Body and Soul    
Valerie Blythe  
 Chapter 1

       "Adam...son..." Ben Cartwright urged while shaking the shoulders of his eldest son. "Wake up!"

      Adam stirred fitfully and finally opened his eyes. He could see his father looking down at him, and beyond --the cobalt blue of the sky as it drifted slowly by. He suddenly lurched to a sitting position, dangerously rocking the little boat that held them all. Franticly he forced his exhausted eyes to focus on the scene around him. The boat...the island...the horses on the shore nearby...the distant horizon. With a gasp he suddenly threw himself forward and began to crawl awkwardly toward the back. The craft tipped and rocked and their rescuer glanced at Ben pleadingly.

    "You've got to keep him still, Mister!" he cried. "This water's a bit cold for swimmin'!"

      Ben already had his hands on Adam's shoulders and was pulling him back. "Adam! Sit down! Please!" he begged urgently. "We're almost there!"

    Adam stopped and looked into his father's face, his eyes tortured and brimming again with tears. 

      "But we're going the wrong way!" he cried on the brink of desperation.

     Ben kept a tight hold on him, afraid he might throw himself overboard at any moment. He nodded toward the old man who steadily paddled the boat toward shore.

    "This is Nick," he said. "He's taking us to a doctor."

     Adam struggled briefly in his father's tight grip and gazed again across the churning surface of the lake. "Amanda..." he mouthed, but the only sound echoed in his head in an endless mantra of pain.

    They had taken her he remembered clearly. They had hurt her, and they had taken her. Back toward Nevada; back in the opposite direction. He wanted to go to her...needed her! It would be so easy to just slip into the water...they wouldn't be able to stop him!...had to find easy...

    “ADAM!" Hoss had hold of him, the iron grip of his big hands pulling him onto his back. He held him there and looked at him with a mixture of fear and regret and glanced beseechingly at their rescuer. "Don't you have more than one paddle?" he implored. "We've got to get him out of here!"

   "Nope," the man answered. "Never needed another." But he gave Hoss an understanding look. "Don't worry; we're almost there."

   The little boat shifted and tilted as it began to scrape bottom and Ben jumped out to help drag it to dry land. They helped Joe out first, and Hoss followed with a firm grip on Adam. The old man went to get the horses.

 "You fellas gonna be able to ride?" he asked with concern, glancing at Joe who was heaving fitfully on the ground. Ben covered him with a blanket the old man offered and helped him toward his horse.

   "We'll manage," he answered half-heartedly, and supported Joe against his own battered body while he laboriously climbed on his horse. Swinging awkwardly up on his own mount, he turned to see Adam break free from Hoss and throw himself toward the boat. Hoss ignored the fire in his wounded leg and ran after him.

   "Adam!" he demanded as he pulled his brother around to face him. "Adam, it's no use!" 

      Life and death and pain and memory flashed through Adam's dark eyes, and Hoss could see quite plainly the battle that was fought and won--however briefly--in his mind. He slumped visibly and averted his gaze, leaning heavily on Hoss while he tried to regain control. Hoss put an arm around him as they limped back to the horses.

    The old man watched them quietly, his thoughtful eyes missing nothing. When he had taken the boat out to fish this morning, he had never expected to find anyone on the island. They all bore some serious injury--the older man with a shattered arm, the big man dragging an injured leg. The youngest boy fought a fever as serious as he had ever seen, and the oldest son...well... He was as battered and bruised as the rest of them, and blood and dirt caked the bullet hole in his shoulder; but the old man suspected that his pain ran much deeper than physical torment. He had seen the look before--a raw, seething, irrepressible need. Hell, he had lived it...

   It had been years since he had allowed himself to think of her. His darling, beautiful wife--his love then and always. It had been a bad winter. The Cheyenne had been restless that year. Food had run out. The government refused to help--wanted to crush them. They fought back! Raiding parties! Fires! Killing! In the end more than half the settlers were dead ...or wished the were. And she was gone. He could still hear her screams in the hands of her murderer...

  He shook himself out of the past and watched the young man heave himself up on his dancing horse---the nervous beast reflecting his rider's tortured soul. He turned again to the father.

   "This road will take you into town. The doctor's house is on the north end." He paused and studied the men closely. "Sure you don't need me to ride along? My mule's just over yonder..."

   Ben tried to smile but grimaced instead as the pain and worry caught up with him. "No, you've done enough," he assured the old man. "We'll make it."

 The man shook his head sadly and stepped aside to let them pass. The father led the way, riding close to his youngest son to hold him in the saddle if need be. The big man rode behind his other brother, not quite trusting that he wouldn't try to get away again. The one called Adam turned in the saddle to gaze behind---past his brother, past the island, past the mountains, and out across the great blue lake. The old man saw the flash in his eyes and knew with certainty that the fires that burned there would yet consume the man he was, and could brand forever the man he was to be.


  Nothing prepared the old doctor for the sight that met him on his front porch. The men there reminded him of soldiers in a war--not just in physical injuries, but in their shell-shocked stares. The oldest man set his face in an agonized scowl and supported his right arm that twisted and flopped at impossible angles. Two younger men with questionable injuries of their own, supported a third whose color had drained a deathly white.  Despite his training and experience, the doctor stared a moment at the battered group before motioning them into the clinic. His wife gasped when she saw them but found them places to sit and went to boil water for the expected surgeries. The doctor retrieved his black bag from the shelf and approached the youngest man.

 "How long has he had the fever?" he asked, trying to mask his real concern.

  "Four....maybe ...five days..." Ben murmured as his befuddled mind tried to remember details he'd rather forget.

  The doctor nodded absently as they helped Little Joe to lie down. 'Days???' he thought.' Dear God...' He peeled off the filthy shirt--or what was left of it--and his wife brought some water to cool and clean him. He moaned softly as he drifted in and out of consciousness, and the doctor bit his lip to keep from cursing aloud. Who had done this to these men? And why??? He knew he had to ask later, but for now he set about trying to repair the torture they had all endured.

  When Joe had been bathed and wrapped in blankets near the fire, the doctor turned his attention to the big man whose leg had begun to discolor around his mud-caked wound. Hoss raised his leg to a chair with great difficulty, and despite his considerable constitution, he screamed aloud when the doctor began to examine it. When the filth had been washed away, he could see a silver dollar-sized wound and the tissue around it, necrotic and blistered. He met Hoss's eyes.

  "If I'm going to save that leg," he said. "That bullet's got to come out...along with a fair bit of flesh."

  Hoss squinted in agony of body and mind and nodded quickly. "Do it," he said.

 The doctor bypassed the operating table since Hoss was too weak to raise himself to it, and elected to do the surgery right where he sat. His wife brought the chloroform and instructed Adam to hold his brother steady in the chair while she administered it. He lost consciousness quickly but Adam kept him from falling while the doctor got to work.

  It was a brutal operation from the Cartwright's point of view, as they watched the doctor cut freely into healthy flesh while trying to remove every bit of the infected portion. When he was finished they saw a gaping maw--three times the size of the hole that had been there--but it was free of the deadly infection. The doctor packed it well with antiseptic and began to bandage it while his wife removed the chloroform from Hoss's face.

  The doctor wiped his hands on a clean rag and went to Ben next. The arm was obviously broken, possibly in more than one place, and his wife approached knowingly with the anesthesia. He managed to get up on the operating table and the doctor began to repair the damage.

   Adam watched from across the room. He had found them as he had set out to do. But he had lost her, and what should have been a happy reunion had turned bitter sweet. Would they understand when he had to leave? Would they try to stop him? He clenched his jaw and swore a silent oath that nothing would interfere with his search for his lost wife. Nothing

    When Ben had been moved to a bed to recover, the doctor called to Adam. He approached the exam table warily and raised himself on to it. But he eyed the bottle of chloroform the wife held and resolutely remained sitting.

 The doctor fingered the ugly bullet wound in Adam's shoulder and studied the bruises on his head and torso. Shaking his head he reached for his instruments and motioned for his wife to begin the sedation.

 "You're going to have to lie down, son," he said gently,

 Adam shook his head curtly. He didn't want to go to sleep; didn't want to lose his anger to some drug-induced dream. His stubborn resolve had helped find his family when others had given up. Now he needed that same stubbornness in his search for Amanda. He shook his head again and turned away from the chloroform soaked rag.

  A silent signal passed between the doctor and his wife. Adam wasn't the first difficult patient in his long career. He laid his instruments on the little table beside him and moved toward the young man.

 "You need surgery on that shoulder," he said simply. "The bullet's deep and at a difficult angle..."

   Adam's eyes shifted almost imperceptibly toward him, but he said nothing and made no move to lie down.

 "I suspect you have a concussion too," the doctor continued, moving closer. "Could use the rest..."

  Adam blinked distractedly. He was tired...Maybe he could close his eyes for just a second...

  Suddenly the rag was clamped over his mouth and nose and strong arms pushed him down on the table. He struggled weakly, angered at the trap and at himself for falling into it. The misty veil of chloroform gripped his mind quickly and with a start he imagined her face floating ghost-like before his eyes. He began to relax into the soft hands of oblivion as his fear and revenge were washed away by the ghostly mists. He smiled to see his beloved so near and reached out a hand to stroke her shining hair. 



 Chapter 2


   The room was pleasantly warm and the soft crackle of the fire was calling him from a restful sleep. Somewhere nearby he could hear the quiet murmur of voices and the scrape of a spoon against an empty bowl.

  "Would you like more soup?" a woman's voice was asking.

  "Yes, Ma'am," Hoss answered eagerly."That's mighty good!"

  She smiled as she went to the kitchen to refill his dish. The doctor studied Hoss closely.

   "How's the leg feel?" he asked.

   Hoss rubbed at the thick bandage and gladly accepted the bowl of food from their hostess.

  "It's feelin' a bit numb at the moment. Doc," he answered. "But a heap better than it did this morning!"

  The doctor nodded.  "That medicine I gave you should ease the pain. I'll wire your doctor in Virginia City so you can have that refilled." He looked from father to son, and across the room at the other young men who still slept, and sighed. "Must you leave right away? We have plenty of room and you all could use the rest...!"

   Ben followed his gaze to his sleeping sons and hesitated.   "We need to get home..." he said at last. "As soon as they can ride."

   The doctor sighed with relief.

   "Well, that will be a couple of days yet," he said. "particularly the youngest." He studied Ben's tired face. "Can you tell me what happened?" he asked hesitantly.

  Ben paused as a cloud seemed to darken his face with an unspeakable sorrow. He looked again at Adam who had begun to stir fitfully, and took a deep--almost sobbing--breath.

  "It was weeks ago...months.." he began shakily. "I...don't remember...My oldest son was away on a business trip...My cook was visiting family in San Francisco...the hands were at the roundup..." He paused again to run a trembling hand through his hair as the memories came flooding back. He watched as Adam's eyes flickered open and saw in them the bitter disappointment of some lost dream. With a steady unblinking gaze he met his father's eyes, and with a start Ben realized that he needed to hear the story too. That in some small way his loss might be justified if he only knew why...

   Except there was no why.

  At least none that Ben could determine. And he had brooded on it enough times to try to understand. He tore his eyes from his son's face and set his gaze on some invisible touchstone of pain. His face contorted in memory of it.

  "I was at my desk doing the books," he began slowly. "Hoss and Joe had returned from the roundup to collect the payroll and a few supplies." He paused as he saw the scene again in his mind, and himself powerless to stop what would happen.

   "The house was quiet...the boys were taking a break on the couch...eating an apple I think..." Why had such a small detail been emblazoned on his mind? Would he ever forget any of it??

  "Suddenly shots rang out!...We were being attacked!...We hit the ground!...none of us was wearing a was mayhem!! The door flew with guns...rifles...we were surrounded...and he was there..."

      ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

   "The mighty Cartwrights!" Dawson was mocking them. "Groveling on the floor like animals!" His eyes darkened suddenly and he tossed his weapon aside.  "This was too easy!" he spat.

  "What do you want?" Ben demanded, his voice authoritative even from his submissive position.

   The cold gray eyes raked over him like a predator assessing its prey.   "Get up," he demanded.

   Ben was happy to oblige. He needed an excuse to hit the man.

  They circled each other slowly--two bulls preparing for combat. Hoss and Joe started to jump to their father's defense, but a rifle in their faces kept them where they were.

  "I will destroy you!" Dawson growled, aiming a back-handed blow to the side of Ben's head.

   Ben ducked away from the assault and connected his own fist to Dawson's jaw.  "You don't have the courage," he said evenly.

   Dawson pushed himself off the chair he had collided with and rushed at Ben, barreling him back against his desk and wrapping his hands around his throat. The other invaders watched with interest and laughed as Ben sputtered for air and fought to breathe.

   On the floor near the sofa Hoss took advantage of their distraction and grabbed the cold steel barrel of the rifle that was aimed at his head.  Twisting out of range and pulling up sharply, he was able to misdirect the assailant's aim long enough for Joe to pull his feet out from under him and knock him senseless against the edge of the coffee table. Hoss pulled the gun free from the man's hands just as a shot echoed through the house and dropped him to his knees.

  "Hoss!" Joe cried, forgetting their try for freedom and crawling toward his brother.

  Hoss dropped the gun and clamped his hand over the gaping hole in his right thigh. Blood was oozing out at an alarming rate, and Joe tore his bandanna off his neck to wrap around the wound.

   Dawson and Ben stopped in mid-struggle to glance sharply toward the center of the room. Dawson's man lay in an unmoving heap half-hidden by the coffee table, while Hoss clutched his injured leg and cursed himself for not being able to help his father.

   Joe's eyes burned with a deadly fire and he suddenly made a mad scramble for the rifle Hoss had dropped, and rolled with it around the edge of the sofa. His aim was good and the man nearest the door fell awkwardly against the wall with a bullet in his gun hand. A third man swung his rifle in Joe's direction, but he had already thrown the spent weapon away and was rushing head first at the man's belly. They collapsed together against the grandfather clock and fought frantically--each with a hand on the gun.

  Dawson turned with an irritated growl to take stock of the unexpected commotion. Hoss was trying to get up to join the fight, but his legs were caught under the sofa and he couldn't get his balance.

 With Dawson's hands loosened some by his distraction, Ben took a desperate breath and snaked his fingers across the desk and hooked them on the side edges. Then with sudden violent force, he dropped to the floor taking the desk with him, and knocking Dawson off his feet and into the wood stove.

   His adversary roared and turned his attention back to his own fight, landing a heavy kick in Ben's side before he could get up.

  By this time Joe and his opponent had lost the gun and pushed away from the overturned clock, bumping roughly into the table behind the couch. Sensing his opportunity, Hoss leaned back and pushed the couch into them, overturning the little table and sending the heavy statue tumbling to the ground. It's jagged edges left a raw scar on the floor where it landed.

  Joe and the man fell in a heap on the floor, struggling in each other's grip and scrambling again for the fallen rifle. Crawling around the edge of the sofa and dragging his bloody leg, Hoss also struggled toward the gun.

 Across the room Dawson grabbed a heavy book  and hurled it toward Ben, grazing his temple and leaving a crimson gash.

 "Don't you know when you're beat?" he mocked him.

  "I'll know," Ben retorted. "When it happens."

  They circled one another, jabbing bloodied fists into bruised faces and searching for weakness.

  "Can you give me a good reason why you've invaded my home?" Ben demanded, breathing heavily.

  Dawson laughed--a dark and mirthless sound. "Give up," he taunted. "And I'll tell you."

  The man by the door finished bandaging the bloody mess of his hand with his handkerchief, and moved unnoticed across the room to where the gun lay. Hoss was almost there and cursed aloud as the weapon was snatched away from under his fingertips.

  "Get up!" the man demanded and turned impatient eyes on Dawson. "This is taking too long!"

   Dawson laughed again and moved around them to take hold of the gun. "Go check on Vic," he ordered, waving toward the man who was just starting to get up beside the coffee table. He turned toward the Cartwrights with a sickly smile. He was in charge again. "You've all been invited on a trip," he said sarcastically.

  Ben ignored him and hurried to Hoss's side.

  "My son needs a doctor," he demanded.

  "Your son gets nothing!" Dawson snapped viciously. He turned to his two injured men. "Go get some horses ready. See if you can find a pack mule as well." He smiled widely. "We've got some pillaging to do!"

   Ben jumped to his feet. "My son can't ride with his leg like that!" he shouted.

   Dawson's eyes gleamed with satisfaction.   "Would he rather walk?"

   The man Joe had fought laid his hand on Dawson's rifle. "I could just kill him and save us all the trouble!" he volunteered eagerly.

   Dawson smiled but deflected his comrade's hand away.

  "Patience, Sinclair, patience," he said. "There is a certain waiting..."

  Sinclair giggled unnervingly and Ben shivered. This was not happening! This could not be happening!

  "Check the safe," Dawson was ordering his man. "Their pockets too."

   Sinclair went forward eagerly, shooting the safe's lock then kicking and prying at the door in his impatience. Laughing gleefully, he wrapped the money in his neckerchief, then gathered up the land titles and other official papers that were stacked beneath it. Dawson held out his hand for them.

  "As of this moment," he taunted Ben. "You no longer own the Ponderosa. I do."

   Ben stood his ground and glared hard at him. "Saying it does not make it so," he said evenly.

   Dawson laughed loudly and watched as his men returned from the barn and began to help Sinclair remove guns and other valuables. "You still think you can beat me," he said with a hint of amazement.

   Ben faced him squarely and his dark eyes flashed a challenge. "I know it," he answered.

  They stared at one another for a long moment. Finally Dawson handed his rifle to Sinclair and approached Ben until they were standing eye to eye. "What about your sons?" he asked .

   The question hung between them for what seemed an eternity, and Ben's resolve flickered ever so slightly behind his flashing eyes.

   "What about them?" he demanded, casting a quick glance at Hoss and Joe.

   Dawson chuckled and licked his lips. This was good! He had found Ben's weakness and he knew it. Slowly he turned away and his face recorded the victory.

  "They say that the only thing you love more than the Ponderosa," he purred," are your three sons."

  Suddenly he wheeled around and his eyes were cold and hollow. "Where is that third son, Ben?"

   But Ben didn't answer. Couldn't answer. Wouldn't answer.

  The cold gray eyes held no humor now and they stabbed viciously at Ben's composure.

  "Heard one of your boys was handling the negotiations in Denver," Dawson said with a hint of accusation. "Adam, perhaps?"

  Ben's jaw was clenched tight, but he looked away lest his eyes betray him.

  But Dawson saw. And had his answer. And the mirthless laughter shook the house and sent shivers up Ben's spine.

   His weakness indeed...


   Chapter 3

    Ben paused in the re-telling and took a drink from the tea their hostess handed him. The fire crackled warmly on the other side of the room and all was quiet and safe here. But he couldn't shake the dread the memories invoked, nor bear the look in Adam's eyes. There was fear there. And sorrow. And regret. But the raw, seething hatred that Ben saw was     unexpected and frightening. He didn't want to tell anymore; didn't want to feed that anger. But Adam had a right to know...

   "They took everything they could carry," he continued. "Guns, money, food..." He paused and swallowed, his eyes taking on a far away look as he returned to the nightmare. "They filled three pack mules...put us on our horses...tied our hands..."

      ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

   Dawson glanced toward the corral where several horses milled about. "Is that all of them?" he asked his men.

   "All that's here," one of them answered. "I seen the rest up by the lake,"

  "Good," Dawson said. "You and Vic gather 'em up. Sell only to the highest bidder. And not all in one place."

   "Sure, Boss," Vic answered. "These bills of sale should make it all legal!" He tucked the official papers securely in his pocket. "Want us to sell the cattle too?"

    Dawson chuckled dryly.  "Not yet," he answered. "Don't want to draw suspicion." He laughed loudly and mounted his own horse, glancing around with greedy eyes. "When you finish here... burn it."

   The silence that followed was charged with the darkest of emotions and three pairs of eyes stared, unbelieving, at their captor's back. He turned to savor their expressions and his hideous laughter rang on and on.


  The cowboy put down the coffee pot and went to sit on a low rock beside his companion. "Hoss and Joe get back yet?" he asked as he sipped slowly from his cup.

  "Nope," the other answered and stuffed a wad of tobacco in his cheek. "They've been gone near three hours."

  The first man took another sip and studied the group of strays they had gathered, which still needed to be driven more than two miles to the main herd. "I was kinda hoping to get into town tonight," he said. "Won't get much chance once we start driving these beeves to market."

  The other man chewed thoughtfully and nodded.  "Well," he said." If they ain't back by the time we get these critters to the herd, we'll just have to go lookin'.”

 It didn't take long to drive the cattle and soon they could see the chuckwagon just beyond the next hill. They left the animals with the herd and approached the camp at a canter.

 "Hey Charlie!" the one named Jed called to the cook. "Have the Cartwright boys got back yet?"

 "Haven't seen 'em," the grisly old man shouted back. "If they don't hurry up they're gonna go without!"

 Jed looked at his friend with concern.

 "Mike, I think we oughta go on up to the house and see what's keepin' 'em."

  The cook peered at them accusingly. "Ain't ya gonna eat your dinner first?" he asked.

 "Nah," Jed answered as he reined his horse around. "I suspect the Cartwrights will give us somethin' when we get there,"

  And the two men galloped away, leaving the cook to grumble by himself.


  "So ya think we'll get some time to go to the dance tonight?" Jed chatted when they reached the main road and slowed their horses.

  "Well," Mike answered. "Them Cartwright boys is going for sure. I don't suspect they'd leave us out in the cold."

  They rode in silence a moment, enjoying the clear summer day. "Sure hope so," Jed continued." Mary Ellen said she'd like to go with me."

  "Mary Ellen?" Mike asked in mock disbelief. "Ain't she Joe's girl?" He shook his head and chuckled. "You won't be gettin' time off for a month if Joe finds you with her!"

 "Ah!" Jed said, waving his concern away. "Joe can have any girl in town! I don't think he'll mind me spendin' time with just one!"

 Mike gave him a long look then laughed good naturedly. "Just remember one thing," he said. "Don't hide behind me when Joe comes gunnin' for ya!"

 They rounded the last turn and suddenly something in the wind made them wrinkle their noses in worry.

 "That smells like smoke..." Jed said.

  "Yeah..." Mike agreed. "Come on!"

 They could hear the crackle of fire long before they reached the yard, and the billowing black smoke was so thick they could barely see. Their frightened horses began to stomp and scream, refusing to go any further into the cauldron. Dismounting hurriedly, they ran the rest of the way, holding their neckerchiefs around their faces until they could circle downwind of the choking smoke.

    "My God..." Mike breathed and stared at the holocaust.

    Dancing orange flames engulfed the barn and corrals, leaping high into the air to singe the tallest branches of nearby trees. The outer timbers of the barn were already crumbled and sloughed away, leaving only a blackened skeleton. The hungry fire would soon consume that too.

  Jed recovered first and pulled at Mike's arm franticly.   "It hasn't got to the house yet!" he shouted. "Come on! We've got to find them!"

  They stumbled toward the house in a daze, pushed past the broken door, and blinked dumbly at new horrors. The house was in shambles, ransacked of all valuables and left in ruins. Jed knelt to brush his fingers gingerly in a tell-tale pool of red, and looked up at Mike in shock.

 "Blood," he confirmed, but didn't voice what they both were fearing. The Cartwrights could all be dead.

  They hurried through the house, then out into the smoky yard to look where they could. Nothing. They met again on the front porch, staring  mesmerized at the withering barn.

  "If the wind holds the house might be spared," Mike mumbled lamely, wondering if that would be a comfort to Adam when he returned from Denver.  He shivered despite the intense heat and started jogging back to the trail where they had left the horses.

 "We've got to get help!" he shouted to be heard above the oppressive fire.  "I'll head to town! You get the men at the roundup!"

  Scrambling up on their frightened mounts, they glanced once more at the terrifying wall of flames. Then with the slightest prompt their horses turned and carried them away. And they rode like mad men, knowing countless futures depended on them alone.

  And the fire roared a warning as the Ponderosa burned.


Chapter 4

  An eerie stillness met the men that gathered in the front yard of the ranch. The fire was nearly spent, and the sheriff gingerly stepped around the charred lumber and poked at the dying embers where the barn once stood. More than one hundred men were gathered there, but all were strangely silent, watching and waiting for the sheriff's word. Some held torches to illuminate the advancing night, and the dancing flames cast ghostly shadows on their stricken faces.

  "Me and Jed's ready to go on the posse," Mike said. "Just give the word."

 The sheriff took a deep breath. He had known Ben a long time; seen his boys grow into men.   If anything had happened to them...

  "We'll wait till morning," he began, hoping his voice was not shaking. "You fellas get on home--get some sleep and gather your supplies. We'll leave here at first light."

  There was a moment of indecision, as the call to action settled slowly into their numb minds. Then they began to drift toward their horses in twos and threes, speaking quietly or not at all, trying to make sense of the barest of clues. The sheriff watched them go and let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding.

  "Ben Cartwright where are you?" he mumbled softly.


   They rode in silence mostly, pressured by some unknown time-table in their captor's head. He kept them to the backroads--or no road at all--and they saw no riders along the way. Ben tried to memorize the route but Dawson kept them riding even at night and employed many switchbacks. It was time for drastic measures.

  "Get movin' up there!" Sinclair shouted from somewhere behind. Ben glanced back but Hoss and Joe were between him and the hated man. It was just as well; his anger had reached lethal proportions.

  They emerged from the trees and found themselves on a narrow path that snaked precariously along the side of a rocky cliff. To the right was a dizzying drop of about thirty feet, with only scrub oak and tumbleweeds to break an inopportune fall. The procession moved their horses as far left as they could and slowed to a walk.

   Ben kept his eyes on Dawson's back. He couldn't help it--he hated the man. Hated him for what he had done and what he planned to do. He closed his eyes briefly and tried to ease his mind of vengeful thoughts.

    A curse from the rear made them glance back. Sinclair had dismounted and was lifting his horse's foreleg to dig a stone from under the shoe. Ben thought quickly; there might not be a better chance.

    Dawson was glancing farther up the trail; just for a second taking his eyes off his prisoners. Ben's horse squealed sharply at his sudden kick and leapt dangerously between the cliff and Dawson's mount. The horses scrambled fearfully so close to the edge of the trail, and rocks scattered and tumbled to the depths below. But Ben didn't care. He threw himself at Dawson, his tied hands forming a noose around his enemy's neck. In a tangled heap they both flew over Dawson's horse and skidded down the embankment.

   In an instant Sinclair had his rifle out of its scabbard and pointed at the others.

   "You get down off them horses--real easy!" he demanded. "And lay down!"

   A look passed between Hoss and Joe, but they obeyed the man and lay face down on the rocky trail. Sinclair kept his eyes on them but eased around to the edge and hollered below.

   "Dawson!" he called. "You all right?"  

  There was a long pause as the sounds of the struggle died away.

  "Throw me a rope!" Dawson finally shouted. "And get them boys to haul their daddy back up!"  He turned to scowl at Ben where he sat on the tiny ledge. His right arm was limp and twisted, held in place only by the rope that bound his hands.

"You're gonna pay for that," Dawson spat and caught the end of the rope Sinclair tossed his way. With palatable anger he wrapped it around Ben's neck, tying it high under his chin where it would cut but not kill. Ben glared at him, his hatred undiminished.

"You're the devil himself," he growled.

And the laughter again. The hated, evil laughter.

"Get them boys to pullin'!" Dawson shouted almost gleefully. "And don't you help them, hear? It's their daddy!"

  The rope began to tighten and Ben scrambled up to give himself some slack.  But the relief was short-lived and soon he found himself struggling to breathe. Desperately he wedged the fingers of his one good hand under the rope, and nearly screamed as the rope burned and sawed them raw. But he couldn't scream. Not only was his breath cut away just enough to make him gasp and gurgle, but his head alone was bearing his weight as he was pulled ever upward. He closed his eyes and concentrated desperately on living.

Hoss and Joe pulled steadily on the rope, not knowing the effect on their father. Slowly Joe eased closer to the edge to judge their progress and let go of the rope in horror.   "We're choking him,Hoss!" he cried, reaching franticly toward Ben but finding only empty space.

Hoss pushed his back against the cliff and hung desperately to the rope.   "Joe!" he shouted. "We can't stop now! It'll kill him! Now Pull!!""

Joe scrambled back to the rope and pulled fearfully. Tears were streaming down his face from the effort and the horror. And Sinclair was laughing. At him. At their father's pain. At life itself it seemed. And Joe hated him for it.

  At last they pulled Ben to the trail and hurried to remove the damaging rope. His neck and face were raw and bleeding, and his fingers too where he had held the rope. Hoss helped him to sit up and supported him until he could catch his breath.

  "You alright, Pa?" he asked anxiously. Ben coughed and sputtered, but nodded feebly.

  Joe jumped to his feet and spun on Sinclair. The gun was there. As always. "How could you do a thing like that?" He screamed at him. "What kind of animals are you?"

  Sinclair grinned and just as suddenly swung the barrel of the rifle against Joe's head. Joe fell heavily but jumped up again with murder in his eyes.

  "No, Joe!" Hoss warned, leaving Ben to take hold of his brother. He eyed the gun hanging loosely in Sinclair’s hand and knew the time wasn't right. "Come on," he said softly. "Pa needs us."

  "Everything all right up there?" Dawson called sarcastically from below.

  "Everything's just fine," Sinclair drawled.

  "Then tie the rope to my saddle and get me up!" Dawson demanded curtly. "We've wasted enough time already!"


   Ben got up from his chair and moved toward the window. It was evening and everyone was sitting quietly--their words lost in the wake of his story. Hoss was sitting with Joe who had awakened long enough to eat a little soup. The doctor's wife--Katherine he had called her--was knitting in a chair near the hearth. The doctor himself was at his desk, carefully     preparing their medicines and writing the telegrams he would wire to Virginia City in the morning. Ben glanced out the window and saw Adam sitting very still on the porch steps. His longing eyes were distant and set on the star-filled evening sky. Ben opened the door and moved silently across the porch to sit down beside him.

  "It's beautiful, isn't it?" Ben asked, following his gaze to the velvet blackness.

  Adam said nothing and looked away. His heart was filled only with hate. Would he ever see beauty again?

  Ben watched him closely and saw the familiar set of his jaw and the droop of his shoulders. He wanted to embrace him but felt the gesture would be unwelcome.

  "Adam..." he began, wanting desperately to erase the fire in those dark eyes. "It's's over...we need to move on..."

  Adam didn't acknowledge him and stared straight ahead, his head resting on his clasped hands. He sat so still that Ben wondered if he had heard. Or if it mattered...

  Finally Adam's eyes shifted almost imperceptibly toward Ben, then away again.

  "I've never hated anyone before," he murmured. "But I hate them, Pa. In my my all that I am, I hate them."

  Ben was silent a long time. Adam had always been the one to take reason over passion. This shadow of his son frightened him.

  "Adam," he said at last, and chose his words carefully. "The law will catch up with them; they will be punished. Now let's have no talk of revenge."

  Adam rose abruptly and turned toward the door.

  "Then there's nothing to talk about," he answered, and left Ben alone with the darkening night.


 Chapter 5

  It was time to go home. A week had passed, and if they waited much longer snow would come and make passage impossible. By the third day Joe's fever had broken, and his appetite returned in force. The others' injuries were also mending--albeit slowly. But they were restless.

  The Ponderosa was calling them home.

  Ben paused in the door of the stage and turned to Doctor Meneken.  "I wish there was some way to repay you..." he began.

  The doctor smiled a little and shook his head.

  "Just doing my job," he said quietly, and took one last look at each of his patients. The big man and the youngest were already settled in the stage and smiled appreciatively at him. The one named Adam had just finished tying their horses to the back and was walking back to join his father, his eyes and manner restless and impatient.

  "Take care of yourselves," the doctor said and clasped Ben's hand with both of his own. "All of you."

  "Thank you," Ben said. "We will."

  He waited for Adam to board the stage then climbed in after him. Up above the driver whistled to the horses and the stage lurched forward. Ben sighed deeply. They were going home.



  The trip seemed to take forever. Ben fidgeted nervously and tried to concentrate on the passing scenery. Hoss and Joe were talking excitedly about rebuilding what was lost, and laying bets on each other's prowess and ability. Ben smiled at their eagerness and knew the Ponderosa couldn't die as long as Cartwrights defended her.

  The stage turned away from the gleaming shoreline and began its climb to Virginia City. Ben glanced sideways at Adam who had said very little during their journey, and his heart went numb all over again.. Adam stared silently out the window, dark eye searching, hoping, and ultimately condemning the emptiness. He didn't move, but the tension of restrained   energy was apparent in his tight shoulders and clenched jaw. Ben didn't know what to say to ease that tortured mind, and turned away to hide his tears.

  The stage reached the last turn and Virginia City came into view. Its streets were awash with hundreds of people--laughing, cheering, and racing alongside to reach out a hand and touch the friends they thought they had lost. The Cartwrights watched in amazement as the happy throng surrounded the stage and forced it to a stop. Ben stepped out first, almost gingerly, and shook hands with friends and neighbors he never thought he'd see again. Hoss and Joe followed behind, happily joining in the reunion. But Adam went straight to the horses, untying them from the stage and heading toward the livery.

  Roy Coffee elbowed his way through the crowd and approached the remaining Cartwrights. "Welcome home Ben!" he smiled widely, clasping Ben's good hand. "Hoss! Joe!" he acknowledged the others, then followed their gaze up the street. "Where's Adam going?"

   Ben gazed after his eldest a moment then forced a smile. "Oh, he's just going for some fresh horses," he told Roy. "We're a bit anxious to get to the Ponderosa."

   Roy grinned. "Well, it's still there!" he said. "Hop Sing and a couple of your hands have kept the place going." He watched Adam disappear into the stable. "Guess Adam wasn't the only one to believe in miracles."

   Ben nodded but his eyes remained as distant as his son's.

  Roy laid a hand on his shoulder and guided him toward the restaurant.

  "Come on, Ben," he prompted. "Let's get you all something to eat before you head home. You look half-starved..."


     The idle chatter that had been a welcome distraction during the ride ceased abruptly when the ranch house came into view. They paused just a moment to take in the scene. Adam had told them that the house had not burned, but it was still a relief to see it there. Most of the damage had been repaired, and a new corral even stood on the ashes of the old one.    Beyond it several men were perched atop the skeleton framework of a new barn, and the rap of hammers sounded clearly in the still air. One of the men paused to push his damp hair out of his eyes and caught sight of the riders.

   "Hey Mike! They're comin'!" he shouted and shimmied down the ladder to hurry toward them. Mike caught up to him just as the Cartwrights dismounted and led their horses to the corral.

  "The sheriff said you was comin'!" Jed greeted them. "We was hopin' to have 'er finished for ya," he went on, indicating the barn with a wave of his hand."But as you can see, we're a long way from that!"

  Ben stared mutely at him and at the handful of men who had stopped working to join the reunion.

  "You..did all this?" he finally asked, his voice rising in disbelief. "But"

  Jed grinned sheepishly.

  "Well," he said, not sure how to begin. "We sold them cattle we had rounded up. Figured that's what you wanted anyhows," he looked around at the gathered men but none offered to tell the story, so he continued. " the money to pay off the men that wanted to move on. They had it comin' I suspect. The rest of us took a vote and decided to fix the place's you'd have it when ya come back..." His voice trailed away into a long, uncomfortable silence.

   At last Ben found his voice. "How could you be so certain we'd come back?" he asked incredulously.

  Jed grinned widely.

  "Well, Mr. Cartwright," he said. "You always said as long as there was a Ponderosa, there'd be Cartwrights on it." He looked around at their handiwork, then back at Ben. "Guess we never figured you to be a liar!"

  Ben stared at him a long time and a smile began to spread across his tired face. Finally he started to laugh and clapped the young man on the back.

  "Jed," he said as they began to walk toward the house. "How long's it been since I've given you a raise?"


      CHAPTER 6

   Ben woke with a start. It was still dark outside, but the faint glow of dawn was painting the sky beyond the mountains. He left the bed with its unsettling dreams and pulled on his robe and slippers, feeling somewhat unnatural in such comforts. He sighed and glanced around at the once-familiar objects in the room, and closed his eyes to try for pleasant memories. It would be some time before he felt at home again...

  Carefully he opened the door so as not to wake the others, and made his way down the shadowy hallway. He paused at the top of the stairs and stared at the dark room below, the fleeting dreams of his mind imagining intruders in every piece of furniture. He took a deep breath and quickly descended the stairs.

  The wooden floor creaked softly under his weight and the pungent smell of smoke lingered in the hours-cold fireplace. Ben blinked his eyes as they began to adjust to the dimness and ran his fingers along a tear in the arm of his favorite chair. Too many reminders, he thought. Got to get that fixed.

  A sound on the stairs startled him and he turned to see Hoss and Joe on the landing. They were dressed already--with boots in hand--and they hurried down the stairs with the same haste that Ben had managed. He watched their faces closely and saw his own troubles mirrored there.

   "We couldn't sleep," Joe murmured, almost apologetically.

   Ben squeezed his shoulder understandingly. "I know," he said. Then glancing out the window at the brightening sky, he  gave them a half-smile. "I suppose since we're all awake, we ought to get to work. Joe, will you see if Adam is ready for breakfast?"

  "Sure,Pa," Joe answered, and turned to retrace his steps up the stairs to Adam's room. Shortly he returned with worry creasing his face. "He's not in his room," he said uneasily. "I'll go check outside."

  Ben and Hoss watched him go and sank down to wait during a long and unsteady silence. Presently Joe returned and his solemn face told them what they needed know.

  "He's gone," Ben spoke for him, his voice sealing that truth implicitly.

  They looked at each other a long moment. Then Ben rose abruptly. "Well," he said, attempting to erase the somber mood. "We've got work to do. Suppose we see if Hop Sing has breakfast ready?"



  Adam reached forward and absently patted his horse's neck. He had found it impossible to sleep, and had left in the night as soon as he was sure the others had gone to bed. He didn't know where he was going. But his only clue said Amanda had been taken toward Nevada, and somehow he must find her.

  He shifted in the saddle and licked his dry lips. He had been riding for hours without a rest, and had neglected to bring along a canteen. He squinted at the sun peeking from between the tall trees, and made a quick decision. The road to Carson City lay to the right, and he turned his horse toward it and kicked him to a slow canter.

  It was early morning when he rode into town, and Carson City was just starting its day. Adam slowed his horse and searched the faces of the people he saw, hoping by some miracle to see hers.

.  A restaurant was just opening its doors and he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail. A tiny bell on the door rang softly when he entered, and a young woman appeared from the kitchen and smiled at him. "What'll it be?" she asked pleasantly.

  He froze in the act of removing his hat and tried to keep from staring. For in his mind it was a different time and a different place. And a different woman whom he couldn't help but love...


  He shook himself out of the memory and blinked several times to focus on the present. The woman was looking at him with concern. "Can I get you anything?" she asked.

  He hesitated. Past and present were fighting for his attention. He cleared his throat. "Yes," he murmured. "Coffee, please."

  She left to get it and he sat down near the window and tried to compose himself.

  Outside, Carson City was in full swing and businesses were beginning to open all along the street. Adam's eyes fixed on the saloon nearby and he briefly considered leaving the coffee for something stronger. A steaming cup appeared beside him and the woman's voice seeped slowly though the darkness of his mind.

  "Been travelin' long?" she was asking.

  Adam didn't look at her. Instead his eyes were locked on the people outside the window. "No," he finally answered. "Not long."

  She watched him closely then followed his gaze out the window. "From around these parts then?" she pressed. She wanted to keep him talking. Better to meet trouble head-on.

  He lowered his eyes in brief acknowledgment but said nothing. The sound of a woman's laughter drifted softly from the street outside. The waitress refilled his cup.

  "Well, it's a might early to be riding for pleasure," she hinted. "Where 'ya headed?"

  He seemed to hesitate for a moment, and drank deeply from the cup. "Just riding," he finally said.

  His cryptic answers didn't fool her, nor his forced calm that kept him seated when he'd much rather be pacing like a caged puma. She turned to face him and met his hollow gaze.

  "So who is she?" she asked suddenly.

  Adam shook his head and stared into the coffee cup. Was it that obvious?

  The woman looked away. She was right. He had the look...

  Adam stared out the window again and took a cautious sip of the hot brew. His mind was stuck in the past.....of a different place...of softness and smiles..

  "She's my wife," he murmured almost to himself.

  The woman studied the dark brooding figure before her and tried to imagine him in happier times.

  "She left you?" she asked bluntly.

   Adam sat silently and considered the word.

  "Left..." he finally said, his voice full of regrets. "Left...yes...taken..."

  He said the last word with such venom that the woman took a step back. "You're going to find her?" she pressed.

  Adam seemed to look right through her and his eyes appeared not to blink at all. "Yes," he said with conviction.

  An uneasy silence hung between them for a long moment and the look in his eyes made her gasp suddenly. "And you're going to kill...them..." It was not a question.

  He looked away and turned his attention back to the coffee, finishing it in a few swallows. Then he stood and fished in his pocket for some coins to pay her. As he placed them in her palm, his fingers lingered there for just a moment, and his eyes told her what he would not say aloud. Then he was gone, and the tinkling of the doorbell seemed like a cannon in   the heavy stillness of the room.


      Chapter 7

   The heavy door squeaked some on its new hinges as he entered the house, and his boot heels clapped loudly on the wooden floor. He laid his hat on the credenza and cautiously approached the table. His father and brothers had already begun the meal and Hop Sing hurried to fetch another plate. Adam slipped silently into his chair and accepted a steaming bowl from Hoss.

   "We missed you at breakfast," Ben said quietly.

   Adam didn't answer but busied himself with filling his plate.

   Ben cleared his throat and tried again.

  "Hoss and Joe did some fine work on the barn today," he continued. "But I think they could use your help on the design..."

  "Yeah," Joe said quickly, taking the hint. "Hoss here wants to put in a big chimney and stove so the horses won't get cold!"

    Hoss grinned ruefully.

  "Don't see how it would be any trouble," he muttered, "Seeing as how the roof's not finished yet!"

  Joe's laughter filled the house as he rocked back on his chair. "And I suppose you're gonna be the one to cut all that extra firewood, hmmm?" he taunted his big brother.

  Hoss scrunched up his face and lay down his fork. "Well....maybe we don't have to use wood..." he fumbled.

  Joe rocked his chair upright again and eagerly took the bait. "Whatcha got in mind, brother?" he grinned.

  Hoss thought a moment.

  "Well...lots of things burn, Joe," he said in his best 'big brother' voice. "Kerosene, for instance..."

  Joe almost fell over backwards with fits of laughter.

  "Did ya hear that, Pa?" he giggled. "We haven't even finished the barn yet, and Hoss wants to blow it up with kerosene!"

  Ben smiled at their teasing. It was good to hear laughter from his sons again. He just wished Adam would join them. But Adam didn't even look at them and with a somber silence he pushed away from the table and turned toward the stairs.

  Ben watched him go and tried to ease the ache in his heart.


  It was a cold gray sky that greeted them as they left the house the next morning. Hoss watched as Joe stomped his feet and blew on his hands to warm them, and couldn't repress a smile.

  "Bet you're wishin' we'd put a stove in the barn now, huh?" he teased.

  "Very funny!' Joe laughed as he waved to Mike and Jed who were already stacking lumber. "Let's just get to work; that's all the warming I need!"

   As they neared the barn they were surprised to see Adam among the men, quietly directing the morning's construction.

  "Mornin' Adam," Hoss said hesitantly.

  Adam nodded in response but his manner was serious and detached. Clearly, he would rather be elsewhere. Hoss and Joe glanced at one another and silently got to work.

  "'Bout time you fellas was getting up!" Jed shouted good-naturedly at them. "I suppose we could knock a few more windows in that big house so's you'd be sure to see the sun rising!"

  "That so?" Hoss laughed as he picked his way carefully around the piles of lumber until he was eye-to-eye with the man. "And I reckon a few holes knocked in you might teach you to respect your elders!"

  The other men joined in their laughter and picked up their tools again. Joe glanced behind where Adam still lingered and for a brief moment, met those haunted eyes. There was no laughter there.

  "Hey Joe!" Hoss's voice brought him back to the task at hand. "You finished lolly-gagging so's you can help me with this timber?"

  "Right!' Joe answered as he turned back to help. But he couldn't keep from glancing once more at his eldest brother, and wonder when that seething silence would escapes its tenuous constraints.

  They worked quickly all morning--as much to warm themselves as to stay ahead of the storm threatening from the north. By lunchtime the exterior of the barn was complete and the men began to make their way toward the bunkhouse for a much deserved break.

  "What 'ya figure Hop Sing has whipped up today?" Hoss wondered aloud.

  "I'd offer to race you and find out," Joe laughed as Hoss picked up his cane again. "But I don't figure there'd be any contest!"

  "Very funny!' Hoss grumbled as he started toward the house. "Just you wait till this 'ole leg is all better! I'll race you from here to Virginia City just for the fun of it! And before breakfast too!"

  Joe laughed and waited for him to catch up. But his smile faded quickly when he saw Adam emerge from the corral with his horse tacked and ready. "Where 'ya going, Adam?' he asked hesitantly.

  Adam finished checking the cinch and swung up into the saddle before answering. "I'm going to town," he said.

  Hoss turned to look at him. "Whatcha wanna do that for?" he asked bluntly. “It's lunchtime--come on!"

  Adam looked away a moment and sighed impatiently. "It's something I've got to do," he answered quietly.

  Hoss glanced toward the house and new barn.  "There's lots of work yet to be done..." he hinted.

  Adam followed his gaze but seemed to see something else entirely. "Yes," he said. "There is." And he reined his horse around and headed fast toward Virginia City.


  The sun was hidden by dark clouds by the time he reached town. He paused to pull his coat tight under his chin as a frigid restless wind buffeted everything in the mostly deserted streets. Adam rode slowly toward the sheriff's office, barely hearing greetings of people he passed. He ignored them anyway.

  The wooden door of the jailhouse rattled terribly in the high winds, and took unusual force to push it shut again. Adam blinked through the dust the wind had disturbed and approached the desk on the far side of the room.

  Sheriff  Coffee looked up and smiled in surprise. "Adam!" he called. "Good to see 'ya! Everything ok back at the ranch?"

  Adam ignored the question and the outstretched hand. His eyes were colder than the howling wind. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "Why aren't you out looking for Amanda and Dawson?"

  Roy withdrew the hand and sank back into his chair. "Where do I look, Adam?' he said with equal measures of regret and frustration. "I've sent word to every lawman in Nevada! I've personally visited those within two day's ride! I don't see what more I can do!"

  Adam's eyes flashed--a warning of fire yet to come. He put his hands on the desk and stared hard at Roy. "You can start by doing your job," he spat.

  The sheriff rose to meet his icy stare and slapped his own hands on the desktop. "Now just a minute ,son!" he snapped. "I am doing my job! I was hired to protect this town--and I can't very well do that while chasin' after wild geese in the middle of a winter storm!"

  Adam didn't flinch. "Fine job you did protecting Amanda," he accused. "Damn it! I trusted you, Roy!"

  The sheriff threw up his hands in exasperation. "I'm sorry, Adam!' he said sincerely. "I am truly, deeply sorry. But I could no more hog-tie her and keep her here, than I could stop you from setting out after your family! You're both too stubborn for your own good!"

  Adam turned away with obvious contempt. "That's right," he said darkly. "Some of us don't give up."

  And with that he was gone, and the frigid wind rushed through the open door sending papers flying off the desk in every direction. Roy shivered and got up to push the door closed again. But somehow the room remained ice-cold.

  Adam paused with his hand on the saddle and looked across the street at the saloon. A few men lingered near the swinging doors, but it was still early and the crowds would not come until later. With a sudden impulse he left his horse where it was and headed across the dusty street.

  The room was smoky and dark, but surprisingly warm considering the open doors. Adam walked purposely to the bar and tossed down some coins without bothering to look at them. "Whiskey," he muttered.

  The bartender scraped the money toward himself and set a clean glass down on the bar. "That's not your usual..." he commented, but a look from Adam silenced him and he quickly filled the glass.

  "Leave the bottle," Adam said.

  The bartender put it down beside him without a word then quickly found another customer to serve. Adam angrily downed his first drink and poured himself another.

  "You look lonely," a female voice observed from close behind him. Soft hands made their way up his arms and tickled the curls at the back of his neck. "Want some company?"

  He stiffened visibly and stared resolutely at the amber liquid in his glass. "Not interested," he said.

  She ignored his answer and sidled up beside him at the bar. With brazen disregard for his apparent hostility, she removed the drink from his hand and reached up to unbutton his coat. "Come on, Cowboy," she purred. "I can make you feel better..."

  With more force than was necessary he caught her hands and turned his anger full on her. "I said, not interested," he growled.

  She retreated a step and rubbed at her wrists, but she continued to watch him. She did so love a challenge...

  "Come on, Jeannie!" a man called from a nearby table. "No use tryin' to charm him!" He laughed heartily and blew the foam off his beer. "That's Adam Cartwright--he's a married man!"

  The woman raised her eyebrows and leaned back against the bar, exposing ample cleavage. "I don't see how I'm doin' any harm," she said haughtily. "He don't look too happy in his present situation..."

  The man laughed again and took a draught of his beer.

  "I don't reckon he is," he said. "Since he done gave his wife to a couple of wanted men!"

  Jeannie's eyes shifted toward Adam then back to the man who had spoken. "Gave her?" she asked incredulously.

  "That's right!" the man continued. "To save himself---that's the way I hear it!"

  "Shut up," Adam demanded coldly without turning around.

  "That ain't the way it happened?" the man continued sarcastically, and leaned back in his chair. "It makes 'ya wonder, don't it? How a fella can live with himself after making his wife another man's concubine."

  Adam turned ever so slowly to face his accuser and the entire saloon fell silent. "Why don't you shut your filthy mouth?" he growled menacingly.

  The man set down his beer and slowly rose from his chair. "If that had been my wife," he spat back. "I would have died before turning her into a whore!"

  Adam's hand exploded across the man's mouth so hard that he tumbled backward across the table and into the wall on the other side. Adam didn't wait for him to get up, but pushed past the fallen chairs and hauled him to his feet by his coat. With the back of his hand, he struck him again and slammed him back against the wall. The man spit blood from his broken lip and shook his battered head before rushing forward and barreling Adam to the ground. They struggled desperately together and bruised one another with hammering fists. But Adam's fight was in his heart, and he soon     disengaged himself from the tangle and swung the man bodily into the bar. There was a sickening crunch as his nose connected with the hard surface and a crimson stain spread slowly across the shiny wood. Adam rushed forward and pulled him upright by his clothing, only to fling him head first into the nearest table. The man wavered uncertainly and struggled to stand, but Adam drove his boot into his chin and sent him tumbling again.

  "That's enough!" a stern voice shouted from the doorway. Everyone turned to see the sheriff there, his hand resting threateningly on the butt of his gun.

  Except Adam. He ignored the order and advanced on the beaten man again.

  Several shots ricocheted in the close quarters as the sheriff emptied his pistol into the ceiling. Slowly Roy crossed the room until he stood between Adam and his adversary. "That's enough, Adam!" he demanded eye-to-eye.

  Adam stared at him for a long moment and nothing else seemed to move at all. Then with a calm that no one felt, he returned to his place at the bar and picked up his drink again.

  Roy watched him closely but stole a glance at the bloodied man on the floor. "Some of you fellas get him down to the doc," he said. "And let me know when he is able to talk."

  Some men stepped forward and did as the sheriff asked. When they had carried the man away, Roy turned back to Adam. "I think it's time you went home," he told him bluntly. "I'll come callin' if he wants to press charges."

  Adam took another drink without bothering to pour it in a glass. He was starting to feel the effects of the alcohol and the fight and he shrugged at Roy angrily. "Not ready," he mumbled.

  The sheriff pursed his lips and continued to stare at him and the half-empty bottle he held loosely in his hand. "Go home, Adam!" he pleaded. "Go home before I'm forced to do something I don't want to do!"

  Adam drank deeply and turned to face the bar again. "We all do what we have to do," he muttered, more to himself than anyone.

  Roy sighed. "If that's the way you want it," he said unhappily. "A night in jail might do you good."

  Suddenly Adam turned, drawing his gun with amazingly sober reflexes, and glared at the sheriff with impatient anger.     "Not likely," he countered.

  Roy looked at the weapon pointed at his chest and at the young man he had known since childhood, and felt a wave of uncertainty. "Put the gun away, Adam," he ordered.

  An eerie silence filled the room and an expectant pause seemed to hold time indefinitely. Adam didn't flinch and the gun remained in its deadly pose.

  A sudden movement caught Roy's eye and with a slight turn of his head, he could see Joe Cartwright entering the saloon. Joe looked around curiously until his gaze settled on the unlikely scene by the bar. Slowly he moved closer and his eyes shifted between the gun in Adam's right hand and the whiskey bottle in the other.

  " gonna buy me a drink, Adam?" he hedged cautiously, trying to sound as casual as possible. "Or is that against the law or something?"

  Adam glanced at the bottle in his hand as if seeing it for the first time, then absently set it down on the bar. Joe moved a step closer and carefully laid his hand on the barrel of the gun.  "It's not worth it, Adam," he warned.

  "Isn't it?" Adam answered bitterly and glared at his brother. But he allowed Joe to push his hand back to his side. The gun hung loosely from his fingers.

  The sheriff let his breath out and turned to the younger Cartwright. "Get him home, Joe," he pleaded. "Get him home before he does something he'll regret!"

  Joe nodded but never took his eyes off his brother. A moment of silent challenge passed between them. Then slowly Adam replaced the gun in its holster and stepped away from the bar.

  Time dared to move again...

  Outside the winds had calmed considerably, but the ominous clouds were darker still and hung low in the slate gray sky. Quickly they hurried across the street to their horses.

  Suddenly Adam stopped with his hand on his horse's neck and his whole body seemed to collapse in on itself. Leaning on his horse for support, he turned his face from Joe as the tension of the moment escaped from him in silent sobs. 

  Joe swung up on Cochise and glanced back in concern.  "Adam?"

  Wiping at his face distractedly, Adam straightened quickly and swung into the saddle. Without a word he pivoted his horse and started up the street at a trot. For a moment Joe watched his silent retreat, then quickly spurred his horse to follow.


Chapter 8

   Ben laid down the papers he was working on and got up to look out the window again. He thought he had heard something, but it was only the wind whipping a branch against the roof's edge and sending an icicle tumbling to the ground. He sighed in frustration and sat back down, only to leap up again when the crunch of snow alerted him to someone approaching the door.

   Hoss was the first one in, followed closely by Joe, and they didn't fail to see the disappointment in Ben's eyes.

  "Adam ain't back yet," Hoss said in answer to the unspoken question. "You want us to go lookin'?"

  Ben left the desk and moved across the room to his chair. He carefully packed tobacco in his pipe and tried his best to hide his worry. "No...the snow's pretty thick out there," he said. "No sense losing all of you in the storm!" He settled down in his chair and forced a smile. "He'll be back..."

  Hoss and Joe hung their hats and coats by the door and went to sit with him by the fire.

  "He's never been gone this long," Joe reminded Ben.

  Ben leaned back and briefly closed his eyes. Joe was right. In the three months since their return Adam had been going off alone--but only for a day, or at the most, two. This time it had been a week, and Ben was beside himself with worry.

  But what could he do? He well understood Adam's pain. He had lost not one wife, but three, and knew the toll on one's heart and mind. But he had known their fates. Adam had only hope and painful memories---and that was little comfort to a grieving man.

  He opened his eyes again and saw the concern on his son's faces. He tried to smile for them but there was no use trying to hide his worry anymore. Resolutely he blinked the tears from his eyes and turned his attention to the crackling fire.

  Joe watched his father and wished he had some words of comfort. He and Hoss had tried to shield Ben from the worst of Adam's depression. Not a word was ever said about his confrontation with Roy, or any of the fighting and drinking in the weeks that followed. More than once they had had to fetch him from other less understanding lawmen, and many times had brought him home against his will. Joe felt a stab of guilt. Had they driven him away?

  Hoss shoved another log on the fire with the tip of his cane. He really didn't need the cane anymore, but in his worry it was calming to hold the familiar comfort. He had no words for times like these, and all his strength amounted to nothing at all. Furtively he glanced at his father and wondered how much he really knew about his eldest son.

  Suddenly the front door was thrown open to the icy wind and Adam entered as if blown in by the storm. He barely paused to see them gathered there, and without a word headed for the stairs.

  Ben rose to meet him and stared with concern at the ugly bruise that darkened his cheek. "Adam...?" he called, his voice rising questioningly.

  Adam hesitated for just a moment, his hand resting on the railing, then continued up the stairs. Ben watched him go and took a step nearer. "Adam!" he shouted, his frustration evident.

  Hoss watched his brother slow--but not stop---his ascent. And he saw what it cost his father. "Let Joe and me talk to him, Pa," he offered. "Maybe he's just tired or something..."

  Ben stared silently at the empty stairway as if he could make his son appear again by willing it. He needed his family whole again. Somehow...

  Hoss and Joe entered their brother's room without knocking and closed the door behind them. Adam had a traveling bag on the bed and was silently stuffing clothes into it. Hoss crossed his arms and his eyes bore into Adam's back.

  "Where 'ya going?" he demanded. "Are you so full of hate that you can't spend five minutes at home with your family?"

  Adam flinched at the accusation but didn't look at his brother. "You don't understand."

  Hoss was silent a moment. "No..." he finally admitted. "Maybe I don't. But I think Pa does. Why don't you talk to him, Adam?"

  Adam kept his eyes averted. "There's nothing to say," he answered sadly.

  Joe threw his hands up in frustration. "What's the matter with you?" he shouted. "First you go through hell to find us, now you won't even give us the time of day!" He reached out and grabbed Adam's arm. "Adam! Look at me!!"

   But Adam shrugged out of his grip. "What do you want me to do?" he demanded angrily. "Forget what happened?" He eyed them with open hostility and his voice was hard and bitter. "Apparently all of you have."

   There was a long pause while his brothers met those tortured eyes. "We haven't forgotten anything," Hoss finally said. "But there comes a time to stop hating and start living again."

   Adam turned away defiantly. "Not until I find Amanda."

  Joe took a step nearer, ignoring the hostile glare. "Do you think this is what she'd want?" he demanded curtly. "Be honest with yourself Adam!   Is it love or revenge that drives you?"

  Adam closed the traveling bag and slung it on his shoulder. For a long moment he seemed to stare at some indeterminable future. Then without a word he pushed past his brothers and left the room.

  Ben stood when he heard footsteps on the stairs and his eyes locked on the traveling bag Adam carried. "Adam..." he spoke urgently."...please...sit down..."

  Adam tried hard not to look at his father--wavered---and turned quickly toward the door.

  Ben resisted running after him and only barely succeeded. "In this house we talk to one another!" he thundered.

  Adam stopped but didn't turn. "I'm sorry, Pa," he offered sadly.

  Ben put his hands on his hips and took a step closer. "You're sorry," he repeated with distaste. "You've been brooding around here for months, disappearing for days at a time, with barely a 'hi' or 'goodbye' to any of us--and all you can say is 'I'm sorry'?"

  Adam's shoulders stiffened visibly but he continued to face the door. "What would you have me say?" he growled bitterly. "That I didn't love her? That I can just forget her?" He turned suddenly and his eyes flashed with anger. "I can't do that, Pa. Surely you can understand that."

  Ben dropped his hands to his side and his expression changed to one of concern. "But at what cost?" he asked pointedly. "You barely eat or sleep, not to mention the fighting and the drinking! Do you want to trade your life for    hers?"

  The silence that engulfed them seemed to stretch indefinitely. At last Adam met Ben's eyes. "If need be," he answered sincerely.

  Ben stared at those blazing eyes and tried to remember the gentleness that had once been there. "Do you think she would agree?" he asked with a harshness he only half intended. "Or would she love the man you have become?"

  The biting words cut through Adam's defiance and he turned away without an answer. Ben took a step closer and his voice softened again. "Adam," he said. "It's been months! Perhaps it's time to admit...that maybe she's gone..."

  Adam's hand swung back against Ben's face so fast that neither of them had time to react. They stared at one another in shock and the only sound was the big clock's incessant ticking. Adam's mouth moved as if to say something, and just for a moment his body seemed to sag in defeat. Then his eyes hardened and he turned away, his choice certain. With a sad finality he was gone, and swirls of icy snow billowed through the open door in his wake.

  Ben watched him go with a desperate and unspeakable sorrow. None of his sons had ever raised a hand to him. That his most predictable and level-headed son had at last crossed that line, shook his trust at its foundations. Slowly he stepped forward to close the door and his hand rested there in a heart-wrenching goodbye.

  Joe and Hoss slowly descended the stairs where they had been standing and silently approached their father. "Want me to go after him?" Joe asked quietly.

   Ben continued to stand there with head bowed and hand resting on the rough wood. Dreams of home and family circled endlessly through his mind, but also visions of past loves and unbearable sadness. Surely his son had as much right to find his own peace, in his own time. Slowly he lowered his hand and took a deep breath. "No," he barely whispered. "Let him go."

  And he made himself turn away from the door. Uneasily he moved toward his desk, his eyes shifting unbidden to the little window behind it. The yard was empty and quiet--Adam's footprints already covered by the falling snow.


      Chapter 9

  Hoss leaned his shoulder into the back of the wagon and heaved the stuck wheel out of the snow-packed rut. If things continued at this rate he might never get to Reno! The heavy wagon was the biggest they had on the Ponderosa, and the team that pulled it was sturdy and strong. But the lingering winter had etched a veritable land mine of ruts and holes in the dirt road, and passage this far out was next to impossible.

  It was late January and he was on his way to Reno to buy hay. They were still with Dawson when they might have cut their own, and had long ago used up the offerings of friends and neighbors. A traveling cowhand had given Hoss the name of his employer who had hay for sale, and Hoss was on his way to buy as much as the wagon would hold. If he ever got there...

  The sky was a sickly gray and light was fading rapidly when he finally reached Reno. He sighed heavily and turned the tired horses toward the livery. No use trying to find the man at this late hour; he'd have to try in the morning. When the horses had been taken care of he bundled his coat around himself and hurried up the street to the hotel where lights glowed warmly.

  A raucous sound met Hoss from the saloon on the first floor, and he snuck a peak inside before approaching the attendant's desk. At the front table a few cowboys with cards in one hand and smiling girls in the other were happily losing their wages in a poker game. At another table a game had gone bad and a fight was just beginning. Near the bar a man was having better luck with his giggling companion, and was soon seen hurrying up the stairs for private pleasures. Still at another table in the shadowy depths of the room, a lone figure opened his second bottle of whiskey and shattered its predecessor against the nearest wall. Hoss shook his head and decided he must be getting old; right now his desire for sleep was greater than his desire to join the party.

  "Can I help you?" a tall bespeckled man asked from behind the desk.

  "Huh?" Hoss asked, embarrassed to be caught off guard. He smiled sheepishly and stepped away from the overwhelming din of the saloon.  "I' a room for the night."

  The man turned the book around for him to sign and handed him a key.  "Up the stairs, second door on the left," he said then turned to the next customer.

  Hoss took one more look into the saloon, then headed up the stairs for a good night's rest.

  He woke early the next morning. The moon had not yet left the sky and its bright white light flooded through the curtainless window. The room was cold and Hoss snuggled deeper under the covers, resisting the urge to leave their warmth and retrieve his boots. He lay awake listening to the sounds of Reno which filtered through the thin walls of the hotel. Outside, a small dog's incessant yapping reminded him what he had been hearing in his dreams. Further away came the erratic riding of a drunken cowboy as he tried to find his way home. In the room next to him a woman giggled flirtatiously. Hoss sighed and supposed it was time to get up after all. Maybe even grab some breakfast before starting his search for the hay owner.

  A short time later he made his way down the narrow stairway and was surprised to see the saloon still open. It was mostly deserted and the bartender was busy cleaning up for the daytime clientele.

  "Where can a fella get some breakfast around here?" Hoss called to him from the door.

  The bartender looked up and smiled  "Here's as good a place as any," he said.

  Hoss grinned and sat down on a barstool. "In that case," he said. "How about a cup of coffee, some hash browns, eggs, and bacon if ya got it?"

  "Sure thing, Mister," the man answered as he went to tell someone in the back to fire up the grill. He returned with the coffee and handed Hoss a steaming mug.

  Hoss accepted the cup and glanced around the dimly lit saloon. The whiskey drinker he had seen last night still occupied the table in the corner, but the bottle was empty and his head lay across the table in a self-induced stupor. Hoss inclined his head toward the man and turned back to the bartender.

  "One of your regulars?" he inquired.

  The bartender followed his gaze and shook his head. "Nope," he answered. "He just showed up last week. He pulls an all-nighter like that then disappears for a few days--only to come back and drink himself senseless again. He never talks to anyone; don't know who he is."

  Hoss looked at the unconscious man again. "Why don't you throw some more food on that grill?" he told the bartender.  "I don't suppose he's eaten regular."

  "Whatever you say," the man answered and disappeared to the back again.

  Hoss left the bar and slowly approached the back table. The man's face was turned toward the wall and a dirty tattered coat was draped half-way over his shoulders. Hoss stopped a few feet away and cleared his throat. "Hey, Buddy," he said. "Breakfast will be here in just a minute. Whatcha say you get up and eat something to sop up all that booze?"

  The man groaned loudly and laid a hand against his head. "Go away," he slurred.

  Hoss paused and chewed his lip. "The food will do you good," he pressed. "Then you can go on home. Someone there is probably expecting you."

   The man raised his head and squinted up at Hoss. His bloodshot eyes didn't seem to see at all. "No," he answered, his slurred voice full of sorrow. "There's no one."

  Hoss's heart stopped somewhere in his throat. "Adam?" he wondered aloud. The drunken man sported a beard at least a few weeks old, and his face had that drawn, sunken look of one too accustomed to the bottle. But Hoss knew those eyes. Dear God...those eyes...

  "Adam..." he said again and reached out to straighten him in the chair. The bartender appeared with two plates of food and set them down on the table. He looked from one to the other but didn't disturb the reunion, and quickly returned to his cleaning.

  Hoss held onto Adam until he felt he could support himself, then pushed the plate of food toward him. "Eat that," he ordered. "We'll talk later."

  Adam shook his head and looked at Hoss as if seeing him for the first time. His hand shook terribly as he pushed the plate away.  "Hoss?" his shaking voice stuttered. "How...?"

  Hoss set a mug of coffee down beside the food. "Never mind," he answered the unfinished question. "Just eat."

  It was a quiet meal and a slow, uncertain climb back to sobriety. When he had eaten all he could, Adam lowered his head as if to sleep again. But instead Hoss led him out of the bar and into the crisp morning air. Adam blinked his tired eyes painfully and slipped his arms into the coat that still hung loosely on his shoulders. The sun had risen brilliantly and the clear blue sky promised a welcome break from the snow.

  "Come on," Hoss ordered. "We're going to get you a bath and a shave then you can sleep it off in my hotel room." Without waiting for an answer he steered Adam down the wooden sidewalk. Adam walked very slowly--the pounding in his head an obvious deterrent to fast movement.

  Hoss searched the street ahead for a barbershop or bathhouse. Not far away several men loitered near the open door of a bank, and he scanned their faces as he went by. One of them seemed to match the cowboy's description of the hay dealer.

  Hoss stopped suddenly and made a quick decision. "Wait here," he told Adam. "I'll be right back. Don't go nowhere, ya hear?"

  Adam was in no mood to argue and leaned on a post to wait for his brother.  Activity swirled around him and he did his best to keep his eyes open--if only to keep from being knocked down. Children were playing hoops on their way to school, and men and women had begun their day of shopping and visiting. Adam casually watched it all and turned his groggy face into the cold wind hoping it would clear the fog from his mind.

  Then he saw her. A young woman sat alone on a bench outside the general store. Her short brown hair was raggedly cut and fluttered against her neck until she pulled her scarf onto her head to keep away the chill. Her clothes were simple and unadorned, and her belly swelled noticeably against the folds of her skirt. She seemed very fearful of something---sitting there so still and alone. She kept her eyes averted and her arms crossed protectively across her stomach.

  Adam's mind came alive and he was almost afraid to breathe. Slowly he pushed away from the post and stepped off the sidewalk. Damning his painful eyes to focus, he squinted across the street at the lonely woman.

  Hoss glanced up from his conversation in time to see Adam walk into the street. Worriedly he started to excuse himself when something else caught his eye. A skinny man with a low-slung gunbelt was walking up the street toward them. He walked with a dangerous purpose and the crooked smile on his face made Hoss's blood run cold. Sinclair...

  Hoss reached for his gun and realized too late that he hadn't put it on this morning. He glanced quickly at Adam but he was watching a woman on the other side of the street. She had risen from the bench and moved to the edge of the porch, and the sun turned to golden light in the stray wisps of her hair.

  "Adam!" Hoss called desperately, his eyes following Sinclair’s every move.

  The hateful man had stopped, with recognition and a deadly smile haunting his face. He started to laugh and his hand rested threateningly on the butt of his gun.

  Adam stopped cold. He heard Hoss as if in a dream, but it was that other sound that tore and twisted his heart with hatred. His body tensed--ready to explode--and his eyes blazed again with a vengeful fire. The hideous laughter--etched into his mind so long ago--railed his senses like an angry storm.

  And suddenly he turned, drawing his gun in one fluid motion. He thought he saw the other reach for his gun; thought he heard the click of the hammer. Wasn't sure; didn't care. Fired anyway.

  The other man fell to his knees with a shocked expression and his laughter choked in his throat. His gun hung loosely from fingers gone suddenly limp. Then he pitched forward, face down in the dirt, and didn't move again.

  Adam stared at the body unflinchingly and the gun fell unheeded from his hand. Then he turned and caught the woman's eyes at last. And he knew.

  He started to run to her, his legs leaden and awkward. Cautiously she stepped into the street and her eyes brightened suddenly with recognition. With a gasp she mouthed his name.

  He stopped a few feet from her and his heart at last began to beat again. Tears were forming in her tender eyes and he caught his breath as he too began to cry for joy. Slowly carefully he closed the gap between them and his hands reached out to touch her soft hair. She stood very still, afraid to disturb this wonderful dream, but her eyes shone brightly with words she could not say.

  Adam let his hands travel tenderly across her face that had seen too much hardship, and then along her shoulders and down her arms. "Amanda!" he sobbed suddenly and sank to his knees at her feet. His hands clung tightly to her waist and he pressed his head to her swollen belly, his body rocking with tears that had haunted him for too long. Slowly she raised her hands to his head and began to smooth his hair with soft even strokes. Their tears spoke volumes with no need for words, and time and place seemed to fade away, leaving them in a world of their own making.

  They didn't move and barely breathed, but their stillness hid a joy evident only on their smiling faces. For their hearts were singing in unspeakable wonder. And together, they danced.


      THE END


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Valerie Blythe

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