The Battle    

What if Adam had fought in the Civil War?
Rated at least PG-13 for violence, unfortunately historically true.
Thanks to Gwynne for the inspiration, and dedicated to the brave men of both sides who fought at the Wilderness.
I wonder how many of us believe that strongly about anything.
And make sure you read at least to Adam’s journal entry…

The Battle
by BeckyS
© Sep 1999, Feb 2003 (as allowable*)

Mr. Benjamin Cartwright
Ponderosa Ranch
Virginia City, Nevada

Union Camp
South of the Rapidan River, Virginia
May 7, 1864


It is with great personal sorrow I write to inform you that your son, Capt Adam Cartwright, was killed in battle last night. Two days ago we crossed the Rapidan River, somewhat near Chancellorsville, and shortly after engaged the Confederate Army in a heavily wooded area known as The Wilderness. Your son’s company was attacked last evening by the Rebels and fought valiantly.

His sergeant told me of your son’s bravery and quick intelligence in rallying his men, indeed I believe his company would have been destroyed without his leadership. They were able to escape, but in the last moments of fire your son was felled. His men tended to him as best they could, and I wish I could say he didn’t suffer, but his wounds were grievous and he succumbed quickly.

I have enclosed the last letter he was writing to you. I am truly sorry to be the bearer of such news. Adam was an excellent officer and one of the finest men of my acquaintance.


Maj Russell D. Wilson
5th Vt, VI Corps
US Army of the Potomac

Friday, July 1, 1864

The silver haired man who sat behind the heavy mahogany desk that dominated this end of the great room of the Ponderosa ranch house might as well have been a statue. He gazed at the folded square of paper that had fallen on the polished wood in front of him, but saw instead a handsome face, black haired with a flashing smile. Sparkling dark eyes would quicksilver change from somber intelligence to silent laughter at some antic of the human race, quite often as exhibited by one of his brothers.

It couldn’t be, Ben Cartwright thought. He'd lost his parents when young, he'd lost three wives, he couldn't lose his firstborn son, too.

Hands shaking, he lifted the small packet. It wasn’t addressed, but when he unfolded it he recognized Adam's handwriting—the bold, black strokes dotted and smeared with the rusty brown of dried blood.

Dear Pa, Hoss, & Joe,
I miss you and the Ponderosa more than I knew possible…

“Adam!” he cried out, and dropped his head into his hands.  “Oh, Elizabeth!” Were they together now, mother and son reunited after over thirty years? His vision blurred, and he carefully set the letter on the desk, staring at it but not seeing.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss shouted as he rode comfortably over to his younger brother. Little Joe Cartwright was mending a break in one of the endless fences that kept cattle from wandering off the deadly cliffs in this section of the Ponderosa. He was shirtless in the summer heat, and heavy gloves protected his hands. Hoss could see by the sweat shining on the well-defined muscles of his brother’s back that this piece of fence had been a real stinker to repair. He took his hat off and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, then plopped the hat back in place. “Ain’t you finished yet, little brother? It’s quittin’ time.”

“Well, pardon me, older brother, but if you’d come down here and use some of that strength you get from hogging all of Hop Sing’s biscuits we could finish this stretch and go home.”  Joe scowled at him, but Hoss could see there was no real anger in his emerald eyes.

He good-naturedly dismounted and walked over to inspect Joe’s work. The contrast in size between the two was striking. Hoss was big and broad—benefit of his Swedish mother’s heritage—with a kind, friendly face that showed every emotion. His six-years-younger brother wasn’t actually small, but next to Hoss, his lean whipcord strength wasn’t always apparent. They were as different in temperament as well.  Hoss was slow to anger and slow to recover, where Joe had inherited from his Creole mother—their father’s third wife—lightning quick changes of mood that blew themselves out as quickly.

“Hmm,” said Hoss now, carefully checking the wires and their attachments to the posts while Joe started to fidget. “I see what you mean. A puny little feller like you couldn’t expect to do this on his own.” He pulled his own gloves from his hip pocket, slid them on and pulled the ends of the broken wire together. Joe went to work with his pliers, easily completing in a few minutes what he’d spent the last half hour trying to finish.

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe said as he put the tools away in his saddlebag. “Sure is easier with two people.”

“Yeah, I remember comin’ up on Adam the same way,” Hoss grinned, sky-blue eyes sparkling with happy memories. “A-fussin’ and a-fumin’, tryin’ to find some engineering way of makin’ them two ends come together.”

Joe laughed and picked up his shirt, sliding his arms through the sleeves but not bothering to button it. “Yeah, he always goes for the thinking way out of a problem.”

“Yep. I tried to tell him, sometimes you just gotta hold on an’ pull.”

They mounted their horses, Joe uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. “I wish he was here.”

“Yeah, me too.” They both missed their oldest brother terribly, but Hoss knew that Joe was tormented by shoulda’s and mighta-been’s over his often rocky relationship with Adam. The twelve years difference in ages made it difficult for them to understand each other, although Hoss had always thought their problems had more to do with how much they were alike. He forced a smile. “’Course then I’d have to split them biscuits four ways instead of just three.”

Joe laughed, lighthearted once again. “C’mon, race you to the pond,” he shouted and took off.

“That ain’t no race,” grumbled Hoss, but took off after his brother anyway.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

They entered the big ranch house noisily, filling it with energy and life. Hoss dropped his gunbelt on the sideboard and, as usual, headed straight for the kitchen to see if he could find something to tide him over until dinner. Joe tossed his hat on its peg and was about to follow his brother when something made him turn to the main room. His insides clenched tight when he saw his father sitting motionless and pale at his desk, staring straight ahead at the opposite wall, his hand gripped tightly around some papers.

“Pa?” he questioned and strode over to his father. Ben didn’t react, didn’t seem to hear him. Worried, Joe grabbed his father’s shoulder and asked again, louder, “Pa? What is it?”

Ben’s head slowly turned to his youngest. “Joseph?” he asked, his voice quavering like an old man, his dark brown eyes unfocused.

With a deep sense of unease, Joe answered, “Yeah, Pa, I’m here. What’s wrong? Do you need Doc Martin?”

“No,” he exhaled on a sigh. “Paul can’t help . . . can’t . . . .”

“Hoss!” Joe cried. “Hoss, get in here.”

His brother came out of the kitchen with a plate in hand. “Dadburnit, Joe, what are you yellin’ about now?” When he saw his father, he dumped the plate onto the table with a clatter and in a few strides was at Joe’s side. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I don’t know. Get some brandy.”

Hoss was back in a moment with a tumbler full and held it to his father’s mouth. Ben choked but swallowed, the potent liquor bringing tears to his eyes.

He looked down at the letter in his hand and set it gently back on the desktop. “Boys . . . .” he stopped and carefully, almost lovingly, pressed the wrinkles flat.

They could see the dark splotches that obscured part of the familiar handwriting, knew them for what they were. Joe leaned heavily against the desk, pain building within him, knowing beyond reason that his world was about to fall apart. He looked up at Hoss, who was pale and still.

“Adam.” Hoss said what his father couldn’t. “Adam’s killed.”

Ben winced. “A letter from his commanding officer—”

“When?” The word whooshed out of Joe on a breath like he’d been punched in the gut.

“Early May,” said his father. “In Virginia.”

Joe’s knees gave way, and he sank slowly to the cool floor. He fell sideways against the desk and tears ran unchecked down his face. Hoss continued to stand by his father, gazing at the letter that he knew was soaked in his brother’s blood. And Ben stared again at the wall across the room, unable to believe that his beloved son had been dead for the last two months, and he hadn’t known.

Friday, December 16, 1864

The sharply cold air stung Joe’s lungs as he approached the final mile of his trip home. If the ground hadn’t been lightly dusted with snow he’d have been moving his horse along a little faster, but he wasn’t in such a hurry that he’d risk Cochise’s legs. After all, he’d made good time so far. The weather had held off so he was getting back to the Ponderosa a full ten days before Christmas, and just in time for lunch. There’d been a lot of time on his trip to mull things over—delivering a bull to Fredrick Stock for his new home near the Santa Rosa mountains didn’t take much thinking—and he knew the holiday was going to be difficult this year.

As fall had progressed to winter and the snow moved down from the high Sierra Nevada mountains, his thoughts had turned more and more often to memories of Adam. Educated in the East, intellectual, mathematical, Adam had never seemed quite as comfortable here as the rest of the family; nevertheless the wild mountains had exerted their hold on his oldest brother as well. He’d always particularly enjoyed the first snow of the year, for once dropping his cynicism for play. They never knew who would be the target of his first snowball, only that it was sure to come when least expected and be deadly accurate. He would stand back with an innocent “who me?” expression until his victim retaliated, then there would be no holding back. Joe remembered the many times he’d had his face rubbed in the snow until, laughing hysterically, he’d cried Uncle!

As the ranch came in sight he smiled at the memory, discovering with mixed feelings that he could remember the good times without experiencing the crushing sense of loss he’d carried with him all summer and fall. He thought back to past Christmases. When he was a small boy he would sneak into Adam’s room in the early morning to convince him to go downstairs and open presents. Adam always opened one eye rather blearily, asked, “It’s morning already?” and dragged himself out from under the warm comforter to stagger down the steps behind the excited little boy. One year, when Ben hadn’t been able to make it home for Christmas Eve, Joe’d had a terrifying dream and Adam had climbed into bed with him and held him tight all night. Another time, when Hoss had been sick, his father had finally allowed him to go with Adam to cut the Christmas tree. Last year Adam hadn’t been with them, but he’d sent a telegram Christmas Eve so they’d known he was safe. So many memories . . . .

Joe dismounted in the yard of the ranchhouse and entered the barn, grateful for its warmth. He put Cochise in her stall, noticing a strange horse in the next stall over. A nice looking sorrel, the animal lifted its head and calmly eyed the pinto, then went back to its hay. Joe finished rubbing down his horse, threw a blanket over her, and walked around the back of the visitor. He pushed the animal’s rear quarters over and when the light fell on its hip, he was able to make out the brand: US

Joe had sold enough horses to the army to recognize the mark—this was a Federal cavalry horse. It was the wrong time of year for Colonel Beltree, the new Battalion Commander at Placerville, to be buying mounts. He wondered if the Colonel had come to talk with Pa about something else, but he thought his father was still in Reno. Puzzled but not particularly worried, Joe scratched under his hat, resettled it firmly on his short dark brown curls, and turned to leave the barn.

Then he saw the saddlebags hanging over the stall divider.

They were more beat up than he remembered, but still achingly familiar. That deep gouge on the left pouch was from a steer’s horn that had gotten a little too close to his oldest brother’s leg on a drive. A scrape on the strap reminded him of the day he and Adam had tried to escape from a stampede by squeezing through a canyon entrance. Cochise hadn’t had any trouble, but Adam’s Sport was taller and a little wider, and Adam had almost lost his saddlebags if not his life that day.

Joe traced his fingers along a few other marks he remembered and then slowly stroked the polished silver buckles he’d given his brother for his birthday three years ago. On impulse, and ignoring all his father had taught him regarding another’s privacy, he pulled the bags down and delved into the right pouch. He touched a pile of wool and pulled it out, discovering it was a deep blue cavalry uniform jacket with a jagged bullet-sized hole in the right shoulder. Hands shaking, he reached into the other bag and found a journal, its pages covered with Adam’s distinctive script.

Seized by raw grief he held the book and uniform tightly, rubbing the fabric against his cheek. He could smell the Bay Rum cologne Adam had always used. Oh, God, will I ever be able to stand it? He’d thought he was coming to terms with the loss of his brother, but somehow feeling Adam’s uniform, seeing the hole in his jacket that had probably cost him his life, holding a book of his most private thoughts—the agony was fresh and searing. Sobs tore through him and he doubled over, gasping for breath, rocking against the pain.

As a boy he’d leaned on Adam, through his teens they’d fought bitterly, and finally Joe had matured enough to try to understand the man who had helped raise him. They’d just been coming to a new, better stage in their relationship when Adam had left to go to the war in the East. And now the lost chances seemed ever-precious, now when all he had were memories.

After a long time he quieted. He rubbed his eyes on his sleeve, turned the journal to the light, and took a breath to steady himself—to prepare himself for Adam’s final entry before the battle that had killed him—and opened the book to the last filled page.

The words were not what he expected.

December 15

I didn’t find Col Beltree at Ft Churchill—he’s been transferred to Placerville. I’ll have to head over the Sierras in order to deliver the papers to him, though they don’t have to be there until Jan 1.

So at last I’m headed home. How many times have I wondered if I would ever see the Ponderosa again, and yet tonight I’m camping within a day's ride of our land. I wasn’t sure I’d make it for Christmas. I’m so tired of battle and it’s been too long since I’ve seen my family . . . .

Joe stared at the page, trying to make sense of what he was reading. He looked back at the saddlebags, and wild hope rose in spite of common sense. He snapped the book closed and bolted across the yard, heedless of the icy spots. He slammed into the front door of the house in his haste, wrenched it open and looked frantically around.

The room was empty. His heart sank, and he chided himself for his foolishness as he walked slowly toward the fireplace.

Then he saw the boot. It was black under a layer of dust and grime, and was propped up on the arm of the long couch that sat in front of the fireplace. Joe stopped in the small space between the couch and the coffee table, looking down on what he knew instantly was the sleeping, living, form of his oldest brother. A cavalry hat with a black and gold knot was tilted over his face as if he’d fallen asleep by accident and knocked it askew when he slid down onto the couch.

Joe sank slowly onto the table and wordlessly drank in the sight of Adam’s chest moving up and down with each breath he took. He gently removed the hat and saw his brother’s face for the first time in almost two years. Adam looked exhausted and much older than when he’d left. Deep lines were etched into his face and he had shadows under his eyes. The hollows of his cheeks were darkened by a several-day growth of beard and a thin line of silver ran through his hair near his right temple. He was wearing a long, light blue wool cloak, which did little to hide the limp weariness of his haphazardly placed arms and legs.

Joe set the book and hat on the table next to him and reached out tentatively. “Adam?” He touched him lightly on the shoulder.

He was completely unprepared for the resulting explosion. His wrist was circled by an iron grip and then he was flying through the air to land hard on the floor behind the couch. With a gasp his lungs emptied and his vision grayed. A body landed on top of him, and he was stunned by a fist to his cheekbone. Dazed by the ferocity of the attack he swung blindly, but his blows were ineffective.

A blast of cold air blew through the room, and he suddenly felt the weight come off of him. As his vision cleared he realized Hoss had grabbed his attacker and was spinning him around for one of his near-lethal roundhouse punches.

“No, Hoss!” he shouted. “Don’t!”

Hoss pulled his blow as much as he could, but it was still powerful enough to send his adversary to the ground. Joe crouched over the body on the floor, frantically checking him over, trying to help him rise to his knees.

Utterly confused, Hoss stood over the two, still ready to defend his little brother, but at a loss to understand why Joe was helping the man who’d been beating him to a pulp.

Then a cynical baritone spoke on a wheeze. “I see you haven’t lost anything from that punch while I’ve been gone.”

“Adam?” he whispered, echoing Joe. Hoss picked up the man he’d just knocked flat and set him bodily on his feet. He held the broad shoulders with shaking hands and stared into the dark, expressive eyes with desperate longing that changed suddenly to glee. “Adam! What are you doin’ here alive? Where’d you come from? Dadburnit—” He choked suddenly and pulled his older brother into a warm embrace that was likely to squeeze the life out of him all over again. Joe pounded on his back, threatening additional damage.

Hoss finally pushed him away, and Adam was appalled to see tears running down his face.

“Hoss?” he asked, and turned to Joe, who also wept unashamedly. “I knew you’d be glad to see me, but—” His stomach lurched as he replayed what Hoss had said. “What did you mean, why am I alive?”

Hoss opened his mouth to reply, but turned away, biting his lip.

Joe stalled for a moment, saying, “Let’s have a drink.” He went to the liquor cabinet and reached for his father’s finest whiskey and three glasses.

Adam pulled off the cloak, revealing the gold- and silver-trimmed dark blue uniform of a Captain in the Federal Army. He hung it on the rack by the door and limped over to the hearth. Joe passed one of the glasses to him and said simply, “To brothers.” They all drank deeply.

Adam seated himself on the stone hearth in front of the fire, stretching his left leg out straight and kneading his thigh with one hand. Hoss refilled their glasses before settling onto the couch. Joe sank down next to him and put his feet up on the coffee table, and the two younger Cartwrights watched their oldest brother as if afraid he’d disappear.

“Joe, it’s like a miracle,” Hoss said.

Joe nodded, his throat closed with emotion.

“What’s going on?” Adam asked, bewildered.

Joe took another sip of his whisky and finally spoke. “You’re dead.”

Adam blanched, and his hand stilled on his leg. “That’s not very damn funny, Joe.”

“No, it ain’t,” said Hoss. “Pa got a letter from a Major Wilson. He said you were killed near Fredericksburg. Some place called the Wilderness, on May seventh.”

The horror of those two endless days of battle rushed back at him. “No,” Adam whispered, then looked up quickly at the thought of what the news must have done to his family.

Joe had bounced up and was at their father’s desk. He brought back an inlaid wood box about the size of his two hands and gave it to his oldest brother.

Adam set his glass down and removed the lid to find a pile of letters he’d written to his father. He put the box on the table in front of him and lightly touched the stack of paper. The top one was partially stained, the words still legible. “So that’s where it went,” he said softly. “I wondered . . . .” He looked up at his brothers and asked painfully, “Pa?”

“He took it real bad,” said Hoss. “Ain’t really been quite the same since.”

Adam dropped his head into his hands and whispered, “I didn’t know. Oh, God, if I’d only known.”

Joe smiled, though, his ever-present good humor reasserting itself more easily than it had in months. “Well, he’s gonna know soon enough.” He slapped Hoss on the back. “This’ll be the best Christmas ever!”

Hoss grinned too, then took a good look at his brothers, both of whom were beginning to sport shiners from their brief but fierce confrontation. “Well, if you two want to be able to see this great Christmas we’d better get some steaks on them faces.”

At exactly the same moment Joe and Adam reached gingerly for their eyes and winced.

Hoss started laughing and dragged first Joe, then Adam to their feet.

Adam stopped, though, and asked painfully, “What about Pa? Where is he?”

“He went to Reno, said he’d be back tonight.” He patted his brother’s back. “Don’t you go worryin’ none. This is the kinda shock a body can stand just fine. Now how ‘bout you tell me what started all that ruckus anyway?” he asked as he pointed his brothers in the direction of the kitchen.

Mood lightening, Adam pointed at Joe and said, “He woke me up.”

“All I did was touch you,” Joe protested.

“Yeah, well,” he growled, smiling, “don’t do it again, all right?”

A gleam appeared in Joe’s eye and he shoved Adam, who almost lost his balance but recovered quickly and shoved back. Joe grabbed him, and the next Hoss knew they were about to wrestle each other to the floor again. He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Hey,” he yelled. “Break it up. I’m starved.”

Adam laughed and let go, then grabbed his little brother to his side with an affectionate arm around the neck. “I missed you, buddy,” he said quietly,

Joe’s eyes filled, but his smile was brilliant. “Me too, big brother.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Night fell with the frigid crispness of winter in the mountains. Ben rode somberly into the yard between the barn and the house, his breath puffing out whitely. He’d almost hated to come home; in Reno it had been easier to forget the loss of his oldest son. There were few memories in that city, unlike here. He supposed he really should try to raise some enthusiasm for the upcoming holiday for the sake of Little Joe and Hoss, so when one of the ranch hands offered to stable Buck for him, he gladly said yes, suddenly anxious to get inside and see his boys.

He entered the house and put his coat, hat and gunbelt away next to an unfamiliar cloak, but was distracted from the question of who it belonged to by the familiar sound of his sons arguing. He rounded the corner to the dining room to find them eating, at a table set for four. His breath caught when he saw the box of letters at the opposite end of the table from his chair . . . at Adam’s place.

He froze, anger and grief choking him.

Silence fell, and he could hear Hop Sing sounding off in the kitchen in excitable Chinese.

When he could finally speak again he thundered, “And what exactly is the meaning of this?”

“You’re never gonna believe—” Joe started.

“Pa, it’s not what you think—” Hoss tried to fit in.

“Enough!” he roared, and took a breath to deliver a lecture they would never forget.

But in the brief silence a new voice intruded.

“Hi, Pa. Merry Christmas.”

Ben turned slowly, painfully to the kitchen entrance. There, with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, stood his oldest son. Ben felt his knees start to buckle.

He came back up from darkness to feel a chair under his legs and realized he must be sitting down. Someone was holding a glass of brandy to his lips. He swallowed once, then pushed it away. “Adam,” he whispered.

“Right here, Pa,” said the deep voice he’d never thought to hear again.

Ben slowly opened his eyes and saw his first-born’s worried face in front of him. He reached out to touch his son’s cheek and ran a thumb along the strong, scratchy jawline. He held his hand against the black hair, fingering the line of stiff silver strands, feeling the jagged scar beneath. He saw the purple and red puffiness around one of the dark eyes. Surely if this were a dream, his son wouldn’t have . . . a black eye?

“Adam!” He grabbed his son, wrapping his arms around the hard, muscled body, holding his son’s head to his chest as he had when he was a small boy, and he cried from joy.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

It was much later that night, and the flames in the massive fireplace were dying down. Adam had changed out of his uniform into black jeans and a heavy black shirt, the turned up sleeves showing powerful wrists and forearms. Seeing him again after all this time, Ben was struck anew by how big he was. There was a tendency to underrate the oldest and youngest Cartwright boys because of the sheer size of their brother Hoss, but in fact Adam was tall and broad, radiating life and power.

He was seated in his favorite chair, deep in thought, Joe and Hoss were on the couch in the midst of an argument about how many candles they could fit on the Christmas tree, and Ben was pouring four brandies. Adam continued to stare into the fire as Ben passed the glasses around, and he had to say his son’s name twice before he came back from wherever he’d been.

“Oh, thanks, Pa,” he said quietly.

Ben settled into the opposite chair and regarded him thoughtfully. It was too much to expect a man to come through a war unchanged, but Ben had an uneasy feeling that, even so, something was very wrong. First, though, he had to find out about the letter.

“Adam,” he asked, “what happened? How could there be such a mixup?”

Adam knew exactly what he was asking—he’d been going over it himself all evening. He looked at his brothers, saw them anxiously waiting. All three had suffered, and he didn’t have much to offer in explanation. “I don’t know for sure, Pa, but I can make some guesses.” He leaned back in the chair and sighed.

“The battles my company were in—” he paused, wondering how he could explain. “Remember when Major Ormsby tried to take on the Paiutes at Sharp’s Peak?”

The gunfire, the smoke, the crazy insanity of a fight gone wrong; oh, yes, he remembered.  “Over seventy men were killed that afternoon,” Ben answered, remembering he’d almost lost his son to an Indian bullet that day as well.

“Yeah, that was one hell of a fight,” Joe said.  “Then the Indians got the worst of it later, when Major Hungerford came over from Placerville with his battalion.”

Hoss didn’t comment, waiting with innate stillness for Adam to continue.

“That was nothing, Joe, nothing.” Adam shook his head mechanically, lost in the memories. When he spoke again they had to strain to hear his voice. “The Wilderness was the biggest mess I’ve ever seen. Brush so thick you could barely ride a horse through it, so dark from the tree canopy you couldn’t see more than ten, fifteen feet, and that was before the smoke from all the guns.” He stared into the embers of the dying fire. “I was lucky.”

“Lucky!” exclaimed Joe.

“That’s right. Lucky.” His gaze shifted slowly to his youngest brother. “What was left of my company went on to fight at Spotsylvania. Those who weren’t lost at Bloody Angle were killed the first week of June at Cold Harbor.”

Ben felt sick, and from the looks on his boys’ faces, they weren’t faring much better. They’d read about those battles in Virginia City’s newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. Even Dan de Quille’s usually elaborate reporting style had seemed overdone, histrionic, but when Ben had good-naturedly taken him to task over it the newspaperman had sworn that for once every word was strictly true. In fact, he’d toned down his descriptions, as the editor had felt that even the normally bloodthirsty readers of the West would find the details too horrifying for their morning coffee.

“I imagine Major Wilson just wrote whatever letters he could and based them on what he was told.” Adam stopped and looked up at his father. “I woke up three weeks later in an Army hospital in Washington.” He touched the silver strands that streaked back from his temple, evidence of the line a bullet had taken across his skull. “A souvenir,” he laughed without humor.

“Shoulder too?” asked Joe.

Adam raised an eyebrow in question.

He shrugged. “I pulled out your other jacket. I wanted to know who was carrying around my dead brother’s saddlebags and why.”

The corner of Adam’s mouth lifted in a small smile. “Of course.” He stretched and took a deep breath. “As to how the Major managed to get the facts wrong, it really isn't all that surprising. I imagine I looked dead, and he had more important things to worry about.”

“But he coulda looked closer,” protested Hoss.

Adam shook his head. “No, I’m sure he did the best he could. He was a good man. Not everyone took the time to write to families. Some of those bodies are probably still lying under a thicket, deep in the forest where they’ll never be found.” Probably burned beyond recognition, he mused.

“Why didn’t he check on you later?” asked Joe. “Then he could’ve written again and told us you were all right.”

“He died the next day. A sergeant from another battalion found a packet of sealed letters and sent them on. He came to visit me later, brought me my saddlebags and my journal, told me he’d sent a letter to you, so I didn’t worry. I assumed . . . .” He passed his hand over his forehead and looked at his family, feeling a heavy guilt settle onto him over what they’d been through. “I assumed he’d told you I was healing, that I’d be all right.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Pa. I should have written myself, I should have let you know.”

Ben rose and sat on the table in front of his son. He laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder and said warmly, “I wish you had, son, but it’s all right. You’re home with us now, and that’s what matters.”

Hoss stood and moved over by his brother. “Pa’s right. We’re just gonna forget the past and move on.”

“Yeah,” said Joe from the couch, his brows furrowed as he considered what his brother had been through. They had all suffered, in different ways. Then a thought occurred to him. “Hey, what happened to your leg?”

“My leg’s fine,” Adam replied briefly, trying to keep his father from worrying.

“Glad to hear it, but what happened?”

He sighed, knowing his kid brother would persist until he got an answer. “A horse landed on it.”

Joe frowned, but his volatile nature couldn’t stay serious for long, especially with his big brother back among the living. His face lit suddenly and a devilish smile appeared. “Hey, Adam, I haven’t had my snowball fight yet. Think you remember how to throw?”

Ben scowled at Joe, wanting more details on this additional injury, but when he saw Adam’s mood lighten he easily forgave his youngest.

“I can still throw, little brother, don’t you worry.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Joe winced at the vivid memory of being tossed over the couch onto the floor. “I guess you can at that.”

Ben looked to Hoss for clarification, but he just shook his head and mouthed, “Later.”

He resolved to follow up with Hoss the next day, but for now . . . . “Well, boys, I’d say it’s time for bed. We have a lot to do in the next few days to get ready for a real celebration!”

They all started for the stairs, but Ben held Adam back until the other two disappeared. “Are you really all right, son?”

Suddenly exhausted, he answered quietly. “Yeah, Pa, for the most part. I just need a few good nights’ sleep.”

Ben drew him close once more and Adam uncharacteristically allowed it, even resting his head on his father’s shoulder. Ben cherished the feeling.

“So many times I wanted to come back. I wanted to leave all the fighting, the noise and smoke—” His voice faded. “I just wanted to come back here where the mountains and the lake and the trees don’t care about states’ rights or slavery. But my men needed me, depended on me to keep them alive.” His voice was soft but strained. “Tell me it was worth it, Pa. Tell me it had to be done.”

Ben knew only deepest anguish would drive his fiercely independent son to ask for help so desperately. He ached to reassure him, to give him comfortable platitudes that would ease his spirit, but in the end he said simply, “You thought it was necessary when you left; you’re the only one who can answer that question for yourself now. I can only say that when I got the letter from the Major, I at least had the comfort of knowing I’d lost you to something you believed in.”

His arms tightened around his son, slowly rubbing his back in circles as he had when Adam was a small boy, but whether to comfort Adam or himself he couldn’t say. They stood for a long, quiet moment, and Ben felt the fist in his gut loosen for the first time since he’d gotten the letter from the Major. With each breath his son took it dissipated a little more, until on a final sigh it floated away.

When Ben felt the hard muscles under his hands relax he gently turned Adam toward the stairs and said, “Now go on up. I’m going to bank the fire, then I’ll be by to check on you.”

Adam raised a quizzical brow. “You haven’t done that since I was a boy.”

“No?” Ben asked wryly, his eyebrow raised in return. It was instantly evident from which parent his son had inherited the gesture.

The fatigue smoothed out into the first complete smile Ben had seen on his son’s face since he’d come back.

Adam replied softly, “I’d like that, Pa,” and limped slowly up the stairs.

Saturday, December 17, 1864

Normally the soundest of sleepers, Joe woke in the middle of the night with the feeling that something wasn’t right. He lay quietly for a few minutes but didn’t hear anything unusual, so he turned over and tried to go back to sleep. He couldn’t relax, though, and finally gave up and dragged on his pants and a pair of thick socks.

He slipped through his door and headed almost instinctively across the hall for his oldest brother’s room. He paused with one hand on the knob to listen carefully and heard rustling bedclothes. He opened the door just enough to slide inside without letting any heat out into the cold hallway. Adam’s room backed onto the chimney from the big fireplace on the first floor, and so had always been the warmest.

Joe’s eyes easily adjusted to the lower light, and he saw his brother had tangled himself in his covers in his restless sleep. Not forgetting his earlier experience waking him, he allowed his feet to make some noise on the floor and spoke quietly. “Adam? You okay?”

Adam moaned and rolled over, starting to mumble.

Joe couldn’t make out most of the words, but he recognized fear and incipient panic. He sat on the side of the bed, his weight pushing it down slightly, jostling his brother. “Adam, wake up. You’re having a bad dream.” He carefully tugged on the covers, trying to pull them out from under his brother’s hip without touching him. Adam rolled again, settled, and opened his eyes.

“Joe?” he asked foggily. “What are you doin’ here?”

“It was a nightmare.” He smoothed the blankets up over his brother’s shoulders.

“You, too? C’mere then,” and he lifted the covers, just as he’d done countless times when Joe was a boy.

Joe considered correcting him but thought better of it and climbed into the warmth. It was a little more crowded than when he’d done this as a kid, but when Adam wrapped his arms around him and fell peacefully asleep within seconds Joe decided he didn’t mind. He lay quietly on his side and wondered why Adam had been muttering “Fire.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ben came out of his room the next morning to find Hoss standing at his older brother’s door, peeking into his room. “Good morning, Hoss,” he said quietly. “Is something wrong?”

Hoss turned to his father with a grin and moved away from the door. “Nope. I’d say something’s a whole lotta right. Take a look.”

Ben looked into the room that was awash with sunlight from the early morning sun. A warm beam of light slanted across the coverlet, highlighting the two bodies in the bed that were curled together and deeply asleep, just as he’d seen countless times when Joe was small.

Ben was beginning to back quietly out of the room when Joe’s eyes opened. Ben held a finger to his lips and Joe turned his head to look behind him. Adam didn’t stir. Joe slid cautiously out from under the covers and stretched, then tiptoed carefully across the floor and out into the hallway. Ben closed the door silently and ushered Joe back to his room, Hoss following close behind.

“You haven’t climbed in with Adam in years, Joe,” Ben asked curiously. “Did you have trouble sleeping?” He knew Joe’d had some nightmares since the summer, but was surprised that Adam’s return hadn’t banished the dreams.

Joe shook his head and grabbed a shirt, shivering in the cold room. “Not me, him.”

Ben grew thoughtful. “Did he say what it was about?”

Joe stamped his feet into his boots. “He was talking in his sleep, but I couldn’t make anything out. As soon as I got in, he went right to sleep.”

“Mebbe we shouldn’t oughta wake him up yet, Pa,” suggested Hoss. “He looked awful tired yesterday.”

Ben nodded. “Let’s go get something to eat, then get the morning chores done. When Adam gets up we can all go into Virginia City and get some supplies for Christmas. How does that sound?”

“Fine with me,” Joe said.

“Me, too,” added Hoss. “C’mon, Joe, let’s go get breakfast.”

Ben followed, but paused for a moment to press his hand against Adam’s door before continuing downstairs.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Adam had been less than enthusiastic about getting back on a horse, commenting that he’d just spent a good part of the last four months on one, riding all the way from the State of Virginia to Virginia City by way of Arizona. That raised a couple of eyebrows, so he explained that the trip had been no simple task for a Union officer when the choice was to either travel through states that were sympathetic to the South or through territories the Indians had decided to reclaim, now that the white men were distracted by their battles. He was about to go into more detail, but when Hop Sing entered with a steaming plate and strict instructions to “eat, no talk!” Adam gave way to the force of nature that was their Chinese cook and promised a later explanation. After finishing everything on his plate, for he knew Hop Sing would notice and worry if he didn’t, he finally agreed to go with them as long as it was in the buckboard.

He didn’t get any shopping done, though, since everyone in town wanted to greet him and tell him how happy they were to discover he wasn’t dead after all. It was with relief that he allowed Sheriff Roy Coffee to carry him off to the International House for an hour to tell him all the local news. They were on their third cups of coffee before Adam finally got around to asking a question that had been bothering him all morning.

“Roy,” he said hesitantly, “how was it for them?”

The sheriff leaned his chair back onto the two back legs and stroked his jaw. He considered glossing over the past six months, but decided the man seated across from him deserved the straight story.

“It was bad, Adam. We didn’t know ‘bout the news here right away, since the letter was delivered out to the ranch. One of the hands came into town after supplies, and he stopped by and told me. I rode out with Doc Martin, to see if there was any way we could help.” He paused for a moment. “Funny how you do that. O’ course there weren’t nobody gonna be able to fix it.” He sat the chair back down on all four legs and smiled. “But it’s all worked out, and Ben’s sure happy now.”

Adam sat pensively, sipping at his coffee, thinking over what Roy had said and what he’d left unsaid. Roy knew his father as well as anyone, better than most, and when he said that he'd been unable to help him, Adam realized how deeply his father had grieved. He rubbed his hands over his face, remembering his father's devastation over the death of Joe's mother, Marie.

Roy remained quiet, allowing him time to regain control. Finally he managed to push his emotions away to their usual corner and smiled tentatively. “Yeah, he is happy.” He pushed his chair back. “And as much as I’ve enjoyed talking with you, I—” and he rose “—have some Christmas shopping to do.”

Roy stood, too, and clapped Adam on the back. “Don’t beat yourself up over this, son.”

Adam ducked his head to put on his hat and when he glanced up from under the brim the sheriff thought he looked troubled.

“I’ll work on it, Roy,” he said.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Hey, Adam,” Joe cried from across the street, and bounded through the carriages and horses.

Adam chuckled softly. Joe hadn’t changed—he rarely just walked anywhere.

Joe took the small step up onto the boardwalk with a springing leap and grabbed his brother by the arm. “There’s gonna be a Christmas party over at the Williamson’s tonight. Mr. Williamson hired some music players, and there’s gonna be a dance.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” Adam replied distantly. “I was kind of looking forward to a couple quiet evenings at home.”

“Oh, come on, you’ll have a great time.” Suddenly worried, Joe asked, “You’re feeling all right, aren’t you?”

Adam found he couldn’t disappoint his little brother, even though he knew he needed the rest. He’d barely begun to regain his health in the quiet life of Prescott, and the ride up from Arizona had worn on him more than he’d realized. He straightened. “I’m fine. Sure I’ll go, if that’s what the family’s doing. Just don’t expect me to dance.”

“You’ll have to. All the girls are going to want to stand up with you.”

“I thought you were the ladykiller, Joe. Haven’t you been keeping up while I’ve been gone?”

Joe snorted. “I don’t have any problems there, older brother, but they’re all going to want to be seen with the hero of the hour—”

“Oh, thanks,” Adam cut in sarcastically.

“—so of course you’ll dance. We’d better go get you some new clothes, though. You got so skinny I don’t think your stuff will fit right.” He didn’t want to mention that just a month ago they’d carefully packed everything away in a trunk with mothballs.

“You worry about your own clothes, Little Joe. I can take care of myself.”

“Just make sure you stop by the mercantile. Oh, and we’re meeting Pa and Hoss at the Bucket O’ Blood in an hour, so you better hurry.” Joe waved and headed back across the street.

And when did you get so grownup and bossy? Adam wondered.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Hoss thought the party that night was wonderful. The Williamsons were of his Pa’s generation and had one of the largest homes in Virginia City which they’d cheerfully gone all out to spruce up for the holidays. The entrance hall was crowded and noisy with guests removing their outer garments and greeting each other. Chinese servants hired for the night whisked the coats away and circulated with trays of hot punch for the chilled travelers, many of whom had driven in from their distant ranches and would stay in town overnight.

Mr. and Mrs. Williamson were particularly glad to see Adam; he’d become friends with the older couple several years ago when he’d helped design their house. Hoss thought he noticed the glimmer of a tear in Mrs. Williamson’s eye when she took his brother briefly in her arms, but then she was laughing at something he said and passed him on to her husband with an admonition to have a good time.

Hoss walked with Adam to the open double doorway to the left. They paused a moment to survey the crowd, and he remembered a conversation he’d witnessed in the mercantile between his brother and Mrs. Williamson regarding this very entrance. She’d wanted a way to open the rooms to each other to create a large area for the parties she loved, yet was frustrated by the relatively small doorways typical of Virginia City homes. Adam had asked Sam to pull down some of the writing slates he sold the schoolchildren. With Hoss holding three of them in each hand, upright on a table, he’d slid the middle slates toward each other, showing her how he could make a space in the walls for hiding the doors when she wanted them open, yet pull them together to close off a room. Mrs. Williamson had been delighted. As they now passed through to the large parlor, Adam ran a proprietary hand lightly over what Hoss always thought of as the disappearing doors.  He touched them, too, with his big workingman’s hands, and reminded himself to tell his brother how much he admired his practical creativity.

An hour later, Hoss decided he was glad that Adam had been willing to come. He knew his older brother was tired and his leg was bothering him some, but he seemed happy enough to sit on a couch with the steady stream of ladies Joe had predicted. Hoss had to admit his brother looked mighty fine. His evening clothes fit perfectly—the black broadcloth set off his black hair and dark hazel eyes, and the crisp white shirt with its black string tie emphasized his flashing smile.

Hoss looked around for the other members of his family. He was glad to see them happy again, but knew the last six months had marked them all. Typically, Joe had lost his jacket somewhere and was dancing with every girl in town from the looks of it, but Hoss noticed he rarely strayed from the room where Adam sat. Their father stood talking with various friends, an elegant man in his gray suit and silver waistcoat who seemed to stand straighter tonight than he had since July, but Hoss saw his eyes flicker frequently over toward the couch in the corner. Heck, he was doing the same thing. He’d leave to get a glass of punch every now and then, talk with some folks, but always returned to where he could keep an eye on his older brother. He smiled. Anyone who wanted to visit with the Cartwrights tonight was going to be stuck in the Williamson’s east parlor.

The current song ended, and Hoss watched with amusement as someone claimed Adam’s conversational partner for the next dance and another girl immediately took her place. Adam was going to be talked dry pretty soon.

Hoss wandered into the parlor on the opposite side of the house, where the buffet was set up next to one of the prettiest Christmas trees he’d ever seen. The room had a high ceiling, and the star on top of the fir just brushed the white plaster. There were more candles clipped to its branches than he could count, and a servant was just starting to light them. It was going to be quite a project to get them all burning at the same time.

He picked up two glasses of punch and took them into the other room, presented them to a grateful Adam and his current partner, then went back for one for himself. Two more servants had joined the first in lighting the candles and the tree was quickly becoming a beautiful sight, like the stars in the clear night sky shining through the canopy of a forest.

The guests suddenly grew quiet and Hoss heard a flourish of guitar chords, then Adam’s rich baritone rang out:

There was a sign in Bethlehem,
Over a barn a star shone down
By that sign the wise men knew
The Son of God would soon be born . . .

and he launched into one of Hoss’ favorite Christmas carols. One by one, Mr. Williamson blew out most of the lamps and candelabras in the house, and people moved to the buffet parlor to gaze at the tree and listen to the song of hope and new birth.

When Adam finished there was round of applause, and he started playing again, this time a soft wordless song with a harplike accompaniment and a haunting melody he picked out in the higher range of the strings. People gradually resumed their conversations, and Hoss wandered slowly over to where his brother sat on the improvised stage, reaching him just as he finished.

“That was right purty, Adam,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed your songs.”

Adam set the guitar carefully against the wall with a last stroke against the neck of the instrument and stood. “I missed playing,” he said simply. “There wasn’t much chance for music beyond the occasional harmonica. Sometimes we’d sit in camp at night and swap songs. There was one fellow in particular who seemed to know the words to everything.” He smiled. “I actually knew one or two he didn’t, so we’d get together and share. I taught him ‘Sylvie’ and he taught me that one I was just playing. “

Hoss laughed. “I like that Sylvie song, and you sure sing it good. You should have that feller come out here and visit. You two could sing for us.”

Adam’s face fell and said abruptly. “He’s dead.”

Hoss swore at himself for bringing back the bad memories, even if inadvertently. “I sure am sorry about that. I’d like to hear some of them songs he taught you anyway, if you don’t mind too much.”

Adam put his arm around Hoss’ shoulders. “No, I wouldn’t mind,” he said softly.

Hoss stared down at the floor, a little embarrassed but touched by the naked emotion in his brother’s voice. “Aw, Adam . . . .”

“Let’s go get some more of that punch,” Adam said, rescuing him. “I’m a bit dry from all the talking and singing.”

Hoss remembered the tree. “You won’t believe what they got in there,” he said enthusiastically as he followed Adam to the other room. “They’ve got the biggest durn tree, an’ it’s all covered with—”

His voice broke off when Adam stopped dead in the doorway, his face sheet white. Hoss looked where Adam was staring but saw only the brightly-lit tree and the buffet.

“Adam,” he asked quietly. “You all right?”

“Hoss . . . .” He swallowed. “Hoss, I have to get out of here.”

Hoss took his arm and turned him, since he looked like he was incapable of moving for himself. He put an arm around his brother and guided him to the front door, not stopping as he called to one of the servants to find their coats and bring them outside.

There was a long veranda around the house and Hoss steered Adam to the far corner where it was darkest. It was below freezing but his brother was oblivious, lost in a world of his own.

“Adam, what’s goin’ on?” Hoss asked.

There was no answer.

“Adam,” he said more emphatically, rubbing his brother’s upper arms briskly. “C’mon out of it and tell me what’s goin’ on!”

Adam lost a bit of the glazed look in his eyes, seeming to notice Hoss for the first time. “I—” he stopped and tried again. “The tree—”

“Yeah, what about the tree? It’s one of the purtiest I’ve ever seen.”

Adam shook his head and turned to look out over the city. A servant brought their coats and gave them to Hoss, then scurried back inside where it was warm. Hoss shrugged into his and then helped Adam, who didn’t seem to notice one way or the other.

“I’m sorry,” Adam finally said. “You go on back inside and have a good time. I’m going to stay out here a little while.”

Hoss was puzzled, but he had long ago accepted that the convoluted workings of his older brother’s mind were beyond him. All he could do was let him know he’d be around if needed. “If’n that’s what you really want,” he said dubiously.

Adam patted him blindly on the arm. “Please, Hoss. I’ll come back in, but I just need a little time by myself.”

Hoss frowned, then nodded. “All right, but if you’re not back soon, I’m gonna come lookin’. Don’t want my brother turnin’ into an ice block when I just got him back.”

Adam waved a distracted hand in acknowledgement, and Hoss went reluctantly back to the party.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Flames among the trees. The sound of guns firing, their sparks setting off more little brush fires that conspired to turn the forest into a burning hell. So many rifles shooting that there was a continuous wall of sound. Smoke—thick, choking, blinding smoke. Someone screaming off to the left, another behind. The silent wordlessness of desperate hand-to-hand fighting on the right. Hacking at the impenetrable thicket with rifle barrels, trying to make a path somewhere, anywhere away from the cacophony, the insanity. Who was the enemy? Uniforms all looked the same color in the semi-darkness. You knew it was the enemy when you were hit.

. . . falling, something heavy landing hard on my leg, can’t move, can’t escape . . . .

The door shut with a bang behind him and he heard boots on the wooden walkway.

“Hoss said you were out here,” his father said.

Adam smiled to himself. He should have known Hoss wouldn't just leave him alone. He took a deep breath of cold air, feeling it swirl in his lungs, clearing the smoke from his memories.

“I needed to be outside for a while,” he answered without turning around.

“We can go home now if you want.” Ben sounded concerned.

Adam ducked his head, then faced his father with a small smile. “No, not yet. It would spoil Joe’s evening.”

“Joseph will survive,” Ben said firmly.

“No, Pa. It’s all right.” He could see by his father’s frown that he wasn’t convinced. Adam really didn’t want to ruin their evening so he added, “Let’s go see if Hoss left any of that fruitcake.”

Ben laughed and allowed himself to be persuaded, but Adam knew he’d have questions later. Maybe later he’d have answers.

Sunday, December 18, 1864

They all slept late the next morning. Adam’s wish for “just a few good nights’ sleep” had taken on new meaning for Ben when his eldest woke them all in the predawn darkness with his cries. He’d been embarrassed and upset to have bothered them, but wouldn’t say more about the dream than, Don’t worry, it never comes twice in one night.

Deeply disturbed by the implications of that statement, Ben had returned to his bedroom at Adam’s insistence, pondering his words. Somehow he knew he’d have to get his son to talk about whatever was bothering him. He lay awake until dawn, but no answers came.

Morning brought no additional wisdom, so he resolved to wait and watch for an opportunity. He looked around the table at his boys, reflecting that aside from a certain heaviness around everyone’s eyes, they seemed as normal as ever. Adam was trying to find out who was going where and working on what today, Joe was talking about the party last night, and Hoss—  He smothered a grin with his hand.  Hoss was eating breakfast. That usually kept him sufficiently occupied.

Ben decided to take control before things degenerated. “The first thing we’re doing today is go to church,” he stated, “where we’ll properly give thanks for Adam’s safe return.”

Out of pure habit Joe almost raised his weekly complaint, but snapped his mouth shut. The look he sent his oldest brother warmed Ben’s heart. “You’re right, Pa,” he said softly.

Hoss set down his biscuit and grasped Adam’s arm. “I already had me a little talk with God about this, but I reckon it wouldn’t hurt to do it again in church.”

“And I have some prayers to say for a few folks,” said Adam quietly.

Ben looked at him curiously but filed the comment away for later. His oldest son rarely talked about religion unless there was some philosophical or historical aspect of it he was studying. This was something different, and he wondered again at the changes the war had forced on his son.

“We’d better hurry, boys. Don’t want to be late.” Ben’s words, as he expected, instigated a stampede for the second floor. Joe, as usual, won the race to the stairs, Hoss was a close second, and Adam followed with dignity belied by his long, if slightly irregular, stride. Ben sat back in his chair and laughed.

“Velly happy number one son come home,” came a voice at his shoulder. “Now Cartlight family all better.”

And as the Chinese cook returned to his kitchen Ben grinned at Hop Sing’s words. He was right on the mark.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

If Adam thought he’d seen well wishers at the party the night before, it was nothing compared to the greetings at the church. To his embarrassment, even the minister said a few words from the pulpit. Having someone come back to the community who’d been thought dead was an occasion to be celebrated and thoroughly talked over, especially when that person was someone as well-liked and respected as Adam Cartwright. More than that, his return brought hope to those whose families lived in the East and were embroiled in the War. In the socializing after the service he was able to ease a few minds about the actual locations of certain battles, and though it took a toll on him, he discussed the war openly with those who had a genuine interest. How could he not help with their fears when he knew how his absence had hurt his own family?

But it didn’t take long before he wished himself elsewhere. Without realizing it, sometime in the last few months he’d developed an aversion to crowds. Particularly crowds of people who seemed to want something from him. In this case it was only conversation, but he found himself exhausted without knowing why. It was with relief that he spotted Hoss heading his way.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Hoss said as he took Adam’s arm and began to turn him away. “Pa needs to ask us something.”

The elderly lady nodded. “Now, you take care of yourself, young Adam,” she said. “Your father won’t survive another scare like that one.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will,” he promised, head starting to pound.

Hoss drew him over to a tree, away from the church. Adam rubbed his fingers over his forehead and squinted at his brother. “I hope Pa doesn’t want me to go Sunday visiting—”

Hoss cut him off. “Nothin’ like that. I just figgered you looked a mite put-upon. Them women sure can talk.”

“If we’d had them in Virginia, the Confederates would have run the other direction fast enough. Never mind rifles, those ladies are deadly.”

Hoss laughed. “Well, I know you can’t be too bad off if you’re still makin’ jokes. All the same, I think it’s time to head home.”

Adam looked around. “What about Pa and Joe?”

“They’ll be along when they’re good ‘n ready. You know Joe wants to talk with all the gals, and Pa’s got a few details to clear up with the preacher about the lumber for the new pews. He can ride Chubb home an’ I’ll go with you.”

They started walking to the buggy that Adam had unearthed from the barn and hitched without comment this morning. Joe had been about to tease his brother about being out of shape for riding, but after a glance at his face he merely mounted Cochise and headed out. Ben had climbed into the vehicle as if he never rode a horse to church, and Hoss brought up the rear on Chubb.

Hoss kept Adam in deep conversation about timber stands as they walked so that no one would bother them. The buggy dipped deeply to the right when Hoss climbed in, then balanced slightly when Adam got up on the other side. Hoss took the reins and snapped them on the horses’ backs, taking them out of the churchyard. Adam stretched his left leg out onto the running board and absently massaged the big thigh muscle. They rode in quiet companionship for a while, and when they came to the path to the lake Hoss looked at his brother. Adam nodded and they turned off.

It was an unusually warm day for December, more like Indian summer. The sky was as deep a blue as Lake Tahoe and the air was so crisp and clear it was as if every tree had been outlined in fine black ink. Although the grass was long into its winter dormancy there’d been no real snow for a while so it was dry and golden. The loveliness of the countryside struck Adam afresh and he wondered if it would eventually be able to blot out the memories of another forest in a darker, muggier clime.

It wasn’t long before they came to the beautiful wooded promontory that held the grave of Marie Cartwright. Though Joe was her only birth child, Marie had been mother to Adam and Hoss as well, and they still missed her. Adam climbed stiffly to the ground and walked over to where she was buried. Hoss led the horses to a tree and fiddled with the harness to give Adam a little more time alone, then slowly walked over. His brother was sitting on the ground with his arms wrapped around his legs, ankles crossed, his brows drawn together in fierce concentration. Hoss stood beside him, content to gaze out at the lake.

After a while Adam spoke. “I knew a lot of men who’ll never have a tombstone.”

Hoss waited patiently and eventually he was rewarded when Adam opened up a little.

“I can’t get them out of my mind. I saw five of them go down in just minutes. I know there was nothing I could’ve done to change it, but I still see them fall.” He counted them off on his fingers, as if knocking down little stick men in the air. “One, two, three, four, five. Just like that, and they were dead.”

He lay back on the ground and stared up at the blue sky. “I wish I could forget, but that wouldn’t be fair to them. They deserve to be remembered.” He shaded his eyes with his arm. “But I still wish I could forget . . . .” His voice tapered away as exhaustion finally overcame the living nightmare, and he slipped into sleep.

Hoss continued to stand over him. Death, death, and more death. It occurred to him that Adam hadn’t once talked about his time in the East without mentioning killing. Hoss had been blessed with physical strength that could protect Adam from any predators, but he felt woefully inadequate to protect his brother from his memories.

Monday, December 19, 1864

Adam slept peacefully Sunday night and woke feeling better than he had in weeks. His leg was only slightly stiff this morning, requiring just a few minutes to loosen up the ligaments and muscles that had been severely damaged when his horse fell on him. Cheered by the thought that a break from riding might finally allow his leg to heal, he pulled his black jeans on quickly and slid into his boots. He then tossed on a thick red wool shirt and grabbed a black vest from a peg on the wall in case it was cold downstairs.

He was just sitting down at the table when his father descended the stairs. “First one up this morning, Adam?”

“I think so. At least I haven’t seen anything of those two brothers of mine yet.”

“They’d better be up soon. They have to check the fence one last time out at Redbird Meadow before the snows hit again. Do you want to go with them?”

Hoss came downstairs and before Adam had a chance to answer he asked, “What, Adam’s volunteering to ride fence?” He shook his big head as he sat down and poured himself some coffee. “You gonna do that, you’ll have to get your head outta those engineering idees for pulling wire together. Now me an’ Joe, we got us a system.”

Adam smiled. He was familiar with some of the systems his two brothers had put together. Sometimes they even worked. He watched Hoss dig into his plate of eggs and potatoes with relish, marveling again at how much food his brother burned to maintain his big frame.

“No, I don’t think so, today,” Adam replied. “Unless you have something else you need me to do, Pa, I should go over my tack. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do any decent repairs and I’m going to need it tomorrow.”

“Oh?” Ben asked. “What’s going on tomorrow?”

“I have to go to Placerville. I have some papers to deliver to the Battalion Commander, Colonel Beltree.”

“Official business?” Ben asked. There was a hint of trepidation in his voice that Adam didn’t catch, but Hoss looked sharply at his father.

“Yes. Just because I’m home doesn’t mean I’m out of the Army,” he said wryly.

“What?” exclaimed Joe from the stairs.

Startled, Adam turned to look at him, missing the stricken expression on Ben’s face. “I’m actually here on detached duty,” he explained as Joe joined them at the table. “I only left Virginia because Sam Bryant at the Interior Department asked me to go observe the Arizona Territory's first legislative assembly and send reports back to Washington. I guess he thought I might have some insight since I grew up in a Western territory. I was down in Prescott for about six weeks. Bryant also gave me a pouch to deliver to Colonel Beltree at Fort Churchill when I finished there. When I got to the Fort, they said he’d been transferred to Placerville, so Placerville is where I’m going.”

Joe stared at him with the same lost hurt expression he’d had when Adam left for college, and again when he’d gone East two years ago. “So you weren’t coming back home? You just stopped by because you were in the neighborhood?”

“No, Joe, of course not. I had to see you. I was just lucky enough to get orders that helped.”

Hoss set his fork on his plate, appetite destroyed. “How soon d’you have to go back?” he asked quietly.

Adam finally became aware of the atmosphere at the table. He slanted a glance at his father, who was uncharacteristically silent. “It depends on what the Colonel has to say.”

“What does that mean?” Joe asked, exasperated.

“It means I don’t know,” Adam answered patiently. “You saw my horse and my uniform, Joe. I thought you knew what that meant.”

“Yeah, I saw your horse. I figured they loaned him to you so you could get home, and you’d turn him over to the Army here. They always need horses.”

“The Army of the Potomac doesn’t loan horses. They need them in Virginia.”

Joe’s temper flamed. “So you’ll just do whatever the Colonel says, no questions?”

“That’s right,” said Adam evenly.

“He could send you right back to the war!”

Adam paled slightly, but answered honestly and steadily. “Yes, he could.”

Joe jumped up and threw his napkin on the table. “And you’d just go? Just ride off and leave us again?”

“Joseph . . . .” Ben’s voice was a painful whisper.

Joe ignored his father. “Well, I think that stinks, Adam. Look at you. You’re too thin, you’re worn out, most of the time you can’t sleep and you have nightmares when you do. You can’t stay even a half day in the saddle without your leg bothering you, and I’ll bet that shoulder isn’t up to speed either.”

Adam shook his head slowly, trying to blot out Joe’s words. His brother was right, he wasn’t completely recovered yet, but he was well enough to fight, and he knew that was all that counted to the Army.

Joe stared at him in desperation, seeing the answer in his eyes. “I can’t watch you kill yourself, brother. I can’t—” His throat closed and he gulped in air, chest heaving. “I can’t lose you again, Adam, I just can’t.”

He strode to the door, grabbed his jacket, and slammed outside.

Adam rubbed his forehead, shoulders hunched against the body blow Joe had just delivered. He looked up at his father, at his other brother, and saw Joe’s fears in their eyes as well. “Pa . . . Hoss . . . .”

“It’s how we all feel, big brother. I know you don’t got a choice in this, but that ain’t gonna make the waitin’ any easier.”

Ben rose to follow Joe, but stopped by Adam’s chair. “Why don’t you stay here today, son. Work on your tack.” Ben squeezed his shoulder, then his footsteps echoed across the living room and they heard the door open and close softly.

Adam dropped his head into his hands. “I didn’t want a fight, Hoss,” he whispered. “I’ve fought enough battles to last the rest of my life.”

He heard his brother’s chair scrape back and a moment later felt his hand, warm on his back. “I know, Adam. I know.” Hoss exhaled a great sigh and said, “I better go get some grub and join Little Joe if we’re gonna get that fence mended before sundown.”

Adam sat alone at the table, staring at the ruins of breakfast.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ben found Little Joe in his stall, currying Cochise. “Joseph?” he asked.

Joe’s hand stilled on his horse’s back, but he didn’t turn to his father. “How can he go, Pa?”

Ben sighed. Joe had grown, had steadied so much in the last two years. He was more relaxed, and Ben could see him maturing into a fine man. Every now and then, though, Joe reverted to the bewildered little boy whose adored oldest brother had abandoned him. No matter that it hadn’t really happened that way, that was how Joe felt, and that was what was real for him. First Adam left for college, then for the war, and then he’d been lost to them forever. Ben could hardly bear to remember the past summer. Joe had walked around in a dazed fog for months, making Ben’s own pain that much harder to endure. If they hadn’t had Hoss to hold them steady, Ben thought he and Joe would likely have gone mad.

“You know the answer to that,” he said gently.

“I know in my head, Pa. I know Adam’s always been the responsible one. But inside,” he thumped his chest, “inside I just don’t understand how he can even think of going back.” He turned to his father and Ben’s heart sank at the pain that twisted his son’s face.

“You saw him,” Joe ground out. “I know what it’s like to face Indians, to have outlaws shooting at you; it’s part of protecting what’s ours. But we don’t do it every day—we don’t go looking for it. But he’s been doing it for two years, and now he’s going back?” He looked up. “I don’t understand how he can do it. I don’t understand how he can ride back East, find his regiment, and say ‘I’m here, let me go fight some more.’ I don’t understand why they don’t all just pack up and go home. Is it really that important, what they’re fighting for?”

“To Adam, I think it is.” Ben paused, trying to find some way of explaining that Joe could understand. “We fight to defend the Ponderosa.”

“The Ponderosa is our home, Pa.”

“And so is the Union, son.”

Joe started to saddle his horse.

“They killed him, Pa,” Joe said with heat. “They killed him once, and they’ll do it again, and we won’t get another chance. He’ll be gone for good this time.”

“Joe, we don’t know that.” Ben tried to reassure his youngest, but Joe wasn’t having any of it. Ben had to step back as Joe nudged his horse out of the stall.

“Pa, take a good look at his eyes. He’s already dead inside. He just hasn’t figured it out yet.”

And as Ben watched his youngest leave the barn and leap into his saddle, he found himself praying his son was wrong.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Adam worked on the tack all morning, resewing a hastily mended break in the rein, reinforcing the headstall, patching a bullet hole in the skirt of the saddle. He stopped for a brief lunch, not really hungry, but he didn’t want to upset Hop Sing as well.

It was early afternoon when he finished. His father had gone to Carson City for the day so he decided to go for a ride. He knew he’d pay for it physically, but he was too restless to stay home. To sit around the house would invite memories he didn’t want to deal with right now.

This time, though, he ignored the McClellan saddle in favor of the one his father had given him years ago and tossed it up on his favorite horse, Sport. Many times he’d missed having the familiar animal with him in battle, but he’d lost three mounts to the enemy and was glad Sport had been safe here. And well cared for, too, judging by the gleam on his fuzzy winter coat.

He yelled into the kitchen door to Hop Sing not to wait dinner on him and rode out of the yard at an easy lope that soon stretched into a full-out gallop on the main road. He thought about riding back up to Marie’s grave, but decided he’d had enough death for now. He passed the turnoff without a glance and continued north and west, around the top of Lake Tahoe, toward the high Sierra. He knew he couldn’t go all the way to Donner Pass, he didn’t have time, but still he wanted to get as far away from civilization—Hah! he snorted, man isn’t as civilized as he thinks—as he could.

He got as far as the foot of Mount Rose before he decided to stop. The sun was shading everything with a golden glow as it began to head down over the mountains, touching the snow-covered peaks with strokes of gold as well. It was spectacularly beautiful, and he felt a deep peace spread through his soul. This was where he belonged—here, in the mountains. He sat quietly on Sport for a while. The horse dropped his head and foraged for grass, the jingling of his bit the only sound in the wilderness besides the wind blowing through the pines.

Eventually the light began to fade and with reluctance he pulled his horse’s head up again. He needed to be as close to the ranchhouse as possible before it got dark. Sport could find his way back to his stable at night, but it would be getting cold and he realized he was hungry. Well, he knew better than to set off without supplies, so he couldn’t complain. He turned his horse’s head and nudged him into a slow lope towards home.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ben was worried, and though he tried to hide it from Joe and Hoss he knew they saw through him. He’d sent them off to bed with a comment about a few pieces of paperwork he wanted to finish, but the truth was that he wouldn’t be able to sleep until Adam was home and they all knew it. He’d given up on the papers and was seated in the red leather chair in front of the fire with a glass of brandy he’d just poured when he finally heard the slow clopping of hooves in the yard. He set his drink on the hearth, grabbed his hat and coat, and went outside to greet his son.

He found Adam in the barn, trying to lift his saddle up onto the posts where they were stored. Joe had been right; Adam’s arm wasn’t doing its job properly. Ben came up behind him and easily lifted the saddle to its place, wondering what else he was missing. They worked side by side, finishing up the essential grooming and putting everything away, then Ben walked slowly by his son’s side as he limped across the yard to the house.

He settled him, coat and all, by the fireplace and handed him his untouched brandy, warm from sitting next to the fire. Adam finished it in two swallows and shivered convulsively. Ben poured another, then went to the kitchen to fix a large bowl of the stew Hop Sing had left simmering on the stove.

Adam practically inhaled the steaming food.

“I’m glad to see your appetite is back.” Ben nodded at the empty bowl.

Adam’s lips quirked upward in a sideways grin. “I forgot to take anything with me.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “I thought I taught you better than that.”

“You did. I guess I just needed a reminder.” He leaned forward to slide out of his coat, but Ben moved quickly to take it from him. When Adam would have gotten up for more stew, Ben pressed the second drink on him and went to the kitchen to refill the bowl himself. Adam sipped at the drink, feeling the warmth spread through him. He recognized how worried his father had been by his atypical coddling. Ben brought the stew over to him, and he ate it a little more slowly this time. When he finished he set the empty bowl on the hearth and sat back in the chair.

“Pa,” he said, “I’m sorry.” . . . sorry I hurt you by leaving, sorry I didn’t write more, sorry I didn’t come back sooner . . . .

“I know,” Ben’s answer was to all of Adam’s worries. “Go on up to bed, now. It’s going to be a short night.”

Adam nodded and levered himself stiffly out of the chair. “Goodnight, Pa.”

“Goodnight, son.”

Tuesday, December 20, 1864

A dark silence fell over the two younger Cartwrights at the breakfast table the next morning when Adam descended the stairs dressed in his uniform. It wasn’t that it didn’t look good on him, thought Joe, trading a look with Hoss, and it struck him that his brother was a very handsome man.

The dark blue wool accentuated his dark eyes and hair. Pewter buttons ran down the front of the jacket, ending at a black leather belt that was hung with pouches and a pistol holster on the right. The belt pulled the jacket tight at the waist and emphasized his powerful shoulders and chest. The sky blue pants had a silver stripe down the side of his long legs that disappeared into polished knee-high black boots. A yellow kerchief around his throat drew attention to the golden Captain’s shoulder boards, as well as the flecks of gold in his eyes. He held a pair of yellow gauntlets and a silver sword in one hand; in the other was a hat the same color as the jacket, with an emblem of crossed gold swords on the front and a cord of black silk shot with gold that ran twice around the crown, ending in a knot of black and gold at the front.

All in all an impressive sight, but it only reminded the two brothers that he still served the Federal Government.

Adam placed the hat, gloves and sword on the coffee table in front of the fireplace and moved to the buffet. He made up a plate from the chafing dishes Hop Sing had set out and sat down, the silence still unbroken.

“May I have the coffee, please,” he asked.

Joe shot him a black glare, but passed the coffeepot.

Courteous as ever, Adam responded, “Thank you.”

Silverware clinked on china as they ate.

Ever the peacemaker, Hoss lifted a basket and offered, “Roll, Adam?”

Adam took the dish with a “Thank you, I believe I will,” and reached for the butter.

Silence fell again.

“Please pass the jam,” was his next request.

Joe slammed it down in front of him, and he raised an eyebrow in question.

“You’re really going through with this, aren’t you?” Joe asked bitterly.

Adam spread the jam carefully on his roll. “Yes, I am,” he said mildly, placed the knife neatly across his plate and bit off a piece of the bread. He chewed slowly as he regarded his little brother, then took a sip of coffee. He set the cup back in its saucer with a gentle clink. “What you don’t seem to understand, Little Joe, is that I agreed to follow orders.”

“Ha!” Joe snorted. “You? Follow orders? Since when?”

“Joseph!” came Ben’s angry, exasperated voice from the bend in the stairs. He slowly descended to the main floor, his black brows drawn together in furious anger.

Joe flushed.

“I follow orders since I gave an oath to the United States of America,” said Adam soberly. He dabbed at his mouth with his red checked napkin and set it carefully over his plate, then rose and walked over to the coffee table. “That oath means something to me, Joe.”

Joe’s chair scraped loudly across the floor when he stood. He looked helplessly at his father, but Ben was pensively watching Adam’s long fingers as they quickly and almost unconsciously tied the intricate knot that held his sword in place.

Joe fidgeted while Adam strode to the door, lifted down his wool uniform cape and swung it around his shoulders. He’d put on his hat and drawn on one of the gauntlets when Joe finally exploded.

“You’re not going alone,” he stated fiercely. Stunned silence greeted his words.

Adam looked up from under the brim of his hat and Joe waited with trepidation for the inevitable explosion.

But instead a slow smile spread across his face. “Then get your bedroll and a warm jacket. It’s a long, cold ride to Placerville.”

Joe unleashed a shout of joy and in just a few steps was pounding Adam on the back. “You just wait for me, you hear? I’ll have everything together in no time!”

Hoss joined them and said, “I’m comin’ too, big brother. Give me just a minute.”

Ben cleared his throat loudly, and all three turned to him, suddenly silent.

Joe was the first to speak, words tumbling out one after the other. “But Pa, I have to go. It’s a two day trip, he’ll have to stop somewhere after Echo Lake overnight, and he’s been away from the mountains too long, he’ll get lost out there on his own.”

“I gotta go, too, Pa,” tossed in Hoss. “He’ll starve if I don’t go along and cook for him—he’s puny as it is.”

They anxiously waited for their father’s verdict.

Ben scowled. “Those are two of the poorest excuses I’ve ever heard in my life. Adam has been roaming these mountains for twenty-five years and if he can’t feed himself on the trail—” Ben came to a sudden halt and shifted his gaze to his oldest.

Adam just rolled his eyes and grinned. “So, Pa, want to make it a family affair?”

Ben looked like he was about to erupt, but when he did it was into laughter. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

And amid all the whoops and yells from the two younger Cartwrights a message passed between Adam and his father.

I understand what you’re doing, son.

Thanks, Pa.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

It was a long ride. They cut west through Ponderosa land to Lake Tahoe and rode along the water until they reached the southern end. They stopped for lunch and to give their horses a rest before tackling the next section, which would take them up into the mountains a thousand feet in less than two miles. Adam didn’t talk much as they sat around their fire, preferring to stare out across the lake to the towering rugged Sierras. He’d never seen mountains to equal these. They were raw, rough and, in geological terms, young. Not like the relatively forgiving mountains of the old Appalachian ranges in the East. He drank in the sight like a man dying of thirst.

When they finished lunch they started the long climb up to Echo Lake. They rode single file up the switchbacks, Hoss in the lead, then Ben, Joe, and finally Adam. The drag position suited him today; he could watch his family and contemplate the changes of the last two years. Joe had grown the most, of course, though it was still incredibly easy to set him off. Hoss had gained maturity, too. Always sensitive to the moods and needs of his family, grounded in an unshakable relationship with the land, Hoss now exhibited a strong steadiness of character that Adam suspected had sustained Joe and his father through the last six months.

His father. Adam watched Ben sway easily with the motion of the saddle as his horse, Buck, bounded up a particularly steep section of trail. His father looked old. Had his supposed death done that to him? Adam sighed and set his horse for the same hill. The rolling motion of the cavalry horse’s hindquarters under him reminded him of his father’s personality. Concentrated, controlled power, directed to a single end—creating a place for his sons.

His thoughts shifted to the men who had been under his command. He’d had a duty to them, a father’s responsibility, and he’d failed. When they had needed him he’d been unable to help, and they’d died. Adam looked around at the forest, the tall pines creating a living canopy that protected the bushes and vines and multitudes of other plants. Step off the trail, and you’d be lost. He shivered.

They took a break when they reached the divide. Adam stood next to his horse, one stirrup hooked over the top of the saddle as he loosened the cinch. The horse dropped its head and blew hard. Adam patted it on the neck. “I know,” he murmured. “You’re not used to this kind of country. It’ll be easier now.” He took a drink from his canteen and looked down the trail. He couldn’t help but see the thick forests of Virginia. The eastern slope of the Sierras received more rain than the Ponderosa, and the underbrush was heavier. The trees reached high and crowded together, making a dark canopy that alternated with brilliant light where the sun could get through to the ground.

A heavy hand dropped on his shoulder and a voice spoke in his ear. “Hey, Adam—”

He spun around, grabbed his assailant by the jacket, and had his fist cocked before he realized it was Hoss.

“Whoa, there, brother,” Hoss said. “You all right?”

Adam let go and moved back to his horse’s side to tighten the cinch. “I’m fine,” he said curtly. He lowered the stirrup and paused a moment, leaning against the saddle.

“You want a leg up?” Hoss asked. “That’s a mighty small saddle there.”

“I said I’m fine,” said Adam through gritted teeth.

Hoss nodded, unconvinced. “Sure you are. You ain’t tried to take me on since I was twelve.”

Adam climbed up into the saddle and stared pointedly down the trail. “Can we get going now, or are we going to spend the night here?”

Hoss sighed and moved to his own horse. Ben and Joe traded confused glances, but Adam was already around the first turn.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

With the exception of Hoss, who knew the route the best and continued to lead, they switched the order of riding every now and then, taking turns on drag. Once they’d passed the crest between the east and west slopes of the Sierra, they started riding downhill through a narrow valley cut by the American River. In many places the muddy path was mere feet from the rushing water, in others there would be a bit of raised ground below, between the trail and the water. The river wound its twisted way downward through mountains that rose sharply on either side of them, and were covered with thick brush and trees.

Ben was taking his turn as last in line when it dawned on him that Adam had been gradually growing quieter and more tense all afternoon. He constantly watched the woods on either side of the trail and reacted to every sound in the forest. His right hand rested close to his rifle, as if he expected an attack at any moment. Ben grimaced. Perhaps he did.

It was getting colder, and twilight would come early this deep in the valley. “Adam,” he called.

Adam’s head whipped around, then he relaxed. “Yeah, Pa?”

“Tell Hoss to find a place to camp for the night. We’d better get settled while we can still see.”

Adam nodded and rode up on the river side of Cochise. He started to squeeze past an obliging Joe, but just as he came abreast something in the forest made a sharp cracking noise and Adam yanked at his reins, turning his horse sharply. The animal slipped on the wet trail and his hindquarters started to slide down the bank. Joe reacted quickly, grabbing for his brother’s cloak, but just brushed the fabric with his fingertips.

“Adam!” Ben yelled with horror. It seemed to take forever for his son and his horse to fall, and they landed hard on their sides on a small grassy spot a few feet below the trail. Ben was on the ground in seconds. He threw his reins at Joe and was sliding down the small hillside before the startled cavalry horse had fully regained its feet. Adam lay flat on his back, eyes closed, arms outstretched, not moving.

Heart beating hard enough to make him sick, Ben knelt on the wet grass. “Adam!” he whispered, horrified. He pulled off a glove and held his hand under his son’s jaw. He found the pulse, strong and steady. He quickly checked him for injuries and, finding only a small swelling on the back of his head, breathed a sigh of relief.

“Pa!” he heard Joe call. He turned to look up at the concerned faces of his other sons.

“I think he’ll be all right—he’s got a bump on the head, though. Joe, come on down here and let’s lift him up to Hoss.”

Joe jumped lightly to the lower bank. The two of them raised Adam high enough that Hoss could get his arms around him, then Hoss easily lifted him the rest of the way. He laid his brother gently on the side of the trail and reached an arm down for his father. Joe went after the horse and brought him over.

Hoss spoke. “There’s a shack ‘bout a mile farther on, Pa. We can take him there, stay overnight.”

Ben dropped to one knee by his oldest and brushed his hand lightly over his forehead. “Good idea, son. Help me get him up on Buck, then you ride ahead and get it ready. Joe, you bring his horse.”

They moved quickly, as the sun had dropped behind the ridge and it would soon be full dark. Buck stood quietly while Hoss lifted his limp brother to the saddle. He held him in place while Ben mounted behind, then got on Chubb and loped carefully down the trail. Ben pulled Adam back against his chest and took his reins from Joe, who vaulted onto Cochise. They headed out after Hoss.

Hoss was waiting at the shack to take Adam, and carried him inside. A welcome fire was burning in the hearth, and he laid his brother on a thin mattress he’d dragged in front of the flames from one of the cots.

“You sure he’s gonna be okay, Pa?” Hoss asked dubiously.

Ben rubbed his arms briskly, trying to warm himself. Joe brought in a load of branches and stacked them next to the fire.

“He looks kind of pale,” Joe commented.

“Let’s get him warmed up, and then we’ll see, all right, boys? First thing, though, you two go find shelter for the horses, get them settled for the night. I’ll get started here.”

When they left, Ben stared down at his oldest. “Come on, boy, wake up,” he murmured, patting him lightly on the cheek. There was no reaction, so he lifted Adam’s head and lightly explored the bump again. A bit more swelling, but no blood, nothing to indicate a problem. He unfastened Adam’s cloak and pulled it out from under him, then laid it over his chest to help keep him warm. The fire was burning well, heating the room enough so that he could remove his coat, and he bundled it up as a pillow for his son.

A blast of cold air announced the return of his other boys.

“Did he wake up yet, Pa?” asked Joe.

Ben shook his head. “No, but it might just be that he’s exhausted. He was strung pretty tight on the trail.”

“No kiddin’,” said Hoss. “He ‘bout bit my nose off earlier.”

Ben looked hard at Hoss. “Has he said anything to you? I know there’s something bothering him, but being Adam he’s not talking.”

Hoss started to shake his head, but then scrunched his face up in thought. “There was somethin’ he told me a couple days ago up at Marie’s grave. He was thinkin’ about his men, an’ he said somethin’ about wishing he could forget. But then he said he didn’t want to forget.” Hoss looked over to his father. “Don’t make no sense, does it?”

“Nightmares usually don’t,” said Joe quietly.

They all looked down at Adam. “And he’s been living some kind of nightmare for a while, I think,” said Ben.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

The screams were terrifying, low pitched and hoarse, and they echoed through the one room shack. Ben was first to reach Adam, but Hoss and Joe were right behind him.

“Pa,” Joe yelled and grabbed his father’s arm. “Don’t touch him!”

Ben turned on his youngest in fury. “Don’t talk nonsense, Joseph!”

“I mean it, Pa, he’ll hurt you.”

Ben turned back to Adam, who was moaning, head rolling back and forth on Ben’s jacket. “He’d never—”

“Pa,” interrupted Hoss. “Little Joe’s right. Adam tossed him right over the couch and beat the tar outta him when Joe tried to wake him up.”

Adam let out a bloodcurdling cry and half rose. “No, not fire!”

Ben jumped and moved to his son anyway, but Joe held him back. “Pa, I’m tellin’ you. Let Hoss do it.”

Ben stared at his eldest and realized he was deep in another place, another time. “All right,” he said in resignation and shivered a little in the mountain air that seeped into the cabin in spite of the fire. “Hoss?”

Hoss knelt at Adam’s side with trepidation. “Pa, call him like you’re tryin’ to get him up in the morning.”

“Good idea,” he said. He steadied himself, then spoke loudly, “Adam! Adam, wake up, you’re going to be late!”

Hoss leaned over his brother, ready to grab his arms. “Joe, you get ready to lay on his legs when I say go.”

Joe swallowed but nodded, willing to do his part but fully realizing the risk he was taking. While he never shrank from a fight, he was well aware that he was physically the smallest of the Cartwrights, and this was going to be a battle of pure strength. He had his doubts that even Hoss could hold his brother down right now.

“Ready, Joe?”

“Yeah, anytime.”

“Okay,” Hoss said. He took a deep breath and yelled, “Now!”

Joe dropped onto Adam’s thighs and was almost immediately bucked off. Hoss grabbed Adam by the biceps and leaned hard on him, calling out, “Adam! Adam! Wake up, dadburnit!” Adam fought furiously and Hoss had to throw his entire weight against his brother’s arms.

Joe got up and threw himself over Adam’s legs again, this time getting a good grip on them. He was barely able to stay put. Adam screamed in Hoss’ ear, “Get me loose, God, help me get loose!” Hoss reflexively eased his grip and Adam ripped free and swung, catching him on the ear. Hoss gritted his teeth against the pain and got his hold back again.

Then Ben worked his way over to Adam’s head and grabbed his face between his hands. He spoke clearly but softly, “Adam, wake up. You’re safe, Adam, safe with your family.” He turned to his other sons. “Hoss, hang on just a little longer. Joseph, let go of his legs.”

“But, Pa—”

“Do as I say, Joseph! He thinks he’s trapped.”

Joe slid back but watched carefully.

Ben turned back to his son who was moaning again. “Adam! Wake up, son. It’s time to wake up!”

“Horse—trapped—gotta get loose—”

Ben clenched his jaw, then slapped Adam full across the face.

“Pa!” cried Hoss and Joe, almost at the same time.

But Adam’s eyes opened. They were glazed but open, and he stopped fighting.

Ben grabbed Adam’s face between his hands again. “Adam, can you hear me? Talk to me, son.”

“Pa?” Adam’s voice was weak, hoarse. His eyes slowly cleared and he turned to his father. “What’s going on?”

“You had a bad dream, son.”

“I’ll say,” Joe said, shaken.

Hoss let go and shook out his hands. His brother was stronger than he’d guessed.

“A . . . dream?” Adam asked. He looked around wildly. “I’m dreaming? Oh, no—” he groaned.

“Adam! You’re in the Sierras, son, we’re on our way to Placerville. You had an accident, but you’re all right now. Here, take my hand.” He grabbed Adam’s fist.

Adam wrapped his long fingers around his father’s and held tight. He threw his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. “Oh, God, I can’t bear it if it isn’t true.” A single tear slipped from the corner of his eye.

“Adam,” said Ben. “Open your eyes and look at me. You’re safe. I promise you, you’re back in Nevada, safe with your family. Smell the air, son, you’re in the mountains.”

Adam did as his father asked and took in a deep breath. Ben could see the confusion gradually clear. Adam let out a huge sigh and seemed to collapse as all the fight went out of him.

“I thought I was there again—trapped—the fires—” He started to tremble.

Ben knew he should try to calm his son, ask about his head, but he couldn’t let the chance pass by to find out what was tearing his eldest apart.

“Son, tell me what happened. Please, tell me about it.”

Adam tried to sit up but was shivering violently, so Hoss sat behind him and propped him up against his broad chest. Joe grabbed one of the blankets they’d found on the bunks when they arrived and gave it to his father, who wrapped it around Adam’s shoulders.

“Adam, what were you dreaming about?” Ben persisted.

Adam swallowed and tried to gather his shattered wits. “The Wilderness,” he said, voice so low as to almost be unheard. He put a hand to the back of his head and groaned.

“What about it, son?” Ben pushed, hoping Adam would talk if he could get him going, before he had a chance to pull back into the hard shell he’d constructed.

Adam started to speak several times, but couldn’t find a place to begin.

Joe pulled the coffeepot from the fire and poured some of the steaming liquid into a tin cup. He passed it to his father, who held it to Adam’s lips. Adam gulped it down and as the hot liquid spread its warmth through him he began to relax. “You have to understand what it was like.” He ran his shirtsleeve over his sweat-streaked face, dislodging the blanket. Hoss gently tucked it around him again.

“I thought I’d seen just about everything out here. Mine collapse, Indian massacres, logging disasters, Saturday night in Virginia City.” His half-joke ended in a sobbing breath. “Those are like . . . ripples . . . from skipping a stone on Lake Tahoe.”

He shook his head in disbelief. Even now, even having lived through it he still couldn’t comprehend the enormity of this war. How could he possibly make his family understand? It was all so clear in his memory, as if it had happened mere days ago.

“Start at the beginning, son,” said Ben gently.

He nodded and started speaking slowly, softly. “The first day, the day we crossed the Rapidan River, I was sent over to Chancellorsville with a message for General Hooker.” He stopped and clenched his fists together to still their shaking.

“And . . . .” Ben prodded.

“As I traveled down the Plank Road—” He paused to ask, “You heard about the fight at Chancellorsville last year?”

His brothers nodded silently.

“I came up on a field where there were all these funny egg-shell colored bumps lying around. When I got closer I discovered they were skulls. Then I started passing bodies on the road. Skeletons from last year’s battle, still wearing their rotted blue uniforms. The winter rains had washed them partway out of their graves, I guess, and there was no one to bury them again properly.”

Hoss looked sick, but what dismayed Ben was the lack of any such reaction in Adam.

“I delivered my message and was glad to get back to my company, away from that old battlefield. But I didn’t know . . . none of us knew what was coming.”

Realizing that it would take a long time to get this story out of their brother, Hoss snagged his coat and managed to slide his arms into it without dislodging him. Joe settled himself cross-legged on the floor near Adam’s feet and Ben sat on a small bench near his oldest son’s side. Surrounded by his family, in the darkest of night, lit only by the flames in the fireplace, Adam finally began to talk haltingly about the horror that hadn’t quite cost him his life, but daily threatened to drown him in darkness.

“We started fighting early the next morning. It was the worst place I’ve ever been. You walk into that forest and it’s twilight. I don’t care if it’s the sunniest day you’ve ever seen on the outside; it’s twilight in there. You can barely get a horse or cannon through the paths, and if you get off the main road, a man can hardly pass. There were trees, tall enough to block the sun, but it was the vines and the brambles that choked the forest, kept you from traveling in a straight line, or even staying with your people.”

“Where there was a break in the trees it was beautiful,” he whispered. “A stream, lined with azaleas and saplings, lovely colors bursting out everywhere. Virginia is different from here. The mountains are calmer, not so rocky. The rivers travel slow, like they have all the time in the world to get to where they’re going. It’s hot and muggy . . . you know what I mean, Pa?”

Ben nodded. He remembered New Orleans the same way from when he was courting Joe’s mother.

Adam paused to sip from the cup again, but the floodgates had opened and now the words tumbled over each other. “Most of the woods, though, that brush would get you all turned around and you wouldn’t know which direction you were headed or where the enemy was. A company was small enough to have a chance of staying together, but we got separated from everyone else. The rifles sounded like a string of firecrackers, only so loud it made your head pound. You could feel the sound battering at you. Then it would end and once your ears stopped ringing it would be so quiet you could hear a twig break. But you didn’t know if it was one of your men or a Confederate because the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see more than a few feet. We fought like that all day. You didn’t stop for anything, not to rest, to eat…you barely had time to get a drink of water from your canteen. My men were dropping all around me. Sometimes the smoke would swirl clear and I’d see a Reb and a Yankee, fighting hand to hand, then the smoke would roll back and they’d be gone.

“We finally made our way back to our battalion that night, more from luck than because we could tell where we were. We could see embers glowing on the ground from the cannon shot or maybe sparks from the rifles. Some places it lit into flame and burned through the dry timber like it was drought-stricken prairie grass. We dragged out anyone we could find—Reb, Yankee, it didn’t matter—but we couldn’t get to some because as soon as you made a sound, everyone around you started shooting. They couldn’t see who they were firing at, and they were so scared they didn’t care. You’d hear the men screaming as they burned alive.”

He fell silent, and the other three exchanged horrified glances.

“Was that what you were dreaming about?” asked Joe.

“No,” Adam said slowly. “That was just the beginning.”

“The beginning,” Joe whispered, appalled.

Adam took a shaky breath and Hoss tightened his grip on his brother. “The next day the fighting was even worse. Men panicked who’d held steady through every other battle of the war. We’d gain ground, then find out we were headed the wrong direction. We’d come under fire just to discover we were being shot at by a Federal regiment who couldn’t see our uniforms. By nightfall I’d managed to get my horse through some of the easier paths and was leading my men toward what I hoped was north. Then I was hit in the shoulder. My horse must have been hit at the same time, because he went down too.”

Adam drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs. He started breathing deeply and slowly rocked while he continued. “We went over into a gully, and he landed on my leg. Pinned me down. I could hear my men calling and I shouted back, but they couldn’t find me in the dark and the smoke. I couldn’t call any louder for fear a Reb would hear me, aside of the smoke making it hard to breathe. I couldn’t get out from under the horse—I’d landed against a log and the full weight of its body was on my thigh.”

He buried his head in his arms, tendons and veins standing out on the backs of his hands as he held tight to his legs and his sanity. His voice came out muffled, but clear enough. “A lot of those trees had been dead for years, and the pitch was dry as rosin. There were still sparks from the rifles and cannon, smoldering in the ground cover.” He hesitated. “Then the wind picked up.”

“Oh, dear God,” breathed Ben. Gotta get loose… his son’s cries replayed in his mind.

Adam looked up, but didn’t see his family. “I could hear the flames, see the light flickering through the smoke. Those dead pines burned like torches, some of them twenty feet high. Then there was the sound of rapid fire—faster than you would think men could shoot. I finally figured it out. We all carried paper-wrapped charges in our pouches, as well as our cartridge boxes. The men who were wounded couldn’t run away fast enough, and when the flames overcame them…” he stopped, ghost-pale in the flickering light.

Hoss finished the thought. “The charges and cartridges exploded.”

Adam nodded wordlessly. “I got rid of mine, threw them as far as I could. I could hear them go off when they hit the flames. I kept trying to get out from under the horse, but I couldn’t move him.” He stretched his left leg out and absently started to massage it. “The bullet in my shoulder put my right arm out of commission, but I finally managed to shift the saddle around enough to get at the cinches, got them undone. Then everything started to get light. The sky turned a dirty yellow and it got brighter in that forest than it had been in the middle of the day.”

Joe, afraid he knew what was coming, asked anyway, “The fire?”

“Yeah. It was headed my way. I pulled myself out from under the horse,” he was kneading his thigh deeply now, “though I don’t know how. I looked behind me—I could feel the heat—the flames were almost on top of me—” He stopped suddenly, his breath coming in gasps, sweat standing out again on his forehead and he stared sightlessly at the opposite wall.

“Oh, Adam,” Ben said softly, his voice tight with pain.

Joe broke the silence. “How’d you get out?”

Adam turned haunted eyes on his brother and touched his fingers to the silver hairs at his temple. “I don’t know. Something hit me and I don’t remember another thing until I woke up in the hospital in Washington three weeks later with a splitting headache. It was a long time before I remembered even that much. I can only guess that the fire jumped the gully and someone found me later.”

Ben’s head ached with disbelief and unshed tears. He had no doubt Adam was telling the truth, but it was a truth too terrible to accept. They’d been so insular out here, so smug in their opinions, so quick to say one side or the other was right, that it was a just war. His son and other father’s sons had paid for their elders’ opinions in rare coin—strength, courage, integrity, their lives—and when they survived, their very souls. How these young men were to go on after surviving such an experience was beyond his wisdom.

“And you’ve been having this dream ever since?” he asked.

Adam leaned back against Hoss again, grateful for the solid arms that encircled him. He was hoarse from fatigue and strain, and his head hurt abominably. “Yeah. I think it’s triggered by things that happen during the day, but I don’t always know what that’ll be. It could be a particular song, or a face on the street. Sometimes it just seems to be if I’m tired.” His voice faded and he fought to keep his eyes open. “This time, probably the forest . . . .”

The fall with your horse, thought Ben.

“You just rest, brother Adam,” soothed Hoss, tucking the blanket back around his shoulders. “Just rest an’ let us take care of things tonight. You’re safe here with us, nothin’s gonna hurt you.”

Ben's throat closed as he remembered Adam saying almost those exact words to a young Hoss on many occasions. As Hoss continued to murmur Adam’s head gradually relaxed against his brother’s chest and he slowly went limp in his big arms, falling into a deep sleep. It was no wonder he was exhausted. This dream didn’t just haunt his nights.

“Joe, let’s help Hoss settle Adam,” Ben whispered.

But Hoss said, “No, Pa, leave him be for now. I’m fine.” Ben looked at the pair and realized again the special bond between these two. Most people thought that Hoss was the one always needing help from Adam—unless it was a matter of pure physical strength—but they never realized how much Adam needed Hoss.

Joe rose quickly and slipped out the door. Worried, Ben grabbed their coats and followed.

“Joseph?” He was standing on the steps just outside the door.

Joe’s words were thick with unshed tears. “Pa, how can he stand it?”

Ben slid Joe’s arms into the sleeves of his jacket, just as he had when he was a small boy. “He can’t, alone. I think maybe that’s why he’s still having the nightmare. With our help perhaps he can learn to live with what happened. I’m very much afraid it’s something he’ll never be able to forget.”

Joe turned to his father then and grabbed him in a fierce hug. Ben wrapped his arms around him, and his hotheaded, emotional Joseph cried the tears Adam couldn’t seem to find.

“Pa, I want to help him, but I don’t know how.”

Ben looked out at the stars as he stroked his son’s curly hair. “We have to find ways to remind him of the good things in life. Eventually the memories will come less often, and maybe they’ll hurt less when they do come.”

Joe sniffed and lifted his head from his father’s shoulder. “I’ll do whatever it takes, Pa. He can’t keep goin’ on like this.”

“I know, son,” Ben answered. “And I know he’ll appreciate your help, even if he’s too stiff-necked to acknowledge it.”

Joe smiled a little, judging that a fair comment on his brother’s personality, and they turned together to go back into the shack. Hoss was beginning to look uncomfortable, so in spite of his whispered protests they lifted Adam’s limp body off of him. He scooted to his knees, then took his brother in his arms and gently lowered him to the mattress.

Joe took an extra shirt from his saddlebag, rolled it up and tucked it under Adam’s head. “Sleep well, brother,” he whispered.

Wednesday, December 21, 1864

It was late afternoon and Colonel Beltree had a problem. He stared at the papers in his hand, wondering where he was going to find a soldier to handle this latest request from Regimental Command at the Presidio in San Francisco.

He ran his hand through thick silver hair then stroked his moustache, a habitual set of gestures his aide would interpret as a combination of worry and annoyance. He rose and strode to the window, looking out on the parade ground where a cloaked officer was dismounting, but what he saw was a distant, rowdy town that didn’t operate by any standard Western rules. He sighed.

At a knock on the door, he responded, “Come in,” but didn’t turn from the window. He heard Sergeant Tallan clear his throat and announce,

“Captain Cartwright, sir.”

Colonel Beltree turned in surprise as a tall young man strode into the room and saluted.

“Captain Adam Cartwright, reporting as ordered, sir.”

The voice was deep and melodious, strong and sure. A good voice for an officer, it would engender confidence in his troops. The Colonel returned the salute and studied the man before him. Physically, he matched his voice. Tall, imposing, with raven-black hair slightly creased from the hat he’d just removed, dark eyes alive with intelligence. But that was to be expected if this was one of Ben Cartwright’s boys. However . . . .

“Excuse me for staring, Captain.” He gestured to the chairs in front of his desk and sat down again himself. “I’d heard you were killed back East.”

Cartwright smiled grimly and seated himself, resting his hat on his knee. “A mistake, as you can see.”

“I saw your family not long after they received the news.” He noted the Captain’s wince. “I assume you’ve enlightened them?”

“Yes, sir. I’m afraid I wasn’t aware they’d been notified or I can assure you I’d have done something sooner.”

“Glad to hear it. And I’m happy for you and your family as well—I have the deepest respect for your father.” He leaned back in his chair and asked, “But you said you were reporting here as ordered?”

Cartwright handed him a large soft leather envelope. “I was sent from Washington with these papers. Considering they sent me to Prescott for their Legislative Assembly first, I can only assume there was no particular urgency. I was just told to get them to you by the first of the year.

The Colonel opened the packet and withdrew two sealed sets of papers. He slid a knife under the wax and unfolded them, and as he read an eyebrow climbed up his forehead. He looked up. “Do you know what these papers contain?”

“No, sir, I was just told to bring them to you.”

Beltree sat in silence, thinking hard. Cartwright remained at ease yet alert in his chair, the dark eyes snapping with questions but his relaxed body indicating he could wait, forever if need be, for enlightenment. Beltree raised one set of papers. “I’ll have to talk with you again in the morning about this little problem. I have some thinking to do first. As for the other,” and he tapped the second packet, “it authorizes me to promote you to Major.” If he hadn’t been watching closely he wouldn’t have seen the emotions flicker across Cartwright’s face. Surprise, certainly, but also something else akin to pain. Beltree made a quick decision. “Join me for supper tonight, if you please, Major. I’m sure it was a long ride.”

“Thank you, sir, I’d be pleased to. I’ll just need to send a message to my family in town not to expect me.”

Beltree smiled. “Your father’s here?”

“And my two brothers.” Cartwright grinned, and it changed his entire aspect. “They seemed to think I needed looking after.”

The Colonel rose and Cartwright followed. He slapped the younger man on the back and said, “We all do, sometimes. My daughter, Nancy, fills that role for me, here. Bring your family with you. I’d enjoy visiting with them, and I know Nance would like to see your youngest brother again.”

As they walked over to the door, Cartwright asked, “She knows Little Joe?”

“Yes, when we were transferred here from Fort Churchill in August we stayed a couple of days on the Ponderosa.” He thought back. Ben had been a gracious host, though he obviously hadn’t recovered from the news of his oldest son’s death. Hoss had been the one to give him a tour of the ranch, and Joe had entertained his daughter, although they, too, had been given to moments of unexplained silence. Beltree found himself suddenly looking forward to the evening.

He opened the door and yelled, “Sergeant!”

“Sir!” The man stood at attention at his desk.

“Get a message to my daughter that we’re having four guests for dinner tonight. Then find some shoulder boards for the Major here and get him fitted out properly by tomorrow morning. He’ll need a place to stay on post tonight, and he also needs to send a message into town.”

“Yes, sir!” he replied with a grin. “I’ll take care of it right away.”

“He will, too,” whispered the Colonel. “I don’t know how he does it, but just put yourself in his hands. I’ll see you and your family at my quarters tonight at 1900 hours.”

Beltree retreated back to his office. The new Major had taken everything in stride, though with a slightly bemused expression. Maybe his problems were solved. He’d know by the end of the evening.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ben saw Adam waiting at the entrance to the Fort when they rode up at five minutes before seven. It was disconcerting to see how comfortable and at home he looked. Ben finally faced the fact that, regardless of Adam’s and his family’s personal wishes, his oldest son was in the Army and was likely to stay there for the duration of the war. Ben had been proud of his son for going East to fight for what he believed in, even though it had precipitated the bitterest battle the two of them had ever had. But knowing what his son had lived through, knowing the demons he lived with now, he was even more proud that Adam was still determined to stick by his obligation, even when he knew he could well end up in the same or worse situation again.

They dismounted and all four of them paced across the parade ground. Ben was amused and touched to see that Hoss and Joe walked closely on either side of their brother. He was sure none of them were conscious of it, but it made quite a sight—one he was glad to see, even if only for a short time.

They were greeted at the door by Nancy Beltree, who welcomed them each individually—Ben with a warm handclasp and a peck on the cheek, Hoss with a gentle hug, Joe with a flirtatious smile, and Adam with reserve tempered by curiosity. Ben could see she didn’t quite know what to make of this dark Cartwright who had returned from the dead. The emotions of everyone on the Ponderosa had been so raw when the Colonel and his daughter visited that the Cartwrights had revealed themselves to an unprecedented emotional depth. The Beltrees had heard Adam Cartwright mourned and eulogized, stories told funny and sad, had seen his horse, his books, his guitar. His life had been laid open to them as viewed through the lens of a loving family’s grief, and now here he was, and she was pink with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry.” She spoke quietly, but Ben couldn’t help but hear their conversation. “It seems I already know you, and you know nothing of me.”

“Not quite nothing,” Adam replied with a gentle smile. “Joe and Hoss spent the entire trip bending my ear about how lovely you are.”

She blushed a deeper rose. “They’re very kind, and very special. They showed me around the Ponderosa and entertained us quite well, even though I could tell their hearts were breaking. You’re very lucky to have such a family.”

Now it was his turn to flush. Ben could see the pain lurking behind his eyes. “Yes, I am.”

“Come in, come in,” said Colonel Beltree as he moved over to his guests. “Nance, would you bring in the glasses, please.”

Ben moved over to join the Colonel and thus began a very pleasant evening. Even Joe kept his behavior acceptable, although a couple of times Ben thought he detected the signs of a swift kick in the shins from his oldest brother.

The Colonel asked Adam about his experiences, and he responded openly, giving his family some insight into his life of the last two years. He tried not to get too deep into troop movements and strategies—after all, this was a dinner party and a lady was present—but instead talked about the men he commanded and was commanded by, the beauty of the Virginia countryside, and the daily life of a soldier. He glossed over the battles, but after his revelations of the night before, none of the Cartwrights desired any details. What caught the Colonel’s interest, in fact, had little to do with fighting.

Adam had been talking about his convalescence in the city of Washington, and happened to mention that once he was up and around he’d gotten absorbed into the Petersburg mining project.

“The what?” asked Joe.

“How did you get involved in that fiasco, Adam?” Beltree asked.

“Well, I wasn’t in the actual battle, just the preparation.”

“Mining?” asked Ben.

The Colonel answered. “It seems Lee had a strong line established south of Richmond at Petersburg. There was an infantry group made up of Pennsylvania coal miners, and someone had the idea of digging a shaft under Confederate earthworks. They set off powder charges, blowing the fort up from underneath.”

“The 48th Pennsylvania,” Adam said. “I went down to show them what I knew about Mr. Diedesheimer’s square sets.”

“What are those, Adam?” asked Nancy.

“It’s a way of building timber supports in a mine to keep the tunnel stable. Phillip Diedesheimer invented them when he was working on the problem of cave-ins at the Ophir mine in Virginia City. I worked with him on them—sort of a sounding board, since I had the mathematical and architectural background to understand what he was talking about.”

“So you’ve had mining experience?” asked the Colonel.

“I know enough to stay out of ‘em when I can. Nearly got killed in one of those cave-ins.”

“Didn’t stop you from goin’ back down and installing them timbers,” said Hoss with a grin.

“You, either, Hoss,” Adam shot back.

“How did the mine owners react?” Beltree leaned forward, elbows on the table.

Hoss answered. “Oh, Adam an’ Mr. Diedesheimer just worked on convincing the owner of the Ophir, and he convinced the rest of ‘em.”

Beltree looked at Adam appraisingly. “And I’m sure the Ophir management was receptive?”

Adam shifted a little uncomfortably in his seat. “Well, not exactly, not at first. But Andrew Holloway’s a good man, he came around.”

Beltree sat back, a strangely satisfied look on his face.

“What happened at Petersburg?” asked Joe.

“Oh,” said Adam, “They didn’t need the square sets the whole way, but they were useful in a few spots. It was an interesting engineering problem.”

“And a useful distraction, I imagine,” added the Colonel kindly.

Adam studied the coffee cup in his hands. “Yes, that too.” He set the cup down. “I’d just heard that my company was wiped out at Cold Harbor, and no one could figure out whose regiment the sole survivor should belong to. They attached me for a month or so to the 48th, but shortly before the digging was completed they sent me back to Washington, saying I wasn’t ready for another fight. When I reported back, the Secretary of the Interior was looking for someone to go observe the first Arizona Territorial Legislative Assembly, so they sent me to their new capital, Prescott, where I stayed until mid-November. Then I started riding back here with the papers for the Colonel, but with this bum leg it took a while.”

He looked up at his father apologetically. “That’s probably why you never got letters from me—I wrote a couple of times, but I was never anywhere that had decent mail service, and I knew I’d end up out here by the end of the year anyway.”

Ben nodded wordlessly, and the conversation turned to more general subjects.

He was glad to see Adam open up under the Colonel’s gentle questioning, glad to see that there were senior officers who cared about their men. Later, when the two older men were standing a little aside from the others, Ben ventured, “Louis, I have to say I’m a bit worried about Adam.”

Beltree looked at him shrewdly. “Afraid he’ll have to go back East, Ben?”

Ben nodded, his eyes on his son, who was talking with Nancy.

“It’s not just that we might really lose him in another battle…” His voice faded.

Beltree refilled Ben’s glass, then his own. “You said he fought at the Wilderness?”

“Yes, and he’s not over it.” Ben shuddered as he recalled his son’s screams from the night before. They’d all been rattled by Adam’s revelations, and the ride to Placerville today had been unnaturally quiet.

“I’ve read some of the official reports, Ben. You’re damn lucky he’s alive.”

Ben took a sip of his whisky. “I know. We all know, now. Louis, he has nightmares. Absolutely terrifying nightmares. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Beltree looked down into his own glass. “I know the sort of thing you mean, Ben. I had my own battle to fight, years ago.”

Ben looked over at him with hope. “But you overcame the memories?”

“After a while. A long while.” He gestured to his daughter. “Her mother was a wonderful woman. Give him time, Ben.”

“I’m just afraid he won’t have enough. We’re all afraid he’ll have to go back.”

Beltree nodded. “He might. So might I, for that matter, though it’s much less likely for me. But we all serve at the whim of the government.” He clapped his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “But let’s not worry tonight, all right? For now, I’d just like to get to know this boy of yours.”

Ben laughed. “Don’t let him hear you call him that. He wouldn’t understand.”

“They do seem awfully young, don’t they, Ben?” The Colonel asked wistfully.

Ben looked over at his three sons and thought about the dangerous world they lived in. “Yes, they do.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Hoss and Joe had escorted Nancy outside, leaving the “older folks,” as Hoss put it, to their whisky and cigars. She’d been telling the brothers about a brand new baby colt. Since most foals are born in the spring, this was unusual enough to warrant a trip to the barn so they bundled up for the walk across the yard.

After the tiny horse had been thoroughly checked out Nancy ventured a bit nervously, “Your brother seems very sad.”

Joe shot her a quick glance, then turned to Hoss. “I told you she was sharp.”

“You sure did, little brother. Fact is, Miss Nancy, he had a kinda rough time out East.” He sat down heavily on a hay bale. Nancy sat on the neighboring bale, and Joe slipped next to her.

“He got hurt in a really bad fight,” Joe explained. “He had a whopper of a nightmare about it just last night.”

Hoss shook his head. “I figure there’s more to it than that, Joe.”

A tinge of hurt crossed Joe’s face. “He told you about something else, Hoss?”

“Not exactly.” Hoss took a deep breath. “Remember I said we was up at your ma’s grave, an’ he was sittin’ there thinking ‘bout all the men that died. I recollect, clear as day, how he counted ‘em off on his fingers. ‘One, two, three, four, five’ he says, an’ just flicks his fingers like he’s knockin’ bugs off a board. You know that ol’ saying about droppin’ like flies? That’s just what it sounds like. ‘Cept they were Adam’s men. Joe, you know how serious he takes his responsibilities. Heck, the way he rode herd on you an’ me when we was little, he’d be the same way with his men.”

Joe nodded. “It must be about killing him that he couldn’t save them.”

“That’s what I think, too.”

Nancy took Hoss’ hand in her left, Joe’s in her right. “Don’t let it hurt you when he can’t talk about it. Hold strong for him, and let him grieve. And after a while, maybe a long while, he’ll mostly be all right.”

“How do you know,” asked Joe, an edge of desperation in his voice. “How can you be sure?”

She squeezed their hands gently. “My father went through something like it about ten years ago. His nightmares would wake me up and I’d hear my mother talking to him. Other times he’d be staring out a window so sad I’d want to cry, but I’d go up to him in my best dress and curtsy and dance for him until he’d smile. And now . . . well, now the dreams don’t come so often.”

“He’s never gonna forget, is he?” asked Hoss.

She shook her head. “No, Hoss, I don’t think the good men ever forget. And it either destroys them or they learn to move on.”

She stood, then, drawing them up with her. “He’s a good man, Joe, Hoss; and Papa likes him. I think he’ll make it.”

“I sure hope so, Miss Nancy,” Hoss said, and as he followed the other two back out into the night, he repeated it softly to himself. “I sure hope so.”

Thursday, December 22, 1864

Adam woke slowly the next morning, trying to remember where he was. It was an old habit now, to spend the first few moments of wakefulness drawing himself back to reality.

Placerville. The Army post, Colonel Beltree. He had to see Colonel Beltree this morning and find out what was next. He hoped he could at least spend a few weeks with his family before being sent to his next assignment.

He rolled out of bed and noticed his uniform jacket lying clean and neatly pressed over the single chair in the room. The Captain’s bars had been removed and Major’s shoulder boards sewn on. There was also an empty bathtub sitting behind the door. He was eyeing it with interest when he heard a knock on the door. When he opened it, Sergeant Tallan was standing there with a covered tray in one hand and a bucket of hot water in the other.

“Your breakfast, sir, and if you’d like I can be back in a minute with more water.”

Adam let the Sergeant in and gestured to the desk. “You could put the tray there, and yes, I’d love a bath.” He sat down at the desk and poured a cup of coffee. Bemused, he asked, “Does Colonel Beltree extend this welcome to all of his visitors, or is he trying to tell me something?”

The Sergeant shot him a quick glance from under his eyebrows, then relaxed into a grin. “The Colonel takes care of his men, sir, an’ that’s a fact.”

“Oh, really?” asked Adam carefully. His men?

“Yes, sir, he does.” He stepped to the door and said, “I’ll be back with the rest of your water in a few minutes. Enjoy your breakfast, sir.”

Adam stared at the closed door while he thoughtfully chewed a biscuit. The Sergeant was too experienced a campaigner to let anything slip by accident…

He was even more thoughtful when he left the Colonel’s office later and walked back to his quarters. He had been promised his orders would be delivered to the Ponderosa sometime in the week between Christmas and New Years’ Day, depending upon weather. Until then, he’d been instructed to enjoy his time with his family.

The Colonel had something up his sleeve, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t say what, so Adam knew he’d just have to be patient. In the meantime, he had to gather his gear, find his family, and from the look of the sky, they’d better head back home. He sniffed the air. Yes, it was going to snow, and they didn’t want to be high in the Sierras when it got started. They were actually very lucky there wasn’t more snow already. Quite often at this time of year the road to Placerville was impassable.

He arrived back at his room to discover his family apparently agreed with him—they were already waiting, ready to go. He pulled off his cloak and dropped it on the bed where Joe was sitting stretched out, ankles crossed, braiding some strips of rawhide into a single strand. His father was in the chair, and Hoss was standing at the window, staring up at the sky.

“We’d better get a move on right away, if’n we want to beat that snow,” Hoss was saying.

Ben looked over at Adam and he could tell the moment his father noticed the new shoulder boards. Ben stiffened and clenched his jaw in distress.

“Are you coming back with us, son?” he asked.

Joe looked up from his work and paled when he saw Adam’s new rank. “You accepted a promotion?” he accused.

“It’s not like I had a choice, Joe,” Adam answered testily. He unbuttoned the jacket and pulled out his saddle roll. He flipped it open and removed a comfortable set of work clothes and his old yellow coat, stripped quickly and dressed, now looking much more like their brother.

Joe persisted with his question, as Adam expected. “But if you take the promotion, that means you’re still—”

“That’s right, little brother,” he cut in. “Can’t you get it through your thick skull that I’m an officer in the U.S. Army and wishing isn’t going to make it any different?”

Joe turned quickly away. Adam sighed and tried to think of a way to help him understand. “Joe, I couldn’t live with myself if I backed out of this now. I have to finish what I started.”

“If the Army doesn’t finish you first,” Joe shot back. “What about what we can live with? Doesn’t that matter at all?”

“Of course it matters!”

“Well, it sure doesn’t look like it to me.”

“Then you’re not looking hard enough,” Adam snapped.

“Joseph,” Ben finally interjected. “This is difficult enough as it is. Leave it alone.”

“But, Pa—”

“Joe,” interrupted Hoss, “Let’s go get the horses ready.”

Joe bit his lip, then gave up in disgust and strode from the room, Hoss following.

Adam groaned. “It seems like no matter what I do, someone gets hurt.”

Ben sighed deeply. “I know. One day Joseph will understand.”

“Do you, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben laid a hand on his shoulder. “I think I do, son. I can’t say I like it, but I respect your decision.”

“And Hoss?”

“Hoss has never understood the way your mind works, Adam. Life is very simple to him.”

“I know. ‘Don’t hurt other folks’—that’s what it all boils down to in the end. But that’s difficult to live up to.”

“Not for him. In many ways the two of you may as well come from different countries. But he’s never let that stop him from wanting you to be happy. That’s really all he cares about. He’ll be patient, he’ll wait, and if it hurts, he’ll set that aside, knowing that this is important to you.”

Adam nodded, his eyes suspiciously bright.

“I don’t want to hurt them, Pa. I don’t want to let them down. Not like—” he broke off and suddenly became very busy rolling his uniform up in the bedroll.

“Not like your men,” Ben finished.

Adam’s hands stopped. “No,” he said very softly. “Not like my men.”

He resumed tying the strings around the blanket and put on his coat. “Let’s go home, Pa.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Joe rode at the head of the line, and from his place at the rear Adam could see his brother was still angry. A few flakes of snow had started to fall just after their lunch break, changing the landscape from the dark threat of the ride down to one of peaceful beauty. Christmas was almost here, and he and Joe were ready to tear each other apart. As usual.

Somehow that thought made him feel more at home, more…normal. He felt a laugh bubble up from somewhere deep inside and he shook his head at himself. Leave it to Joe to put things in perspective, even if unintentionally. He grinned suddenly and looked around at the snow piling up slowly around them. He leaned gracefully down from his saddle and scooped up a handful.

He continued to ride behind his family while carefully patting the snow into a tightly packed ball. He waited until they were at a wide part of the path where there was no danger of falling off the trail, cocked his arm, and let fly. His aim was perfect. The snowball whizzed past his father’s ear, missed Hoss by a hair, and landed with a splat on the back of Joe’s neck, dripping slowly inside his collar. Joe hunched, then reached slowly back, and with angry jerks cleared as much of the freezing wet stuff from his neck as he could.

All four horses had come to a sudden halt, and Adam sat calmly with one eyebrow raised. Ben had reined in immediately with astonishment, but Hoss was grinning broadly. Joe slowly guided Cochise around with his legs and when he was facing his brother he blurted, “You . . . you . . . .”

“Yes?” asked Adam sweetly.

With a yell that would have done the Confederates proud, Joe kicked Cochise and rode straight at his oldest brother. At the last minute he reined around and leapt off his horse onto Adam, knocking him onto the ground. They fell together and rolled over and over in the snow. Joe ended up on top and grabbed handfuls of the wet stuff, trying valiantly to shove it down his brother’s shirt, in his face, anywhere he could reach. Adam was laughing too hard to fight effectively, but finally tossed Joe off and held him face down in a small a bank. By now Joe was laughing, too, and the pure joy of the sound brought a smile of delight to Ben’s face.

“Uncle!” Joe cried between giggles. “Uncle, uncle, uncle! C’mon Adam, let me up.”

“Who’s got the best arm?” Adam demanded.

“You do, you do,” Joe laughed.

“Well, as long as you remember that, I guess I can let go.” He stood and offered his brother a hand. Joe slipped, tossing Adam off balance slightly, then he came up the rest of the way off the ground with another handful of snow that he planted right in Adam’s face.

Hoss let out a huge belly laugh. “I guess I’d better go break them up, Pa, or we’ll never see the end of it.”

Ben nodded, but knew he would treasure this memory forever.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

They stopped at the same cabin for the night, but the ghosts seemed to have been chased away for Adam by the tussle with his brother. Ben had watched with indulgence as they periodically threw snow at each other all the way up the trail. Heaven knew they deserved some fun.

They settled into the same places for the night as before, Adam staking out a piece of the floor, saying he was more used to it than his brothers, who’d doubtless gotten soft in his absence by sleeping in their own beds every night. So Hoss took the large cot to the front of the single room, and Ben and Joe took the double bunk, Joe leaping nimbly onto the top.

Adam rolled into his blankets and fell asleep thinking he was happier than he’d been in longer than he cared to remember.

Friday, December 23, 1864

In the early morning the dream came again. Fire! Trapped! He had to escape. He kicked his leg free, rolled over, and started crawling. Stay low—stay under the smoke. He came to a barrier of wood and tried to find a way around, but met only more of it. He finally reached a crack of some sort and with desperate strength pulled the opening wide. He rolled out into fresh cold air, and staggered away, coughing and gagging. It was only when he realized his hands and knees were cold and wet that he looked up at the outside of the cabin and discovered he wasn’t dreaming.

“No!” he whispered. The shack was ablaze. He could see the flames through the window and the open door, the smoke that rose in great billowing gusts into the trees—then the doorway was obscured by the bulk of two men and he ran forward to help.

Hoss was practically dragging his half-conscious father from the entrance, both coughing, eyes streaming. Adam grabbed Ben around the waist and helped haul him away from the burning building. He laid him down in the snow and Hoss collapsed to his knees next to his father, great hoarse hacking noises shaking his huge frame.

“Hoss! Where’s Joe?” Adam demanded.

Hoss waved weakly at the shack.

Adam stared in horror. He stepped forward, then halted. The flames, the noise, the searing heat…it was reaching for him, calling for him to return, to meet the destiny he’d barely escaped.

Hoss raised his head and saw his older brother frozen in place. He knew immediately what had happened. Adam was back in the war, back in the gully where he’d almost lost his life. But this time he wasn’t trapped. Hoss tried to stand, and grabbed Adam’s arm as he started to slip to the ground, half dragging his brother down with him. “Adam,” he croaked. “Adam, you gotta get Joe.”

“Hoss…” Adam stared down at his brother, then looked quickly up at the shack.

“Adam, I cain’t do it.” He started coughing again and fell to his knees.

“Joe,” Adam whispered.

Then he was running to the doorway, remembering the position of the bunk, that Joe was on top where the smoke was thickest. He would have been the first overcome and was likely completely unaware of the danger he was in.

Adam peered into the room, trying to see past the inferno to the bunk on the opposite wall. The floor had caught fire in places, as well as the blankets where he’d been sleeping. The flames threw crazy shadows and he couldn’t tell if Joe was still in bed. He looked up at the roof, also on fire, said a quick prayer that it would hold, and dashed inside.

Hoss had propped his father up to help him breathe when he saw Adam disappear into the burning shack. He prayed desperately for his brothers as time seemed to stretch out. Ben was starting to come around, trying to talk. His eyes were pleading with Hoss even as his mouth tried to form the names of his oldest and youngest.

“Adam got out,” Hoss said, his voice raspy. Ben’s look of relief was short-lived though, when Hoss continued. “He went back in for Joe.”

“Oh, no,” moaned Ben. He knew there was nothing he could do, but tried to get up anyway. The two of them struggled to their feet and swayed together, supporting each other, as the flames ate away at the building. Then, with a tremendous crash, the roof fell in and flames shot to the sky, illuminating the woods around them with a hellish yellow-orange glow.

Ben’s grief for Joseph was devastating, yet he agonized for Adam who had faced the flames, set aside his very human fears, to try to save his brother. Ben and Hoss stood for a long time as the fire gradually died down, the softly falling snow finally damping it to glowing embers and a blackened frame. Ben realized he could see Hoss even without the fire—the winter sun was rising, showing him his son’s soot and tear-streaked face.

He felt icy cold, unable to believe he’d lost both Joe and Adam. He turned to Hoss and the two remaining Cartwrights buried themselves in each other’s arms. Ben shook with anguish; Hoss tried vainly to dredge up any words of comfort. There was nothing he could say, nothing he could do—

“Hey, I could use some help over here,” called a voice.

Hoss and Ben looked up to see Adam staggering out of the woods with Little Joe cradled limply in his arms. They were both dirt streaked and wet, and Adam looked exhausted.

Hoss and Ben ran over and Hoss took Joe from his older brother, setting him carefully on the ground.

“We got out the back, had to go through the stream. He took in a lot of smoke,” said Adam, leaning heavily on his father, “but if we can get him warm I think he’ll be okay.”

“Hoss, get the extra supplies from the horses. Strange as it may seem, we’re going to have to build a fire,” said Ben. He settled Adam on the ground, then kneeled next to his youngest, brushing back the curls from his forehead. “Joseph,” he called softly. “Wake up, Little Joe.”

Joe responded with a slight moan, and started to cough. Adam rolled him over onto his side and pillowed his head in his lap. Joe continued to cough—deep, harsh noises as his body tried to rid itself of the poisons in his lungs. He wheezed and began to panic as he woke, understanding only that he couldn’t breathe. Adam rubbed his back gently and spoke softly. “It’s all right, Joe. You’re safe, and you’ll feel better in a few minutes. Just take it easy.”

Hoss came back with a couple of saddle blankets, which Ben immediately tucked over Joe and around Adam’s shoulders. Adam pulled his off and wrapped it around his brother.

“What . . . ?” asked Joe, bleary eyed.

“The shack caught on fire,” said Ben.

“Fire?” Joe tried to sit up. “Adam! Where’s Adam?”

“Right here, little brother,” Adam soothed. “I’m fine. We’re all fine, except you.”

Joe relaxed and muttered, “I’m fine, too . . . .” and drifted off to sleep.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

It was a long, hard ride back to the Ponderosa and everyone was worn out by the time they finally arrived late that night. Because they’d been using supplies they’d found in the shack they still had their blankets which had remained with their horses. Adam wore a combination of his uniform and work clothes, Hoss had fallen asleep the night before in his coat so he was fairly comfortable, and Ben was wrapped in two blankets. Adam had pulled his wool uniform cloak around Joe, then tucked him in front of himself on his horse. Between Adam’s body heat and the long, voluminous folds of the cloak, Joe was warmly asleep in no time.

When they stopped for lunch, Joe insisted he could ride his own horse the rest of the way, but Adam refused the return of the cloak. They all kept a close eye on the youngest Cartwright, and he finished the last few miles in front of Ben after almost falling off Cochise from sheer fatigue.

Hoss carried him into the ranchhouse while Adam tended to the horses and Ben went in search of Hop Sing. The little Chinaman took in the situation immediately and chivied them to the big fireplace, then went back to his kitchen for coffee first, followed by hot stew.

Joe woke up long enough for one bowl, then went back to sleep on the couch. Hoss sat with his back to the fire, wondering if he’d ever be warm again, and Ben huddled in the red leather chair, coffee cup cradled in his hands. Adam entered the house and was met at the door by Hop Sing who took his coat, handed him coffee, and pushed him over next to Hoss.

“Sit. Eat,” he commanded. Too tired to even raise an eyebrow, Adam complied. The cook then bustled upstairs, muttering the entire time. Eventually he returned and informed them it was time they all went to bed.

“We should get the doc for Joe,” said Hoss tiredly.

Adam rose slowly and limped over to his youngest brother. “I think he’ll be okay—he hasn’t coughed much lately. I’ll stay up with him for a bit and make sure he’s all right.”

Ben rose slowly. “I’d sure appreciate it, Adam. Let me get a couple hours sleep and I’ll relieve you. I think someone should be with him, at least for tonight.”

“Sounds good, Pa,” said Hoss, “but you got a pretty good dose of smoke, too. You take the third watch. Adam, wake me up for the second.”

Adam nodded and roused Joe enough to get him on his feet. “Hop Sing,” he called.

The cook appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.

“Would you bring a pot of coffee up to Joe’s room for me, please?”

Hop Sing nodded and went back to the kitchen, reappearing in a moment to follow Adam and Joe up the stairs, holding a pot in one hand and a coffee cup in the other.

Once everyone was settled for the night, Adam moved a chair over next to Joe’s bed, the coffee handy on the small stove that heated Joe’s room. He leaned back in the chair and started to mull over the events of the last few days.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

When Joe woke up hours later, Adam was sitting in the same position, coffee cold and untouched in the cup next to him. His face was shadowed by the single lantern on the table behind him.

Joe propped himself up in the bed. “Adam?” he asked.

Adam’s gaze moved slowly to his brother, his abstracted look fading only slightly. “You feel all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m tired, sore from coughing, but I’m okay. You should go to bed, big brother.”

“Can’t sleep.”

“You been thinking again?” Joe asked.

A corner of Adam’s mouth quirked up with humor. “Yep. Think I ought to quit that?”

Joe smiled back. “Couldn’t hurt. I sure can’t see that it’s helped you much.”

Adam’s smile fell away. “No, I can’t say that it has, either.”

They sat in silence for a while, then Joe said, “Adam, I just want to say that I know going into that fire wasn’t easy for you.”

“I almost didn’t,” Adam admitted. “I froze.”

“But you came anyway.”

Adam nodded. “But if I hadn’t run out of there to begin with…”

“We’d both be dead.” He looked carefully at his brother to see if he was listening. It was hard to tell; Adam had a far off look on his face, and was staring at the wall again, stroking his beard stubble.

“Adam, Hoss told me what happened. He said that if you hadn’t been outside already, I would have died. He didn’t have the strength to come for me.”

“I thought I was dreaming. I thought I was running from the fire and in reality I was running out on you. I wasn’t there when you needed me, just like—”

Joe broke in. “You were there. You have every right in the world to be terrified of fire, but you came after me anyway.” Joe levered himself up against the headboard so he could see his brother better. He paused, trying to frame his thoughts. “The day we got the letter from your Major, I was out working on the fence line. I’d been pulling on that wire, trying to get it connected for a solid half hour.

“Hoss rode up about then,” he continued, “and we talked about how whenever you did fence work you were always trying to find some kind of engineering way to make those ends meet. I remember I said how you always go for the thinking way out of a problem.”

Adam slowly turned his head and now he focused on Joe, his dark eyes intense and so full of pain that Joe felt tears well in his own eyes.

“Hoss said, and I still remember his words exactly, ‘I tried to tell him, sometimes you just gotta hold on an’ pull.’ Adam, you can’t think your way out of this one.”

“Just hold on . . . .” whispered Adam.

Joe nodded.

Adam continued to sit and stare thoughtfully at the opposite wall, and Joe had almost fallen back asleep when the door opened and Hoss came in.

“Hey, big brother, time to hit the sack.”

“Yeah,” Adam said on a sigh and levered himself out of the chair. He dropped his hand blindly on his youngest brother’s shoulder. “Thanks, Joe,” he said, and left the room silently.

Hoss sat down in the warm chair, picked up the full coffee cup and scowled at it when he realized it was cold. He gestured at the door. “’S he all right?”

“I don’t know,” Joe sighed. “I just don’t know.”

Saturday, December 24, 1864

Joe slept on and off for most of the next day, Christmas Eve. Adam was quiet, doing chores with a slightly vague air. Ben waded through his paperwork, and Hoss went to town for the morning. He’d returned to have a subdued lunch with Adam and Ben, which they were just finishing when there was the sound of hooves in the yard outside, then a brisk knock at the door.

Hoss got up to answer it, and when he saw who their visitor was, he called out, “Adam?”

Adam wiped his mouth and rounded the corner to the entrance. He stopped dead. Sergeant Tallan was standing in the small foyer holding an official courier pouch.

“Sergeant?” he questioned.

“Major Cartwright, sir. Colonel Beltree requested I deliver these orders to you on my way to Virginia City.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” He took the pouch gingerly.

Ben had moved quietly behind his son. “Would you come in for a cup of coffee?” he asked.

“No, thank you, sir. I want to get to town before dark. I just wanted to make sure the Major got these before Christmas.” He saluted, and Adam returned the gesture. “Good luck to you, sir,” Tallan said, did a regulation turn, and went out the door.

Adam continued to stand in the foyer, staring down at the leather envelope in his hand.

Ben spoke quietly. “Hoss, would you please go check on Little Joe?”

Hoss opened his mouth to protest, but his father’s pleading eyes stopped him. He turned instead and headed up the stairs, leaving his father alone with Adam.

Joe, bleary-eyed, was struggling out from under his covers.

“Who was the rider?” he asked with unerring instinct.

“Sergeant Tallan,” said Hoss.

Joe was silent a moment then asked, “What’d he say?”

Hoss shook his head, “Not much. He wished Adam good luck.”

Joe threw his covers off and reached for his pants. “Well, I’m not staying up here not knowing what’s going on. C’mon, Hoss.”

They crept down the stairs, but stopped on the landing when they saw their brother standing hunched before the fireplace, staring blindly into the flames, their father close behind him. Adam’s eyes were squeezed tight as if with terrible pain, papers crumpled in his hand. Ben had his arm curved protectively around his shoulders, but they couldn’t see his face, just hear his voice repeat over and over, “It’s all right Adam. Everything will be fine.”

Adam took a deep, sobbing breath, and let it out in one long sigh. He nodded, and dropped limply onto the coffee table.

“What do the papers say?” Ben asked gently, concern for his son’s state of mind overriding any of his own worries about the future.

Adam dropped his head into his empty hand and held the other out to his father. Ben took the papers and, with trepidation, straightened them out. He read out loud:

Major Cartwright,
It is with great pleasure that I assign you permanent
duty in Virginia City to represent the Federal Government’s
interests in the Nevada silver mines . . . .

His voice trailed off as he skimmed the rest of the letter and the official orders. He turned and saw Hoss and Joe on the landing. “The Army needs someone in Virginia City to keep an eye on the mines. Seems the Union needs as much silver as possible to keep fighting.”

“You mean…” Joe could hardly breathe.

“Adam’s gonna stay here?” Hoss asked.

A huge grin split Ben’s face. “That’s right. He’s going to stay right here on the Ponderosa and oversee the lumber contracts, make sure the Army gets everything it needs.”

Joe split the air with a huge yell, and they pounded down the stairs to their brother. Hoss lifted him completely off the table with a bear hug, and Joe beat on his back with glee.

“Hop Sing, Hop Sing,” yelled Hoss. “Adam’s gonna stay!”

And amid all the excitement, all the yelling, Adam finally allowed himself to believe. He was home, hopefully for good.

Sunday, December 25, 1864…just after midnight

Hoss stood at the top of the stairs, looking down into the darkened living room. Adam was standing at the door, bundled against the cold except for gloveless hands, and he had his guitar in one hand. He slipped out of the house and Hoss could hear his boots crunching in the snow as he crossed the yard. Curious and a little concerned, Hoss came quietly down the stairs, shrugged into his own coat, and followed his brother. The night was windless and silent, the stars brilliant in the sky.

Adam didn’t go far, just to the other side of the corral where there was a stump that was the perfect height for sitting.

Hoss was about to cross over to him and ask him what he was doing when Adam started playing the song Hoss had first heard at the Williamson’s party. The harp-like notes rang out through the night, and this time Adam added the words to the beautiful soaring melody.

Oh, Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s Birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees, Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!

As the last quiet notes faded into the darkness, Hoss saw his brother look up at the sky and could just barely make out the words “G’night, boys.”

The battle was over at last.

The End


NOTES on the history and music:

: VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac fought at the Battle of the Wilderness under Major General John Sedgwick. In two days of fighting the Federals lost more than 17,000 men, with more than 2200 killed outright. The Wilderness was notable for the dark, thick forest whose saplings and underbrush combined with smoke from the guns to make it nearly impossible to tell Union from Confederate. Horses and the larger guns had tremendous difficulty making it through the trees, so a great deal of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Battalions dissolved, companies and regiments got turned around and lost, and soldiers often ended up firing on their own sides. Sparks and muzzle flash set fires, which spread quickly and killed those who were too injured to escape. Throughout the Civil War, soldiers on both sides were typically stoic in the face of injuries, rarely doing more than moan, but the Wilderness rang with the screams of the wounded, especially once the fires started.

Sedgwick was killed on May 9, and the Corps went on under Horatio G. Wright. They were part of the battle at Spotsylvania, where one of the worst fights of the entire war took place at a bend in a trench that has ever after been known as the Bloody Angle. A visit to the national park at Spotsylvania will make you wonder why on earth they didn’t all just go home. The Corps then went on to fight at Cold Harbor, where the Federals lost close to 7,000 men in one hour. VI Corps was nearly decimated there when one of their advances was anticipated by the Confederates. It’s no surprise that all of Adam’s company and most of his battalion were killed.

[A note on the organization of the Army, smallest to largest, with a lot of room for error: squads (Sergeant), platoons (Second Lieutenant), companies (Captain), battalions (Major/Lieutenant Colonel), regiments (Colonel, or one star General), divisions (one star General), corps (two star General), army (three star General). Ranks are approximate, and may fluctuate depending upon how big each unit is and who’s been killed lately.]

There really was a mining tunnel dug under Confederate lines at Petersburg—but the execution of the attack did not take full advantage of the resulting break in the line, leading to severe loss of life for the Union without any gain. 

The War ended in Spring of 1865, so Adam didn’t have much longer to serve.

For more information on these and other battles of the Civil War, I strongly recommend the books “Never Call Retreat,” by Bruce Catton, and “The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox,” by Shelby Foote. “The Civil War in the Western Territories: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah,” by Ray C. Colton, is interesting for a perspective on what was going on in the West during the Civil War, though not much of it happened in Nevada. These were sources for much (though not all) of the information I used in this story. Any errors are mine—the Civil War is just too darn confusing! I drew some additional information from an interesting website with data about Union regiments: “The Civil War Archive.”

Dan De Quille really was a newspaperman in Virginia City, whose real name was William Wright. Fredrick Stock homesteaded in the Paradise Valley in 1864, and his spread is still a family operation, now under the name of the Ninety-Six Ranch.

Some minor historical/fictional details came from “One Man With Courage,” by Thomas Thompson.

And it’s quite true that the Union had a vested interest in the mines in Virginia City. They needed as much silver and gold dug out of the ground as possible to help finance the war.

Music: The song Adam sings at the Williamson’s party is from the Ponderosa Christmas CD and is titled ‘The Newborn King.’ I was unable to determine when it was written, so I decided for convenience’s sake that of course it must have been in the first part of the 18th century.

The song ‘Sylvie’ is available at Click on “songs” at the bottom of the page, and you’ll find it. The line that makes Hoss laugh is what Sylvie didn’t bring. Adam always gets a devilish look in his eye when he gets to that part. Like ‘The Newborn King’ I’m assuming for convenience’s sake that ‘Sylvie’ was popular in the mid-1800s.

Midi files of ‘O Holy Night’ are all over the web.  For some truly ghastly versions, go to and search for <“o holy night” midi> and start listening.  If you’ve never heard it, though, this will give you an idea.  Just imagine it with a single guitar accompaniment—the way it was played for the first time, when the church organ broke down.  From the publication date it is feasible the song might not have made it west at the time of this story, so I’m taking the liberty of saying that Adam introduced it. Sorry, you’ll have to use your imagination to hear him sing, I don’t think Pernell Roberts ever recorded it. (Dadburnit!)

Other notes:

* The basic premise and background of this story belong to David Dortort and Bonanza Ventures Inc. , and it is not my intention to infringe upon their copyright or intellectual property rights in any way. However, the particular events in this story are my creation, and I reserve the right to their use.

I have to thank Gwynne for inspiring me to write this story -- I got the idea after reading her screenplay. Also, there are some similarities with another Bonanza story regarding the return of Adam to the Ponderosa, but I will say that I had not read that story when I wrote this, and that author had not read this story when she wrote hers. Hey, great minds think alike!


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