to his haunches.

“I’m sorry, Adam, I didn’t mean to cause you pain. But you took so long to come. And I was afraid the woman would come back and find him.”

She nodded towards the beach. And when Adam twisted on his heels he saw a small boy sitting against a boulder with his legs pulled up to his chin and his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. Eli Lucas. Adam walked quickly to the boy, dropping to his heels next to him.

“I must go, it is not safe for me here.” And with a small splash, she was gone.

“Wait!” Adam jumped up and took a few steps towards the water, but there was no sign of her. “Damn it!” he cursed under his breath.

Eli hadn’t moved or spoken, and it was only when Adam reassured him he was there to help, did he let Adam take him by the shoulders and help him rise to his feet. He took the boy’s hand, leading him towards Sport who was ground-tied at the top of the sandy beach. Spotting Joe through the trees, he waved frantically at him.

“What the…?” was Joe’s reaction at seeing Adam with the small boy standing solemnly in front of his older brother.

“He was here at the lake, as I thought he might be.” Adam snarled.

Joe looked bewildered. “But how did you know?”

“I…well…Matthew said there was someone in the woods at the same time as he was, and then we found him here at the lake.” He lowered his voice, suddenly conscious of the small dazed boy staring morosely at the sand which had intruded into the pine-covered forest. “And then he,” he nodded at the child, “goes missing. I figured it was the same person who took both boys. It seemed obvious to me is all.”

Joe stared hard at his brother. Adam had been behaving strangely for the last couple of days, what with his sudden penchant for early morning rides, the unaccountable illnesses and now his seemingly uncanny ability to be able to locate the missing children. Joe was becoming convinced there was something his older brother wasn’t sharing with them. He frowned and shook his head before slowly lowering himself to the ground, resting his butt on his ankles. And in that soft, affable way that made children immediately like and open up to him, Joe laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy raised scared, nervous eyes to the young man who had dropped to his level.

“Hey, Eli, my name’s Joe Cartwright. I’m from the Ponderosa. You’ve heard of the Ponderosa, right?”

The boy nodded.

“We’re gonna take you home, but before we go, I wanna ask you a coupla questions, if that’s okay with you.”

There was another mute nod.

“Eli, do you remember how you got to this place?”

“Now, Joe!” Adam’s fears made him jump in, afraid of what Eli might reveal.

Joe silenced his brother with a sharp glare and turned back to the boy.

“A woman brought me here.”

“A woman. Did you know her?”

The boy shook his head. “Uh-huh. But she was nice to me.”

Joe flicked a glance up at Adam, who was waiting intently for the boy’s next words.

“So the woman who brought you here, she took you yesterday, while you were riding?”

The boy’s face crumpled and all the fear and anguish and worry of the last twenty-four hours bubbled up inside him as he started to cry and his words spilled out in a jumble. His chin dropped to his chest as he heaved out the words between shaky tearful breaths, his voice raising an octave in his distress.

“I don’t know…I can’t remember…she pushed me in the water…and…and…held my head down and…I couldn’t breathe…and I wanted my mama…”

The tears took control and Joe found himself with two thin arms around his neck as the boy sobbed out all the fear and hurt that had built up inside him. Joe held him closely, looking up at Adam with horrified eyes.

“It’s okay, Eli, everything will be okay now, I’m gonna take you back to your folks now.”

He lifted the child in his arms and carried him over to where his mount stood docilely in the shade of the woodland.

“I’m just gonna put you up on ol’ Cooch here. But I need a quick word with my brother first. You’ll be okay here?”

The boy sniffed and wiped his eyes with his sleeves.

Joe returned to Adam who had gathered Sport’s reins in his hands and was ready to mount.

“I’ll take Eli home. I don’t think you should come.”

Adam frowned.

“Why the hell not?”

“Adam, there’s something you’re not telling me. Now I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s to do with this mysterious woman who brought Eli here, I don’t know. But what I do know is this. Two children have gone missing, and you’ve found both of them. Now it might be coincidence, but I don’t think so. And if I can think this way about my own brother, then whaddya think other people are gonna think?”

Adam grabbed Joe’s collar, pulling him behind Sport and out of sight of the boy sitting slumped on Cochise.

“You think I had something to do with these boys going missing?”

Joe grabbed Adam’s hand and wrenched it off his collar.

“Of course I don’t. But think about it, Adam. You’ve been pretty keen to get to the lake all day. And when we do, oh what a coincidence, you find the missing boy. You knew he was here all along. How? How did you know he was here?”

Adam opened his mouth to speak. But what could he say? A naiad who has lived in the lake for millennia guided me here.

“Just as I thought.”

Joe took a step to move past Adam, stopping when they were shoulder to shoulder. “I’ll tell his ma and pa I found him. That I came down to the lake to take a look around and just happened to find him on the beach. And you, older brother, you better start talking when we get home tonight.”

Joe mounted up and Adam watched his brother’s retreating figure as Joe followed the trail back out of the forest. Once he was out of sight, Adam returned to the shoreline and looked out over the water, hoping and praying the woman would return.

“Come on, come on, where are you, Goddammit!”

But Adam was alone, and after a few minutes of looking at the still, unbroken waters of the lake, he let out a heavy sigh, slapped his hat against his thigh several times, and walked back to Sport with his head down and his mind troubled. He knew there would be words tonight, but what on earth could he tell them?

*****

It was dusk when his brothers and father arrived home. And rather than the expected slammed door, shouts and glowering looks aimed in his direction, his family entered the house with laughter, pats on the back and smiles from ear to ear.

Adam levered himself slowly out of his blue chair that he’d positioned to face the gently sputtering fire. He’d been leaning forward in the chair, his fingers cradled at his chin, his mind a thousand miles away. His father greeted him with a beaming smile.

“Adam, you won’t have heard. Joseph found the boy. He’s safe and well and back home with his parents.”

Adam turned to his youngest brother who was placing his gun belt on the sideboard and, with a cautious smile on his face, held out a hand. “Well done, Joe. Where’d ya find him?” Joe took his hand and met his brother’s enquiry with a knowing look.

But before Joe could answer, his father spoke.

“It appears you were right all along, Adam. Joe found him down at the lake, a few miles along the shore from where you found young Matt.”

The good humour faded from Ben’s voice.

“And that’s not the only thing I have to apologise to you for. Eli said a woman lured him to the lake where he was forced under the water until he passed out. You were right about that too, I should have listened.”

Adam walked slowly to the hearth and picking up a poker, prodded haphazardly at the fireplace.

“Did he remember anything else?”

He could hear his father walking across the room behind him, heading for his chair by the fire.

“Not really. Kept babbling on about how an angel had saved him.” Adam heard him sniff lightly in amusement, and he paused briefly in his ministrations before attacking the flames again with more vehemence. He hoped most people were merely treating Eli Lucas’s tales about an ‘angel’ as those of a distressed and somewhat confused child. But when he sat back down in his chair he noticed Joe staring at him intensely, his green eyes dark and his lips drawn in a line across his face.

“You seem a lot better now Adam. You haven’t been sick again?” asked Ben.

Adam pulled his eyes away from his brother’s.

“No, Pa, must have been something I ate.”

“You’d better not let Hop Sing hear you say that.” Ben laughed.

Joe rose abruptly from where he’d been leaning on the back of the sofa.

“I’m just gonna take a look at Cooch, Pa, he seemed to be favouring his left foreleg on the ride back.” And he was out the door before Ben had a chance to respond.

“I’ll give him a hand.” And Adam quickly followed his younger brother.

No words were said until they reached the barn where Joe whirled on his heel to face Adam.

“What’s going on, Adam? What are you hiding? How did you know Eli was going to be on that beach?

“Ah come on, Joe, it was just a coincidence.”

“Coincidence! That’s claptrap and you know it.”

Joe backed Cochise out of his stall and bent over to run a hand down the horse’s leg. On reaching the hoof, he suddenly straightened up and turned to face Adam.

“You made out like it we just happened to be at that part of the lake. Well, I had a long time to think when I was taking Eli back to his family, and it struck me we’d ridden past at least two turn-offs but then you decided to stop at that one. And I was following you the whole way, as you oh-so-casually suggest we’ll go this way, or take that path. And the whole time we’re gettin’ closer and closer to that beach, where you just happen to find Eli.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “There’s nothing wrong with Cochise’s leg is there?”

Joe glared at Adam before grabbing a brush and, with long hard strokes, began to rub down the horse’s coat, even though he had given the animal a rub-down only minutes before. Joe’s anger translated to the force he used on the creature that sidestepped slightly in an attempt to escape the harsh pressure on its body.

He stepped out from behind the horse and poked his finger in Adam’s chest.

“And another thing, I could see you through the trees, Adam, and for a moment there I thought you were talking to someone. But I reckoned I must have imagined it when I got there and the only other person beside you was the boy…”

“I was talking to Eli…”

“You were talking to the lake!”

Joe stared at his brother, his chest rising and falling quickly as he worked to control his temper. He shook his head in exasperation and moved to the other side of the horse to brush out more dirt and hair of the day.

Adam dropped his head, pursing his lips as he stepped slowly towards his brother.

“Joe, I know how it looks, but…”

“If you’re gonna tell me I’m imagining all of this then you can go to hell, Adam. Because I know what I saw.”

Adam took another step closer.

“Joe, why are you so angry?”

Joe’s long heavy-handed strokes along the horse’s rump came to a sudden stop. He lowered his eyes, focussing on his hands clutching the brush. The anger was still visible in the tense set of his back and shoulders, but when he spoke his voice had softened.

“Adam, it took me two hours to ride up to the Lucas place, and the whole time Eli either wouldn’t talk, or he’d start cryin’ for his ma. He’s just a kid, a little kid, and someone put him through something that hurt him,” Joe tapped his head, “up here.” He turned to look at Adam. “I don’t know who you’re protecting, or why, but I’m not gonna stand back and let another child get taken, even if it means going through you, older brother.”

And with that, he thrust the brush at Adam’s chest and stalked out of the barn.

*****

Day 5 – Tuesday

When Adam had stepped on to the beach at Josiah’s Cove an hour after dawn had broken that day, little had he known that when he eventually closed his eyes many hours later, his life would have irreversibly changed in a way he could never have foreseen.

She was waiting for him, as he knew she would be, her head moving up and down in the water a safe distance from the shore, almost hidden by the haze that floated over the lake. As he raised his hand in a tentative greeting, he could see her face light up, even as far out as she was. She dropped below the water and emerged seconds later a few feet from the beach. Adam stood by the water-line, ready to enfold her in his coat. He kept his face averted as she rose from the water, a solid blur of flesh in the margins of his vision. As she turned to face away from him and place her arms into the sleeves, Adam dared a glance down and caught a tantalising glimpse of creamy skin as he drew the coat up over her shoulders. His awareness of her closeness, and her body beneath the coat, became heightened and he quickly took her hand, moving up the beach and drawing her down to the sand next to him.

Her hand was warm within his clutch and he was unwilling to let go; it was the only part of her that society would allow him to touch. So he wove his fingers amongst hers, enjoying the playful contact of their skin as each played with the other’s hand.

“How is the boy?” Her voice was soft, etched with a concern which drew Adam’s eyes up to hers.

“Shaken.” Adam sighed. “Unlike Matt, Eli remembers everything that happened to him.” He looked down to their entwined hands and back to her face. “He remembers you, though everyone thinks he’s imagining things because of what he went through.”

“He struggled more than the other boy. He fought the woman. He fought me.”

“And what about the woman? Did you see her?”

She looked away and her hair fell across her face, hiding her expression from him.

“She frightened me, Adam. The look in her eyes was one of…pain, overwhelming pain. As she held him down there was nothing there, no feeling, no life, only emptiness. I took him from her hands and watched as she screamed and began to wail and cry.”

Adam reached over with his free hand and gently moved the hair away from her face, tucking the loose strands behind her ear. She looked up at him, her eyes heavy with sadness.

“She was hurt, Adam, feeling so much misery I don’t believe she knows what she does. It scared me.”

Adam’s hand stayed in the woman’s hair, smoothing the long waves to fall over her shoulder. “You got a good look at her this time?”

She nodded. “I saw hair the colour of a dying Alpine Lily, and her eyes were dark.”

Adam thought hard. “Red…she had red hair?”

“And it was curly, tight to her head.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know anyone around here with curly red hair. But we’ll find her, I promise, and we’ll stop her.”

She spun closer to him, looking intently into Adam’s face.

“You’ll help her, won’t you, Adam? She needs help to take her pain away, to stop thinking of her child, of Henry.”

Adam cocked his head, his eyebrows low over his eyes as he frowned.

“Henry?”

“She was crying out for Henry, saying ‘Henry, my child, my son’, over and over. Children have drowned in the lake before, Adam. I think he was one of them.”

Henry. Adam kept a note of the name. Later he would ride to Virginia City and talk to Roy Coffee about it. But for now he felt overawed by the empathy of the mystifying woman by his side. She had witnessed two horrific acts in the last few days, but her heart wept for the perpetrator of these atrocities. She was overcome with sadness, as if she physically felt the misery of the person who was now causing so much grief to other families. But Adam didn’t want her to be sad. He would do anything to stop that. Once more Adam found his hand wandering to her hair.

His face curved into a half smile, his dimple rising to prominence on his cheek. “We really need to find a name for you.”

She grinned, all the sadness of the last few minutes vanishing from her face.

“Josiah called me Amara.”

“Josiah? The man for whom this cove was named?”

She smiled. “He was an old man who lived in a shack in the woods, over there.” She pointed towards one of the small headlands bordering the cove. “He always looked old to me, well, old by your years. He was the first man to come here who was not Washoe, his skin was the colour of yours and mine.”

“And you knew him?”

“He liked it when I came to the cove and sat on the beach. He liked to look at me.”

I bet he did, thought Adam. She saw the flash of cynicism flicker across his face, and squeezed and shook the hand still held tight on to hers. “No, Adam, it wasn’t like that. His was a hard life. He lived on what the forest and the lake could provide. And he was alone here, except for the Washoe, but they let him be as he had nothing to trade with them. So when I came he had someone to talk with. And yes,” she blushed, “I knew he liked to look upon my body, but more than anything he liked to speak, to tell me stories of his life, of how he came to the lake.”

Adam felt an unexpected pang of jealousy, unreasonable he knew. Why be envious of a long dead settler who had done nothing more than talk to her?

“And he named you?”

She looked down at the sand. “He called me Amara. He said it meant immortal or beloved. And he said ‘mara’ meant ‘sea’ in another language, but I forget which.”

Adam gazed at her profile as with one free finger from their entwined hands, she picked at the sand on the beach between them. “It’s perfect.”

And so the naiad, who had lived for most of her existence without a name, became Amara in Adam’s heart.

They sat together in silence, both pondering the name given to her by a lonely old man so long ago. Adam would look at her, squinting his eyes in thought, and then look away shaking his head. He did this a few times, and as she caught his eye she would smile, and then she grinned each time he did it, and soon she was laughing. Before long Adam was laughing too. She reached out a hand and softly pushed him to make him stop and as they both let their laughter fade, they sat together contentedly on the beach and stared out over the lake.

“Please,” Adam said, “tell me about you. I know nothing about you.”

She let go of Adam’s hand and turned to face him, her bare knees falling to one side as she tucked her feet beneath her. She slipped one hand into her lap and leaned on the other. Adam had to quickly lean across to button up his coat which was in danger of falling open, revealing that which he so desired to see but knew he shouldn’t. His knuckles brushed against her body, and he quickly pulled back.

And then she started to talk.

Her creation was a mystery. She had simply awoken, curled up in a ball, during a time of great tumult. Who, or what, had made her, she would never know. Yet she had been born with an innate knowledge that her life was, in some way, connected to the embryonic body of water that was forming around her; she was its custodian and its sentinel. For millennia her mind did not know words, or language; only feelings and emotion and sensation. It was only when she encountered humans for the first time that she learned to formulate her perceptions into words, and she was able to communicate. “It was Josiah who said I was a naiad. I hadn’t realised until that moment that not knowing what I was meant a part of me had been missing. Knowing what I was, I felt complete.”

The world had been in turmoil at the time of her formation. As she had flickered into existence, like a new flame flaring into life on the tip of a matchstick, her mind had been nothing more than a maelstrom of confused impulses. Her first conscious emotion had been terror, as the ground around her heaved like the deep waves on the ocean. As the earth spewed forth great mountains and then dipped low to form a void in the earth’s floor, the water from the high peaks had flowed into a great depression created by the chaos, and a magnificent river was formed. It was an ever-moving body of pure fresh water, fed by the unsullied snow of the mountains and warmed by the burning sun above. She had swum the length of the river, content to feel the cool water wash over her limbs, at one with the animals that lived alongside her. Her life had been one of infinite peace and she had gazed with wonder as the creatures of the world evolved over vast eons of time.

But then came a time of turbulence and the world once more erupted into chaos. She had run in terror, one of a swarm of creatures who had fled as fast as their legs could carry them, away from a great volcano as it ejected a spume of seething lava into the precious water that was her cherished home. She had sat on a high ridge and watched the water bubble and steam, and she had wept as the aquatic beasts that could not escape had boiled alive and floated to the surface, victims of the raging disorder the earth had thrown up. And when the water had quietened and cooled and she had crept back down to the shore, she discovered the water no longer flowed with a current but had become fully enclosed within the ring of resplendent peaks. The water became deeper as the mountain streams continued to flow into the great depression in the earth, and she went from being the guardian of the river to the protector of the lake.

And so she had resided within the great blue lake’s confines, a mortal being for whom time moved at an immeasurable pace. “One hundred years of your time is but a day for me. At least, that’s how it used to be.” She had been the only one of her kind for eons, but because there was no one else like her, and because the creatures of the lake and the forests were her companions, she did not feel alone. It was only with the coming of man to the lake’s shores, did she start to experience a new emotion: she began to feel lonely.

The first time she had seen a man and woman run laughing to the beach, hand in hand, and pull themselves down to the sand, she had been stunned. “I had seen animals mate, but this was the first time I had seen two people join. At first I thought he was hurting her, but I soon realised her cries meant something else.” And when she saw others do the same thing, she began to experience a longing to have her skin touched, and to join her mouth with another’s in the same way she had seen these couples do. She had made herself known to the villages along the lake, and at first they had run from her, this pale-skinned creature with hair the colour of autumn leaves, who had emerged slowly from the waters. They feared she was the mother of the dreaded imps that lived in the lake and streams, causing harm or even death to anyone who didn’t treat them with respect. She didn’t have the heart to tell them there were no such creatures. As they learned she meant no harm, and they began to see her presence as a good omen for them and the lake, some of the men began to vie amongst themselves to lie with her. And with her growing need for companionship, she let them compete to win her. “The first time I lay with a man I experienced pain, but soon my body grew to enjoy the sensations. In my heart, though, I was still alone.” She had hoped she would look into the eyes of one of these handsome and athletic young men and see reflected that which she had learned was called ‘love’. But they only took pleasure in her body. And when she saw how other men and women looked at each other, she felt more alone than ever and so retreated back to the sanctuary of the water.

But the Indians, who she learned call themselves the Washoe, were good to her. They left gifts of woven baskets, nuts and seeds on the lakeshore to keep her appeased, believing if she was happy then the lake would continue to yield its bounty to them.

Although she had come into existence knowing that she was the lake’s protector, she had never known what would happen if she left the lake or its immediate surroundings. Not until a party of Washoe tricked her into accompanying them to their summer grounds in the high mountains that is. As they moved farther from the lake she had grown anxious and tried to escape, but they had confined her, unwilling to lose their good luck omen. But she had grown sorrowful and desolate at being kept away from her beloved home. And before long news was brought to the mountain village of a great plague affecting the fish of the lake; they were washing up on the shores, poisoned by some unknown element in the water. And when a Washoe girl fell into the deep one day and drowned, the people knew they had done wrong, and the pale-skinned woman was returned to the waters she loved. The lake soon thrived again. “I give the water my strength,” she told Adam, “my love for the deep waters keeps it safe.”

She grew resigned to being alone, and the once blissful life she had lived for millennia was marred by her melancholy. Her existence became even harder with the coming of the white man. She watched with fearful eyes as they drove away the Washoe from the lake. And if she was ever spotted by one of them, she would notice a lascivious look in the man’s eyes as he gazed upon the beautiful woman who seemed to have no shame in parading her nakedness before him. She was long-lived, but not immortal, and the violence she would read in the white man’s expression would make her fear for her life. She would quickly immerse herself beneath the waves and only come to the surface when she had reached the safety of Tahoe’s tiny island.

But then one day, she saw a father and his two sons appear on the lake shore. She had not thought too much of it as it was an increasingly common occurrence to see settlers roam the beaches, gazing in wonderment at the astonishing beauty of their surroundings. But as she had peeked at them from where she had hidden, she had noticed a look in the older boy’s eyes as he stared over the water: it was one of recognition. The child appeared instantly at ease, as though he had come home after a long time away, and yet she knew from their words it was his first time at the lake. She saw something else in his eyes; she saw a kindred spirit, a soul that spoke to hers. She knew instantly she’d always known him—as though they were connected in some unexplainable way—because the sadness that had enveloped her evaporated the moment she first spied him. For the first time in what must have been centuries, she could feel happiness coursing through her veins and she wanted to shout out loud at how happy she was once more. There was a fleeting moment when she was struck with fear that he was going to leave and never return—and she knew if that happened she would instantly diminish into nothingness. But her heart soared when she heard the father call to the boy that they needed to start work on their small home, and she knew, straightaway, he would return.

“It was you, Adam. Even before we met, you had brought me back to life again.”

It all made sense. It was suddenly clear to Adam why he always felt so content and secure when he could see the lake, or when he could run his hands through the clear waters, or sit on one of the sandy beaches and feel the sun warm his face. All feelings of despair, of loneliness, of sadness, would fade the moment he arrived within sight of the sparkling lake. It had always been that way, as though the lake was his friend, offering him comfort and warmth. But now he knew it had been that way because of her, because she had been somewhere out there, close by. She was the lake, and the lake was her. They were so closely bound as to be indistinguishable. Adam realised then it hadn’t been the lake that soothed or calmed him, it had been the naiad.

Adam had sat in wide-eyed wonder as she told her tale. But she didn’t give him a chance to sit and ponder on her words, because she had grabbed his hands and pleaded with him to share the story of his life with her. He shook his head.

“My life is nothing in comparison. It’s only a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what you have experienced.”

But she silenced him with a finger on his lips.

“No, Adam, that’s not true. You have lived as much as I in your life. In fact, you have experienced more than I have done in the whole of my existence. And I want to hear all your stories, of where you grew up, about your family, your brothers, what you do when you are not here. Everything.”

She waited for him to speak and when he didn’t, she moved her head to draw his gaze back to her.

“I have waited so long for you. The last few years have been the longest years of my life as I waited for you to grow. And then I wasted more time as I lost my courage to talk to you. Please don’t let me wait any longer.”

So Adam cocked his head to one side and nodded and pulled her to her feet, and keeping her hand locked within his, they started to walk leisurely up and down the beach as he shared his life with her.

Her mouth had dropped open as he told of the wide-open prairies that stretched for mile upon mile and the huge bison that dwelled upon the land with their mighty shoulders, powerful skulls and shaggy coats. All her life she had only ever seen the ring of mountains and the thick banks of forest that bordered the lake, so she couldn’t comprehend a flat vista of rolling grassland. Her eyes had grown wide when Adam described the Indian attacks on the wagon train. The Washoe were the only Indians she had ever known, and they had been a largely peaceful people. So Adam’s descriptions of the Indians tearing down the hillsides, whooping and hollering as they descended on the train on horseback, firing off their weapons, left her incredulous and gripping his arm with alarm.

Adam told her about his three mothers. He told her of Elizabeth, who had died giving birth to him. Hearing that Adam had never known his mother made her stop, her eyes became glazed, and for a moment, Adam thought she was going to cry. But instead she rested one palm lightly on his cheek and reached up to briefly kiss his other cheek. He smiled and took her hand within his and they resumed their slow walk down the beach. He spoke of Inger, of her gentle nature, her wry sense of humour and how she had devoted herself wholeheartedly to the two men and the child in her life. “Okay, I was only six at the time, but in my eyes I was a man.” Adam talked of her strength and how she had a backbone that could match any man’s. Yet it was her willingness to jump in feet-first that had got her killed, and as Adam remembered that devastating day when an Indian arrow had taken her from them, he found his emotions unexpectedly coming to the fore, and he had to shake his head to bring himself back to the present. He had never spoken so openly about his mothers before, and yet this woman standing beside him, swamped in his big yellow coat and with her bare legs and feet leaving toe prints in the sand where she stood, this woman was drawing these recollections from him, retrieving them from where he had them safely locked away and letting them see the light of day again. When he mentioned Marie, she had turned to him and smiled sorrowfully. “I remember Marie. And I remember your sadness.” And no more words needed to be said.

He told her of the women he’d known. “I didn’t love them all, though, at the time, I guess I thought I did.” He spoke of Regina: “I didn’t stand a chance with Regina, we were too…different.” Of Rebecca: “charming, excited by new things, very pretty, but, again, we had nothing in common, and she was too young anyway.” Of Laura: “Ah Laura, I never loved Laura, I think I wanted someone to rescue, and she simply happened to be there.” But when he talked of Ruth, he couldn’t hide his regret. “I won’t deny I loved her. For a short time she was everything to me. And when she left, let’s just say, it took a while to get back on a regular footing.” He had turned to the woman with an apologetic look on his face, but she had taken his arm and squeezed it. “Don’t be sorry for loving, Adam. I’m glad you have known someone who made you happy.”

As the hours passed, what had begun as a perfect spring day had gradually taken on an overcast hue. The lake changed colour from grey to blue and back to grey, as a plethora of rain clouds moved swiftly across the face of the sun. The light could change from bright to gloomy in a matter of seconds. And with the clouds came a cool breeze. As it swept lightly over the lake surface, whipping the heads of the waves into a frenzy of undulating silver, Adam felt chilled, and he wondered how Amara could survive the harsh winters that tormented this part of the world.

They had returned to sit at their usual spot on the beach, and as Adam was telling her about his brothers and father and all about their life on the ranch, a light shower started to fall. The sun broke through the clouds, igniting the softly falling rain into a mass of shimmering shards. The water was gentle against Adam’s skin, spattering across his shirt and pants, and the very air seemed to flicker as the sunlight danced through the rain.

Amara jumped to her feet, her arms outstretched to the sky and her head thrown back in delight. She began to unbutton his coat, and turning her back on him at the last moment, she pulled the coat apart and tugged it halfway down her back, letting the water fall across her skin which had become alive with a dazzling radiance.

“Isn’t it wonderful, Adam!” She turned around, pulling the coat together, her shoulders still exposed to the rain. Her eyes closed in rapture and she worshiped the water that gently kissed her skin.

Adam was mesmerised. A wide smile crept across his face as he was spellbound by the delight the woman was exhibiting at such a simple pleasure.  The skin on her face and shoulders and legs shimmered in the sparkling air as she turned round and round on the spot. As the brief shower passed overhead, the sun fell upon her uplifted face. And then it dawned on Adam the sun was not where he expected it to be. He thought it would be ascending towards the heavens, but in fact it had moved across the sky and was starting its slow trawl towards the horizon. He started up, shocked, and scrabbled for his pocket watch. To his dismay he saw it was the middle of the afternoon. He had been on the beach for almost eight hours. And as he jumped to his feet, his stomach rumbled as it occurred to him he hadn’t eaten since early that morning.

“I’ve gotta go. I should have been helping Joe and Hoss up at High Valley.” And when he thought of his youngest brother, he knew Joe would still be carrying the anger of the last few days, and his unexpected absence would not have helped matters.

She had watched as he had leaped to his feet, and stood a few feet away from him, her arms hanging loosely by her side; it was a miracle Adam’s unbuttoned coat was covering all that it should.

Adam lowered his head and walked slowly to stand in front of her. He placed his hands on her waist.

“Are you an enchantress? I feel as though you have put a spell on me.”

She raised a gentle hand to his cheek. “I didn’t need to, my love.”

She stretched her head up to him as he was leaning down, and their lips met, and to Adam it was as though the sound was sucked out of the air like a vacuum. He could no longer hear the birds in the trees, or the soft brush of the firs as they moved in the breeze. And the waves no longer lapped on the shore. Adam was sure if he opened his eyes there would be nothing but him and Amara and the feel of her lips on his and what seemed like a million years of knowledge exploding in his mind. It was as though he could see the entire experience of her life in a rapid, never-ending barrage of images, sensations and feelings. It shook him, so much so he blinked open his eyes and pulled his lips away from hers, tightening his hold on her waist as he tried to steady himself. But when he looked down at her, all he saw were a pair of remarkable green eyes looking up at him, alive with concern and reassurance, and he could feel her hands softly stroking over his cheeks to calm his fears over what he’d just experienced.

After a few seconds he let her kiss him again, and as before the sound around them seemed to dissipate and there was no one else in the world. But now, all he was aware of was the feel of her mouth against his, of their lips moving in opposition yet in togetherness, of their tongues tasting the other’s mouth. And Adam was lost, lost in her world and not able, nor willing, to find his way out. He loosened one hand from her waist and, hell, he didn’t care anymore about society or propriety or how he should behave, he snaked that hand between the open folds of his yellow coat and let it smooth over the soft swell of her hip. The touch of his fingers on her flesh made her grip his face closer and a tiny moan escaped the back of her throat.

He didn’t want to stop but knew if he didn’t, he would never leave the beach. As he withdrew his lips from hers, he gradually became aware of sound and movement again and, once more, the world was as it should be.

They stood unmoving for a few moments, afraid to look into each other’s faces for fear they’d see that the earth had, at this moment, shifted slightly. And for Adam, to recognise that would mean acknowledging, there and then, that his life was about to travel a different road. He gently removed his hands from her body and, ducking his head, he turned towards Sport, who had been remarkably patient for the best part of a day.

She was quiet behind him, and he knew she was watching him as he gathered his mount’s reins in his hands. But then there was a soft flurry of sound and she was there by his side.

With a sinuous movement she shed Adam’s coat from her shoulders and held it out to him. “You forgot this.” Adam couldn’t help but stare and it was only after several long seconds that he reached out and took his coat from her. In the blink of an eye she had turned and run down to the water, leaving Adam leaning across Sport’s back in an effort to regain his composure.

*****

Adam could see the anger in his brother the moment he rode over the ridge of the hill. Joe and Hoss were working to repair a large section of fence line that had become damaged in the previous winter’s storms. His youngest brother’s stance was rigid, his shoulders square, and as Adam rode closer he could see that Joe was taking his anger out on the nails he was hammering into the fence posts. Hoss glanced over at Adam as he approached, shook his head and raised his eyes to heaven.

Joe straightened as Adam reined in and dismounted, leaving Sport unsecured with the other horses. Adam watched as Joe threw his hammer to the ground and unconsciously clenched his fists.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“Hey now, Joe,” Hoss broke in.

Joe whirled, his finger pointed at Hoss, “You stay outta this.” He spun back to face Adam, his eyes black with anger. “This was your job, Adam. We only rode up a couple of hours ago to help you finish, but you hadn’t even started. We’re behind on ranch work because of everything that’s been going on with the missing boys; we’re not gonna get this completed today, and to top all that it’s been rainin’ and I’m soaked to the skin.”

Adam took a step closer to Joe, his hands spread in a gesture of appeasement. “I’m sorry, Joe. I rode down to the lake after dawn and time just…”

“The lake! Always with the lake. Are we gonna get home tonight and find out another child has gone missing that you will miraculously find tomorrow?”

“Hey, Joe, that ain’t fair. Ya know Adam’s got nuffin to do with that.”

The finger was pointed at Hoss’s chest again. “I told you stay outta it. This is between me and Adam.”

It was becoming an effort, but Adam managed to keep his voice level. “Are you insinuating I’m somehow involved with these missing children?”

Joe’s voice dropped to match his brother’s. “Well, I can’t do anything but insinuate, since you won’t tell us what’s going on.”

Adam could have stopped it there and then. If he had been reasoning properly instead of letting his anger at Joe’s inferences take control of his thinking, he could have walked away, or made up a lie about falling asleep on the lake shore, or some other innocuous reason. But Adam wasn’t thinking rationally.

He had been in another world as he rode up to High Valley, recalling over and over again the feel of her skin under his hand, and the taste of her lips against his. He kept seeing the images of her past life as they had careened through his mind. And as he had been trying to work out what he felt for her, he had been hit by a startling realisation that made him pull up the reins sharply, causing Sport to snort and toss his head in protest. He suddenly knew that he was in love with her. He gazed into the distance, wondering how that could possibly be. He barely knew her. He wasn’t like Joe, who fell in love at the drop of a hat, professing undying love and marriage within five minutes of having met someone. Well, okay, he had fallen quickly for Ruth, but the conclusion to that relationship had been taken out of his hands. He generally wasn’t one for letting his feelings control his decisions, preferring good old common sense and rational judgement to rule his actions.

He had sat on the back of his unmoving horse, staring into nowhere, desperately trying to understand how he could have fallen so hard for a woman he had only known a few days. He knew her body, oh yes, that moment when she had risen from the water and stood in front of him, before he’d been able to collect himself together, that moment would be etched on his consciousness forever. But he didn’t know her mind. Although she had told him of her history, he didn’t know anything about how she lived her everyday life. Where did she sleep at night? He’d never seen her eat, and what did she actually do when she wasn’t rescuing small boys from the lake? He felt completely in the dark so he had sorted through everything he had learned about her up to now. He knew she was compassionate, caring and empathetic; that she had a joy for living and took pleasure from simple acts and the world around her. But then he had realised he would never be able to talk about books or poems or art with her because she knew nothing of those things. And he couldn’t take her to big cities and visit museums and teach her about architecture. Travelling across the world was out of the question. These things had always been important to him; they gave him purpose and interests in his life. So why had he fallen in love with someone who was so different from anyone he would normally be attracted to?

And that’s when it had hit him. He’d not fallen in love with her in the last hour, or the last day, or even at that first moment he’d seen her on the beach. No, he’d been in love with her since the day he’d been born. All the events of his life had been leading up to now. His failed relationships, the dissatisfaction he felt deep inside, his restlessness. It all made sense to him because none of it mattered anymore. This woman, this being, Amara, had been here his entire life, waiting patiently for him, watching out for him. And now that they had come together, he felt complete. There was nothing missing in his life anymore. He loved her, and had always loved her. And realising that, he had kicked Sport into motion and whooped with joy.

But his elation had dwindled at Joe’s accusations. Adam drew himself up to his full height and moved in close so he was face to face with his brother.

“And what business is it of yours, little brother, what I do in my time? I don’t answer to you.” And he poked a finger deeply into Joe’s shoulder, pushing him so hard Joe rocked back on his feet.

So it came as no surprise when Joe’s fist suddenly connected with Adam’s face, cracking into his temple and knocking his older brother off his feet. Adam levered himself up onto one elbow, the tips of his fingers gently touching his cheekbone as he stared up at his younger brother who stood glaring down at him, clenching and unclenching the offending fist. Adam climbed to his feet, and before Joe could take a breath, Adam barrelled into his chest and they both went tumbling to the earth, fists flying as they attempted to inflict damage on the other. They didn’t count on Hoss though. A huge hand reached into the melee and grabbed one collar, and another hand found another collar. He yanked the two brothers apart, keeping them in an iron grip as they were held at arm’s length from each other.

“Now, lookee here, I don’t know what you two are all so fired up about, but beatin’ the Sam Hill outta each other ain’t gonna solve nuffin.”

Hoss stared daggers at first one brother then the other. Adam and Joe hung limply, one at each end of Hoss’s arms, nursing their bruises and, in Joe’s case, a gash above his eye. Their feet barely scuffed the earth.

“Now is one o’ you gonna tell me what this is all about?”

A chorus of “ask him” met Hoss’s ears.

Hoss’s face drew together in a dark cloud of anger. But as he was about to give his brothers what for, Adam yanked himself out of Hoss’s grip, pulled his clothes into a semblance of order, and stumbled off towards his horse.

“Adam…”

“No, Joe. I’m sorry about…this…” and Adam gestured around him at the rolls of barbed wire and the broken fencing, “but I’m not sorry about anything else. That you could even think I had anything to do with Eli and Matt going missing.” By this time Adam had mounted up, and gathering the reins in his hand, had wheeled Sport around.

“Adam, I don’t think…”

“I don’t care what you think anymore, Joe. But if you can stop accusing me for one second, you might want to ask Roy Coffee to look into the disappearance of a child who drowned in the lake, don’t know when; name of Henry. He has some connection with who is doing this. And you can also ask him to look for a woman with red hair; she’s the one taking the boys, not me!”

And with a kick to Sport’s flanks and crouching low over the horse’s neck, he was away, leaving a startled Hoss staring at his departing figure, and Joe blowing out a breath in exasperation.

*****

Adam rode hard. He didn’t know where, or for how long, he simply let Sport have his head to run. All he knew was he needed to ride out his anger, to drive it out of his system. Joe’s accusations had enraged and upset him. How could Joe think he would have anything to do with the disappearance of the two boys; how could he think that of him? But Adam also knew he was partly to blame. He had been less than forthcoming with his younger brother, so was it any wonder Joe was taking two and two and making five. Adam was also annoyed at himself for letting Joe twist his mood so violently from happiness to one of anger. And why had he hit him back? He should have left then, nursing a bruised face, yes, but before it had turned into the full-scale fight it had become.

And so he had let Sport run without taking any notice of where the animal was headed. Yet when Adam pulled up and rummaged in his saddlebags for some jerky to feed his empty stomach, discovering a couple of bruised apples at the same time, he noticed he was back at the turn-off that led to Josiah’s Cove. He hadn’t consciously returned to the lake, but he surmised he must have been unwittingly heading Sport in this direction. With the sun starting to edge towards the horizon, he headed towards the cove, and led Sport through a rapidly darkening and heavily shadowed forest to the beach. Stepping onto the sand, he cast his eyes around the area and saw that he was alone. Adam yanked the saddle off his mount’s back and heaved it along the beach, with his saddlebags over one shoulder, to a place amongst the rocks where he made a makeshift campsite; he had no wish to return home for further allegations and naysaying. He hobbled Sport in the shade of the woods and with an open palm fed his apples to the hungry horse. “Sorry, old chum, that’s all I’ve got.” And with a pat to the gelding’s neck, he strolled down to the water’s edge and waited for Amara to come.

He hadn’t had to say her name, or even think in his mind he wanted to see her. He knew she’d come to him. And as the sun dipped below the horizon, burnishing the remaining clouds in a riot of gold against the dusky blue sky, and the still water turned silver with the reflection of the sun’s rays, her head slowly rose from the water and she walked out to meet him on the shore. She shone like a beacon, casting her light in a world that had briefly turned dark.

Adam stood at the water’s edge and kept his eyes fixed on the sand as she approached him. Her feet came into his line of vision, and he saw how her bare toes made tiny indentations in the hard sand, a trail of rapidly dissolving footprints in the wet ground behind her. He didn’t stop himself from looking at her body this time. He lifted his head and gazed steadily at her and when his eyes joined with hers, he smiled and held out his hand.

He led her up the beach.  And there, amongst the age-old formation of rocks and boulders, and sheltered from the trees and the open expanse of the lake, he dropped to his knees and curled his arms around her hips. Closing his eyes, he pressed his cheek against her skin, savouring the warmth of her body against his. She enclosed his head within her hands, holding him close. Adam could feel his heartbeat slow as he relaxed in her arms. They stayed like that for a few moments until Adam slowly angled his head towards her and placed a soft kiss on her flesh. Her grip on his head tightened as she wove her fingers through his hair, lost in the sensations of his lips upon her skin. He kissed and licked his way up her torso, relishing how her skin tasted like cool fresh water in a desert oasis, until she could stand upright no longer and together they tumbled to the sand.

Afterwards, it wasn’t so much the physical aspect of their love-making Adam brought to mind—although he didn’t think his body had ever reacted to another person in the way it did with her—but rather an otherworldly experience that Adam would never be able to explain. He didn’t know whether he had imagined it, or whether it had truly happened, but either way, after they had lain back under the night sky to let sleep claim them, Adam knew he was bound to her forever.

When the rapture of their first union began to overtake them, she had taken his face between her hands and captured his eyes with hers. He had felt his vision fading to nothingness, and even while his body was racked with the sensations of their joining, his mind was set adrift. Adam felt as if his spirit was floating high above the firmament, an ethereal wisp drifting amongst the stars. But he wasn’t alone. There was a presence beside him, and at the same time, entwined within him, a being composed of warmth and love, and he knew it was her.  And as their physical bodies became one, so a lost soul and a lonely soul were bound together eternally, high above the lake, in the infinite blackness of the sky.

They had slept a while and woken again when the night was at its blackest, once more to be overwhelmed in an onslaught of bliss. She became afraid, though, when she saw a fleeting flash of anguish pass over his face. For she knew that, even in his ecstasy, Adam was unknowingly mourning the family he would have to leave behind so that he could be with her. As their bodies fell limp, she had enveloped him in her arms and legs, holding him close to her. He was not aware of his momentary grief, but she had seen it, and her heart was sorry for what she knew was to come.

Later, in the small hours of the morning, Adam was awoken by the feel of the cool night air on his exposed skin. One half of his body was warm, though. He glanced down at his side to where she lay sleeping, closely tucked up against him. Carefully, he felt behind him to find his coat, and he drew it across them both, covering as much as he was able. In the minutes before he fell back to sleep again, he recalled their love-making, and knew it had been more than simply two people tumbling on the sand. Everything was different; and even if he had merely imagined their two souls coming together, he knew they were bound as one now. And Adam suddenly felt uncertain because he knew to be with her he would have to hurt the people he loved most in the world.

*****

Day 6 – Wednesday

Adam awoke slowly in the half-light of dawn, clawing reluctantly into wakefulness; a struggle after the delights of the dream world. But then he saw the shock of autumn hair, the bare shoulder peeping out from beneath his coat, and felt the soft round arm thrown languorously across his waist, and knew the events of the night had all been real. He stretched carefully, trying not to wake the sleeping naiad. But she roused and sleepily lifted her head, resting her chin on his chest as she smiled drowsily at him.

He pulled her up to him and they kissed for a breath that seemed like an eternity. And then Adam told her that he was going to leave his family to be with her and that he would come to her in a few days’ time. It didn’t cross his mind to think about how he would live, or where. All he knew was that he couldn’t be apart from her, and he would fight all the armies of the world to make that so. She had pressed her cheek against his, wrapping her arms around his chest, and he could feel her heart fluttering like a butterfly’s wings against his body. And when he had asked her what would happen when he came to her, she said that there would be an ending and a new beginning. Adam was baffled, but, for the moment, he placed that thought at the back of his mind. For now, it was more important for him to be with his family, to make amends with his youngest brother, to make memories he would always remember. Leaving them would hurt more than he knew and, sadly, he knew the pain would be on both sides. He was determined these last days with them would be good ones, full of laughter and happiness.

After he had retrieved his clothes from the sand and dressed quickly to diminish the coolness of the early hour, he dropped to his heels where she sat with his coat draped modestly around her shoulders. Ironic, thought Adam, that she should cover herself now, considering my intimate acquaintance with every inch of her body.

“How can I be in love with you? I’ve only known you for what seems like five minutes?” And he had quirked his face into a half-smile and with a wink, said, “Are you sure you haven’t mesmerised me?”

She laughed and curved her hand over his knee.

“What is a minute, my love, but a measurement of time. And time has no relevance for us when we are together. It loses all meaning because we were always meant to be.”

And she leaned across and slowly kissed him, her eyes closed as her lips softly caressed his own. Their ardour threatened to consume them as she raised herself onto her knees and they gripped each other tightly, their kiss evolving from tender to hungry. And as Adam’s hands moved across her back, his coat dislodged from her shoulders and slipped to the sand, and Adam knew if he didn’t stop now, he would stay all day at the cove. He had to pull himself away from the sweet taste of her lips and the feel of her skin beneath his hands.

It was with regret that he left his beautiful golden love at the tree line, her palms pressed against the bark of a fir, watching him as he led Sport through the dense woodland towards home.

*****

His father was walking out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee raised halfway to his lips when Adam quietly entered the ranch-house. Ben stopped mid-stride when he saw his absentee son, and after lifting an enquiring eyebrow, he took a sip of coffee before approaching his eldest boy who looked somehow lost as he stood by the sofa, his hand picking at a loose thread of fabric. “Welcome home.”

Adam flicked a quick glance at his father and when all he could see was a look of concerned amusement, he relaxed, letting out a held-in breath as a half-smile dimpled one side of his face.

“Pa, I’m sorry about Joe, I…”

“It’s not me you should be apologising to, son. And from what I hear, you both need to be apologising to each other.”

Adam peered over Ben’s shoulder, taking in the breakfast table which had yet to be cleared. The sight of the leftover food reminded him he hadn’t had anything substantial to eat in over twenty-four hours. He headed to the table, speaking over his shoulder as he went.

“Where is Joe?”

Ben turned, watching as Adam gathered a plate of cold bacon and biscuits, and disappeared momentarily into the kitchen to pour a cup of fresh coffee. “He’s gone into town with Hoss. Said something about seeing Sheriff Coffee about a boy who drowned in the lake.”

Adam paused. “Ah. Yeah.”

“Ah yeah.” Ben’s eyebrows were crawling along the top of his forehead. “Son, it’s a beautiful day…bring your food outside, we need to have a little talk.”

*****

Ben sipped his coffee as he watched Adam tucking into his bacon with gusto.

“Where did you spend the night?”

Adam kept his eyes on his meal as he chased a piece of bacon around the plate.

“Ah, down at the lake.”

“It was a chilly night.”

“I kept warm.” When she touched me it felt like my skin was on fire.

Ben resumed the careful sipping of his coffee and they were silent for a few minutes.

“What’s going on, Adam? You’re getting up earlier than even you are want to do, disappearing out of the house at the crack of dawn. You’re distracted, fighting with your brother. And now Joe tells me it was you who found the second boy…”

“He thinks I have something to do with their disappearances.”

Ben’s cup hit the saucer harder than he was intending to. “He thinks nothing of the sort.” He sighed, pushing the empty vessel away from him. “He’s worried about you. We all are. You have to admit, it’s strange you found both children. And now you tell us to find out about a drowned boy?”

Adam stared hard at his empty plate, and picking up his coffee took a gulp, hiding his face behind the upraised cup.

“Are you protecting someone, Adam?”

Adam suddenly felt weary. He wanted to shout from the hilltops that he was in love with the most beautiful and incredible and extraordinary woman in the world. And that even better, she loved him back. He couldn’t answer, and as he laid his cup down on the table top, he noticed his father looking perceptively at him and knew he wouldn’t be able to keep her a secret.

“You are protecting someone.”

Adam stood up, and walked over to the planter on the edge of the porch, wrapping his hand around the smooth bark of the tree. He turned around to face Ben and, resting his backside on the corner of the planter, he fixed his eyes on the wooden planking at his feet.

“There’s a girl at the lake.”

When his father didn’t respond, he threw a quick glance upwards and saw a pair of eyes, watching, waiting for him to continue.

“It was she who found the boys, and told me about Henry.”

Ben sat up straighter in his chair, frowning as he digested what Adam had told him.

“Why doesn’t she come forward? Who is she?”

Adam stayed silent, his eyes on the floor again.

“Adam?”

“Pa, she’s different, she’s…private, a bit of a recluse.”

Ben was on his feet, walking around the table to stand in front of his son.

“What does that matter? There’s a mad woman out there trying to drown small children. And if she knows something about it, then she needs to come forward.”

Adam breathed in heavily. “Pa, she doesn’t know who it is, she…just happened to find the children and…she heard this woman saying the name Henry.”

Adam knew the moment the words had left his mouth he’d made a mistake. He rose to his feet slowly.

Ben followed his movements. “So she’s seen who’s doing this, she can identify her?”

“No, Pa. Well, yes, but…”

Ben’s volume was starting to rise. “She’s seen this woman but is refusing to say who it is. Is that what you’re saying? Joe is right, you are hiding something.”

“Pa, please…”

Ben softened when he heard the pleading in his son’s voice, and his tone lowered to a reasonable level again.

“Adam, son, what is this woman to you? Why are you protecting her?”

Adam paused, sighed heavily and then looked up into his father’s eyes. His face brightened as a smile edged across his lips.

“I’m in love with her.”

Those had been the last words Ben had expected to hear. He stood stunned for a few moments staring at Adam, letting his son’s words sink in.

“Well, Adam, that’s…wonderful. And does she feel the same way about you?”

Adam nodded. “She does.”

“Well, when are we going to meet her? Why don’t you invite her to the house for supper? We can all meet her, find out a little bit more about her.”

Adam’s face quirked in a half smile. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” Hey Pa, Hoss, Joe, let me introduce you to Amara. She’s older than she looks and is wearing her finest outfit—her birthday suit! “I don’t want to frighten her off too soon.”

“Oh, well, okay.” Ben huffed slightly at the idea of scaring off one of his son’s sweethearts. “Can you at least tell me her name?”

“Ah…Amara.”

“Amara…that’s a beautiful name. And you say she lives at the lake. I don’t know anyone by that name, and I know everyone around these parts.”

“Well, like I said, she’s a bit of a recluse, keeps herself to herself.”

Ben sat down again at the table. “How did you meet?”

“Well…it was the day I found Matt Butcher.”

“That was only a few days ago.”

Adam plopped himself on a chair on the other side of the table, resting a foot against the side of the planter.

“And you’re serious about her?”

“I’m going to…” Adam paused. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with her.”

Ben drew himself up in his chair. “Son, you’ve only known her a few days. Are you this sure about her?”

“Pa, you once told me two people can know each for years before they develop a love for each other…or it can happen in the blink of an eye. You said there is no right or wrong length of time and you shouldn’t try to work out why you’ve fallen in love, or what it is about that person. You also said love is indescribable, a mystery, and that when it happens, you’ll know.”

“The words of a foolish old man,” said Ben with a droll smile.

“The words of a wise old man,” returned Adam.

They both laughed, but then Adam grew serious again. “I love her, Pa,” he said softly. “I’ve never felt more sure about anyone in my life before.”

Ben rose from his chair and walked around the table. He placed a warm hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Then I’m happy for you, son.” He leaned back against the table.

“But?”

“But, it doesn’t explain why she’s so secretive.”

Adam stood. “It’s like I said, she’s different. She’s, uh, not used to people.”

“I’d like to meet this girl who has turned my son’s head.”

“One day, Pa, soon, I promise.” But even as Adam said that he knew he was lying to his father because his beautiful golden love would never be able to meet his father or brothers. And Adam grew sad because his time with his family was coming to an end, and he’d have to leave them soon. But that time wasn’t now, and shaking his head slightly to drive those thoughts from his mind, he jumped down from the porch and headed back to Sport, who he’d left tied to the hitching post with a bag of oats to munch on.

“I’ll see ya, Pa. I think I need to do my bit up at High Valley, get back into Joe’s good books.”

He wheeled away and out of the yard. Ben watched him ride into the distance and, although warm, Ben shivered as though the sun had tucked itself behind a dark cloud. He couldn’t explain why, but without any warning Ben began to feel uneasy, even a little afraid. He was suddenly struck with the thought that time left with his son was running out fast.

*****

Adam had been working alone for a couple of hours when Joe and Hoss appeared at the top of the ridge. His shirt with unbuttoned to the waist, his hair was mussed and he had smeared several streaks of dirt across his face. He watched as Joe reined in for a moment and paused, before starting his descent down the hillside.

Hoss was quickly off his horse, walking past Adam towards their tools, and giving him a slap on the shoulder as he passed. Joe took his time securing Cochise to a section of repaired fence before slowly following Hoss, his head down as he walked by Adam.

“Joe.”

“Adam.”

Adam walked over to his younger brother and taking Joe’s chin in his hand, he angled his brother’s face away so he could study the gash he’d given him the day before.

“Seems like nothing can detract from those handsome good looks of yours, Joe.”

“It’ll take more than a scuffle and a couple of slaps from you, older brother, to put a dent in what God chose to bless me with.”

Adam hung his head briefly and when he looked back up at Joe, he had a half smile quirking his lips. “Oh I don’t know, if Hoss hadn’t stepped in when he did, I might have given you a matching cut above your other eye, a split lip, a busted nose, made you look more like one of us lesser mortals.”

“I’m pleased that, after all these years, you’re finally able to recognise the Adonis that you live with.”

“Adonis! Have you been looking at the pictures in my books again?”

And they had both laughed and slapped a hand around each other’s necks briefly before joining Hoss at the fence.

Joe slipped on his work gloves and squinted across at Adam.

“Where did you go last night?”

“I slept down at the lake, at Josiah’s Cove.”

Their eyes met.

“Look, Adam, I’m sorry about what I said. I know you don’t have anything to do with the missing kids. I was just riled up, and you haven’t exactly been open with us.”

“I know, Joe, and I’m sorry. You have to trust me on this one.”

“Trust you on what? I don’t understand why you can’t…”

But then a large hand clamped on Joe’s shoulder as Hoss pushed between the two of them.

“Look, Joe, Adam’s told us to trust ‘im, and so that’s what we’ve gotta do. He’ll tell us when he’s good and ready.”

Adam cast a grateful glance at his wise middle brother and took a step closer to Joe.

“I don’t wanna fight with you, Joe, not now.” He glanced down and his words were almost a whisper. “Especially not now.”

Joe’s eyebrows drew together at his brother’s words.

“What do you mean, especially not now?

And Adam found himself having to lie again as he backtracked, cursing his mouth for not staying silent.

“Well, you know, seeing those boys almost get drowned, it makes you think of, well, uh, how short life can be, and, uh, how it can be extinguished, just like that.”

Joe and Hoss gazed at their brother, their faces bewildered.

“Ah, come on, you know me, I’m always thinking more than what’s good for me.”

“You can say that again, brother,” murmured Hoss. “Let’s get to work.”

Adam threw himself into the task at hand, conscious that this would be one of his last days on the ranch. He wanted to feel his muscles being tested as he and his brothers manoeuvred the wooden planking into place; he enjoyed the sensation of the sweat trickling down his back with the exertion; and most of all he savoured the camaraderie and the time spent with Hoss and Joe. Occasionally he would halt on the pretence of taking a swig of water from his canteen, and stare out over the vast sweep of country that made up the Ponderosa. He determined to fix this memory in his mind: of the ranch, his brothers, the land. And if Hoss or Joe looked up and saw him, they would recognise a wistful look in his eye, and nudge each other. Adam would notice and throw the canteen at one of them, telling them to stop standing around gawping and get back to work. They’d all laugh and jokingly say “yessir Adam” and get back to it.

While they worked, Joe told Adam that Roy Coffee had assigned one of his deputies to check out the story of Henry, the child who might have died at the lake. He had been sent down to the offices of the Territorial Enterprise to look through the paper’s old editions. However, as the paper was only as old as the town itself, the deputy had been instructed to talk to the townsfolk as well, to see if anyone remembered the story; the older generation were always great sources of local fact…and fiction.

That evening the brothers could not convince their father to join them for a few drinks in town. It was Adam’s idea, all part of his memory-gathering exercise. And after an intense few days, they all wanted to blow off a little steam. Their father feigned a preference for a quiet night in front of the fire with a good book. In truth, Ben felt as though his heart was breaking for a reason he could not discern, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to enjoy himself as he watched his eldest son laughing and making merry. Ben knew he was losing him, to what, or whom, he couldn’t say.

So the Cartwright brothers hit the town and caroused as if there was no tomorrow. They went from saloon to saloon, throwing back the beer and whiskey, joining in the poker games where they lost more than they won. Joe and Hoss were too distracted by the painted saloon girls who slithered onto their laps to concentrate properly on the game at hand. Adam gently declined whenever one of the ladies sidled up close, running a finger up his arm, leaning over suggestively so her bust was close to his face. Joe would exchange a look with Hoss wondering why their older brother was turning down the chance to squeeze and fondle a willing young thing. But Adam merely sent them on their way with a hearty slap to their rear and, with a laugh and a call for more whiskey, he continued to enjoy the sight of his brothers losing their hard-earned cash. At the end of the night they even partook of a good-natured fist fight with a group of cowhands from a neighbouring ranch. And as chairs went flying and bodies flew over tables, the boys would pick themselves up, dust down their clothes, and throw themselves, fist-first, back into the melee. Thankfully the fight concluded before the sheriff caught wind of the ruckus. Arms reached down to pull opponents to their feet; hands were shaken, backs slapped and there were no bad feelings. As they all piled out of the saloon, Adam threw a handful of notes to Sam, the barkeep, to take care of any damage, and the three brothers threw themselves onto the backs of their mounts and whooped it up as they galloped out of town, leaving a trail of dust behind them.

As they neared home, however, all three of them were starting to feel the worse for wear. Joe had to clamber to the ground on more than one occasion to lose the contents of his stomach into the nearby scrub. Hoss ended up almost horizontal on the back of Chubb, leaning across the horse’s neck, clinging on for dear life as the inside of his head developed an insistent loud hum which wouldn’t shift no matter which way he positioned himself. And Adam? Well, Adam hadn’t drunk nearly as much as his two brothers, although his knuckles were sore from fattening the faces that came into contact with his fist. He had the reins of Chubb in one hand, guiding his groaning middle brother home. His head behind his eyes was starting to ache, and he was desperate for a gallon of water to chase the taste of sour whiskey from his mouth. But he was happy. He had needed this evening with his brothers. They had no idea that for Adam this had been a farewell party. He had wanted to enjoy his brothers at their best, and tonight, as the Cartwright boys had ruled the town, they had been that and more.

Getting into the house without waking their Pa was another issue entirely. Hoss’s sense of balance had deteriorated to the point of non-existence by the time Joe and Adam had maneuvered him through the door. They pulled his coat off him, removed his gun belt and hat, and as they turned to take care of their own apparel, Hoss made a move towards the stairs. Like a homing pigeon he had but one destination, his comfy bed where the world would no longer spin. Unfortunately, also like a homing pigeon, Hoss aimed to reach his bed as the crow flies and no matter the obstacle in the way. With his eyes only on the stairs, he careered into the side of the sofa sending it skidding into the table which in turn slewed across the floor and, with a crash, banged into the front of the hearth. Hoss ended up face down on the floor and with Joe, by turns, giggling and then shushing his two compadres with a dramatic finger to his lips, the two brothers who were still able to stand did their best to heave the dead weight that was now Hoss to his feet. With an arm under each shoulder, they’d progressed as far as the bottom step when Adam noticed the soft glow of a lamp shining from upstairs. At the same time, a pair of slippered feet, topped by bare ankles and the bottom of a nightshirt, appeared at his eye level on the middle landing.

“What in tarnation…!”

Two pairs of eyes blearily gazed upwards at the face of a man who had, in the past few minutes, been wrenched from his sleep by the clatter happening downstairs. And he was not happy.

“Sorry, Pa.”

“Sorry, Pa.”

A mumble was heard from Hoss’s flopping head.

“You’re sorry. Umm. And what’s wrong with your brother?”

“Ahh, he, uh, he ain’t feelin’ too good, Pa.” And Little Joe’s giggles began to trickle out between breaths.

Ben leaned in close.

“You all smell like the bottom of the barrel where Sam throws his slops!”

Ben took a step back, taking in the sight of his three adult sons standing in various states of inebriation and turned on his heel, pausing as he went.

“Get him into bed,” a finger pointed at Hoss, “then sort that mess out,” the finger had moved to the disarray of furniture behind them. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.” And with a final glare, he stomped up the stairs to his bedroom.

And later, after Hoss had been hauled onto his bed with a bowl placed on the nightstand within easy distance, and the living room had been put to rights, Adam lay back on his bed and thought back over the day. He had awoken on the beach with his beautiful love curled up by his side, both of them naked as the day they were born in the freshness of the spring morning. And he had left reluctantly, missing her the minute she had turned away from where she had been watching him leave and run down to the waters and out of his sight. But the time with his family had more than made up for the sadness he felt in his heart at being separated from her. The Cartwright boys had run riot in Virginia City, something they seldom had a chance to do. And although they were all suffering for it now, and would, more so, come the morning, Adam knew he would leave with good memories of this night, and his brothers.

*****

Day 7 – Thursday

The three brothers were up at High Valley that morning, finishing off the fence repairs, when their father came galloping over the ridge and reined in sharply before them.

It should have been a swift job, completed speedily, before they moved a few miles along the fence line to where another section had come down in the winter storms. But Hoss and Joe had lost the ability to work quickly after their exertions of the night before.

Neither of them had eaten anything that morning. They had both stumbled out of bed and down the stairs, followed by a sprightlier Adam, to be met with the forbidding sight of their father standing in the centre of the room, legs astride, fists on his hips and a look that would have frozen the hot springs up at Pyramid Lake. And for a good few minutes Ben’s adult sons had been reduced to small boys again as their father had told them exactly what he thought of their antics, his volume rising as he had become more animated. And as he had appeared to grow larger in stature, Hoss and Joe had seemed to shrink, shuffling their feet, their eyebrows drawn close together as they had squinted against the noise which rattled their brains. Adam hadn’t excluded himself from the rant, but he had taken it for what it was. And he had enjoyed every moment of it, revelling in the experience of his father at his most ferocious, as the authoritarian, the patriarch. And seeing him at full strength, Adam had been comforted, as he knew his brothers would be just fine when he had gone. Their father wouldn’t let it be otherwise.

And when Ben had noticed his eldest son with a smile edging around his lips, he had glared at him fiercely. “And what are you smirking about?”

Adam had lowered his head to keep his smile hidden. “Oh, nothing, Pa.” To which Ben had harrumphed and sent them off to the dining table for breakfast. Adam had managed to eat some ham and eggs, but his brothers had merely looked at the food with a look of nausea painted across their faces, before making as quick a getaway as they could manage.

And now as Hoss winced at every nail Adam drove, with relish, into the wooden fence poles, and Joe sat on the ground with his head in his hands, their father rode down at speed to their position.

“There’s been another abduction.”

Adam threw his hammer to the ground, propped his arms on the fence and dropped his head as the news overcame him. Joe swiftly forgot his hangover and rising to his feet moved to stand next to his father’s mount, hanging on to Buck’s reins as he looked up at Ben.

“Who’s been taken, Pa?”

“Harvey Mossman. Taken from his front yard sometime last evening. John and his other boys searched all night but only told Roy this morning. Turns out they hadn’t heard about Eli and Matt else they would have raised the alarm sooner.”

“Dadgummit, Pa, they’re good people. To have somefin like this happen to ‘em.” Hoss took his hat off, swatting at an invisible mark on his trousers as he bowed his head.

Joe turned away, his shoulders squaring as they did when the anger began to course through his body. He glanced over at Adam who still had his head down over the fence.

“Adam? What do you think?”

Adam slowly raised his head and twisted to face his brother.

“I don’t know where he is, Joe.”

“I’m not saying you do, but…” Joe stopped, aware he was speaking louder than he had intended. He sighed heavily and calmed his voice. “But do you think you might know…before long?”

Adam stared into Joe’s eyes. He didn’t see accusation there, only concern. He blinked and gently nodded.

Ben looked over to Adam.

“Son, we should get to the lake…now.”

Adam shook his head.

“No, Pa. I’ll go alone. She won’t come if anyone else is with me.”

Joe glanced quickly at Adam.

“She? Who is ‘she’? Who are you talking about?”

“Joseph, we don’t have time for this.”

But Joe wasn’t going to be deterred.

“No, Pa, there have been enough secrets.”

Ben cast a glance at his eldest son. Adam merely looked resigned and nodded.

“Joseph, your brother has been protecting a woman at the lake. It was she who found the boys.”

A look of surprise skimmed over Joe’s face. He looked to Hoss and saw the same creased brow of bewilderment.

“But if she’s not the one who’s taking them, why does she need protecting? Why won’t she come forward?”

Ben looked pointedly at Adam. “That…your brother has chosen not to share with us.” Buck shifted where he stood, and the movement seemed to remind Ben of the urgency of his mission. “But we don’t have time to debate that now.” He moved Buck a few steps closer to the fence to where Adam still stood. He leaned down over the animal’s neck. “Adam, we must get to the lake. The search party is heading there now…they aren’t even looking anywhere else. They may already be there.”

And then Adam understood what his father was trying to tell him. His face grew stricken, and then he was running, running faster than he had ever run before, to get to his horse, to the lake, and to her…before anyone else did.

*****

He was too late.

Adam had ridden Sport until the creature’s sides were heaving. He was aware of a group of riders behind him, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed his father and brothers a good quarter of a mile back. He had headed straight for Josiah’s Cove, but as he was approaching the turn-off, he was struck by a sense of uncontrolled terror. His body grew cold as the blood drained from his skin, his limbs started to shiver and his heart pound even faster than it had before. Adam knew it was her, that her fear was coursing through his body. He reined in, somehow knowing he was in the wrong place. He breathed hard to pull some air into his lungs to calm himself and, standing up in the stirrups, he quickly looked behind him. His family was still a way off but there was no time to wait. Adam kicked his exhausted horse back into action and headed further up the shoreline, taking the next turn-off. He knew he was going in the right direction as the sense of fear was growing stronger, and then he came across a large group of horses tethered to the side of the track. But there was no time to go on foot, so he urged his tired mount on into the forest, heading as fast as possible for the shore.

He crashed through the woodland, ignoring the peril to Sport if the creature should lose his footing or trip on an animal burrow. Adam only knew he had to get to the beach. He ducked the low-lying branches and ignored the twigs and leaves that whipped across his face. But then a crowd of people came into his line of vision and his own fear threatened to equal that of the woman.

He leaped off Sport, running the last few feet and broke out onto the beach, where he froze in his tracks.

Adam could see a large group of men, most of whom had their backs to him, peering over each other’s shoulders to gain a look at something or someone. He could hear jeering laughter and crude comments, and Adam’s heart sank as he knew they could be looking at only one thing. He pushed his way through the crowd, not caring who he elbowed in the process.  And there she was there, on the ground, huddled in a ball with her arms wrapped around her drawn-up knees and her head tucked low. Her face was hidden by her hair, but Adam knew her features would be tarnished by her distress.  Adam could see the leering expressions on the men’s faces as they stared at her naked form. He took in their drawn weapons. And even though some of the more respectable men had positioned themselves at the back of the crowd, their weapons holstered and their faces averted away from the terrified woman, Adam grew angry that no one had covered her nakedness. His rage began to bubble to the surface at her being treated like a trapped animal.

He placed himself between her and the crowd, glaring around at the ogling men. He recognised ranchers and hands from the Ponderosa’s near neighbours; he saw Matthew Butcher’s father, his face filled with loathing aimed at the woman he believed had tried to harm his son; he spied Josh from the livery stable in town; Kai Ostermeyer, who Adam had been known to play poker with on occasion; Bob Hardy, one of the town’s so-called upstanding citizens who always tried to out-sing those around him each Sunday in church. Adam knew these people, he had gone into business with some of them, socialised with them at church gatherings and town picnics. Heck, the Ponderosa kept some of these men afloat, they gave them so much work. But now he didn’t know any of them. They were simply faces, all with that same gaping expression, desperate to gawp at the woman curled up in front of them, so terrified she was physically shaking on the sand before them.

“What’s this all about?”

Her head lifted when she heard his voice, and he saw the wide-eyed terror on her face which was wet with panicked tears. She looked like she was about to speak, but Adam cut her off quickly.

“I asked you a question. What’s going on here?”

One of the men stepped forward, an unpleasant piece of work Adam recognised from town. Wade McKinnon, a low-life who would join a posse for the whiskey promised at the conclusion of a hunt, and one who took the term ‘dead or alive’ a little too plainly.

“We caught the child stealer, Cartwright. Found her red-handed next to the boy there.” He indicated behind him and the men parted to show Adam a small boy being held firmly in the arms of his mother. She had turned his face away from the shameless creature cowering on the sand, her hand over his eyes to stop him from seeing the shocking spectacle a few feet from them. Adam looked back at McKinnon, and the men surrounding him. All he could see were gaping eyes, and mouths hanging open. He felt sick to his stomach. And fear, fear of what they would do to her.

“How do you know it was her? She might have just found him.”

Wade gesticulated wildly with his weapon.

“Look at her Cartwright. She ain’t right, flaunting herself like that. It ain’t no one normal who’s been taking these kids, and she ain’t normal. I says it was her.”

There was a muttering of agreement amongst the crowd. Adam was cursing himself for not wearing his coat, and he was not going to leave her at the mercy of this gang of inbred halfwits for one more second. Adam scanned the crowd and pointed at one of the men behind McKinnon, a stranger he’d never seen before.

“You, give me your coat.”

The man looked indignant. “I ain’t giving you my coat, mister.”

Adam had a reputation in Virginia City for being a fast draw. But the speed at which he pulled out his pistol and cocked the hammer took the crowd by surprise. There was a collective gasp amongst the onlookers.

“I said, give me your coat.” Adam’s words were cool, evenly spaced. And when the man had shakily complied, struggling to pull his arms from the sleeves fast enough, Adam snatched the coat away with a look that could have cut glass. He un-cocked his weapon’s hammer but kept the gun in his hand. He turned to Amara and reaching down he grasped one of her arms and pulled her to her feet. And then, trying his best to keep her hidden from the salacious gazes around him, he wrapped her firmly in the coat. He briefly glanced at her face and saw she was looking at him keenly, an expression of relief in her eyes. He positioned her behind his back and turned to face the mob.

There was a commotion at the rear of the crowd, and once more men were being elbowed out of the way. Adam saw his father, swiftly followed by Hoss and Joe, pushing their way through the horde. Ben stopped, quickly taking in the sight of his son with his weapon drawn, and a woman pressed up close behind him, showing far more of her body than was proper; he frowned slightly at the sight of her long exposed legs and bare feet. But then he saw the child in his mother’s arms and a look of puzzlement crept over his face.

“You found the boy?”

“She found the boy, Pa. She kept him safe.” He risked a furtive glance behind him but couldn’t see her face which was tucked closely against his back. He could feel the warmth of her breath through his shirt. “I think she chose the wrong time to return him.”

“Hey!” McKinnon took a step towards Adam. “It was her, I tell you. When we got here she was all over him, then she tried to run. If we hadn’t caught her when we did, she’d have got away. We’re taking her in, Cartwright, and you ain’t gonna stop us.”

Adam drew back the hammer on his gun and pointed it squarely at McKinnon.

“You’re not taking her anywhere.” He threw a beseeching glance at his father. “Pa, it wasn’t her, you gotta believe me.”

Ben’s words were soft. “I believe you, son.”

Ben squared his shoulders and moved toward the circle of men. “Look, everyone, put away your weapons, we’ve got women and children here.” He looked pointedly at the frightened woman, her face low behind Adam’s back, clinging to his son as though her life depended on it. “And I don’t think she’s going to be causing anyone any trouble, do you?”

There were murmurings in the crowd, and a handful of men started to lower their guns. But Wade McKinnon wasn’t about to be denied his chance of a bit of glory in town. Bringing in the child stealer would secure him many nights of free drinks as folks paid to hear his story, and maybe even one of the saloon girls would take him upstairs for a free kiss and a fondle.

“She’s coming with us, Cartwright. There’s four of you against all of us. Who d’ya think’s gonna come out of this on top. We’ll take all o’ you down to get to her.”

And then Hoss was in front of Wade, pulling himself up to his full height, his mouth a straight line and brows pulled tight over two piercing and angry blue eyes.

“I’d like to see ya try.” And before McKinnon could even clench a fist, he was sprawled on his back on the sandy beach, one hand clutching his bloody nose where Hoss’s huge fist had smashed into it.

There was a muttering amongst the crowd, and guns which had been lowered began to rise again. More men started to come forward, stepping over their erstwhile leader as they came. “We want the girl,” shouted one of them, and then Ben and Hoss were shoving at the moving wall of men, trying desperately to keep them back, whilst Little Joe was tussling with a couple of men at the edge of the circle. But it was no use, the horde kept moving, desperate for their pound of flesh. And all the time Adam and Amara were edging back into the icy waters. Adam saw his father and brothers disappear, consumed by the crowd, just as the waves reached halfway up his calves.

Adam flicked his gun from one man to another as he watched the mob creep closer to the water.

“I will use this,” he shouted at them. And he fired a shot into the air. There was a pause; the world fell silent as everyone stopped what they were doing. But then the men started moving again, some of them following a short way into the lake.

“Where ya gonna go, Cartwright?” It was Wade. He clawed his way to the water’s edge, his nose a skewed mess of blood and mucus. “There ain’t nowhere to go!”

Adam slipped, stumbling to stay upright as the lake bed beneath his feet sloped away and the water surged around his knees. And then he heard Amara whispering into his ear, her voice confident and sure.

“You trust me, don’t you, Adam?”

Adam turned his head to the side and nodded once. And then she was ripping off the coat and letting it float away on the waves. Her arm wrapped itself around Adam’s torso and she pulled him farther away from the men on the shore who were milling around unsure of what to do. Adam saw his father and brothers break through the crowd and stare at Adam with shock and disbelief on their faces as inch by inch she pulled him away from them. Adam knew what was going to happen and although he had experienced fear in his life before, it was nothing compared to what he was feeling now. And yet, despite the adrenaline flowing through his veins and his desperate and futile desire to grab the woman’s hand and run away from the men on the beach, he did trust her. He had complete faith in whatever she was going to do. And as he acknowledged that trust, he felt his body relax and her grip tightened around his chest.

There was a shout from the shore. “Cartwright! You ain’t getting away, Cartwright!” And Wade McKinnon was running into the water, raising his pistol and pulling the trigger. An explosive crack echoed through the air. But Amara was already pulling Adam down, and he was falling backwards into the water on top of her as the bullet whistled harmlessly overhead. The crisp sounds of men shouting and splashing through the water were instantly muffled in Adam’s ears. For a few moments all he was aware of was the feel of her arm around him in the blackness of the water as a thousand air bubbles swirled around their falling bodies. And before he lost consciousness he saw his arms and legs trailing in a whoosh of rushing water. But that wasn’t the last thing that would burn itself into Adam’s psyche before his mind faded to darkness. No, Adam’s last conscious image was of his father on the beach, his face a frightened mask of shock and horror. And a single thought fluttered through his mind: “Please, God, not like this, don’t let it end like this…”

*****

Ben had watched in alarm as Adam had backed farther and farther out into the lake. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the woman tear the garment from her back, and although she was mostly hidden behind Adam, he could see her pale skin shimmering in the light reflected from the water, and he realised with a start she didn’t have a stitch of clothing on her. And if it wasn’t for the fact his son was being guided deeper and deeper into the water, with an arsenal of weaponry trained on him, he would have shooed Joe and Hoss away from the water’s edge. He knew they were adults—and although he didn’t like to entertain the notion, it’s unlikely his sons were strangers to the female form—but for some inexplicable reason this woman was exposed for all the world to see. And all the decency in Ben’s bones told him that no one should be looking at her as she was.

But then it was as though time slowed down. He could see Wade McKinnon shouting, and splashing erratically into the lake, his gun pointing wildly as he ran. And then Wade was pulling the trigger, and even though it was clear the bullet had shot wide, Ben had watched with horror as his eldest boy toppled back into the water—and not come back up. Ben had fallen to his knees, unable to blink, unable to drag his eyes from where he’d last seen his son. There was a roaring in his ears. He was aware of nothing and no one except for that one glassy spot on the lake’s surface—it was too still for too long. It was only the tugging on his arms, as Hoss and Joe tried to rouse their father from his stupor, that brought him back to life. He let them pull him to his feet, not even looking at them, not seeing their own looks of distress and fear on their faces. With a guttural yell, he wrenched himself out of their grip and started to run into the water. But strong hands clutched at him and pulled him back onto the shore.

He sank to the ground once more, his eyes fixed on the surface of the lake, unable to speak or even say Adam’s name.

There was another gunshot, and although Ben didn’t react, Hoss and Joe wheeled around to see Sheriff Coffee standing at the top of the beach with a couple of deputies by his side, his arm still raised from where he’d fired his pistol into the air.

“What in blazes is going on here?” he shouted as he moved towards the crowd. He quickly noticed the small boy in his mother’s arms, the men with weapons drawn, and several looking as though they’d been at the wrong end of a fist. He saw his friend, Ben Cartwright, sitting on the beach, a faraway expression of shock and grief on his face.

“Would someone care to explain what has been going on? We heard a gunshot.” He moved closer to Ben. “Ben, are you alright, are ya hurt?”

But then Wade McKinnon pushed through the crowd, his eyes starting to tear up from the pain of his broken nose.

“Sheriff, we caught the child stealer, got her red-handed we did. We found ‘er right here with the boy. But Adam Cartwright had ta stuck his nose in.”

A strange look came over Roy Coffee’s face.

“Well, where is this woman, this ‘child stealer’ as you call her?”

Wade started to shift on his feet.

“Well I…I think, uh, she’s dead.”

And at those words, Ben was on his feet, and before anyone could stop him he had launched himself at Wade, his hands gripping the man’s throat as he sought to throttle the life out of him.

“You killed my son!” He squeezed with every ounce of strength he could conjure. “It’s your fault he drowned!”

“What in blazes!” And Roy and Hoss and Joe, and anyone else who happened to be nearby, stepped in quickly to seize Ben’s arms and pull him off Wade, leaving the man choking for air on the sand.

“Ben! Ben!” Roy grasped Ben’s arms, peering into his face. “Where is Adam? What happened here?”

Ben shook himself out of Roy’s grasp. Breathing heavily, he paced a few steps, leaning down over his knees to calm himself. He straightened up and pointed an accusing finger at McKinnon, who still lay in a heap on the beach, clutching his neck and coughing.

“That…fool…shot at my son.” He glared at the fallen man. “Adam was trying to get the girl away from him, the girl who that…imbecile…said was taking the children. Adam told him it wasn’t her. But he wouldn’t listen, oh no, he wouldn’t listen. But I believe…” Ben paused, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, “I believed Adam. I trusted my son.” He suddenly became aware of Hoss and Joe, standing at arm’s length from their father, always nearby, his ready supports. And for the first time he saw the looks of anguish on both their faces. “I trust all my sons.” He turned his face back to Roy. “Adam had nowhere to go but out there.” He gestured towards the lake. “That cretin shot at him. Both he and the girl went under and…didn’t come up.” Ben inhaled a shaky breath. “They drowned.” He took another breath, trying to calm his exterior even though his insides were churning. But then he felt a firm hand on his shoulder, and another one on his back, and he felt his strength returning as he looked up to see his two boys by his side.

Roy could only gape at Ben with a look of shock and disbelief lining his face. After a few seconds had passed he gathered himself together. “I’m real sorry, Ben, boys. Adam was a…he was a good man.” Roy Coffee dipped his head for a moment, but he knew things needed taking care of, and this wasn’t the time to deal with his own grief. He walked over to the sprawled figure of Wade McKinnon, and speaking loud enough for everyone on the beach to hear, he addressed the man on the ground.

“Well I don’t know who you think took these boys, but we’ve just come from the cabin of one Mrs. Kathleen Farmer, widow of Elmer Farmer, who took to his bed about ten days or so ago and died of whatever malady he happened to have. His corpse was still in the bed they shared.”

Roy had everyone’s attention, and he could see looks of disgust on some of their faces at his last words.

“Mrs. Farmer was once the mother of a five-year-old boy called Henry who so happened to have drowned in this here lake about twenty-five years ago. Seems they were among the first settlers around here, kept themselves to themselves.”

He looked deliberately down at Wade who had shifted on to his backside by this point.

“It seems when her husband died, Mrs. Farmer became a little…unhinged. Kept hearing voices saying her boy was lonely, wanted someone to play with. So she went lookin’ for boys of her son’s age, and took ‘em down to the lake to drown them so the ghost of her boy wouldn’t be lonesome anymore.”

Roy looked around at his audience and saw the little lad in the arms of his mother. He smiled ruefully.

“But it seems someone kept spoiling her plans, because each child she thought she’d drowned would be, as she put it, spirited away, taken out of her hands. They’d then turn up safe and well a day or so later.”

At Roy’s words, Joe noticed his father suddenly look up and stare out over the water, a questioning frown creasing across his face. But before Joe could speak, one of the men in the crowd chimed up.

“And she told all this to ya? Have ya locked ‘er up, sheriff?”

Roy turned towards the voice in the crowd. “She was at her cabin when we got there, and just gabbled it all out. She’d gone crazy as a loon and half of what she said made no sense at all. But she knew the boys’ names, told us where she took ‘em; her story matched.”

Ben took a step towards Roy, wearing that same questioning look that had alerted Joe. “Where is she now? I’d like to talk to her if I may.”

Roy sighed. “That’ll be a little difficult, Ben. She’s dead. When I said I needed to take her in, she went mad. Grabbed a knife, stabbed herself in the chest. We buried her and her husband by their cabin.”

There was silence on the beach. Roy turned slowly on the spot to gaze at each man individually. Most looked away, some hung their heads, others removed their hats and stood fingering the rim in their hands.

“Well, men, I don’t know what little gal you say you caught today, but it seems like you got the wrong woman.” He looked down to the sand and his tone softened. “And it looks like both she and Adam Cartwright paid the price for your mistake.”

The crowd of men shuffled their feet, and not a word was said. Then Hoss was moving down to the water’s edge and reaching down for something in the surf. When he turned back, the men saw he had a sodden hat in his hand, a black hat with silver studs. He brushed wet sand off the crown but it was all too much, and he clasped the hat tightly to his chest, lowering his head so no one could see his face reddening and eyes that glistened with unshed tears.

And suddenly Joe was striding towards Wade McKinnon who’d hauled himself to his feet by this time. Joe swung at him. Wade’s nose made a sickening crunch as Joe’s fist slammed into the side of his face. He went down onto his side yet Joe wasted no time in reaching over to grab his collar to haul him to his feet again. But before he could, Hoss was there, pulling his little brother away, pinning his arms back.

“My brother died because you wouldn’t listen!” Joe spat at Wade as he struggled within Hoss’s grip. “I’ll see you hang for this!”

Hoss tightened his grip and shook his brother in gentle admonishment. “No, Joe, it weren’t just Wade.” He cast a withering look across the crowd of subdued men. “It weren’t just him.”

All Wade could do was stay on the ground, nursing his twice-broken nose.

Roy called one of his deputies over. “Take this piece of garbage back to the jail and lock ‘im up. A night in a cell should cool ‘im off a bit.” And Wade McKinnon was unceremoniously hauled from the ground and dragged off to the deputy’s horse. Roy then turned to the men who were still standing around, stunned at the turn of events. “And you men, get out there and see if you can find the…” He stopped himself just in time. “See if you can find Adam Cartwright and the girl.” And with a few grumbles, the men tossed their boots to one side and waded out into the lake.

Ben watched the men move towards the water and then walked over to Hoss and Joe. Hoss had released his younger brother, who had calmed a little after his outburst. He cupped a hand around his son’s neck, a gesture which brought tears to Little Joe’s eyes as he recalled the last person to have done that on the previous day.

“It’s alright, son.”

Joe flashed wet eyes to his father. “It’s not alright, Pa; my brother’s dead!” He opened his mouth as if to say more, but there was nothing more to say, so he turned his head away as the tears flowed.

“Joseph, it’s okay.” And turning his boys away from the searching men and steering them a ways up the beach out of anyone else’s hearing, he locked his hands behind both his son’s necks, looking deeply into their eyes.

“They won’t find their bodies.”

“What? But Pa, you saw what happened, same as me and Joe.”

“I thought I saw what happened, but I’m not so sure now. This isn’t the place to talk. Let’s go home, we can talk better there.”

And with a last word to Roy, who promised he’d bring any news of Adam’s body to the Ponderosa, Ben shook his friend’s hand and headed over to where his sons waited at the tree line. He left Roy conversing with Belle Mossman, still cradling young Harvey in her arms, and Ben felt relief that at last the abductions were over and they could all return home, safe in the knowledge that no more children would be taken. But he also felt a pang of regret for Kathleen Farmer, the unfortunate mother who had lost her sanity and life to loss and grief. And as he joined Joe and Hoss, who held the reins of a weary Sport in one hand, he took one last look at the beach which had been the scene of such tragedy a short time before. And he knew, somehow, deep in his heart, that Adam was alive, and out there somewhere. It was with a renewed spirit that he led the way to their horses and home.

*****

“What do you mean Adam’s alive, Pa? We all watched him die out there!”

Joe had stormed through the front door of the ranch house, throwing his hat on the side cabinet before spinning around to face his father who was taking a more leisurely approach to removing his hat, coat and gun belt. Hoss closed the door after him, standing behind Ben with a look of confusion and sorrow etched on his features. Ben didn’t say a word as he calmly removed his gear. He turned to see Hoss standing in front of the door with his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets, his head bowed. As for Joe, he stood stiffly in front of his father, hands clenching and unclenching by his sides, his shoulders back, looking to all intents and purposes like he was holding himself together to stop himself from coming apart at the seams.

“Come on, boys.” He smiled gently and put an arm out to each son, propelling them to the sofa, and seated himself on the table in front of them.

“Your brother isn’t dead.”

Joe’s head shot up from where he’d been studying a mark on one of his pants legs.

“Oh come on, Pa, we all saw him go under. He was down so long no one could have survived that.”

Ben looked at each of his sons in turn and leaned forward, resting his hands on their knees.

“Your brother has been protecting someone.”

“We know that, Pa.” Joe was still edgy, unsure why his father was so convinced Adam was alive. He was beginning to worry his father was in a state of denial, refusing to see the truth before his eyes.

“Why didn’t he let us help ‘im?” Hoss said sorrowfully. “Didn’t he trust us or somefin?”

Ben squeezed his knee in consolation. “I don’t think it was that, son.” He took a deep breath. “The person he was protecting was the girl at the lake, the one who…well…”

“The one who was nekkid, like that Adah Menken was?”

“Well, Adah Menken was wearing a form of attire, Hoss, but yes, her. Adam said she ‘found’ the boys but I don’t think he was telling us the whole truth.”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Do you remember what Roy said, about Mrs. Farmer becoming frustrated because each child was taken away from her, ‘spirited away’ as she put it?”

“They’re only the rantings of a crazy woman. You can’t take anything she said seriously.” Joe’s exasperation was plain, and he pulled himself out from under Ben’s hand and paced over to the fire. He stared into the flames, grateful the fire was kept burning at this time of year. He was beginning to feel a chill crawl over his skin, and he wasn’t so certain it was due to the spring temperature.

“No, Joe, I don’t believe they were just ravings.” Ben had risen to his feet and moved around the table to stand in front of his youngest boy. “I think this woman your brother was hiding, I think she was taking the children…under the water. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know, but she was taking them, keeping them safe, and then leaving them where your brother would find them.” He paused, knowing how his next words would be taken. “And I believe she’s taken your brother. They won’t find any bodies because…she’s spirited him away too.”

There was silence in the room. Ben looked from Joe to Hoss who both stared back with disbelieving looks on their faces.

“I know how this sounds, but think about it for a moment. Your brother couldn’t tell us how he kept finding the boys because if he had told us about her, he knew no one would believe him.” He looked steadily at both his sons again. “He described her as private, a recluse. Isn’t it more the case she was…unexplainable?” Hoss and Joe continued to stare blankly at him. Ben began to despair of ever convincing them, but then a thought crossed his mind. “Wait there, I need to show you something.” And he ran to the stairs taking them two at a time, leaving his bewildered sons shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders with worry.

A minute later Ben sprinted back down the stairs, a book in his hand, and as he reached the bottom, he started to flick through the pages, walking slowly towards the seating area.

“Back when all this started, your brother came home one morning and tore through the living room like the four horsemen of the apocalypse were after him. He was upstairs for a while and all sorts of bangs and crashes were coming from his room. When he’d gone, I found his books all over his bedroom floor—all except this one that is—and it was open at a particular page. I think I can remember which one…”

“Pa?”

Ben held the book up. “It’s a book of myths and legends from ancient times.”

He returned to the book, flicking through the pages until he found the correct one.

“Here we are…Naiades or Naides, certain inferior deities who presided over rivers, springs, wells and foundations…etcetera, etcetera…they are represented as young and beautiful, often leaning upon an urn, from which flows a stream of water…”

He looked up, his eyes alive with the hope he’d convinced his doubting sons.

Hoss stood up slowly and came to stand next to his father, squinting over Ben’s shoulder at the tiny print.

“Are you saying that gal at the lake is one of these…” he peered closer, searching for the word on the page. “…nay-dees?”

“Naiad, Hoss, its pronounced ny-add. And yes, I do.”

“Dadgummit, Pa, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the lake, but here you’re telling me there’s a little gal who lives in the water, as nekkid as the day she came into the world, who goes about saving folk.” And Hoss moved to the nearest chair and sat down heavily, his eyes perplexed as he thought over what his father had told him.

“What about you, Joe? Do you still think your brother drowned in the lake today?”

Joe pushed away from the hearth where he’d been leaning and walked over to his father.

“I don’t know, Pa. I want to believe, I really do.”

“But?”

“But it just sounds so…”

“Far-fetched?”

Joe shrugged.

“There’s only one way we’re going to know for sure.” Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulders and led him over to the hearth and to Hoss who still look stupefied at his father’s words. “Tomorrow we’ll ride out to the lake, and we’ll find your brother.”

Hoss looked up, his forehead creasing into a frown, and rose to his feet. “But Pa, there’s miles and miles of shoreline; how are we gonna find ‘im? It’ll be like trying to find a single flea on the back of ol’ Gertrude out there.” Hoss pointed in the direction of the barn, where their single dairy cow resided in a state of blissful ignorance that she was being used in an argument on the nearly impossible task which faced them in finding Adam.

Joe suddenly blinked and raised his head from where he’d been staring at the floorboards.

“Josiah’s Cove.”

Ben cocked his head. “What about Josiah’s Cove?”

“It’s where Adam said he slept the night he didn’t come home. If he’s been meeting this…whatever she may be…down at the lake, then maybe that’s where.”

Ben slapped his hands on his boy’s backs.

“Then that’s where we’ll start. Get an early night, boys, we’ll ride at dawn.”

*****

The Eighth Day

Adam’s feet were cold. He turned over onto his side, pulling his knees up so his feet would crawl back under the covers. But there was no blanket over him, and it wasn’t a cotton pillow he could feel beneath his cheek. It was sand. He opened his eyes carefully and saw he was on a beach and he was hit with the immediate recollection of standing in water up to his knees, a crowd of men pressing in on him, the girl at his back.

He sat up sharply and as he did, his belly heaved and he had to clamber onto his knees as he gagged and threw up the watery contents of his stomach. He looked down at the soggy mess and with a look of disgust, concluded he must have swallowed half the lake during his unexpected visit to its watery depths.

He fell back onto his backside and glanced around him. He was alone on the beach. Where was Amara? He remembered being pulled under the water by her strong grip around his chest and, before it all went dark, he recalled the sensation of speed, of being drawn through the water like a catch on the end of a fishing line. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t there with him. He staggered to his feet, checking both ways down the beach. He took a few steps towards the trees and then noticed he was barefoot; his socks and boots were lying discarded on the sand. He ignored them and continued to stumble aimlessly towards where the beach met the forest.

Somewhat distractedly he realised his clothes were damp but not wet, and he wondered how long he’d been unconscious out here. A quick glance at the sun and Adam realised it was morning, not long after dawn, and so he must have been out cold for at least fifteen hours.

But where was she? He zigzagged unsteadily to the rocks, to that precious place where they had consummated their love only days before. She wasn’t there. Nor was there any sign of her in the water. Adam was starting to become frantic. She wouldn’t have saved his life simply to abandon him on the beach. She would have stayed with him all night. And he began to worry that perhaps the bullet hadn’t missed after all, and she was injured somewhere, or that she had drowned from blood loss and exhaustion. He ran up and down the shoreline, his feet splashing through the surf, looking for any sign of her at all.

“Where are you?” he muttered under his breath. “Oh, God, please, where are you?”

He ran a few more steps and putting his hands to his mouth bellowed at the water. “Amara! Love! Amara!”

But the water remained tranquil in the still air of the early morning.

He heard movement behind him and spinning around he saw his father and brothers leading their mounts through the forest to the tree line; hurriedly securing them to the nearest tree when they saw Adam swaying unsteadily on the sand. Ben’s face was jubilant, his features overjoyed at seeing his oldest boy. But his smile faded to concern as Adam took a step forward and collapsed to his knees in front of them.

“Adam!” Ben ran to his side, and quickly hooked a hand under his son’s upper arm. Hoss was on the other side, mirroring his father’s actions, and together they kept Adam upright.

“Easy, boy,” Ben uttered. “We gotcha.”

“Doggone, Pa, you were right.” Hoss’s worried features broke out into a grin at the sight of his brother. “Me and Little Joe thought you was a goner, Adam.”

Adam half-smiled up at Hoss. “It’ll take more than a near drowning to kill me, brother.”

But then he was gagging again, and pulling out of Ben and Hoss’s grip to throw up what seemed to Adam like another gallon of water. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth and snorted. “I didn’t think I had any more water left in me.” He reached his arms out. “Help me up, would ya.” And Hoss and his father heaved him to his feet. He bent over and spat to rid his mouth of the foul taste that lingered, Ben keeping a steadying hand on his back.

Joe had run back to the horses, and as Adam straightened up he was faced with a canteen of water at the end of Joe’s outstretched arm. Adam took it, an amused smirk on his face, but he up-ended the container, enjoying the fresh water trickling down his throat.

He wiped his hand across his mouth again but then looked questioningly at Hoss. “You said you and Joe thought I was a goner.” He turned to his father. “What about you, Pa?”

Ben clasped his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I had faith, son, faith she would keep you safe.”

Adam met Ben’s eyes, surprised his somewhat conservative father had put trust in something so beyond the realms of traditional understanding. But then he remembered the stories his pa would tell of his seafaring days, and of the mysterious happenings which occurred on the distant oceans, and he felt a touch of guilt that he could so readily dismiss the idea of his father believing in something out of the ordinary. But his guilt was soon swallowed by a crushing gratitude that his father had trusted in Amara. He reached his hand up and grasped his father’s wrist which still rested on his shoulder, and squeezed in recognition of his father’s certainty.

“I mean,” said Ben drolly, “it’s not every day you encounter a naiad.”

Adam’s mouth dropped open. But then he saw the twinkle in his father’s eye and breathed a sigh of relief that he no longer needed to lie about her existence.

“How did you know?”

“The clues were there, son; all I needed to do was piece them together. The biggest one being the state you left your room in the other day and the dictionary you had left on your bed. That, along with something Roy said.”

Adam looked puzzled.

“Ah, yes, I should have said; they caught the woman who was taking the boys. Turns out she was getting rather frustrated that they were being taken out of her hands…from under the water.”

Joe hung his head.

“I’m afraid I was one of those who thought it was purely the ravings of a mad woman.”

Adam turned to his younger brother.

“It’s okay, Joe. I know what it sounds like. I’m just relieved it’s over, and that people know Amara is innocent.”

But then Adam turned to the lake and took a few steps towards the gently lapping water. He spoke quietly, so softly his father and brothers had to strain to hear him.

“I just wish I knew where she was.”

He sat back down on the sand and stared out over the lake. Hoss dropped to his haunches next to him.

“Adam, you gotta explain to me, how comes we’ve never seen her round here before?” Jest who…what…is she?”

Adam didn’t stop staring at the water.

“She’s the woman I’m in love with.” And with those words, he leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees and continued to gaze at the vista in front of him.

Hoss watched his brother for a few moments more, but no further words were forthcoming. He stood up and shrugged, turning his mouth down briefly in puzzlement.

Ben raised his eyebrows at Hoss, and then he too dropped to his ankles.

“Adam, son, let’s go home. You’ve been out all night and your clothes are damp. You’ll catch a chill if we don’t warm you up and get some hot food in you. And I’d like Doc Martin to look you over too.”

Adam’s eyes were fixed on the water.

“No, Pa, I’m gonna stay here.”

Ben flicked a glance at Joe and Hoss.

“Adam, we’ve got to take you back. The whole town thinks you drowned yesterday. We’ve got to let people know you’re okay. I need to tell Sheriff Coffee…”

“No, Pa.” Adam’s look was sharp, and he was on his feet, moving away from his family. “I’m not leaving. She wouldn’t have just left me here. Something’s wrong, I know it.”

Ben moved towards him. “Adam, come on, be reasonable. You can come back when you’re rested. She’s not going anywhere.” And he took hold of one of Adam’s arms intending to firmly guide him away from the beach. But Adam refused to move and wrenched his arm from his father’s grip. “I said no, Pa. I’m staying here! Try to take me back and I’ll walk all over you.” He swung out his arm, pointing at each of them in turn. “All of you!”

But then a quiet voice cut through the air calling Adam’s name, and Adam whirled around to see his flame-haired love bobbing in the waves a few feet out from the beach. He took a step towards the water, his heart taking flight when he saw her smiling. But then he saw that her eyes were sad and her smile was bittersweet. He kept walking, ploughing through the water to reach her. She moved closer to the shore until she could start to stand. At the sudden flash of pale skin, Ben whisked his two younger sons around and propelled them up the beach to the tree line, muttering under his breath about blankets and decency. Joe couldn’t help himself from glancing over his shoulder as he walked—the vision of a naked girl more than he could withstand—earning himself a sharp rap on the back of the head as a result.

Adam clasped her to him, burying his face in her hair, feeling the soft warmth of her skin beneath his hands, not caring his father and brothers were close by on the beach.

“Where were you? Why did you leave me?”

She gripped the back of his shirt and Adam could feel the hot warmth of her breath on his neck.

“I was scared, Adam. I thought the men would come and find you…and me.” She was shivering in his arms. “All those men, they wanted to take me away. They wanted to hurt me. Why did they want to hurt me?”

Adam pulled back from their embrace and took her face in his hands, gazing intently into her eyes.

“They’ll never hurt you again, I promise you, with all my heart. I’d level the mountains themselves if it meant keeping you safe.”

He pressed his lips to hers, and in his kiss was his promise. The promise that he’d never leave her, that he’d protect her, that he’d love her until the stars burned out and the earth turned cold. He dragged his lips from hers and smothered his face in her hair again. She had stopped shivering but her grip was still tight on his back.

“I’ve never needed protecting before.” Her voice was muffled where her face was pressed against his shoulder.

He drew back, running his hands over her smooth shoulders.

“I know, my love, but the world is more dangerous now. Men have weapons that can harm you from a great distance.”

“If they can hurt me like that then they can hurt you too.” He had never heard fear in her voice before.

“But we’ll be together, Amara. If you die, I die.”

And he kissed her once more, a kiss so full of passion and love he could feel her shaking in his arms.

As their lips parted, Adam suddenly realised what they must look like. He was standing up to his thighs in the lake, a naked girl in his arms, kissing in the way a man and woman should only do in private. He remembered his family and looked guiltily over his shoulder. They had moved up the beach to the edge of the forest. He could see Hoss hunkered down on his haunches with his back to him; his father was leaning over the back of Buck talking with Joe who was leaning against the trunk of a tree. Joe was angled so that a slight turn of the head would mean he could see out over the lake—and its occupants. Adam smiled. He knew Joe wouldn’t have been able to resist a look at his beautiful love in all her bare-skinned glory. But as he looked at them in the shade of the trees, Adam grew sad, knowing what he had to do now would be the hardest thing he would ever have to do. He turned back to her and when she saw the sorrow in his eyes, her own eyes grew wet. He drew her hands to his lips and kissed the backs of her fingers and with a long drawn-out breath and a small sad smile he turned away and ploughed through the waves back to the shore.

When they saw Adam wading back through the water, they moved out from where they’d been standing and began to walk down to meet him. But then he noticed they’d brought Sport and he quickly moved past them, slapping Joe’s arm as he passed. Adam grinned as he walked to the head of his beloved mount. He ran the back of his hand down the gelding’s white blaze and smoothed his palm along the creature’s chestnut coat. He could feel his breathing start to accelerate as he fought to control his emotions, and he had to swallow back the saliva that was filling the back of his throat. Pull yourself together, man, it’s only a horse. But he knew Sport wasn’t the only reason he was struggling to keep himself whole. He rested his forehead briefly against the animal’s neck for the last time and without a backwards glance, he put his head down and walked slowly towards his family.

He couldn’t look at them, keeping his eyes fixed on his feet. Ben stared at him, wondering why his son was suddenly so silent.

“Adam?”

Adam kicked a fleck of sand away with a big toe. “I’m going with her, Pa.”

Ben frowned. “Going where, son?”

Adam raised his eyes to the lake, seeing his love floating on the waves, her head rising and falling in the current. He then looked back at his father.

Ben’s frown deepened and then he gasped as Adam’s words sunk in. “Out there? But…where…what…?” He took a step or two towards the shoreline trying to comprehend what Adam intended to do. “But if you go out there…I don’t understand…”

“Neither do I, Pa. All I know is that I love her, I wanna be with her, always. And I can’t be with her if I’m branding cattle, or breaking horses, or fixing fence.” He shook his head. “My life is with her now. It’s been leading up to this moment. All my life has led me here.” And Adam, so stoic, so composed, oftentimes even dispassionate, was having trouble seeing his father as the tears were beginning to build behind his eyelids. “I love you, Pa, but I’ve gotta go; I have to be with her.” His voice was breaking but before he could say another word, his father had put his arm around his son’s shoulder and pulled him close. Joe and Hoss could only stare as their cool older brother seemed to unfold before them.

Ben pushed Adam away from him, and with his hands on his son’s upper arms, looked hard into his oldest’s eyes. And after what seemed like a minute without blinking, he nodded, a slight almost imperceptible bob of the head. Then, with a slight nudge, he steered Adam away from him and towards the water.

But Joe wasn’t going to let him go that easily. “But it’s not forever, right. You’ll come back?”

Adam’s look told him what Joe didn’t want to know.

“But if you go out there you’ll drown!” He turned to his father, shouting now. “You’re gonna let him go?” He turned back to Adam, his back rigid. “You’re gonna go out there and kill yourself?”

A gentle smile lifted the corners of Adam’s mouth when he looked at Joe. He wasn’t seeing the angry young man in front of him. No, he was seeing the small boy that used to throw a tantrum and stamp his foot when he was made to stay at home when his brothers rode out on roundup; or when he was forbidden to ride the bigger horses because he was too little. He’s still so young, thought Adam with a pang of guilt.

“I don’t know what will happen when I go out there, Joe. But I promise you will see me again.”

Joe opened his mouth to say something else but before he could get the words out, Adam had pulled him into a strong hold, storing to memory the feel of his muscular young brother in his arms. And while he held him, he felt another twinge of guilt, because he had lied to Joe. He didn’t know for certain what would happen, but he had formed a very strong suspicion. Ever since that morning on the beach when he had made his promise to Amara that he would come to her, that suspicion had begun to build in his mind. She had told him that there would be an ending and a new beginning, and he had mulled over those words time and time again. On each occasion he had come back to the same conclusion. And he was scared, terrified in fact; but his trust in Amara was stronger than his fear. With a last thump on Joe’s back, he released him, watching as Joe dropped his head and nodded resignedly.

Hoss. Hoss was the hardest goodbye. He had his hands stuffed into his pants pockets, unable to look at his brother, his eyes wet with unshed tears. His face was a mask of anguish, of pain cutting so deep the hurt scored lines in his skin. Adam cupped his hand behind his head and rested his temple against his brother’s forehead.

“You look after them, ya hear.”

Hoss nodded in agreement. I will, older brother, but who’ll look after me?

Adam knew if he didn’t go right then, he never would. He felt like he was in a tug of war between his family and his love. She was only one against their three, but she was the stronger. Adam’s hand lingered on Hoss’s neck, but he had to move and so, ducking his head down and without another look back, he strode away from them and down to the water’s edge. He paused for a moment, watching the waves as they broke around his feet, the wet sand cold against his skin, and after a deep breath, he waded into the water.

He kept his eyes fixed on Amara, who quickly closed the gap between them and rose like a goddess out of the lake. She could sense his fear, see his chest rising and falling as his breathing quickened. She took his hand and walking backwards through the water, she led him farther into the lake.

“What’s going to happen to me?”

She kept a firm grip on his hand and her eyes fixed on his.

“You will fight it. But when you wake, you will see the world through new eyes.”

He looked down at her, his mouth gulping in air as though his body knew it would be a while before he breathed again. His eyes flicked between her and the ever-deepening water, but then he felt her squeeze his hand and he looked back to her.

“You trusted me before.”

He stared into those sea-green eyes which were so sure, so steady. And Adam nodded, straightened his back and felt himself grow calm as she pulled him further into the lake.

The water was up to their chests when suddenly she took his other hand and gently pulled him down under the water. He seemed to swallow half the lake and he clamped his mouth shut to stop the water from filling his mouth. He could see her floating in front of him through the crystal clear waters, her hair flowing around her head in a hypnotic dance. She was looking calmly at him, and still gripping his hands. But Adam’s lungs were starting to burst in their need for oxygen and his head was growing light as he deprived himself of that he so desperately needed. He started to struggle and panic, desperate to swim up to the surface, frantic for a taste of pure life-giving air. Her grip was too strong, though, and she held him down with her in the cool waters of the lake. Adam couldn’t hold his breath any longer and he took an involuntary gasp, but there was no more air, and his lungs filled with water, only water. As his vision went black, his body convulsed and slowly, ever so slowly, he started to float towards the surface.

But Adam’s beautiful golden love still held him, never letting him go, and as the remaining oxygen in his lungs bubbled out of his mouth in one last dying exhalation of air, she pulled his limp body into her arms and covered his mouth with a precious kiss.

*****

“Oh, God,” whispered his father. It was a murmur, the words said on an exhaled breath.

The three men stared at the slick spot on the lake where Adam had been just moments before. The water was calm, unruffled and the stillness was unnerving. Ben took a step closer to the water, not daring to take his eyes from the lake’s surface. He felt a movement beside him.

“What jest happened, Pa?” Hoss’s voice, barely a whisper, was stricken. “Is he…dead…or has she…did she…whaddya call it…spirit him away?”

Ben couldn’t draw his eyes away from the water; he kept searching for a sign, a splash in the waves, a sound, anything. But the lake had hidden its secrets well.

He shook his head. “I…I don’t know what’s happened to him, son.” He turned to look at Hoss, and his voice was sure. “But I do know he’s not dead. We need to have faith, son. We have to believe that your brother is out there.” He looked across at Joe who had turned away from the water, his head bowed. “Joe?”

Joe flashed a look at him and then back at the lake. “Will we ever see him again, Pa?” His voice was small, pleading. He needed his father to banish the doubts, to exile the fear that shrouded his heart that told him his brother was dead.

“I hope so, Joe.”

He gathered his two remaining boys to his side. “I’m as in the dark as you are about what just happened, but there’s one thing we need to remember.” A small smile edged one half of his lips as he looked at both boys in turn. “He’s with her now. And he’s happy.”

Placing a strong hand on his sons’ backs, he turned them around to face the tree line. “Come on, boys, there’s nothing left for us to do here. Let’s go home.”

On reaching the horses, Ben turned his back on his boys to untie Buck from where the animal was tethered. He didn’t want them to see his face, and as he watched Hoss take a hold of Sport’s reins and lead the chestnut gelding into the woodland, Ben couldn’t help but feel his heart break a little. He’d never see Adam proudly mounted on his horse again, or seated in his favourite blue chair, or strumming his guitar on the porch. And despite his assured words to his sons, Ben felt as if his right arm had been torn away. He took one final look at the big blue lake, hoping against hope he’d see Adam out there, with his love beside him in the glistening water. But the surface of the lake was still, and so with a soft sigh, Ben turned Buck towards the forest and led him towards home.

*****

Epilogue

It was a fresh spring morning, many years later, when Joe rode down to the lake. He secured his horse and, unbeknownst to him, retraced the same steps his oldest brother had once taken when he had needed somewhere secluded to mourn the loss of his second step-mother. Joe jumped from boulder to boulder until he was on the farthest one from the shore, and dropping heavily onto his backside, he put his head in his hands and cried for his beloved brother, Hoss, who had been taken from them so much sooner than was right.

Hoss had been more than Joe’s brother. He had been his best friend, his partner-in-crime, his accessory after the fact. But now Hoss was gone and Joe’s grief was like a knife twisting in his gut, a perpetual reminder of what he’d lost.

His tears blurred his vision, but once he’d managed to get his breath back, and was resting his tired head in his hand, he caught a glimpse of something, or rather someone, in the water. He lifted his head and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes to clear the wetness. He peered closer, and then a look of sheer amazement crossed his features when he saw his oldest brother, Adam, bobbing about forty feet out in the water.

No one had seen Adam since that fateful day so many years before when he’d walked into the lake and disappeared from their everyday existence. For Hoss, Joe and Ben, however, the lake had taken on a new role in their lives. It had become a place of solace when they were sad; a place to think, to share their thoughts out loud. If they were in a quandary, a visit to the shimmering waters would provide a solution to their dilemma. It was also a place to go when joyful, when something wonderful had happened, because sharing their happiness with the lake always seemed like the right thing to do.

But this was the first time any of the Cartwrights had seen him. He hadn’t aged a day. Joe put a hand up to his mop of greying hair and found himself smiling ruefully when he saw that Adam didn’t have a grey hair on his head. If anything, he looked younger. A light seemed to emanate from his eyes, and he seemed alert and energised. His face was leaner and, Joe guessed, he must wear a permanent smile, judging from the crows-feet that creased the corners of his eyes.  But he wasn’t smiling now. He didn’t move from where he was, or speak, but his face grew concerned when he saw Joe’s anguish.

But the sorrow that was Joe’s grief, and that had weighed him down so heavily, grew lighter when he saw his oldest brother. At Adam’s sudden appearance, Joe was reminded that he was not as alone as he had feared. And it dawned on him that Adam would always be there for him and would come when he was most needed, like today. As Joe’s face relaxed into a smile for his brother, and his shoulders lost the tension he had been carrying, he saw the concern that Adam had worn on his features wash away to be replaced with a wide smile that carried across the lake like a shining torch.

Adam’s hand rose from the water in a wave of greeting just as a head with hair the colour of autumn leaves rose from the lake behind him. Joe watched as she lifted herself slightly out of the water and playfully threw herself over Adam’s back, crossing her arms across his chest and curling her face in to kiss his neck. Adam’s laugh reached Joe’s ears, and he couldn’t help but grin as he saw Adam say something to the woman who looked up towards Joe and smiled a greeting to him. But then they were kicking away and as Joe rose to his feet he saw the two heads sink below the surface of the water. He watched for a while longer, but they were gone.

Joe returned to the shore with a lighter heart, knowing once he had shared Adam’s brief appearance with his father, that Ben’s grief would also be eased. Adam had come back at a time in Joe’s life when he was needed more than ever before. It had been a reminder that, although gone from their everyday lives, he had never left entirely. And Joe knew now that although he would never see Hoss again in this life, he, too, was not gone forever. Hoss would live on in their memories, in their hearts, and in the places he loved on the Ponderosa. Joe looked back to the lake, a smile for both his brothers on his face. He might be the last of his father’s sons, but he would never be alone.

***The End***

Author’s Note: [1] Mark Twain visited Australia in 1895 so I’ve taken liberties with the timeline here.

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