Anyone Who Fights with Anyone of Us . . .
Jenny Guttridge

It was autumn when Adam returned to Virginia City. The year had turned yet again. How many had passed since he went away? He didn’t like to reckon them. He looked out of the stagecoach window. The land, as always at this time of year, was hot, dry and dusty, tired of the sun and the arid winds that blew in from the desert, thirsty from the lack of rainfall and shimmering in the relentless heat. He had already passed through the rolling hills of the lowlands, hills that climbed rank on rank on one another’s shoulders into the haze of the distance. They had been brown, bronze and copper while beyond them, the lower slopes of the mountains were shades of purple and blue. The only green that remained was the spreading, tired, dark foliage of the occasional live oak tree standing sentinel in sere pastureland.

Up here, where the road climbed into the highlands, the land was barren, desecrated and raped.  The road from Reno, where he’d got off the train, now ran through high, dry passes and narrow, stone walled valleys. The way was heaped with great mounds of tailings, mostly pale grey – almost white in the stark sunlight – and here and there he caught sight of a mine: mostly abandoned workings, a few broken buildings left to the elements, ugly with age and decay. To Adam, it was all familiar country, yet strange, as he saw it through eyes newly opened by the sights of unfamiliar peoples and distant, far away lands.

The iron rimmed wheels of the stagecoach threw a plume of fine dust high up in the air, and the boxy, badly sprung vehicle jounced and bounced on the rutted, hard packed earth that made up the last mile of the road. Adam breathed deeply of the moistureless, high-altitude air and felt a familiar, if long absent soreness in his throat and his sinus. It wasn’t unwelcome. Adam Cartwright was coming home.

The stage rocked and rattled into town scattering all before it. The driver yelled and slapped the reins on the horses’ broad backs. The unwary leapt for their lives. The unwieldy vehicle came to a stop outside the stagecoach office.

Adam climbed down stiffly – all his muscles were sore – and turned to help his two lady travelling companions to alight. Two other men followed. The long bumpy ride had turned all their knees into jelly. The driver threw down Adam’s valise; he would pick up his small trunk later. A voice came from behind him; “Adam? Adam Cartwright?” Adam guessed he should have known the sheriff would be in his accustomed place to watch the stage come in. Most folks still arrived on the stagecoach and the lawman liked to see whom he was getting.

Adam turned around, a beaming smile on his face. “Roy!”

Roy Coffee was a little greyer, perhaps, a little more creased around the eyes, but essentially, he looked the same: a deceptively built man in perpetual late middle age. He grabbed Adam’s hand and pumped it hard. “You sure are a sight for sore eyes!”

“It’s good to be home.” Adam meant it. He’d been away a long time. He’d been a lot of places, and he’d done a lot of things. Now, something inside his head had changed. He wasn’t quite sure what, or how, but it really was good to be home.

“Your Pa said you were coming,” Roy told him. “But he wasn’t sure when. He’ll sure be glad ta see you!”

Adam pulled a long breath. There was a lump of emotion somewhere under his breastbone. “And I’ll be glad to see him. Can I buy you a beer?”

“Sure could use one.” Roy Coffee sighed. “But I gotta be at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in just a few minutes. That’s all I seem ta do these days: go ta meetin’s fer this an’ meetin’s fer that. An’ there’s more paperwork than a man can shake a hat at!”

It was a variation on an old and familiar grumble, and it brought a smile to Adam’s face. “Some other time, then.”

“I’ll take you up on that.” Then Roy’s face changed, just a little. Adam saw the subtle shift of expression. “Adam, I don’t want no trouble in my town. Just you remember that.”

Adam thought about it. “Trouble? What do you mean?”

Words trembled on the very edges of Roy Coffee’s lips. He swallowed them down. “Don’t doubt your Pa ‘ll tell you all about it first thing. You just bear in mind what I said.”

A few more words passed, and Adam, bemused, watched his old friend disappear into the crowd on his way to his meeting.

Adam looked around him, gawking, he knew, like a tourist. The town had changed much more than he had expected. His Pa had written him about the fire that had devastated the town, but he wasn’t prepared for the total transformation. The wood-frame and clapboard buildings with their gaudily painted false fronts and prominent, sometimes flagrant advertising that he remembered so well from the days of his early manhood had been swept away. In their places were much more substantial structures of brick and iron and sombre stone. The precipitous streets that crossed the flanks of Mount Davidson were just the same, and the traffic that ploughed back and forth had changed little, but the tempo of the town was different. The raw frontier that he had known as a boy was gone along with the ox-drawn covered wagon and the prospector’s mule. In their places were black, varnished carriages with shiny-spoked wheels, high stepping horses and open-sided public vehicles with many seats where a man could ride all day for a dime.

The noise and the smell were familiar: thirty languages spoken by ten thousand tongues, the shout and the squeal of children and the braying of mules, the ringing of bells and the clamour of hammers on anvils. The thump and the draw of the steam driven pumps overlaid it all. It stank of men, women and horses, wood-smoke, hot iron and manure.

Adam decided that he needed that drink after all. He crossed the street to the nearest saloon using skills he thought he’d forgotten to dodge men, wagons and horses. The saloon was new. It hadn’t been there when he’d gone away. Inside it seemed dark and cool after the glare of the street. Adam smelled polish and lye soap, leather and beer.

At that time of day the bar was busy serving liquid lunches. Men came and went all the time. Adam didn’t know the names or the faces, but he knew the types: strong, hard westerners who lived off what the land provided, or off of each other like carrion crows picking on the carcass of a cow.

Adam stepped up to the bar and ordered a beer. All the tables were taken but he didn’t care. He was content to hook his heel in the bar-rail and soak up the atmosphere. The saloon, like the town, had the feel of a boomtown where time was fast running out. Life was lived at a frantic, breathtaking pace. The gold was already gone; tomorrow it might be the silver. Life had to be lived to the fullest today, for a man might be dead by the morning.

Adam caught sight of his face in the mirror behind the bar, and his tawny-brown eyes stared right back at him. On the whole, the years had treated him well. A substantial man in a dark, dusty suit, white shirt and silk, shoestring tie, he still retained the lithe figure of a man born to the saddle, now somewhat disguised by the cut of his coat. His hair was still black, worn long with a wave, though receding, creeping back from his face. He had the blunt, narrow nose that had been his mother’s and a stubborn set to the jaw from his Pa. The mouth, straight-lipped and firm with determination, was entirely his own. He thought about buying a whisky chaser to go with the beer but decided against it. That was a habit he had better break now.

He caught a snippet of conversation from the table behind him; the name ‘Cartwright’ made him prick up his ears. He turned and leaned his back against the bar, looking to see who was talking. There were four burly men at the table, miners by the look of them, men who delved in the earth. Their work clothes were dirty and sweat stained. They each had a glass and were sharing a half-empty bottle, passing it around between them. Adam couldn’t hear much of their conversation, just an odd word here and there, and his family name mentioned again, followed by loud, ugly laughter. He didn’t like the look of the men or the tone of their voices. All of a sudden, the beer had gone flat in his mouth and left a sour taste.

Adam thought about going over, about tackling the men directly, but then Roy Coffee’s warning rang in his head, “I don’t want no trouble in my town.” Was this what the sheriff had meant?

He threw down a small silver coin to pay for the beer, picked up his valise and headed for the swinging half-door. The dry, dusty heat of the street held more attraction than the humid, unfriendly bar.

Adam first thought was to find a livery stable and hire a horse. His aim was to take a ride out to the ranch, taking his time, reacquainting himself with the countryside as he went. The Ponderosa, in the fall, was a beautiful, gracious lady, and he was looking forward to meeting her all over again. She would be wearing her finest gown, a tapestry of ethereal light in a thousand shades of brown and green. And the thought of Hop Sing’s cooking made his mouth water; Adam had eaten fine meals in the most famous restaurants of Europe and the Orient, but in all honesty, he would have to confess that the Chinese cook’s simple kitchen produced the best. With this notion in mind, and his head filled with visions of tender roast pork with crispy brown crackling and sharp applesauce, he set off down the street.

“Adam Cartwright!” A square, well-manicured hand was thrust under his nose.

Adam knew the hand, and he knew the voice that went with it. “Paul!” Warmly, the two men shook hands.

Doctor Paul Martin was older and greyer, his face more worn. The years of caring too much had taken their toll. Paul looked tired – Paul, Adam remembered, always looked tired. The eyes, though, were still keen and appraising as they looked the younger man over. “You look well. Are you home to stay now?”

“I think that I am.”

Paul nodded the same, curt nod that Adam recalled so well. “I haven’t been out to the ranch for a while,” he said. “But I know your father will be glad to hear that.”

Adam smiled at him. “Come out real soon, Paul. Make it a social occasion. I’ll be having a ‘coming home’ party.”

Some sort of shadow crossed over Paul’s face, then he perceptibly brightened. “I’ll be sure to be there, Adam. Just let me know when.

They shook hands again, and Paul went on his way. Adam continued on down the street, but the smile was gone from his face. The shine had vanished from the bright afternoon, and he had a feeling, deep down in his gut, that something somewhere was very wrong. Thoughts of food and a leisurely ride were completely forgotten. All he wanted to do now was to get home.

He was half way down the hill and walking fast when he spotted the wagon pulled up on the far side of the street. After all the years that had passed, it wasn’t possible that it was the same wagon, but it had a familiar look. As he drew level, Adam slowed up and looked closer. Sure enough, the mark of the pine tree was deeply burned into the sideboard. He felt a sharp pang. He might, he figured, carry that same distinctive brand seared into his own skin.

Adam stepped into the street, narrowly avoided an ore wagon drawn by an eight-mule team, and crossed over. The wagon was standing outside a large and impressive general store that bore the immortal slogan, ‘Bushet and Bracknels emporium’. There were several sacks already stacked in the wagon but no sign of the driver. Adam tucked his valise under the seat.

Inside, the store was gloomy and fragrant with the mingled scents of tobacco, coffee and leather. A big man stood at the counter, his back to the door. He was buying tins of peaches; a half a dozen stood at his elbow. A large box of assorted groceries was on the floor at his feet. Adam stopped in the doorway, his back to the light. He leaned back on his heels and fondly admired the breadth of the big man’s back. The brown leather vest with its fancy hand stitching might have been the same one that Hoss had worn on the very day that Adam had left. Adam didn’t clearly remember. The tall, white hat was newer.

The grocer, tallying figures on a pad with a pencil, looked up and caught Adam’s eye. “I’ll be right with you, Mister.”

The big man turned around to see who the newcomer was. Under the hat his face was the same: unhandsome without being ugly, rounded without being fat, kindly without showing any signs of weakness. His powder-blue eyes were dimmed into greyness by the brown light inside the store. Puzzled, they settled on Adam’s face. Adam felt an overwhelming surge of affection. “I see you’ve still got that sweet tooth, brother,” he said softly.

Hoss took half a step forward. “Adam? Is that you, Adam?”

Adam held out his arms to him. “It sure is, Hoss.”

“Adam!” Hoss rushed at him; lifted him clean off his feet. For a time, both men were overwhelmed.

Adam’s throat filled with emotion. He found that he couldn’t breathe. His brother was squeezing the life right out of him. “Hey, let me go, will ya?” he said in a strangled gasp.

Hoss set him down gently and stared at him, still holding him tight by the shoulders. “Adam, it really is you!” Adam would swear he saw the glint of a tear in the big man’s eye.

The two men gazed at each other, breathing each other’s breath, both relearning each plane and angle that made the other man’s face. Hoss inhaled deeply, filling his chest; “Adam, where’d you come from? I mean, what you doin’ here?” He shook his great head as if trying to make sense of his thoughts. “Goldarnit! It shore is good ta see you! How long you bin in town?”

“I came in on the stage this morning. I was heading for the livery stable to hire a horse when I saw the wagon. Now I can save the expense.” He gave Hoss a wink to show he was joking. “I’ll hitch a ride home with you.”

“That’s a shore thing!” Hoss beamed at him. Then his face fell. “’Ceptin’ I ain’t headin’ fer home fer a while. I gotta meet up with Pa an’ Joe. We got some business this afternoon that ain’t gonna wait.” Hoss’s face was transparent. Adam had long been adept at reading the emotions that paraded in ordered array across his brother’s broad features. It was clear that the big man had problems.

Adam screwed his face into a lopsided expression that he knew his brother would recognise - one that conveyed interest, concern and keen appraisal. “What is it, Hoss? What’s going on?”

Hoss sucked on his teeth, chewed on his lip; his countenance became almost guilty. “I reckon we gotta talk, Adam.”

Soberly, Adam inclined his head. “I think that we do. What say I buy you lunch, and you tell me all about it?”

Hoss instantly brightened. “Since when did you ever know me turn down the offer of a meal?”

Adam laughed out loud. It was a fact that his larger, younger brother was always ready and willing to eat.

Hoss had the groceries put on the Cartwright account, and Adam helped him carry them out to the wagon. Hoss took the box, which was heavy, lifting it easily in his huge, ham-like hands. Adam followed behind with the peaches. “You must have bought out the store’s whole supply.” Hoss had always had a liking for the sweet, canned delicacy. In that respect nothing, it seemed, had changed.

“Yep,” Hoss agreed happily. “Shore did!”

If any man could be trusted to know the best eatery in town it had to be Hoss Cartwright. He led the way to a well-appointed restaurant half a block further on down the street. Within minutes, the brothers were installed in seats by the window, a clean, white linen cloth on the table between them and a handsome view of the street. Both men took off their hats, and Adam loosened his jacket. He saw that his brother’s pale, reddish hair was even thinner, now, than he remembered; the tanned skin of his scalp shone through the strands. It looked like the years had touched both of them.

Hoss had steak and potatoes with carrots and onions: a huge, heaping plateful, and a great big side order of greens. Adam ordered coffee and ham and eggs, just to keep his brother company. He was no longer hungry. His stomach was churning and he feared he might sicken if he ate. He nursed his coffee and waited until Hoss had taken the edge off his hunger, then prompted the conversation. “So, what’s the problem?”

Hoss slowed in his eating but didn’t quite stop. “Didn’t Pa tell you about a fella named Nathan Kincaid in one of those letters he wrote ya?”

“I think he might have mentioned him once.” Adam finished his coffee and beckoned the serving girl to bring him another. “Some sort of business man isn’t he?”

Chewing, Hoss pulled a sour face. “I s’pose you could call him that. He turned up on the stage about a year an’ a half ago. He’s bought inta just about every business in town. Lately he’s been running a hydraulic minin’ outfit down in the Comstock Valley.” In a typical gesture of sibling acceptance, Hoss leaned over and forked Adam’s untouched ham onto his own plate. He started to eat it.

Adam thought about it, working out figures and distances in his mind. “Wet mining isn’t pretty,” he said at last, “but I don’t see how it affects us directly.”

Hoss poked at the remains of the food on his plate and finally pushed it aside. There wasn’t a great deal left, but the fact that anything remained said a great deal for his state of mind. “His men have been stealin’ lumber fer their minin’ operation and butcherin’ beef. But that’s just part o’ what this Kincaid’s bin up to. Pa c’n tell you a whole lot more about it than I can. Just lately, his men have bin sneakin’ around on our land. Kinda looks like they’re prospectin’. Lookin’ fer gold”

“There’s no gold on the Ponderosa…” Adam started to say. Then he though about the tiny gold nugget that he’d found one day a long time ago, at a place where the streams ran out of the highlands. It had obviously washed down from a lode high up in the mountains. Not caring to see the land raped and pillaged for the sake of the precious yellow metal, he’d never said anything about it. He carried it now, attached to the fob of his watch.

“I know it an’ you know it,” Hoss grumbled on. “But there just ain’t no way ta convince Kincaid.”

Still thinking about the nugget, Adam wondered about that. “What does Roy say about all this?”

Hoss sighed and shrugged. His face wore an unhappy frown. “Roy says his hands are tied. Things have changed some, Adam, since you’ve been gone. There’s committees fer this an’ committees fer that. They brung in a whole load o’ new laws. It seems like a man’s soul ain’t his own any more.”

Adam nodded thoughtful agreement. He’d seen the same thing happen in a good many places. They called it progress. It was supposed to be a good thing. “So what does Pa propose to do about Kincaid?”

“Pa’s arranged a meetin’ down at the Jail House; see if they c’n come ta some sort o’ accommodation, Pa says. That’s where I gotta go this afternoon.”

“It sounds more like a confrontation to me.”

Unhappiness clouded Hoss’s broad face. “Reckon you could be right about that. Kincaid’s bin puttin’ all sorts o’ pressure on Pa.”

Adam broached the subject he’d been avoiding for a while. “How is Pa?”

Hoss looked him straight in the eyes. “Pa’s tired. Adam,” he said, and the tone of his voice said a whole lot more. “Guess that’s what I’d put it down to. He’s just plain tired.”

They collected the wagon from outside the store and drove it along ‘C’ street to the Jail House and Roy Coffee’s office. There were two horses tied to the rail outside. The pinto was different, taller and leaner with more black in his coat, but he had that same short-bodied, chunky look that Joe Cartwright favoured. Adam’s father had always preferred a buckskin horse. This one was darker than most with a broad black stripe on his back. Seeing the animals standing together, Adam thought he had flipped back in time.

There was a man standing close to the pinto’s side. His shape was familiar, not tall or broad, but well proportioned. He wore his hat jauntily and carried a left-handed gun. Adam figured he knew him.

Hoss hauled hard on the reins. “Hey, little brother, look who I got here!”

Joe Cartwright turned. His face was different, had turned into that of a familiar stranger. Maturity had made it leaner and tighter than the face Adam knew, but the eyes were the same: a sparkling hazel with flecks of dark green.

Adam jumped down from the wagon and stuck out his hand. “Joe.”

Joe stared at him. His mouth came open as if he didn’t really believe what his eyesight told him. He took Adam’s hand. “Adam?”

“It really is me, little brother.” Adam’s smile lit his face.

Then Joe did believe it. He pumped Adam’s hand and pulled him into a bear hug. Adam felt a tremor run through his brother’s thin body. As brothers with twelve years between their birth-dates and vastly divergent backgrounds, they frequently had differing views on a great many things, but they shared blood and bone and a deep and abiding bond of affection.

Beaming all over his face, Hoss climbed down beside them just as the two men came up for air. For the first time in a good many years, the three Cartwright brothers stood together in the streets of Virginia City. Hoss was not the only one who felt the burn of a tear.

“Is Pa inside?” Adam asked. He knew his father better than anybody, and he knew that this reunion was going to be something of an ordeal for both of them. ‘Though Ben had understood his son’s reasons for leaving, he hadn’t wanted him to go. Their correspondence had been sporadic, due to Adam being mostly on the move, and he wasn’t quite sure what his reception would be. He guessed it was time to find out. He took the small valise from under the seat of the wagon, stepped up on the boardwalk and opened the door.

Ben Cartwright was talking to Roy Coffee. He turned at the sound of the door. He was older and greyer. His face was more lined. Adam was aware of his brothers coming through the door after him – nothing much else. Softly, he said, “Hello, Pa.”

“Adam.” The voice was a deep, rich brown velvet to go with the eyes. “Roy told me you got off the stage.”

Adam stepped forward and held out his hand. Ben Cartwright took it, held it and pulled his son into his arms. Adam dropped the valise on the floor and surrendered as his father engulfed him, crushing him into his chest and, for a time, nothing else mattered other than that they were together again.

Finally, Ben pulled back and studied Adam’s face, searching for and finding the boy and the man he had been, accepting and bonding with the man that he had become. They shook hands again. “It’s good to have you home, son.”

Hoss and Joe were grinning like madmen and even Roy’s weathered face wore a smile. Adam pulled a deep breath. “It’s good to be back.” He needed to discharge the emotion of the situation: to turn the focus of attention away from himself before he lost his composure entirely and sat down and wept. “Hoss has been telling me about this man Kincaid.” He let that look of concerned inquiry settle onto his face.

Ben scowled. He stalked across the room, turned and prowled back. Adam found a good, solid post to lean on and took the weight off his once-broken hp.

“He’s been squeezing us any way he can think of. Nothing illegal, he’s too clever for that.” Ben’s glance at Roy carried a whole wealth of meaning. “Just relentless pressure: political, financial, commercial, forcing me to give way to him, little by little, as he takes over this whole part of the State. It’s something we’ll have to deal with on a personal basis.”

Roy shook his head. “An’ I just got through tellin’ ya, Ben, you can’t do things like that any more.”

“When I settled this country with little more than a horse and two sons to my name, stealing another man’s cattle was a hanging offence.” Ben’s voice had risen to little short of a roar.

In front of the Cartwright onslaught, Roy stood his ground. The grey moustache bristled. “Well, now we got laws, an’ we got courts ta enforce ‘em. Open range justice don’t apply any more.”

“Then why don’t you arrest Kincaid?”

“’Cause you gotta have proof before you c’n haul a man up in front of a judge. You gotta prove that Kincaid told his men ta steal your cows an’ an’ your timber, that he ordered someone ta burn down your horsebarn, that he’s personally responsible fer all the accidents that have happened up at your mine.” Roy spread his hands. “C’n you prove any one o’ those things?”

Old friend or not, Ben glared into the lawman’s face. Adam saw the powerful, work-worn hands clench into iron-hard fists. “You know darn well that I can’t.”

“Then you know that I can’t arrest Kincaid.”

“And he knows it too,” Ben said. He looked at the clock. The hands were approaching three. “He’ll be here any minute.”

“I can’t let you meet him in my office, Ben.” Roy told him sternly. “I can’t be seen to condone any part of this.”

Ben squared up his shoulders. “But you can’t stop me meeting him outside in the street.”

“No, I can’t,” Roy conceded. His face was set. “But if there’s any shootin’ I’m gonna have ta lock you all up. Someone gets killed, and they’ll likely hang you.”

Ben sighed heavily. Suddenly he looked as tired as Hoss had suggested, tired and ill. “You’ll do what you have to, Roy, just as I will.” He looked at Joe and at Hoss. “Are you boys ready?”

Adam straightened up from his lean. “I’m coming with you.”

Ben’s eyes switched to his face – hard, dark and unrelenting. “No, you’re not. This isn’t your fight. You’re not even wearing a gun.”

In a moment he was gone, striding past Adam and out of the door into the sunlight of the bright afternoon. Grim faced, Joe went after him. Adam exchanged long looks with Hoss. Adam had come home to make a new beginning and regain a place in his family. He found them embroiled in a conflict that might bring about its end. Hoss pulled a face and shrugged his wide shoulders. It couldn’t be changed.

The big man shook his head sadly and followed his father and brother. Adam was left alone with the sheriff and the tick of the old casement clock.

Adam made a decision. He took off his coat and his hat. He opened the small valise and took out his gun and his gunbelt. Roy took a long step towards him and held up a hand. “Adam, I can’t let you do this.”

Adam gazed at him, his tawny eyes bleak. “You’ll have to kill me to stop me, Roy.” He bucked the gunbelt around his lean hips and eased the Colt in the holster. It had been a while since the gun had been used in anger, but the Colt was well oiled, and all the chambers were loaded. He tied the holster down to his thigh.

Adam went out of the door with Roy Coffee close on his heels. Ben, Hoss and Joe stood in the street in a row. The fall sunlight was shining behind them, casting their shadows in front. The brims of their hats threw the upper parts of their faces into shadow; all that could be seen of their features were their grimly set mouths. Facing them were six burly men in dirty mining clothes. Adam knew four of them, by sight if not by name. They were the same four that he’d encountered in the barroom of the First Chance saloon. They’d been joined by two of their friends, and all of them carried guns. Standing out in front of them, confronting old Ben, was a man who could only be Nathan Kincaid.

Kincaid stood around six feet tall and wore a bushy, greying moustache. He was pasty pale in the face as if he was ill, and his thick, swollen lips had a bluish tinge. His grey, three piece suit hung loosely from his shoulders as if it had originally been tailored for a much larger man.

“I’m gonna to prospect that land of yours,” Kincaid was saying. “I’m gonna push you an’ shove you, Cartwright, until you get out of my way.”

Ben Cartwright filled his chest and drew himself up to full height. Standing there in the street, in the sunlight, he made an impressive figure – a man who was determined to defend what was his, the personification of the west that was passing away. “You’ll have to kill me first Kincaid. Me and my sons.”

Kincaid smiled an unpleasant smile: browned and broken teeth showing plainly between the bulbous blue lips. “You don’t expect me to shoot you down in front of your good friend the sheriff. I know better than that. There are other, less violent but equally effective ways of taking care of three insignificant men.”

Adam saw his father bristle and Joe’s face pale with rage. The young man’s left hand clenched and stretched above the butt of his gun. Adam stepped into the street alongside his brothers. “Make that four.”

Every man’s eyes turned in his direction. He felt a swift chill as Kincaid’s cold grey gaze slid over him. He had disliked the man even before he set eyes on him – now he liked him less. He fought to control the instinctive curl of his lip.

“So you’re the missing son, are you?” Kincaid inquired with a sneer. “You expect to make some sort of difference?”

Adam allowed his weight to settle back on his heels and hooked the callused sides of his thumbs onto the edge of his gunbelt. A vagrant breath of hot air fluttered the ends of his black silk tie. “I expect to put you right on a few things, Kincaid,” he said evenly. “For a start, you pick a fight with my family, and you pick a fight with me.”

“That sounds fair.” Kincaid chuckled: an ugly, flat sound. “In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Adam gave him a level stare. The miners shifted uneasily. The odds were changing, and they didn’t like this cool-eyed confrontation. Adam could smell their fear. “The other thing I have to tell you,” he continued in that same, steady voice, “Is that you’re mistaken if you think that there’s gold on the Ponderosa. I know every square inch of it by heart. If there was gold there, I’d know it.”

Kincaid laughed in his face. “You expect me to take your word for that?”

“My son doesn’t lie.” Ben told him gruffly. He didn’t know what Adam was up to, but he was prepared to back him every inch of the way.”

“There is gold still to be found.” Adam slipped two fingers into the little slit pocket behind his pants belt and pulled out his old, battered watch. He unclipped the small nugget and held it up between finger and thumb. It caught everyone’s attention as it glittered in the afternoon sun. “I found this some years ago, but it didn’t come from the Ponderosa.” In one sense, it was the truth. He flipped the nugget into the dirt at Kincaid’s feet.

Kincaid bent down and picked it up. He rolled it back and forth in his fingers. “Where did you find it?”

Adam saw the greed in his eyes and gave him a wintry smile. “That’s something for me to know and you to find out.”

Kincaid glared at him long and hard. “You’ve got a smart mouth on you, Mister.” His eyes switched back to Ben. “I’ll look into this Cartwright, but you haven’t heard the last of me.”

“I’ll be waiting.” Ben Cartwright growled.

Kincaid closed his fist over the tiny nugget. He favoured Adam with another cold glare, turned abruptly on his heel and stalked away to the high-wheeled carriage that waited, with driver in attendance, to take him away. The half-dozen miners, left behind without direction, retreated in confusion, looking anxiously over their shoulders.

The Cartwrights began to relax. Hoss heaved a sigh. “I guess that’s the end of it, Pa.”

Ben looked along the line of his sons. He shook his head. “No, that’s not the end of it. This is only the beginning. But, at least, now we have a fighting chance.” He shrugged himself into an easier frame of mind. “Come along, boys. Let’s go home. I think we’ve got some celebrating to do.”

Potter’s Bar 2002.

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