Ghost at Devil’s Gate (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Conspiracy traps Adam when he is in Europe, but its tendrils have an impact on his family too.  It is a painful journey to repair the damage.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  15,526


Chapter 1

“Pa, we need the money, and we haven’t heard from Adam in a long time.”

“I think Joe’s right, Pa. Ifn Adam was here, he’d take the money out of them investments and such and help us out. I know he would.”

*****

So, it had gone the way the younger sons hoped. When Adam Cartwright finally was able to return to New York, he attempted to draw on his accounts only to find they no longer existed. He was destitute and unable to even send a telegram requesting assistance not that he expected help at that point. Cynical by nature, his experiences had made him suspicious and wary. He took any job he could get to survive at first and gradually to accumulate enough money to gamble. An honest player, he looked for games that weren’t rigged and by superior skill, won far more often than he lost moving on before he got a reputation that could cause him trouble. He was a ghost, but that was nothing new to him. Abandoned by the government which had employed him but left him too at the mercies of the enemy, they assumed he had been killed. Now he supposed his family had given up on him as well. He planned to check that out as soon as he could. First though, he had some unfinished business.

Arvid Kitchens had recruited Adam to serve in a secret capacity with the foreign service. While Adam appeared to be an innocent traveler to Britain, France, and Italy, he was collecting information for the government and acting as a courier as well. Because of his age, background, and education, he could move in social circles that most Americans could not approach. It made him invaluable, and as it turned out, vulnerable too. His travels created a pattern that was noticed. Had he left after a year or two, he could have had a stellar record and returned home safely with a wealth of knowledge of Europe.

But Arvid liked all the status he achieved with the information Adam was able to glean for him. Although there were warning signs such as men apparently trailing Adam, Arvid never let Adam know about those reports nor did he take any precautions for Adam’s safety. Adam only found out those things when he got out of prison and tracked down the charges d’affaires to find out why no American had ever come to help him. He had terrified the man letting him know he had killed to get out of that prison.

It was an alteration of the facts because he had killed the guard who had let him out but only after that man had tried to double cross him. However, his version worked to loosen the man’s tongue, and the man told Adam everything he knew.

“No one came to help you because negotiations were underway to normalize relations again after all the damage from Slidell and the sale of the ironclads to the Confederacy. Now that the War is over, normal relations is the quickest way to get the cotton our textile mills need. Helping you would admit we were spying on them. It would have impeded the talks.”

“So, my service meant nothing. I was a sacrifice and nothing more at that point.”

Though the man had nothing more to say, it was enough reinforcing the suspicions Adam had nurtured those long months he had suffered in that prison. Twenty months had seemed more like twenty years, and Adam had done things to get out that he thought he could never be forced to do. But he had willingly done them when it became clear that no one was coming to his rescue, and his future was firmly in his own hands. He made a deal with a guard to do a number of things in exchange for help escaping the prison. When the guard had tried to renege on the deal, all the fury of that humiliation and frustration of his impotence had exploded. He had hit the man so hard he had been immobilized long enough for Adam to disarm him. However, the man cried out for help. Adam hit him again knocking him into a metal door where he laid crumpled and still. Adam checked him and found that he was dead. He took the man’s shirt and jacket, and with his pistol, stole away into the night.

As soon as he could, he stole more clothing. Eventually, he stole some money from a shop and was able to get a shave and a bath. With a mix of stolen clothing and clean-shaven, he looked nothing like an escaped prisoner. Once he accosted the charges d’affaires though, the authorities had a better description of him. He knew he needed to leave the country as soon as possible. Before leaving the charges d’affaires’ home, Adam took a number of items such as a valise, a shaving kit, and other small items a traveling man was likely to have. He guessed they would be looking for him at the harbors so he traveled to the Netherlands and booked passage there. With only enough money at that point to get to England, he was forced to sign on as a working passenger for the trip to America. He knew some things about sailing a ship which got him out of some of the more menial tasks at times, but overall, he did backbreaking labor and gut-souring clean-up tasks.

By the time he got to New York, his hands were calloused and his skin was tanned. He looked nothing like the urbane traveler nor like an escaped prisoner. Using an assumed name had not been a problem. No one questioned it. He was Abel Comstock as far as anyone knew. Once in New York, he dropped that name and became Adam Black. He had planned on using his given name until he found his bank and investment accounts had been liquidated. The only ones who could have done that were his family. He had suspicions about why that had happened because of the less than pleasant way he had parted from his family. It had started reasonably well when he relocated to San Francisco and continued to handle some of the ranch business there. His father and Joe tolerated his choice and Hoss was supportive. However, when he announced his intention to travel to Europe and pursue other ventures, things had gotten contentious.

“Pa, I’ve talked about traveling to Europe for years.”

“Yes, people talk about foolish things all the time. It doesn’t mean they will do them.”

“Foolish? To have a dream is foolish? What about your dream? Did you think that was foolish too?”

“I had a goal in mind. I wasn’t going off to wander to satisfy my curiosity.”

“So now there’s something wrong with wanting to learn, to expand my knowledge? When did you become so opposed to education?”

“When I saw how much it interfered with your common sense.”

“There’s no talking to you when you’re like this.”

“I could say the same, and it happens all too often. We’ve had things working so well, and you continually want to shake things up. Why? Can’t you stand seeing the rest of us be happy? Must you make all of us moody and brooding like you? You could smile more often. You could try to be a positive influence in the family.”

“Maybe I could if I was treated as a more positive influence in the family. You could trust me.”

“I trust you. I have given you responsibility.”

“No, you have given me jobs to do, but it is always ‘your ranch’ and as for trust, what happens when there’s a problem? Where was the trust when I said it was Bill Enders who killed Toby? When I said Ruth Halverson saved me? In situations like that, you are always more than ready to question my word.”

“In those kinds of circumstances, I would have questioned anybody.”

“And that’s the key issue. I’m not anybody. At least, I shouldn’t be. Yet, that’s how I get treated. So when I’m gone, you should have no trouble finding someone to do the work I’ve done.”

“That’s not true.”

“I wish I believed it was.”

It left them at an uneasy impasse. His discussion with Joe went no better. He was accused of being selfish and they couldn’t resolve their differences either. Hoss was more hurt than anything worrying that he would never see his brother again and wondering why it had to happen. Adam got only a grudging blessing from him but knew Hoss’ heart wasn’t in it. He only did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. When he left, only Hoss smiled. He had sent letters but received none. With mail delivery the way it was and with him traveling, he could hardly have expected any, but it still hurt that they made no real effort to get in touch with him. He knew that with the friends they had, there were options that his father never used.

Before he left, he had given his father power of attorney over his accounts in case anything had to be done. Liquidating those accounts was an entirely unanticipated development. He had spent many years building up a sizeable investment portfolio and had thought it would finance many years of travel and perhaps a business enterprise. Now none of that was possible, and he wanted to know why. First though, he was going to visit Arvid Kitchens.

With the delay in booking passage home, it seemed the news of his escape had gotten to Kitchens. Either that or there were others who wanted to get some justified retribution on Arvid Kitchens. There were several men positioned around his house, he traveled with two men to his office, and of course there was security around his offices. There were flaws in his plan however which Adam observed immediately. Planning ahead, he shaved and prepared for his getaway. Then he waited to spring his trap on Arvid.

That night, Arvid Kitchens turned down the lamp in his bedroom and slid into the soft silk sheets on his bed. He felt safe and secure in his home with four men watching outside. After enjoying a delicious dinner, he had indulged in a glass of wine and did some reading. It was difficult to concentrate though for the same reason he was fidgety almost every evening. He wondered where Cartwright was. Any man who would endure those months in prison, get out and kill a guard, and manage to escape France undetected was far more formidable than Arvid had ever imagined. Hence, all the guards he had employed. He assumed not even Adam Cartwright could outfight or overcome four skilled men. Closing his eyes, he was about to drift off to sleep when he was rudely prevented from doing that by a cold blade pressed against his neck even as a hand closed across his mouth.

“Not a sound or you will never make another,”

Quickly, he was gagged and rolled onto his stomach. His hands were bound behind his back and his ankles were bound together too. In a most uncomfortable and humiliating move, his bound ankles and wrists were tied together. Then he was rolled onto his side and the knife was back at his throat.

“I’m going to pull the gag now. You’re going to answer my questions. If you yell or do anything else, you will end up like that French prison guard. I’ll be out that window and gone before those men get up here to see what’s wrong. Oh, they might be a bit slow getting up here. I drugged the water they drink. It’s a flaw in your security like not guarding your home when you’re not here. It was a long wait, but I’ve been in your house waiting for your return. Now, who was responsible for me ending up in that prison?”

“Responsible? What do you mean by responsible? The French government put you there. They’re responsible. You know what they’re like. Look what they did in Mexico, and then they pulled their troops out and let their own man at the mercy of the people there. What concern would they have for an American spy?”

“Not them. What concern would you and the American government have for a man who risked everything for them and his country? Why didn’t I receive even one visitor? I had no representation? I was due to be sent to one of their prison colonies. I likely would not have lived through that.” Even with the dim light in the room, he saw the look Arvid had. “And that was what you wanted. All evidence I had would be buried with me. I couldn’t incriminate you. You were the one. You were the one responsible. I thought you worked for others and were only carrying out orders, but it was you. Don’t even think to deny it. The answer you gave and the look you have is all I need to have.” Adam paused because the next part almost hurt to bring up in conversation. “Why isolate me though? Why not let my friends know? They could have helped get me out of there. You could have contacted my family. Bribes are notorious for getting things done like that.”

“It would have ruined the network. If all those people found out we were using their parties and picnics as ways to get information from diplomats and government officials, they would have frozen us out.”

“So after everything I did, I was still only a pawn.” The dark look Adam had would have frightened any man.

“What are you going to do?”

“I suppose I could kill you. If I did, I wouldn’t have to worry about you any more.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I won’t do anything to you.”

“What about the French? They want me, don’t they?”

Arvid couldn’t deny it because he knew Adam would know he was lying.

“You can’t defend me against them without incriminating yourself. Well, you’re not going to have a choice in that.”

“You can’t force me to admit to anything,”

“Maybe I can’t, but there are those who can. I sent the entire story of my exploits and who directed me to do them to Harper’s Weekly and a few other publications. By tomorrow or the next day at the latest, you should have reporters questioning you about the veracity of the account.”

“Oh no, you didn’t! But that will compromise our whole operation in Europe and put lives at risk!”

“You should have considered that before you left me to rot in that prison. Except you did, didn’t you, and you were going to let the French take care of me and get rid of the one who could tell all those tales. You knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t tell them anything no matter what they threatened or did to me.”

Arvid was quiet. He thought about screaming but by Adam’s look, he guessed that might be the one thing that would get him killed. He was fairly certain Adam wouldn’t kill him, but wasn’t willing to push him too hard. Worse, he didn’t know what Adam was going to do or if he had actually sent that news off to Harper’s and elsewhere. In a strained voice, he asked the only question that mattered to him.

“So, what are you going to do to me?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“I’m going to gag you again and leave.”

As Adam talked, he pulled the gag back into place. Then he walked to the window and looked out to see about the guards. None were in view. Carefully, he pushed the window up and climbed over the sill and dropped out of sight. Pausing down below, the only thing he heard was the pounding of his heart. Willing himself to be calm, he stood and walked around the house looking in the kitchen where he saw the guards all slumped over. Relieved that his plan had worked, he walked down the street as if he had been a visitor and now his business was concluded. It was a long walk to where he could get some transportation, and he changed rides twice, but there was no pursuit. He was in the clear.

Though Arvid strained to hear after Adam left, there was nothing even though he had hoped to hear gunfire or at least the sounds of pursuit. He laid in that uncomfortable position until late morning and had a great deal of time to think and plan. Freed when one of his guards woke up and came to his room and found him, he knew there was no point in sending anyone to look for Adam. Arvid knew he was long gone. Instead, he was frantic to find out if Adam had done what he said. It didn’t take long to find out as there were telegrams that day requesting appointments for interviews. He went home and took out his favorite dueling pistol. There was going to be no warrant for Adam which could lead to a public trial and too much publicity for what had happened, but Arvid was not going to endure any humiliation due to articles in periodicals either. As he ended his life, he regretted very much underestimating the man he had once thought of as a friend but had used to advance his own career. He figured he owed him this much at least.

In a cheap hotel in town, Adam grew out his beard so he could assume a look that no one would recognize. He got the paper every day, and with some sadness but mostly with relief, he read of Arvid’s death from ‘natural causes’ in a short notice. It had cost Adam the price of three telegrams, but he had left it up to Arvid’s guilt to do the rest. Although he had some hope that Arvid would do the right thing and tell the truth, he knew that was like drawing to an inside straight. The odds were slim. Arvid wasn’t strong enough to face the truth. Not as smart or clever as he imagined himself to be, Arvid had not known Adam well enough either to realize he would never have wanted his story written in national publications. Now the French might still be a problem if Adam stayed in the east or ever wanted to travel, but he hoped they would not make an issue if he disappeared into the western part of the country which he planned to do. They had no direct evidence against him and only had the theory that he had killed the guard. He had escaped prison though which might be enough even though he had never been formally charged and never had a trial.

There was one thing he had told Arvid that was true: he had written the story of everything that had happened to him and now that Arvid had essentially verified all that the charge d’affaires had told Adam, he was ready to send in the report. Contrary to what he had told Arvid though, he wasn’t sending it to any periodical, but rather he was sending it to the Department of Foreign Affairs. The true story would be known and he hoped that perhaps they would be willing to help extricate him from the problems with the French. He would be gone though. He had business in the west too and was anxious to find out answers to his questions there. Someday he might find out if he was still a wanted man.

*****

Chapter 2

With few resources, Adam had to take a number of jobs to earn money. With many skills in a country still recovering from the War in many places, he found employment wasn’t a problem. Traveling through Tennessee and Kentucky, he worked on horse ranches and earned enough to have his own horse and bought nicer clothing. With numerous offers to stay, he left quite a few disappointed owners behind as he made his way westward. Though some of the offers were tempting, he had a single-minded determination to reach Virginia City to find out what had happened with his family. What the experiences did do was to restore some of his confidence that he had options for his future especially with the money he was able to earn and the opportunities he was offered. That confidence was further strengthened when he reached the Mississippi and wanted to arrange travel further west without spending what money he had accumulated. He saw a sign advertising the need for scouts and headed to the office listed on the sign. The man there looked him up and down and was ready to refuse him on that alone.

“I’ve been gone for a few years but I lived in Nevada for over twenty years and traveled extensively in that time.”

Wondering if Adam could be telling him the truth, the man pursed his lips. “All right. I’ll take you out to meet the wagon master and his crew. It’ll be up to him.”

The man walked out the door assuming Adam would follow. Walking around the building, he headed toward a grove of trees where he could see some tents and wagons. Once they got there, several men looked up from where they sat on a variety of stools and benches. Addressing a tall man with a gray beard, the man hooked a thumb toward Adam.

“Says he’s capable of doing a scout’s job. Up to you. We haven’t had anyone else.”

The wagon master looked at him with disdain. ” Can you even shoot?”

“I can shoot.”

Looking at the other men, the wagon master told them to get a rifle from a wagon and to set up a target fifty yards away. Adam looked at him and couldn’t help himself.

“Why so close?”

“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

Although Adam hadn’t brought a firearm with him, he had been practicing for months preparing for travel west. Yes, he was sure of himself. When they brought a rifle, he knew he was in for a challenge though. The rifle had clearly seen better days. He held it and moved it back and forth.

“Something wrong?”

The wagon master smirked as the other men smiled in anticipation. Adam guessed he would have to see where the first shot went and adjust from that. He did. The first shot went low and left by about six inches to guffaws from the assembled men. The next three shots hit their targets and were greeted by near silence.

“Sorry about the first one, but you knew that was going to happen when you gave me this rifle. It needs repair or you need to replace it. A life could depend on it and it shoots low and to the left by a half foot.”

With a scowl to match his words, Adam let them know not to mess with him again. Their smiles faded. If they wanted to hire him, they were going to have to change their attitudes. He turned to walk away.

“Hey, where you going?”

“In fact, that is none of your business.”

“You got quite an attitude on you, mister.”

“You wanted a scout to go out on his own to find out if you were in danger, to find water when you needed it, and hunt for food to keep you well fed but you wanted a meek and mild man?”

“I need a man who can take orders.”

“I can take orders from a man I respect.”

There was enough information for Adam to know he couldn’t work for this man. He continued on his way knowing he would have to find another way to travel west. He took a room and went out to have dinner. When he returned to his room, there was a man there waiting for him.

“Are you Adam Black?”

“I am. Who’s asking?”

“I work for Aaron McCullough. He’s wagon master for a small train and wonders if you have time to come talk with him about a job. We heard what happened today with Vern, and Aaron thinks you sound like the kind of man we need.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

“You stood up to Vern. Anyone who does that probably has the backbone to do the job of scout. Heard you shoot pretty damn well too, sir.”

The direct manner of the man, his bearing, and the formal address led to the obvious question. “Were you a soldier?”

“Yes, sir, I am. I’m planning to end up in California to seek my fortune. I’m working as a cook on this train. II did some of that in the Army so I can manage.”

It seemed the man was honest. Following his instincts, Adam agreed to go with him, but he kept the man ahead of him and watched for any sign of foul play. He wouldn’t put it past ‘Vern’ to do something underhanded. “All right, I’ll go with you.” The young man noticed Adam’s precautions.

“It’s probably a good idea to be careful here. Making Vern mad probably wasn’t a good idea, but it made a lot of people chuckle to hear you did it. He needs to be taken down a notch or two.”

“Had that feeling too.” Then Adam had a suspicion. “Did your boss want to see me tonight because he suspected Vern and his men would do something when it got dark?”

“He didn’t tell me that, but I guess that’s probably the case. It’s what I thought too.”

“By the way, what’s your name?”

“David McCullough. Aaron is my uncle. He’s taken a few trains west, but this is my first trip. He says the toughest thing is finding cooks, ramrods, and scouts. They get west and most often stay there. He heads back here to organize another train although that won’t be for long. The railroad is almost finished. Most will be using that way. Some already go as far as they can and then head out by wagon train. Hard that way though as the supplies and wagons cost a lot more if you get them that far west. Faster though.”

As the young man carried the burden of conversation, Adam watched and saw two men following them. As they neared the encampment where he assumed Aaron McCullough was, the two melted into the shadows probably assuming they had not been seen. Aaron greeted Adam warmly and offered him a seat and coffee.

“I heard what you did. Pretty impressive. I may as well get to the point. I need a scout. I’ll take you at your word. Can you do the job?”

“I can.”

“I can’t pay as much as Vern would. I get a fee per wagon and this is a smaller train.”

“I have to ask why because it would seem a much better idea to sign on with you than with him.”

“I only take folks who agree to abide by my rules including how to load their wagons. My rules are set by experience of how folks survive. I want to end up in California with all these wagons I leave here with. I don’t care about more money. Vern takes a smaller fee per wagon and don’t have the rules I do. He makes a lot more money up front.”

“But the people on that train are more likely to perish.”

“Yes.”

“They don’t realize that until too late.”

“That’s about it.”

“I’m not too concerned about my salary. I’ll go with you.”

“Kinda figured you would. Shake?”

Extending his hand, Aaron let him know they had a deal. Then he made another offer.

“You can stay here tonight if you want. Might be safer.”

“I know, but first I want to greet the two men who followed me here and send a message back to Vern.”

“That’s a risky path to take. He may want to call you out for that.”

“Maybe, but perhaps someone needs to take him down a notch.”

“I hope you can handle what you think you can because it’s awful hard to find a scout.”

In his dark clothing, it didn’t take long for Adam to disappear from sight. He blended into the shadows well. The two men waiting for him expected him to walk back up the street not approach them from the shadows. The first either of them knew he was there was the blow one received on his right hand and the other felt a gun barrel at his throat. Groaning, the injured man turned to look at him even as he barked an order.

“Don’t try it. This one will take any bullet you fire, and you’ll take mine.”

“I can’t even draw my gun, you bastard. I think you broke my hand.”

“You were planning to do that or worse to me. Now go back to your boss and tell him to leave me along. I don’t like anyone trying to play games with me.”

“You’ll be sorry you did this.”

That was from the man he was holding at gunpoint. Adam took his arm and wrenched it behind his back until the man grunted in pain. He disarmed him and shoved him away. The two left then swearing at Adam and clearly wishing they could do something about what had happened. Adam decided on a quick trip to his room heading in the front door of the hotel and leaving by the back carefully watching the shadows. There was no attack. The men had not gotten back to Vern in time for him to plan and execute an attack. Back at Aaron’s camp, Adam apologized for being late.

“I had to get my things. I didn’t think they would be safe.”

“How many did he send?”

“Only two.”

“Underestimated you again.”

Grinning then, Adam asked for a place to sleep where he didn’t have to watch his back. He slept near Aaron and David and the ramrod for the wagon train, Max. They had a dog too who didn’t seem to have a proper name but was called ‘Dog’ and answered to that. After being introduced to Dog, Adam was assured by Aaron that no stranger could approach without Dog letting them know.

“There’s a bit of stew left from dinner. Why don’t you spoon it into a plate and let Dog have it?”

Knowing why Aaron wanted him to do that, Adam complied. That night, Dog slept by his side undoubtedly wondering if there was more food he could get. But it meant that Adam was safer. In the morning, Adam was up before dawn and gone from the camp. When Vern came to call him out, Aaron had to honestly tell him that Adam wasn’t there. There were words back and forth before Vern was about to leave. That’s when Adam walked out into the open.

“So you finally got enough courage to face me.”

With all the shouting between Aaron and Vern, a crowd had been growing. It suited Adam’s purposes.

“I didn’t need any courage. I had a couple of things to take care of.”

“You attacked my men last night. You need to pay for that.”

“You sent them to ambush me.”

“You can’t prove that.”

“I don’t have to prove it. Your words confirmed it for everyone.”

“Nothing changes the fact that you attacked two of my men and hurt them.”

“I hurt their gun arms or hands, nothing more. That was self-defense. I did the same to the two you brought along this morning to make sure you could win a fight with me.”

In a panic, Vern looked around and didn’t see his men. Adam smirked rather broadly waiting for what the man would say next. He didn’t say anything. He drew. Not quite ready for that, Adam was hard pressed to draw and fire in time but did. However, he didn’t have time to aim well and killed the man instead of wounding him. Standing quietly when it was over, he shook his head. Aaron came up beside him.

“I get the feeling you didn’t mean to kill him.”

“No, I hoped he’d back down. I didn’t think he’d try that stunt. I had to shoot too fast so I couldn’t aim as well as I’d wanted. I could only shoot for the middle. I suppose that makes things a bit rough for that wagon train.”

“I’ll suggest Max to them. Most of those people are headed to Oregon. Those that are going on the California Trail can switch to my train under my conditions. Max will make sure that the others learn how to travel properly. He’s run trains to Oregon before.”

“You don’t have a ramrod then.”

“With David along, I don’t really need another. He can do that job. Cook was to give him something to do and draw pay.”

The police officers arrived then and took a report of what had happened. Aaron noticed how guarded Adam became and how clipped he was when explaining what had happened. Luckily there were numerous witnesses so no one wondered at his reticence in answering questions. When the officers left, Aaron had one more question.

“You’re not wanted, are you? I can’t afford to hire a scout and lose him before the trip is done.”

“I’m not wanted in this country.”

The two trains ended up traveling in tandem though miles apart so that both had adequate grazing land. About a third of the way on their journey, they were met by an Army patrol with some good and bad news. Adam told the lieutenant to just tell them what they faced.

“Yes, sir, there’s serious Indian trouble where you’re headed. The Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche have banded together, and we’re hard-pressed to stand against them. Luckily there are treaty negotiations with the Sioux or we might have to close the territory against travel.”

Aaron interjected himself at that point. “We’re not turning back.”

“I never meant to tell you that you should only that you need to stick close together and be on the lookout. My company will escort you until you are out of the territory deemed to be part of the area in dispute.”

So, the soldiers from the Army patrol were their companions on the wagon train for a week. Eventually Adam relaxed in their presence, but again Aaron noticed how much he was uncomfortable around men with government authority. When the soldiers finally rode off, Aaron noted that Adam looked relieved. Adam noticed his scrutiny.

“I prefer doing things on my own and not relying on others.”

Although Aaron didn’t disagree, he guessed there was more to it than that. The rest of the trip was without incident even if Adam seemed to get worried or at least distracted when they crossed some of Nevada before crossing into California. At that point, he bid the wagon train farewell. Aaron paid him his wages and wished him well offering to have him stay with the train until they reached their destination.

“You don’t need my help now. There aren’t any dangers ahead. Any issues you have will be things a wagon master will handle. Good luck. It’s been enjoyable working with you.”

“Good luck to you to Adam, whoever you really are. I hope you manage to find what you’re looking for and avoid those who are looking for you.”

Taken by surprise, Adam regained his composure and nodded. “Thank you.” He didn’t deny either assertion. There was no point to it because Aaron was a smart man but also a loyal friend. Adam had nothing to fear from him. He waved goodbye and he turned to ride east as Aaron had suspected he would and he expected that someone in Nevada was going to be getting a visit they didn’t expect. He hoped Adam wouldn’t get himself in too much trouble with whatever he had planned.

*****

Chapter 3

In Virginia City, an emissary from the Foreign Affairs Department had arrived and asked to meet with Ben Cartwright. His message was that the meeting was to be confidential and had to do with Adam. The second part was all he needed to say to get Ben to agree to meet with him, but Ben insisted that his two older sons, Hoss and Joe be allowed to attend the meeting. The official agreed if they also would accept full confidentiality. They did.

“All right, what can you tell us about Adam? We haven’t heard from him in well over two years.”

“It’s a long story. Please let me tell the whole tale please. About three years ago when your son arrived in Europe, he began working as an agent of the one of our men in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He believed he was working in an official capacity. His expenses were paid and he made reports on a regular basis. However, the man who recruited him, Arvid Kitchens, did so on his own and used him as his personal spy.”

“What? Adam was spying? But he could have been killed?”

“The type of activity he was doing was not the kind that was likely to result in that. He went to parties and such and got to know important people passing on information they were careless enough to mention when they should not have been talking. Many people who work for the government have that unfortunate tendency. They want to impress others with what they know. Arvid impressed his superiors with the quality of the information he gleaned from reports and agents without anyone realizing what he was doing. He was using Adam to advance his own career. Apparently when Adam fell under suspicion, Arvid did nothing to protect him or even warn him.”

“He used him with no regard for his safety. I thought they were friends.”

“Your son must have thought so too. He was arrested and imprisoned. Arvid told no one. It would have been an embarrassment to our government in the midst of sensitive negotiations. What Arvid had done would have ended his career in government and any chance of achieving a powerful position either appointed or elected.”

“So, my son had no one to help him?”

“I’m sorry, but that appears to be the case. No one knew what had happened to him. At some point, using his own resources, he escaped. The prison system there is notoriously corrupt. He most likely found a way to take advantage of that. However, a guard was killed. He is suspected in that killing. Most likely the guard tried to double cross him.”

“So, is he wanted for murder?”

“No, he is not wanted for anything. Let me explain. Your son managed somehow to get back to America. Our investigation isn’t certain but we suspect he worked his way back on a merchant ship because he showed up in New York City on the same day a ship from the Netherlands arrived. We do know he appeared at a bank in the city that day and was told he had no account.”

At that point, Ben dropped back in his chair realizing the position he had put his son in. “Oh, no.”

“We believe he made a visit to Mister Kitchens. He probably told him he was going to tell the whole truth. Arvid killed himself. Yes, we are sure he did it himself. We do not know where Adam is now. We negotiated a deal with the French. It is a prisoner exchange of sorts. We released a prisoner to them, and they ‘released’ Adam to us to do with as we wish. We wish he would come forward and accept our sincere apologies and payment for his service. He will get a full salary and reimbursement for expenses.”

“And what do you want in return?” Ben was cynical about this. He knew they wouldn’t have sent someone this far for only this explanation to the family.

“Only his promise to keep this quiet. We want to bury this whole sordid episode. He has acted honorably in this matter so we have no doubt he would be willing to agree to such terms.”

“Why here?” Hoss said it but his father and brother wondered the same.

“We don’t know where he is, but the little we do know indicates he was headed west. The logical place for him to go was here. The last place we believe he visited before we lost him was St. Joseph where he shot a man to death in a duel. Apparently, his action was seen as extreme but was applauded. Then he left with a wagon train. At least we believe it was him. He’s like a ghost. He’s here and there and then he’s not.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well we thought he was on that wagon train.”

“He wasn’t?”

“The people on the wagon train got to California and claim he never was. They never saw anybody at all like him.”

“Did you have the right wagon train?”

“We thought so. There was another one that went to Oregon. It’s possible he was with them, but the information we had was that he was with the one that went to California. So, we have no idea where he is. We thought maybe he was here.”

“Dadburnit, why don’t you ask them other folks ifn he was with them?”

“By the time we knew we needed to do that, the wagons had all dispersed. We have no idea where they have all gone and couldn’t locate the wagon master.”

“He’s not here.” Ben was adamant.

“Pa, maybe he is. How do we know what he looks like now according to this fellow?”

“Hoss is right, Pa. He could be out there in town right now wondering what we’re doing.”

“You boys are right. We should go talk to Roy. He’s good at seeing through disguises and knowing people by the smallest of clues. Maybe he can find him if he’s here.”

Looking back at the representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ben decided on civility.

“We’ll keep our promise of confidentiality, but that’s it. We’re going to be confiding in people that Adam may be back but that he’s had a hard time. So, we’ll tell them he may not be himself in behavior or dress and they should be understanding. Good enough?”

“I think that will work quite well, Mister Cartwright. Thank you.”

They walked out of the Cattleman’s Association building together. They had met in the conference room as there was no one there that day. Down the street only a short distance, louging on a bench, Adam saw them and guessed where the man in the eastern suit might be from and why he was there. His thought was that the French were more insistent than he had concluded or that the government here suspected his involvement in the death of Arvid Kitchens. When his father and brothers shook hands with the man, it only made him feel worse. There was a comment about finding the ‘ghost’ and they all nodded and agreed apparently to that common purpose. To Adam who had spent a week in town gathering information, it was a chilling thought and added to the burden of the unpleasant insights he had already gotten about his family. Instead of feeling relieved in familiar surroundings, he had felt all the more alone and isolated. In the Bucket of Blood, one man had told him about the Cartwrights but others had echoed the same thoughts.

“Sure, there’s the two older sons, Hoss and Joe, but there’s a young one too, Jamie. Old Ben adopted him a year or so ago. He’s a pistol, he is. Real smart. Hoss and Joe pretty much run the ranch, but they got a right smart foreman too named Candy. They like him so much he lives right there in the house with them. It’s like he’s part of the family.”

“Isn’t there an older son?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. At least not as far as I know. I only been here a few years, but I never heard ’em talk about another son. If there is, where is he? I mean, why would a son leave all this?”

“Of course. Why would anyone leave all of that.”

After learning what the situation was, all that Adam wanted was to leave again. It seemed his family had wiped him out of existence. The government man was right. He was nothing more than a ghost here and not much of one of those. When he had been arrested in France, he had been angry and frightened not knowing what the future would bring or if he even had a future. His frustration and anger grew when he realized he had been abandoned. A sense of righteous indignation was strong and drove his determination to get some justice. He had gotten that. Then he had thought to appease the ache in his heart and soul by finding out what had happened with his family. A strange wish was that something bad had happened to explain why they needed to take such a drastic measure against him and then he had the opposite desire and hoped they were unharmed. What he was unprepared to face was that everything appeared to be so normal except he had been wiped out of the picture entirely. According to people with whom he had become acquainted and conversed, his family members never even mentioned him much less talked about him. When he saw them come out of the meeting with the government representative, he felt empty and lost. He had heard the man refer to him as a ghost, and he felt like one devoid of emotion and without family or country it seemed to him.

His only desire was to get away, but he didn’t dare leave too soon. They might be looking for that because it was clear they suspected he was in the area or would be soon. Instead, he guessed two days might be a good interval to wait. There was a task to be done in those forty-eight hours anyway because he needed some money if he wanted to travel any distance. He had been playing some poker to make money but only taking small amounts from each game so as not to attract too much attention. If he was leaving in two days, he needed more money, and he actually didn’t care too much if there was more attention. He needed to win quite a bit more money and he didn’t need to sleep much as he could do plenty of that when he rode out of town. Trying to keep his walk to an easy saunter, he headed to the saloon to get in a game and start making the money he needed.

While Adam was planning his exit, Ben and his sons were talking with Sheriff Roy Coffee trying to explain why they needed his help without violating their promise to keep the story confidential. It was difficult because Roy was naturally a very curious man who wanted all the details. He kept pressing especially when he knew they were holding back.

“Roy, we can’t tell you any more. You’ll have to trust us on this. What you need to know is that Adam was wronged, and he has reason to believe that we may not be on his side.”

“Ben, that’s crazy. Adam would know to come here if he was in trouble. He would know his family and his friends would help him.”

“I’m afraid we haven’t always been there like we should have been in the past, and with things that have happened, his faith in others has been shaken. Most likely he will come here incognito and try to judge for himself the lay of the land. We need your help to find him.”

“Is he here now?”

“He may be. We don’t know. According to the information we got, he may have been with a wagon train that arrived in California, but he was not with them when they got to their destination.”

“So, he left early and could be here now.”

“It’s possible, but we don’t know what he looks like or what he’s wearing.”

“You think he’s got a beard or mustache then?”

“It’s likely. You know how easily he can grow one. His hair could be a bit gray too by now if he takes after me or his grandfather. We simply don’t know.”

I’ll start making the rounds checking to see who’s new in town who fits that description. You know you could do the same. Except you think he’ll leave if he sees you coming, don’t you?”

“He may do the same with you, Roy. He knows you well enough too.”

“I’ll send a couple of the boys out to do the first look in the saloons and restaurants today. I’ll go take a look for anyone likely they see.”

“All right. We have a plan.”

They did, but Adam had anticipated something like that happening. He had taken special care with his appearance and was in a backroom poker game. The room had an exit to an alley as well for players to go out and take care of business at a necessary there. He had identified all of Roy’s deputies too or thought he had.

For most of two days, no one had anything to report back to Roy. Then Deputy Clem Foster’s nephew, who was working part-time as a deputy, worked a shift. He came back with information that was the first clue they had.

“There’s a man could be the one you’re looking for playing poker in the back room at the Dancing Lady. He’s been in town about a week or two according to the bartender and playing poker there the last two days.”

In the Dancing Lady, one of the saloon girls walked into the back room and leaned on Adam’s shoulder. “You said ten dollars for news of any deputy who came in and paid attention to you?”

Without betraying any emotion, Adam picked up a twenty-dollar coin and handed it to her. She grinned. “Who?”

Leaning down, she whispered in his ear. “Deputy Clem’s nephew was just in here and then he asked the bartender about you. By now, I’m guessing he’s telling Sheriff Roy and his uncle what he found out.”

Handing her another gold coin, Adam asked her to go back to work and forget they talked. He folded his hand and forfeited the money in the pot which was substantial.

“Sorry, gentlemen, but I have to go. Something important has come up and can’t wait. It’s been a pleasure.”

He’d been playing for most of two days so they could hardly complain that they hadn’t had a chance to win back their losses. Grudgingly they said goodbye as he headed out the back door and down the alley into the back door of the livery stable. His horse was there and soon was saddled and ready to go. When he saw Roy and Clem walk in the front door and another deputy head to the alley, he led his horse into the street and rode south out of town. The men at the table told Roy all they knew which wasn’t much. They walked into the alley and saw the back door of the livery stable.

“Roy, I’m guessing there’s not much point in looking in there.”

“No, probably not. Let’s get a description of him anyway. You ask inside here, and I’ll ask at the livery stable.”

That afternoon, Roy rode out to the Ponderosa with the news. Adam had been in Virginia City. He was healthy. He had money. He was gone.

“Why didn’t you go after him?”

“Ben, you know why.”

They all knew why. There was no way to know which direction he had gone, and Adam had skills that would prevent anyone from following him if he didn’t want to be followed. If there was going to be contact, it was going to be Adam’s idea or luck.

*****

Chapter 4

Riding away from the only hometown he had ever known, Adam was thinking philosophically. He knew there were those who said no man was an island. Everyone was connected to everyone else. They clearly weren’t thinking of hermits or mountain men who spent their lives mostly alone and self-sufficient. It was how he began to think of himself, alone and untethered to anyone, place, or thing. In many ways, he situation was worse than that of an island for he felt adrift without purpose or direction. He had no plan. He had money, but at that moment, no thought on how to spend it.

Men following him though had thoughts on how to relieve him of that money. They had been in the saloon while he was winning and word drifted out with saloon girls who brought drinks in to those who were playing. The tall quiet bearded stranger was winning a lot of money even if he won only small amounts at a time. The total was becoming impressive enough to catch the attention of a number of men in the Dancing Lady Saloon. Two of them were heading to Arizona and heard the talk. In town to get supplies for their trip, they decided to follow Adam when he left and try to find a place to relieve him of those winnings. When he headed out of town alone, they were quite pleased because nothing could have fit their ideas better.

“I know this route. Let’s ride ahead and get him at Devil’s Gate. You on one side and me on the other so he won’t stand a chance.”

“What’s Devil’s Gate?”

“Road narrows down between high rocks on both sides. Perfect place to drygulch somebody.”

“What if he ain’t going that way?”

“Listen. There’s only a couple of ranches and such out this way. If he’s headed toward one of them, we’re not gonna get him anyway. If he ain’t, then he’s headed toward Devil’s Gate. Now, let’s ride. We need to push to get there ahead of him.”

The two men managed to get to Devil’s Gate ahead of Adam, but they were inexperienced robbers and made two key mistakes. One was that they kept their horses too close. Adam’s horse sensed the presence of other horses and reacted alerting Adam to something being wrong in the situation. He began looking carefully at the terrain, and that was when the second mistake was clear. The two men didn’t cover the metal portions of their rifles or keep them low and out of the sun. As a result, the sunlight occasionally reflected off the shiny metal of the breech of their rifles. Those told Adam how many he faced and where they were.

Rather casually, Adam made sure his rifle was free to slide out and reached back into his saddlebag to get his box of ammunition and slide it into his jacket pocket. It was only then that he felt ready and rode toward where the two men waited to ambush him. It was only later that he realized he had never considered turning around and riding away from them. It as strange but returning to Virginia City and what faced him there seemed more distasteful than facing two men who wanted to kill him for the money he carried.

When he thought they might be ready to shoot, he turned his horse into the scrub brush, dismounted taking his rifle with him, and dropped low into cover. It wasn’t the best position, but he hoped the surprise of it might help. It did as one of the men stood trying to see where he had gone. Adam’s shot meant he fell never to stand again. A flurry of shots hit near Adam telling him two things. One was that the other robber was a poor shot, and he had to reload. Adam sprinted closer betting the man couldn’t hit a running target unless he was lucky, and he prayed he wouldn’t be lucky. Panicked, the other robber turned and ran toward his horse. He might have survived the encounter except for turning to fire back at Adam who returned fire much more accurately. The second man joined the first on the road to hell.

Disturbed by all the shooting, men who had been waiting on the other end of Devil’s Gate to waylay travelers or the stage, whoever came first, came to investigate the commotion. Suddenly Adam was in a fight with three other men who were better shots than the first two. His only advantage was that they never expected a robbery target to shoot back. He had killed one and wounded another before they realized how serious the situation was. A fierce battle raged between Adam and those two men before it was decided hours later. Although Adam was wounded in an arm and a leg, the wounds weren’t serious. He knew he could clean them up and bandage them himself. When he found the outlaw who was still alive, they both knew nothing could be done about his wound. It was in his belly and high up enough that it had probably hit his liver. The dark blood seeping from the wound supported that idea.

“Why? Why was it so important to you to kill us?”

“I guess the same reason it was so important to you to try to kill me for my money.”

“Huh?”

“It’s who I am. You picked the wrong man on the wrong day.”

“So you’re having a bad day, mister. Let me tell you, it isn’t nearly as bad as mine. Now, why don’t you finish the job. Have a little mercy and put a bullet in my head. You know it’s gonna take a long time to die with this bullet in my gut.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then leave me a pistol and I’ll do it.”

Handing a pistol to the man, Adam suspected what he would do. He did. He raised the pistol and aimed it at Adam who shot him in the head. After that, Adam went looking for his horse and found that it had bolted. In fact, it seemed all the horses had bolted with no one to hold them during the hours of shooting.

“Damn!”

Guessing that the second group of men had camped in that area, Adam went looking for their camp. He found it relatively quickly and they had clearly been there since at least the previous day. Their bedrolls were still there as was their sack of food with fry pan and utensils. There were a couple of canteens and saddlebags. Opening the saddlebags, he found ammunition and spare clothing. He used some of the spare clothing to bandage his arm and his leg after washing the wounds with the water from the canteens.

There was no time to rest because those bodies were going to draw too much interest so he went back to bury them. He stripped each body of weapons and ammunition. Using what he could find, he scraped out a shallow depression for each one and then coved the bodies with the dirt he had scraped out before piling rocks on top of that. It was nearly dark before he finished. Lugging all the weapons and ammunition, he made it back to the camp, made a fire, and then collapsed on a bedroll using a second one to cover himself.

The next morning, the stage arrived in Virginia City and the driver as well as the passengers had a tale to tell. They were hours late but had a good reason for a change.

“I slowed the stage at Devil’s Gate like we always do. We like to be prepared for any trouble that might be there. Didn’t see no sign of anything so I drove on through until we saw them.”

“Robbers? Outlaws?”

“No, graves.”

“Graves?”

“Yeah, there were five of ’em. Strung out along the road with a stick at the end of each one holding up an empty gunbelt.”

“Who did it?”

“Don’t know, but we found the horses we have tied on back a bit further down the road. Must have been quite a fight.”

“You have five riding horses and a packhorse.”

“Yeah. Don’t know what happened to the men who musta buried those men. Took us a while to round up them horses. Had to go slower with them all back there.”

“The missing men musta kilt them others.”

“Awful lot for one man to do.”

By then, Sheriff Roy Coffee was there to hear the whole story. He and his deputies took the horses to the livery stable to see if the owner there could identify any of them. He did.

“That bay belongs to the tall quiet stranger with a beard you been asking about. He left with him yesterday. The other two with saddles belong to two men who told me they was heading toward Arizona. They left right after the tall man left. I figure that pack-horse there must be theirs. Don’t know the other ones.”

As far as Roy was concerned, that news was bad. He took the saddlebags from the bay and looked through them. What he found confirmed to him that it had been Adam in town. He brought that horse and the saddlebags with their contents out to the Ponderosa.

In his camp, Adam awoke to footsteps near him. He whirled with the pistol in his hand to defend himself only to find a horse in camp. One of the horses had returned. He shied away from Adam’s sudden movement but didn’t run. Lowering his arm, Adam began to talk softly to the horse thanking him for coming back and praising his loyalty and courage. By the time he stood and walked toward the horse, it seemed willing to let him and only backed up a few steps before stopping. The first thing he needed to do was take care of the animal so he got the pot from the cooking sack and filled it with water. The horse lapped that up. Then he pulled the saddle from the animal and began brushing down his coat with a brush that was in a saddlebag. The horse stood patiently for that and even looked back a few times when Adam paused as if to encourage him to keep going.

“I know, boy. I know. You like it, but I have to tell you I’m tired. I think I may have a bit of a fever too so you’re going to have to be patient with me. I only have one good arm too.”

Adam could swear the animal bobbed his head to agree. It felt good to have company even if it was a horse. At least the horse seemed to like him, and it gave him purpose to have to take care of him.

“This isn’t the best place to camp. How about I pack up and we move to a nice spot with some nice green grass for you and maybe some shade and water. I’ll get some sleep and you can eat, and we’ll both feel a lot better.”

Using mostly one arm and limping badly, it took more than two hours to pack up and saddle the horse again. Then it was a walk to a new spot only a mile away in a grove of trees. He had to cross some rocky terrain but found grass and water on the other side of the lava rock. Adam was grateful to find a nice spot so close. If he didn’t start feeling better soon, he knew he would have to head down the road to Silver City.

On the Ponderosa, Ben and Hoss looked through the saddlebags Roy brought to them. Like Roy, they believed they belonged to Adam. There were letters there from the family and journals Adam had written. Roy told them what the stage driver had said as well as what the liveryman had told him about Adam and his horse. Ben sank down on his red chair and stared at papers in his hand. Hoss didn’t know what to say. His own heart was breaking and he had no idea what words to use to try to comfort his father or if words like that even existed. Joe had walked out soon after they had examined some of what was in the saddlebags and Roy had told them of the graves at Devil’s Gate. Now he returned.

“You ready to go, Pa?”

“Go?” Ben looked confused.

Hoss looked at Joe and understood. “Pa, we’re going to Devil’s Gate.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a wagon hitched up and I saddled Cochise. I figured you and Hoss could ride in the wagon. Roy, you coming with us?”

“I will, Joe. We’ll identify who’s in those graves.”

As they walked toward the door, Hop Sing walked out of the kitchen with a sack of food and supplies they would need. Hoss took those and thanked the cook. Joe had put shovels and canvas in the back of the wagon as well as bedrolls. It was unlikely they would be back before nightfall. He had put in lanterns too knowing none of them would be satisfied with waiting until the next day to dig up those five bodies. No matter how late they had to go, they would finish that part of their task before they went to sleep that night. Although they expected the worst news, until they were sure, they were going to hold out hope. They needed to know.

It was a hard ride for all of them. At the end of it, it was hard work moving rocks and digging at the dirt until they uncovered all five bodies. Ben was again overcome with emotion, but this time, it was relief. When all five bodies were removed from their shallow graves and cleaned up a bit, it was a great relief to see Adam was not among the dead.

“Roy, those were his saddlebags, but he’s not here.”

“Ben, he must have been at least partly responsible then for killing these men. Maybe they tried to ambush him and maybe another.”

“Who?”

“I’ve got no answers. I never heard that he was with anyone else.”

“Hoss, can you track him?”

“Pa, these rocks hereabout, I couldn’t track no one, and if he took the road, there aren’t any tracks.”

“We’ll have to go to Silver City. It’s where he must have gone.”

“Without a horse?”

“He could be wounded.” Joe added what they were all probably thinking. He saw their looks. “We have to think about it. He couldn’t have been in a fight like this and walked away without a scratch. We should look around.”

“Ben, your boy is right about all of that, but it’s too dark already. Let’s get these bodies in the wagon and try to get some sleep.”

“Roy, me and Joe kin get these bodies in the wagon. You and Pa kin set up a camp and get out some food for us. After this, we’re gonna need it. Then we kin git some sleep and take a look when it gets light enough.”

Though no longer frozen with grief, Ben still accepted Hoss’ leadership following his instructions. Roy noted that. As Ben headed to a spot they picked to set up camp, Roy talked softly to the brothers telling them he would watch out for their father. They were all worried about the strain he was under and what it was doing to him.

In the morning, Hoss and Joe were able to track the different men who had been involved in the fight that led to the five men being killed. They found a blood trail and then another one. Both converged but only one left. They found enough too to know he had a horse.

“I just can’t believe one man killed all five of those others on his own without any help. It’s amazing.”

“From the look of what happened, he didn’t fight them all at once. Most likely he surprised some of them too.”

The next part, Hoss and Joe didn’t want to say but had to divulge it. “Looks like he got hit too and probably more than once. There’s blood so it’s more than a scratch, but he kept moving around pretty good so not too bad either.”

Although Ben wanted to push on to Silver City, Hoss convinced him to send Joe. Roy had to get the bodies back to Virginia City, and no one knew Adam had gone to Silver City. In town, people were fascinated with the additional details about what had happened. Ben and the others left out the information that Adam was the likely shooter. With no one named, people came up with their own name. The story that began circulating about the ghost of Devil’s Gate and how outlaws better watch out as there was a vengeful and powerful spirit there now.

When Joe returned from Silver City, the news wasn’t good. No one fitting Adam’s description had recently been there. Joe had left a note and money for Adam with the sheriff, and left the promise of a reward too for the first person to alert them that he was there. After describing Adam so they could put out a drawing of him, Joe had headed for home not knowing that his innocent act could have unintended consequences.

*****

Devil’s Gate is located about 3 1/2 miles south of Virginia City on the road to Silver City; it is carved from lava rock; in the mid to late 1800s, highwaymen frequently used the natural narrowing of the road as a place to ambush travelers.

*****

Chapter 5

The morning when Joe was headed back to Virginia City, Adam decided he needed help. His fever was rising. He loaded up what he could and headed toward Silver City worried that he might not have the strength to get there. About halfway there, he saw a farmhouse and rode in that direction hoping to get some assistance. Met by a man wielding a shotgun, he stopped.

“Git on along with ya. We don’t need no trouble here.”

“I mean you no trouble. I need help. I’ve been shot.”

“I told you we don’t need no trouble here. Helping outlaws is nothing we have truck with.”

“I’m not an outlaw.”

As Adam leaned forward in the saddle not sure if he could stay there, a woman’s voice sounded from the house.

“Oh, Walt, he isn’t strong enough to hurt a fly. Look at him. Take his pistol if you have to, and then you help him get in here.”

Although Adam didn’t like being disarmed, he needed help enough to allow it. Leaning on Walt, he managed to stagger into the house where he was helped to a cot. Two children looked on as the woman began tearing up some rags to use. Then she got a bowl of water and removed the bandages he had put on the wounds he had.

“Oh, they’re going to need to be drained. I’ll clean them up and they’ll drain all right, I think, but it’s going to hurt you terribly. Are you ready for this?”

What she had already done was painful, and he could only imagine the pain to come but said he was ready. He put a piece of leather in his mouth and told the two children to leave the house. Then she got to work on him. He was sweat soaked and exhausted by the time she finished. She only put a loose dressing over each wound telling him they needed to drain until the next day at least and that he had to lay still.

“Walt, it might be best if he sees a doctor.”

“Sophie, we can’t afford that.”

“I have money.” Adam decided to trust Sophie even if he had his doubts about Walt. He pulled his money belt from under his shirt. “I can pay you and pay for the doctor. Please.”

“See, Walt, a man has his own money isn’t an outlaw. He has no need to steal anything from anyone.”

“All right. I’ll ride to town to see if the doc is there. With the weather that there is, I might not be back until tomorrow.”

Hardly aware of anything after that except being awakened to eat some dinner, Adam slept until the next morning when he was awakened by Walt ushering his wife and children from the house. Adam worried about the reason for that and looked for his pistol and then walked to the door to overhear the loud whispers outside the door.

“Sophie, he’s wanted. I saw the poster up in Silver Hill. I did stop at the doc’s but I was worried about a man who had two gunshots so, this morning, I rode on over to the sheriff’s office, and there was a poster with his picture on it hanging right there. I hightailed it back here right off.”

Getting his boots on, Adam got his hat and coat as well. He still didn’t feel well but was better than when he had arrived. He was worried now about that wanted poster not wanting to believe it and incredulous that the French would have gone so far to look for him. Stepping through the door to the porch, he surprised Walt and Sophie. In a voice that wasn’t to be opposed, he demanded they bring him his horse.

“I left money inside. Thank you for your help, but I have to leave now.”

Sophie huddled with the children as Walt brought his horse. Although Adam rode out at a fast pace, it only lasted until they couldn’t see him. The bone jarring ride sent excruciating pain up his leg. He knew that would exhaust him faster than anything. No one would know what direction he was going. His pace was almost a walk for the rest of the day. He stopped a few times to water his horse and let him graze. As the end of day neared, he looked for a place to spend the night although he knew it might be for several days by the way he felt. The next morning, he decided he had to go further, but it took a long time simply to saddle his horse. As he rode, he wondered if he even had the strength to make it to the next town and knew he should have asked to buy some food from Walt and Sophie. If there was pursuit, he wouldn’t be able to outrun them or even hide well. Late in the day, he thought he heard something, but before he could do anything, he felt hands. Except instead of pulling him from his horse, they seemed to be helping him stay there.

“Adam, don’t you worry. We got you now.”

“Son, take it easy. Let Hoss have the reins. We’ll get to that clearing and help you,”

For a moment, he thought he might be hallucinating, but it was too real. His father and brothers were there as well as the red-headed kid. They helped him from his horse and laid out a bedroll so he could rest. The next hours were a blur as his wounds were cleaned again and bandaged. Broth was offered as well as some biscuits that must have come from Hop Sing’s kitchen. He didn’t understand what was happening, but was too weak to ask any questions. He simply accepted the help and then slept not knowing his family had so many questions too but knew too that he was too weak to talk. When he woke, it was dark, but his father was at his side and awake. Ben noticed his son stirring.

“Do you want some water?”

After getting a canteen, Ben slid an arm under Adam to help him to sit so he could drink.

“Do you want some broth?”

“I’d like some of those biscuits if there are any left.”

“Yes, there are some.”

It was quiet as Adam ate the biscuits. Hoss and Joe were both awake waiting to hear how things went in the discussion, and neither wanted to interfere. They had agreed while on the ride to find Adam that it might be best if only one talked at first because they thought there must be some misconceptions that needed to be addressed if Adam had hidden his presence from them and left before they could find him. The use of his funds and investments in Virginia City to save the Ponderosa were clearly a problem, but they knew there must be more. It could be easier to talk about those things one-on-one.

“Adam, why didn’t you come home when you got here?”

“I was going to visit and ask some questions, but it didn’t seem that there was any reason to do so. Based on what I heard in town, I wasn’t part of the family any more.”

“Of course, you are part of the family. You’re my son. I don’t know what you heard, but nothing can change that.”

“You tell people you have three sons but my name isn’t mentioned. You have a new son to take my place.”

Ben was shaken to hear Adam say those things. “Jamie never took your place. He needed a home, and I adopted him.”

“Then why don’t you ever tell people you have another son?”

If Hoss and Joe could see each other in the dark, they would see the same expression reflected. For a couple of years, they had discussed this same issue. At times, they would mention their older brother, and their father no longer took part in the discussion. They waited to hear his answer to Adam’s direct question.

Knowing he was going to have to make some admissions didn’t make it any easier for Ben. He spoke very softly. “It hurt too much. I didn’t want you to go, and every day you were gone, I worried about what had happened to you. Every time your name came up, I revisited the pain of your departure. I found it to be too difficult. I’ve had too many losses. It was too much.”

That was something Adam could accept even if it was still painful to know he had been ignored for so long despite his father’s reasons for it. Then it was Adam’s turn to be quiet as he had to decide how much to explain of what had happened to him. After some thought, he decided to lay it all out for his father and his brothers whom he thought must be listening by now.

“I went to prison in France for twenty months.”

He saw the shock on his father’s face even if the impact was muted by light provided by only a small campfire. Wanting to share some of the pain he had felt, he proceeded then to tell all the things he did while in prison to make a deal with a corrupt guard to make a deal to escape. He held back on telling all that had been done to him. Admitting to killing a guard, he told of his fears of being wanted and of the wanted poster that Walt had seen in Silver Hill. Seeing how sick his father looked on hearing those things made him regret that rash decision to tell so much. However, his father didn’t let it affect him too much.

“I have news on several counts on that. We knew about the guard because a representative from the Department of Foreign Affairs met with us and told us the French don’t want you any more. Our government made a deal and exchanged a prisoner for your freedom.”

Skeptical that it could be so easy, Adam had to ask. “What do they want?”

“Your friend Arvid Kitchens is an embarrassment to them.”

“He is no friend of mine.”

“Yes, well, our government wants the whole story buried. If you say nothing, they will let it all go and pay you a salary for all that you did and reimburse you your expenses.”

“I don’t want their money, but I could use it. I have nothing.”

“Yes, he said that, and we were surprised. Yes, we used your investments and accounts here to save the Ponderosa. I know you may not like that, but you now have a larger share of ownership. We made it official with Hiram. To be fair, you own one third of the ranch. I own a third, and your brothers each own an equal share of the other third. When I die, my third will be divided equally among the four of you. You will always have the largest share. Your brothers had to accept that or I wouldn’t take their advice and use your accounts to bail us out. Even if you had died, it was the right thing to do until we were sure.”

Shocked, Adam looked at his father to see if he was as serious as he sounded. “You thought I had died?”

“Pa never thought so.” Joe couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “I thought you must be because I couldn’t think of any other reason you wouldn’t contact Pa at least.”

With that, Hoss sat up too. “I didn’t want to believe it either, but like Joe said, I didn’t figure there was any other reason you wouldn’t be letting us know what was going on.”

“We never heard from you after you left. With no communication at all, we were worried that might have happened.”

“Yeah, Pa wouldn’t accept that you could be gone for good, and said when you came back, you deserved to have something for what you had invested. Said we wouldn’t even have the Ponderosa if it wasn’t for what you had. Me and Hoss agreed to it.”

“But, son, we didn’t take your accounts in New York. That I don’t understand, and I’ve now got our bank and our lawyer looking into that. When I learned that, I was shocked. You should never have been destitute. You should also have been able to draw on the Ponderosa accounts too if you needed funds.”

“I was never cut off?”

“Not by me and not by your brothers. Someone else has been interfering. I don’t know who or why.” Ben paused before continuing. “This is not a criticism, but I wish with all my heart that you had contacted me as soon as you were able.” He paused again and waited for Adam to respond, but he did not. “Do you believe me?”

“Yes. You’ve never lied to me. You haven’t always told me everything though. I am wondering what you may be leaving out.”

“I know it’s a lot to take in and accept. We’ve been doing all we could to find you once we knew you were alive and probably in the area.”

“I don’t understand any of this. I sent letters. And gifts. At least as long as I could. When I was arrested, I couldn’t do anything. You didn’t receive anything?”

At that point, Ben had a suspicion. “Son, who did you trust with those letters?”

It all became so clear to Adam then. He had trusted Arvid and men who worked for him. With those letters, Arvid probably had enough information to raid his accounts in New York too. That was probably how he got the money to pay expenses for Adam and make everything appear legitimate. With those letters, he could have forged documents and letters of instruction all with signatures that looked authentic and written in Adam’s hand or in what appeared to be his hand. It was diabolical and effective. It also meant that Arvid had never meant for him to survive his travels in Europe. If he hadn’t escaped that prison, he probably wouldn’t have lived very long. He did have a good case for compensation from the government, and he understood better why Arvid had taken such a drastic action as to kill himself.

“Son, you look lost in thought as if you are remembering something. What has all of this brought up from the past?”

“Not remembering so much as finally fitting the pieces of a big puzzle together.” He looked over at the recumbent form of his new little brother. “You may as well sit up. I know you’re not sleeping anyway.” He then proceeded to tell them everything he thought Arvid had done and about his meeting with Arvid after he returned to the United States.

Although Joe and Hoss had a number of questions, they only got to ask a few. Ben noticed that Adam seemed to be growing weaker and called a halt saying everyone could use more sleep. Jamie had been silent during the whole discussion studying his oldest brother whom he had never met but found the whole tale fascinating. He couldn’t hardly sleep and was the first one up when Ben announced it was time to prepare some breakfast hours later.

“What do you think, Jamie?”

“He seems wary of all of you.”

“Does that surprise you?”

“Yes. He’s your son. I thought he would be, I don’t know, but not so cool and distant.”

“If you listened to everything he said, he has reason to be careful. He’s been betrayed and suffered. He needs time. There’s healing that has to take place. Yes, would I have preferred he welcome us with open arms. Of course. But that was never Adam’s way.”

“He doesn’t like me.”

“Why would you say that?”

“He thinks I took his place.”

“From his perspective, it looked that way, but he held that against me not you. Give him time. Talk to him. Get to know him.”

As breakfast was cooking, Adam woke. Hoss helped him to sit on a log, and he told them he felt much better than he had. Hoss explained that they had hurried to catch up with him because he knew Adam was in trouble because the tracks showed he was walking his horse.

“Slowest getaway I ever did see anybody make.”

There were chuckles then. As they ate, it was quiet. Jamie interrupted that with a comment and then a question. “They say there’s a ghost at Devil’s Gate who kills any outlaws who threaten people. Was that you? Did you kill those five outlaws?”

When Adam frowned, Jamie thought he had overstepped, but Adam began to talk and carefully answered his question. “It’s probably a good thing that there’s such a legend developing. Anything that makes outlaws nervous is welcome. Was that me is something I can’t answer with certainty, but I’m assuming they’re referring to me. I did kill those five men. It isn’t something that brings me pride. It was survival and nothing more. Two men apparently decided to ambush me. They weren’t very good at it. I saw the reflection from one rifle and was able to defend myself because that spoiled their surprise. The other three were probably waiting to rob the stage or some other traveler and were camped near there. They came to investigate the shooting as far as I could tell. They were better shots but didn’t know what they were walking into. They came in without a plan probably because they were overconfident. The last one wasn’t dead but had a fatal wound. He could have killed himself but chose to use his last bullet to try to shoot me.”

“So, he made you kill him.” Hoss knew what had happened.

“Yes, he was gut shot and didn’t want to die slowly.”

“Awful thing to make you have to live with it instead of him taking the action himself. But I guess he was that kind of man anyway.” Hoss shook his head in sympathy. “You’ve had some tough times, and they keep happening. You need to come back to the Ponderosa where things will be better for you.”

“I’m not sure there’s a place for me there. There’s another man living in the house from what I’ve heard.”

His father and brothers hadn’t realized he knew that Candy had a room in the house. Of course, that was an issue with Adam. They had to explain and tell him how the situation would change. Ben took the lead knowing how Hoss and Joe might have difficulty talking about their friend this way.

“We hired Candy Canaday as a hand, and when we found we needed a foreman, he was the best candidate. We began to have weekly and then daily meetings to keep things organized. Eventually it was easiest if he took his meals with us so we could talk over ranch business as it came up. The most efficient way to accomplish that was to have him stay in the house. We had the room.”

Even as he said it, Ben knew how that could be hurtful and wanted to apologize. However, by doing that, he would be admitting that he had done something wrong so he said nothing. It was up to Adam now to accept what had happened or to be suspicious and skeptical. If he couldn’t trust that this was truly how things had transpired, there was likely no way to rebuild this family. When Adam nodded, the whole family seemed to sigh in relief. They were rebuilding the trust.

Packing up camp and riding out, they headed to Virginia City. Ben thought Adam needed to be seen by a doctor, and Adam accepted his advice on that. Late that day, they rode into the city and stopped at Doctor Paul Martin’s office. Surprised to see Ben, Paul asked the obvious question especially when he saw Hoss, Joe, and Jamie sitting there healthy as he expected.

“Who’s hurt? Not one of your boys, so I can’t guess who it is.”

“It is one of my boys.” With that, Adam walked forward surprising the doctor.

“Adam! You’re back!”

“Quite a grasp of the situation, Paul. Now if you could help me up these steps, there’s the matter of a couple of bullet wounds I’d like you to check over.”

A half hour later, the doctor emerged from his room to greet the family and with such a serious look, they became worried. His first words were reassuring though.

“He’s asleep. The wounds are clean.” Paul paused then before asking anything more, but he couldn’t ignore what he had seen. “What happened to him? He has scars that indicate he’s suffered some abuse or even torture.”

“There are important reasons not to have this story be made public, and the best way is to respect Adam’s privacy. It’s his story, and if he ever wants to tell it to anyone, then he can. I’m sorry, Paul, but that’s the best answer I can give you under the circumstances.”

“It’s all right. I guessed a lot from the scars on his wrists and ankles. I won’t say anything more about it unless I need more information at some point to treat him. There could be issues.”

The four took rooms at the hotel letting Adam sleep at Paul’s office. In the morning, Paul checked the wounds one more time before Adam went to breakfast with his family. He ate well even if lightly. Finishing his coffee, he leaned back in his chair.

“I’d like to visit a barber if you don’t mind.”

Exiting the barber’s shop an hour later, Adam looked more like the man they knew with his hair trimmed and the beard gone. Ben asked him if he wanted to go to the store and buy some new clothing. He did and that took some time as well. Unable to take a bath with the bandages he had, Adam chose to wait to wear his new clothing. He packed them into his saddlebags with Hoss’ help. Although Adam knew they needed to work out some issues, he turned to his family and asked one question.

“Can we ride home now?”

Ben thought it was the sweetest thing he had ever heard. Hoss put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed before putting out a hand and collecting a twenty-dollar gold piece from Joe. That brought chuckles from everyone except Joe before the four brothers and their father headed for the Ponderosa to find what the future held for them.

*****THE END*****

4 thoughts on “Ghost at Devil’s Gate (by BettyHT)

  1. I love this story of poor Adam suffering yet again and this has to be one of his worst times. To feel his family abandoned him on top of everything else must be one of the worst feelings ever.
    Another great tale, thank you

    Like

        1. Yes, it is complicated. I had to check often to make sure I didn’t mess things up. Thank you so much for the compliment too. I do like writing those kinds of stories.

          Like

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