Post-timeline Story -  nested somewhere in the "New Generation" movies - where it should have been.

Original Canon Characters: Jamie, Adam, Candy, Griff.

Disclaimer: This all belongs to David Dortort & Co. I just bought the toy Ponderosa set, and am enjoying my playtime.

Notes: I have taken several liberties with the "next generation" storyline. I've decided somebody lumped DD over the head and he forgot that Joe vanished before Ben died, which would explain why no one remembers what happened to Jamie. Otherwise, Jamie would have gone to find Joe and vanished himself. I've also slightly twisted a few other things, for the sake of the story.

The Circle Drawn
by Melody

Part One:

To a man of his age, the vision of the trees falling, one by one, into the once clear water, was as good a metaphor as any for the rest of his life. The far-off bare hills, the blackened land, the rivers running grey with water so vile no fish for long survived. The horrors surrounded them, the ruined memory of proud families and plundered dreams. In the center, for the moment, his father's living dream survived.

For the moment.

"Adam," the man called Candy said by his side. "This can't be true. It can't be true."

His voice barely cast a shadow, "It is."

Up the ridge, a White Steamer growled and lumbered like an old bear up for his supper.  Across its red metal carcass was emblazoned Property of the Callendar Paper Company.

Like what around here isn't? Adam thought to himself.

"Well," Candy said, holding up on his reins to steady his ride against the automobile's ascending motor, "Looks like that's what you get when you put a good White sewing machine on a bad set of cartwheels and try to ride it."

The Steamer stopped, pointed up the gravel road, blocking their view of the continued assault on the land. The man from the Steamer rose up, surveying the view the devastation which, doubtless, looked to him like progress.

He turned around, descending in grand style the automobile step. He flashed a smile in their direction, moving toward them with a city brand of purpose. He first extended his hand like a compliment to the man on the darkest horse.

"You must be Mister Adam Cartwright. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. Name's North Callendar, I'm from - "

Adam glared at the offered hand. "I know who you are."

Callendar held up his hands in surrender, then poked the offered hand back in his fine leather glove. "Nothing personal at all about this, Mister Cartwright. It's all just fair business."

"Everything," Adam Cartwright said, "is personal. Besides, that's Cartwright land being fed by the streams you're poisoning. Ten years now and every year, you get a little closer to our personal business."

"Our business is of regional interest. Our papermill will bring jobs to Storey County."

"People have their land, they don't need your jobs," Adam answered. "Of course, more people seem to be keeping their land than not these days. Pity about your recent setbacks."

Callendar smiled like a snake. "I take it there's a Cartwright behind our…setbacks at the land auctions?"

"No, much as I'd like to lay claim to your problems, Callendar, I'm afraid there's no Cartwright I know of behind them."

Callendar was not amused. "I assure you, I will press for an investigation at the very highest levels, seeking evidence of your family's influence peddling."
"Of all the - " Candy shot back. "You and your company threaten the lands around here, the livestock. You drive down the value of the small ranchers' business and you drive up the taxable value of the land. So people like the Kirkpatricks can't afford to pay the tax bill, and end up having to sell out to your company for pennies on the buck. No cattleman, even a rich one, can go up against the likes of you, and you have the nerve to accuse the Cartwrights of influence peddling?"

"My opinion, only," he said. "My work is the work of the future. It's only progress, gentleman, which, Mister Cartwright, is no doubt what your late father would have said to the Native Americans who lived on this land before him - "

"Don't -- " the eldest Cartwright son snarled back, leaning down to shadow the other man's face, "Don't presume to know anything my father would have said."

"I would never think to." He spun on heel to back away, saying again with a grandiose parting bow as he sauntered on, "But it is just business."

"Business…dirty business," Candy said, under his breath.

"I don't know," Adam said. "Maybe he'sright."

Candy looked at him sharply.

"Maybe it is just progress," Adam went on, darkly. "Like getting old and seeing your loved ones die. It hurts. It hurts like hell, but it's just the way things happen. Seasons turn, things change. Progress."

"Poisoning the rivers is progress?" Candy said. "We got floods and landslides in Storey County where we never had them before. We got cows bearing misshapen calves. We got kids with tumors.  I can't believe that is progress," he said. "It's going forward, but it's not headed anywhere I want to go."

"The best we can hope to do is stand in his way awhile longer," Adam said. He turned his mind toward his heart. His gaze moved off toward higher vistas. "Any word from AC on our stray?"

"I checked at the house. Nothing yet. But one of these days, we'll find him."

Adam sighed, shaking his head. "If I hadn't been such a hot-headed fool, there wouldn't be a need to go find him."

"You gonna take the whole world on your shoulders at once, or just one half at a time?" Candy asked, grinning.

Adam smiled. "I'd kinda figured I'd let you take the other half," he said.

 * * *

 The Seskadee called it Cold Fire Hole - the white man named it Red Wall Gorge. By any name, standing over it in the thick of night, it seemed like a whole other planet. The crimson shale face of a greater Mars, and the red cliffs like moons around it.

Mid-summer, this was the hottest damned place this side of Hell. Cold blasting quarries out of caverns. Phantom smoke in the arid morning, blazing rivers of ember in the hot pits of night. At winter, every chill dry breeze was a lash, and every man slave to his own limits. This high country would predictably burn a man: blister him in the bowels of the rock, where fire torched the shale from the ribs of the earth, or burn him skin against sky, the icy air drying flesh tougher than old buckskin.

This evening, it seemed from here like the silent devastation at the end of the ruined world, smoky spirits spiraling to night.

Then, a blast. From nowhere. More than a noise, a clap of thunder out of the earth. From a grotto, a rising spindle of black smoke threatened to eclipse the full moon.

In the distance, another sound shaped like his name, but he was already racing toward the first.

He snagged a sulfur lamp, lit the yellowed whick, pumped it to hissing light. Then he dove into the grotto from which the sound had come.
A band of blackened faces had already encircled the culprit, to stop his escape. The culprit, Standard Huckaby, stood there with fulminate of mercury all over his hands. Blindly, in anger, Jim grabbed his collar, then hauled him up from the pit.
He pushed to let him go. "I shoulda known it was you. You're slippin' up, Huckaby. After you boobytrap our mines, you're usually two miles or more away. What happened, the detonator work too fast?"

The other man smirked, dusting off his arms. "Somethin' like that."

"You know we don't use explosives. That's part of our covenant with the Seskadee, we don't do violence to the land. You're over here trying to start trouble again."

"I don't wanna hear your old maid claptrap," the other man said, doffing his silt-covered hat to spank it against his knee. "I was showin' your men here how much easier it is to blow it out instead of torching and tamping it out. And I will point out again, I'll meet the pay packet and raise it, for any man here who comes to work for my company. At least my company is in the twentieth century."

"Boss," said one of his men, "he didn't - "

Jim waived away the protest. "I know, Charlie. I been dealing with this character for too many years to listen to the noise from his head."

"Yeah, but all the men know me. They know what I am," Standard said. "Like me or don't like me. But it seems none of us know a whole lot about you."

"There ain't nothin' you need to know. Now get off my land. Charlie, Cray, see to it he leaves, will ya?"

"I came by also to talk some business, Jim. I'm a-thinkin' I might sell out. You still a businessman, ain'tcha?"

"I expect I am," Jim said, turning to leave. "Leave or follow me to the office, but one way or another, get out of these mines."

Jim walked on, hearing the hard tromp behind him of other boots over the cold, brittle ground. Mines Office, read the door he yanked open, leaving it to take in another or close by itself, whichever the moment allowed. The office was two rooms, a larger one with tables for desks, and a smaller, backdoor cloakroom. It had once been a schoolhouse before the river pox took out the little town.

The room was a warm comfort. He plucked off his hard gloves, tossed them on the hotplate over the Ben Franklin stove. After a moment, he rescued them. They smelled of old charred hide but were fast solace to his cold, numb hands.

"Cold enough for ya, Jim?" Douglas was saying, till he saw what had followed in behind his friend and partner. Douglas' eyes clearly didn't like what they saw. "You best be more careful to close doors behind ya, Jim. You let a mangy ol' coydog come follow you inside."

"Good to see you, too, Douglas," Standard spit back, assigning himself the central chair without it being offered. "I'm here, with ol' Jim's assent, to talk a little business with ya."

Douglas was tapping Green Bacca into the bowl of a home-carved pipe. He struck a match off his miner's boot. "What business could we possibly have to talk with you?"

"The future," Standard said. "The business future. Our business."

Douglas fanned away the match smoke. "You say that as if there's any resemblance between the two."

Jim had poured hot coffee into two mugs, handing Douglas one, taking the other to his own corner, to regard Standard Huckaby like something he might one day have to shoot to protect the hen house.

"Well," Huckaby went on, "it's like you said. You feel tender toward the Indians. You got them to liking you. A man working with technology, such as myself, can't make a living in this region. So, I'm thinking of selling out. Putting my money to better use in some other area. Ranching, for instance."

"Is that right?" Jim said, leveling his gaze toward him.

"That's right. You know anything about ranching, Douglas?" He looked toward the other man, then back to Jim. "How 'bout you, JC? Say, what is that C for? You know, I never did think to ask."

"And I don't expect I'll tell you," Jim said, his words hardening as they were said. "Say what you come to say, Huckaby, then get out."
Standard grinned a mean one. "Just that, I'm thinking of ranchin' instead of minin'. Got my eye on a fine spread up Nevada way. It's awful expensive up there now. Taxes getting bad. Hard to pay with cattle money. Not so hard with mining cash. This particular piece, if I make the right appraisal connections, might come to market at a dandy price. And since y'all are so well-regarded, I am thinking of offering to you two my company, at a reasonable price. Just so's I can free up the capital to buy me some…cattle country."

Jim was out of the chair and slamming a ray stake against the desk to splinter it, before Douglas could move. Douglas intervened a foot in front of Huckaby's windpipe.

"You son of a - "

"Calm down, Jim. Jimmy. Whatever is your name." Huckaby rose up, talking over Douglas' shielding shoulder. "I would have thought such a fair offer would have received a friendlier reception."

"Fair offer," Jim said. "I'll make you a fair offer."

"Jim, just settle down," Douglas said to his friend. "Huckaby, I don't know what this is about, but you can hammer out your offer and send it over for our answer. You best leave here now."

"Surely, I got business to attend to…out of town. I expect me and Jimmy here, can iron out our terms in a reasonable manner."

Jim lurched again, Douglas barely caught him a second time.

"Huckaby, high tail your backside outta here, I can't hold him for long, and next time, I might not try."

Standard dropped his hat back on his head. "Later, gentleman. I expect you'll know where to find me, Jim."

When he banged out of the office, it shook every plank of the rafters. It rattled through the eaves and walls, and through the heart of one of its occupants.

Douglas let him go, and the man surrendered to a chair.

It couldn't be, it couldn't be.

"Jim, I've known you six years, and I ain't never seen you come out of a chair like that at no man. I surely never saw you strike a weapon out to use on one. But I'm sure I don't know what's going on here. You care to tell an old friend?"

Jim shook his head, squeezed at the bridge between his eyes. "I expect I gotta leave town. I gotta take a trip. Can you send Charlie Sutter down to fetch my boys? Can you and Martha watch them for a few days?"

"You know we will." Doug sat back behind his desk. He at last puffed at his pipe. "You mind if I give you a piece of advice?"

Jim continued to watch him, silence as his answer.

Douglas pointed the pipe stem at him. "You are the best friend I ever had. You're a fine young man. And I never met a better businessman by instinct. You took a dead rock valley and turned a prince's profit. You did it by working the way that was best for all involved."

Jim crooked back at him the shadow of a smile. "You already know you're my only friend, Doug. Something else you're trying to say?"

"What Huckaby said. He knows something. Something that was kicking hard at your soft belly. This have something to do with your kin out Virginia City way?"

Some scary damned sunlight was dawning in his mind. "How do you know about Virginia City?"

Douglas stared at him a minute, then nodded, as if giving himself permission. "All right, I promised I wouldn't tell, but I shot my gob off this durn much, I may as well spill the rest. I received a letter from your brother - "

His gaze iced over. "My brothers are dead, both of them."

"Well, who is this man who calls you that then?"

"Just somebody feeling guilty over somethin' he aught not." Jim shook his head. "I'm not bound to go back to being somebody…" He pinched at the bridge between his eyes, as if at phantom pain. His voice next came haunted, as sad as any words Douglas had ever heard, "Somebody I guess I never really was."

"Don't you go thinkin' that way. That's an insult to the heart of what family is all about." Douglas set down his pipe loudly, angrily, to turn fully toward his friend. "You know my younguns. One of my sons I got with my wife. I adopted him legal. You pick which one he is."

Jim's gaze focused again, his thoughts quieting a moment to consider. "I don't know, I didn't know either of them was."

"No, you don't. And you know why not? 'Coz it don't matter a whit. My kids are my kids, because I put my brand on 'em in my own way. I loved 'em, I punished 'em when I had to, I cried with 'em, I hugged 'em when they hurt. Heck, half the time, I can't remember which one's him, coz real family isn't about that. All that blood talk's just prize pig-breeding, not parenthood…not family. No matter the circumstances, no matter how it happens, doesn't matter if it's blood or destiny that brings you together. You hear what I'm telling you?"

Jim looked away, feeling more than a little embarrassed with the subject at hand. "I'm listening."

"There ain't nothin' more important in the world than being within the circle of people that the higher love of family drew you toward. Anger doesn't matter. Pain can't touch it. Death doesn't hurt it at all. That circle survives. Sometimes people say things they don't mean…do things they don't intend to…and those things hurt like hell. But something more important survives it. You hear that, too?"

"I hear," Jim said, his words catching tight in his throat. The room around him filling with gray water, he knew that in another second, he was bound to do something he hadn't done in ten years. "And now I expect I'd better go."

The old rattletrap front door dislodged from its middling contract with the frame. The runner on it rasped across the front stoop.

"That'd be your nephew now," Douglas said. "You think about what I told you."

"Doug, keep my secret? If just until I'm gone."

Douglas nodded sadly. "I guess so."

Jim tried to smile. If he could have, he would have said goodbye. Instead, he clasped an arm around his friend's neck and received a bear hug in reply.

Then Jim grabbed his kitsack, clutched up two small framed photographs which he tucked into his pockets, and hesitated by the back door to listen.

Doug asked somebody, "Can I help ya, friend?"

"I hope so," said another voice, a voice the departing man placed as sorta American but with a little English on it. Australian, he realized. An uncertain longing cramped at his heart.

The new man went on, "I'm seeking some lost family."

The last thing Jim heard as he closed that door forever, was Douglas giving voice to his best croker's wit, "This is the mining operations, young fella. The lost family office is down the road a-piece."

Part Two:

His father's warm wood stronghold of a desk felt too big for him, even now. It had always been a fortress to him: redoubt for his younger brothers' tin soldier wars, a happy hollow for him to crawl away and read.

"You would know what to do, Pa," he said aloud, never, as most men did when they became their father's contemporaries, having lost the image of his father as a Solomon among all men.

He reached for his father's Bible, set apart, but never far away. He opened it, as if by habit.

Genesis 9, was where it opened. And there, overmarked, rose the phrase:
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

"I know, Pa," he said aloud. "I know."

The books and the ledgers he pushed tentatively away. The words, he reflected on.

He remembered something Ma…Marie… had once told him. Marie, his youngest…no, younger…brother's mother. His own Ma in her own way, too. It was a dream she had had, from which she determined they would have another son. The dream was of the Ponderosa future, and in it she saw four Cartwright sons, one of them, the youngest one, with hair bright as flame. She had said the de Marigny line had some Irish in it, and that might have accounted for the color of his hair. But then Marie had died when Joe was 5, and there had never been another Cartwright born.
Pa had said that he'd known it from the moment he had laid eyes on the boy…that this was the one from Ma's dream. He had told no one, he had said in his letter to Adam, but he knew from the beginning that Jamie had been brought to him to join their family, just as the other boys had been born to it.

The banque book flipped open before him, he drew it to him to have another look.

7,000 mysteriously applied to open accounts.

Just as the 7,000 had, the month before. And the month before.

In this age of doomed cattle profits and high taxes on 600,000 acres, Adam could never have let the children know how dearly they had needed these sums which had appeared…out of nowhere. He had funneled his own in, of course, but these numbers too had vastly swollen their financial reserves. There still hadn't been enough to save the Corleys, or the Kirkpatricks

Then mysteriously, too, the land deeds at auction - the Ranger Ranch, the Lees spread, the McCullaugh Oldgrange-R, all sold to pay tax debt, had been purchased and restored. Callendar was no longer winning most of the auctions. Somebody else was now.
Curiouser and curiouser.

"My mysterious ally," Adam said softly, staring at the records before him. "Are you your brother's keeper?"

The door opened and closed the way that told him it was Candy. The man who had come first to the Ponderosa after he himself had left, had become over the last five years, his trusted friend. He also remained one of two lone surviving bridges to a lost piece of his family history. Where his hair had once run brown to brandy, it was now a nest of frost atop his head.

Candy carried a telegram: he passed it on to Adam. He stood there, his eyes dark with anticipation.

"Word from AC," Adam said, whisking it open. He quickly read through the words. "My God. He thinks he may have found him."

"Found Uncle Jamie?" a third voice, from the side, intervened.

Sarah Cartwright, toweling off soap from her still wet hands, had entered from the kitchen, at the sound of Adam's news.

Adam looked up, thought a moment, nodded. "It looks that way, Sarah. But lets not be too quick in our celebrations. We've had bogus leads before."

"Before," she said, reading something more in her uncle's voice, "but not this time. This seems to be different."

Adam plucked out his reading glasses, stuck them over his nose. "Arrived at JC Mines Wyoming. Stop. Run by a man called Jim. Stop Last name believed to be Cartwright. Right age, description. Stop. Family somewhere in Nevada. Will send word soon. Full stop."

"That's it," she said. "It's him."

"At least he's still using the family name," Adam said, sighing back into his father's chair.

"Why wouldn't he?" said Sarah, a crease of suspicion across her brow.

Adam winced visibly at the question. "Long story," he said darkly.

She snapped the towel away, pulling up a chair. "I have time," she said, in that moment, looking every bit like her father.

Adam shook his head, looked away to the rafters, as if toward a central Cartwright heaven. Finally, he squared himself in the chair, and faced his niece.

"Jamie and I had an argument, after our Pa died."

She nodded. "So I heard. Never heard the details, though. Go on."

He shrugged, helplessly. "I was in mourning. I said…things. I was mad. Mad at myself, as much as anyone. Because I'd left.  First Hoss died, then Joe. Then Pa had died…alone. Well, not alone, but without me here. I guess I felt jealous and guilty too, because he had been with them. He had stayed. Jamie had been the last person in the world Pa saw when he died."

Sarah sat back fully in her own chair, clearly caught up in an inward battle between her father's timber-splitting temper and her mother's Boston resolve. "You said things. What kind of things?"

"The boy always had a real tender center," Candy added, in Adam's defense.

"All the more reason to not kick it in," Adam replied.

"Uncle Adam," Sarah said firmly. She looked up at them, clearly having come to a final moment that was a long time in reaching this point. "I still am waiting to hear what you said."

Adam rubbed at his face, moved forward in the chair. He was, in all ways, an honest man, and the truth was all there was left to say.
"I said all the worst possible things I could think to say. All of them. Told him he wasn't a Cartwright, that he didn't deserve the name. Told him he wasn't my brother. That he wasn't Pa's son."

Candy's face recoiled at the words. "Good lord, Adam."

"I know." Adam's eyes darkened with his own shade of grief. "I must hear myself saying it a hundred times a day. After we fought, I tried to find him. I looked, searched, but he had always hidden too well. Until now."

Adam had looked back, to further plead his case to Sarah, but her eyes were hidden behind her milky arabesque hand. The hand trembled slightly. She made a fist of it, to look back at him, the voice of her heart as ever, in her eyes. She was, in all ways, her father's daughter.

"Uncle Jamie visited us. Uncle Jamie taught me to ride. I have memories of him through most of my childhood. So does my brother. Uncle Adam, I respect you and I love you, but you were always more like a mythical figure across the sea. Uncle Jamie was part of our lives. He cried with me when Papa died. He cried with me."

"Sarah, I - "

"No." She rose up, grabbed up her towel from the shoulders of the chair. "I don't want to hear anything else. I don't see how anyone could think those things, let alone say them."

He met her gaze, the aching there. The shimmering wall of tears. "Nobody wishes I hadn't more than I do, Sarah."

Then she fled as a lamplack shadow over old burnished wood, flickering into the kitchen and was gone.

"She - " Candy tried.

Adam held up a hand. "No. She was only speaking for her father. You know Joe would have said the same thing."

* * *

The town bank hadn't been so empty since the memorial services for Biddy Watson, the county's oldest whore. Coy checked at his watch. Full-up noon and twenty. Quiet as grass in the morning. Say don't she though. Coy occupied the only open cage, the only clerk on hand for the morning. He was about a third of the way through the Virginia City paper's meaty account of the Langtree murder trial, when someone came scuffling into the place.

There was but the one window open, since the next day after was biddin's day for the land office sales, and no one was spending their money. Bank and Finance, telegraphy, the sign over the cages read, where once it had just said Town Bank. Easy gray marble over carved wood casements. Gold as a garnish…a tracery. Rich man's guiltless largesse.

One of those faces, Coy thought to himself. One of those strangers' faces so awfully familiar, like a pet left too long in the wild. Seemed like he might have remembered, quite some time ago.

The stranger's face was hard from wind-worked labor in the cold. The hands on the marble were calloused, the fingernails chipped and crested like old weathered lead. But he wore the city soap aroma of a wealthy man's boy.

The familiar stranger withdrew a cash bond from his wallet, pushing it across the marble counter to Coy.
"I'd like to put this on deposit," he said, signing the note.

"Of course," Coy said, having to read the numbers on the cash bond five times before he believed the witness of his eyes. "Of course, sir, I mean to say. You have just become our largest single depositor, so whatever you want is yours." Coy whirled around for the sort box and the safe catcher.

"This land auction tomorrow. The tax auction. You got a notion where the big bidders are staying? Any scuttlebutt around town?"

"Over at the Farmers' Lodge, I hear tell it," he said, scrunching down his voice. "Big paper company men in town. The biggest. None of 'em bigger than you, though. I guess mining money is as big as it comes these days."

"Yeah, I'd say so." He took back the receipt he was given, tucked it away. "Say, I have something I need to take care of. Maybe you can recommend a way?"

"If I can."

"If there was gonna be a sudden piece of real estate come up for tomorrow, one nobody expected, who would know about it first?"
"That's an easy one. Me. I'd know it first."

"You would. Would you be willing to contact me, at first sign of it arising on the rolls?"

"I expect I could, yes. If it was necessary."

"I'd be willing to pay to make sure it was."

The stranger's bright smile, warm and quick. It was pounding heavy at the door to ol' Coy's memory.

The door opened. Coy smiled. "If it was to help them big paperboys, there wouldn't be money enough. But if it was to help friends? I wouldn't take your money. Say, if someone was tryin' to buy the Ponderosa…"

The stranger's weary smile remained. "Is that something you'd like to prevent?"

"Why, yes, sir." He nodded. "Mr Cartwright was nothing but nice to me. He and his three boys - "

"Four," the stranger corrected him sharply. "He had four sons."

"Oh, shoot, that's right, I always forget the oldest one. He left for that Australia place before my time."

Taken aback a moment, the stranger nodded, his eyes shining like glass. He flipped over his card, noting the address of the boardinghouse at which he was staying.

"Here's where I am. If you send word to tell me, like I asked, you'd be kinda helping them out."

Coy stared at the card, thinking to ask him another question, but looking up to find the stranger already walking out the door. The bankerman poked the card in his pocket, buttoned it down, then went back to the strange tale of betrayal and murder along the shores of Lake Champlain.

 * * *

Jim stepped off the planking, perking up the brim of his hat to stare one way, then the other. No one he sighted: no one he knew. He sidled up to the window of the castoffs store, to survey the street behind him. The street and walks appeared empty. The only sole visible (beyond a shopkeep knocking dirt off a flowerpot), was himself, decked up in city togs he thought would aid his disguise. Against his reflection, he saw something that jarred loose some memory.

A small, carved case for a boy's set of checkers. His heart warmed at the sight of it. He and his father had bought it on a buying trip to Reno. It was one of those rare indulgences, something Pa had watched him pine for, and then had gone back to buy. It had been the first, best gift anyone had ever given him, after his family themselves.

He reached for the shop's door, entirely missing the man walking obliquely behind him, who strode fast to evade revelation. This man veered left, in the direction of the Farmer's Inn.

Jim walked into the shop, the doorbells jingling, but he didn't notice their sound. He floated as if caught in a tide toward the small, glassed-in window.

"Help ya, Mister?" a bored voice asked him.

But before he could say anything, the shopkeeper had looked at him, had turned to stare hard at him, and then had grabbed his arm and spun him around.

Griff King, looking like ten years of not so bad road put behind him, was gawking at him as if someone risen straight out of the cold, dry grave.
"Jamie Cartwright," he said, his voice breaking, "where in the hell have you been, boy?"

* * *

The bartender aimed a crooked finger in the direction of the loudest one, who was smirking into a paper fan made of a clearly hellish hand of Straight 8s.

"That old cozen right there be the one you're bird-doggin'."

The grizzled stranger guzzled his beer, plunking the mug with some piddling scratch to the counter.

Next stop was the "cozen" – a prissy bastard sucking on his big tobacco teat.

"Callendar?" the grizzled one said. "You got a moment, I'd like to talk some business. It won't take but a moment of your time."

North Callendar glared up in his direction, as at some buzzing insect hovering in the near proximity. "Who in hell are you anyway? Can't you see we're playin' cards?"

"Yeah, but that short fella over there's got a rack of Aces."

The circle of men threw down their cards in unison, muttering dark unsavories in the stranger's direction.

"Sorry," the stranger replied over his shoulder. He looked back to the Man. "I don't know much about cardplaying."

"Well, I do," Callendar said. He folded himself. "And I was ready to play to the edge for this hand. Guess I owe you a favor, Mister -- ."

"Huckaby," he answered. "Standard Huckaby."

"Pleased to meet ya." He offered him a cigar. "Name is North Callendar. That hand was the best one I'd had all evening long. So lets go to that booth there and talk us some business."

"It'd be worth your while," the stranger said, taking his side of the nook.

Callendar parked himself like a prized possession. "You in for the land auction?"

The stranger nodded. "In a way. What if I were to tell you, that one of the biggest pieces of…no, the biggest piece of real estate in this whole piece of country, has been undervalued on the tax rolls by the prior's deed."

Callendar's cigar fell out of his hand. "How so?"

"By hiding assets. A majority holder of the trust estate, a Cartwright, did not sign off on the full title declaration. He was full and equal heir, as a surviving son of the original owner."

Callendar chewed down on the cigar's stubby end. "You don't say. Do go on."

"Well, to shield the guardianship, the estate was handled as one family trust under all tax-born statutes. Problem is, Nevada law clearly states that each figure in a family trust must state their full personal holdings, and such holdings must be and will be assessed as party to the entire family trust. James Cartwright is owner of a Wyoming mining concern valued at very near the worth of the Ponderosa. This undeclared property means that the Cartwright trust has been radically undervalued. I would suggest a call to the right tax authority might call fifty percent of the potential tax as due and payable now, as good faith against further proceedings. And here we have tomorrow's auction readily at hand."

Callendar's pupils were as tablespoons in eyes like coffee saucers. He was drinking it all in. Then finally he asked him, "Okay, you've got my full attention. But what in blazes do you get out of all this?"

"I get to leverage the hand of an old…friend," he said.

"All right. Allright. I think I can call a couple of people in high enough places. But you're talking about a whole lot of cash."

"I know. But if we pool our resources, I think we can matchbreak what the other boys have."

"The Cartwrights are themselves not without resources."

"Yes, but the two surviving brothers, well, they don't see eye to eye. One has been trying to avoid the other for nearly ten years, since their old man died. The older one moved away young. He wasn't even there for awhile, when the younger was adopted. Not like they're blood, or as close as real kin. They're not going to throw in together."

"You think that, do you?"

Huckaby nodded. "I'm knowed back home as a good judge of character."

Callendar puffed his mouth full of dark, tart cigar smoke. He exhaled a cloud of it in the other man's direction. "Perhaps you are at that."

 * * *

 "I'm listening," the shopkeep said, yanking off his vest apron. He turned over the sign on the door, so it read CLOSED. "You ain't told me yet what I asked you."

"I've been building my own," Jamie said, yanking off the broad brimmed hat that had failed his attempt at hiding his hair. "I've been trying to find my way."

"Your way? You knew your way. Your way is your Pa's way and you know it. You let Adam drive you off?  Why didn't you stand up to him?"

"If you'd put yourself in my shoes"

"I have!  Every day since you took out of here. You had every right to be there. And you know it.  I tried to find you for nearly two years myself, just so's I could knock you on your britches and drag you back myself."

Jamie crinked a sad smile at him, rolling his eyes a little in embarrassment at the memory. "Yeah, well, people do crazy things when they're grieving."

"I know they do. I know it. I lost your brother and your father, then my blamed best friend gets a burr up his hide and takes off for parts unknown. I swear, I could just drag you through pig mud for what you did. That was wrong, Jamie.  Bad wrong."

"I'm sorry, Griff. Only thing I can say in my defense is when Pa died, I was mad at everything."

"Sorry doesn't cut it. I don't know whether to slug you or hug you. I expect in time, I'll do both." He clapped him against his head. "You musta done well for yourself. That's the suit was hanging in the Haberdasher's for six months 'cause nobody here could afford it."

Jamie shrugged. "It was the only thing that fit. Speakin' of which," Jamie said, looking around. "What are you doing running a store?"

"It's honest work," Griff said back, immediately with his dander up. "It's a good job."

"Didn't say it wasn't, Griff, I just meant, you know, it ain't exactly your line of work is all."

"Ain't much ranchin' to be done around here. Adam woulda kept me on, out of loyalty to your daddy. But I didn't want to impose. He kinda always thought I was holding out on him, about where you got to. And it wasn't the same without my friends around." He landed that last comment with a hard glare to follow. "I did my own farmin' for awhile, then I worked for the Coffee kids at their place. I lucked into buying this place and I been here ever since. I sleep in the back, I cook on the heat stove. It's a place to hang up my stuff."

"Not much of a home, though," Jamie said, looking around. He felt suddenly guilty with the sound of his words. "Long as you're happy, I guess."

"Happy ain't about it, Jamie. I'm not hungry and I ain't cold. Speaking of which, lets get you back to the Ponderosa, so your brother will know you're alive."

"Griff - " Jamie said, backing off a little. "I ain't going back there. I can't. There's been too much said and done."

"That's your home, Jamie. They're your people."

"It was my home. The people were my home. What's left there is just shadows and memories."

"And your brother. Your niece, your nephews. Candy's there, too."

"They got enough trouble on their hands." Jamie picked up his hat. "Look, I need to ask your help with something. Something important."
"So long as you'll consider goin' back home."

Jamie thought for a moment, nodded. "All right, I reckon I'll consider it. But what I have to ask is even more important. You know about these timber land auctions?"

"Hell, yes. Everybody does."

"I got a powerful feeling something bad is happening tomorrow. And I need an ally in town to front for me. Somebody to walk into that auction tomorrow, just in case. I was gonna ask some lawyer to do it, but I'd much rather have a friend front for me. Will you work with me in this?"

"Shoot, Jamie, you know I will."

He grinned, patting his old friend's shoulder. "Now all we gotta do is figure out an acceptable reason you'd have half a million dollars land in your lap."

Part Three:

"This is madness, Josiah," the oldest Cartwright son said, "plain madness."

"Adam, I don't know what to tell you,"  said Josiah Carpenter, land office commissioner, with telegraphy ink like blood all over his hands.  "It came in this morning.  I rang up the state office on that damn wall contraption, but they have no explanation beyond what it says right here."

Lemuel Coffee, now the Cartwright attorney, was poring over the chaos fresh in his hands.

Adam was now looking to Coffee for answers.  "What's it say, Lem?"

Coffee shook his head, a sour twist to his mouth.  "They claim grounds to believe you willfully withheld information that led to an undervaluation of your Pa's land.  They want a good faith bond to forestall a land sale at auction.  Since the next scheduled one won't be for another year, they want it moved to today."

"This is an obvious attempt to blackmail my family.  I won't have it."

"Adam, it's unfair as Hell and them some, but it's legal," Coffee said.  "This has happened before.  Its what's been happening to family after family around here.  Just took them longer to get at yours.  But if you can come up with the good faith bond amount, you can still put off the tax deed sale unless somebody else can bid over.  Not many have that kind of money."

"What is it they want?"

Josiah read off the number, as if he hadn't read it twenty times before.  "$390,000."

Adam punched a wall.  "You know how long it takes to get up that kind of money?"

"You could offer up collateral."

"Like what?  All we have is the land and I can't speak for all of it.  I have my land, but it's half the world away.  I've got some assets here, but not nearly enough."

"I think I can help," a voice broke up the discussion.  It had come from outside.  Adam, and Candy who stood with him, looked around.

"Griff, that's good of you," Adam said.  "But that little store of yours isn't - "

"Not the store."  Griff steeled himself visibly for his new role of greenhorn financier.  " I have other... capital...assets."

"Griff," Candy said kindly, "you can't even spell those words."

He shifted Candy a sour glare, and dragged from his shopapron, a jumble of papers.  "I have here some legal papers from my lawyer.  It gives me power of attorney over these...things I have.  Financial instruments."

"May I see them?" Josiah said.

Griff handed them over.  "I'm sure you'll find everything's in order."

"Everything indeed."  Josiah squinted at the fine print, then nodded.  "This might be enough."  He looked up at him.  "Where'd this come from, Griff?"

"Isn't that my business?"

"Why, yes, I expect that it is, so long as it's not ill-gotten gains, and we have no reason to think it is.  Just asking the question."

"I prefer not to say, if it's all the same to you."

Candy was staring at him, a vision of dubiousness.  "You come to me on paycheck Friday and borrowed five dollars for some lampblack for the store's warm stove.  And now you're near to a millionaire?"

"I got a few things socked away.  Not liquid, but kinda... thickened up, so to speak."

Adam cleared his throat, to redirect the pertinent smalltalk back to the topic at hand.  "Everything in order, Josiah?"

The commissioner nodded.  "Seems to be.  Pretty healthy holdings here, Griff.  Remind me to talk to have my boy talk to you about investing."

"Griff," Adam said, "I wouldn't ask you to do this, in any other situation.  I guarantee you that, if this works, you'll get everything back and more."

"I know I will," Griff said.

"Then maybe you got the five dollars you owe me for the lampblack," Candy said, staring into him knowingly.

"See me on Sunday."

 "Oh, I'll surely do that."

The sound of the next room's door opening and closing, opening and closing, signaled the beginning of the arrival of the men from Farmers Inn.   The anterior room had been converted to a meeting hall, with lengthwise tables laid end to end, and tracks of chairs nestled by them.

Swarming footsteps up the boardwalk moved in trotting unison, steps laid clean by expensive shoe-leather stopping outside the door.  The short man with the tall ego stubbed out his expensive cigar against the building, then slipped it into his pocket.

He walked inside, gauging his movements to the stance of Adam Cartwright, half the office away.  Adam immediately closed their distance.

Callendar performed empathy on cue.  "I assume you have heard about the unfortunate tax situation."

"Only just.  How did you manage this one, Callendar?"

"You endow me with far too much influence, Mr. Cartwright.  I'm just a humble paperman."

"You're a lot of things, Callendar.  Humble is definitely not one of them.  And you had the nerve to accuse me of influence peddling.  The only problem is we've managed to thwart your scheme."

"You have?"

"Yes, we've come up with enough collateral to forestall the sale."

"Is that so?"

"That's so."

"May I see the bid over target please?"  Callendar said to Josiah, holding out his hand.

Josiah quickly noted down the pertinent data, tore the page free from the pad and handed it over.

Callendar considered it a moment, hiking an eyebrow.  "Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me a moment," he said, walking out the front door.

"What's he up to now?" Adam said, to the other two men.

"Nothing good, that's for sure," Candy replied.

The man who stood just outside the doorway, beyond the view of the men inside, watched Callendar cross the main street.  Callendar spoke to a second man, who relinquished some papers.  Callendar read through that sheathe, moving aside so the other man might step down from his carriage.

The other man was Standard Huckaby.

No surprise to the man watching them.  Water did seek its own level.  Two edges of his life, falling together with the ease of petty curiosity fed by blind greed.  Callendar's reaction would tell Jamie everything - everything and nothing.

The man he knew and the man he knew only be reputation exchanged words.  Callendar nodded.  And grinned.

Jamie's heart caved in.

Plan A, carried by Griff, had just been bested.  The backup plan was all there was left standing between the Ponderosa and Callendar's papermills.

Jamie nodded to the messenger boy across the street.

The messenger made his way up the walk, around the people, amid the throng, all watching the beginning of the end of the Cartwright legacy.  It was standing room only, now that the word had gotten out.  Of all the titans to stumble in the war, this was the proudest one of all.

"It's not leaving us yet, Pa," Jamie whispered.  "Whatever it takes, it's staying with us."

Jamie watched as the outside viewers pressed against backs before them, to push even closer within, as if fire in the pit had ignited.

"My associate, Mr. Huckaby of Wyoming, and I call to order," said Callendar, waving the intended instrument of Cartwright destruction before the crowd, "a writ in the amount of 520,000 US dollars.  More than enough to bid over the Cartwright good faith bond as a fair offer to the Commissioner of Land.  I fear Mr....King's sudden inheritance is less than that amount.  So we would be pleased to accept deed to the Ponderosa at the recording office's earliest convenience."

"Damn," Adam groaned, turning about as if struck directly by a head-on blow.  He turned to the wall, as if seeking if unable to face what lay ahead.  "That's it.  It's over.  That's the end."

"Maybe not," Griff said.

"You gonna pull a gold nugget outta your ear?" Candy snapped over at him, shaking his head in despair.

"No," Griff said, pointing backward, "but he is."

A tall man, dressed in east coast bib and tucker, stepped out of the distant wall's line of many watchers.  He was smiling pleasantly to the others, but addressed himself to the Commissioner, currently examining the dark details of the Huckaby-Callendar compromise.

"Mr. Land Commissioner, I represent the firm of Whitaker, Thackery, Maybury and Porter.  We are legal designee to the estate of the late Mister Ferris Callahan.  We have been engaged by the sole heir of the Callahan estate to best any best offer made by Misters Huckaby and Callendar toward the purchase of the Ponderosa from its present owners.  I may write a bank cheque in total to that amount.  Let the record stand at one million US dollars for the bid."

Josiah's color went gray.  "Well, these numbers are becoming royal.  Mr. Callendar, the bid stands at a firm one million.  What is your last, best and final offer?"

Callendar's face  reflected nothing short of wrath.  "I'm afraid you have it.  However, I must protest this bidder.  I have presented to the Land Office a cash value offer. individual...has merely brought forward a bank scrip.  We have no idea if it's good.  Granted, I'm not a long-time resident with local officials in my pocket, as is Mr. Cartwright, but my name is known, and my money is greenback and good."

The Commissioner sighed, knowing himself to be cornered with county ordinance.  "Mr. Whitaker, is it?  Does your client have some manner of identification or a known local person to speak for him?"

The lawyer Whitaker's fingers nibbled for a nervous moment at the brim of his doffed hat.  "Will you give me a moment please?"

The Commissioner nodded.  "Be my guest."

The attorney moved along the path of people, who turned to watch his progress up the aisle.  Whitaker stood in the still-open door.  He signaled to someone still unseen, with a broad sweep of his hat.

The man on the opposite end of the signal realized his longtime self-exile was at an end.  There was no turning back now.  Only one thing to be done.

Jamie entered, plucking the bank script from his attorney's hand.  He advanced to the podium without looking anywhere but at Josiah's big, surprised grin.  He claimed the podium pen, set his signature to the document, and handed over to the Land Office Commissioner.

"You remember me, Josiah?  Will you speak for me?"

"Indeed I will, Jamie."

"Ferris Callahan was my blood grandfather.  I'm sole heir to the Callahan estate," Jamie said.  "That's my bank scrip.  Whatever Mr. Callendar and Mr. Huckaby have given you as their final offer, please better it to the order of the Land Office, and take the Ponderosa off your tax sale rolls."

The Commissioner landed the gavel with relish.  "This called deed sale is ended.  Deed to be made to -- ."

"The Cartwrights."  Jamie turned to glare for a moment into the pensive face of Standard Huckaby.  "That's what the C stands for."

Huckaby's sneer was meaner than ever.  "You won this battle, Jim.  The war isn't over."

"With people like you, it never is.  Now why don't you go back to the Hell you came from and blow it up."

Callendar, sizing up the room and the moment, seized Huckaby's collar to drag him into retreat.  Jamie's eyes locked on Standard's until the land office door shut between them.

"Thank you," rose a voice... a long-feared voice... from behind him.

Jamie exhaled the last air in him, knowing flight to be useless.  The moment he'd so long avoided was now at hand..

He turned around, considering the other man with a hurt uncertainty. "Thank you isn't necessary.  You ought to know that better than most."

Adam frowned, shaking his head.  "Isn't there anything I can say to you to put us right?"

"I expect you said enough," Jamie said, not meeting the other man's dark, constant gaze.  "All you'd say is guilty words.  You told me a long time ago what you really felt."

"So what I really felt was all the bad stuff?  All the angry stuff?"

"I expect," he said, looking aside.

Half the gathering had not departed; they lingered instead like Boston fishwives, gawking as this new Cartwright drama unfolded.

"Maybe we oughta charge admission," Jamie said to the crowd.  He lowered his voice to the others, "Can we take this somewhere less public?"

"I know just the place," Adam said.  "If you wouldn't mind going there, one more time."

Jamie nodded.  "My only reason for not going there was to avoid you.  Thanks to Huckaby and Callendar, that's no longer a reason.  No place else I'd rather see most days, especially today."

* * *

Jamie rode in on his own, the afternoon of what would have been his life's fourth darkest day, growing cool as the sky saddled down into treelined twilight.  Winter coming.   Everything grew keen and close.  The gray sky brighter, the round white moon glistening with higher meaning and light.  And death, life's constant companion, never closer than the brightest winter night.

He missed them so much, in fact, he half-believed he'd fled Nevada just to be able to live with the pain.

He pulled from his pocket the small picture clocket, the only picture he had of the five of them.  It had been taken Adam's last visit home before Hoss died.  Jamie had, as was his nature, fallen to the background, but Joe had towed him from the corner, pushing him up to the front, to the left of Pa, with Adam to their father's right.  Jamie's one clear memory of the portrait-taking was Joe laughing in his ear, cracking some joke about his red hair blinding him.  Jamie had jokingly elbowed him back.  Joe grabbed him in a headlock.  Hoss had split them apart, lodging himself between.

He couldn't open it.  It would just be too much.  The sad, old moon itself was rising, big enough, over his shoulder.

He looked to the west to gauge his bearings, only to find Adam had stopped the family buckboard up the ridge, watching him aways.

I don't trust you and you don't trust me, Jamie thought to himself.   We both knew them as well as anyone, but we barely know each other.

There was a time to roughhouse, a time to be little brother, and at last, as Hoss had pointed out to them, a time to be grown men and stand up for the family, to take the family portrait and make it last.  Because now they were living for more than themselves...more than the lives they lived here and now. They were bookmarks in time - symbols for posterity.  A testament to everyone they loved and who loved them.

Whether Adam liked it or not, Jamie was part of this family.  The younger man knew, in his soul, it had always been the truth.  And nothing that was said or done by anyone would change that.

Or so he wanted to believe --  more than anything,

Jamie whistled the soft, high sound, the one Pa always used when the boys had ridden out away from camp and it was time to move in toward home.   Jamie's eyes met Adam's.  Adam smiled.  It was clear they two alone among living men knew what that sound represented.

The rustle of buckboard and horses caused the Ponderosa's front door to fly open.

Adam Cartwright the younger walked politely down each step, as if trying to counteract his more passionate assault on the front door.  He ambled out, watching the rider of unknown but half-suspected identity, slow his horse to a canter.  The rider was gazing only at the house.

A.C. met his father's buckboard.

"Is that - "

Adam nodded, climbing down.  "Yes, that's him.  Did Josiah get word to you?"

"Yes, thank God.  Sarah, Benj and Eric have gone into town.  They're planning a joint celebration.  They asked for Candy and me to come help, once he reached home."

Candy moved into the buckboard pilot seat after Adam.  "Hop in, A.C., we got our marching orders.  I best pick up Griff, too, while we're up there, make sure his recent windfall hasn't gone to his head."

Before signaling the team, Candy reached out to bag the arm of the dismounted rider, who was walking slowly toward the house, taking it in.  Candy tugged hard enough to turned the red-haired man around.  "Hey, you, stranger."

Jamie looked toward him, like he'd caught his sleeve on a talking fencepost or something.  He grinned into the face of an old friend.  "No stranger than you are."

Candy rolled his eyes toward Adam, then back to Jamie.  "That's right funny.  I sure missed Jamie's dumb jokes.  But you listen to me.  You get that chip off your shoulder and hear Adam out.  He's a good man.  You got a second chance.  He deserves one, too."

Jamie stared back at him, a little sadly.  "You takin' sides now too, Candy?"

"Only side I'm on is ours.  I couldn't love you more if you were my own little brother, but if you don't hear him out, I'll hog-tie you to a chair to make sure you do.  You hear me?"

The younger man rolled his gaze around, looking once again like an awkward young boy.  "I expect I'm standin' right in front of you, and I ain't deaf."

Candy snorted a laugh, clapping him across the shoulder. "You stay put awhile.  That's an order."

The team had spirit, as the ranch team always did, surging south at the trick of Candy's call.  The buckboard once again moved back along the road away from home.

Adam gestured to the house.  "I expect you know the way as well as I do."

There was so much around him to count as memories.  He knew it was best he touch them one by one.  Hoss telling some long, tall tale by the fire.  Joe - and the world's most infectious laugh - highlighting the memory.  Their first evening together, as a family, after the adoption.  The first Christmas.  The first of so many once prosaic and now precious minutes and hours and days.

At last, he stepped to Ben Cartwright's chair, placing his hands a moment on its shoulders.  So many years.  So long and so brief a time.

He walked across to one of the leather wing chairs, wherein Jamie had sat many nights to read to his father, as Ben's years grew long and his eyesight failed him.  In those later years, Jamie had been his eyes and ears.  This moment, Jamie lowered himself into the chair, as if to find that place in time again within himself.  He had only to look to find it.  As always, it made him so happy, and so sad.

"I used to read to Pa, sitting here."  He touched the arm of the wingchair.  "Edwin Markham, his favorite poet.  And from the Bible.  The Book of Job, usually.  He said it reminded him of me.  The patience, I expect, not the Job part."

Adam smiled, seating himself in the opposite wing chair.  "All of us, Jamie.  All of us.  Of course, that's the lot of all fathers.  I know that now.  I hear that you do, too."

Jamie nodded.  "I got two boys.  David, I got him the day I married my wife.  And Eja, I got him the day I lost her."

"I'm sorry."  He reached again for small talk, simple things to say.  " that short for Elijah?"

Jamie compromised with a small grin.  "I expect you'll hear about this soon enough.  We couldn't name him Benjamin, coz we already had the one. My wife couldn't abide the idea of calling him Hoss.  And Eric had been her father's name and she didn't have much use for him.  And her family already had a Joseph.  So we come up with Eja. For Eric Joseph Adam."

Adam leaned into his chair, taken aback.  "I'm honored."  He sighed, wishing he could say all the things he intended, and say them in a way that meant what he really felt.  He needed his father's wisdom, and his words.

"Jamie, it's your choice whether you claim me as kin.  We both loved this family.  We both grew up in this house.  We have all the things in common that make two men brothers, but none of that means anything if it's not in your heart.  But if you could manage to consider me a friend, I'd be obliged."

Jamie nodded, looking around.  Staring deep into the shadows of this house.

"Adam, do you know what this family... means to me?"

"I know what it means to me," Adam answered.  "I can only see my own shadow.  I can't walk in yours."

Jamie's face turned entirely serious, almost grave.  "I'm not asking for anyone's pity.  And I don't mean to make excuses.  I only mean to give you reasons.  Why I reacted like I did to what you said."

Adam nodded.  "I'd like to hear them."

The younger man gazed again with love upon the house around them.  "I'd never had a home before this one.  My blood family was nearly all dead.  I had no way to survive but from an old friend's pity.  And I was barely older than Eja.  Dusty never tried to make me feel like a burden to him, but I was one.  And I didn't trust anything or anyone.  I don't think I even believed that such a thing as love existed.  And then one day...  I guess you heard the story before..."

"Never heard it from you," Adam said.

Jamie nodded.  "Pa come around the corner of my life.   He could have taken in a hundred other boys, but he chose me.  And he never looked back, though Lord knows I gave him plenty of cause to try.  I wasn't just blame good at heart, like Hoss.  I wasn't intelligent, like you were.  And I was never quick to know the right thing, like Joe.  But Pa never made me feel less.  Sometimes, I'd even forget for awhile.  And Hoss and Joe, well, they had every right to resent me.  I wouldn't have blamed 'em.  But they never did.  They never treated me a whit different than they treated each other."

"Then enters Adam," Adam said, shaking his head at himself, and not for the first or last time.

Jamie stared up at the ceiling, fighting to reserve his tears to himself and the old familiar wood pilings above. "It's just that, I felt like, when you said what you said, that the only things making me a Cartwright were all dead.  Like I was back in the woods.  Like everything I thought was real, was a lie."

"My God, you didn't really feel that way..."

Jamie nodded.  "I did.  I don't mean to make you feel poorly, but from my heart, I did feel like that.  In ways, I still do.  See, it's easier for you.  As you get older, you see Pa in the mirror.  You hear bits of their voices in yours.  You see them in A.C. too.  I don't have that.  And I need that connection, now more than ever."

Adam looked at him, dismayed.  "Jamie, all you have to do is look at your life.  You built that business of yours out of nothing.  You did the same thing Pa did, only you built it out of rock.  And you had the resources to save us, when the chips were down and out."

"You have them, too."

"That's kinda my point.  Jamie, you have to believe me, if I could shorten my life so that I might take back those words, I would."

Jamie shook his head.  "I wouldn't let you.  I wouldn't do it.  If I hadn't left, I wouldn't have met Alice.  I wouldn't have my boys.  And nothing helped me know that Pa did love me, than what I feel for David.  Plus, I wouldn't have had the resources to do...well, what we were just talking about."  He shrugged.  "Maybe it's like Pa said, everything happens for a reason."

"So.  Where does that leave us?"

"A couple o' older guys sittin' in these even older chairs, I guess."

Adam chuckled, reaching for the top drawer to their father's desk.  From it, he removed a small cloth parcel.  Out of it, he withdrew a corded bundle of mail, one letter apart from the stack and tied to the top.  It was that one he tenderly removed to lay by itself before him.

"This is the letter Pa wrote to me, when you joined the family.  I doubt I lost a thing he ever gave me, especially something like this.  I'd like you to have it."

Jamie accepted the fragile piece of trust, set as it was by the Cartwright seal in wax, long before peeled opened.  He closed his eyes, as if feeling the presence of the long-ago hands that once held it.  Gentle as light, he opened the page.  As his gaze hit the handwriting, his eyes misted over.

"I," he said, his voice fraying at the edges.  "I don't think I can read this directly."

"I think you should.  I think it might give you some comfort.  If there's anything that can make up for what I once said to you, it's Pa's own words.  He writes about how happy they all were, when you came to the family.  And how he knew you, when they met you, that you were the son who Ma saw in her dream..."

Jamie's brow furrowed in confusion.  "Ma?  Your Ma?"

"Yeah, my ma.  Joe's by birth.  Marie.  Guess she'd have been your ma, too, if she'd lived.  I know they must have told you about her dream..."

Recognition lit his eyes: a fact nested in memory.  "I was told about her, of course.  I don't think I was told about a dream."

"You must have been."

Jamie's face wrinkled in deep and distant thought.  "No.  Not that I recall."

"You'd remember this," he said.

After a silent moment to reflect, Adam rose out of the chair, sinking back against the edge of the desk, somewhat astonished. With it all, from the vantage of age, though, it did make sense.  What a burden to place on the boy, the dream of a long-dead woman.  A mother he would never know.  Surely, Jamie's burdens had been heavy enough to carry, without that in tow.

But what once might have been a burden to carry for the younger man's soul, might well now be its deliverance.

"Good world in glory, Jamie, I never for a second thought you hadn't been told -- "

"Been told what?"  Jamie's eyes were open, unrelenting, puzzled.  "What was it about?"

Adam cleared his throat, nodding toward the folded pages in the other man's hands.  "I think you best just read that now."

He stepped away for the moment, to give the man a measure of solitude.   Adam stood there, diffident in his continued presence, turning up the hissing lamp a bit, to expand the light further across that most important of letters.

Jamie stood from his chair, crossing to the inset window, for a greater measure of light...and, Adam imagined, more privacy   The younger man grasped the edge of the letter as if a tenuous hold on life itself, the grip of his hand tightening moment to moment.  With a barely perceptible tremor, his hand tenderly pressed the letter over his heart.    The other hand reached for wall, then crumpled over his eyes.

Tears shook through him -- silent, unseen.

Adam Cartwright doubted he'd ever, in his whole life, seen someone cry harder.  These weren't tears of pain or sadness, but a profound and joyful leap beyond them.  They were the tears of love at last given meaning...of a stray returned to his tribe.

Adam reentered the circle of light.  He reached out to comfort him, but the other man first turned toward him. Jamie looked away, as if seeking sanctuary from these tears, but there was nowhere to go to escape them.

Jamie walked forward to embrace Adam Cartwright for the very first time.

Closing his eyes in surprise, at the impact, Adam held him tighter, as if making up for all the hugs that had never been exchanged.

He held the younger man back to make a point.  "Now, you see?  You were meant to be part of us.  From the very beginning," Adam said, blinking back his own moist eyes.  "I hope that's balm for some of the wounds I caused."

Jamie grinned through his tears.  "It's a whole lot more than that.  There's no way on earth I can thank you for this, Adam.  You just gave me...everything..."

"There is a way you could thank me.  Go back to Wyoming and fetch your family.  Bring the boys home so we can get to know them.  Come home at least for Christmas.  Or heck, move home for good, and help me do battle with these interlopers around here.  I surely could use an ally."

Jamie looked up at him fully, for the first time in years.  "I got a couple allies.  But I surely have missed having a brother."

"You've always had three brothers, Jamie."

Jamie nodded, pulling the pocket watch with picture from his suit.  He opened it, smiled into it, then handed it over for Adam to see.  "I know that now."

As Adam studied the long-ago portrait, the two men standing together near their father's desk, within the circle of light, like the two ends of their father's love, at last drawn back together.



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