Sojourner (by BettyHT)

Summary:  A story written in three parts — Adam’s involvement with a young woman leads to discord within his family and when that is resolved, he leaves on a journey that affects him greatly. When he comes home, he will need his family once more to face the future.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  46220


Chapter 1

“Well. I’ll be a cock-eyed mule, you’re jealous!” Standing outside the dance hall talking with his middle son, Ben Cartwright was shocked and amused.

“Well, Pa, I didn’t notice how pretty she was until I seen her dancing away so much with Waldo.”

“Heavens to Hannah, you, and Joe and Adam, you’re all the same. You don’t see what you have right in front of you until another man has her, and then it’s too late.”

Outside the dance hall where Waldo danced with Sandra after he and Hoss had defeated the gamblers who had come for the money that Waldo’s brother had said Waldo had, Hoss was feeling a bit down seeing the pretty lady he had held in his arms earlier dancing and smiling in Waldo’s embrace. When she had been unconscious in his arms, he had taken a good look at her. She had felt darn good resting in his arms too. Now he knew he had let someone very valuable get away again. His father was right, but that didn’t mean he liked hearing it. He decided to use one of his brother’s tactics and change the subject.

“Hey, Pa, you seen Adam lately? I ain’t seen him for a bit.”

“No, come to think of it, I haven’t seen him lately either. In fact, I haven’t seen him since we arrived at the dance. Normally I would expect all sorts of ladies to be vying for his attention.”

That’s when Hoss realized he had made a terrible mistake in judgment by calling his father’s attention to Adam’s absence because his brother must have taken advantage of all the concern everyone had for Waldo and slipped away. They all knew to where he would slip away and to whom whenever he had the chance too. Hoss looked up to the heavens and grimaced a bit while he hoped his father wouldn’t draw the conclusion he was certain he was going to draw.

“He went to see that woman again, didn’t he? I swear, sometimes he has no more sense than an ignorant schoolboy with his first crush on a girl. He better be back here soon. I don’t want to have to go looking for him and draw even more attention to the fact that my eldest son is consorting with that kind of woman.”

For a moment, Hoss considered trying to once again tell his father that Meg wasn’t such a bad kind of woman. Even though he had heard the stories and seen her in the revealing dresses at the saloon where she worked, he had met her and she was as decent a woman as he had ever met anywhere. She did work in a saloon, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be a decent woman by his standards. He knew the women in town had sullied her reputation as much as they could once they knew that Adam had grown fond of her and then had started spending time with her. As far as he knew though the stories weren’t true, and he wished his father wouldn’t believe them either. However there was one thing his father said that was true. No one in this town would ever forget her background or that she had worked in that saloon. She and Adam didn’t have a future together in Virginia City as long as people had attitudes like that because they would always be talking about them and finding ways to let her know she wasn’t wanted. He had mentioned that to Adam once, and his brother, in his usual style, had been rather cryptic saying that there were other places to have a future because if one avenue was closed there were always other ones to follow. He hadn’t been sure what an avenue was but when he found out, he wondered if Adam was meaning to leave. Adam never said anything like that again, but he kept a lot of things to himself. As far as Hoss knew, he had never said anything like that to their father or to Little Joe. Hoss worried about it though especially as Adam and Meg spent more time together. He knew they had a very close relationship by this time and were probably a lot closer than his father realized although maybe by now he had guessed that too.

When Hoss went inside, he saw Joe dancing and soon was dancing again too. The two of them met up at the refreshment table a short time later, and Joe had a question. “Did Pa guess where Adam went off to?”

“Yeah, and he ain’t none too happy ’bout it neither. Gonna be a chilly ride home.”

“Hope our older brother found it was worth it. Pa’s likely to send him up to the timber camps again. Somebody’s due to go up there to mark timber again, and he’s the best at it.”

“He probably won’t mind seeing as how frosty it’ll be in the house for a while. Might seem mighty pleasant by comparison up on those slopes.”

“You figure he’s planning on a future with Meg?”

“Cain’t see it happening. Don’t know what he’s thinking. I just hope he ain’t thinking on leaving with her.”

Shocked by that possibility, Little Joe grabbed Hoss by the arm. “He wouldn’t do that, would he?”

“Not that I know, but I jest hope Pa don’t force the issue ifn ya know what I mean. Adam’s got that stubborn streak, and ifn he gets his back up, there’s no telling what he might do. Pa’s gotta be careful what he says or does ’bout this, but Pa’s mighty stubborn too. We’re gonna hafta do our darndest to keep the two of them from doing somethin’ they’ll both regret.”

In a small rented two-room house at the edge of town, Adam was resting in bed with Meg. They had become very close in the past few weeks, and had developed an intimate relationship. She loved how he kissed her that first time enveloping her in his arms and gently pulling her close to him not forcing her but encouraging her to relax into his embrace. He had kissed her softly too at first not demanding but seeking a response from her and building his own passion only so far as she was willing to go. She had only kissed him at first, but as they had spent more and more time together, they had become more and more physically affectionate until disrobing and slipping into bed together seemed the most natural thing to do. She didn’t regret it, but she also had heard the talk in town. Frequently women would talk loud enough when she went by to make sure she heard. There were comments at the saloon from the other men there too. She wasn’t one of the saloon girls who made extra money by taking men to her bed. She never had, and like most saloon girls, didn’t have to do that. She made enough money selling drinks and spending time with men dancing and holding conversations with them and laughing with them. Adam had been different. She wanted to be with him, and it wasn’t monetary although he was generous with gifts to her. He bought her nice things and pretty dresses to wear. He told her it was because he loved to see her smile, and she believed him because she had found him to be the most honest man she had ever known. It was unfortunate too because tonight he had opened his heart and told her things that made her heart ache for him.

“I love you, Meg. I don’t care what people say. Being with you is what makes me feel happy. When I’m here, I am the most relaxed I ever am. There are no worries when I’m with you. I can talk with you and tell you things that no one else cares to listen. You understand too. You don’t know how important that is to me. I need you with me. If my father and the people of this town can’t accept that, then we can go somewhere else.”

Caressing his cheek in the darkness, Meg had listened to him declare his heart, but she knew it could never be. She had given him what he needed from her. She knew he needed someone to give him love, to touch him gently and without reservation. He needed someone to need him. He craved her love and she gave it freely to him. But she couldn’t take him from his family and from his future. She knew that what he was saying was going to cost him too much. He loved her now, but she doubted that he would love her when he had lost all the others he loved and his home. So she had given of herself on this night with abandon. She knew it would be the last time they would be together. She had hoped to have the lights on so she could see him, but that would have drawn too much attention. She had touched him then committing to memory the feel of his muscles and the hair on his chest, the breadth of his shoulders, and the hair that curled at his neck. She inhaled the scent of him and knew she would always remember fondly the smell of bay rum and leather. When he left, her bed always smelled of that for days afterward, and she would smile at night as she slipped into bed remembering him.

“I probably have to get dressed soon. By now, Pa has noticed I’m not at the dance.”

“I suppose you’ll spend the next couple of weeks up at the timber camps again?”

Chuckling in response, Adam wrapped his arms around Meg for one last kiss. She felt the rumble of his laughter in his chest as he held her.

“Yes, somehow he thinks that will make a difference. He’ll say it’s because I’m the best at it, but it’s really because he thinks if he gets me away from you for two or three weeks, it will make a difference. It won’t of course. I don’t mind though. By the time I get back, he’s in a better mood so we don’t fight about things. Then I’ll find time to come to town and see you again. I do love to see you.”

After one more prolonged kiss, Adam did get out of bed, dressed in the dark, and then leaned down to kiss Meg one more time.

“Now, is there anything that I can do for you before I go? Is there anything you need? We did drink up a bottle of your wine. I’ll leave some money for you to buy another one and perhaps a few more. I like to drink some wine with you, and maybe we can have a picnic when I get back. That will have to be it for a while then though because then I’ll be gone on a cattle drive. That will take at least six weeks, so buy some good stuff.”

“Adam, you don’t have to give me any money.”

“I know. I’m not giving you money. I’m leaving you money here to buy things for us. It’s not the same. Would you prefer that I buy the wine and have it sent here?”

“No, you can leave the money. It’s all right.”

“Meg, is something wrong? I’ve left money before for you to buy wine and things for us to have a picnic.”

“No, it’s just that time. I’ll be fine.”

Understanding what she meant by ‘that time’, Adam asked no more questions. He bid her goodnight and left heading directly back to the dance hall. Neighbors saw him of course, but they were used to seeing him leave late at night and occasionally early in the morning. They liked him, and they liked Meg. They weren’t the ones spreading stories about the couple who were so much in love that all of them could see it when the two were together.

*****

Chapter 2

The next morning, Hoss headed to the stable rather than have coffee with his father. He could see that Ben Cartwright was not in any better mood than he had been in the night before for the ride home. There hadn’t been much said between him and Adam, but the few words that had been said only served to set the battle lines once more because Adam was determined to continue seeing Meg and their father was equally determined that he needed to end that relationship. There wasn’t much point in them talking about it or rather arguing about it because it had progressed well beyond the point where it could be discussed. It was an emotional and highly personal issue to which logic and common sense didn’t apply in either case. Hoss wished it did, but he had found he couldn’t talk with either one of them about it although he did try with Adam sometimes. His father usually got almost as angry with him when he brought up the subject as he did when he was arguing with Adam about it so he had learned to avoid that topic altogether when his father was around. Joe sided with their father on this one so there was no point in talking with him about it. He thought that Adam was needlessly causing turmoil in the family and dragging the family name down when there was no likelihood that there was a future for him and Meg. Hoss could hear Adam whistling while he worked in the stable. That irritated him a bit, and he had to let Adam know it when he got there.

“Pa’s in the house all steamed up. We’re gonna have to deal with that and it ain’t gonna be much fun. You get to go up to the timber camp again I suppose. The least you could do was act like it wasn’t fun for ya since it’s because of you that it’s gonna be right miserable around here for us for the next few days at least. It’ll probably be Wednesday before we can have a meal without hearing a lecture that you should be hearing instead of us.”

“Oh, I think I’m well past the age where any lecture from Pa is going to do any good, or rather I should say is going to make any difference. He should know that by now. Hoss, you’re old enough too that we shouldn’t have to listen to Pa’s lectures. We’re men not boys. We get to live our lives.”

“Well as long as we’re living here, Pa’s got some say in that. He’s got some rules he wants us to follow.”

“Not in my personal life or when I’m not on this ranch, he doesn’t. He may think he does, but he doesn’t. I will see who I want, when I want. He will not tell me who to see.”

“That may sound good, but he can make your life miserable though.”

“Hoss, do I look miserable to you? I feel great. Don’t you think that’s one of the reasons he’s mad. He can’t control me. I had a wonderful time last night with a woman that I love. In two weeks, I’ll be back and I’ll go see her again, and I’ll have a wonderful time again. She makes me laugh, she makes me happy. What can be wrong about seeing someone who can do that?”

“He’s worried because people talk.”

Looking to be sure that Joe hadn’t come out of the house yet; Adam lowered his voice but was just as clear and certain as he spoke. “People talked about Marie too and about Pa and Marie. You know there were lots of rumors and they lasted for years. Pa never let that stop him from loving her, marrying her, and to this day, missing her.”

Nodding, Hoss leaned against a stall post and regarded Adam. “Yeah, that’s true. So, you really do think you love her enough to put up with the talk even if it lasts for years?”

“If I have to, yes. Hoss, all that she’s done is work in a saloon. I know that some gossips have spread stories about her. You know it’s probably because of me that happened too. If I wasn’t involved with her, those vicious lies probably wouldn’t have been told. It’s like they can’t believe that a Cartwright would dare to see someone who wasn’t on the top tier socially. She needed to survive and there aren’t many things a woman can do to live on her own. You know she could have made more money doing the things those hateful stories say she’s done. She would live in a better place and wear a lot nicer clothes if she did those other things. No, she gets her cut for the drinks and she gets paid her salary. Now that’s a good amount of money, but she has to buy fancy dresses for work, and she has to pay rent and buy food. She’s saving money to get out of that job, but she doesn’t have enough yet.”

“What does she want to do?”

“She would like her own business. I think she’ll do it too. She’ll make those gossips eat their words some day.”

“Why don’t you talk to Pa like this and try to get him to understand how you feel?”

“He won’t let me. He’s so dead set against her that he won’t hear me when I try to talk with him. No, he only tries to do his best to keep us apart, but it won’t work. I’ll do my work on the ranch, and I’ll go see her when I have free time. He can’t keep me working all the time.”

“The cattle drive comes up next. You’re bossing this one cause Pa already said he’d be in Denver for those meetings with the railroad. You’ll be gone at least six weeks with the roundup and then the drive. It could be close to two months even.”

“Yeah, I warned her about that. She’ll be fine. She has some good neighbors. They’ll watch out for her and make sure she’s safe.”

“You going in to have breakfast?”

“No, I’ll finish up here and head on out. I was already told to do the marking up at the timber camps. Hop Sing will pack food for the trail for me.”

“Coward!”

Hoss laughed then at the mock scowl he got, but the two brothers worked in companionable silence until the work was done. As usual, Joe never got out there before they finished. Adam bid Hoss goodbye and rode out to spend his two weeks of being banished to the timber camps. It wasn’t a duty he minded except in the winter months. He didn’t like the cold and snow, but in the nice weather, he liked marking the trees even if the days were long. Adam reached the camps in time for the evening meal. After he took care of Sport and got his gear stored away, he joined the men at the mess tent.

The foreman of one of the cutting crews addressed him rather loudly when he grabbed a plate and stood in line. “Got yourself banished up here to mark trees again. Get in another row with the old man?” Adam nodded to the man in line who had asked.

Another man posed a question that didn’t need an answer. “I hope she’s worth it?”

All they got for that one was a big grin. Hearty laughter followed it. Some of the women in the camp shook their heads but could hardly fault the handsome young Cartwright for defying his father to be with the woman he loved even if she had a bad reputation. Somehow the whole situation had made him seem more like a regular guy, and the men and the few wives in camp liked him better for it. He was no uppity rich man who was looking for a snooty wife. He had found a real woman who loved him and he loved her in return. They respected that. It meant that the respect he showed to the women in the camp was genuine. The men there appreciated that too.

For almost two weeks, Adam worked hard from sun-up to sundown marking trees on most days. He also did some repairs to a flue and helped the men fix some equipment that they used to swing logs out over barriers. Sometimes the pulleys needed to engineer the maneuvers they needed were tricky to position. Adam set them up for maximum efficiency and safety and tested them himself before he let the men use them. On the last day that he was scheduled to be in the camp, the group asked if he could take a break from working and do some hunting for them so they could have a supply of fresh meat. He told them he wished they had asked sooner because the best hunting was a good half-day’s ride away. They looked so dejected that he agreed to stay an extra day or two and do what they wanted. He did a little side trip then and brought back some elk and deer for the camp. They insisted on a big party so he was three days late by the time he packed up to head home. He was on the trail home when he was intercepted by Hoss who looked worried.

“We was wondering if something happened to ya. You’re late.”

“I’m only three days late. That’s happened before and nobody came looking for me. What’s different this time?”

“Pa wondered if ya mighta heard the news and took off after her.”

“Her? What happened?”

“Adam, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but Meg left town.”

“What? When?”

“We heard about it this week. I guess she left the day after the dance. By the time we heard about it, it was already too late to do anything about it or I woulda come to tell ya. We don’t know where she went. Nobody seems to know.”

Sitting in shock staring down at his saddle horn, Adam was silent until he looked up in anguish to address Hoss. “Why would she go, Hoss? Why would she leave me?”

*****

Chapter 3

Two weeks earlier, Meg had gotten up in the morning determined to carry out her decision of the night before because she loved Adam too much to contribute any more to his pain. She knew that leaving him was going to hurt, but she thought that staying was going to cause more agony than she could bear to see him suffer. She was afraid that if she stayed, he would likely make decisions that might have consequences he could not fix. She pulled her small bags from beneath her bed and packed her meager belongings and then opened a large trunk for her dresses. When it was time for the banks to open, she hurried to the bank to withdraw all of her funds. She went to the stage line to buy a ticket on the afternoon stage, and made a stop at the saloon to quit and get her pay. The owner expressed regret at her leaving but complained little as he saw the tears in her eyes. He most likely assumed that she and Adam had quarreled and ended their relationship. She guessed that rumors would be spread throughout the town and only hoped they did not reach the Cartwrights at church services on Sunday. If they did, she feared that Hoss might go tell Adam, and he might come chasing after her. She needed the couple of weeks that he would be at the timber camps to disappear so far into the far regions of the west that he would never find her. With no idea of where to look, he wouldn’t even be able to try especially with the cattle drive coming up that he had to boss. That was her plan, and she was determined to make it work. She had a few hours before she left, and sat at the table in her small rented home and tried to write a letter to say goodbye and explain why she was going. After many failed attempts, all she could do was write what amounted to an apology. It was inadequate. She hated that she couldn’t say all that was in her heart. Perhaps one day she would write him a letter and express herself better, but at that moment, she didn’t have the words for the tumultuous emotions roiling inside of her. She had asked a neighbor for help with her trunk. When that knock came at the door, she folded the small note into an envelope and wrote his name across the tear stained paper.

“Thank you, Silas. Could you please give this to Adam if he comes looking for me?”

“You know he’s gonna come lookin’, Miss Meg. You sure you want to do this? He’s gonna be powerful hurt when he finds you gone. Your tears tell me you’re hurting something awful bad already.”

“He’ll be more hurt if I stay with everything that’s going to happen. It will be better this way. You’ll see. He’ll find a nice woman to marry, and it’ll be someone his family and the town approves of and won’t gossip about so much. He’ll be happy, and he’ll have beautiful children and a wonderful life here. You’ll see. I’m doing this for him.”

“Maybe it works out like you say, but it can be awful hard for a man to be happy ifn part of his heart’s been ripped away. It don’t grow back, you know. It just scars over and gets hard sometimes. Makes it more difficult for anyone else to get in there. It’s how a man can protect himself when he gets hurt real bad. You see that, dontcha?”

“Adam is still a young man. He’ll get over me. He’ll find someone else.”

“Well, me and the missus be praying for that, and we’ll be praying for you too. Will you let us know where you end up? We’ll worry about you if we don’t know that you got yourself to some place safely.”

“You won’t tell Adam, will you?” Silas frowned a little then. “I know you won’t lie to him, so I’m sorry but I won’t be able to tell you. I will send a letter to tell you that I’m all right, but I won’t say where I am, and I won’t send it for a while. I’ll have to let things calm down a little so that Adam isn’t charging after me. Tell him that he won’t be able to find me. I’m going to switch stages so often and directions too that no one could find me. If he comes after me, he’ll be wasting his time. You’ll tell him that, won’t you? You understand, don’t you?”

“No, Miss Meg, I really don’t, but it’s your decision. You’re our friend, and we’ll help you because of that, but I wish you wasn’t doing this. All we can see coming out of this is a lot of hurt that ain’t ever gonna go away.”

“No, I can’t believe that. Adam is a strong man. He’ll get over it. He has to.”

Somehow Meg controlled the tears then, and later on the stage ride and even when she got to Denver. When she got a room in a boarding house and the matron was so nice to her though, she couldn’t hold back any more. She went to her room, and cried most of the night. In the morning, her eyes red and puffy, she couldn’t hide what she had done. The lady coaxed her into telling her story. By the end of the day, she had a friend, had sold her fancy dresses, and had some leads on some legitimate jobs and was hired within the week. She was well on her way to becoming a respectable woman. Except for a broken heart, she was doing so much better. She missed talking to Adam so she wrote letters to him. She never mailed any of them of course keeping them in a box tied with a red ribbon. He had given her a present in that box once, and she had treasured it ever since.

By the time Meg was getting settled in Denver, in Virginia City, Adam rode into town directly from the timber camps. He had several days’ growth of beard and hadn’t bathed. He arrived at Meg’s home only to find it had already been rented to someone else so he knocked on the neighbors’ door. Silas answered immediately because he had seen through the window when Adam rode up and went to the rented home.

“Adam, I’m sorry. She wouldn’t listen to anything I said about it being a bad idea. She wouldn’t tell us where she was going, and she hasn’t written to tell us where she is cause she knew we would tell you. It’s a damn awful thing she done. I know she told me why she had to do it cause she thought she was all wrong for you, but I told her she wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Why didn’t you tell my family that she left so they could tell me?”

“I thought your family didn’t approve. I didn’t think they would do anything to keep her here. I never thought to do it.”

Dropping his head, Adam realized that Silas wouldn’t have known that Hoss would have told him even if he didn’t approve. Hoss would have had that much respect for Adam’s relationship with Meg to let him decide what he wanted to do about it. “It’s all right, Silas. You don’t know my brother, Hoss. You didn’t know that he would have told me no matter what. I guess I’ll check with the stage office, but she’s had two weeks. I doubt it’s going to do me much good.”

“You’re right about that. I know she had a ticket to Placerville. I asked her where she was going after that. She said she’d buy the next ticket there and the next ticket after that. Probably nobody could track down all the tickets she probably bought. She said she was doing it that way on purpose so you couldn’t follow her and find her. She was pretty dead set on doing this thing.”

Nodding in defeat, Adam mounted up on Sport, turned slowly and rode out of town. It took him hours to get home because both he and his horse were exhausted. It was dark when he finally rode into the yard relieved to see a light in the stable. Hoss was waiting for him and silently took charge of Sport. Adam pulled his saddlebags, bedroll, rifle, and coat from the horse, thanked his brother, and walked slowly to the house. Inside, he put his dusty hat on the rack, unbelted his gunbelt and put that on the credenza, and then silently took the rest and headed up the stairs to his room.

“Hop Sing could get a bath for you. He has food warming for you.”

Ben watched as Adam only waved in acknowledgement of those statements and continued up the stairs. He said nothing, and soon, Ben and Joe heard Adam’s bedroom door click shut. Hoss came in later and asked what he had said.

Joe answered a bit perturbed at how Adam had failed to respond to their father. “Nothing. Pa said he could get a bath or dinner, and he acted like he never said anything. He walked up those stairs and never said hello or good night or anything.”

Dropping his head, Hoss could only stare at the floor worried not only about his older brother but also about what it would be like in the family after what had happened. Ben admonished Joe for what he said though.

“Now, Joseph, he did wave to acknowledge that I said those things. It was clear he was exhausted. Let’s give him some time. He’s been working hard, and then he had a shock from that woman.”

“Pa, I don’t think you should talk about her like that. Adam loves her. I think ifn you talk about her, you should say her name.”

It wasn’t often that Hoss defied or opposed his father on anything, but when he did, it was because he thought it was important. Ben’s initial inclination was to be angry about that rebuke, but he stared at Hoss who stared back at him unflinching in his intensity.

“All right, Meg gave Adam quite a shock. It’s going to take him some time to get over it. We should all keep that in mind, and we should give him some room. He’s hurting right now.”

The next morning, Adam came down to breakfast without shaving although he had cleaned up and was wearing clean clothing. He only drank coffee and asked what work was scheduled for the day. His voice lacked any kind of inflection or signs of feeling of any kind. He was emotionally numb, and everything about him from his voice and expression to the way he walked and rode that day expressed it. The way he was at breakfast was only the beginning.

“We’re in the middle of the roundup. We’ve got most of the cattle counts done, and we’re about halfway through the branding. We could use your help at the branding corrals. Do you want to rope or brand?”

“Doesn’t matter. Whatever they need me to do when I get there.”

That was how the work went for the rest of the week. Adam said little, did whatever was asked of him, and spent his downtime in his room. On Sunday morning, he shaved and accompanied his family to church services. Ben was relieved at least that he did that and seemed as if he at least wanted to be with the rest of them. He was noticeably silent during the singing though surprising his family as well as members of the congregation. After church, when some church members asked if he was feeling ill because he wasn’t singing, he had only one short response before walking to his horse to leave.

“To make a joyful noise unto the Lord, you need to have joy.”

Only shrugging in response to the curious looks from the church members, Ben turned to follow Adam not at all sure what to say or if there was anything he could say that would make a difference. Hoss and Joe walked with him equally unsure of what to do.

*****

Chapter 4

Wanting so much to talk with Adam, Ben had found his closed bedroom door too much of a barrier. He felt that he would be intruding where he wasn’t wanted and had respected his son’s wish for privacy and time to mourn his loss. On Sunday afternoon after lunch though, Adam picked up his guitar and headed outside. Ben waited only a short time before following him hoping to be able to talk with him because his trip to Denver and Adam’s cattle drive was going to separate them in a few days. He hoped to clear the air between them at least somewhat if he could knowing that it would take time for Adam to forgive all that had happened. On a bench behind the house, Ben found his son sitting with the guitar across his legs but his arms were folded across it as he stared out over the Ponderosa.

“Son, I hoped we could talk.”

“I knew you would at some point. I guess we can get it over with now.”

“I hope it’s more than that. I wanted to say that I think I understand how you feel being betrayed like that, but it’s for the best don’t you think. If she was going to leave you like that, better that it happen before you were more committed to the relationship. Son, there will be another woman you will love, one who will stand beside you and never leave.”

Standing then and setting the guitar down with calm deliberation, Adam gathered himself with as much self-control as he possessed. He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small envelope folded into fourths carefully unfolding it and removing the one page letter inside. He unfolded that and turned handing it to his father with ill-concealed fury that had the muscles of his clenched jaw working furiously and his brow down over his eyes. Ben had seldom seen him so angry and didn’t know what he had said to elicit the reaction. He took the letter and read the short missive quickly before Adam carefully snatched it from his hands. The message had been clear and the cause of Adam’s anger all too apparent.

My Love, I must do this. I cannot let you sacrifice all for me. I know what you said last night, and I am honored and humbled too that you love me so much that you would make that offer. I cannot let you do it. You may one day leave here to follow your dreams but you should leave because that star pulls you away not because the fires of hatred and bigotry drive you from those you love and the home that is your legacy. I cannot be the cause of that so I must go. Even your family does not approve of us. Please do not try to follow. I fear that if you lost all because of me that you would grow to resent me no matter how much we love each other now and that I could not bear. I will carry love for you in my heart to the day that I die, and I pray that I will meet you one day in heaven above so that you can tell me that you did find happiness and joy again. Forgive your family for they acted out of love for you as I do. Goodbye, my Love, forever and always in my heart.

After carefully folding the letter and returning it to the envelope and to his vest, Adam turned to his father. In a low intense voice, he spoke with force and what Ben knew was barely controlled fury. “Don’t ever speak to me of her again. You don’t have the right to say anything about her. You and others drove her from me. I may never find another to love me like she did. You looked at her like you did Sue Ellen, but she was so much more than that. I loved her. I wanted to make a life with her. She loved me and she made me happy, listened to my dreams, encouraged me to share my thoughts with her. She was always encouraging and never critical. No matter what, I knew she would give me what I needed so much and could get nowhere else. She was a good person with a good heart and a good mind. She always did her best, and all she got in return was derision and nasty gossip from small-minded people. From now on, I’ll see who I want and you keep your opinions to yourself, or so help me, I’ll pack my bags and be out that door before you have a chance to utter a second sentence about it.”

“Adam, I didn’t know. You never told me your feelings for her were so strong.”

“Whenever I tried to talk about her, it became an argument. You were so set against her that you didn’t listen. You only tried to come up with reasons why I should stop seeing her.”

Ben dropped his gaze to the ground for he knew that Adam was at least partially correct in that he had not seen any redeeming quality in Meg or in Adam pursuing a relationship with her. He had concentrated his attention on the negatives and never considered the positives. He knew though that there was more going on with his son that anger at him. “Am I the only one you’re mad at?”

That made Adam turn away from him so Ben knew he had hit a mark. Adam stared off into the distance again making Ben wonder if he was going to say anything more. Just as he thought perhaps it was time to allow his son some privacy, Adam spoke.

“I’m mad at Meg for leaving, and I’m mad at myself too. I should have guessed from some of the things she said that last night that she might do something like this. She was a little sad too it seemed. I put it off to, well, women things, and didn’t pay enough attention. Now when I look back, the signs were there. From the things she said, she had made up her mind already by the time she saw me. She must have made this decision that night or shortly before that night because things were different, she was different. She planned it so that she would have the greatest amount of time to elude any pursuit I might consider. She knew you would banish me again and that would give her a couple of weeks at least. She knew I would welcome being sent to the camps because it would get me away from the constant state of disapproval, the looks, the comments.”

Suddenly Ben realized what kind of toxic atmosphere he had created that his son preferred being in a primitive timber camp to being in his own home. He had meant well but had handled it all so badly. He knew that in the future, he was going to have to find a way to discuss these concerns and not preach. It wasn’t going to be easy for him, but he knew it was necessary.

Adam was reluctant to make admissions of his anger and the reasons for it, but his father had been honest with him so he felt obligated to do the same. “I’m mad at Meg too. She should have had more faith in me. She should have trusted me. Didn’t she know that I loved her as deeply as she loved me? I would have made any sacrifice for her. I wanted to be with her.”

Feeling as if an icy hand had grabbed his heart, Ben had to ask the next question even though he was fairly certain he knew the answer. It was still going to be difficult to hear his son say those words though that he expected to hear. “Would you have left with her?”

“If I had to, yes, I would have. I would not have let anyone dictate to me how to live my life and with whom. If I’m not breaking any law, what right does any man or any woman have to tell me what decision is right for me? Shouldn’t I have the right as a man to decide my life? You did. Why is it so hard for you to accept that I have the same right? Did you think that you had that right only because your father was no longer alive? Would you have stayed in Boston and worked in a store if your father had been alive and told you that was what you should do?”

Wishing it wasn’t true but knowing that Adam had hit that mark dead on, Ben nodded in acceptance of the logic of it. It was going to be another difficult thing for him to accept. His eldest son was not going to blindly accept any of his advice. He would probably listen if it was delivered respectfully, but he was not going to give a yessir and agree. Ben sensed that there were going to be some additional and probably heated arguments between them in the future. He was going to have to learn how to have those arguments with his son as an equal and not try to use his position as father and owner of the ranch to try to win an argument that might not be won by logic and facts.

“This is the closest to a conversation about something serious that we’ve had in a long time. I’m truly sorry that it took something like this to bring us together, and now that I know more about Meg, I am sorry for your loss. I should have found out much more about her before I drew a conclusion. That is something that I can correct immediately, and you can call me on that whenever I seem to have failed in that regard.”

“This conversation might have helped a month ago.”

“I know, and I know too that saying I’m sorry doesn’t help much.”

“It helps though. I was feeling all alone as if no one cared what had happened to me.”

“We cared, but it seemed that you wanted us to stay away.”

“After all that had been said, I guess maybe I did. I couldn’t have stood to hear anything bad about Meg. That might have been all it would have taken.”

“For you to leave?”

“I considered it.”

“But you didn’t go.”

“Meg was right about that at least. If I leave, it shouldn’t be because I’m running away. It should be to run toward something.”

“You are going to leave here someday, aren’t you?”

“I think so. There are things I want to do that I can’t do here, but Pa, this is my home. If there comes a time that I think that I have to leave, I’ll come back at some point as long as I know I’ll be welcome.”

“Of course you’ll be welcome.”

“Sometimes, I’m not so sure. I don’t seem to fit in here very well not like Hoss and Little Joe do. I feel like I’m the odd man out on occasion.”

“Your background is different. You had a harder time in your early life, and that has given you a more serious nature and a more tenacious one perhaps, but don’t ever think that makes you any less a part of this family and loved as much as every other member of our family. We need you here. You make us all better by being here.”

Nodding and unwilling to dispute the praise that he heard so seldom, Adam’s thoughts wandered though. He wondered how much he would be needed when Little Joe was older and able to settle down to take over more responsibility. As the area became more settled and less wild, would there be as much need for his intimidating presence or perhaps Hoss’ more affable nature would be better suited to that future. Right now they needed him to boss the drive and run the ranch whenever their father was away. He carried a heavy load of responsibility for the ranch, but that wouldn’t always be true. Then what his father said might no longer be true. In fact he guessed it might only be another four or five years before that was the case. He didn’t say that, but in his mind, he began to see that as a timeline. He had nothing left to say in this conversation so Ben turned to leave sensing their talk was over. That night at dinner, Adam asked about his father’s trip to Denver surprising both Little Joe and Hoss and to some extent his father who smiled and explained what he thought he might accomplish. He asked Adam then about his plans for the cattle drive. The conversation was all business but it was the closest they had come to normal conversation in months, and all the others appreciated that he had made the effort to bring things back to the way they had been.

The next few days were dedicated to preparing to start the cattle drive. When it was ready to go, the fences were moved out of the way as needed, the cattle were driven out, the chuckwagon followed, and then the fences were replaced by the hands that stayed behind. Ben watched the herd until they were well underway before returning to the house to pack his bag and head to town for the afternoon stage. He was on his way to Denver for meetings with the railroads, and a chance meeting that would have consequences for many months and affect his oldest son’s life forever.

*****

Chapter 5

For the first week of the cattle drive, Adam was too busy to think about his personal problems or heartache. He worked hard every moment of the day and dropped into his bedroll for seven or eight hours at night sleeping soundly so he could work another sixteen hours the next day. Because he had often escaped heartache by throwing himself into his work, he didn’t mind the brutal schedule at all. Hoss had done the same on occasion and saw the signs of it in Adam so he said nothing but helped and advised as much as he could. As ramrod for the first time, Hoss found he was as busy as he had ever been on a drive as well. Joe had his usual jobs of overseeing the horses and making sure the drag crew did their job so that there were no losses at the end of the herd. The three brothers worked together well, but Adam had warned Hoss that Joe was going to challenge him. Hoss had said that he didn’t think it would happen and that Joe had grown up a lot in the past year. Adam had smirked with that usual look of his and no amount of protesting by Hoss changed his mind. After a week and no challenge from Joe, Hoss poured himself a cup of coffee in the morning and poured one for Adam as he rolled up his bedroll.

“Looks like you might be eating some crow on your predictin’ our little brother was gonna be rebellin’ agin your orders. He’s done everythin you asked and then some.”

“Hoss, it’s been a week. Give it time. In another week, if you can say all of that again, then I may have to admit I was wrong about the situation.”

“You are a stubborn one.”

“I’ve heard that said. I come by it honestly though. Many a man has said that about our father and they’ve been right.” Adam grinned then and Hoss had to smile. Their father’s stubbornness was the stuff of legend in Virginia City. One could hardly fault the sons for following the example of such a man.

“Here, you eat.” Hop Sing shoved plates of food into their hands then. They had not even seen him approaching. “Mister Cartwright say take care of sons, but sons make that job hard to do. You eat now.”

“I don’t really have time, Hop Sing. I have to check with the night crews and then get the herd up and moving. We’re wasting daylight already.”

“No, you eat. You miss two meals yesterday and I know you miss one meal every day. You get sick, then how much daylight get wasted. Drive need boss, and boss need food. You eat.”

“He’s gotcha there, Adam. Eat up.”

Frowning a little but defeated by logic, Adam ate quickly to appease Hop Sing and Hoss. Draining his cup of coffee, he hurried to do what he had said he needed to do. Hoss grinned at Hop Sing who smiled back.

“It work just like you say, Mister Hoss. Thank you. You make Hop Sing’s job easier. How we get him to eat next meal?”

“Listen, I know how stubborn he can be. Between you and me, we’ll keep him doing the right thing. Now I’ll get him in here for lunch today too. You have a ham sandwich ready for him so he can take it with him. He can hardly complain about that. Right?”

“Right. I have it all ready so he can take it with him.”

On schedule, Hoss rode in with Adam for lunch, and Adam said he would only have a little. Hop Sing presented him with a large ham sandwich that he graciously accepted because he knew he could take it with him. After Adam downed a cup of coffee, he grabbed an apple and the ham sandwich, and headed back out to the herd. That worked well for several days with Hop Sing carefully preparing things that Adam could take with him for lunch and making sure that there was always something for breakfast that he could eat quickly. As second-in-command, Hoss felt that he was fulfilling part of his job in keeping the boss of the drive healthy. All went very smoothly until the fifth day when Joe came in for lunch and saw a shaved beef sandwich and wanted it for his lunch.

“No, that for Mister Adam. He be in soon and take it for his lunch.”

“Why does he get a special lunch? Is he better than everyone because he’s the boss?” Pausing for a moment, Joe remembered seeing Adam have a sandwich on more than one occasion. “Does he get a special lunch prepared for him every day? Not even Pa demanded that kind of attention. Where does he get off acting like some kind of king while us peasants have to eat the ordinary food? We’re gonna have words on this.”

“He no demand it. Mister Hoss set it up for him.”

“Oh so he had Hoss do it for him. He couldn’t even do it for himself. Well serve up the regular food for me. I’m not any better than any of the hands. I can eat what they eat.”

Unfortunately, Joe said enough of what he said loud enough that most of the hands had heard it. Hop Sing knew that trouble was brewing and that the youngest son had started it. He didn’t know how to stop it. He hoped that Hoss and Adam would ride in soon, but Joe and most of the men were gone by the time the two older sons arrived in camp for lunch. A very upset Hop Sing explained what had happened earlier. Adam looked over at Hoss quirking up one eyebrow as if to ask if Hoss was going to say anything.

“Dadburnit, I wish you wasn’t right about him this time. I really thought he was past that kind of thing.”

“He’s still young, Hoss. He still reacts emotionally to things before he thinks them through. So, you’re the ramrod. You want to talk with him? I realize now that the two of you set up this lunch thing for me and how it must look to others.”

“I better talk to him. I know what’s gonna happen if you try to talk with him. I don’t need the two of you pounding on each other. I’ll go talk with him, but what worries me is that Hop Sing said some of the men heard what he was saying. You know how touchy men can get about things out here. They think you’re getting all sorts of special treatment or something, things could get ugly at some point.”

“Well, maybe the three of us need to talk once you get our little brother cooled off. Now I can see that I was getting special treatment. You two set it up to make sure I got all three meals every day. I appreciate it, but you can see how it looks. It was well intentioned, but it just kicked us in the jewels. We’re going to have to do some fancy talking to get ourselves out of this. If we can do it without any fist flying, I’ll buy you all the drinks you want in the first saloon we can find after we sell this herd.”

“Just for that, I’m gonna do my darndest to see ifn I can do just that. Now eat some lunch. I’m starvin’ and ifn I gotta go talk to that boy, I’m gonna need a powerful lot of energy.”

A short time later Hoss rode out to find Little Joe and try to smooth things over with him. He managed to explain to him that Adam hadn’t even been aware of the special treatment until that day. He pointed out too that now they had a bigger problem than the boss of the drive not taking care of himself as he should have. There were likely going to be men watching to see what kind of special treatment Adam received. Even though he had been working longer days than any of them, that was going to be forgotten as they looked instead for signs that he had somehow managed to get preferential treatment in harsh living conditions while they were being denied many ordinary comforts of living.

“You put our older brother right in the sights of any man on this drive who’s carrying any kind of grudge. Right now, anybody who’s got a hankerin’ to take a swing at anybody is probably fixin’ on doing that to Adam.”

“He really didn’t know you set that all up with Hop Sing.”

“He had no idea. Hop Sing told me he was skipping meals and coming in and only grabbing a cup of coffee sometimes. Now I figured since I was ramrod and that means taking care of the men, it was up to me to take care of him. I never thought it through to how it might look to nobody else. I only figured that it was a way to make sure Adam got three meals a day like he needed. I guess we both coulda used a bit more thinking before we did what we did.”

“How we going to fix this?”

“Adam said that once I got you cooled down, the three of us ought to talk about it to see if we could come up with something.”

“He said that? He said the three of us ought to talk about it?”

“Course he did, Little Joe. You’re part of the family, and someday you might be bossin’ a drive or being a ramrod. You need to learn how to do all these jobs too just like Adam learned and now I’m learning ’em.”

After Joe agreed, the two worked hard the rest of the day. That evening, Adam quit a bit earlier than usual so that he could talk with Hoss and Joe and hoped that Hoss had managed to quiet the younger brother. He had, and the three worked out a strategy for handling the problem so that hopefully, tensions in the camp would diminish.

“You think they’ll believe it?”

“Why not? They heard what you said yesterday, and most of them have seen you in the past when you’ve lost your temper.”

“You get mad too.”

“I do, but not so quickly and not usually so hot unless I have a good reason. Certainly not so often.”

“Seemed pretty fast and often just a few weeks ago.”

“I had a good reason, and people were riding me pretty hard over something that was none of their business.”

“How wasn’t it our business, Adam? She had a really bad reputation. Didn’t that reflect on the whole family?”

“Joe, when you were with Julia, do you remember what I said about that?”

For a short time, Joe thought hard and then looked up at Adam. “I don’t remember what you said.”

“That’s because I never said anything about it. I did my best to make sure you didn’t get yourself killed over her, and I did my best to keep Pa from tearing the family apart over it, but I never said anything against you and Julia despite the huge age difference and her chosen career path.”

A bit disconcerted by that thought, Joe sat back down where he had been when he had been discussing strategy with his brothers. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because even though you were very young, you were in love, and love doesn’t listen to logic and often pays no heed to common sense either. I don’t think that if Julia had lived that the relationship would have continued, but that would have been up to the two of you. Joe, you must know by now that there were stories about your mother.” Adam saw the fury begin to rise in his younger brother. “I’m not trying to make you mad nor will I repeat any of those, but you do know there were stories.” He waited until Joe nodded reluctantly. “Did that stop Pa from loving her and missing her to this day? He never let any stories or gossip drive him away from her. He loved her. So what right did anyone have to tell me that I couldn’t see Meg? All she did was work in a saloon. Nothing more than that, but she was persecuted for it, and she left town because of it.”

“Gosh, Adam, I’m sorry. I thought I was doing what was best for you, but I didn’t think it through. I made a mess of that too.”

“Perhaps you could make an effort to do more thinking before you act in the future. It would make things easier on all of us.”

As Adam grinned, Hoss stood and wrapped an arm around the shoulders of each brother. “Now, let’s go get some sleep. We got a good show to put on tomorrow and we need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to do it.”

When it was clear that there was not going to be any more conversation, Little Joe headed off to find his bedroll, and Hoss prepared to do the same except Adam’s grin faded as he stood where he was and looked up at the stars. He continued to stand there and stared without moving so Hoss moved closer to him where they could not be overheard.

“Still awful hard to let her go?”

Glancing briefly at Hoss and seeing only genuine concern there, Adam nodded. “I know that I should only be concerned about things that I can actually change, and I should learn to accept what I cannot change. Pa has lectured us about that so many times, it ought to be ingrained in all of us by now.”

“But?” Adam only shrugged. “But what your head is telling ya ain’t the song your heart is singing. More than anything, you want to ride off and find her even if it takes years to do it. Maybe she’ll change her mind and send word to you. Or maybe she’ll write to some one of her neighbors and they’ll tell you so you have a clue. It ain’t hopeless until it’s over.”

Putting his hand on his vest and looking up at the stars once more, Adam had only one comment left. “It is over though, isn’t it?”

“Not as long as you carry that note next to your heart every day and keep hoping, it ain’t. Hope will keep that love alive. I got a feeling that something will change. I don’t know what it is, but you know how my gut feelings usually work out. I’ve just had this feeling that something has happened to change the whole thing. Now let’s get some sleep. We got a whole show to put on tomorrow at lunchtime.”

Reluctant to accept what Hoss had said, but at the same time hoping that it could be true, Adam followed his big brother to the wagon to grab his bedroll. He did need some sleep very badly.

*****

Chapter 6

With hands on his hips and his chest pushed out in a fighters pose, Joe Cartwright was all set to play his part in the brothers’ scheme the next day. Hoss only watched as things played out because his role was mostly to look worried as he often did when it looked like his two brothers might come to blows. Joe threw out the first salvo to start the presentation.

“Well, why is it that I can’t get sandwiches for my lunch made special for me like you do?”

“If you want to skip sitting here with the other men for lunch and take your lunch with you while you work, then Hop Sing can make sandwiches for your lunches too.”

“I deserve the chance to sit down and eat my lunch just like any of the men do.”

“Fine. I’d like to do that too, but I don’t have the time so I eat my cold lunch in the saddle if you don’t mind.”

“Ah, what, I mean, sorry, I didn’t know that.”

“Maybe next time you could ask before you jump to conclusions. Now I’ve wasted enough time on this. I need to get back to work.”

“Hey, did you ever think maybe you work too hard, and you ought to just ease up a bit and take it easy once in a while?”

“I don’t have time to take it easy.”

“Adam, you’re acting as old as Pa. Did you forget to be young?”

Rolling his eyes, Adam didn’t even answer those comments but took his sandwich from Hop Sing and mounted up on the fresh mount Hoss had brought to him so he could head back to the herd. Joe grabbed a plate and was served by Hop Sing who smiled a little as he gave Little Joe his lunch. He was well aware of the performance the two brothers had given for the benefit of the men in which Little Joe had played his part very well. He had a little more to do, but the hardest part was done. As the men commented on how Adam worked too hard and ought to do as Little Joe suggested, Little Joe got into the next part. This was something that he had worked out on his own without talking to Adam about it but he had asked Hoss if he thought it would work. Hoss said he thought it would but warned Little Joe not to overdo it because it could never get back to Adam or he would be quite upset. So Little Joe explained that he guessed Adam was working that hard trying to forget about Meg who had left him with a broken heart. Several of the men nodded at that understanding how a man might want to work to keep his mind off his troubles. Some of the men expressed some sympathy for Adam and offered that they ought to probably try to be as cooperative as they could be to make his life a bit easier considering what had happened. Joe thanked them profusely for that and promised that he would do what he could to see that his brothers made sure that there was an extra big celebration at the end if the drive went that smoothly. Then Joe headed off to work stopping by to tell Hoss how things had gone. He got a big grin from his middle brother and knew his oldest brother would be pleased too that the men were in a good mood again and would be working cooperatively. In fact, it felt very good to Little Joe too to be working together as a team with his brothers. He guessed there would be times when there would be trouble again between him and Adam simply because of their personalities, but for this drive, they had reached a good working relationship.

Drives never go completely smoothly. There were long days, storms, and sometimes problems finding enough good grass and enough water. Men got ornery and there were squabbles. There were a few accidents along the way as well, but not as many as usual and none were serious. Losses were minimal, and when the herd got close to market, the representatives for the buyers rode out to assess the herd and start making offers. With the animals in great condition, Adam drove a hard bargain also guessing that if the buyers were riding out to meet them, demand for beef was high. That meant that he could demand a premium price for their cattle and probably get it or something very close to it. Eventually the herd was split between two buyers. They had to count and herd the cattle into the appropriate holding areas which took an extra three days and that caused some grumbling among the men, but when they stood in line to get their pay and received a double bonus, there weren’t any more complaints. Longtime hands were told when they were expected back on the ranch. Drovers who had been hired for the drive asked if they could have a permanent place on the Ponderosa. A few were hired but most were told to be back for the next drive because there wasn’t enough work to hire them on full-time. It was as good an offer as they could expect though. Adam rolled a wad of bills up and handed it to Hoss.

“There’s enough there to buy all the drinks you want and enough for a few rounds for the men. Make sure that Joe doesn’t get in any trouble.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?”

“I still have work to finish up here. Then after a bath and dinner, I’ll be too tired to do anything except sleep. I’m taking a room by myself too. I’ve had enough of hearing men snore and make all sorts of other noises. For one night at least, I want a comfortable bed, and peace and quiet.”

“Aw, Adam, c’mon. We could have a lot of fun. There’s bound to be all sorts of, ah, you know, fun, at the saloon.” Joe had been about to say saloon girls when he realized suddenly why Adam might not want to be with them. He had caught himself before he said something insensitive. He noticed the looks that passed between Hoss and Adam and knew that he had been correct in his thinking. He decided that perhaps he could do something to make things better. “Hey, maybe after we have a couple of drinks, and you get your business done, we could all go for a bath and dinner. I mean, we all need one, and the rest of the night sure might be a lot more pleasant if we do.”

“Now, there ya go, Little Joe. That’s thinkin’ right smart. Adam, we’re gonna buy two rounds with the men to make sure they know how much we appreciated all they done, and then we’ll meet ya over at the bath house. We’ll get all gussied up and we’ll go have a nice dinner together. How’s that? The three Cartwright brothers having dinner on the town after the first successful cattle drive they done together..”

Hoss and Joe looked so proud of their idea and so anxious to have him say yes, that Adam couldn’t refuse them, and actually found that he was looking forward to it. He finished up the paperwork he had to do and took his saddlebags to the bathhouse where he met his brothers. They soaked in tubs of warm soapy water, shaved, and then dressed in the clean clothing they had leaving their soiled clothing to be washed and delivered to the hotel the next day. After a fine dinner and a few glasses of wine, Adam headed to his room while Hoss and Little Joe headed back to the saloon. Adam had intended to read a little but the bed looked so inviting that he slipped into it and was sound asleep in minutes. He hadn’t slept that peacefully since the last night that he had been with Meg. He dreamed of her as he often did, but this time the dreams didn’t wake him nor did he wake in the morning depressed because she wasn’t there. He was beginning to accept the loss as the wound to his heart began to heal.

At home on the Ponderosa, Ben had news though that could reopen that wound, perhaps even rip it open and make it bleed, and that meant that Ben wasn’t sleeping well at night. He debated himself constantly over what to do. He would make up his mind firmly to do one thing, but then doubts and reasons why it was wrong to do it that way would batter him for days until he would reverse his position only to have the same thing happen but in reverse. He was a strong, decisive man, and this vacillation was something to which he was unaccustomed, but the whole situation was unique. There was no one he trusted enough to consult on this matter. On his last day, in fact, during his last few moments in Denver, he had seen Meg. He was climbing aboard the train and for no discernable reason, had turned back to look at the people in the station. He had seen her then as she helped a woman with a child climb aboard the same train. As the train pulled from the station, he rushed to a window to be sure, and confirmed what he had seen. It was Meg, but she was dressed as any ordinary woman would be dressed. She had looked at the train as he had looked out so he had a clear view of her. He had no idea what she was doing in Denver nor what her relationship was to the woman and child she had escorted to the train. He did his best to track down the pair only to find that Meg had simply done them a favor when the woman had trouble with her recalcitrant child. She didn’t know Meg but did say that she had seen her walk out of a shop. She couldn’t remember which one or even what type of shop it was only that it was on the way to the train station. She didn’t even know if Meg had been a customer or an employee of the shop. That left Ben with perhaps fifty or more possibilities. He wasn’t a detective and needed to get home to the Ponderosa having only made arrangements for someone to run the place for a week in his absence. He had two days of meetings. The other six days had been for travel. He had debated himself on that issue too, but had returned home as scheduled. Now he worried about how much he should tell Adam, and he worried even more that Adam would rush to Denver. If he did, Ben wondered if he would return, but he did remember Adam’s promise. He knew his son kept his promises. Because of all that though, when Ben’s sons arrived home, they were worried about their father.

“Pa, have you been sick?”

“No, Adam, I’ve been fine. I’ve had a lot of work to do though while you boys were gone. I’m tuckered out. This is a big ranch to run alone. Please tell me that the three of you will never leave here.”

Ben said it as if it was a joke, and Hoss and Little Joe laughed with him, but Ben laughter sounded forced and not at all genuine. Adam didn’t laugh. He frowned and waited.

“Pa, what’s really going on here? What’s got you so worried? Was there a problem in Denver with the meeting with the railroad?”

“No, no, the meeting went very well. Barney was there too, of course, and so were other timber providers, and each of us was given the opportunity to meet with them. We’re going to be getting some contracts to supply bracing and materials for trestles based on specifications that our mill can produce, and we’ll be able to bid on contracts for rough-cut timbers for other projects. It should be a good money-maker for the Ponderosa without sacrificing our timber lands. We’ll be able to selectively cut and provide what they need.”

“Hey, Pa, that’s great. Your trip was a success. We ought to have a toast to that.”

“Dadburnit, Pa, you got the magic touch when it comes to business. Joe’s right, we oughta drink a toast to what ya got done there.”

Quietly, Adam continued to watch his father who didn’t meet the eyes of his eldest. As Hoss and Joe grew quiet wondering why Adam was so silent, Ben turned to Adam. He was well aware that Adam knew there was more to the story and was waiting to hear what it was and wouldn’t be satisfied until he heard it. There was only one answer now, and Ben knew then that all that arguing with himself had been a fool’s errand. There had always been only one choice.

“I saw Meg in Denver.”

Those were words that Adam had longed to hear yet they felt as if they grabbed his insides and twisted them. He felt sick but had to say something, but even to his ears, it sounded trite and simple. His voice was flat and lacked affect as well communicating better than anything else could that he had been shocked and was still emotionally walled off. “What did she say?”

“I only caught a glimpse of her as I was boarding the train. I was in shock and couldn’t believe it was really her. I rushed into the car to look out a window as the train was pulling away. She was still there on the platform and I got a good look at her. It was Meg, but she was dressed in very ordinary clothing. I found the woman she had been with, and it had been a chance encounter there too as Meg had helped the woman walk to the station with her child who was uncooperative. She knew nothing of where Meg worked or lived or even if she was a resident of Denver. She could have been passing through.”

Silent for a short time, Adam stared intensely at his father as his brothers stared almost as intently at him. When he spoke, the others almost involuntarily held their breath.

“You know I have to go find out.”

*****

Chapter 7

Bending forward until the skin of his forehead rested against the cool stone of the freshly installed gravestone, he wept as he had not wept since he was seven years old and lost the woman who had been his stepmother. Tears washed down his cheeks for his lost tomorrows and the yesterdays that no longer had a future. His ribs still ached with pain but that he ignored for the ache in his heart made all others seem to shrink like snow in hot sunlight. The searing pain in his heart burned day and night now, and it affected every decision he made and every thought that he had. It had been a struggle to remain dispassionate enough to write it all down as hard cold facts when they were painful memories that made him nearly physically sick sometimes when they came to his mind unbidden. Somehow he had summoned enough self-control and had written his father a letter the night before explaining all that had happened since he had left home just over a month earlier though it seemed so much longer than that. Of course he didn’t tell him all of it. That would have been too much for him to write and for his father to read. He told him what he thought he needed to know and what he could bear to put on paper and see with his eyes. Writing it down made it seem more real and the reality of it made it even more painful.

Although it seemed like a dream now, he remembered that day when he had still been filled with hope that somehow he could find Meg and find a way to resolve all the problems so that they could be together. His father had been kind and understanding when he had seen him off at the stage station.

“Son, I hope that you find her, and whatever you work out between you, know that I will support you. I want you to come home, and I will stand against any who would make that difficult for you.”

Reaching out a hand to his father, Adam had put a hand on his father’s shoulder as well. It was about as demonstrative as he would ever get in public, but the handshake and the touch were all his father needed. Ben smiled knowing that he and Adam were on good terms. Standing on either side of them, Hoss and Little Joe smiled as well. Although both had volunteered to go with Adam, both Adam and Ben had thought that was not a good idea. Neither of them, of course, had any idea of the mess into which Adam was traveling, nor that he could have used someone watching his back. Instead that day had been filled with smiles and good cheer as well as a fair amount of hope that things would work out well. Adam left with a tip of his hat, a wave, and a smile. It was that image that his family carried with them for a month until Ben got Adam’s letter and shared it with Hoss and Joe.

Everything had started so simply as Adam had arrived in Denver after days of travel. The city smelled of wood as building was proceeding rapidly and new cut wood was everywhere. It had recently rained making the streets muddy so most people were up on the wooden walkways except where there were gaps. There were efforts there to span the mud and puddles with makeshift bridges. It was all somewhat haphazard, and yet there was vibrancy about the city that Adam found appealing. He could see why Meg would like the city. He got a room at a hotel first, and then with a sketch of Meg that he had, he began walking to some of the shops near the train station asking people if they recognized her. He got no positive responses to his inquiries but did get some suspicious looks. He wondered at that but had not even a theory as to why because he had done nothing to arouse suspicion as far as he could tell. He continued to search for anyone who knew Meg until the shops began to close.

That evening, he was already frustrated but determined to try again the next day. After dinner, he went to his room, tired, and ready to turn in early. He slipped between the cool sheets and fell asleep faster than he thought he would, but he woke later with the cold tip of a pistol pressed against his temple and rough hands on either shoulder wondering if he had forgotten to lock the door. A lamp was lit, and to his amazement, he saw that there were three men in his room, and all wore badges.

“What are you doing in my room? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“We’re not so sure of that. Now, keep your hands where we can see them and slide out of bed.”

“I’m not wearing anything.”

“Even better.”

Angry, and then even angrier that he would be shamed by his nakedness in front of these men, Adam pushed the covers aside and slid from the bed noting that they had already removed his pistol from his gunbelt that had been on the table at his bedside. He still wondered how they had entered his room until he saw the hotel clerk standing at the open door with a couple of curious onlookers staring inside to see what was happening.

“You could have the courtesy to at least shut the door.”

“Oh, we have a gentleman here, do we?” But the man who had been the only one to speak so far did motion to one of the others who closed the door. Then all three turned their attention back to Adam as the speaker had some questions. “Who are you, and why are you looking for Meg Carson?”

“Her name is Meg Liston. I’m Adam Cartwright, a friend of hers.”

“If you’re a friend, why don’t you know where she is, and why would she have changed her name? Was she hiding from you? Is she hiding from you now?”

Frowning, Adam listened not only to the words in those questions but to the meaning that had to be behind them. “Meg is missing?”

“Now, you already know that, don’t you? You’ve been trying to track her down all day. You looking for yourself or did somebody hire you?”

“I’m looking for myself. I arrived here today from Virginia City. My father saw Meg in a chance encounter about seven weeks ago. I came here to try to find her. It is very important to me that I find her and talk with her.”

“It doesn’t take seven weeks to get here from Virginia City. If it was so important, it seems you should have been here a lot sooner.”

“I was on a cattle drive. My father couldn’t tell me until I got home. That was only five days ago so I got here as quickly as I could make arrangements and then travel. She is that important to me.”

“Is there someone in Virginia City that we can contact to verify any of what you’ve told me? I mean somebody that I’ll believe.”

“Would Sheriff Roy Coffee be good enough? Or you could contact Hiram Wood. He’s our family attorney, or much as I hate to offer it, you could contact Dan DeQuille at the Territorial Enterprise. Any of them could verify that I am who I say I am.”

“We’ll do that. Meanwhile, you stay right here in the hotel until I get back to you. You try to go anywhere else, you’ll have other accommodations and they won’t be near as comfortable as this. I’ll see to it. That clear enough to you?”

“It’s clear.”

The three men trooped from the room then with Adam’s pistol in their possession.

“What about my pistol?”

“You won’t need it here.”

“I’ll expect it back as soon as you verify my story.”

There was no answer to that, and the previous response was all Adam needed to hear to know that he was going to be watched. He turned the lamp down and watched out the window. Soon one of those men was across the street sitting on a bench in the shadows. If Adam tried to go out a window, he would be seen. No doubt, there was another man in the hallway. He was under house arrest. Sitting on the bed, he had only one thought and that was “Oh, Meg, what have you gotten yourself into?” There was little sleep for Adam the rest of the night as worry about what had happened to Meg dominated his thoughts. He had no information and that gnawed at him. He could only imagine the worst. It was the late the next afternoon before he got any answers. The more answers he got though, the more worried he was and the more frightened he was for Meg.

“Your story does check out. Sorry about last night, but these things got us strung pretty tight. Maybe we were a bit too hard on you, but we were only doing our job.” The man who now identified himself as Deputy Sheriff Will Duran made what for him was an apology as he returned Adam’s pistol to him and told him that he was free to move about the city. He did give a warning though. “Don’t go getting in our way in this investigation though. We got work to do, and we don’t need no angry cowboy messing it up.”

“What investigation? Perhaps if you could tell me what’s going on, I would be able to stay out of your way.” Adam had no intention of staying out of the way but needed to know what this man knew.

“Well, I suppose it don’t matter now. Seems that we got a lot of young women been disappearing in this part of town. It’s at least six by all counts. They turn up later all battered like someone been working them over for weeks. At least that’s what the doctors tell us. So we need to find the sick bastard that’s doing it.”

Reeling with that information, Adam’s stomach nearly rebelled and expelled his lunch. This man thought that Meg was in the hands of some monster, and he stood here calmly telling Adam not to get in the way of the investigation as he called it. He wanted to grab him and throw him up against the wall, throttle him, and try to force some sense into him. It would do no good though. Adam knew the type. He didn’t have enough respect for women. That much was very clear. Holding his fury in check because he had to do that in order to get the information he needed, Adam asked where Meg had been staying. He wanted to see if he could talk to the others who knew her in Denver. He got the name of the boardinghouse and the name of the proprietor. Then he told Duran he would cooperate so that the man would leave. Grabbing his coat and stuffing his pistol into his gunbelt that he strapped on, Adam hurried from the room and headed to the boardinghouse ready to begin his own investigation, which was going to have the urgency that these deputies failed to give it.

As Adam walked up to the boardinghouse where Meg had been staying, a woman on the porch who had been cleaning beans, set her pot aside, stood, and greeted him. “You’re Meg’s young man, aren’t you? Ever since she said she saw your father on that train, I knew you would come. She talked about you that way. You’re just the way she said you would be: tall, handsome, and strong looking but not just physically. You have a power about you that tells others to watch themselves. Well, come on up here and sit. You must be worried sick. I know I am. I’ll answer every question you have. We’ve got to find our Meg. I just know she needs us to find her.”

The two sat and talked for a long time. Martha Buchanan had seen a lot of young women over the years. At sixty-five, she had lived longer than most, and she survived by paying attention and being careful. She cautioned all the young women who stayed at her house to do the same.

“Meg was a good girl. She was careful here. She had a job at the mercantile, and she was there every day, on time, and did her work. You can ask old Simon Cantor there. He’s a tight one not just with money but with praise and a smile too. He had both for Meg. They got on great because she was that kind of person. Well you know that, don’t you. He’s the one told me that a man was coming round and bothering her. That’s why Simon started to walk her home at night because of it. He didn’t trust that man. Well that man didn’t like that Simon was walking her here at night. He said some nasty things to Simon.”

“Did you tell the deputies about that?”

“Yes, and they questioned the man and searched his place. No Meg. But I still think he had something to do with it. He has that look about him. After Meg disappeared one morning and I reported it, they didn’t do anything for a couple of days. You know how men like that can be about women. Well I kept reporting it, but it wasn’t until Simon reported it that they did anything. I went with them when they questioned that man. He had that sick smile the whole time like he knew something they didn’t know. You know what I mean?”

“What’s this man’s name?”

“Darby Nash. Simon told me something interesting about him too. He doesn’t have a job but has money. Now how does a man without a job get money? We both know that too. He’s doing something criminal. He had something to do with Meg disappearing. I know he did.”

“If Simon walked Meg home at night, then how could anyone have taken her?”

“They were trickier than we were, Adam. They took her in the morning on the way to work. That’s what they did. In broad daylight, they got her.”

“And no one saw anything?”

“That’s just it. Someone must have seen something, but what they saw must have looked so ordinary or so normal, that they paid it no mind. Someone planned it that well. The ones that took her are smart, Adam. They already have taken six women and used them up so awful. I hate to say it, but you know it too. Meg is suffering and we have to find her.”

Knowing he needed help, but not knowing whom he could possibly ask to help, Adam looked at Martha and sighed almost as if he was in physical pain.

“I know, dear. I feel the same way. You stay here at the boardinghouse. You go get your things from the hotel. We’ll find some people to help. Meg had friends here and maybe Simon will have some ideas of who can help us. We’re going to find her. We have to find her.”

An alliance and a friendship was born.

****

Chapter 8

Standing inside Cantor’s Mercantile, Martha described Darby Nash to Adam so that he could pick him out of the crowd of people outside on the street. Darby was a weasel of a man with slicked back thinning hair, a long thin nose that looked like it had been broken on more than one occasion, and lips so thin they seemed to disappear. His ears stuck out giving him the appearance of a caricature of a man instead of an actual man. He would be comical except for the predatory look he had as he looked at women. Adam watched him for a time and then turned to Martha who had an expectant look.

“Yes, I’ll follow him. I want to see where he goes and what he does. He’s not in this alone. He’s working for someone or with someone. I need to see who he meets and where they go.”

“Adam, we don’t have anyone like you, but, we do have friends who will help. If you need something, tug on your left ear like this.” Martha demonstrated. “Someone will be by your side soon after. We will not lose sight of you, and we’ll do all we can to help. If you need someone to help follow someone, we can do that. You tell us what to do.”

The system worked to some extent. Adam was able to follow Darby for two days. He saw him meet other men for lunch, saw him go into saloons and have drinks, and saw him play cards at night until late. What he never saw was Darby in the company of any woman. In restaurants, waitresses avoided him as the male staff or the cook came to take his order and serve him. In the saloons, the saloon girls stayed away and the bartenders never encouraged them to approach him no matter how many drinks he ordered. The bartenders served him, and even they spoke to him only as absolutely necessary. He played cards but it was clear he wasn’t actually welcome at the table. It was equally clear that like the restaurants and the saloons, the poker players weren’t willing to deny him what he wanted. Adam didn’t understand why. He asked around to try to find out if Darby had some amazing skill with a pistol or some other fearsome talent, but apparently he had none. The only conclusion to be drawn was that he had a protector who did have those kinds of deadly talents and was willing to use them to protect Darby.

By the third day, Adam was increasingly frustrated and angry because of the slow pace of the investigation and his fear for Meg grew exponentially. Duran had said that the women who were taken showed up weeks after being taken. It was now almost a week and a half. It was the halfway point and the thoughts of what Meg must be suffering made it almost impossible to sleep at night. Then Adam got a visit from Duran.

“We got a report that you’re harassing a citizen of our city.”

“I’ve not been harassing anyone.”

“You’ve been following him all around, staring at him, and talking about him.”

“Ah, who is this person who thinks that I have this interest in him?”

“Oh, stop playing games, Cartwright. We both know you’ve been trying to catch Darby Nash doing something to Meg Carson. You listened to that busybody Martha Buchanan. She’s an old woman who thinks she knows something but she knows nothing. We checked Darby out. He didn’t do anything. In fact, he was in jail the morning that Meg supposedly went missing.”

“Jail?”

“Yes, jail. He got in a fight, and he was in jail for disturbing the peace. He paid his fine to the sheriff in the morning and was released at about nine. Now if that old busybody knows anything, she’ll tell you that her precious boarder was supposedly already gone by then.”

Getting angry by the way that Duran referred to Meg and what had happened to her, Adam controlled his fury but was bold and direct in his criticism. “She left all of her possessions including her money in the boardinghouse. If she had left voluntarily, don’t you think she would have taken those things with her? Darby has a fear of being found out or he wouldn’t be worried about seeing me. In fact, his complaint shows that he must be working with someone else to even realize that I am a threat. How did he know I was following him? Who told him? He never saw me.”

“So you admit the harassment.”

“I admit walking in the direction he was walking. There is no law against that. You can arrest me for it if you wish, but I’ll get a lawyer and make you look like a fool in front of the judge.”

With jaw clenched, Duran spun on his heel and left Adam standing on the wooden walk near the Simon Mercantile. Adam had made an enemy, but he didn’t know why. He knew there was something he was missing, and he began to replay in his mind all the conversations he had had with Duran thinking there had to be a clue in there somewhere.

After about fifteen minutes, he snapped his fingers. He had it, but he didn’t know what it meant yet. Now that Duran was gone, Adam decided that it was time to get more forceful with Darby Nash. He moved into the shadows and worked his way closer to the man’s home and waited for him to return home. He did but seemed to sense that there was someone there. He retreated and was gone before Adam could get to him. Adam wondered what had happened until he heard a sound. It saved him from being run through with a long knife that flashed in the moonlight. It did manage to slice a wound in his side even as he brought a fist down on the man’s arm and then grabbed his wrist wrenching the knife from his grasp. He pounded a fist into the man’s face and had the satisfaction of hearing and feeling the man’s nose break. With the man down on his knees, Adam drew his pistol to take him in, but a blow to the back of his head knocked him forward dislodging the pistol from his hand. He had a momentary thought that he wouldn’t be able to save Meg because he was about to die when there were suddenly numerous shouts and the sound of running feet. Some ran closer and two sets ran away.

“Adam, are you all right?”

“Well of course he ain’t all right. He’s bleeding.”

“How bad is it?”

“Doesn’t look too bad.”

“Why isn’t he talking then?”

“Looks like he got hit in the head too.”

There were many voices and Adam couldn’t place who was talking or respond to any of them. Then he lost consciousness and there were no more voices for a while. The next sensations he had were the feelings of cool wet cloths on his face and a soft soothing voice asking him to wake up. He tried several times to answer that call until he was finally able to open his eyes. Martha was there but there were two of her shimmering for a time before he squinted and managed to get his eyes to focus. She held a bottle to his lips then and told him to drink. He did when she said it was only cool water with honey in it. That tasted good and was refreshing. He suddenly realized he had an urgent need though and opened his eyes wider which brought stabbing pains. Martha quickly moved to pull the curtains closed. She pushed a metal container into his hands and a towel before stepping from the room and gently pulling the door closed. Adam realized he was holding a ceramic urinal and frowned at what had just happened, but needing it badly, he used it before wrapping the towel around it and setting it on the floor. Martha rapped softly on the door and cracked it open asking if he was finished. He answered her as softly. She took care of things without saying a word returning to the room with it wrapped in the towel and set it on the floor by the bed again.

“Now, how did you get yourself in that predicament and get yourself hurt so?”

So Adam told her what he thought he knew. She nodded and agreed with him. “Yes, you do need to talk with Darby, but you’re in no condition to do it now.”

“I have to. What time is it?”

“Seven.”

“In the morning?” At Martha’s nod, Adam was somewhat relieved. He had not lost much time. “By tonight, I want to be in Darby’s house when he gets home. I want to have a talk with him.”

“You’ve had a nasty bump on the head and weren’t sensible for over eight hours. You’ve got a slice in your side that needed stitches and is likely to bleed if you go moving around, and you think you can go talk to Darby?”

“Martha, something is happening. If we’re going to find Meg, it has to be soon. I need to get to Darby and force him to tell us where she is. He knows. I know he knows. I have to be able to get to him to make him talk when there’s nobody there to stop me.”

“You think you know who attacked you last night in the darkness?”

“I think I know, and if I do, Meg is in worse danger than I thought, and we’re not going to get any help finding her. We need to do it ourselves. Now will you help me get to Darby?”

That was the plan, but Darby was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t anywhere in Denver as far as anyone could tell. Adam waited at Martha’s boardinghouse as Meg’s friends as well as Simon’s and Martha’s combed through the city looking for any sign of the little ferret. They didn’t find him. Adam was finally convinced to go back to bed when it was clear they were not going to find Darby that night. The next morning, there was a furious pounding on Martha’s back door.

“He’s back. He got to his place just after dawn. He drove his wagon into his stable. He’s got a man with him now. It’s gonna be hard for Mister Adam to get to him. It looks like he got himself a bodyguard.”

Adamant that a bodyguard should change nothing, Adam insisted on leaving for Darby’s house. When he got near, he saw friends waiting nearby behind some crates at a nearby business. They told him that Darby had finally gone into the house from the stable, and that the man with him was out in the necessary.

“Hurry. We have to go now.” Carrying the items Adam had told them to bring, the men rushed with him. They nearly ran to the necessary and wrapped the rope around it securing the man inside. “Now, get some wood or other heavy objects and place them against the door. Do everything you can to keep him in there. He’s got a pistol so watch yourselves.” With that, Adam hurried to the house to get inside before the man in the outhouse could think to try the pistol to try to free himself. As he rushed into the house, he caught Darby and to some extent himself by complete surprise. He shoved Darby against the wall disarming him in the process. He hit him several times to get him to stop fighting as he told him he wouldn’t hurt him any more if he would tell him where Meg was. It was clear that Darby didn’t believe that. Sensing rather than knowing, Adam realized that two of the men had entered the house and were watching him. He hit Darby again and asked once more where Meg was. Darby’s resolve not to tell was beginning to weaken and when Adam’s fist was pulled back for another blow, Darby broke under the pressure.

“She’s in the stable.”

Pausing to see if Darby would say anything more, Adam released him and told one of the two men to watch Darby as he rushed to the stable with the other. They looked all through the small stable and found no sign of Meg. Frustrated and furious, Adam returned to the house to find Darby crumpled against the wall holding his shirt to his nose trying to stem the bleeding. Grabbing him by the shirt, Adam hauled him up and prepared to hit him again. Darby was almost hysterical yelling that he had told them and begging Adam not to hit him again.

“She’s not in the stable.”

“She is. She is. Look under the feed bin. It moves and there’s a space under it. She’s under the feed bin.”‘

Rushing to return to the stable, Adam pushed the feed bin forcefully away and found what appeared to be a door under it. He reached down for the metal ring and pulled it up making dust rise all around. He had found her. Meg was bruised, bloodied, bound, gagged, and unconscious. Her dress was torn. There were bloodstains on it as well. Very carefully, Adam reached down to lift Meg out of the hiding place where she had been stashed. As he pulled her up, she began to moan and struggle against him. He pulled the filthy gag from her mouth and her eyes fluttered but didn’t open. One of the men pointed to her legs because there was fresh red blood there and quite a lot of it. Adam’s heart constricted in fear. He whispered to Meg as he held her to him.

“Meg, Meg, don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ve got you. You’re safe now. I’ll get you to a doctor. We’ll get you cleaned up.”

She seemed so light in his arms like a small broken bird. One of the men pulled a pocketknife and cut the ropes binding her wrists. Slowly Meg calmed in Adam’s arms, and her eyes opened. She stared at Adam as if he was an apparition. Through swollen lips, she whispered to him in halting words but each one clearly said.

“You came. I prayed every day that you would come to save me, and you came. I love you.”

Meg passed out again then. By the looks of her injuries, Adam knew it was probably the best thing to happen though he wished he could have more time with her. Adam took only a few steps before he halted and looked to the man who had come with him to help if needed.

“Where do I find a hospital or a doctor here?”

Very quickly the man guided Adam out and had others show him the way to go. Meg was on her way to the doctor as soon as a wagon was stopped so that Adam could be helped into it without releasing his hold on Meg. The men returned to the house then to bring Darby to the jail. He had a lot to answer for and they hoped he would name his accomplices.

Once the wagon reached the doctor’s office, Adam insisted on carrying Meg inside even though his shirt showed that his wound was bleeding again. His hands and forearms were bloody from carrying Meg who was still again as she had passed out once more as the wagon drove toward the doctor’s office. Once Adam carried Meg into the doctor’s surgery, he was pushed from the room and the door was closed. He stood staring silently at that door for at least thirty minutes until Martha was finally able to convince him that he needed to clean up.

“If poor Meg wants to see you, you’ll scare the poor darling with the way you look. You’ll be wanting this clean shirt after you wash yourself and get that bandage changed. Now clean yourself up and then put on this clean shirt so you can go in there later to see our girl and give her a big smile to cheer her. You know that’s what she’s going to want to see, not the bloody mess you are now.”

*****

Chapter 9

For hours, Adam sat, walked, paced, fumed, prayed, and did about anything he could think to do to pass time except scream although he wanted to do that very much. Martha and Simon were there too. Both did their best to offer him comfort, and he knew he ought to do the same for them, but he had none to give. He could still feel the scratchy dried blood on his pants from holding Meg in his arms. She had been in the surgery with the doctor for six hours. There had been no word from behind that closed door. He wanted to kick it down and go to Meg but knew he couldn’t. Instead he worried and prayed as his heart ached for her. Finally the door opened a bit and a small woman dressed in a white dress with a stained apron over it slipped out to see them and pulled the door closed behind her.

“She is still alive, but the doctor is very concerned about her. Her heart rate is very slow. She is so weak that he is afraid she will not have the strength to keep breathing. Her respirations have slowed in the last hour. Are any of you her family?”

Moving closer to the woman, Adam answered for all of them. “She has no family. We are all she has. Is she awake?”

“Not now. She has been awake at times. She says some names. We don’t know what they mean. Some are said in anger and some seem to be said with longing. What are your names?” Once they had identified themselves, the woman finally showed a small smile. “Yours are the names she says when she is at peace. One of you may come in to see her. The doctor thinks that perhaps that will help.”

Martha and Simon both urged Adam to go in. He needed no urging and moved to the door immediately. Inside, the room was already cleaned up. On a surgical table, Meg lay draped in a sheet and a blanket. The doctor stood by her side and motioned Adam to come to the other side of the table.

“I don’t want to move her. It was difficult to stop the bleeding, and I’m afraid that she is still bleeding internally. She must remain calm and still, but she has to breathe, and she is losing strength to do so. Talk to her as positively and joyfully as you can. Encourage her to fight. Tell her that you need her to stay with you. It’s all that anyone can do for her now.”

The doctor moved away then with a sympathetic look. He held out little hope for his patient but he had seen love create miracles. He could only hope that it could bring about a huge one this time for this young woman had suffered horrifically. He never wanted to have to tell this young man what had been done to her but was afraid that at some point he might have to do that. Certainly he expected the authorities to be asking and was surprised that no one was there yet when he reached the area outside the surgery.

Taking Meg’s hand in his, Adam whispered softly to her. Her eyelids fluttered at times as if she was trying to wake but then they would be still as she succumbed to sleep or unconsciousness again. Sometimes her fingers would twitch a little in his. He willed her to wake but that didn’t happen. Tears flowed freely down his face as he saw the bruising on her face and neck as well as a few bite marks that marred her skin. Her lips were bruised and her lower lip was split on one side. The bruises were various colors showing that she had been abused over a period of time with some of the bruises healing even as she received new ones on top of the old ones. He couldn’t understand the beastly nature of men who would do this to a woman. He held her hand and could feel the bandages at her wrist knowing that she had likely been restrained the whole time as well. If he could have gotten hold of the men who had done this, he could have killed them with his hands at that moment. Instead, he had only tender words and careful soft touches as he tried to communicate love and concern to the woman he loved so deeply.

Later that morning, a deputy sheriff did come in to see the doctor as well as Adam and to ask questions about Meg’s condition as well as what Adam knew of Darby. He told them that Darby Nash wasn’t saying anything. He sat in his cell as if waiting for instructions from someone. The sheriff guessed that he was working for someone else not believing that Darby had the intelligence and the money to carry out such a scheme alone. The attack on Adam indicated at least one other person was involved, and the sheriff suspected more but had no idea who they could be. The deputy had Adam come out to ask him if Meg had said anything.

Unconscious most of the time since he had rescued her, she had only uttered names in a random manner on occasion in a panic and not in a way that they could recognize most of them. Darby had been mentioned as had Adam, Martha, and Simon. There had been a reference too to a man called Wid or something like that. When Adam said that, the deputy looked pale and said he had to get back to the jail right away. Adam asked why to the man’s departing back. He didn’t want to leave Meg but had to know too because it must be one of the men who had hurt her so terribly. Martha told him to go and that she would stay with Meg until he returned. He followed the deputy who he could see running in the distance so he ran too not knowing what was urgent but assuming that it was something crucial. At the sheriff’s office, the door stood wide open as the deputy had not bothered to close it. The office was empty, but Adam could hear all sorts of voices from the back room.

“He killed himself. He couldn’t take the guilt or he couldn’t face the gallows for what he did so he took care of it himself.”

“Will, that’s a lie. You know it’s a lie.”

“You shut your mouth, you little cockroach or I’ll stomp you down like the filth that you are. Don’t you dare ever speak to me like that again.”

“Will, be quiet. Dusty, why would you say that? It looks pretty cut and dried here. The man’s hanging in a locked cell and choked by his own belt.” The Sheriff was an authoritative man and used to taking charge of situations.

“She’s not dead. She said a few things, Sheriff. She said a few names. Besides Darby, she said Wid. Ring a bell, Will? I wondered why you had that broken nose the same night that Cartwright got attacked. You said you got hit when you brought that drunk in, but he could barely walk. Unless he was very lucky, how did he ever land a punch strong enough to break your nose? You’ve been favoring your right arm too like somebody might have hurt that too. Take on somebody too much for you?”

“And the first night you talked to me, you asked if I was hired to kidnap Meg. How did you know that the man doing this was hiring people unless you were one of the men hired?”

Adam had stepped up behind Dusty. Unfortunately his question distracted both Dusty and the Sheriff who turned toward him taking their attention from Will who drew his pistol. Adam drew faster though and shot him in the leg. He dropped to the floor but didn’t drop his pistol. He raised it toward Adam who was reluctant to fire again. He needed Will alive to find the man who had hired these men and abused Meg. Dusty and the Sheriff had no such reservations as both drew and fired simultaneously ending Will’s life. Adam put out a hand as if to say no to stop them but it was too late. Will Duran was dead. Adam walked over to stand over his body.

“Who’s Wid?”

Dusty filled Adam in on Will’s background. “He is. He was a small-time crook and cattle thief. He got amnesty, and he offered to work for the other side. He worked well against the rustlers and helped clean up the trouble. The sheriff here gave him a job and he worked his way into being trusted over the past five years. He even talked about wanting to run for sheriff someday. But when he was on the other side of the law, he was Wid. It was a nickname he had from when he was a young. He gave it up when he changed sides and became law-abiding or so he said. The only way Meg could know that name was if someone from his past had contact with him and she was there. She was new here and couldn’t have known a name he hadn’t used in five years. I left him in charge of the jail while I did rounds. When I heard that, I knew that Darby wasn’t going to be alive when I got back. He wouldn’t want anyone who could identify him as part of this. I was already suspicious of him like I told him when he had those injuries, but I had nothing else to go on to know why he was acting strangely about this case and toward you. I had no idea he was part of this until you said she said that name. He must have been there and been part of it or at least there enough so she heard his name.”

“But now we don’t know who is behind it all.”

“It has to be some of the friends that Will has, or had.” Dusty started thinking. “We should go around to the saloons where he played cards and get names. Darby played with him and so did Jan Smith I think. Seems to me that when Gillie Bosh wants to have a down and dirty game he’s there too.”

Curious to know whom these men were, Adam listened as Dusty told him a brief bit about each, but then Adam wanted to return to Meg’s side. He said he would get back to them if Meg had any more information. They said they would begin to ask a few questions around town about Smith and Bosh. When Adam got back to the doctor’s office, he had news for Martha and Simon but first wanted to know about Meg. Meeting Martha in the outer office as she made tea at the small stove, he was hoping to hear that Meg was showing signs of recovery but the look on Martha’s face told him that wasn’t true.

“She’s cold, Adam. Her hands are cold and her legs are cold. We’re doing our best to warm her, but it doesn’t seem to be helping much. You get in there and talk to her. See if you can coax her to wake up. Maybe if we can get some warm drinks into her. That would help so I’m making some tea with honey here hoping that she’ll wake and we can get her to drink some.”

Pushing the door to the surgery open, Adam was hit by the heat of the room. The temperature must have risen ten degrees since he had left about an hour earlier. He moved next to Meg taking one of her small hands between his fighting back tears as he felt the cool lifeless fingers unmoving in his hand. Desperate to get a response of some kind as he had earlier, he massaged them and tried to send a message of his love to her. The bandages on her wrists were still there as reminders of the cruel bindings that had to be cut away earlier. She was clean now, and the filthy bloodstained dress was gone, but it was still there in his memory.

Terrible images of what must have happened to here came unbidden to his mind as he called to her softly and then as he called a bit more urgently as there was no response. Her face was slack now and the eyelids were unmoving. Leaning down, he brushed his lips across her cheeks as he said her name. Even her cheeks were cool. Afraid to touch her arms or anywhere else not knowing where she was hurt and not wanting to hurt her more, Adam could only repeat what he had done over and over again. He was as gentle as if he was touching a newborn baby for her cheeks were swollen and bruised and so were her lips. He saw that his tears had dropped on her cheeks and wet them so he removed his handkerchief and lightly dabbed the droplets away. It was then that he thought he saw her eyelids flicker once more and leaned in again calling her name.

“Meg, open your eyes, sweetheart. You need to open your eyes. Please do it for me. We can’t help you any more if you don’t open your eyes.”

Martha stepped closer and seeing the same flicker of the eyelids urged Adam to keep doing what he was doing. The doctor came closer and began massaging Meg’s hand and forearm on the opposite side. There was no response there so he reached across and took Adam’s hand and placed it on Meg’s chest above her breasts and below her neck.

“Perhaps she can’t feel anything in her extremities, son, but I think she will feel your hand there. Move your hand gently in a circle there pressing gently as you talk to her.”

As Adam did as the doctor instructed, Meg slowly blinked her eyes and then opened them halfway. Adam leaned down so she could see him and he spoke very softly to her encouraging her to stay awake.

“Martha has some tea for you. It will warm you and give you some energy. Will you drink some? Blink if you’ll drink some.”

When Meg blinked, it seemed that everyone in the room took a breath at the same time not realizing that they had been holding their it waiting to see if she could respond. Martha moved in and held a nursing bottle to Meg’s lips as Adam very gently lifted her slightly so she could swallow. For the next day, the routine was much like that with the three of them spending most of their time tending to Meg and getting warm fluids into her. She was awake only a short time every few hours, but they made the most of those times.

The sheriff came in the next morning to tell them that they had been unable to locate either Jan Smith or Gillie Bosh.

“Jan is a foreigner. Not a single person here could pronounce his last name. It started with an S so he finally just used Smith. His first name is some long name that starts with Jan but again was very hard for people to pronounce. He’s a big powerful man and drives a hackney, which is what he said he did in his old country. My guess is he did a lot more than that. He has that look about him and a few scars too. He could be anywhere by now. We’ve got notices out and wires sent to nearby towns. We’ll find him. Bosh is tougher one. He’s a gambler and an investor who always seems to end up with money no matter how things go. He’s good with a gun too. He’s a slippery one, and if he was involved in this, he’s probably smart enough to have slipped away without leaving a trail.”

“Where does he live?”

“He has a place on the edge of town. It’s a nice place. Nobody is there. We’re watching it, but it’s quiet. No horse in the stable and no smoke coming from the chimney.”

“Have you searched it?”

“Not yet. I suppose you think we should.”

Adam didn’t respond but he didn’t have to respond. The sheriff had the same feeling that Adam did. “You search Jan Smith’s place?”

“Not yet. You seem to think we can just go search anywhere we want. We have to follow the law. If we had someone who could tie these men to the crime, that might do it.”

“They’re known associates of two men who were involved in kidnapping and brutalizing that young woman in there. Couldn’t you search their places looking for them so you could at least question them?”

“You know, that’s pretty good. You got a good head on you. We can say we were searching to see if they were all right cause Will got rid of Darby so he might of done harm to other friends of his, and we only wanted to question them about the case. Yeah, that will work. Even a judge would accept that. It makes sense.” The sheriff left then on his mission. He wouldn’t be back for hours. The news he brought had clearly sickened him. He called Adam out of the surgery and closed the door before speaking to him. First he showed him some hair combs. Adam recognized them because he had gifted them to Meg.

“They’re Meg’s.”

“I figured they would be. We found them in Smith’s hackney. It’s clear he was the one who must have taken her. Probably offered to give her a ride and then overpowered her when no one could see. Then we went to Bosh’s place. He left in a hurry. Looks like he tried to clean up, but he missed a few things. He’s the one. We’re sure that’s where she was. He probably handed her over to Darby to get rid of her. Darby was probably supposed to dump her body in town somewhere when he was done with her. That’s the best we can figure. Will had a lot of money stashed in his place. He must have been helping them cover it all up. He was in it for the money as far as we can tell.”

“Any word on where those two are?”

“Nothing yet, but wanted posters are going out as soon as we can get them printed.”

“Reward?”

“Standard from the county is five hundred.”

“Make it five thousand for each. I’ll get the money wired here to the bank.”

“You got that kind of money?”

There was no answer to that. Adam sat at the doctor’s desk, took a sheet of paper, and wrote out an order that he gave to the sheriff. “Have that sent to the Virginia City bank. If they need verification, have them contact me by wire. My father also knows that I’m here. He’ll vouch for me if the bank is reluctant.” Adam pulled some bills from his pocket then. “This should cover the cost of any wires.”

Once the sheriff had the written order for the money and left, Adam stood and walked back in to the surgery to be with Meg. He spent the next week with her, but she didn’t improve at all despite all they did for her. She only had tea with honey. On Friday, she slipped into a coma. Adam was desperate for the doctor to give him some good news, but there wasn’t any although there was some shocking news.

“She’s too weak. It was too much blood loss and the internal bleeding never stopped. I’m sorry but there is still nothing that we can do about that. If we could have stopped that, she would have possibly been able to get stronger, but now her systems are failing. She had bleeding from being beaten, and then miscarrying after all that abuse caused so much blood loss and the bleeding never completely stopped from that either.”

Martha gasped when the doctor said that last part. She knew that Adam didn’t know and had told the doctor to spare him that. In his sorrow at seeing his patient losing her battle, the doctor had forgotten.

“She was carrying a baby?”

Realizing his error, the doctor turned to Martha with regret showing plainly before he turned back to Adam. “I’m so sorry. I never should have said that. Yes, she was. Part of what took so long the night you brought her here was that she was losing the baby she had carried. She was bleeding internally from being beaten, and then that added to it, and we nearly lost her that night. With your care, a miracle almost happened, but her body can’t do it. It is simply too much. Her system is shutting down. I feel her heart rate slowing, and you can tell too that she is barely breathing any more. She will slip away sometime tonight or tomorrow. I’m so sorry I can’t do anything more for her.”

When the doctor left, Adam stood in shock. Martha stepped up beside him. “She told me that if you came for her, she was going to go with you wherever you wanted to go. She said she thought you would probably come. That’s when she told me about you. She didn’t know she was with child when she left you. In fact, she thought she wasn’t and wanted to leave before she was so she wouldn’t force the issue with you. She loved you very much.”

Numb with everything that had happened and all that he had heard, Adam could only continue to do what he had been doing. He held Meg’s hand, talked softly to her, and did everything he could to try to be sure that she knew she was loved. He put his hand on her upper chest where the doctor said she had the best chance of feeling his presence and moved it gently in small circles as he told her his hopes, his dreams, and his plans for the future. The others tried to tell him they would take turns with her but he gently rebuffed all their efforts. Simon went home to his family, and the doctor went upstairs to his apartment to get some sleep. Martha fell asleep in the rocking chair. She awakened about six in the morning not having intended to sleep so long but exhaustion had claimed her. Adam was still sitting beside Meg, but he was silent and still.

“I’ll sit with her now, dear. You have to get some rest.”

“There’s no need. Her heart stopped about an hour ago. It slowed down and slowed down and then it simply stopped. That was it. And I won’t rest now until the men who did this are brought to justice. They did this to her, and to other women. They have to be stopped.”

“Dear, the law will do it.”

“Maybe, but if they don’t, I will.”

And Martha knew that a man like Adam kept his promises.

*****

Chapter 10

Washed out, empty, drained. Adam thought of all the ways to describe how he felt and none of them were adequate to explain the feeling of hope being destroyed just when it had been born again, of love being snuffed out while still vibrant, and joy disappearing like fog burned away by the morning sun. It was all due to the twisted desires of men who saw women as objects to be used. Anger grew in him as he thought of the pain both physical and emotional that Meg had suffered at the hands of her abusers, of how probably two or more had treated her horribly and then given her away to another to use until she died to be disposed of on the streets like some piece of trash with no value. He had seen such great value in her. She had been the one who made his heart sing. Although it seemed so inadequate, he paid for her funeral and for a gravestone carved with her name. He guessed that visiting that spot after the gravestone was placed was going to be the last thing he did in this city. By all accounts, Gilbert or Gillie Bosh was long gone. Adam planned to go after him if he could find any clues as to which direction he had gone. The key was finding Jan Smith who had gone into hiding. It had to be that because there had been no reports of him in any direction and a man who looked like him couldn’t hide. He waited for the sheriff to bring news.

After Meg’s funeral, Martha gave Adam the small stack of letters that Meg had written to him and never mailed. She brought out the small box where she knew Meg kept those letters and told Adam about them. He didn’t want to read them but he did because they were Meg’s thoughts and words and he had so little of her left. It was late at night when he opened the first and read it. It said all those things that he expected to read from her explaining why she left. Then the letters began to express regret about leaving and doubts that she had done the right thing. When she had found out she was with child, the pain was clear.

By then, she was wrestling with the quandary of what to do because she had seen Ben Cartwright looking at her from the train window. She knew he would tell his oldest son, but she was also aware that Adam was probably away on a cattle drive by that time. She had remembered him telling her of that coming up and how they would not be together for at least six weeks while he was gone. She had been debating leaving Denver knowing he would likely come for her, but being with child had made her give up that notion. She had decided that if he came, she could fix the mistake she had made by leaving and offer to go anywhere that Adam wanted to go. That had been her firm decision, and he could tell the joy that she had in her because of that decision because of the change in tone in the letters. She had been fairly certain he would come and had been waiting for him to arrive. If only he had come a week earlier, their lives would have been so different. After he finished reading the letters, Adam folded each and put them back into the stack in the same order they had been although now they were stained with a few tears. He tied them with the ribbon she had used and wrapped them in one of his handkerchiefs and packed them away in his valise.

After a frustrating week of nothing, the sheriff brought news, but it wasn’t good. “A bounty hunter was found dead. His throat was crushed. Report says it looked like he was beaten to a pulp first. My guess is that the five thousand made him too bold, and he tried to take Jan alone. That was a mistake. The man is ferocious in a fight. I’ve had him in my jail a few times. He got in a fight in a saloon once against three men. He killed one by smashing his throat, and he broke the arm of another over the bar before I got there with a shotgun and made him drop the other one that he was holding up against the wall by the neck. He would have killed him too. The one he had hit in the throat so hard was laying on the floor, and the poor man couldn’t breathe. He died right there before our eyes trying to suck in air but he couldn’t do it. Jan spit on him as we led him out to take him to the jail. He’s dangerous and has no feeling for anyone.”

“So what do we do now?”

“He’s out of my jurisdiction.” Adam’s look was exactly what the sheriff expected but he gave him no time to vent. “I’ve got an idea though. There’s a bounty hunter in town that I actually respect. Josh stays within the law with what he does, and he’s worked with me before. He won’t take any stupid chances. He’s smart. You’re smart. I think the two of you could work well together if you’ll listen to him. He knows what he’s doing.”

“You want me to work with a bounty hunter?”

“He’s not an ordinary bounty hunter. He could do my job as well or better than me if he decided he wanted the job. I don’t know why he does what he does, but he’s a good man, and I wouldn’t say that about any other bounty hunter I know. The rest only want the money, and they’ll kill a man without thinking. Josh brings in criminals to face justice. He’s as close to a lawman as you’ll find to help you, but he doesn’t have to worry about any lines of jurisdiction. Josh will bring Jan in alive too if he can so we can question him. You want that too, don’t you?”

Not so sure of his answer, Adam could only nod thinking that if he said anything the indecision might show through. The sheriff understood. If his wife had been killed the way this man’s sweetheart had been killed, he thought he would probably feel the same way.

“Josh is over at my office. I asked him to wait there while I came over here to talk with you. I’m going to give him a letter that he can show any lawman along the way saying that I’m asking them to cooperate with the two of you because we need that man back here alive to answer some questions as well as face justice. Fair enough?”

“You were pretty sure of yourself.”

“I’m a good judge of character. I guessed that you wanted justice for your lady, and that you’re smart enough to see that this would be your best bet for getting it.”

“Let me get a saddlebag for the trail and I’ll be with you. I’ll need a horse and saddle too.”

“You won’t. Josh is renting a wagon. You’ll be paying for it.” At Adam’s frown, the sheriff smiled. “Josh already has a plan. You already said you would cooperate so come on over and listen to him. Pack what you need in a plain sack if you have one.”

After Martha provided a clean flour sack, Adam dropped what he needed into it and followed the sheriff to his office where he met Josh and listened to his plan.

“The way I figure it, Jan’s probably gone to ground again. He’s killed again, and he knows that he’s being hunted. If we ride in on horses, he’ll never show himself. He’ll figure us for a posse or bounty hunters if we come in like that. So, we rent a freight wagon, load it up, and ride through the general area looking like ordinary freight haulers. Sooner of later, I figure he’s going to approach us for a ride out of there. He’ll ask nice maybe or he’ll come in threatening or trying to force us to give him a ride out. Either way, that’s when we have to take him. We’ll have a big crate ready for him. I don’t want to have to try to deal with him so I’ll put a bucket in there for him to use. It’s two days ride from here by horse so about four days by wagon.”

“You’re so sure your plan will work.”

“I’m not sure, but I’ve done this kind of thing before and think it’s the best bet. If it doesn’t work, we can come up with a different plan. We’ll be where he is regardless. We’ll get him. You may not believe this, but I’ll work with you until we bring him in. He shouldn’t be walking free.”

Putting out his hand to Adam, Josh waited. Adam thought briefly and then grasped Josh’s hand in his. Another alliance and friendship was born.

“When do we leave?”

“I was going to do it alone so I already have the wagon and crates ready. Now all we need is more food and another bedroll. The sheriff says you’ve got some money. I hate to admit it, but I’m usually a bit short on funds, so if you wouldn’t mind?”

After a trip to the mercantile and a few crates of canned peaches and others items, the freight wagon looked more authentic as well as being better provisioned for the two of them. There were coils of rope hanging on the side that Adam told Josh might come in handy as well as pails and other items tied to crates, and a large piece of canvas covering the larger crates. Simon wholly approved of their mission and mentioned to both that most teamsters rolled up to his store with several days growth of beard not usually finding it necessary to shave while on the road. It was good advice if they wanted to look authentic. Adam bought a coat to wear because the coat he had worn to travel was too conspicuous.

By the middle of the afternoon, they rolled out of town on their way and continued until they couldn’t see the road any more even in the moonlight. The next day, they were up at dawn and on the road again. With a six-horse team, they could travel a long way in a day but still had to give the horses frequent breaks. As Josh predicted, they arrived in the area they sought after four days of travel. It was midday and they stopped to rest the horses and fix a meal. There was a stream there so they unhitched the horses and watered them well and decided to let them rest in the shade for an hour while they ate their lunch. Then they hitched up the horses and continued on for another four hours until storms threatened. Seeing a copse of trees that looked like it would be good shelter against strong winds, they headed in that direction to make camp.

“We’re being watched.”

Josh was surprised when Adam said that. “How do you know?”

“There’s been a man up on that ridge to the west every once in a while. He tries not to be seen but with the sun behind him, it was too easy to see him.”

“I never saw him.”

“He was there.”

“I guess I’ll trust you. I don’t think he’ll come in during the storm. Too many things can go wrong. My guess is he’ll try to catch us when we least expect it. Maybe in the morning when we separate.”

“That’s probably a good guess so let’s not separate too much. Stay close enough so that he can’t sneak up on either of us. We’ll work out the logistics of it when we can see things better. We’ll take turns sleeping tonight?”

“Oh, yeah. I don’t think he’ll come in tonight, but I’m not willing to bet my life on it.”

No one approached them that night. In the morning, they were careful to keep lines of sight open even when they were taking care of necessary business. They worked as a team as if they had been doing it for years. Anyone seeing them together would probably think that because they talked little but seemed to understand what was needed anyway. They got underway and took a midmorning break as expected.

“See anything?”

“No, and it’s making me nervous. He may have been making sure we saw him yesterday. Now I’m wondering where he is.”

“Adam, you definitely are the suspicious type. Not that I mind. It’s that kind of thing that keeps a man alive and healthy out here, but why would he do it that way?”

“I don’t know, and that worries me more than him doing it.”

When they stopped for lunch, the answer was all too apparent. Jan had got them looking to the side and behind them not in front. He was waiting ahead of them and attacked as they moved to lead the horses to water slamming into Adam and driving him back into the wagon knocking the air out of him and banging his head against the side panel before Jan turned to Josh flinging him back against the horses he was leading. Stunned, Adam was trying to draw his pistol but Jan grabbed him and put him in a bear hug that threatened to break his ribs. Josh pulled his weapon and yelled for Jan to release him, but Jan turned to place Adam between them and rushed toward Josh plowing into him using Adam as a battering ram. He released Adam then and took Josh’s weapon throwing it far from him and slamming his fist into Josh’s face. As Josh lay unmoving on the ground, Adam struggled to get up and Jan put him in a bear hug again.

“I know who you are. I saw you in town. I squeezed her just like this too when I had her. She screamed. Are you going to scream?”

Feeling a few ribs crack and sure that he had actually heard them crack, Adam did his best to fight but the man’s power was overwhelming. Adam couldn’t breathe, and he smelled the man’s fetid breath and heard his foul words. His fury drove him to want to kill the man, but in despair, he realized that he had failed. Jan was killing him as he had hurt Meg. He was likely going to hurt more women and cause even more despair. All Adam could do was cause the man some pain before he died so gathering what strength he had left, he kicked up with his right foot connecting with Jan in his privates. Jan grunted and leaned forward, but although he loosened his hold, he didn’t release it. It had been a desperate move, and Adam had known it might fail. He was seeing flashing lights and losing consciousness when suddenly he was released and fell forward only to have the weight of Jan come crashing down on him. Again he was unable to breathe and darkness threatened to overtake him, but slowly the weight was removed, and he saw Josh’s bloodied face above him.

“Good. You’re alive.” Josh sank to his knees and gasped for air as blood dripped from his nose and mouth.

Struggling to breathe and to push the weight of Jan from his legs, Adam struggled to say even a few words. “How did you do it?”

“I hit him with a rock. Twice. He didn’t even seem to notice the first one on the back of the head when he was standing, but when you got him to bend down, I was able to hit him in the side of the head with everything I had the second time, and he dropped.”

“Tie him.”

“He’s not going anywhere.”

“Tie him.”

“I guess you’re right. You’re not going to be able to help me with him. Damn, you look awful.”

“You don’t look so good yourself and there’s at least two of you that I have to look at.”

“At least, I can clean the blood off of me. You got some lumps and bruises that are going to be there a while. It was a good idea bringing all that rope along though. Now I’m real glad we got it. I may use it all.”

Once Josh had Jan completely trussed, he checked on Adam again. “You’ve got broken ribs. The best I can do is to tear up a blanket and bind them. Don’t move around. If one of them pokes into something, I won’t be able to help you, and we’re a long way from a town.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Gasping as Josh helped him sit up and remove his shirt, Adam did his best to breathe shallowly. Josh whistled when he saw the bruising that was already showing and the fresh scar from the cut Will Duran had made. He carefully wrapped large strips of the blanket around Adam’s chest pulling each one tight trying to be sure to bind the ribs enough so they wouldn’t move but loose enough to allow Adam to breathe at least shallowly. Once Josh had Adam’s ribs bound, he wrapped the last piece of blanket around Adam’s head to stop the blood that was still dripping down the side of his neck from the wound he got from being slammed into the wagon. Then he looked down at Jan.

“I’m never going to be able to lift him into the wagon, and I doubt he’s going to get in there if I ask him.”

“Drag him.”

“I can’t drag him all the way back. It would kill him. I won’t do that, not even to him.”

“No, into the wagon. I’ll tell you how.”

So Adam explained to Josh how to make a ramp into the wagon using the tailgate and parts of the large crate, and how to position the rope so that the horses could pull Jan up the ramp and into the wagon. Jan was awake by the time Josh was ready to do it and swore at them in some language they didn’t recognize. He swore even more as he got splinters from being pulled up the rough boards and into the wagon. Josh tied him so that his feet were high in the air with the rope secured to the back of the seat of the wagon.

“Sorry, Adam, but there’s no place for you to lie down. The best bet is to sit beside me on the bench up here. I’ll do my best to make the ride as easy as I can, but you’re going to have a rough four days of it.”

It was a rough four days especially as they refused to release Jan from the wagon for any reason only pouring buckets of water over him to rinse him down. When the wagon was at an angle, the water and filth drained out the back. They gave him water to drink and some food when he was cooperative and nothing when he spat at them or swore at them. Eventually his thirst and hunger made him more compliant. Adam couldn’t eat much at a time without wanting to retch so he mostly sipped water and ate peaches for his meals. They made a sorry sight then when they drove the wagon back into Denver ten days after leaving. The sheriff came out of his office, frowned, and then nodded. He told his deputies to go get a couple of pails of soapy water to scrub Jan down before they brought him into the jail.

“Sheriff, Josh earned the reward.”

“He’ll get it. You look like you need a doctor.”

“He does, sheriff. I’ll take him there as soon as you get that filth out of this wagon.”

“He tell you anything?”

“No, he probably won’t, but at least we got him. I think I’ll be helping Adam find that other one too if he’s willing to partner up again.”

The sheriff smiled at that. He wanted Gilbert Bosh more than Jan. He knew that Gillie had to have been the one to set the whole thing up and finance it. More than likely, he was going to go to another town and do the same thing unless somebody stopped him. These two young men were the best bet to do that. And Josh was the best bet for Adam not facing a murder charge because left to himself, the sheriff thought he might be driven to murder Gillie on sight if he caught up to him. Josh would be the voice of reason on his shoulder though reminding him of what he needed to do instead of what he might want to do. Considering what Gilbert Bosh had already done, he deserved to be shot down in the street like a rabid dog, but Adam didn’t deserve to be punished for it. Josh was the insurance that Adam needed to stay safe and sane on a quest to capture a sick sadistic fiend who could take such pleasure in another’s suffering. The sheriff had seen such people on a few rare occasions. They could be charming and often were intelligent, but there was a black soul inside of them that was evil and sick. They needed the scourging fires of hell and the sooner, the better.

*****

Chapter 11

Taking a room at the hotel after the doctor bound his ribs and cleaned up the wound on his head, Adam slept for a full day waking only to do what was necessary before returning to the bed. Josh looked in on him a few times and found him sound asleep each time. He told Martha and Simon what had happened to Adam and how he was injured as well as explaining to them and to the sheriff what Jan had said to Adam. Those words were evidence. What they needed though was more evidence against him. The huge man sat in his cell refusing to say anything other than they had no witnesses against him. For a time, it looked as if what he said to Adam that was overheard by Josh was going to be the best evidence until a boy came forward and said that he had seen Meg riding with Jan one morning. Eventually with careful and patient questioning, the sheriff was able to pinpoint the morning, and it was the morning on which Meg had disappeared. They had her combs which had been found in Jan’s hackney so that with what he had said to Adam and his association with both Darby, Will, and Gillie was probably going to be enough to convict him. They wanted more though, and when Adam went with Josh and talked to the sheriff because Adam thought he knew how to get it.

“Let me go in there. He already taunted me once with what amounted to some evidence against him. If he’ll say more, then we can be sure he’ll hang. Maybe he’ll even give me a hint as to where Bosh went.”

“I’ll have to take your pistol. I can’t have you shooting him when he gets you that mad.”

“I won’t shoot him.”

“I’m not so sure of that. Hand over the pistol, and Dusty, Josh, and I will listen. You get him to talk and then you can get your wish that he’ll hang. We want that too.”

Josh had an additional suggestion. “You had a bandage on your head on the way here. We should get one on your head again. It’ll make you look more pitiful.”

Adam frowned at him but Josh simply said he was trying to help, and the sheriff agreed it added to the plan so they got a bandage and wrapped it around Adam’s head. Somewhat reluctantly then, Adam handed over his pistol. Next, in a theatrical style move, Adam bent over slightly and wrapped an arm around himself as if his ribs were so painful he couldn’t stand straight. He began to breathe shallowly and walk in short steps. He practiced that walk across the room as the sheriff opened the door to the cells and waited for him to get there before walking in ahead of him as Dusty held the door open. Adam walked slowly to the wall across from Jan’s cell and leaned against it. The sheriff addressed Adam as Jan looked on curious as to what was happening.

“Well, there he is. Say whatever you want to him. Come on out when you’re done.”

For a minute, Adam simply stared at Jan who sat on his cot in the cell getting even more curious as to what was going on. Finally he stood and walked to the bars.

“What is it? You come to see the man who you think took your woman?”

“Yes, I wanted to see you before you hang. I’m going back home today.”

“Before the trial? What, you afraid that when they let me go, I come after you and finish the job for how you treat me? You scared of me?” Jan reached through the bars making Adam flinch. Jan laughed. “You are afraid of me.” He lowered his voice then. “She was afraid of me too.”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“Why you can’t hear me?”

“My hearing and everything is messed up. After what you did to me, I may never be all right again. My head pounds all the time, and I can’t see straight yet either.”

Remembering how weak and ill Adam had been on that trip back to town and how the other man had done everything, Jan believed him. He talked louder repeating what he had said before adding more. “Maybe you never have another woman. She was a good one, ya?” Then he described all the things that he had done to Meg. Adam turned his face to the wall barely able to stand listening to the litany that the man was spewing. It was agony to him to hear it, but it meant that the man would pay the penalty for what he had done. Adam’s reaction seemed to make Jan want to say more as he enjoyed inflicting pain he saw Adam genuinely suffering. Finally Jan stopped talking. Adam turned back to him and spat out only one thing.

“You didn’t do all those things.”

“No, not all of them. Gillie did though. Maybe I follow him to La…, I mean, I go west too after they let me go. Maybe we work together again. I liked working with him. He paid me well and he shared when he got tired of each one. Then he liked to watch.”

The sheriff walked in the cellblock then and told Adam to leave. “Son, we got enough to hang him now. You won’t even have to go to court. I am sorry you had to hear all that filth, but the three of us can tell all that we heard. He’ll be swinging from the gallows before the week is up. You can count on that.”

“You got nothing on me. I only tell him those things to make teasing. I only say those things to be joking. You know I joker. Everybody know I am.”

“Yes, everyone does know that. They know you’re mean enough to do that and nasty enough to do that, to want to make a man suffer even more after losing the woman he loved so much.”

“Yeah, see, you know.”

“There’s only one problem with what you said, Jan.”

“What? What problem?”

“You said things that only the men who did this would know happened to her. You know things that up to now only the doctor and I knew. Like I said, you’ll be swinging with a rope around your neck choking the life out of you and sending you to hell where you belong before this week is over.”

The sheriff’s words were accurate, more or less. On the day of the trial, Adam sat with Martha and Simon in Martha’s kitchen and they drank coffee. There was no talking as they waited. In an hour, Josh was there with the news. Jan had been found guilty and was sentenced to hang in two days. He had no defense and with the testimony Josh gave, the jury hadn’t needed to hear much more. The sheriff and Dusty put the final nails in the coffin as Josh put it. Adam had asked why they were waiting two days, and Josh reminded him that the next day was Sunday. They wouldn’t hang a man on a Sunday. Early Monday morning though, as soon as the light of dawn began to show, a crowd gathered outside the sheriff’s office. There was a worry as there had been on Saturday that Jan might try to escape. There were at least twenty men forming a gauntlet as they had on Saturday when he walked to the courthouse and when he walked back to the jail. He would not be allowed to escape. When Jan walked from the jail and saw the men lined up again as they had been two days earlier, everyone could see the fury in him. He stepped down the two steps and then roared and rushed the men despite the chains on his wrists and the shackles on his ankles. The men spared nothing in subduing him. The sheriff and Dusty went to Jan as he lay on the ground.

“He’s dead.”

There were cries to hang him anyway. The sheriff shrugged. “Well, it was the judge’s order. Go ahead if you can lift him up there. Might as well make it a sure thing.”

So for the first time in Denver’s history, a dead man was hanged. At least they assumed he was dead. No one summoned a doctor to be sure. They were sure that he was dead after the hanging though. His body was taken to a potter’s field and buried in an unmarked grave. Adam and Martha heard about the debacle later. Neither of them had had any desire to attend the hanging. Adam did walk to the cemetery to visit Meg’s grave where the headstone had been placed the day before. He said a final goodbye to her. Martha found him there hours later when he didn’t return for dinner as expected. She put a hand on his shoulder to rouse him. He stood a bit embarrassed that she had found him there with the evidence that he had been crying, but she said nothing and they walked back to the boardinghouse to have their last dinner together and to share some fond memories of Meg talking long into the night.

The next day, Adam and Josh were heading to Laramie, Wyoming assuming that the La that Jan had spoken had been for that town. It was the only one that made sense to them. It had gambling, opportunities for investment, and women as well as people passing through. It would be a place that someone like Gillie wouldn’t be thought of as unusual. He was probably using a different name and probably had a different look. Adam and Josh were ready to find him no matter what he had done to conceal himself. They had drawings of what he had looked like in Denver as well as written descriptions. They had a letter from the sheriff to give to the sheriff in Laramie.

The last thing that Adam did before leaving town was to mail a letter to his father explaining what had happened to Meg and to the men who had done it to her, and what he planned to do next. He looked very different than the man who had arrived in town hoping to find the woman that he loved. Gone were the red and the yellow shirts as well as the brown coat. He bought black shirts and a mustard colored coat. He hadn’t meant to get a yellow coat except when he saw it and remembered that it was Meg’s favorite color, he couldn’t resist. He knew he would think of her frequently whenever he had to put on that coat. Josh asked him why all black shirts, and he had told him they didn’t show blood very easily. He remembered the blood stains on his shirt the night he carried Meg to the doctor. He didn’t think he could ever wear a yellow shirt again. He bought a horse, a saddle, a packhorse, and all the gear and supplies he would need to be on the trail with Josh. He bid goodbye to Martha and Simon, and then left Denver and Meg forever on a quest to find her killer. As he rode out of town, he felt again that emptiness inside that he had felt when she had died and again when he had been at her grave. He didn’t know how he was ever going to fill that. Josh didn’t say anything but stole looks at him from time to time as they rode that first day wondering if there was anything he could say or do that would help and guessing there wasn’t. Only time could heal the wounds that Adam had deep inside.

As Josh and Adam travelled through each small town, they paused to check out any who had passed through recently. They were hoping to catch a hint of Bosh along the way but were disappointed at every turn. They never found anyone who had seen anyone resembling the man in any way. They were becoming increasingly frustrated with the hard travel and nothing to show for it. After they had spent over a week on the trail, they sat at a campfire one night in silence thinking about it until Josh proposed a theory.

“What if he told Jan he was going to Laramie because he expected that Jan might talk at some point either because he was tricked or because he wanted to take Bosh down with him? He might have given him the wrong location to send any pursuit the wrong way.”

Thinking about that for a short time, Adam realized it made the most sense and fit with what they had been finding. It didn’t seem likely that Bosh had come in this direction. “Then what, he went in the opposite direction or where?”

“Not the opposite direction because he’s too smart for that. No, he would have found a place that was as lucrative as Denver for all of his pursuits. It would need a lot of people moving in and out, gambling, women, and growth.”

Agreeing that their adversary was too smart to be obvious, Adam tried to think like their prey. “That leaves Portland and Seattle out of the mix. Most of the people who go there, settle. Salt Lake City wouldn’t have the gambling. Dodge City and Abilene are in the opposite direction so you’ve ruled them out except if he thinks we’ll think that and goes there because of that. The only thing left is that he went all the way to California without leaving a trace or he went south.” From the look that Josh gave him, Adam knew he had drawn the same conclusion. “So tomorrow we head to Texas.” When Josh nodded, Adam knocked down the campfire a little, rolled out his bedroll, and decided he better get some sleep. They were going to have some rugged travel ahead of them.

Josh left him with a promise before they fell asleep that night. “If he isn’t in Texas, we’ll head on up to Dodge City and Abilene. You might be right, and I’m going to track this one down no matter what it takes. I’ve never wanted to get one as bad as I want to get this one. I’ll ride with you until we get him.”

“It’s going to be a rough road.”

“I’ve been on rough roads before.”

“Josh, thank you.” With that, the two men fell asleep agreeable that they had made a pact to get Bosh no matter what.

The travel was as bad or worse than expected. Storms, desert and dry plains, desolate areas devoid of any life in some cases, dust everywhere whipped up by the wind all too often, and endless miles between settlements took all their energy for almost two weeks. They dodged parties of Indians out hunting, and in one case, a group that looked like Comancheros. When they finally reached settlements, at first, they got the same responses they had gotten on the road to Laramie. But when they got to a larger settlement that could actually be called a town, they had their first solid lead. In a saloon, when they showed his picture, several men and women gathered around them and wanted to know if they were bounty hunters. At first, they were worried that they might be in trouble until one of the saloon girls talked.

“He hurt one of Miss Jean’s gals real bad. He hightailed it outta here before anybody knew it or he woulda been a hangin’ from that ole tree right there in the center of town.”

“Which way did he go?” Adam was energized because they were finally on the man’s trail but needed to know where to go next.

“Only place to go from this here town is south, mister. Nothin’ to the north at’all, and east and west is only ranches. South of here is where y’all find more towns.”

The next morning, refreshed, resupplied, and energized with the news, Adam and Josh headed south. Gillie Bosh was in their sights now. The manhunt was underway.

*****

Chapter 12

As Josh and Adam rode south to the next town, Adam had some doubts about what they would find. “He made a mistake. By now, he knows that and may have changed his plans.”

“I was thinking the same thing except he doesn’t have many options. We’re right behind him now. The harder we ride and the closer we get, the less options he has. I’ve been in this business a long time now. I can make a lot of mistakes when I’m chasing a man and it doesn’t ever really matter that much. We made a mistake when we wasted a week heading toward Laramie. But a man like Bosh, no matter how smart he is, will make a mistake too sooner or later too, and he just made it. Now he’s in our sights and he knows it.”

“You think he’ll turn to fight us like a cornered rat.”

“No, I think he’ll try to strike like a sneaky bastard that he is. A man like that doesn’t get desperate. He gets more dangerous. He’ll try to ambush us or try to eliminate at least one of us somehow when he realizes that there are two of us after him. I’m not sure what he’ll do, but he’ll be watching to see who’s after him, and when he sees two, he’ll want to even the odds or make them even better than that.”

In the next town, Adam and Josh didn’t get anyone who could identify Bosh. That seemed very odd, and some of the people there seemed a bit hostile too. They had to wonder what was going on, but the town was too small to have a sheriff so the next day, they headed out early not at all sure what had happened. They discussed it, but didn’t even have a theory to explain it. In the next town, again, there was no one who could identify Bosh, but this time with the first people they encountered, there was none of the hostility they had met in the previous town. They arrived late and thought they would grab a meal, a drink, a bath, and a room for the night. They planned to see the sheriff the next morning. After putting their horses in the livery stable and dropping their gear in the hotel, they headed to a saloon that had a sign in the window that said they served food. They ordered steaks and beers. As they ate their dinner and drank the beer, they discussed the situation.

“Maybe they just don’t like strangers back there. Might have had trouble with somebody in the past passing through and thought we looked like trouble. I mean, after all these weeks on the trail, we do look pretty rough, and you in those black clothes look like a gunfighter.”

“It seemed like it was more than that. It was as if they were waiting for us specifically, and were ready to be hostile to us.”

“Hmm, like perhaps someone gave them the word that two ruffians were heading their way?”

“But Bosh couldn’t know that, so how could he tell them that?”

“It had to be him though. He had to have told them something. I had the feeling that we were being followed today too. I kept trying to see signs of it, but I never did. My brother, Hoss, always says to trust your gut feelings though, and my gut says we’re heading into some kind of trouble. I only wish I had some idea of what it was.”

They almost finished their meal in peace but three men came in and stood at their table. It was an ominous sign. When Adam moved his hand toward his pistol, two guns were drawn at him and he was told to put his hands on the table. His pistol was taken as was Josh’s weapon.

“Who are you and what the heck do you have against us?” Adam was angry not only at the treatment but at the anonymity of the men who had accosted them. No one in the room seemed inclined to help them or say even a word about it standing as silent witnesses only. He looked at Josh who shrugged. There wasn’t much they could do in this situation.

“You’ll come with us and I’ll do the questions. You shut up. Stand up slow and easy and walk out that door following Jake there.”

One of the three men moved to the door so Adam and Josh had to assume that was Jake. Adam did decide not to make a smart remark although he very badly wanted to say something. Josh nodded at him grateful that he held his temper knowing that Adam had a rather short fuse and a furious temper when provoked. They walked outside following Jake, and it was with some relief that they realized they were walking toward the sheriff’s office and not an alley or something worse. Jake opened the door of the sheriff’s office and headed toward the cells. Adam and Josh stopped then. Josh decided to take the lead.

“Why are you locking us up? We haven’t done anything.”

The sheriff gave them information that surprised them but not so much. “We got word from the last town you was in. We know who you are.”

Adam and Josh looked at each other and nodded. Now they knew who had been following them, and what story the sheriff might have heard. They wanted to hear it from him though so Adam asked.

“And what is it that we supposedly did?”

“You know already. You’re after the man who saw your boss kill a woman. You’re trying to kill the only witness. He knew it would be one or two hired killers coming after him. He was scared to death and hiding out in that town, and then you two showed up. Well they sent you on your way to protect him, but they all figured you’d be back so we’re going to let you stew here in our jail long enough for him to get safely away. That’s what we do down here. We help each other out.”

“What you’re doing is helping the sadistic killer of women get away.”

“Yeah, he said you’d say that.”

“If you’ll go to our hotel room and look in our saddlebags, you’ll find a letter from the sheriff in Denver. You’ll also find wanted posters for the man you’re protecting and that they’re protecting.”

The sheriff still looked very suspicious and ordered Adam and Josh to sit under guard. He left leaving the two other men to watch Adam and Josh who waited patiently until the sheriff returned. It wasn’t what they expected though.

“I’m starting to want to believe you, but there was nothing like that in your hotel rooms. No wanted posters and no letter.”

“What?” Both Adam and Josh were shocked. Then both were confused, but Adam took the lead.

“Then why are you wanting to believe us?”

“Because I can’t see a reason why you would have dumped your saddlebags on the floor and made a mess of everything. It looks more like somebody searched your stuff.” The sheriff was regarding the two men carefully to see their reactions trying to judge them for sincerity. He liked what he saw.

With a cold feeling, Adam had to ask. “Was there a small stack of letters there?”

“No, just clothes, shaving kits, and such.”

“Damn him. Damn him. It had to be him, and now he has her letters.”

“What are you talking about?”

The sheriff was genuinely mystified then and needed more information, so Adam told him about Meg and the letters she had written to him, about her death, and about their quest to find Gilbert ‘Gillie’ Bosh but how he had outsmarted them at every turn so far. Then he theorized that it was Bosh who had searched their rooms and taken the evidence they needed to explain who they were.

“Well, you tell a great story, but I’ve got no way to check it out.”

Asking for a pencil and paper, Adam sketched a picture. He drew from memory the sketch of Gillie that had been on the wanted posters and in the newspapers before they left Denver. He showed it to the sheriff. “Is this the man who brought you the news from the last town that we were some dangerous men who needed to be locked up?”

“That’s the one. But that still doesn’t prove that you aren’t hired killers after him.”

Frustrated once more, Adam grunted and dropped his head into his hands. He wanted so badly to hit someone. Josh had an idea though and snapped his fingers as he turned to Adam.

“Adam, the newspapers.”

“What?”

“The newspapers we used to pack things on the packhorse. After we used the food, you said to keep the newspapers because we could use them again because a lot of these small towns don’t have newspapers. They’re still in the packs in the livery stable. They might have the story if we didn’t use those for kindling.”

The sheriff signaled Jake to go get them. He returned a short time later with the packs from their packhorse. Adam and Josh opened the packs and began removing items finally pulling out crumpled newspapers and smoothing them out. After about ten minutes, they had the article on a dead man being hanged as well as the story of Gillie being wanted. After a bit more searching, there was the sketch of him included in another article saying that he had eluded authorities and that there was a five thousand dollar reward for his capture dead or alive. The sheriff read it all and leaned back.

“Well, I’ll be damned. This is one hell of a story. He can’t have left town yet. It’s dark. We need to get out there and find that son of a bitch for you. He don’t make a fool of me and get away with it and he shouldn’t get away with what he done to those women either. I hope you don’t mind ifn one of us shoots him down like a dirty mangy dog that he is.”

“As long as he’s stopped, sheriff, I don’t care who stops him.” Adam did wish he could be the one to kill Bosh, but he knew the best answer was the one he had given.

“He is a smart one, though. What do you suppose he’s doing now?”

Looking at Josh, Adam had no idea so he deferred to the more experienced man. “Josh, you’ve had more contact with men like this. What do you think he’s doing?”

“Well, right now, he thinks he’s outsmarted us so I say we ought to play along. He’s going to be wondering about why Jake brought these sacks over here so next he ought to go get our saddlebags and everything else we own. Sorry, Adam, but I think we’re spending the night in jail like he thinks we should. In the morning, he’s probably going to be ready to make a run for it. We need to be ready for that.”

After Jake collected Adam’s and Josh’s belongings from the hotel and checked them out, he brought everything to the jail. They did that it would appear to any observer that the two men had been arrested and their belongings were being kept at the jail. Adam and Josh settled in to sleep then as the sheriff went home. One of the deputies left too, and Jake had the night watch that was his usual duty. He slept on a cot in the office with the door locked. Anyone watching would not have seen anything out of the ordinary. The sheriff was back at dawn which was his usual habit. Again, anyone watching would not have seen anything out of the ordinary.

“I got Tom watching the road out of town to the south. We can see the road north from here. Now what do you think we ought to do?”

Josh answered. “If nothing happens soon, we ought to move through town and try to flush him out.”

The sheriff agreed that was the best idea he had heard so he sent Jake to get breakfast for all of them while he made some coffee. He told Jake to be careful. It was then that Adam and Josh found out that Jake was the sheriff’s son. He addressed him as such when he told him to be alert and careful. While Jake was gone, Adam and Josh cleaned their weapons making sure they were ready for use. The sheriff noted how each man seemed very skilled in handling their weapon.

“You two both bounty hunters?”

Josh explained that he was. Adam said he was the son of a rancher from Nevada.

“You look more like a gunfighter, and you wear your gun like one too. Can you shoot that well?”

“Well enough. I haven’t been killed yet.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking I wouldn’t want to get either one of you mad at me. After breakfast, we’ll go hunting this weasel.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite that way. They finished breakfast, got their weapons ready, and stepped out of the sheriff’s office. Two gunshots later, Josh and the sheriff who had stepped out first were down. Adam and Jake returned fired but had to quickly drag the two wounded men back into the office. It took some time to give them the help they needed. Josh had taken a bullet in his upper thigh that had exited through his lower thigh. He was lucky that it missed the major blood vessels but it had torn through muscle and hit the bone. The sheriff was hit in the chest and wasn’t likely to survive. He was spitting blood out of his mouth as he tried to breathe. Jake held his hand over the wound and looked desperately at Adam and Josh who could offer no encouragement. The sheriff struggled to say a few words before he died holding on to Jake’s arm.

“Son, you … get… that … bastard… that … killed… me.”

The sheriff’s struggles ended then and Jake swore under his breath. Josh looked up at Adam who was tying the bandage around his thigh.

“It’s up to you now. Give him no quarter, Adam. Watch your back. He’s like a rattler now with his fangs out. Shoot first and worry about consequences afterwards. It’s the only way left now.”

“I’ll leave money for you, Josh, but I’ve got to go.”

“I know you do. He’s probably riding for hell and high water now.”

“I’m coming with you.” Jake stood as Adam did.

Tom rushed in then taking in the scene. “What the hell happened?”

Josh told him he would explain but that Adam and Jake needed to get going. “Adam, Jake needs to go, and you’ll need someone watching your back. Get that bastard Bosh before he kills anyone else.”

Tom looked at Jake. “Aren’t you gonna stay and bury your pa?”

Jake had a cold look then. “He’ll want me to find the man who did it more than saying any words over his grave. I’ll say words when I get back and they better be that the bastard that did it is dead. He won’t forgive me if it’s anything less.”

*****

Chapter 13

Leaving the packhorse behind, Adam packed light. He had no illusions about catching Bosh that day. He guessed the man had planned ahead for a pursuit. He took an extra horse with him planning to switch off midday. Those who had seen a rider leaving said he had only had the horse he was riding. That didn’t mean he didn’t have one stashed out there somewhere or that he wouldn’t get another. Adam was taking any chances though. He took one with him and told Jake to do the same, but as they rode out of town, he told Jake to lag behind him.

“He expects me to come after him. He doesn’t know that the sheriff was your father. He’ll think that he’s outrun a posse after a day or two, but he knows I won’t stop. He’ll try to ambush me along the way somewhere. If I don’t manage to get him first, I want you close enough to get there to kill him. You’re the backup plan. Can you do it?”

“So you’re willing to be the bait in the trap?” Adam nodded. “It’s up to you. I only want to get the bastard. If that’s what it takes, I won’t miss.”

“That’s all I can ask. Now let’s ride. We won’t camp together at night, but keep my campsite in view. Try to get a spot higher than me. Watch me. I’ll keep a cold camp. I don’t want to make it too easy for him. If you see anyone approaching, get on down there because there’s going to be some shooting.” Jake agreed. “How far to the next town?”

“Three and a half or four days normally, but hard riding, it could be two and a half days.”

“He’ll want to do something before we get there. Tonight will probably be too soon for him to have a plan so tomorrow or tomorrow night we’ll have to be extra careful. Today and tonight, don’t let down your guard though. He’s unpredictable. All right, let’s ride.”

For the next day and a half, Adam and Jake had no direct contact. Occasionally Jake would ride up to a higher point to be sure that he wasn’t falling too far behind Adam. Adam did the same to try to see if he could spot their quarry up ahead. He had to pause in his pursuit from time to time as well to be sure that there were tracks still going in the direction he expected. Each time they were until late the second day. He wondered about that for a short time until he saw the tracks again of a horse in full gallop heading in the direction he expected. Then he didn’t have time to worry about the anomaly. He kicked his mount into pursuit and thought perhaps that Bosh’s horse was tiring and he had thought to rest him a bit.

If that was the case, they might catch him that night. He was disappointed though because when it became too dark to continue, the tracks he saw looked to be about an hour old as well as he could determine. He had hoped to catch the man that night but would have to settle for the next morning instead. He was very careful with his camp, and decided that he probably shouldn’t sleep because Bosh had to know how close they were and might try to strike. He tied one horse off to one side and the other on the opposite side to give himself some extra warning if someone tried to sneak up on him. Then he rested against a large tree next to a boulder. He piled some loose twigs and brush around the backside of both so that anyone trying to walk there would make noise. When he had done all that he could to protect himself, he took some jerky to eat, kept his blanket and rifle close, and sat down prepared as well as he could be for a long night.

In the morning as soon as there was some light, he rose stiffly and carefully and looked at the light of dawn starting to frame the hills to his west. He assumed Jake was up there. He thought he saw a flash of something and wondered if Jake was already up and moving around. Then he remembered those tracks of the day before heading back before going forward again. He had thought about that anomaly during the night and worried about what it could mean. That movement up there made his gut clench in fear that his worst worry was the one that was true. He grabbed his rifle and ran to where he could see better. Then he ran further and further still as the light grew better. Finally he saw a figure of a man stand and move down the rocks. He took aim with his rifle, and he fired seeing the man pitch forward. He ran back to his camp to saddle a horse and then rode hard to the top of that ridge praying that he had not made a mistake. When he got there, Jake greeted him with rifle in hand.

“I heard the shooting and I saw you running and then riding here, but I ain’t seen nothing else.”

Out of breath with exertion and worry, Adam simply dismounted and pointed to where he had seen the man fall. He led the way up the slope and behind the rocks. When they rounded a large outcropping of rock near where Jake had made camp and just above his camp, they found Bosh with his pistol out and ready to shoot. He was too weak to aim it though so Adam kicked it out of his hand. Bosh’s rifle was lying on the ground. He spat words at Adam with bloody spittle spraying over his shirt as he lay there.

“You bastard, you shot me in the back!”

“I’d do it again.” Adam stood with the sun behind him staring at the man he hated.

“You have to help me. I’m bleeding.”

Pausing before speaking and then stating the facts as if he were talking about a rabid dog found wounded on a road, Adam replied. “We’re two days ride from a town. You’re bleeding inside. You’ll bleed to death either way no matter what I do. If I had been closer when I shot, you would be dead already, but that shot went into your chest and stayed there because I was so far away when I fired. Even a doctor couldn’t save you now.”

“You’re not going even going to try to help me?”

Moving toward him as if he might help him, Adam kept his pistol trained on the man. It was a good thing too as Bosh raised his left hand to fire a small pocket pistol. Adam stomped Bosh’s hand into the dirt and took that weapon away too. Then he rifled through Bosh’s pockets removing everything he found. He didn’t find Meg’s letters but found ladies’ rings, lockets, and cameos as well as several assorted small knives. He pulled Bosh’s boots off to be sure there were no weapons there and found another small pistol and a large knife. Bosh groaned and complained with each thing that Adam did, but Adam never responded. Once he was sure that the man had no more weapons, he handed the weapons he had taken to Jake and put the ladies’ jewelry in his pocket. Adam addressed Jake and ignored Bosh.

“You can have the weapons. Saddle up and go find his camp. Bring everything that’s there here. Then if you would, go to my camp and do the same. I’ll stay here with him.”

“You’re not going to help the bastard, are you?”

“No, but I’m not going to let him alone either. I won’t underestimate him. Until he breathes his last, I’ll watch him.”

“Can I ask you one thing? I been thinking. You took a shot at a man up here. How did you know it wasn’t me?”

“I couldn’t be positive, but I couldn’t take the chance that he was about to shoot you in the head either. I added up the facts as I knew them, and the best bet was that it wasn’t you, so I shot.”

“All right. Later, you can tell me what those facts were cause I don’t know. Not that I’m not grateful that you saved my life. It’s that I’m still trying to learn this game, and what you did is a mystery to me.”

After Jake left and Bosh lay still for a time regaining some of his strength as he fought down the pain and there was no more movement to exacerbate it, he addressed Adam. “You’re the same as me. You’re a selfish bastard too same as me. You’re torturing me for your own pleasure.”

“This isn’t pleasure for me, and I’m not torturing you. I would have killed you with that shot if I could have. Now, I would as soon walk away from here as I would any pile of manure that smells as bad, but I can’t leave you alone.”

“Admit it. You liked roughing me up and knowing it hurt me.”

“I admit only that I didn’t care if it hurt you. I needed to remove any weapons you had, and if that hurt you, it was your own fault not mine.”

“You’re lying. I took your woman from you, and now I took everything else that you value. Your honesty, your morality, and your whole sense of who you are. You can admit it now. You aren’t who you were before you met me. I’m like that. I make people into copies of me. I’ve done it over and over again. You’re the best though. I never did it to an upstanding citizen like you before. You’re my crowning achievement.”

“If you’re trying to get me to shoot you to put you out of your misery, it won’t work. You can’t make me murder you.”

“No, you already did that. You shot me in the back.”

“You were going to shoot Jake. That’s not murder. The law says that self-defense is the defense of self or another against a deadly attack. That’s what I did. Jake’s a deputy sheriff. You killed his father, the sheriff. I don’t think there’s a judge or jury anywhere that would fault me for anything I did. You’re wanted dead-or-alive anyway. It wouldn’t matter how I brought you in.”

“You keep telling yourself that, but I’m gonna haunt your dreams. You’re gonna think about this for a long time, and eventually it’s gonna get to you. You’ll know what you are then. You’ll know you’re a killer too just like me.”

Bosh’s voice was getting weaker. It was clear that the blood loss, the pain, the shock, and the damage to his internal organs were taking a toll. His face was becoming gray letting Adam know the end was near. He waited as Bosh closed his eyes. There was a gurgle and then some slight hisses as it seemed he might be struggling to breathe and failing before there was silence. Adam sat without moving for several minutes until Jake returned. He knew he should have felt something, but instead he felt nothing. He felt numb. He wasn’t happy. He wasn’t anything. It felt about the same as killing a rattler that was about to strike. It had been necessary. It was done. Somehow all the emotions in him were locked down inside somewhere.

“Is he dead?”

“Yes, a few minutes ago. It’s over.”

“Should we bury him?”

“We can pile a few rocks on him. That should be sufficient.”

“He doesn’t deserve that much.”

“No, he doesn’t, but we’ll do it, because it’s the right thing to do. Then we’ll head back.”

So they piled rocks over Bosh where he lay. As they worked, Jake asked Adam how he knew he could shoot that morning.

“Yesterday, I saw where he doubled back at one point and then rode on again. I wondered about it at the time and I thought about it a lot last night. It didn’t make sense to me then, but as I thought about it I knew he rode up that ridge and spotted you riding behind me. Then I saw him walking down toward your camp from those rocks this morning. Most men when they need to do their business don’t walk above their camp. They walk below to keep the smell away. Your horse would have been below your camp too. The only reason to be above your camp was to ambush you. So I figured the man with the rifle had to be Bosh.”

“That could have been me though. I could have gone up there for some reason.”

“If it was you, I would have felt very bad. It was a risk, but I had to take it.”

“I’m glad you did, but I still don’t think I could have done something like that.”

“It’s all in trying to think like the man you’re after. You think like him and then you have a better chance of catching him.”

Nodding but still not fully understanding, Jake worked with Adam to pack up his camp, and then they headed back to his home. When they got there, Adam said that he wanted nothing of Bosh’s letting Jake decide what he wanted to do with all of it. Jake asked what Adam was going to do with the jewelry.

“I’ll turn it over to the sheriff in Denver when I get back there. There are families there who can claim it.”

Adam had already taken Meg’s ring and locket with his picture inside from the collection. He had not found the letters. Apparently Bosh had destroyed those or discarded them so Bosh had stolen another part of Meg from him. There was nothing he could do about that. At least he had been able to read them. He checked in with Josh to see how he was doing. He had a broken leg and couldn’t travel and would have to stay there for weeks probably. Adam told him that he would have the reward left for him in Denver whenever he could get there to claim it. Then he bid his friend and ally goodbye.

“Adam, where you going? You going home?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought you might say that. Don’t let Bosh take that too. Go home. You need to go home. It’s the best place for you now. If I had a home, I’d go there too.”

“Josh, if you’re ever in Virginia City, you better come see me.”

Josh smiled because it was Adam’s answer. He was going home.

The town wasn’t far from the Texas Trail. Adam signed on as an outrider on a passing trail drive when Jake vouched for him. He wouldn’t get paid, but he would get his meals and the safety of the drive and agreed to be an extra gun if they had trouble and would help out as needed. The drive already had all the drovers they needed so he was an extra. He ended up helping as much as any of the drovers because it kept him busy and not thinking. By the end of the drive, the boss said he was willing to give him some money because he had proven himself so useful.

“No, you don’t owe me anything. You kept your end of the bargain. I got to Denver safely and that’s all I needed. Thank you for the offer though. It reminded me that there are honorable men out there yet.”

“Yeah, Jake told me what happened. He told me how you saved his neck and got the man who murdered his father. I figured you for an upright sort when he told me. Good luck to you too. Where you going now?”

“I have to see the sheriff here, and then I’m heading home. I haven’t seen my family in a long time. They’re probably wondering what I’ve been doing.”

“Probably worrying is more like it if you’ve been gone a long time.”

Accepting that as probably true, Adam nodded and turned to walk to the sheriff’s office. He dropped off the jewelry he had taken from Bosh. As the sheriff looked through the pieces, he guessed it would bring answers to the families and friends of the women who had been killed.

“I don’t reckon it will give them any peace of mind knowing what those ladies suffered, but they’ll know the men who did it are all dead now. At least they’ll have that.” Looking at Adam, the sheriff added what he knew to be true. “It’s not much, is it?”

“No, it isn’t. A drop of water in the desert.” With that, Adam left. He didn’t stop to see Martha or Simon because there was no point to it as far as he could see. He sent a telegram to his family, and he rode by the cemetery slowly thinking that there was nothing there for him either. Then he rode out of town deciding that he didn’t want the forced company of a stagecoach preferring the solitude of the road. He planned to ride the horse he had until he could buy another and work his way home that way. It would take longer but he guessed he could switch to a stage in a few days if he wanted to move along faster.

Two days later on the Ponderosa, Hoss was working with his father when they saw Joe riding hell bent for leather across the pasture.

“Darn fool boy. He knows better than to ride like that. I already have one son missing and doing God knows what. He could be hurt or worse. I don’t need to be worrying about the ones right here with me.”

“Pa, I ain’t seen Little Joe so excited about something for a long time. It’s gotta be good news. Maybe it’s about Adam.”

Despite an unwillingness to hope for that, Ben couldn’t help it. He sighed but let a small smile show as he stood by Hoss and waited for Little Joe to arrive. Little Joe started talking before he stopped Cochise and dismounted.

“Pa, Hoss, it’s a wire from Adam. He’s coming home. It says he’s coming home.” He pushed the telegram into his father’s eager hands as Hoss pressed in close. Ben read it and couldn’t stop the smiles.

Mission accomplished. Stop. Coming home. Stop. Adam.

It didn’t say much, but that was Adam’s style. He was coming home. The message had come from Denver so they had a rough idea of when he would arrive. They began making preparations to welcome him home. They knew it would be a somber occasion in some ways because they knew that Meg was dead, but they had no idea of how different Adam would be when they finally saw him again. It wasn’t only that he was thinner as well as trail weary. He had a look about him that said something fundamental inside of him had changed.

*****

Chapter 14

About four days from the Ponderosa, Adam realized he was ill. He was cold when the weather was warm, and at night, he had chills he couldn’t banish. He couldn’t tolerate his own cooking and began to only drink water. He wished he was on a stage at that point but realized that no stage would take him now if they realized he was sick so he pushed into the nearest town and bought a ticket acting as if he was more surly than anything. He sold everything he had except his saddlebags and got on the next stage. The rocking of the stage was hard on his stomach but he managed to fall asleep each time, which meant that he didn’t retch and create a problem.

The first night, he ate some of the beans that were served but in the morning, skipped the breakfast. The second night, he ate nothing, and by the next morning, he could no longer hide that he was ill. The other passengers refused to ride with him in the coach so he was given the option of riding up on top or staying behind. He rode on top. It meant that he couldn’t sleep and by that night, he was sicker than he had been. The next day, he couldn’t travel but he was in Carson City so he could send a wire home telling them where he was. He took a hotel room and collapsed in the bed there. He awoke more than a day later to someone sponging his feverish face. Looking up, he saw his father for the first time in over two months although it seemed like it had been years.

“Son, the doctor thinks it’s mostly exhaustion. He thinks you’ll be fine in a few days. Can I do anything for you?”

“What happened?”

“Apparently you got a room here and passed out. When we got here, we couldn’t wake you and got the doctor. You’ve had a fever, but the worst was that you couldn’t be roused. I’m relieved to finally see you open your eyes and talk.”

“I knew I was sick, but I couldn’t get home. I tried.”

“I know. Do you want something to drink?”

“I do but first I have to do something.” Guessing what that was, Ben helped his son and then suggested he sit in the chair so he could put clean sheets on the bed. Adam was shivering though so he wrapped a blanket around him first and then knocked on the wall.

“We’ve got the room next door.”

Hoss and Joe rushed in a moment later as if they expected bad news but smiled seeing Adam awake and sitting on a chair by the table next to the bed.

“Joe, could you go down and get something light for Adam to eat? They must have fed sick people before and they’ll know what to send up. Don’t bring too much but make sure it’s hot. He’s cold.” Joe left quickly with a smile for his oldest brother as Hoss closed the door. “Hoss, help me get these clean sheets on the bed. I want to get Adam back in here as quickly as we can. He’s cold.”

“I don’t know how he can be cold. Last time I sat with him, I could feel the heat rising off of him.”

“He still has the fever but chills too now.”

“I’m right here.” Adam was a bit irritated at how they were talking about him.

Ben paused and looked back. “I’m sorry. Over the last day, I guess we got in the habit of talking about your care. We’ll talk with you now. Do you want to get back in the bed where it’s warmer?”

“If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to sit up for a while at least until I have something to eat. I feel warm enough now that I have the blanket around me. If I could have something around my feet, I’ll be fine.”

Laying another blanket across Adam’s legs, Ben wrapped it around his feet as well. “Good enough?”

“Thank you.”

Adam wasn’t sure he was going to be able to feed himself. It was taking a lot of effort to sit in the chair, but he hated feeling helpless so he was bound and determined to try. Hoss must have sensed some of the problem because he moved the table so that Adam could lean against it as well as against the back of the chair. Giving Hoss a slight smile as a thank you, he got one in return. Soon, Joe was back with a tray of mashed potatoes with a small amount of gravy, broth, coffee with sugar, and a small biscuit with preserves.

“The cook said she’s got more of any of these that you want. Boy, you should have seen the food that Hop Sing was fixing to serve when you got home. We were going to have a big party.”

“Joseph!”

“Pa, I only wanted him to know we’re happy he’s back home. I’m sorry he’s sick, but that’s no reason to act any different around him. We’re still the same people, aren’t we?”

“Well, of course we’re the same people, but I don’t think we need to tease Adam about food or anything else just yet.”

Yet Ben wasn’t so sure they were all the same people or certainly not as sure as he sounded when he made that pronouncement to his youngest son. Even in the short time that Adam had been awake, he had shown a haunted look in some ways that Ben had never seen in him, a distance or a separation from him that was new. He didn’t realize that Adam was thinking something very similar at that same time. A feeling that he had entered another world with which he was unfamiliar. It seemed strange to be with his father and his brothers. He didn’t understand why, but if he had thought about it more, it might have been because for the first time in a long time, he didn’t have to worry about someone trying to kill him. Adam ate most of the food and drank everything they gave him because he was very thirsty. Then he was tired and wanted to lie down again. Hoss helped him to the bed because when Adam stood, he began to sway. It was Hoss’ turn to sit with him, and Ben and Joe were more relaxed knowing that Adam was recovering. After they left, Hoss had a question.

“You gonna tell us what happened of keep it all bottled up inside.”

“I’m sick and I only woke up about two hours ago to find all of you here.”

“Yeah, and if that was me, I woulda been talking most of the time telling what all went on while I was gone. You never said one word about nothing. All you talked about was the trip from Denver to here. You told us a lot about that. I figured it was so you didn’t have to say nothing about nothing else. So you gonna answer my first question cause I ain’t forgot that I asked it?”

“I’ll talk about it when I’m ready.”

“Uh huh. Well don’t you be waiting too long on that or I’ll be thumping you to talk. Pa’s been worried sick about you, and I saw the look he gave you earlier. He’s starting to worry all over again. You need to get it all thought out so you can talk to him and let him know it’s gonna be all right.”

“What if it isn’t?”

“Then he needs to know that too. It’s the worrying on it that’s the worst for him. He does better with the knowing of things.”

“And you too?”

“Course me too. Now Joe, he’ll think everything’s fine until something happens to show it ain’t. I hope that don’t happen, but ifn it does, I can talk to him, but I need you to talk with Pa so you get yourself better, and then you get to thinking things through and working things out in your head.”

There was nothing left for Adam to say and he was exhausted. He pulled the blanket up to his chin, rolled over, and closed his eyes falling asleep almost immediately. Hoss noted that and realized how weak Adam had to be for that to happen. Usually when Adam was gnawing on a problem, he could lay awake for hours because of it. Hoss guessed that would come later when he was stronger and at home. He was correct. Within a week or so, he and his father noted how late Adam seemed to be staying up and how tired he looked each morning.

“Son, you need to get more sleep or you’re going to get sick again.”

“I’m getting enough sleep. It’s taking some time to get back into the routine. That’s all. I need to get some work done so I can sleep.”

That was a prophetic conversation as Adam began to throw himself into tasks large and small on the Ponderosa. He worked all day nearly every day and found things to keep himself busy even during many evenings and on Saturday afternoon when usually only things that had to be done were on the work schedule. He passed on going to town spending the next month on the ranch seeing only his family and the hands as well as the few who visited the ranch for some business matter or another. There were invitations extended to the members of the family who did go to town but they had to make various excuses as to why Adam would not be able to accept any of those invitations. After a month, even they realized the excuses sounded thin and unbelievable. Joe was the first to confront Adam about it one Saturday afternoon before he went to town and as he anticipated the inevitable questions about his oldest brother who had returned over a month earlier.

“You know, if you wanted to be such a mystery to the people of Virginia City, that’s fine, but I don’t think we should get pulled into your little drama.”

“Then don’t.”

“Oh, and what are we supposed to say when people ask why you don’t go to town or why you won’t accept invitation to parties or dinners?”

“You could tell them the truth that I’m bad company, and they wouldn’t want me there anyway. I’m unpleasant to have around.”

“Oh, damn it, you’re not unpleasant to have around. Why do you say things like that? All you have to do is just talk like normal and do normal things.”

“I guess that’s the problem then.”

“You do it here. Why can’t you do it anywhere else?”

“You think I do it here?”

“Of course. We all talk with you, and work with you. What else would you call it except normal? What I don’t understand is this hiding away from town and having fun. What are you so afraid of?”

Sitting down then on a bench in the stable, Adam stared at the floor for a short time and then stared at Joe until it made him nervous. Finally Adam answered and it wasn’t the answer that either of them expected.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I guess it would be more accurate to say I can’t put it into words.”

“To me, that would be about the same thing. If it’s that much of an unknown, it shouldn’t stop you from going to town with us tonight. Listen, we won’t stay long if you’ll go. We’ll just have a few drinks, have some dinner, maybe see a few friends. How about it? Hoss would really like it if you would.”

Dropping his head and rubbing the back of his neck to buy some time to think, Adam realized he wanted to say yes. He wanted to break out of the doldrums he was in. He wanted to get back into the easy camaraderie with his brothers. If this was what it took to get it started, then he wanted to do it. He felt a little uneasy about it but not too much. He looked up at Joe and nodded. Joe whooped and hollered and did his usual Joe thing when he was happy. Hoss came running in from where he had been working at cleaning up tools they had used that week. Joe told him that Adam was going to town with them. Hoss looked over for confirmation.

“He’s right. I said I’d go.”

Joe repeated himself then. “That’s right, Hoss. I heard him. He said he’d go with us.”

“Well, dadburnit, I’m gonna take a bath then. We’re gonna have a good time tonight. Yessiree, I been waiting for a month now for this so I’m gonna take a bath and wear a clean shirt and everything.”

As Hoss turned to go to the house, Adam called to get his attention.

“What?”

“I’m not taking you dancing.”

“Huh?” Then Hoss got the joke. It was probably the first teasing he could remember from Adam since he’d been home. “Oh, I know that, and I don’t want you to neither. I’ll tell Pa we’re all going to town tonight so he and Hop Sing will be the only ones having dinner here.”

When Hoss told their father, Ben had one caution. “Adam was hurt badly by the events in Denver. We don’t know all that happened there, but I can tell by how he has been since he’s been back that it must have been very hard on him. It’s only now that he’s slowly being more like himself. Don’t push too hard in town and try to make sure that no one else does either because I don’t know how he’s going to react. We haven’t seen him in a situation with anyone other than people he trusts.”

“Don’t worry. Me and Joe will watch out for him.” Hoss was going to turn to go before he turned back to ask one thing. “When do you think he’s gonna tell us what happened after Meg got killed?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. I have a feeling that some important things happened after that, but so far, he doesn’t seem to want to talk about any of it. We’ll have to wait until he’s ready. My thought is that he needs to talk about it, but he doesn’t know how to do it yet.”

“I’ll be ready for him to talk whenever he’s ready to do it.”

“You may be the one he turns to first. He needs a sympathetic ear, and you two have always been close.”

“You got any idea what happened?”

“I don’t know, but the way he’s been wrestling with it, my guess is that he did something that he’s having trouble justifying in his mind as being morally right. Your brother has some very high standards he tries to keep for himself and sometimes that can be a problem when you can’t forgive yourself for not meeting those standards or at least thinking you didn’t.”

“Well, I’m not sure I understood all that, but I do know what you mean about him expecting too much of himself sometimes. But tonight all we have to do is have some fun.”

It would have worked that way too except for Bobby Gene Burgess thinking that Adam bumped into him on purpose in the saloon and spilled his drink. He took offense and shoved Adam back demanding an apology.

“I didn’t bump into you on purpose. In fact, I was walking by you when you stepped back into me, and that’s why you spilled your drink.” Adam turned to walk out of the saloon with Hoss and Joe as he had first intended before Bobby Gene bumped him.

Bobby Gene wasn’t going to let it go. The son of a small rancher, he was feeling that he needed to make more of a name for himself in town and saw any slight as a major provocation. Adam didn’t know that and inadvertently fell into a trap. “So now you’re calling me a liar. Cartwright, you might be as fast with that pistol as people say you are, but nobody pushes me around and then calls me a liar in front of all these people and gets away with it. I’m calling you out right now.”

“I’m not fighting you over a spilled drink and a silly argument.”

“So now you’re calling me silly. You insult me on top of everything else. I said I’m calling you out.” Bobby Gene was quickly losing control of his temper so that even as his friends tried to intervene and get him to back down, he increased the challenge instead. “I’m walking outside. If you’re not there in five minutes to face me, then you’re a yellow chicken-livered coward.”

With that, Bobby Gene strode from the saloon. His friends followed. Everyone else in the saloon turned their attention to Adam. Hoss and Joe wondered what he would do. His manhood had just been challenged but they wondered if he would go out there to fight a young man and probably hurt him badly and possibly mortally wound him. He didn’t. He pulled out a chair and sat down waiting until more than five minutes had passed. Soon Bobby Gene was back in the saloon crowing about how he had made Adam Cartwright back down. Adam stood then and walked out without saying a word. Hoss and Joe followed him not sure what to think and certainly not sure of what to say. It was a quiet ride home and that continued in the stable while they took care of their horses. Once they got to the house, their father asked them how things went. Adam raised both hands in a gesture of seeming not to be too sure of how to answer that as he walked up the stairs to his room. Hoss and Joe waited until they heard his bedroom door close and then explained what had happened to their father who was as perplexed as they were.

The next morning after church services, Bobby’s father approached Adam at church. “You had to back down last night and let my boy win. Now he thinks he’s the next big gunfighter in town.”

“Glen, would you rather I had shot him and maybe killed him. He’s not my job. Maybe you need to have a good talk with him and get his head on straight before he challenges someone more willing to shoot him. Watching out for him isn’t my job. I’m not his father.”

Bobby’s father had no answer to any of that, spun around, and left with his wife and younger children then. Adam walked to Sport and waited for his family never mentioning what was said, but of course his family knew because everyone who had heard was repeating their version of the story. They had heard and come to see what Adam had to say, but he said nothing about it even when their father asked if he had trouble with Glen Burgess. He said it had been nothing. There would have to be another event to trigger more of a reaction from Adam and then perhaps he would open up about what was troubling him although Hoss got something from him later that week after returning from town and hearing stories that were being told. He talked to Adam as both took care of their horses before dinner. After talking about more mundane things, Hoss mentioned that the latest gossip in town was all about Adam.

“Doesn’t it bother you that people in town are wondering if you’ve turned, well, you know, a bit yellow? I know you ain’t, but there’s still all that talk.”

“I know I haven’t. That’s all that matters. I’d be bothered more if they were talking about me as a killer.”

With that, Adam had ended the conversation and headed to the house for dinner. Hoss thought more about it and determined that there was something in that last part that was possibly the key to his brother’s mood. He was determined to figure it out because as much as Adam had needed to recover from his fever, he needed to recover from this fever that was burning inside of him harming him as much or more than that other fever had as far as Hoss was concerned.

*****

Chapter 15

Dreams haunted Adam’s sleep when it came each night. Dark thoughts crept into his mind when he let them during the hours he was awake. He couldn’t seem to find any peaceful time unless he was working so hard that he couldn’t think so that’s what he did as often and as much as he could. On Saturday night, he had been angry at what Bobby Gene had said but had forced himself not to react. If he had been able to remain calmer, he would have tried to talk him out of it and probably succeeded. Unfortunately if he had spoken on Saturday, anything more he said would likely have only made the situation worse because his thoughts had been murderous. He had felt the fury building inside and had used all that he had to keep it under control. He was still furious when he returned home and had gone to his room rather than speak with his father or brothers because he wasn’t sure what he would have said once he started talking. He had barely held that temper in check again on Sunday when Glen had confronted him. He didn’t know where all that anger was being generated, but there was a lot of it. He was ready to explode with it and thought that he needed to get away because he didn’t want someone he loved or liked to be near when he lost control of the fury building inside of him.

Hoss and Ben were aware too of the subtle signs of the tension within Adam. One fear they had was that Little Joe was going to set off an argument that would escalate. They knew he wouldn’t do it on purpose but it was his nature to tease, and he had always enjoyed riling his oldest brother. If he fell into old habits, he was going to do something that could cause irreparable harm. Both knew that warning him wouldn’t work because he was too impetuous and impulsive. If he did something like what they feared, it would be something he would do without thinking it through. The only solution was to keep the two of them separated as much as possible so work assignments were set up that way. Hoss and Adam were working hard clearing out a beaver pond when Hoss’ idea blended with what Adam had been thinking.

“I been thinking.”

“Should we have a celebration, or were you planning on sharing something with me?”

“You watch yourself. There’s a mighty big pond right there behind you, and you could use a thumping right about now and then a nice bath right after.”

Looking behind him and considering his precarious position standing in the middle of a beaver dam as they dismantled it, Adam did decide to be more careful. “All right. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that the line cabin we got down in the southeast there is not so good. We could build a lot nicer one and use the one we got there to stable our horses when we’re there. It’s only got a dirt floor anyway. If we built a nicer one, we could use it for a hunting cabin too when the weather gets nastier in the late fall, and we might even be able to get there in the early spring for an early hunting trip too. Pa wouldn’t want us to build just a hunting cabin, but a nice new line cabin would probably set all right with him.”

“I suppose you think I could design a nice hunting cabin that looked like a line cabin?”

“Well if anybody could, I figured you’d be the one.”

“How many men do you suppose it would take to build something like that?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking that two men working hard for two weeks might be able to manage it.”

“You got two men in mind who could handle that kind of hard work from dawn to dusk and not complain or get on each other’s nerves too much.”

“Well, I figure I could put up with you for two weeks ifn you was to promise not to be too smart alecky the whole time and maybe let me catch fish for breakfast or dinner once in a while.”

“If we’re counting on your fishing abilities, we better have Hop Sing pack a lot of food.”

“See now, that’s the kind of thing that can make two weeks seem a lot longer.”

“Not for me.”

And Hoss used the long sapling that Adam had just handed to him to knock his older brother into the beaver pond. That’s why when Ben rode by later on his way home from town, he found his two older sons, wet, a bit muddy, and smiling as they watched the last of the water drain from the beaver pond freeing the stream to flow naturally again. Hoss looked up as their father rode near.

“Pa, we probably need to set a trap line along here. Near as we can figure, there might be a dozen of these critters here about. They’re gonna dam this up again soon as they can unless we trap ’em out.” Pointing at the bank, Hoss noted that they had shot several of them.

“The rest got away. There was a lot of water. Then of course with Adam splashing around in the pond, it was hard to see ’em.”

“Oh, and why was Adam splashing around in the pond?”

“Well, Pa, he fell in.”

“Oh, he fell in, did he? And how did you get all wet and muddy just like your brother?”

“Well, Pa, I sorta fell in too then.”

“Well, then, you two sorta better get cleaned up too, because it’s nearly dinner time, and I won’t have Hop Sing holding dinner because I have two sons who sorta fell into a beaver pond they were supposed to be draining. I’ll see you at home soon.”

With that said, Ben turned his horse and rode off, but he was smiling as soon as they couldn’t see him and laughing as soon as they couldn’t hear him. The sight had been almost too much for him to keep a serious demeanor. He hadn’t seen Adam looking so relaxed since he had returned home. He had that smirk too as he watched Hoss try to explain away their behavior as if it was normal and ordinary for them to be standing there in the condition they were in. Those were good signs. Working with Hoss was the best medicine for Adam. That night at dinner when Hoss explained about building the new line cabin, Ben was in favor.

“Hey, I want to go too. That sounds like fun.”

“Joseph, I can’t afford to have all three of you gone for two weeks. I need someone here to help me.”

“Well, maybe we ought to choose lots or something. It doesn’t seem fair that Hoss and Adam get to do this and I have to stay here and work.”

“They will be working too. Adam is the designer so he has to be there, and it was Hoss’ idea so it only seems fair that he be the one to work on it too.” Ben hoped that Little Joe would drop the subject there. He could talk to him later and he could certainly offer him some things to compensate him for having to stay behind, but he didn’t want to be too obvious about it.

Luckily Hoss resolved the problem before it could escalate. “Hey, Joe, how about when Adam and me finish up with our part, you and one of your friends spend a week there doing the finishing work. You know, sanding down the rough spots so nobody gets any splinters and making sure there ain’t no leaks in the chinking and in the roof?”

Ben added in a few more things to make sure that there would be at least a week’s worth of work to do. “You could chop some firewood so that the cabin would be stocked for the fall and early spring if needed, and you could make some extra benches too. It seems we never have enough places to sit when we use one of those cabins.”

“Pa, I was thinking. Maybe Adam and Hoss could put a necessary with this one. You know, in cold and snowy weather especially, it would sure be nice to have one of those to use.”

“Well, I don’t think we’ll be there once it’s snowing.”

“Pa, that’s in some prime hunting territory. It would be great to be able to have a nicer cabin to use when we go hunting there. It could be a line cabin and a hunting cabin too.”

Little Joe of course had inadvertently stumbled upon the motive behind Hoss’ plan that Adam supported. Ben turned to his two older sons who suddenly sported the most innocent of looks. Adam was the first to speak because he was afraid of what Hoss might say.

“Little Joe, what a splendid idea. Wherever do you come up with such brilliant ideas?”

The youngest brother was quite proud then and sat up smiling with the unaccustomed praise that Hoss then repeated. Ben could only shake his head. Inside though, he was joyous. It was the first time they had had such a light-hearted conversation since Adam had returned. He could only hope there would be more like this. Adam was healing even if they still didn’t know what the wounds were and what had caused them. That evening, Hoss and Adam went up to Adam’s room to start working on plans for the cabin with Adam doing the work of course but Hoss supplying ideas, some useful and some not. Joe wanted to join them but Ben discouraged that telling Joe that Adam needed the time with Hoss. Joe seemed to understand, but Ben wasn’t sure if he did or not. Once Adam and Hoss headed out on their two weeks, Ben guessed he would find time to try to explain all of it to Joe, what he knew and what he thought was true. Meanwhile Ben had asked Roy if he could discreetly find out a bit more of what had happened in Denver because Adam’s letter had been devoid of details, and they knew almost nothing of what had happened after Meg’s death except that Adam had somehow helped with the hunt for the killers and had sent a message that the mission was accomplished.

A day later, Adam and Hoss set off to work on their project. They headed to Virginia City first to get a load of nails, tarpaper, and other items they were going to need as well as some glass for two windows. Hop Sing had packed crates of food for them and they planned to supplement that with supplies they could pick up in town. Tools they needed were loaded in the back as well as a small canvas tarp for a lean-to shelter and bedrolls if they didn’t want to stay in the old line cabin that had a dirt floor and smelled of mold unless you aired it out. There was grain for the horses too because they were going to need them to haul logs for the cabin. They were looking at a lot of work, and yet both were excited about the endeavor. The last thing that Hoss loaded in the wagon was a pair of his fishing poles with line and hooks. Adam rolled his eyes making both their father and Joe laugh when Hoss complained.

“I can catch fish, and I’ll show you that fact every day if you make fun of me about it.”

“I didn’t say a word.”

“You didn’t have to. Them eyes of yours say way too much sometimes. Now let’s get going. We got to get to town and then out to that spot before it gets dark.”

“Why are you worried about that?”

“There’s no trail from town to that cabin. These horses got to break trail. I don’t want to do it ifn we can’t see where we’re going.”

“We’ll make it in plenty of time. Don’t worry.”

In town, Adam and Hoss went directly to the mercantile to get the things they needed. They were packing the boxes of items in the back of the wagon when Bobby Gene Burgess called Adam’s name. Adam didn’t turn at all ignoring the young man until he heard words he hadn’t thought he would hear in Virginia City.

“So I hear you tracked down Gillie Bosh and shot him. You shot him in the back like a coward would. You couldn’t even face him. You shot him down from ambush like any common lily-livered coward would. No wonder you wouldn’t face me. You don’t want to face a man with a gun. You only want to see his back.”

Adam turned in fury toward Bobby Gene, but Hoss grabbed his arm and whispered to him. “Any reason you had not to kill him the other night is still true, ain’t it. Just cause he got you even madder don’t change that none, does it?”

With his jaw clenched and eyes boring into Bobby Gene, Adam was breathing fast but gradually got control and turned back to the wagon without saying anything to the young man. He grabbed the next crate and shoved it on top of the last one. Bobby Gene kept up his taunts.

“See, everybody, he is scared. He can’t face me. He turned away as soon as he saw a man looking right at him. You read the stories same as me. He’s a backshooter.” Bobby Gene said something to a friend of his who ran off and returned quickly from a nearby restaurant. What they planned was quickly apparent. Bobby Gene called out for Adam to take a look. He couldn’t help himself and looked. Bobby Gene had a target chalked on his back which he now had directed at Adam.

“How’s that? Will you fight me now?”

When Adam turned away furious at the maneuver, Bobby Gene and his friends began laughing. Adam put a hand on his pistol and Hoss put a hand on top of his hand there. “Get in the wagon. We’re leaving.” Looking at first like he was going to argue, Adam conceded when Hoss said the next thing. “I don’t ask many things of you, but I’m asking this. Please get in the wagon so we can leave.” Adam got in the wagon to laughter behind him and lots of curious stares. He and Hoss rode out of town and nearly to the building site in silence.

“I did shoot Gillie Bosh in the back.”

“Then you musta had a good reason.”

Turning to Hoss, Adam had only one thing to say. “How do you know that?”

“Cause I know you, and you wouldna done nothing like that lessen ya had a good reason. It ain’t in ya to murder nobody so you musta had a good reason to do it.”

“He was going to kill a deputy. He had already killed the young man’s father.”

“Then I woulda done the same. It wouldn’t have been easy, but sometimes things like that gotta be done.”

“You would have done the same?”

“Shur. Say somebody was pointing a gun at you or Joe or Pa and was gonna try to kill ya or them. I’d shoot ‘im in the back if it was the only way to stop ‘im. It would be hard to do, but a lot easier than trying to watch one of you die. The way things balance out, that choice is clear. And nobody would blame me for doing it neither. That part of what’s been bothering you so much?”

“Yeah, some of it. We didn’t bury him either. We only piled some rocks on him and left.”

“Is he the one who killed Meg and them other women?” Adam nodded. “Then you did more than he deserved. You coulda left him for the coyotes and such to tear apart. Ya did a decent thing. He wasn’t a decent man at all. You got nothing to be ashamed about in that.”

“I didn’t try to help him either. I let him die.”

“Would he have lived if you helped him?”

“Probably longer but no, he wouldn’t have survived the wound. I put a bullet in his chest, and we were at least two days from any town. When he coughed, blood sprayed from his mouth.”

“Well, you did him a favor then. Poking at it and such would have caused more pain, and he wouldn’t have lived anyway.”

“I did search him and took away his weapons and emptied his pockets. He said I enjoyed the pain that caused him. He said I was torturing him. He said I was just like him.”

“Damn, Adam, when you gonna stop being so hard on yourself when you got nothing to feel guilty about. You ain’t perfect. None of us are. Did you search him to get weapons?” Adam nodded again. “Well of course searching him was gonna hurt him. But he was a damn miserable son of you know what, and if he had to be searched, that was his own dadblamed fault. Now I can say I wouldn’t have felt sorry for him hurting when I was searching him, but that’s a sight different than saying I enjoyed hurting him. Now did you hurt him on purpose or did you just not mind him hurting when you had to search him?” Adam said nothing. “Bout what I thought. So get those dadblamed stupid ideas out of your head. Why would you listen to a man like that anyway. You’re supposed to be so smart. Sometimes I gotta wonder about that when I hear you talk so stupid like. The man liked to make people hurt. He had one last chance to hurt somebody, and you let him. That was stupid.”

“You call me stupid one more time and we’re going to have a problem.”

“Well then, you better start talking a mite smarter then.” Hoss looked at him with his Hoss smirk and Adam had to shake his head and smile. “There, that’s better. Now, what we gonna do about that Bobby Gene Burgess cause he’s starting to irritate me some?”

“I don’t want to shoot him. I’ve had enough of killing and dying. I want some peace and quiet for a while.”

“I wish there was a way to make sure that happened, but you know that’s not likely. Why don’t you tell me about what happened out there in Denver though. Might help you to get it all out.”

“I wonder how Bobby Gene knew about Bosh. I haven’t told anyone here about anything that happened.”

“Nobody? Not even Pa?”

“Nobody.”

“Well, somebody in town knows that story.”

*****

Chapter 16

Several days later, Ben found out too that the story of what had happened in Denver was all over town. Roy met him and apologized. “Ben, I don’t know if my wire to the sheriff in Denver stirred something up, but maybe it did. I asked for him to send me copies of the official reports of what happened. He did, but somehow, newspapers from there started showing up here too with all the stories and people been reading the stories. I know that Adam and Hoss ran into that darn loudmouth Bobby Gene Burgess already the other day when they were in town. I suppose they told you all about that. I heard about it from people but got there too late to stop anything although I gave that Bobby Gene a good talking to and told him to hobble his lip around Adam before he gets what he’s been asking for.”

“Roy, stop. What are you talking about? Adam and Hoss haven’t been home. They headed out to build a new line cabin. They won’t be home for another week and a half at least.”

So Roy had to tell Ben about what had happened when Adam and Hoss were in town and how that ended. Then he told them about what was in the newspapers, which was very similar to what was in the official reports that he had received. He told him the story from the kidnappings and murders of the young women to that of Meg and how Adam had found her but the doctor had been unable to save her. Then how each of the four men involved had been found out and eventually killed. “Now those articles in the newspapers were real well done. They got the story straight, and you know as well as I do that sometimes them newspapermen, well, they like to make a story bigger than it is. But this time it was a big enough story just the way it was, I guess, so they told it right. Problem is that some like Burgess picked up on a few things and they been creating quite an uproar about it all.”

“What things exactly, Roy?”

“Well, I guess the most important thing was that Adam shot that Bosh fellow in the back. Seems he had to in order to stop him from shooting a young deputy. Bosh died. Now Bosh was wanted dead-or-alive anyhow, and seeing as how Adam was saving a deputy’s life and he killed a murderer, nothing was said against it. In fact no one would even have known except Adam reported it himself, but Burgess is shooting his mouth off about it all over town trying to stir up talk about Adam because of it.”

As Ben had listened, he began to understand why Adam had been so unsettled about some of what had happened. He guessed that Adam had been wrestling with the moral and ethical aspects of what he had done. Now to have it used to create entertainment in town was probably infuriating to him. “How did Adam react to what Bobby Gene said to him?”

“Like I said, I wasn’t there, but from all accounts, Hoss, more or less, made him get in the wagon so they could leave town. Form what I heard, some thought Adam was ready to take on Burgess, and we both know what would have happened then. Hoss probably saved the boy’s life if Adam was as angry as folks said he was.”

“Yes, and Adam has enough to deal with now without having the death of that young man on his conscience. I’m glad Hoss was there. Adam won’t be back in town for a while either so perhaps things will calm down.”

“Ben, I just don’t think so. That Burgess is out to make himself bigger at someone else’s expense and he seems to have picked Adam as the one he thinks he can use. It’s a mistake, and I’ve tried to warn him that he’s poking a sleeping mountain lion, but that boy doesn’t listen to anybody. He’s as good as dead if he keeps going this way thinking he’s some kind of fast gun can make a name for himself. Drawing against tin cans on a fence post can make a man feel mighty brave but facing a man who shoots back can change things mighty darn fast.”

“Adam won’t kill him.”

“He may not have a choice. Now Adam’s faster and got the icy feel ya need for a fight like that, but the boy is fast. Adam may not have time to try to talk his way out of it or to shoot him someplace not to kill him. That’s part of why I been talking so hard to that boy to get him to stand down. If there’s a fight, he’s likely gonna be dead.” Roy cared for Adam as much as if he was a son and hated to see the extra torment that the rumors and gossip were creating for him. He couldn’t stop the talk though so all he could do was try to support him and get as much of the truth out as possible. “I don’t know what it is, but he’s a smart one so maybe he can figure something out. He can usually talk his way around anyone, but that Burgess has got a way of getting under anybody’s skin making it hard to want to talk to him.”

“I’ll ride out and talk to Adam to see what he wants to do. There has to be a solution somehow.” Now that Ben had the whole story, he wondered if Adam would be ready to talk to him about what had happened. He guessed that he had already talked to Hoss about some of it, but he wondered how much Hoss knew. By the time Ben rode out there, Hoss knew a great deal. He had learned quite a bit even that morning when he had asked Adam to shoot a deer so they could have some fresh meat. Adam was very reluctant to hunt the deer who were common in the area.

“Aren’t fish enough for you?”

“I’d like some venison too, and that deer has been around every morning. We could have some good fresh meat for a few days and maybe even smoke up some fresh jerky too.”

“Why don’t you shoot it if you want the meat so much?”

Pausing in his work on the cabin, Hoss had stared at Adam long enough to make him self-conscious. He paused too and looked back at Hoss as if to ask him what he wanted. The two stared at each other for a while until Hoss asked what he guessed was the key question.

“Is there a reason why you don’t want to use your rifle maybe because you used a rifle to shoot that Bosh?”

“It’s not the rifle.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t want to shoot anything.”

“Ever?” Hoss sat down then on the half finished wall. “You live out here in the Sierras and you think you can get by without ever shooting ever again? You think that all the way through or just make up your mind to do a fool thing like that without thinking at all. You sound more like our little brother when you talk like that.”

“I know I can’t go forever without shooting. I’m wearing my pistol. I brought the rifle along, didn’t I? It’s just that I saw so much killing, so much death there for a while that I can’t seem to get the stench of it out of my nose.”

Hoss nodded. “Or out of your dreams at night either, huh?” When Adam dropped his head to stare at the ground, Hoss walked over to him. “It’s a natural feeling, I guess. I hear you at night. I know you don’t rest easy most nights. If I went through it, I’d probably feel the same way, but hunting for a meal is a lot different kind of thing. The more you do normal stuff, maybe the more normal you’re going to feel.”

So Adam agreed to hunt the deer, but Hoss went with him. It didn’t take long, and Adam had the deer in his sights allowing old instincts to take over. He got the deer with one shot, and Hoss grinned and slapped him on the back before moving toward the deer to gut him out and carve the deer into quarters. They had a shovel along to bury the entrails, head, and other parts they couldn’t eat. Adam did all right until they carried the meat back to their camp. He set it down on the table from the old cabin and then looked at his blood stained hands. He stared at them and began to shake. He reached down and grabbed handfuls of grass to frantically try to rub the blood away.

Hoss didn’t notice at first as he was busy cutting up meat to cook for their lunch. When he turned to Adam and saw him, pale and shaking trying to get the blood from his hands and forearms, he didn’t know at first what was wrong. He soon did however as the story of how Adam had found Meg and the condition she had been in, the blood on Adam’s hands and then how he had found out that she had been carrying his child and the miscarriage was one of the reasons she died all came out in a torrent of tortured words and tears. When Adam dropped to his knees, exhausted physically and emotionally, Hoss knelt beside him and wrapped his big arms around him knowing that he had found the deep wound his older brother had been carrying inside and suffering in silence.

“I can’t tell Pa. I would have married her, Hoss. I wanted to marry her, and then all this happened, and I lost her and the baby. And then I killed Bosh, but other people got hurt and killed too all because of an evil man.”

“Yeah, that’s what you gotta remember. It was all because of one evil man. It wasn’t because of you or nothing you done.”

“But if I hadn’t…”

“No, don’t you dare even start talking like that. What happened was done by evil men with the devil in their hearts. Nothing you did caused it or was any part of it. You and Meg, well you got dragged in to their evil but it wasn’t because of nothing you did. You remember that. When men do evil things, then they got to take all the blame on their own dang shoulders and face the devil himself for what they done.”

“It’s hard to accept that when you’ve lived through it.”

“Yeah, but you need to accept it. I think you need to talk to Pa about all of this too. You gotta give him the chance to understand things. Don’t sell him short. He’s got an awful big heart when it comes to his sons. He’ll understand. He’s a man too. He’ll know how you felt and why you did what you did.”

“I don’t know when I’ll ever be able to tell him.”

“About five minutes from now would be a time, I think. He’s riding this way from the looks of it, and you’re good, but you’re not good enough to pull yourself together by the time he gets here. He’s gonna take one look at you and know something’s very wrong. Now I could tell him or you could tell him. What’s it gonna be?”

With a deep sigh, Adam stood and looked out over the pasture to where their father was riding toward them. His shaky voice betrayed his indecision and his emotional state. “Maybe we could tell him. I could use your help with this one.”

Wrapping an arm around Adam’s shoulders, Hoss nodded in turn. “You know I will.”

By the end of that afternoon, there were three emotionally exhausted men. It was hard for Adam to say all that he had to say. He wasn’t used to opening up like that, but Hoss prodded him or told what he knew when Adam found it too difficult to continue. Because Ben had heard the story from Roy, he could fill in parts that Hoss didn’t know too and relieved Adam of the burden of telling everything. When it was all said, the three sat quietly for a long time lost in their thoughts. Adam was relieved of a burden but felt a bit guilty about putting that burden now on his father and brother. Ben and Hoss were thinking about all that they had learned and wondering how much it had affected Adam in ways that wouldn’t change. His black shirts for example now made more sense as did the mustard yellow coat he had brought home. They doubted that he would likely change those, but would he change his demeanor and would he be willing to open his heart to another woman were questions that only time would answer. Ben stood after a time as the sun got low in the sky.

“I would rather stay. It seems that I should, but you know your younger brother. He’ll have a posse out looking for me if I don’t ride home soon. Tomorrow, I’d like to come back though and maybe help with the cabin for a bit.”

As Adam nodded in accepting that offer, Hoss was more enthusiastic knowing that having their father there would be good for Adam as well as their father. “We’ll roast up some venison and have a real good time too.”

“I was thinking, Hoss, that I could take most of that venison back with me and have Hop Sing cook it up. I could bring it back here tomorrow ready to eat.”

“That sounds even better, Pa. We’ll roast some over the fire tonight and have some left for breakfast in the morning, but you can take the rest back just like you said.” Hoss went to get the venison to tie on Buck.

Standing and moving close to his father, Adam had a request. “Pa, don’t tell Joe this stuff, please.”

“I won’t tell him any more than what’s known in town already.” Ben knew why Adam had made that request. At some point in the future when Joe was mad, he might say something that he would regret, but that couldn’t be taken back. He had a tendency to do that, but the wounds from this experience were too deep for Adam, and it was better if Joe didn’t know so he couldn’t poke one of them and create a problem between the brothers. This part of Adam’s experience would have to remain among the three of them only.

That evening, Adam talked about the plans for the cabin and the work they needed to do the next day as well as how their father could help especially if he brought a wagon. They needed to collect stones for the chimney and fireplace so they might spend part of the day doing that with the two wagons. He talked about getting the roof in before bad weather threatened and basically avoided any talk about anything personal. Hoss knew he needed to insulate himself for a time and participated in the discussions that Adam initiated. The next day, Ben did the same, and it continued that way for the rest of the time they worked on the cabin with their father showing up on two more days ‘just to help out’ as he put it. Both of them knew he wanted to know how Adam was doing and the only way to accomplish that was to work beside him for a day and see for himself. Each time he was satisfied that Adam was all right and headed home in good spirits. Hearing Adam whistle while he worked or even singing was more than music to his ears. It was balm to his soul and calmed his worries more than any words could have done. Hoss had to smile though knowing how well Adam could put on an act when he wanted to do that. Awakened from a sound sleep most nights, Hoss was well aware that Adam still had trouble sleeping at night as he struggled to come to terms with all that had happened, but it seemed that gradually he was managing to do that.

At the end of two weeks, the cabin was roughed in, had two windows and a door that worked as well as a properly functioning fireplace. Hoss and Adam took a moment to admire their work before they drove the wagon away heading home. The line cabin still needed to be finished inside, furnished, and stocked, but it looked very good and was a sound, sturdy replacement for the one that was there and that could now be turned into a stable and storage as needed. A lot had been accomplished in the two weeks the brothers had been there.

*****

Chapter 17

Over the next two weeks, Adam seemed to be much more like the Adam of old. His brothers relaxed around him when they worked together. Joe was gone for five days as he and a friend went to the line cabin to do the finishing work. Hoss and Adam were there on the Friday that the two of them returned and Joe brought Cochise into the stable.

Looking over at Adam with a twinkle in his eye, Hoss was the first to tease him. “Hey, welcome back Little Joe. You and Matt have some fun after you finished the work on the cabin?”

“Finish? Finish? How could we possibly finish? You two left us at least three weeks of work. Just leveling and sanding that split log floor took most of the week. Then we started on the walls. Why are the walls so high anyway, and why are there porch roofs all the way around when there isn’t a porch all the way around? We ran out of whitewash on just the front side.”

Picking up where Hoss left off, Adam pushed just a little bit more. “So I take it you didn’t finish? Hoss and I were able to build the cabin in just two weeks, but you couldn’t do a little finishing work in a week?”

“It wasn’t a week. Pa only gave us five days. We needed at least as much time as the two of you had. Now are you going to answer my questions or not?”

“Aw, shucks, Adam plans to add a loft at each end for more sleeping room eventually so that’s why the walls are so high.”

“Well, why did you two build a porch roof all the way around when there isn’t a porch all the way around? Is he going to add a porch all the way around too? Seems a waste of wood to have a porch that big on a line cabin or a hunting cabin. It’s not like we’re going to be sitting there relaxing during the day.”

“No, I wanted to give the cabin protection from the rain. We’re whitewashing the walls to protect the logs from insect damage. The old cabin is infested with a lot of insects in the logs. We decided to try to do better with this one. It sits higher on a stone foundation, and with the logs whitewashed, it will discourage the bugs.”

“Oh, I get it then. The rain washes the whitewash away eventually so with the porch roof all around, that protects the walls from the rain and the whitewash lasts longer so no bugs.” Joe looked rather proud of himself for figuring that out before it was spelled out for him, but a little irritated too. “You could have told me that before we went there. We would have known to bring a lot more whitewash with us. Hey, does Pa know you’re building this cabin so fancy?”

“He should. He was there helping me and Adam on about four different days while we was working. He could hardly have missed what it looked like.”

Joe said nothing to that and led Cochise into his stall to begin grooming him and settling him in for the night. Adam frowned and reluctantly pulled a dollar from his pocket to hand to Hoss. Hoss smiled and walked to Adam to pluck the dollar from his older brother’s hand with a flourish when Joe stepped from Cochise’s stall.

“Hey, how come Pa got to come and help you and I didn’t? How come that was a big secret? That’s not fair, you know. I had as much right to be there then as the rest of you.”

Joe watched as Adam’s frown turned into a full grin, and Hoss handed a dollar back to him before digging a dollar out of his pocket and handing it to Adam who smirked and stuffed both into his pocket before strutting from the stable in triumph. Joe watched him go before confronting Hoss.

“Did the two of you just bet on me?”

“Dadburnit, Joe, don’t you go complaining. I’m the one who lost a dollar. One of these days, I’m gonna learn not to bet on you. Everything ain’t always about you.” With that, Hoss stomped out of the stable too.

“Sheesh, what’s got him so mad?” With a backwards glance, Joe returned to the stall and to caring for Cochise who never got mad at him.

When Hoss stomped into the house, Ben asked him what was wrong. Of course Hoss never could lie or keep anything from his father so he admitted that he and Adam had bet on Joe’s reaction to hearing that Ben had helped with building the cabin. Ben gave the appropriate lecture but could tell from Adam’s reaction that he wasn’t accepting it. He frowned but inside, he felt better knowing that this was the kind of behavior he would have seen from his sons before Adam had gone to Denver. There was more of the same. The only time that he was reminded that things were not done yet was when there was a dance or social occasion. Adam never attended with his brothers preferring to avoid situations in which women would be hoping for his attentions. He was still in mourning and not yet ready to move on in that regard.

In town, talk about what had happened had died down because there was nothing new. Bobby Gene Burgess still had a few digs for Adam when he saw him, but they were milder than they had been because the comments weren’t getting what the young man wanted so even he was tiring of the game. However the loudmouth had drawn the interest of a serializing novelist passing through who began a series in the newspaper in San Francisco that got picked up and carried in a number of other papers about the man who had stared down the man who had gunned down Gillie Bosh. All of that led to Roy’s nightmare for Bobby Gene Burgess who was called out by a young gunfighter who came to town to make a name for himself. Ben and his sons had arrived in town shortly before that happened. Glen Burgess stood on the wooden walk by the mercantile begging the people watching to do something before his son was killed. Adam told Hoss and Joe to watch his back and walked into the street toward Bobby Gene who stood scared and shaking facing the first man with a gun he had ever faced in his life.

“Time to go home, Bobby Gene. Your father is scared to death that he’s going to see his first born bleed to death in the street.”

“I can’t back down now. People will call me a coward like they call you.”

“You’re the only one who says that, and it’s because you don’t know any better. Now walk over to your father and go home.”

“No, I can’t. I have to do this.”

Close enough at that point, Adam reached down with the speed of a rattler striking and took Bobby Gene’s pistol from his holster turning and tossing it to Joe who had stepped into the street behind him. Then he grabbed Bobby Gene by the shoulders, spun him around, and propelled him toward Hoss who grabbed him. Before Bobby Gene knew what was happening, he was out of the street and standing by his father who pushed him back away from any potential danger leaving Adam to face the gunfighter. Bobby Gene whined that he wanted his pistol back, but Roy was there by that time and took it.

“I’m taking it as your fine for disturbing the peace. I’ll be holding it in my jail for thirty days. At the end of thirty days, your father can come get it ifn he wants it. Otherwise, it stays in jail, and you ought to thank your lucky stars cause Adam Cartwright just saved your sorry hide. Now shut up.”

In the street, the young gunfighter was assessing the situation and drawing a few conclusions. “You aren’t old enough to be his father, so you must be the man he said he stared down. Those writers can never seem to get it right. So you’re the one, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“You must have been the one who gunned down Gillie Bosh then?”

“I am.”

“He was pretty fast with a gun. He gunned down quite a few.”

“I wouldn’t know. I shot him in the back.”

“You what? Now why would you do that?”

“I had chased him down for killing the woman I wanted to marry. He was going to shoot a deputy sheriff who didn’t even know he was there. I was quite a distance away. I shot him with a rifle. Seemed like the only option at the time.”

“Kill him outright?”

“No, I was too far away.”

“Do anything to help him?”

“Not even a doctor could have saved him. He had a bullet in his chest and was spitting blood when he coughed. He died within about an hour.”

“Not much point in me trying to outdraw you. Wouldn’t prove anything, would it?”

“Wouldn’t prove anything that I can see.”

“You do look like a gunfighter.”

“Wearing black might be so I don’t have to do the wash so often.”

The gunfighter had to smile at that. “That boy owes you a lot. This is a better story than anything that that writer wrote, but it won’t ever get written. The sheriff over there is going to tell me to leave town otherwise I’d say we could have a drink and toast fate.”

“I’ll have a drink and toast it in your honor.”

“You got a funny sense of humor. I appreciate that. I know that boy never stared you down. You got the ice to stand there and jaw with me. He was shaking so bad it was all he could do not to wet himself. All right, I’ll be going. There’s nothing for me here.” With that, the young gunfighter turned cautiously to walk to his horse, mounted up, and rode out of town.

Breathing a sigh of relief about as big as he had ever drawn, Adam waited for his family and Roy to get to him. Glen Burgess was there too. Adam stared at the man as he offered his hand and his gratitude. Refusing to shake his hand, he had some harsh words for him instead.

“If I see that boy of yours in town in the next month or if he says anything to me in the next six months, I am going to take him over my knee in the middle of town where everyone can watch and give him the tanning he so rightly deserves and has needed for a very long time. Go home, Glen, and be sure to tell him that.”

Next up was Roy. “Adam, I wanted to step in and stop that fight, but I was afraid to distract you in case that man decided to draw. I know how a second can make all the difference. You handled that better than anyone else could have.”

“Thanks, Roy. I did what I had to do.”

“I know. You always do.” Roy left then to put Bobby Gene’s pistol in the safe in his office.

“Son, that was one of the bravest things I have ever seen a man do, and if you ever do that in front of me again, I may take you over my knee and give you a tanning.” All Ben got was an arched eyebrow and a quirked lip. He chuckled as Hoss broke into laughter and Little Joe giggled. He knew what a sight that must conjure up in people’s minds. “I know it’s silly, but you scared me so much when you walked out here and took that fool boy’s place. I thought you were going to fight. I’m so glad you were able to talk it out. Now I could use a drink. I bet you could too. I’m buying.”

As it turned out, Ben didn’t have to buy. The first drink was on the house, and then friends offered to buy the next round. They could have had more but still had errands to run and supplies to get. As they walked through town, Adam got a lot of positive reinforcement although quite a bit were slaps on the shoulder or back from men he saw and admiring glances from women.

Life was getting back to normal for all of them. A few months later, Hoss and Joe listened outside the house as Adam and Ben had what had been a familiar occurrence around the Ponderosa before Adam’s sojourn to Denver. They were arguing and this time it was about windmills. Hoss and Joe winced a few times as their father denigrated not only Adam’s ideas about using windmills but also his education.

“Did Pa just call Adam a crackpot?”

“I don’t know but it kinda sounded like he mighta?”

“One thing’s for sure. That’s the old Adam in there. He’s standing toe-to-toe with Pa giving him what for. I wish we could hear better.”

“Me too. I wish we could be in there watchin’ too. I bet Pa’s all red in the face.”

“Adam too. It’s probably pretty funny to watch.”

“Things are getting back to normal. Now if Adam could only find a gal to start romancing, everything would be fine.”

“Maybe on this trip. Who knows. He might find someone.”

“Yeah, he’s lucky like that sometimes. Hey, here he comes. Let’s find out what happened.”

***The End***

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