The Friendship Game (by Sierra Girl)

Summary: It’s tough being a 14-year old boy, but it’s especially hard when you have little brothers, a friend you’re eager to impress and the added complication of those creatures from another planet…girls!  Will Adam survive his first forays with the opposite sex in one piece, and still have a friend at the end of it?
Category: Bonanza
Genre: Western
Rated:  G
Word Count: 13,576 words


 

Adam Cartwright was fourteen-years-old when he made his first true friend. The boy’s name was Carl Reagan and Adam’s father frowned upon the friendship, calling Carl a ‘troublesome influence’. But Adam could not be dissuaded and endured his father’s pursed lips and throaty rumble at any mention of Carl’s antics. When Adam, in an attempt to impress his new friend, imitated his father’s disapproval, Carl sneered and said how Adam’s pa looked like one of the old women who shopped at Cass’s store. Adam laughed, but not without a stab of guilt that sliced through his heart.

Ben Cartwright hadn’t always had such a low opinion of Carl.

Will, the Ponderosa’s foreman, had been working for the Cartwrights for nearly six months before his son came to live with him. The boy had stayed with relatives after the death of his mother, and until such time when Will was settled in his new job.

The first day Will brought Carl to the Ponderosa, the boys had circled each other like two lions in a cage, aware of the other’s presence but refusing to acknowledge it. Their respective fathers had shrugged their shoulders, grinned at their boys’ behavior and thought nothing of it. After several days of this, however, Ben and Will were rolling their eyes and shaking their heads, and conspired to push the boys into the center of the yard where they had no choice but to communicate.

Although Carl was the older by a year, Adam had a maturity the other boy lacked. After kicking the pebbles around their feet and hanging their heads for a few minutes, Adam suggested they go fishing. Few words were exchanged as they sat on a riverbank with their fishing poles and bait; but when Carl’s line jerked, both lads scrambled to their feet, and with Adam shouting words of encouragement, Carl reeled in a three-pound trout. They both flopped back on the grass and watched Carl’s catch gulping in air as it breathed its last.

They grinned at each other and then Carl pulled a flask of liquor from his vest pocket, took a swig and offered it to Adam. Adam shook his head.

“It won’t kill yer,” said Carl.

But Adam could only shake his head vigorously once again.

“What’s wrong? You never drunk whiskey before?”

“Of course I have.”

In truth, nothing stronger than ginger beer had touched Adam’s lips.

He had no idea why he lied. He’d never even spoken to Carl before today. But Adam suddenly found himself craving the older boy’s approval; because with his approval might come friendship. And for the first time in his life, Adam so wanted a friend.

Until now, he had never considered himself lonely. His father had been companion enough in his younger years, and he had Marie and Hoss and even Little Joe. He was used to being snubbed by his classmates at the one-room school in Virginia City, for being the smartest boy there, he was expected to help the other children. His quiet, mature intelligence set him apart and they didn’t see him as a potential friend but as one step down from the teacher. Break times were spent alone or helping to prepare the classroom for the next onslaught. He didn’t mind though. He loved learning and time alone meant he could happily bury his head in a book.

But the arrival of Carl Reagan had sparked a hitherto unseen desire for a friend, a buddy to ride out with, to talk about things he couldn’t share with his parents and that Hoss was too young to understand.

He looked across the river to the opposite bank, afraid to meet Carl’s eye lest the older boy know he was lying.

“I don’t like the taste.”

Carl held out the flask. “You won’t ever like it less you try it.”

Adam paused, but after a moment’s hesitation took the flask and gulped down a mouthful, his face screwing up as the fumy liquid rolled over his tongue and caught the back of his throat.

He expected Carl to laugh and was surprised when he didn’t. Carl merely pocketed the flask and said, “you’ll get used to it.”

They rode back towards the Ponderosa in an easy silence, Adam wondering about the boy who rode beside him. Carl veered away down a track which led to the Reagans’ cabin without a word. But after he ridden a short way, he reined his animal around, raised a hand to Adam and called, “I’ll see yer,” before disappearing in the dust kicked up by his horse’s hooves. Adam felt warm inside, but it wasn’t only at the thought of his new friend. He breathed into his hand. Gosh, darn, but the liquor was strong on his breath.

On his arrival home, he dealt with his mount, all the time keeping an eye out for his father. The way was clear so he ran into the house, grabbed two apples from the bowl on the table and wasted no time biting into one. Taking the stairs two at a time, he was almost at the landing when he was driven to a halt by a voice below him.

“Adam, mon doux, what is the hurry? Walk up the stairs or you will trip and hurt yourself.”

It was Marie, his step-mother. Adam was faced away from her and glanced heavenwards before turning. “Sorry, Marie, I remembered I have some school work I wanted to finish before dinner.” He took another step up.

“Well, bring it downstairs as you always do. I will sit with you whilst you work.”

“Uh, no, I’d rather finish it in my room; it’s quieter there.”

Marie looked around the big empty space and shrugged. “As you wish, mon fils.”

Adam heard the sigh in her voice as he raced to his room, but knew he had no alternative but to hide himself away until the smell of the alcohol was gone from his breath.

He closed the door behind him and sat heavily on his bed, munching on the apple until it was nothing but a thin spindly core. He was starting on the second when his door slammed open. It was his seven-year-old brother, Hoss.

“Get outta here, Hoss! Haven’t I told you before about coming in without knocking.”

The words rolled off the boy like an echo off a mountain. “Whatcha doing, Adam? You know Pa don’t like you eatin’ in yer room.”

Adam sighed. “It’s only an apple.”

Hoss threw himself on the bed next to Adam. “You never eat ‘tween meals.”

Adam shook his head; his little brother was way too observant. “I was hungry, that’s all.”

Hoss stared up at him, kicking his legs against the mattress. “Pa’ll have yer hide. Fer ruinin’ yer app’tite after Ma has spent the day slavin’ away in the kitchen.”

Adam stopped biting down on the apple as Hoss repeated his father’s well-worn expression. “Well, Marie never stopped me, so Pa can’t tell me off now, can he?”

Hoss’s eyes widened and his mouth opened in a wide grin. “Ma let yer?” He scrambled off the bed. “I’m gonna go eat three apples, no, four.”

He stopped and his nose wrinkled. “Your breath smells.”

Adam froze as Hoss sniffed again. “Like apples.”

Adam listened to his brother’s boots pounding down the landing and onto the stairs. “I’m gonna make my breath smell like apples too!” Hoss’s shout faded as he ran out of earshot.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Adam rose and walked to the window. He spied Will next to the barn, running his hand down the hind leg of a horse which had gone lame. And he couldn’t help but wonder whether a friendship with Carl Reagan was going to bring a whole heap of trouble.

*****

A couple of days later, Adam and Carl were riding to nowhere in particular. Adam had spent most of the day helping to muster the herd so they could be moved to a fresh patch of land. In the hottest part of the afternoon, Carl rode up to where Adam was sitting on his horse, in the shade of a canyon oak, with a book in his hand.

“What yer readin’?”

Adam’s head jerked up, so engrossed was he in the writing.

“Ah, I’m reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a text by Edward Gibbons.”

One half of Carl’s top lip curled up.

“What’s it about?”

Adam’s cheeks dimpled. “It’s about war and gods and emperors.” But Carl was looking out over the cattle, his disinterest writ plain on his face. Adam shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.” He tucked the book in his saddle bag. “Where have you been? We could have used you today.”

Carl turned his attention back to Adam. “Here and there, gettin’ to know the area. You know, who’s who, what’s where.”

A shout caused both boys to look up. It was Ben.

“Adam!” His voice was distant. “You can call it a day.” He raised his hand before turning back to the herd.

The boys rode where their impulse took them. One would swing off a track they were following into a grove of trees or blaze a trail through a pasture of knee-high grass, and his companion would follow. Then it would be the other’s turn to urge his mount up a stony ridge or along a dried-up creek bed. When he slowed to let his horse rest a while, he knew his friend would be right behind him. Soon they were walking their horses side by side.

“I’m sorry about your mother,” said Adam.

Carl shrugged. “It was gonna happen sooner or later, so when it did I weren’t surprised.”

Adam didn’t know how to respond.

“She’d had something eatin’ away inside her for a while, so…”

His horse shied as a bevy of quail took flight from a nearby thicket. Once under control, he stretched the fingers of one hand out towards Adam. “My pa made this from a silver dollar she owned.” A round silver ring adorned Carl’s pinky finger.

“You only came to live with your pa a couple of weeks back, though?”

“Pa couldn’t handle losin’ Ma and raisin’ me, so he sent me to live with his brother back east ‘til the time was right.” They rode on in silence for a short while. “What about your pa’s wife? She ain’t your ma, is she?”

“No, Marie’s my step-mother. My mother died when I was a few hours old.”

“Oh.”

They forded a shallow creek and urged their horses up the bank to where it was level.

“Hey, I found an old mine earlier today. Wanna take a look?”

Ben had warned Adam about going near any of the old abandoned mine workings in the area. They were perilous places; liable to cave in if disturbed, burying the trespasser under tons of dirt and rubble.

“I don’t think we should.”

“What’s the harm? We’ll just look. Won’t even get off our horses.”

And Adam, buoyed by the older boy’s interest in him, yet against his better judgment, yielded.

*****

The mine was set in the side of a rock-strewn hill. Once boarded up, the wooden panels had been ripped from the entrance and lay discarded, revealing a tunnel lit by natural light for a couple of feet, but then giving way to darkness.

Carl jumped down from his horse’s back and ran to the opening. “You gotta see what’s in here.”

“You said we’d—”

“Ah, forget what I said. Come on.” He waved his hand to Adam. “Come on.” He was grinning as he spoke. Adam watched Carl balance with one foot on the threshold and then disappear into the gloom.

“You gotta see it, Adam,” Carl’s displaced voice echoed faintly from the adit.

Adam sat on his horse, waiting for Carl to return. When there was no movement and no sound, Adam dismounted slowly. He peered all around him as though he’d see his father bearing down on him from out of nowhere. But all was silent. All was still. He took a couple of steps towards the mine, and then a couple more, stopping a foot away from the entrance. He was more afraid of what his pa would do if he found out, then at the dark tunnel ahead of him.

“Carl?” His voice was swallowed by the dark, seeming tiny and meek. “Carl, where are you?” He took a step into the tunnel. He was still in the light. One more step and he’d be consumed by the darkness. He took that step and the temperature immediately dropped. “Carl?” He walked a little farther in, his hands feeling out for the sides of the tunnel.

Suddenly a hand grabbed his arm. Adam cried out as a force propelled him along the tunnel and then let go of him so abruptly that he fell to the ground. The earth was cold under his palms and cheek. He was yanked over onto his back and hot breath wafted over his face.

“Please, don’t, please…” Terror had him in its grip; every hair on his body stood erect as his skin burned ice cold. He couldn’t breathe from the weight on his chest that held him down.

But then the pressure lifted and someone was laughing. A match flared to life. A match held between the fingers of…

“Carl!” Adam pushed the older boy off his chest and scrambled to his feet. “Why did you…? I thought I was…”

Carl climbed to his feet. “Ah man, you shoulda heard yourself. ‘Please don’t, please don’t.’” He laughed more, teeth flashing in the flickering flare of the flame. The light reflected in his eyes. He looked like a ghoul.

Adam lashed out, pushing the older boy in the chest so he tripped backward and dropped his match. They were thrown into darkness. Adam froze as the black closed in on him. Carl’s laughter bounced off the walls but then a match flared and Carl was lighting a torch.

Adam’s hands balled into fists. “I thought you were my friend,” he shouted and turned on his heel to run out into the sunlight, away from the damp darkness where his new friend had played such a cruel trick on him. He drove to a stop. The torch showed three tunnels leading away from the carved-out chamber in which they stood. Adam’s head snapped from one to the next and to the next. Which was the way out?

But then Carl’s hand grabbed his arm, keeping him from moving.

“Adam, wait!” Adam refused to look back but offered no resistance.

“I didn’t mean to… Look, sometimes I take things too far. But hey, look around yer.”

Adam gazed around him and took in the chamber properly for the first time. The cave was not natural. It may have been at one time, but the walls had been hacked and chipped and blasted to create a space big enough for several grown men to stand in. Scattered around the edges were wooden crates and several empty bottles. There was even a shelf on the wall, and Adam could make out hooks embedded in the walls—presumably for lanterns. With his eyes adjusting to the subdued light, Adam could see a dim glow at the end of one of the tunnels. That must be the way out. The other two passages led to even bleaker blackness.

“I bet there’s gold down those tunnels, Adam. We could be rich.”

Adam sniffed. “It’s an abandoned mine. There won’t be anything left.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Carl beamed a Cheshire cat grin. “But I’ll share my first haul with you, whaddya say?”

Carl’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Adam had always been quick to forgive. He smiled and Carl slapped his shoulder in glee.

For a few weeks, the mine was their secret hideaway. Adam would ride there after a day at school, or when ranch duties permitted and find Carl, invariably, waiting for him. Carl was always less than forthcoming about what he got up to during the day. Ben would pay him a ranch hand’s wage if he went to work with Will on the Ponderosa. But there were days when Carl’s activities were a mystery to Adam. Then he’d overhear Ben whispering to Marie about how the boy had been seen in town hanging around the saloons and carousing with the older men, and Adam would feel in awe of his friend who acted the man when he was still a boy.

Their time at the mine followed an established pattern. Carl would disappear down the tunnels on the hunt for gold and silver whilst Adam would sit in the warmth outside the entrance reading his book on Roman history or a volume of poetry—he was particularly taken with John Donne, all of a sudden.

At other times they would sit together in the torch-lit chamber and show off their most valued possessions. Carl displayed a dove pendant his mother had worn on a chain around her neck. Adam brought in his brand new Colt Paterson revolver that Ben and Marie had bought him for his last birthday. Carl’s new hat became an item of joviality as both boys took it in turn to wear it and pretend to be a gunfighter or a sheriff or a riverboat gambler. Adam’s silver penny was outdone by Carl’s gold doubloon, passed down to him by his grandfather. And Adam was unable to compete with a lacy handkerchief that Carl’s first love (aged 11) had given him. But nothing could outshine his mother’s music box that Adam snuck out to proudly show his friend. Carl turned it over roughly in his hands causing Adam to reach out and gently take it back. “Worth something, do you reckon?” said Carl. “Only to me,” was Adam’s reply.

Carl kept his items in a wooden box in the chamber saying ‘my place, my stuff’ and no more was said on the matter.

*****

But Adam’s absences and uncharacteristic tardiness did not go unnoticed. On arriving home later than expected for the third day in a row, his father confronted Adam on the front porch. Marie stood in the doorway, holding Adam’s baby brother.

“You should have been home an hour ago. Where have you been?”

Little Joe flicked his head away from his father’s booming tone and struggled to climb down from his mother’s arms.

“Ben.” Marie’s voice held a warning to go easy on Adam.

“I was—”

“You were chasing around with Carl again, weren’t you?” His query was met with silence. “Weren’t you?”

Adam dropped his gaze at his father’s shout. But when Joe started to cry and Marie let him down to the ground, the toddler ran to Adam with his arms out. Adam had no choice but to pick him up. He buried a hand in the child’s soft curls.

Ben rolled his eyes and lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “I asked you this morning to be home on time. You have chores you’ve still not done from yesterday and the day before.”

Adam kept his eyes on the teary face of his little brother. “Sorry, Pa.”

“‘Sorry Pa’, is that all you have to say? Well, you will be if you don’t heed me, boy. Tomorrow, on time, or…”

Marie placed a hand on Ben’s forearm. He paused. “Just…” He sighed heavily. “Go do your chores.”

And as Adam handed Little Joe back to Marie and walked away with his head down, Ben’s fists found his hips and he shook his head, observing Adam’s dispirited walk to the barn.

“I don’t know if Carl Reagan is the type of friend Adam should have.” He looked at Marie. “You’ve heard the stories in town, the boy drinks, and gambles. Will lets him get away with far too much.”

“Ma Cherie, Adam is a good boy. He knows what is right and what is wrong. You need to trust him.”

“I do trust him. It’s Carl I don’t trust.”

And Ben, his mood lightened by his wife’s wise words, took Little Joe from her arms, swung him high in the air and went back into the house, the child’s infectious laughter ringing in his ears.

*****

Adam was more careful about his timekeeping after that, and so the trips to the mine continued. Carl’s attempts at finding gold were predictably fruitless, and after he’d conceded defeat, he found something new to amuse him: he taught Adam how to play poker. However, Adam proved such a natural at keeping a straight face that he won Carl’s entire supply of matchsticks, his favorite bandanna, and on a particularly successful day, the gold doubloon. “You gotta leave it here though, Adam, don’t take it out of the cave.” Adam willingly agreed; his father would only ask questions if he saw it.

Carl suggested he try to win it back in a shooting contest. They arranged a selection of tin cans amongst the boulders which scattered the hillside and took aim. Adam didn’t miss a single target.

“Damn, Adam, you’re good. Guess I’ll have to hire men to do my shootin’ for me.” And Carl sniggered.

However, that evening when Adam rode home, his father came looking for him in the barn as he was rubbing down his mount.

“I was in town today,” he began, “and Sheriff Coffee called me over for a word.”

Adam frowned as he swept the curry comb over the animal’s side. “Uh huh?”

“He told me a couple of lads have been spotted loitering around the old Schweitzer mine. He said their descriptions fitted those of you and Carl.”

Adam paused. “Oh.” The word slipped out before he had a chance to slip on the poker face he was doing so well to perfect.

“‘Oh’, he says. So it’s true then?”

A myriad of thoughts raced through Adam’s mind. Did he lie? Did he deny that’s where he and Carl were going every day? Did he admit it and promise not to go again? He decided against all these choices. He was almost a man, so he opted for the more mature approach. He would try reassurance. Adam turned to his father with a smile.

“It’s okay, Pa, I know what you said about abandoned mines, but it’s safe, I promise. We only go as far as a rounded-out cavern, no farther. You should see it, they did a great job in shaping the—”

“Adam!” Ben’s thundering voice made Adam swallow his words.

“I thought I’d drummed it into you, you do not go into closed up mines. They might look safe but the timber propping rots; they can flood; bears and wolves and men…outlaws, Adam…use them as hideouts.”

“But Pa, Carl said—”

“Since when was Carl an expert in mine engineering?” He pointed sharply at Adam. “Or you?” Turning his back he paced towards the barn door, shaking his head as he went. And in those moments when Ben stood framed in the doorway, Adam’s eyes narrowed and he vowed that one day he would learn everything there was to know about mine engineering. He’d show his pa.

Ben walked back to Adam, his finger once more raised. “You will not go anywhere near the Schweitzer mine again, or any other mine for that matter. And I don’t want you chasing around with that Carl anymore.”

“But Pa…”

“Don’t you ‘but Pa’ me. He’s trouble. Has been from the moment he arrived. Drinking, gambling, people are even accusing him of being a thief. I don’t want you anywhere near him.”

Adam hung his head, his voice low.

“But Pa, he’s my best friend.”

Ben’s hardened face softened. He sighed and with a hand on Adam’s shoulder, pulled him close. “You’ll make other friends, son. And I was going to tell you, I hired a couple of new hands today in town; I won’t need you around the ranch so much, so you can go to school every day. The town seems to grow more each time I visit; there are new families, children. You’ll make new friends, I promise.”

Adam kept his eyes down and merely nodded.

“Now, finish up here, dinner will be on the table soon.”

As Ben strode back to the ranch house, Adam turned back to his mount and paused with his hands on the animal’s back. As he stood there, he felt a hot ball of anger stirring within his belly. He roused himself and began to comb down the animal’s side.

How dare his father forbid him from seeing Carl? He was fourteen years old, he was a man, he could make his own decisions.

The comb coursed through the horse’s fur.

And to say that Carl was a thief. They were probably rumors spread by the guilty party.

He stroked hard over the animal’s flanks.

And what of his drinking? Carl was fifteen, old enough to drink, and Adam didn’t drink the stuff. Well, only occasionally. But when he did he’d drink a whole canteen of water on the way home.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

His horse curled his head back in protest, and Adam realized how forceful he was being. He patted the animal’s neck, fed him some oats and slammed the curry comb back on its shelf.

It was a quiet and moody Adam who sat with his family at dinner that night. Hoss chatted away, oblivious to his brother’s silence, and Marie was too preoccupied in feeding Little Joe to pay any attention. But over the next few days, Adam’s stomping around and slamming doors and one-word answers to all and sundry didn’t go unnoticed, and it took the threat of a necessary visit to the barn for Adam to pull himself out of his sulk. He apologized to Marie, played horsey with Little Joe and tried his best to teach Hoss checkers. But Adam found it impossible to look at his father or do more than respond politely and coolly when he was spoken to.

Ben felt it was only right he inform Will of what he’d done. He raised his concerns about Carl’s drinking and gambling, but Will could not be persuaded his boy was doing anything wrong. Will was so good-hearted that he didn’t take offense at Ben’s insinuations. “He’s a good boy, Ben, a fine boy. It’s only natural he’d play up a little after losing his ma like he did. I’ll speak to him tonight, don’t you worry none about it.” There was nothing much else Ben could say, so the conversation ended there.

Will’s talk with Carl had a surprising consequence, however, and one that was to inadvertently foil Ben’s aim to keep Adam from seeing Carl.

When Adam arrived at school the next morning, there was Carl, lounging at the entrance, his arms crossed and an old battered hat hiding his face. When he saw Adam, his face lifted and he immediately ran over to him.

“Pa’s made me come to school; said I had to finish off the year, get my certificate and then I could go work with him.”

Adam frowned. “But you’re fifteen. You don’t have to come to school.”

“I don’t have any choice. Pa said he wants me to get my certificate and if I don’t come every day, he’ll send me back east. It’s only for a few months, and I got you to do my assignments for me.”

Carl grinned. Adam frowned.

“I’m only joshin’. But I don’t intend to do more than I have to. I ain’t like you; I ain’t bright with books and stuff.”

“I’ll help you.”

Carl elbowed Adam. “Nah, you don’t have to. Like I said, I’ll do enough to get my certificate, and then I’m outta here.”

Adam paused at the bottom of the schoolhouse steps. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around this last week. Pa said I was to stay away; that you were a bad influence on me.”

Carl sniggered. “A bad influence, huh? I like that. Hey…” Carl’s attention was caught by a girl crossing the schoolyard. “Who’s she?”

Adam turned to see a girl with ebony hair and eyes the color of a pinyon jay. “I don’t know, she must be new.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her. As she passed the two boys, she looked across at Adam and shyly smiled. Her gaze skimmed over Carl whose grin faded. And as they followed her into the school, Adam felt as though something inside of him had changed forever, only he couldn’t explain what.

*****

Her name was Margaret Murphy and she was Adam’s first love.

Whilst handing out textbooks to the class, his hand touched the tip of one of her fingers. He startled and dropped the rest of the books in his grasp. And as the rest of the class laughed at Adam’s expense, she reached down to help him collect the texts strewn across the floor, placing them in his grip and meeting his eyes with a gentle sympathetic glance. He blushed and moved on to the next desk without a look back.

During the break, whilst Carl was dozing under a tree with his hat pulled low, Margaret sat down at the end of the bench where Adam was munching on a sandwich. Instantly, he lost his place in the book he was reading, his eyes skimming over the words but taking none of them in. They glanced at each other, looking away when their eyes met, shy smiles etched on their faces. However, by the end of the recess, they had both moved to the center of the bench and Adam could feel the heat from her thigh against his.

She was his first kiss. A few days after that first blushing contact, he walked her part way home from school; Adam leading his horse so he could walk by her side. As they neared the street where she would leave him, they both simultaneously pulled off into the shadow of an alley—Adam’s mount temporarily abandoned at the side of the road—and, for the first time, Adam enjoyed the sensation of a girl’s soft lips against his own. He wore a jubilant grin all the way home. And once he’d cleared the town limits, he urged his horse to move at full speed, whooping to the sky as he flew over the ground.

She was his girl for a week, and then everything changed. Carl stole her from him. And without either boy knowing, the game had begun.

Riding past the school on his way to the livery stable, he saw Carl and Margaret standing at the edge of the yard, their hands touching. All rational thoughts left his head, outed as they were by a cloud of jealousy. He leaped off his horse and ran to the couple who were standing far too close for his liking. Without a word, he grabbed Carl’s shoulder, spun him around and punched him in the jaw. It was the first time he’d hit another person.

Margaret screamed as Carl fell to the ground. Adam braced himself, curling his fists together, waiting for Carl to jump up and hit him back. But Carl just rolled onto his back, put his hand to his jaw and laughed.

“Boy, Adam, you hit hard.” He rose onto one knee. “What yer hit me for?”

Adam’s head jerked. “What did I hit you for? You’re holding my girl’s hand.”

Margaret drew herself up and her lips pinched together. “Who says I’m your gal, Adam?”

Adam’s mouth dropped open. “But we…you let me…kiss you.”

Carl climbed to his feet and sniggered. “She’s quite the kisser, ain’t she?”

Adam saw red and with both hands pushed Carl as hard as he could. The older boy staggered but kept his footing and laughed as Adam grabbed Margaret’s hand and tugged her around the back of the schoolhouse.

“Let go, Adam, you’re hurting me.”

Adam dropped her hand and stood awkwardly as Margaret rubbed her wrist.

“I ain’t gonna say sorry, Adam. I never said I was your girl.”

Adam could only stand there, incomprehension creasing his features. She had let him kiss her, several times since that first fumble in the alley. And to him that meant only one thing: she was his girl. He had been hit by a barrage of feelings in the space of a few days that he had interpreted as love. And now she had done this: kissed another boy. And to make matters worse, that boy was his best friend.

“How many times?” he asked quietly.

“What?” Margaret looked confused.

“How many times did you kiss Carl?”

She looked down at the ground. “I don’t know.”

Adam grabbed her arms. “How many times?”

“Three…three times.” Adam’s eyes flashed black. “Four.”

He let go of her abruptly. Four times. She had played him for a fool.

He didn’t look back as he ran across the schoolyard, ignoring Carl’s shouts and the curious stares of the other children. His horse was where he’d left it, so Adam rode; he didn’t know where, he just rode until his horse’s sides were heaving. Reining the exhausted animal to a halt, Adam jumped to the ground. He paced, not seeing, conscious of a hateful gamut of emotions racing through his mind. The ride hadn’t been enough. His muscles needed release, his veins fizzed. There was a large hand-sized rock on the side of the track. Adam hoisted it up and with a roar hurled it as far as he could. He found another, and another, and another. Until finally he stood, panting heavily but free of whatever demon had taken control.

It was only then he looked around and saw he had ridden to within view of home. The ranch house and barn stood shimmering in a blaze of heat, but there was no sign of movement. He knew Marie had taken his brothers to visit a neighbor that morning, and Pa would be out on the range. He walked his horse home, leading the animal into the barn to be unsaddled and brushed down. He then climbed the ladder to the loft and threw himself into a pile of hay. After a moment of staring out of the barn hatch, Adam burst into tears.

*****

He must have fallen asleep as he was woken from his stupor by a voice calling his name. It was Marie. She was standing on the top rungs of the ladder. “Cherie, what are you doing home? It’s the middle of the day.”

Adam turned to her with a red face and tear tracks down his cheeks. She was instantly by his side and for the first time since she had entered their lives, he let her wrap her in his arms and pull his face to her bosom. When he told her haltingly what had happened, she raised his head, pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped his eyes.

“Cherie, first love is always the hardest, especially when it ends.” She patted his cheeks and then looked away, her gaze distant. “You don’t believe you will ever love again, that you will ever meet anyone like that person.” She looked back at him. “But it is not so. I had my first love, a boy who would help his father deliver provisions to the convent where I was brought up.” She laughed. “It was all very innocent, but he was my first kiss. A small peck, just here.” She pointed at her cheek. “But the nuns stopped him coming and I was heartbroken. I thought it was true love.” She sighed and curled her hand around Adam’s neck. “But then I met Jean, and your father. So you see, Adam, there will be others.”

Adam managed a small smile.

“And besides, Cherie, I do not believe your Margaret truly had your heart. She gave it away too easily.” And with a kiss to his brow, she left Adam to his thoughts and an unexpected appreciation for his step-mother.

*****

Margaret wasn’t Carl’s girl for long.

After several days of giving his erstwhile friend the cold shoulder, Adam arrived at school one morning to find Carl waiting for him by the entrance.

“You cain’t ignore me forever, Adam.”

Adam glared at him. “Try me.” His anger was still hot. He clutched his books tighter to his chest and strode past him.

“I thrown her off, Adam.”

Adam stopped but didn’t turn. Carl moved to his side. “She ain’t worth a friendship between buddies.”

Adam gazed down at his boots. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Carl. Not yet anyway.

“Why did you do it?” He kicked at the dusty ground.

There was a sigh. “It was only a game, Adam. I didn’t know you was all serious about her.”

There was something in his voice. The usual devil-may-care was gone. When Adam looked up at him, Carl was picking at his fingernails; the customary grin and sparkling eyes absent. And Adam believed him.

“Carl Reagan!” A high-pitched voice shouted across the yard. Margaret was marching towards them.

“You can keep your stupid handkerchief.” She threw a scrap of material at Carl which floated to the ground. “I hate you!” And thrusting her chin forward, she stalked back across the yard to where a group of her girlfriends was gathered.

Carl sniggered as he bent to pick up the handkerchief and poked it into a pocket.

Adam snatched it out.

“This is the lace handkerchief you said your first love gave you.”

Carl’s mouth opened wide as though to speak but instead he ran his tongue over his top lip. “Okay, you got me. It belongs to that English widow who lives in town.”

Adam frowned. “The widow Hawkins? You stole it.”

Carl’s eyebrows rose as his eyes widened in denial. “No, she dropped it in the street. I saw it fall and, er, never gave it back. That ain’t stealin’.”

“It’s as good as.”

“Aw, come on, Adam, we ain’t gonna fall out again, and over a silly little doodad?”

Adam’s mouth quirked. It did seem ridiculous.

Carl grabbed back the handkerchief and hid it out of sight in his pocket. “Let’s get outta here, Adam, school can go hang today. Let’s go to the mine.” He slapped Adam’s arm as he moved around him. Adam stayed where he was.

“Pa said I wasn’t—”

“Adam! You’re the bright one of the two of us, one day ain’t gonna make a blind bit of difference. Now come on.” With the boundless energy that kept him constantly fidgeting, Carl sniggered again, ran a few steps to the road and turned. “Come on!” His tone rose in pitch as he laughed. Adam threw all caution to the wind and together they ran to the livery stables to collect their horses.

All was well again. But Adam couldn’t help wondering who really owned Carl’s treasures still in hiding at the mine. A doubt niggled at the back of his mind and refused to go away.

*****

It wasn’t long before Carl became enamored of a pretty brunette called Carla Morenti. She was of Italian stock and with a temper as fiery as a spitting cat. “In a few years she’ll be naggin’ her husband every second of every day and drivin’ him to kingdom come, but for now, when she’s shoutin’ at me, I just wanna wrap my arms around her and kiss her to shut her up.” Carl would joke to Adam about how, with a name like Carla, she was made for him.

The handkerchief was again put to good use. Adam watched from the far side of the schoolyard as Carl formally presented Carla with the lacy keepsake, folding her hands over the precious item and then pressing her fist tightly within his own two hands. His head was lowered, whispering something to her which made her fling her arms around his neck, the handkerchief tight within her grasp. Carl hugged her back until a sharp word from the teacher, newly appeared in the doorway, made the two spring apart.

“What did you say to her,” asked Adam, sometime later.

“Oh, that it belonged to my mama. Make a girl free sorry for you and she’ll do anything you want to make you feel better.” And he grinned and snickered at the prospect.

“But, it’s not true.”

Carl jumped to his feet from where they’d been eating lunch in the shade of the school building. “So? You’re way too moral for your own good, Adam. A little white lie here and there never hurt no one.”

Carl was right. Adam was moral. So moral that the idea of using his own mother, or even his beloved step-mother, Inger, in such a way was anathema to him. He watched Carl run over to Carla and slap her bottom as he passed. Carl laughed as the girl rose onto tiptoes, her hands flying to her buttocks, and continued to titter as she berated him in streams of undiluted Italian, her finger wagging as he backed, grinning, away from the diatribe.

But then an idea came into Adam’s head, contrived from his distaste at Carl’s casual use of his mother’s memory, and a lingering irritation at how Carl had stolen Margaret from him. And as the idea took shape and form, Adam realized he could not only get his own back on Carl but also gain a little pleasure for himself at the same time. Perhaps he wasn’t as upright as Carl believed him to be.

*****

Adam was surprised to see Carla amongst the congregation at church the following Sunday; assuming—correctly—that she would ordinarily worship at the Catholic church two blocks away. As the meeting ended, Adam caught her eye. It was the perfect opportunity to speak to her alone, and she had even made it easy for him; poking out of her sleeve was the lacy handkerchief.

“Hey, Carla, what you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at St. Mary’s?” Carla blushed as she smiled. “I should. But I was hoping Carl would be here.” She looked over Adam’s shoulder. “Is he with you?”

Adam reached out to the handkerchief, his fingers toying with the frilly edging. “Carl doesn’t come to church. Says he prefers to worship in his own way.”

Carla looked taken aback. “Oh. Mama would not like that.” She looked down at Adam’s fingers and raised her arm, allowing Adam to pull the handkerchief out from her sleeve. She smiled as she took it back from him. “Carl gave me this. Isn’t it lovely? He said it belonged to his mama.” She lowered her gaze. “His mama who died.”

“It belonged to his mother?”

Carla looked down at the dainty piece of material and back up at Adam. “That’s what he told me.”

Adam’s face dimpled. “It must be true then.” He looked around, spotting his family climbing into the buggy. “I gotta go.”

“Wait, Adam.” Carla raised the handkerchief. “This belonged to his mama, didn’t it? He said it was precious to him; it’s why he wanted me to have it.”

“If that’s what Carl told you.”

She caught his arm as he turned to go. “You know something. What aren’t you telling me?”

Adam hesitated then took the handkerchief from her grip, turning it over in his fingers. “It’s, well, it looks awfully like the one he gave to Margaret Murphy.”

“Margaret Murphy!” Several people turned in their direction and Adam signaled to her to keep her voice down.

“Margaret Murphy,” she whispered fiercely. “That Jezebel! And what, does he have a collection of identical handkerchiefs to give to every girl he meets?” Her breathing was getting faster, her eyes narrowed. “And I bet he tells each girl the same story. Why, that low down, contemptible, snake! He can take his handkerchief and…” she reached out to grab it back, but Adam kept one corner of it tight within his fingers and it stretched between them. Her eyes flashed up to Adam’s who kept them fixed within his gaze. Her breathing slowed and their eyes stayed locked for several quiet moments. She blinked, looked down at the material taut between them. “Did anyone ever tell you what long delicate fingers you have?”

Adam smiled. “Why don’t you tell me at the church picnic?” She linked her arm in his. We’re even now, Carl, thought Adam.

*****

Carla and Adam only lasted a few days. He wasn’t as patient as Carl was at enduring the tirades she aimed at him, or her quick-fire changes in temper from calm to boiling.

Carl simply laughed at him. “You beat me, Adam, you’ve proven yourself a worthy opponent.”

They leaned back against the schoolyard fence and watched Carla sashay across the schoolyard, throwing both boys a look of contempt. Carl whistled softly. “Boy, but I do like a hot-blooded girl.” He spun around to face Adam. “Hey, when you’ve finished your schooling, let’s go to Mexico, find us both some senoritas with flashing skirts and black hair and waists as tiny as…” He made a circle with his fingers and leaned back against the fence. “Ooh, only a Mexican girl can tame me.”

*****

If they thought the game was over, they were both wrong.

Carl took up with Betsy Miller whose father owned a hardware store in town. And once again, Adam, growing more confident with every girl he wooed and kissed, found a way to steer her away from his friend and into his affections. It was Betsy who dropped Adam, however, when she discovered the tall, mature boy she was sparking was, in fact, a few months short of his fifteenth birthday. She subsequently turned her attentions back towards Carl. Later, when Carl had been rejected in favor of an eighteen-year-old would-be gun-fighter who called himself Slick Dan McCraw, Carl concluded that as she had been tempted away by Adam, but then came back to Carl, the contest, as they were now calling it, had to be a draw. Adam disagreed. In his mind, he was two one up.

Next up in the firing line was Rose Marie Snyder who started the week with Adam and ended it with Carl. Adam reciprocated a few weeks later by flashing his dimples at Carl’s latest conquest, Missy Hannagan. She didn’t stand a chance.

And so it went on. Adam didn’t believe he was hurting any of the girls’ feelings. He was a young man finding out, with each new experience, how they reacted to him, and what they liked about him. When Carla complemented his fingers, he made a point, from then on, of holding his cup in such a way that would make them more discernible to the casual onlooker. His dimples became a weapon of choice, used sparingly at their fullest power. And when Adam discovered girls loved his long eyelashes, he forced himself to blink slowly when a prospective girlfriend came into his field of vision.

The game changed, however, when a new girl arrived in town.

The whole family had journeyed into Virginia City for a morning of essential purchasing and a family lunch to crown the excursion. Whilst Ben had business to discuss down at Fulton’s Foundry, and Marie took a boisterous Hoss into the shoemakers to have his feet measured for a new pair of boots—“I’m sure we only did this a couple of months ago; he won’t stop growing.”—Adam was left, literally, holding the baby. With a petulant Little Joe wriggling constantly in his arms, Adam paced up and down the sidewalk outside the store, moving the two-year-old from one arm to the other in an attempt to keep a grip on him. Carl appeared as if out of nowhere and decided to keep Adam company, at least until Adam’s father should reappear. He lounged on a chair beside the store entrance, eyeing the passers-by and admiring the horse flesh which paraded up and down the bustling Main Street.

“Down, down,” squawked Little Joe, swinging his weight over Adam’s arm to try and persuade his big brother to place him on the ground. Adam finally relented. And that’s all it took. With Little Joe on his feet, Adam had only just taken a tiny hand within his own when the child slipped from his grasp and bolted towards the road. Adam shouted, reached out, saw a buggy pulling in, the child about to tumble forward…when suddenly Little Joe was swept up in the air and into the arms of a curly-haired, red-headed girl.

“I believe this belongs to you,” she said with a smile.

It was as though every neuron in Adam’s mind stopped firing at the exact same moment; he was rendered voiceless and motionless. He could only stare at the girl standing before him with Little Joe propped on one arm, who also starred in wonder at her.

When thinking about it later, all Adam could recall was a girl in a green dress with curls the color of copper. And kind eyes; eyes that soothed, empathized, understood. Eyes that laughed and sparkled with surprised amusement.

Adam couldn’t move or speak. He could only stare.

Joe reached out to his older brother. “Adder, Adder.” It was the nearest approximation of Adam’s name he could manage.

Carl nudged Adam in the side, prompting Adam to startle and look at him distractedly. Carl grinned at the girl. “Yeah, Joe there is Adam’s little brother.”

Adam looked back to the girl who held Joe out towards him. After a moment during which Adam’s body had forgotten how to move, he took Joe from her.

“You can’t take your eyes off ‘em for a minute, can you?” she laughed. “I got brothers and sisters myself, I know what it’s like.”

The smile never left her face as she waited for a response. Adam’s suddenly dry mouth refused to cooperate. She looked from Adam to Carl and back again.

“Anyway, nice meeting yer Joe.” She tickled his chin. “Adam.” She nodded at Carl then moved away, throwing a look back as she walked along the sidewalk.

“Thanks.” It was nothing more than a croak. “Thanks.” Louder. But she was gone, swallowed up by the Virginia City townsfolk.

Adam gazed along the street in the direction she had gone, his hand pressing Little Joe gently to him.

“Not her.”

“Not her what?”

Adam looked up at Carl who shrugged his shoulders.

“Not her. She won’t be part of the game. Not ever.”

Carl grinned. “The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. But now you mention it…”

“I won’t say it again, Carl. Not her.” And Adam turned on his heel leaving an amused Carl shaking his head and a slow grin crawling across his face.

*****

Her name was Mary-Elizabeth Ford and she was the eldest of nine children aged from fifteen years to a few months’ old. She didn’t go to school, or out to work. Instead she stayed at home to help her mother raise her siblings, whilst her father worked at the Ophir mine as a supervisor.

She liked to sing as she hung clothes out on a line to dry, or hum to herself as she strolled along Virginia City’s streets on one errand or another.  And she loved to read. Adam would sometimes find her in the local mercantile standing before the store’s limited selection of books with a volume in her palm, looking down at the page and then up, her eyes squeezed shut, as she memorized a poem by Longfellow or Bryant.

She wasn’t perfect. Her hair was always trying to fall out of the knot she tied it back in, and she had a small white scar along one temple; the result of a newly polished floor, a sibling’s little accident and a table edge.

And on those days when she was allowed time to herself, she would wander through the streets picking wildflowers growing on the sides of the roads. Weeds to everyone else, she would fashion them into a bouquet to decorate the family home.

Adam loved her.

Adam had never spoken to her.

Considering his new found confidence with girls, with this one, he was just plain jittery. He would see her on the street, or in the store, and find his legs frozen to the spot, unable to approach her, talk to her or even catch her eye.

His interest in her went beyond the desire to kiss her lips or hold her hand. He wanted to know what her favorite flower was; whether she preferred burning sun or icy snow; what she dreamed of at night and what her first thoughts were in the morning when she woke. He wanted to teach her to ride; to tell her about Roman emperors; to read her Shakespeare. He wanted to run his finger over the soft crease in her elbow and gently blow the loose strands of hair away from her face. And he wanted to place his hand in the small of her back as they walked together so everyone would know she was his girl.

But Adam and Mary-Elizabeth never came closer than that first meeting outside the shoemakers. Everything he knew about her he learned from observation or talking to mutual acquaintances. He thought about her every moment of every day and was certain he dreamed of her at night.

Sadly, Adam’s rhapsody was not to last. Not when Carl began to show an interest in her.

During recess one day, the boys were lazing under the big tree in the yard. It was too hot to do more than simply shelter in the shade. Adam lay on his back with his hat tipped over his face, one eye still open to the world. Carl sat and fanned himself with his own hat to keep cool.

When Mary-Elizabeth walked past with a gaggle of little ones trailing at her feet and smiled at the two boys, Carl’s hat dropped to his lap and Adam sat up slowly. They both sighed as they gazed after her.

“The way I see it is this.” Carl looked over at Adam who was still staring after her down the street. “You ain’t walkin’ out with her, heck, you cain’t even talk to her. So if I was to ask her to the Virginia City Ladies’ Society School Fundraising Picnic this Saturday, and she ain’t your girl, then, by rights, we ain’t playing the game.”

Adam opened his mouth to speak but no words came to mind. He hated to admit it but Carl was right.

“And furthermore,” Carl grinned at his use of the word. “If you was to try and take her away from me, then it would be you that started the game. And you told me straight up she ain’t part of it. Seems to me, I cain’t lose.”

Adam jumped up. “But…I was gonna ask her.” He wasn’t. He didn’t have the nerve.

Carl climbed to his feet. “You ain’t got the guts.”

Adam snatched the hat from his head and thumped it to the ground. “I said she wasn’t to be part—”

“Of the game. I know.” Carl stared unblinking at Adam. “And she ain’t.” He narrowed his eyes. “Unless you make her part of it.”

Adam squared his shoulders and moved close to Carl. “I don’t want you to talk to her. She’s too good—”

“For me? Is that what you’re saying?” Carl leaned over Adam, his face inches away. “Well she don’t see it that way.”

Adam blinked. “What are you saying?”

Carl grinned. “That I already asked her, and she said yes.”

All of Adam’s hopes and impossible dreams for a future with a girl he could not even make eye contact with were shattered by that single sentence. He no longer saw his friend standing in front of him, but a rival, the one taking his girl away from him. He lashed out with both hands, pushing Carl to the ground. But Carl didn’t stay down, he scrambled to his feet and propelled himself head first into Adam’s belly, his arms wrapped around Adam’s waist. And then both boys were tumbling over and over in the dust, fists pounding the other, as a chorus of children gathered around, shouting encouragement for their favorite. But Adam didn’t hear them. He wanted to inflict hurt and to feel the pain of Carl’s fists on his body. Better the pain of a punch than the agony of betrayal. So he kept on hitting and scratching and kicking until strong arms pulled him away and he was thrown to one side where he lay on his back, his chest heaving, and tears trailed wet tracks down his cheeks.

*****

Adam’s clothes were torn. And so was his heart.

He stood, looking down at the floor, arms hanging loosely by his side. And it was only when his father stopped shouting did he realize he had not heard a word his father had said.

“Well, I asked you a question?”

He raised his eyes.

“A question?”

Ben strode around the desk and stood in front of Adam. “Did you hear anything I just said? I asked you why you were fighting Carl.”

Adam lowered his eyes. “It was nothing.”

“Nothing!” Ben hollered. Adam looked up to the sound of boots pounding up the stairs, as Hoss, who had snuck down a couple of steps to see what was happening, fled at the sound of his father’s tone. Ben’s frown deepened as he watched the seven-year-old disappear around the corner of the landing. He looked back to Adam. “Your clothes are ripped to shreds, you’re limping, you have cuts and bruises all over your face. And you say it was nothing.”

“It was just a disagreement over…” Adam risked a glance up at his father’s face. “I’d rather not say.”

Ben’s head rocked back on his neck. He looked over at Marie who stood in the dining area rocking a subdued Joe in her arms. She shrugged her shoulders.

“You’d rather not say.” Ben nodded his head, his nostrils dilating rapidly in anger. “This is why I told you to stay away from Carl Reagan. Because he’s trouble! And don’t think I don’t know you’ve been gallivanting around with him again. I chose to give you the benefit of the doubt and turn a blind eye as you’ve not been getting into any scrapes.” Ben paced in front of the desk. “But this!” He spun around and pointed up and down at Adam. “I will not have a son of mine fighting like a common thug.”

When Ben sat back heavily against the desk and did not say a word, Adam braved a look at him. It was clear his father was calming his temper before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was back to a reasonable level.

“Who started it?”

Adam blinked as he thought. “I pushed Carl.”

“Why?”

Adam paused.

“He…did something.”

“And what was so bad you had to hit him?”

He ripped my heart out of my chest, tore it in two and stamped on it.

Adam took a long breathy sigh. “Please, Pa,” and looked with pleading eyes at his father.

“You don’t want to say.”

Adam shook his head as he looked back down to the floor. He heard a heavy sigh.

“I will have the truth from you, Adam. But until further notice you are confined to the ranch. You will not go farther than the barn. No school. No riding. No lake. No fishing. Just chores and hard work. Do you hear me?”

Adam nodded.

“You’ll start by mending the corral fence where that bronco busted through it yesterday. Go clean yourself up. Get out of my sight.”

As Adam turned on his heel and limped up the stairs to his room, Ben turned to Marie who was walking across the room towards him.

Ben bent down to give Joe a kiss in his hair, then laid his cheek against his wife’s for a few moments. “This is so unlike him. He’s never got into a fight before.”

“He’s a boy, my love, a fourteen-year-old boy discovering what it is to be a man. He’s finding he has…new interests.” She raised her eyebrows knowingly at Ben whose own eyebrows soon followed suit.

“Are you saying…” He frowned. “Are you saying this is because of a girl?”

Marie smiled. “There are so many ways in which Adam is not like other boys: he can be so serious sometimes, and he always has his head in a book. And I think he’s more studious than a boy of his age should be. But he’s also a typical boy who has discovered the one thing that will distract him for the rest of his life. Girls.” And with a kiss on her husband’s cheek, she headed upstairs to lay Joe down for his afternoon nap, leaving Ben staring in disbelief at his ever astute wife.

*****

The bronco had done more than simply broken through the fencing. Its wild thrashing had completely flattened two panels and left two more hanging at precarious angles from the fence posts. Adam’s punishment was to repair the damage and to except no help from anyone. With his heart broken and his best friend now his enemy, Adam dawdled over the job, not caring how well he did it or what his father thought.

The evening after the fight, Adam had been surprised when his father came to his bedroom. He had braced himself for more chastisement but Ben’s demeanor had softened, and Adam was surprised when his father sat next to him on the bed and asked him how he was, how he was getting on at school and whether there was anything that was troubling him. Adam had responded as best he could, feeling a little uncomfortable by the sudden change of mood. However, when his father mentioned girls, Adam shut down, unable to express feelings he could not make head nor tails of. So his father had left him alone to his thoughts, which had immediately turned to Mary-Elizabeth, as they had done every moment of every day since he’d first met her.

Mary-Elizabeth had been everything to him, and yet he couldn’t find it in himself to blame her for what Carl had done. He had never spoken explicitly to Carl about his feelings for her—that wasn’t something boys did—but he must have known. Adam had said she wasn’t to be part of the game, and surely that said it all. But Carl had gone ahead and asked her to the picnic anyway, knowing Adam’s heart would be broken. He must have known. But he didn’t care. He was no friend.

Adam slammed his hammer down hard on a nail he was holding between his fingers. It flicked out of his grip, burying itself in his gloved hand. He swore, dropped the hammer and gripped his hand tightly against his chest. After a few moments of holding his breath against the pain, he chanced a look down. The nail protruding from his gloved palm made him feel nauseous, so he gritted his teeth, took a hold of the nail and pulled it out. He gasped, threw the nail to the ground in disgust, then peeled off his glove. The nail had embedded itself a little way into his flesh and was more a superficial wound than anything serious. But there was lots of blood. Adam walked over to the pump and let the cooling water wash over the gash in his hand.

As he did, Will and Carl rode into the yard. Adam’s eyes narrowed. He nodded a greeting to Will and ignored Carl, pointedly turning his back to return to the corral. With one eye on the repairs, and the other on the porch, he watched Will speak with his father. Carl loitered a few paces away, his gaze occasionally turning in Adam’s direction. When it did, Adam made himself look extra busy, wincing each time he knocked his injured palm.

They all started walking in Adam’s direction. He pretended he hadn’t noticed, bending over to pick up a plank of wood and trying it for size where it would be positioned.

“Son?”

Adam glanced up but carried on working.

“Will and I have decided that you two,” Ben looked through his eyebrows at both boys, his black gaze moving from one to the other, “need to sort out whatever is going on between you.” Adam straightened up slowly. “So Carl is going to help you fix the fence.”

“But, Pa,” Adam’s plea was a whine.

“No, Adam.” Ben’s finger shot up, waving in the faces of both boys. “Both Will and I have an idea what this is all about.” Adam met Carl’s surprised look, which did not go unnoticed by their fathers. “But, if you won’t talk to us, then talk to each other. Sort it out.”

As Will took Carl aside, pleading with him to make it up with Adam, Ben leaned in close over his son. “Don’t think I’m giving you carte blanche to chase around with him again. Will tells me Carl has been impossible to live with these last couple of days, as have you. Settle whatever is between you so we can all return to a quiet life.”

The boys were left alone. Adam turned his back on Carl and positioned a fresh nail against the post, preparing to hammer it home. His attempts were clumsy with his painful hand. He was conscious of Carl behind him and it was only a tap, tap, tap against a fence post that made him turn.

Carl had picked up a chisel from the toolbox and was knocking it against the wood. He stopped when Adam looked venomously at him.

“Well, what d’ya want me to do?”

Adam’s first thought was go as far away from me as possible. But instead he pointed to another hammer and the box of nails.

“Take the other end of that rail and help me hammer it into place.”

Carl swept his arm down dramatically to sweep up the hammer, but did as he was asked. No words were exchanged as they got on with the immediate job at hand. Once finished, Carl threw the hammer down on the ground and leaned back on part of the fence.

“Don’t do that.” Adam stepped forward and yanked Carl away from the rails. “It’s not secure yet. That’s a day’s work you could ruin.”

Carl wrenched his arm free of Adam’s grip. “Quite the handyman, ain’t yer? You like to think you’re better than me at everything.”

Adam pointed at the tools. “Shut up and get on with it. The sooner we finish, the sooner I can get away from you.”

But Carl wasn’t in the mood for work. “You’re better at letterin’, better at shootin’, and now you’re better at labourin’.” He leaned in close. “Well, there’s one thing you ain’t better at, and that’s girls.”

Adam couldn’t help himself. He raised a hand to hit Carl, but Carl was faster and grabbed Adam’s raised fist mid-air, pushing back on it with all his strength.

“If you think you’re gonna hit me again, you got another thing coming, friend.” And with a mighty heave, he pushed Adam hard against the fence. It fractured under his weight, and Adam crashed to the ground, landing hard on the splintered timbers. A terrific pain stabbed through Adam’s already injured hand. He was winded but rolled over onto his knees. A needle-like shard of wood was in the exact same place the nail had been. He pulled it out with a cry and wrenched off his glove. His palm was a mess, bleeding profusely and with a long gash through the middle. He glared up at Carl who hadn’t moved but stood staring down at Adam and his bloody hand

“Adam, I didn’t mean…”

But Adam wasn’t listening. He picked up the first thing he could lay his good hand on—the short end of a broken plank of wood—and hurled it at Carl. Carl spun on his heels, running for his horse which was still saddled by the corral. Adam was quick to follow. Holding his hand to his chest he ran for Will’s horse and took off in hot pursuit.

*****

“What the…?”

The sound of crashing wood drew Ben and Will from the house in time to see the two boys racing away on their horses and a broken fence left in their wake.

“I told them to make it up and finish the fence; not leave it in a worse state than it was before and go chasing around the countryside.”

Shaking their heads, the men made their way over to the corral to inspect the damage.

“Ben?”

The warning in Will’s voice drew him to where his foreman was pulling something out from beneath the smashed-up wood. It was a blood-stained glove. He handed it to his employer.

“That’s a lot of blood, Ben.”

Ben turned the glove over in his hands, his eyes turning towards the dusty cloud stirred up by the two horses.

“It’s Adam’s. I bought them for him a few months back.”

“Oh darn, I’m sorry, Ben, I didn’t think they’d go this far.”

Ben’s eyes met the worried gaze of his friend and foreman.

“I don’t think either of us did. The boy’s feud seems to be a lot worse than either of us thought. We’d better get after them.”

And before long, both fathers were riding on the scent of their warring sons.

*****

It was inevitable that Carl would ride to the mine. Adam rode into the clearing in time to see Carl throw himself from his mount and disappear down the tunnel. He followed him, coming to a full stop as the darkness stole the light, and steadied himself against a shoring timber to let his eyes adjust. He had taken a tentative step into the blackness when a tiny flame flared to life in the chamber ahead of him. Adam moved towards it just as the light moved away and then extinguished. Adam was flung into darkness once more. Disoriented, he reached out to find the smooth edge of the hewn-out cave and planted his back firmly against a wall.

Adrenaline pumping through his body during the mad ride to the mine had kept the pain in his hand at bay. Now it returned full force. Adam held it tight against his chest.

“Come out and fight me like a man, Carl.” Though how he would fight with only one hand didn’t cross his mind.

Carl didn’t reply but then a light flared down one of the offshoot tunnels.

“I ain’t gonna fight you, Adam. You forget you’re better than most things than me, including fightin’. It’s safer back here.”

“Well, I’ll come in after you.”

The tiny flame went out. “I don’t think you will.”

The mine was so black it seemed to envelop Adam where he stood pinned against the wall. He drew in a shaky breath.

“I ain’t gonna fight you Adam, not over a girl.” Carl’s voice floated on the darkness.

Adam didn’t know which way to turn. “You took her from me.”

There was no response. Adam cocked his head, straining to hear what Carl would have to say. But the silence persisted. He shuffled along the wall a short way, desperate for light, for warmth, for Carl to speak so he knew he was there.

“She ain’t for you.”

Adam stopped moving. Did he detect sympathy in Carl’s voice? “How do you know who is for me, and who isn’t?”

A half laugh echoed through the cave. “Because I spoke to her, that’s why.” Adam heard Carl take a breath. “She’s promised to someone.”

It was the last thing he had expected Carl to say.

“What?”

“She’s goin’ with a boy she’s known since she was a kid. That’s why her pa came to Virginia City, for the work, and because the kid and his family arrived a few months before they did. When she reaches her sixteenth birthday they’re gonna be wed.”

Adam stared into the darkness. If he had been able to see anything, it would have been an unfocused blur before his eyes. Yet he was surprised how calm he felt. He didn’t feel anger, or frustration, or a desire to confront this boy she was apparently promised to. Instead, he felt…relief. That was the only word to describe it. He was relieved.

All the weeks of thinking about her, of dreaming about their future together, of believing life without her would be a life without purpose, well, she had been taken away from him in a single sentence, and Adam, well, he was relieved. The barely contained anger, mostly aimed at Carl, evaporated.

And Adam suddenly realized he hadn’t been in love with her, but in love with the idea of her. She had been a goddess he had raised onto a pedestal and worshiped from afar. He had struggled to talk to her because to know the real person would be to shatter the illusion he had created. Adam felt as though he had been under a spell which had been broken. And strangely, when he thought about her now, she seemed so ordinary.

Adam shook his head. Girls, he’d never understand them. Or more accurately, he’d never understand his reaction to them. He vowed he would never be hypnotized in that way again.

He smiled and as his body relaxed, his legs loosened and he slid down the cave wall to the floor.

“Uh, Adam?” An anxious voice carried through the darkness. “You okay?”

Adam’s cheeks dimpled. “Yeah, I’m okay. And you can come out, I’m not gonna fight you.”

A match was lit, throwing out a light that grew brighter and larger as it approached; the disembodied face of Carl floated behind it. Adam looked up at him, his eyebrows raised in a look of amusement, but then a thought struck him and he frowned.

“You said you’d asked Mary-Elizabeth to the picnic and she’d said yes. But if she’s promised to someone?”

Carl squinted. “Heck, I lied. She turned me down flat. Got you though, didn’t I?”

Adam took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly as he looked up at Carl. But then the match burned to the end causing Carl to drop it and blow on his fingers. Darkness reigned once again.

“You know what,” said Adam, “sooner or later you’ll say or do something, and I’ll do more than give you a good tanning.”

Carl lit another match. “Well, you’ll always be the better one, Adam, though maybe I’ll get you first.” Carl held his hand out to Adam who gripped his friend’s forearm and let himself be pulled upright.

As they approached the mouth of the mine, their eyes narrowed against the harsh light, and with Mary-Elizabeth already a fading memory, Adam looked at his friend with his long legs and toothy grin and wondered if anything affected Carl at all.

They collapsed on the ground in the sunlight.

“How’s your hand?”

Adam was holding it to his chest like a claw, afraid to move it less the wound bust open.

“Hurts.”

Carl rummaged in his vest pocket and pulled out the flask of liquor. “I reckon we should wash it in this. Saw my uncle do it when he nearly chopped his thumb off with an ax. Hurts like hell though.”

Adam clutched his wounded hand closer. “No way.”

Carl grinned. “Well how about a sip to numb the pain?” He held the flask out to Adam who, after a moment’s hesitation, reached out to take it from his friend.

Just as his pa rode into the clearing with Will.

*****

The game was over. It was never played again. When Adam started walking out with Caroline Reed, Carl steered clear, and before long had found himself his own girl to kiss and fondle.

Their friendship settled down into one of easy camaraderie. At times, though, Adam felt Carl was too casual about life, which was so opposite to his own serious approach; and they would occasionally come to blows when Carl did or said something which upset Adam’s sense of propriety.

His pa tolerated the friendship. As long as Adam stuck to the rules his father established—no fighting, no liquor, no shirking off school and ranch work, and no loitering down at the mine—then he was content to let Adam spend time with Carl. Adam obeyed his father to the letter. After having been caught with the flask of liquor on that fateful day at the mine, and receiving a necessary trip to the barn as a consequence, Adam had no desire to disobey his pa.

The broken corral had needed a lot of explaining to his furious father, and it had taken the wise intervention of his perceptive step-mother to coax the full story out of Adam. He had explained about the game, about Mary-Elizabeth, and how his feelings for this girl had clouded his usually sensible judgment. And when his father fumed, Ben had to be gently reminded by his wife that he himself had been fourteen once. Had he forgotten the turmoil that raging emotions had played on his own thoughts and actions? Ben had relented. Fixing the corral fence, and then painting the barn, became Adam—and Carl’s—punishment.

But then, when Carl was seventeen, and Adam a year younger, the older boy had simply vanished. Adam had ridden over to the Reagan’s cabin to find a flustered Will clearing out his boy’s room. “He just upped and went,” said Carl. “Said he was going down Arizona way, and maybe then to Mexico.” Will’s eyes had glistened. “I guess he never could settle in one place for too long. We was always on the move when he was a boy. Guess rootin’ down in one place wasn’t for him.” Adam had nodded and thought, there but for the grace of God…

He missed Carl. He missed his wide grin, the cheeky look in his eye when he was up to something, his boundless enthusiasm, his unfulfilled desire to corrupt Adam with drink. But things changed, as they always do, because a few weeks later he started talking to a couple of boys in town, and hit it off with them straight away.

Ben noticed the improved spirits in his son and that evening he joined Adam on the front porch as he was minding Little Joe. The three-year-old was sitting on his haunches, fascinated by a centipede crawling across the decking—a small finger hovering dangerously close to the insect—as Adam watched the sun dip below the distant mountains, his face bathed in the glow of the sunset.

“It’s a beautiful evening.”

Adam glanced over at his father. “I think it’s my favorite time of day. When the world slows down for a well-earned rest.”

Ben pulled a toothpick from his vest pocket and began to chew on the end. Noticing Adam observe his old habit, he wordlessly pulled another one from his pocket and handed it to him. Together, father and son leaned back in their chairs, chewed picks and watched the sun setting.

“You seem more content of late, son. You were brought low after Carl left.”

A wry smile crossed Adam’s lips. “I missed him, guess I still do in a way. But I can’t brood all my life. People will always come and go.”

“Such wisdom from my sixteen-year-old.”

“I guess I’ve had a good teacher.”

Ben met his glance, contentment washing over him, and smiled.

Adam half stood, leaning forward to raise Little Joe into the air. “I told you before about playing with bugs. One of these days you’ll get bitten and then we’ll all hear no end of it.”

He sat back down with Little Joe on his lap.

“They got lots and lots of arms and legs, Adam,” said Joe pointing down at the centipede that was beating a rapid escape across the porch floor.

“They sure do, Joe,” said Adam, squeezing Joe’s middle and causing the child to giggle.

“I’ll take him inside, Pa; it’s his bedtime.”

Ben leaned back farther in his chair. “You’re a good boy, Adam, I don’t know if I tell you enough.”

“You didn’t think that when Carl was around.”

“Um, well, Carl was a—”

“Troublesome influence?” Adam’s eyebrows rose slightly as he smiled. “You might have mentioned it once or twice.”

He rose from his chair, hoisting Little Joe up into his arms and walked unhurriedly to the front door.

“Anyway, Pa, you don’t have to worry about me. I met a couple of fellas in town today who were great company. I have a feeling they’re going to become good friends.”

Ben looked proudly at his eldest boy as Adam reached for the door handle.

“I think you’ll like the Bonner Brothers, Pa. They’re straight up. You’ve got nothing to worry about, I promise.”

***The End***

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