The Scars Will Fade


Jeanie C.  

Rating and Reader Alerts: PG for some violence, mild profanity

Summary: In the three days immediately following the discovery of an emotionally and physically exhausted Adam at the end of “The Crucible,” Ben, Hoss and Joe Cartwright try to figure out what has happened to him, as well as come to grips with their own guilt. Adam struggles, with the help of his family, to recover from the trauma of his ordeal.

DISCLAIMER: Neither these characters nor the “Bonanza” episode titled “The Crucible” are my creation and I intend no disrespect to their creators. I have submitted this story for the enjoyment of “Bonanza” fans here but please do not redistribute it.


“The Scars Will Fade”
(WHN for “The Crucible”)

By Jeanie C.


Day one


Ben Cartwright scarcely could believe the man stumbling past him was his oldest son. He stood flat-footed as Adam shuffled by, his black jeans gray with dust and his shirt dark with dirt and sweat. Adam’s head was bowed and his face was dark with grime. He seemed to see nothing.

Ben watched Adam take a few more steps and finally realized his son hadn’t even noticed he was walking past his father and brothers. He had to stop him.

Ben took a few running steps to catch up with him and then stood in front of him, grabbed Adam by the shoulders and shook him but, while he finally stopped moving ahead, Adam appeared to not recognize his father. Ben put his face close to his son’s and shouted his name: “Adam! Adam!” Joe and Hoss moved behind him and began calling their brother’s name as well. Hoss shouted it three times in quick succession.

At that moment, Adam seemed to see his father for the first time since they’d shouted his name to get him to put down the travois he’d been dragging and stop. As the recognition came into his eyes, it was followed quickly by a look of agonizing sadness mixed with great relief. Here was his father, who had always taken care of everything.

“Oh Pa,” Adam said with a husky sob. And the little strength that remained in his body left him then. His legs crumpled and his brothers and father caught him – six strong arms would not let him fall roughly – and lowered him gently toward the ground, to his father’s lap.

Ben cradled Adam’s head and shoulders with his arms while Joe uncorked his canteen and tried to pour some water into his brother’s mouth. Seeing he was not successful, Ben took the canteen from Joe and held it to Adam’s dry and sunburned lips. One swallow … two. Then he took it away. Adam raised his head as he tried to follow the canteen for more, but Ben shook his head and said, “Son … not too much at first …. it’ll just make you sick.” Adam quit straining forward and let his head fall back again to rest on his father’s thigh. Ben drizzled a little water into his palm and smoothed it over Adam’s grimy forehead and temples.

“He’s been through some kind of hell,” Joe murmured. Ben looked up at his youngest son and saw the worry on his face, the lines on his forehead, the tears welling in his eyes. He handed the canteen back to Joe.

“He’ll be fine, Joseph. Your brother will be fine.” Ben gathered Adam by the shoulders and, with a fierce look, hugged his son to his chest. Joe and Hoss looked stricken. Hoss, at a loss as to how to make this situation any better, reached out a hand and squeezed his father’s shoulder. Joe just clutched his canteen and kept his eyes on the back of his oldest brother’s head as his father’s hand stroked the curling hair at the back of Adam’s neck. And the four stayed like that – a tableau of relief, pain, sorrow – for what seemed to them a long time.

Adam made no protest at being cradled like a child nor did he struggle to get free. He still was conscious but had given up for now on his usual role of eldest son and older brother. He was exhausted.

He had pushed himself past what he had thought was his final level of endurance that day – he had kept moving when he thought he surely could go no further.

He had been at a point where he wasn’t looking ahead to where he was going. He was just looking down at the worn black boots on his feet as he moved each one in turn through the dust and rocks of the scorched Nevada earth. Pick it up, move it forward, set it down. One foot after the other. He didn’t dare look up to see the huge expanse before him: no water, no buildings, no people, no safety. He knew what was there, yet he also knew if he didn’t look, he could imagine he was actually walking toward safety instead of toward nothing.

He was beyond hunger at this point, but the thirst kept at him and kept at him. He thought he’d go crazy if he couldn’t get just a taste of water. But instead he just kept plodding forward.

He kept his eyes cast downward. “Just another step,” he thought. “Now another.”  Eventually, there was no real thought. Instinct moved in and told his body to keep moving because if he didn’t …. if he allowed himself to falter, then fall, he would never get up and move again.

But he could imagine. With every shuffling step and every new pain across his shoulders as the strap of the travois dug into his neck no matter how often he adjusted it, he imagined how it would feel to drop his burden and lie down to rest.

Rest. He even knew how it would feel. He wasn’t so far removed from reality that he imagined the soft feather mattress of his bed in the Ponderosa ranch house, nor the wonderful breeze that would billow the curtains as it came through his bedroom window on this summer afternoon, bringing with it the sweet scent of the syringa growing in the side yard. No, he could feel the rocks cutting into his hip and arm as he stretched on his side in the hot dirt. He could feel the dust kick up and tickle his nose as he laid his cheek on the ground and breathed in and out.

“But wouldn’t it feel good anyway?” he thought. “Wouldn’t it feel so good to just stop and put this damn burden down?” But he didn’t stop. He felt the presence of his family; felt they were out there somewhere. He just kept moving to the rhythm of his own labored breathing. It rasped so loudly in his own ears that if there were any other sounds in this expanse of desert, he could not hear them. In and out, one step and then another.

But then he caught another sound, taking over for his harsh breathing. He heard his father’s heart beating. He felt it, too: against his cheek, reassuring and steady. What did it remind him of? Memories rushed to him, tumbling one over the other, of nights during a long journey spent sleeping close to his father around campfires, in the backs of wagons, on the floor in front of fires in tiny one-room cabins and even shacks. Always when Ben would finally stretch out next to him in the evening, Adam would wake to his presence and cuddle closer to that broad chest and feel and hear the heartbeat. It was the rhythm of safety.

So feeling it now immediately took him back to his youth. He again was gathered into the arms of his father and he was safe at last. No more guns and no more games because his father and his brothers would not make him play. With them, he knew who he was because they knew who he was.

When he lashed out at Joe or Hoss for some mistake or perceived slight, he knew, without having to think about it, that his brothers loved him and would always love him, no matter how angry they got at each other. And when he argued with his father over how something should be done on the ranch and his frustration mounted over his father’s refusal to budge, he often said things he knew were hurtful to his father. But Adam knew that no matter what awful thing he said in anger, his father loved him. That was the bottom line: His family loved him.

Now, with nothing much registering in his mind except that heartbeat and the scent of his father’s sweat, he finally allowed himself to give into the unconsciousness that he had been fighting for hours.




Ben felt Adam’s hand loosen from where it had been tightly gripping his shirt sleeve and then saw it drop away. The movement made Ben start and he wondered how long he’d been sitting there on the ground, hugging his son to his chest and thinking of nothing except how to take away the pain Adam so obviously felt.

Now roused from his thoughts, he quickly held Adam slightly away from his body and put a hand on his son’s chest. He held his breath and waited. Then he felt the steady thumping of Adam’s heart and the rise and fall of his chest with each breath.

Ben exhaled the breath he’d been holding and looked up – first at Hoss and then at Joe. He gave them a slight nod and said, “He’s just passed out.”

They stared back at him, both with looks of enormous concern for their brother’s condition, but also looks that told Ben they were at a loss in this situation. They didn’t know how to react to Adam’s breakdown. They all were used to injuries – to their father and their brothers – but they had never seen their brother as emotionally overwrought or vulnerable as he had been moments ago.

But Ben decided he had to push those thoughts out of his mind now. He’d deal with them later. Right now he felt the urgency of getting Adam home to the Ponderosa.

Just a quarter of an hour earlier he’d felt incredible fatigue as he had sat slumped forward in his saddle, finally forcing himself to realize there was no point in looking further for his son. And when Hoss spoke the words aloud that had been weighing heavy on all their minds that day – “Pa, it’s been two weeks since he left Eastgate.” – Ben was resigned to the fact that Adam was dead and that they might never find his body.

And while he might be forced to live with the reality of Adam’s death, he would never be able to rest with the fact that there would be no body to bury or gravesite to mark. That his son’s body would be tossed in an unmarked, shallow grave somewhere that Ben had no knowledge of and could not visit. Or worse, that his son had been left out to the elements, for the weather to abuse and scavengers to scatter. His boy, treated like that?

That thought – of Adam’s body uncared for and unburied – was what made Ben most dread returning home without him. He was Ben Cartwright, one of the most powerful men in Nevada Territory, yet someone else – strangers – had decided where his son’s final resting place would be. And he was sure whoever those men were, they had given it no thought at all, just left Adam where they’d killed him and ridden away. If he had to endure the agony of outliving one of his sons, as he had outlived three wives, then he, and he alone, should decide where that son would be buried. The impotence he had felt in this situation was almost more than he could bear.

But now that his son was alive, his weariness was gone. He felt the energy that he did when there was a problem to solve. They had found his son and now he had to get him home. There was the problem and Ben would come up with the solution.

He looked again at his middle son. “Hoss, get into town and hire a buckboard from the livery.” He shifted his eyes over to his middle son. “Joe, you go with Hoss and pick up enough supplies to get us home.”

“Pa … you fixin’ to take Adam home? Like this?” Hoss couldn’t believe that his father wouldn’t want to get Adam to the nearest doctor.

“Hoss, home is where he needs to be – just as soon as we can get him there,” Ben said sharply. He felt that urgently, almost like an instinct: He had to get Adam to the Ponderosa as quickly as he could. He shifted Adam’s shoulders slightly and he moved the now-unconscious man away from his chest and laid him gently onto the ground. “I don’t see anything wrong with him, do you boys?”

Ben now scrutinized Adam more carefully, looking for signs of injury or trauma that perhaps weren’t so obvious at first glance. He noted lots of cuts, scrapes and bruises, both on his face and arms but nothing looked serious. Adam’s once-cream colored shirt was torn and filthy; one sleeve was missing and only a couple of buttons survived. Ben unbuttoned the remaining two and spread the shirt wide to see if they had missed seeing some sort of wound. He ran his hands up and down first one side of Adam’s torso and then the other, feeling for obviously broken ribs, and reached around on both sides to feel his back, all the while looking carefully for any sign of blood or bruising. He glanced down both of Adam’s long legs, which looked straight with no swelling.

He looked back up at Hoss and Joe and said more gently than before, “Boys, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Adam that plenty of water, some good food and a long, uninterrupted sleep won’t cure.”

Hoss also had been looking critically at his brother while his father did his brief exam. His eyebrows were knit together and his forehead was wrinkled with worry as his eyes followed Ben’s hands as they moved over Adam’s body. His mouth relaxed from a tight line into an easy grin at hearing his father’s diagnosis. “That’s great, Pa. That’s good to hear.”

“Boy, it sure is, Pa,” Joe added. “Hoss and me’ll help you move Adam over against that bluff …” Joe paused and pointed a dozen yards away at a small, rocky outcropping that looked like it might provide the two men some protection from the sun during their wait. “Then we’ll get into town and do what you asked.”

“Good idea, Joseph. Help me with him, will you?” Ben asked as he leaned over Adam and started to put his hands under his son’s shoulders.

“Don’t bother, Pa … I can pack ’im over there without no trouble.” And Hoss knelt down to where Ben crouched supporting Adam’s shoulders once more. Hoss slipped one arm under Adam’s shoulders and another beneath his knees and, with a soft grunt, stood up. Adam’s head lolled loosely back and Hoss raised his arms slightly, tilting Adam into him. His brother’s head slowly rolled back to come to a rest against Hoss’ thick neck.

It wasn’t very often that Hoss felt like he was any physical help to his older brother. Oh, he knew he was a help around the ranch with chores and such, but he didn’t often feel that he could provide any real physical support to Adam. Yes, he was both bigger and stronger than most, but like most younger brothers, he often itched to prove himself indispensable to his older brother. And here was a chance.

“There ya are, big brother … now just rest easy and we’ll get ya settled in.” Hoss began walking slowly toward the shady spot they’d picked out. Joe and Ben grabbed their horses’ reins and followed.

Behind them, a still form lay on a travois and was forgotten.




“I think Adam looks OK. Don’t you?” Joe leaned one shoulder into the wall and looked intently into his brother’s face as they waited in the livery for the stable hand to bring their hired buckboard around. Hoss looked down and could read his brother easily: Joe wanted reassurance.

“Yeah, Joe, I think he looks just fine,” Hoss replied. He stood on his toes to see if he could see the hand’s progress with the wagon. “He’s just all tuckered out … it’s hard tellin’ how long he’s been walkin’ out there, but it must’ve been some time, from the looks of ’im.”

“I can’t wait ta hear what he has to say about where he’s been all this time and what those hard cases did to him. And how in heck did he end up with that guy he was draggin’? It must be some story.” After the time he’d spent searching for his brother, alone and later with Hoss and his father, certain that he was dead, Joe was almost giddy with relief that Adam was alive. He knew he was talking too much, but he couldn’t help himself.

“Now Joe … don’t you go pesterin’ Adam when he wakes up.” Hoss turned toward his brother and softened his tone a little. “He’s gonna need ta rest and he don’t need you askin’ him all kinds of questions about what happened.

“Aw, I know. I just wanna talk to ’im. I just want him to talk to us like … well, like he’s Adam. I don’t even think I’d mind if he started in bossin’ me around a little.”

Both were silent for several seconds. Hoss thought he could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his older brother out of his mind like he’d been when they’d found him stumbling along pulled that damned dead man behind him. There had been a couple of bouts with illness that had left Adam fevered and delirious. Hoss remembered sitting beside Adam’s bed and helping his father continually bathe his brother’s body with cool water, trying to bring the fever down. And heck, Adam had done the same for Hoss a time or two.

But that had been different, Hoss thought. This Adam they had found just hours ago was not his older brother: confident, capable and often swaggering. This Adam looked beaten and vulnerable. And Hoss knew Joe had seen the same thing he had. And neither of them quite knew what to make of it.




Ben leaned back against the bluff and took his hat off. He pulled out his kerchief and wiped his brow and then the back of his neck, then replaced his hat. It was plenty hot, even in the shade. He drew his knees up and leaned his arms on them, clasping his hands. He bowed his head slightly and closed his eyes, for just a minute.


Ben heard the voice: one of the boys, waking him from a deep sleep. It wasn’t very often his boys were up in the night to wake him, but it did happen occasionally. He had been sleeping so well, though.


The voice sounded too weak to be one of his sons’. Ben opened his eyes and the daylight made him blink several times. Then he remembered where he was and quickly looked to his right. They had made Adam as comfortable as they could, laying him out on their bedrolls where the bluff provided some shade. Now he looked up at his father and asked again.

“Can I have some more water now, Pa? I’m so thirsty.” Adam’s voice still had that husky timbre but sounded weak and wispy at the same time, like it might hurt to talk. Ben thought, “That doesn’t even sound like Adam.”

Then quickly he said, “I’m sorry son … I fell asleep for just a minute.” He turned to pick up the canteen and took the cork out. He got up onto one knee and reached over to support his son’s head with one hand while tipping the canteen to his lips with the other. Adam closed his eyes as he drank, swallow after swallow. Ben moved the canteen back after a moment. He still didn’t want Adam to drink too much at once and risk sicking it right back up again.

“Enough?” Ben looked closely at his son’s face. His eyes still were closed. “Adam?” Ben spoke a little more sharply and saw the eyelids flutter slightly. “Enough …. Thanks, Pa.” The voice trailed off.

“Son, I thought I’d lost you.” Ben’s voice broke on the last word. He put his fingers up to his brow, covering his eyes with his palm. Yes, Adam was here and alive but he had come so close to giving up on him. In fact, he had given up. If Adam’s movement on the valley floor below them hadn’t caught his eye as he was preparing to turn his horse back toward home … . Ben worked hard to push the thought from his mind. To dwell on that now would only distract him from making sure his son recovered from his trauma. And there was no point in going over it. He had seen Adam and his son was safe now. That’s what mattered.

“I’m so tired, Pa. I feel like I can’t even move.” Ben looked over at Adam again. He was speaking but his eyes remained closed, as if the effort to hold his eyelids open was just too much to bother with. “That’s OK son … just rest now,” Ben said and thought, he needs to sleep and there’s plenty of time for questions later. And there were many questions on his mind.

Ben sat back down and stretched his legs out in front of him. Don’t fall asleep again, he admonished himself; there’ll be time for that later as well. And right on cue, he was suddenly struck with a jaw-cracking yawn. “This isn’t going to be easy,” he thought.

“Where is he?” Adam’s voice came again. Ben knew immediately who he was talking about. He looked down at his son and found his eyes open and fixed on his. There was no point in trying to keep it from him and anyway, he didn’t know at this point if it were good or bad that the man was dead.

“He’s dead, Adam. He was dead when we found you.”

“Dead,” Adam repeated quietly. He closed his eyes once more.

Ben watched him for a moment and when he didn’t speak again, assumed he’d gone back to sleep. He tried to get a little more comfortable but the hard ground was a poor substitute for his easy chair or even his saddle.

“I heard you.”

It was a slurred whisper, barely there, through lips that scarcely moved.

Once more Ben shifted up onto one knee so he could look directly into Adam’s face. “What do you mean, you heard me?” He got no response and Adam’s eyes remained closed. “Adam?”

And then the trickle of words turned into a flood, gaining strength through the urgency Adam felt.

“I heard gunshots and I tried to go to you but he wouldn’t let me. He pulled me off the ledge and then I heard you calling my name. I knew it was you. I knew it was you but I couldn’t reach you.” This time it was Adam’s turn: His voice, which had gotten a little stronger, broke and trailed off. He turned his face away from his father’s gaze and let out a long, shaky sigh that ended with a sob.

“He?” Ben wanted to say. “That dead man you were hauling around?”

Instead he reached out and gripped Adam’s shoulder. “Son, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we couldn’t find you … we tried for days. I’m sorry … ”

He stopped. He had been about to say, “I’m sorry we gave up on you.” But Adam didn’t need to know right now how close his father and brothers had come to riding back to the Ponderosa and leaving him wandering in this hell until he collapsed and died. They had come so close to doing that. Just leaving him and going home to their hot food, plentiful, fresh water and soft beds. How could he have even thought about giving up on his boy? Adam never would have given up on his father, given the same circumstances.

“It doesn’t matter,” Adam said. “Doesn’t matter.” Ben saw the muscles in his throat working and knew that it did matter. How it must have given Adam hope to hear their shots, hear his father calling his name and then despair not to be allowed to get to the family he desperately needed. Why had that man stopped him from coming to them or calling out to them? How close had they been to him?

Ben had never seen his oldest so emotional but he’d also never seen Adam so spent, both mentally and physically. “Son, I’m so sorry,” he said again and it didn’t seem like it could possibly be enough. With his other hand, he reached for Adam’s and held it tight.

“I just wanted to see you.” His voice was wispy once more, just on the edge of sleep again. “I thought it would be all right if I could see you.” He lifted his hand to tent his fingers over his eyes and then scrubbed at them.

When he moved his hand away, Ben saw the tear streaks and then saw the wide, red weal on his wrist. He let out an angry hiss, grabbed at his son’s arm and saw the same marks on his other wrist as well. How had he missed seeing these marks when he had checked him over earlier? He’d been so concerned, he guessed, about serious injuries to Adam’s vitals that he hadn’t thought to look closely at his wrists.

Someone had tied his boy up; bound his hands so he could not escape. Ben grew angrier by the second. And yet Adam had been carrying a man through the dirt and rock and sagebrush, practically on his back. Was that man the one who had tied him? The same man who had been holding him prisoner? “So he couldn’t come to me when I called for him?”

“I tried, Pa. I tried to get to you when I heard you calling my name.” Ben hadn’t realized he’d spoken that loudly until Adam answered him, sounding more alert again.

“It’s OK, son. It’s not your fault.” Ben reached out a hand to stroke his forehead and then moved it down his temple to his cheek. “Do those wrists of yours hurt?”

Adam held his hand in front of his face and turned it back and forth, as if noticing for the first time the bruising and rope-burn cuts around the wrist. He slowly opened and closed his fingers. “Nah … they’re ugly though, huh?” He paused and looked from his wrist to his father’s face. “He didn’t want you to find me. He was angry because I had you and he didn’t have anyone and because he said I’d been handed the Ponderosa without having to work for it. He was crazy, out there workin’ a worthless mine and all he had left was to make a game out of humiliating me.” His voice was matter-of-fact as he touched on the pain he’d endured.

Oh Lord. It was the dead man who had done all this damage to his son. How in the world could he repair it? Ben took hold of Adam’s arm and gently pushed it back down onto his chest. “Just leave it there, son … I’m going to clean them up a bit, OK? You just go back to sleep.”

Adam looked up at his father, the tears now dried around his eyes but leaving muddy streaks. Ben reached for his kerchief again and the canteen. He poured some water onto the cloth and wiped Adam’s face, first around each eye, then his forehead and most of the dirt streaks came away.

“Mmmmmm … feels good.” He was drifting off again.

“I’ll bet it does. Just relax and I’m going to clean up those wrists of yours. It might sting a bit …” Ben again soaked the cloth and picked up Adam’s right arm. He tried to be gentle but still, getting the worst of the dirt and bits of rope out of the burns did take a bit of rubbing.

The cuts looked deep enough to him that they might leave substantial scars. Had he been tied that tightly or had Adam pulled and fought against his bindings so hard that the ropes did much more damage than they would have had he just sat quietly? Again, visions of Adam hearing him call and struggling to get free came into his mind. Ben shook his head and forced them away to concentrate on his task.

When he was done, he looked again at his son’s face. Cleaned up a little now and sleeping, he looked relaxed and almost normal. Ben tore some strips from his extra shirt to use as bandages and wrapped each wrist loosely to keep the wounds as clean as possible. He placed them at Adam’s side as he finished. His son slept on, peaceful for now.

Then Ben sat down once more to wait.




Hoss called to Joe from the seat of the buckboard to where he was riding his horse, slightly ahead of the team and to the left. “Hey Joe, hold on a minute, will ya?”

Joe pulled up and, turning to look back at Hoss, put a hand on his horse’s rump. “What now?” he said a little impatiently. He was eager to leave town, get back to his father and brother and get started for home. Hoss pointed at a building immediately to his right: “Sheriff,” the faded sign read.

“OK, but hurry it up.” Hoss climbed down off the wagon and strode into the office. He was out fewer than five minutes later.

“What’d he say?” Joe asked.

“He said they’d go out and get the body. Said he’d wire Roy in Virginia City if he had questions for Adam. He’d figured he’d be goin’ out to take care of that guy sooner or later. Heard he was crazy, working a worthless mine.” Hoss shook his head and climbed back onto the wagon seat, picked up the reins and got the team moving out of town once more.




Day Two


The tiny group plodded on as dawn broke across the enormous Nevada sky. Hoss rubbed his face in the crook of one arm and held the reins to the team with the other hand. He adjusted his hat and turned back to look at his father in the bed of the wagon. “Everything still OK back there, Pa?

Ben looked up from where he’d been dozing: “We’re doing fine, Hoss. Where are we, do you know?”

“Looks like we’re about five miles from home, Pa. Won’t be any time before we’re there.”

“That’s a relief,” Joe piped up from the left of the wagon where he rode, holding the reins in one hand and chewing on a hunk of jerky he held in his other.

Ben sighed and it turned into a deep yawn. The boy’s energy amazed him sometimes. Had he been so inexhaustible in his 20s? He certainly wasn’t now, in any case.

The main concern of all three of them still was Adam. Ben looked down at his sleeping son in the bed of the wagon. Adam lay on his side, his legs curled up close to his stomach and his hands close to his face, palms together and bandaged wrists touching. His head was pillowed on Joe’s bedroll. He had woken, off and on, during the course of the night, to have some water. It seemed he could never get enough water but Ben guessed if you went without it for days, as Adam had, you probably wanted to make sure you could have as much as you wanted. And so he’d given some to Adam each time he’d asked, even if he had only taken a few sips.

For the most part, though, he had slept like the dead. Though Hoss did his best to avoid the major ruts, the wagon did its share of bouncing. But the jolts didn’t seem to bother Adam. Ben hadn’t seen his son sleep so soundly since he was a child and a wagon was his home.

Finally, they had crossed onto Ponderosa land and Ben began to feel like he was home and now they were only about five miles from the ranch house. Joe took off at a ground-eating canter so he could alert Hop Sing to prepare some broth to feed Adam when they arrived. Ben knew that water was more important to Adam’s immediate recovery and, though he knew Adam probably hadn’t eaten in days, he hadn’t wanted to tax his condition with beans or jerky. Some of their cook’s broth would be a good way to build him back up slowly and gently without being too harsh on his stomach. And if it were going to come back up again, liquids made that a lot easier than solids.




As Hoss finally pulled the wagon around the barn and approached the porch, Ben leaned down to awaken his sleeping son. “Adam?” He put his hand on Adam’s bicep and gave it a gentle shake. Adam rolled to one side until he was on his back and opened his eyes to look at his father. “Huh?”

“We’re home, son.” In the last few days, Ben had wondered if he would ever say that to Adam again. When Joe had wired them that he thought two bandits had killed his brother, Ben and Hoss had come out to search for a body. To be bringing his son home alive was more than he had hoped for. Once more Ben was swallowing hard. “We’re home.”

“Home,” Adam repeated. He closed his eyes again for a few beats and then opened them and began to struggle to sit upright. Ben reached down to help him to a sitting position. Hoss had stopped the wagon and hopped down to come around to the back. Joe had come outside to meet them, leaving the front door open.

“It’s about time,” he shouted with a big smile. He too had thought if they brought Adam home at all, it would be for a funeral. He had searched for his brother alone for two days before sending for his father and brother, on the assumption that the two men who had robbed him had killed him after taking his money. Those two days were long and lonely and it had been a relief when his father and brother had joined him to share his burden.

“Joseph, quiet down a little,” Ben said. Joe looked contrite but excited at the same time. Both he and Hoss stood at the back of the wagon, ready to help as Ben watched Adam inch his way to the end of the wagon. As his legs dangled off the end, the brothers reached up to grab Adam’s arms as he put his feet on the ground and stood for the first time since he’d fallen into his father’s arms the day before.

He took a few tentative steps on his own, his brothers hovering near. He stopped then and faltered.

Ben saw what was happening from where he stood in the wagon and jumped down. He shouted, “Boys!” just as Hoss and Joe moved in to grab Adam’s arms and throw each one over their shoulders and circle his waist with their arms. Like that, they walked through the front door of the Ponderosa ranch house and into the living room.

“Stop just a minute,” Adam said as they reached the bottom of the stairs and turned his head to look up at Hoss. “I … I don’t think …” Once more his legs buckled and failed to support him and once more Hoss reached down, grabbed his legs and swung his brother into his arms.

“That’s OK, big brother,” Hoss said, smiling. “I’ll just help ya up the stairs and you’ll be in your own bed in no time. Then you’ll get to feelin’ right as rain.”

“That sounds awful good, Hoss. I’ve been dreamin’ about my bed.” His voice started to trail off but Adam tightened his grip around Hoss’s shoulders and rested his head once again at his brother’s neck.

Hoss started up the stairs with his brother and father trailing closely behind.

Once in Adam’s room, Hoss placed Adam onto his back on his bed. Adam had his head on a pillow for the first time in weeks. His eyes closed and he exhaled heavily. It felt as if he had been holding on through hellish conditions with the promise of this moment always in his mind. And now that he was here, he felt he could finally let go.

Ben followed Joe into the room and then watched his two younger sons minister to their brother. Joe grasped Adam’s legs and, one at a time, pulled his worn, dusty boots off. Adam’s filthy socks followed.

Hoss helped his brother out of his tattered shirt and tossed it over the chair in the corner. Then he and Joe stood aside, at a loss as to what their next task should be. Ben stepped closer to the bed then and took charge.

“Boys, will you go downstairs and get some of that beef broth? And will one of you bring up a pitcher of warm water and some cloths?

“Sure Pa.” Hoss turned and headed out the door. Joe lingered for a minute, looking first at Adam and then up at his father.

“Go on now, boy. Your brother will be fine.”

“OK, Pa.” Joe flashed his father a quick smile and was gone.

Ben turned once more to the bed and said, “Adam, let’s get you into bed properly so you can get some real rest, OK? I’ll help you sit up and then you swing your legs over the edge for me.”

“Pa, I’m so tired.” Ben almost laughed at that – seemed like he’d heard it a lot from his oldest over the last day and a half. Adam was nearly dead from exhaustion yet all he would say was that he was tired.

“I know, son. Just do this last thing for me and I promise you can go to sleep.” It reminded Ben of when Adam was small and he had to cajole him into doing any number of things when he was worn out and cranky. He slipped an arm under Adam’s and gently began easing him forward. With another sigh, Adam struggled forward and then swung his legs until they hung over the side of the bed.

“Can you manage your belt?”

Adam let out a groan. “Pa, just leave me alone and let me sleep,” he begged, his shoulders slumping with fatigue.

“I”ll do it then. You just lean on me and let me finish this last bit.” Ben reached down to unfasten Adam’s belt and then his pants. He tugged on the pant legs until they pooled around his ankles and he was able to pull the filthy denims the rest of the way off. He tossed them into the corner with Adam’s ruined shirt.

“OK son, lay back now and go to sleep.” Ben quickly shoved the quilt down so Adam could lie back on the cool bed sheets. Now that his son was wearing nothing but his under shorts, Ben could see for the first time the cuts, bruises and scrapes that were too numerous to count. Adam looked like he’d spent the last couple of weeks fighting. “And perhaps he was fighting for his life,” Ben thought, feeling the anger quickly rise again at the sight of his son’s battered body. But the anger was mixed with relief as he again didn’t see any wounds that looked life-threatening.

“Pa, here’s what you asked for.” Hoss and Joe stood just inside the door again. Joe was putting a large pitcher of water next to the basin on the stand while Hoss brought a mug of broth to his father. Ben took the mug and looked down at his sleeping son.

“We might have to reheat this broth in a little while,” he said, setting it down on the night table. “Joe, did you send one of the hands for the doctor?”

Yeah, Pa. He left for town just after I got here so the doc should be here soon.”

“That’s fine then.” Ben reached for the pitcher and poured half of the water into the basin. Grabbing one of the cloths, he walked back to the bed and setting the basin on the night table, he sat on the edge of the bed. He soaked the cloth in the water and squeezed out the excess.

Ben took his son’s right forearm and held it in one arm, cradling it against his own body. With the wet cloth, he began to bathe two weeks’ worth of grime and sweat from Adam’s tanned skin. He had, at one time very recently, forced himself to imagine bringing Adam’s body home and preparing it for burial. Much like he was doing now.

During those long sleepless days of endless searching, when they all had been sure they would find, if they were lucky, the lifeless body of his oldest son, he had made himself think about finding Adam’s body. How they would wrap him in a blanket and tie him over one of their saddles and bring him home to the Ponderosa. Here they would take him upstairs to his room and he and his two surviving sons would wash and lay Adam’s body out, preparing it for burial.

Now as he held his son’s arm and ran the cloth over his bare shoulder, he realized this was how he imagined it might be when they brought his son home. Thank God the arm he held in his own was warm and vital and Adam was just asleep instead of … he could not let himself even think the word again. He had been there the minute his son had opened his eyes in this world but never before this week had he seriously imagined he would be in this world when Adam closed them forever.

“Pa?” Hoss’ voice interrupted his reverie. Ben looked up at the sound.

“What’s that?”

“Are you OK, Pa? You’re just starin’ … do you need a hand?” Hoss was looking at him with a worried expression.

“I’m fine, son. I’m fine,” Ben said with a smile, getting back to his task. “I was just thinking how glad I am we found your brother alive.”

“You and me both, Pa.” Hoss reached for the other cloth, wetted it and began to wash his brother’s left arm. Joe perched on the edge of the chair by the window and watched them.

As the layer of filth was washed away, they all saw even more bruises than before standing out on the now-clean skin. “He sure is gonna be sore tomorrow,” Joe said with a wry grin.



“Well, Ben, I think your diagnosis was on the mark.” Dr. Paul Martin turned from his sleeping patient toward his father, pushing his glasses back up on his nose. He ran a hand through his hair – brushing back the one brown lock that always seemed to fall onto his forehead – and reached for his bag.

“He does look like he’s tangled with a couple of cougars recently, but it all looks pretty superficial. The worst are those rope burns on his wrists. I’d like to put some salve on those and bandage them up.” He briefly rummaged through his bag’s contents before pulling out a small jar. “Clean the wounds every day, let them dry well and then dab some of this on them.” He held up the jar as Ben inspected it and nodded. “Then wrap them with clean bandages and they should heal without any problems.”

The doctor turned back to the bed, poured some clean water into the basin and lowered Adam’s wrist into the water. The patient flinched in his sleep as the doc gently began to wash the wound, and then jerked his arm out of the doctor’s grasp. Ben grabbed the basin to keep it from spilling. Dr. Martin looked up at Ben with raised eyebrows and then reached for Adam’s arm again, holding it more firmly this time.

“OK, son. Take it easy. I won’t be long.” Adam wasn’t awake but he wasn’t fully asleep either, as evidenced by the chuff of air he blew out as he moaned softly. “All right … just one more to go, Adam.” Paul reached for the other wrist and quickly and as gently as possible cleaned the wound on it.

Ben stood by with the jar as Paul carefully dried each wrist and then applied the salve to each in turn. He finished by winding white bandaging several times firmly around each wrist and tying the ends. He then looked up at Ben.

“That should take care of things for now, Ben. I’m going to check on some other patients but I’ll look in on Adam tomorrow evening sometime. I don’t expect any problems, though. He’s a strong boy and healthy and, though he has lost quite a bit of weight, I think once he’s back to eating regularly, he’ll gain that back in no time.”

“Thank you Paul. I just wanted you to have a look at him.”

“Well, I’ll see myself out. You get some rest yourself, Ben. You look like you could use it.”

“I sure will.” Ben watched Paul walk out the bedroom door and then turned back to look at his son again. He reached out a hand and smoothed it over Adam’s forehead and then down his temple to his cheek. And though he was sleeping and Ben knew he couldn’t hear, he said, “Call if you need us, son.”




Adam felt his wrists bound again. No matter how he pulled and strained, he couldn’t move them, and that about drove him crazy with frustration. If he could just get loose, he could get the hell away from him and strike out for home, no matter how far it was. If he could just get loose …

He pulled some more and felt the flesh at his wrists tear as the ropes cut into them. Damn! It seemed like the more he pulled, the tighter the ropes got. How could that be? But almost worse than the ropes was his smiling, smug face. He seemed to know a lot about Adam and he seemed to think he had all the answers; that he knew how Adam would act in every situation.

And he thought Adam could be driven to kill. Ridiculous.

But then that face was in front of his again. “Still think you’re better than me, Cartwright?” Adam turned his head, but the face, and its hot breath, followed his. “Still think you’re better than me, don’t you?” Adam renewed his efforts to loosen his bonds, feeling the sweat trickle down his arms, feeling it sting as it reached his raw wrists.

“I know what you’re going to do before you do, Cartwright. I know you better than you know yourself,” he said and as he began to laugh in his face, Adam closed his eyes to shut out that leering face and continued to pull against the ropes that bound him.

He clenched his fists even tighter and twisted his wrists first one way and then the other, hoping against hope the ropes that held them would loosen. How could they not loosen, damnit? His raw, bleeding wrists stung and his arms ached and began to cramp all the way up to his shoulders and still he struggled, frantic now. And the laughter brayed on and on and on …




The three Cartwright men were seated around the dining table, eating their first meal together in many days. Adam’s chair was empty but Ben was confident his oldest would be joining them for meals again before long. It was just a matter of time.

The three ate mostly in silence, punctuated by the occasional request to pass a dish. It had been a long several days for Ben and Hoss out on the trail, and even longer for Joe. They all were relishing Hop Sing’s cooking.

Suddenly a throat-ripping scream came from upstairs, followed by a crash and another hoarse scream. Joe stopped with his fork right in front of his mouth while Hoss was so startled he knocked his water glass over. Ben immediately got to his feet and hurried to the stairs. Joe and Hoss locked eyes across the table and then simultaneously shoved their chairs away from the table and followed their father, Joe taking the steps two at a time.

When Ben got to the door of Adam’s room, he saw the pitcher in pieces on the floor at the side of the bed and his son sitting up, the bedclothes bunched at his waist. He was tearing ineffectually at the bandages on his wrists, eyes wide in terror. He saw movement by the door and called to his father in a panicky voice, “Pa! Get them off … please! I can’t … I can’t …” His breathing grew more frenzied as he continued pulling at the bandages, unable to find and untie the ends that would let him easily unwrap them.

Ben was at the bed in two quick strides. He grabbed Adam’s forearms, one in each hand, and sat next to him on the bed. Joe and Hoss crowded into the doorway but hung back, letting their father handle things once they saw all was mostly alright in the room.

“Adam?” Ben spoke calmly at first, but Adam continued to push with his feet into the bedclothes. His back already was up against the wooden headboard, but Adam continued shoving as if trying to get away from something, and did his best to pull his arms out of his father’s grasp. Ben said again, much more sharply: “Adam!” while giving his son a quick shake.

At that, Adam abruptly stopped moving and looked into his father’s face, partly ashamed but mostly desperate. “Please Pa,” he begged. “You gotta … I can’t stand it.”

Ben said nothing more but immediately dropped Adam’s left arm to his lap and began unwrapping the bandage that Paul had so carefully placed on his right wrist just a short time before. One arm done, Ben picked up the other and unwrapped that wrist as well. Adam watched the process intently, sweat beading on his forehead and his chest heaving. The muscles and tendons in his neck and arms stood out in sharp relief under his skin as he sat rigidly, holding back his panic by sheer will so his father could unwrap his bound wrists.

Once Ben had balled up the soiled bandages and dropped them to the floor, Adam relaxed a little and smiled weakly at his father. Then he dropped his head back to the headboard behind him and closed his eyes. “Thanks Pa.”

“Adam, what happened? Was it a nightmare?”

“I guess so. It sure seemed real.” Adam rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “I was back there with him, and I could feel those ropes and … He kept laughing in my face, taunting me … and no matter how hard I tried … ” He paused and opened his eyes to look at his father. “No matter how much I twisted and turned, they were just too tight. I just wanted to get away from him. I never wanted to kill him.”

“Never wanted to kill him?” So that was how it had been, then. Ben had hoped there was some other explanation for the man’s death out there in hell.

Adam looked at his father, his eyes bright with tears that he refused to let spill. “What the hell’s wrong with me?” he thought angrily. “Crying like a child at everything.” Movement behind his father caught his eye then, and in the background, he noticed his brothers, their bodies in the hall but their eyes and ears in the room with their father and brother. He stopped talking and closed his eyes again, successful in shutting off the threatening tears. “I’ll be OK, Pa … I’ll just go back to sleep.”

“Son … don’t you want to tell me about what happened out there? You’ll feel better.” Ben reached out, put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. If Adam had been driven to kill, it was much worse than he had thought.

“Damnit Pa, just leave me be!” Adam’s voice turned into a shout as he jerked his shoulder out from under Ben’s hand and looked up at his father with an intense anger in his eyes.

Ben froze with his hand still hovering over Adam’s shoulder. His first instinct was to react angrily but he quickly quelled that thought. Adam was still looking at him fiercely and Ben almost looked away at the intense anger in his son’s eyes. As it was, he flinched as if Adam had struck him a blow. My God.

“Adam! Tell me what’s wrong. You look … ” Ben stopped. His son looked like he carried an incredible weight on his shoulders and in his eyes … Oh Lord, his eyes. Behind the anger he saw fear and sadness. Where was the confidence he was used to seeing there?

“I’m not a kid like Joe, Pa. You can’t just jolly me into telling you everything you want to know.” Adam’s lips were pulled into a tight line as his eyes continued to blaze at his father. “Why can’t you see that?”

Then the fiery emotion was gone almost as quickly as it had arrived. As though someone had unfastened a water skin, letting it collapse upon itself, Adam’s shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes again, covering up the pain Ben saw there.

“I’m tired.” Adam slowly slid down in the bed and then turned away from his father onto his side.

Unable to stop himself, Ben reached out to once more squeeze his son’s bare shoulder and, while he flinched, Adam did not pull away this time. Ben stood and reached for the crumpled bedclothes, wishing he knew what his son was thinking. He pulled them up over Adam’s shoulders and said, “You just rest. We’ll talk when you’re ready.”

Adam said nothing and shoved the quilt back down off his upper body.

Ben paused for a few seconds more, then shrugged and turned back toward the doorway. He hoped his last words to his son were true. He left the room and squeezed past Joe and Hoss, still lurking in the hallway. And though he didn’t have much of an appetite anymore, he said to them, “I’m going to finish eating.”

“OK, Pa,” Hoss replied but made no move to follow his father. Joe looked at his brother, understanding he meant to stay, and then headed downstairs after Ben.

Hoss walked over to the easy chair by the window and dragged it a little closer to Adam’s bed. He sat and slid down until his head was resting on the chair’s back and his legs were stretched well out in front of him.

“Are you gonna just stare a hole in the back of my head, or are you gonna tell me what you want?” Adam didn’t sound angry but his voice was flat.

“I jus’ thought I’d sit with ya for awhile, brother,” Hoss replied. “I don’t really want anything in particular. If you’re tired, go on to sleep and I’ll take a little nap too. I could do with some catchin’ up.”

Adam rolled over and faced his brother. He propped himself up on his elbow and said, “I’m not really tired right now … I think I’ve had enough of sleepin’ for awhile, anyway.” He paused and then, “I probably shouldn’t have snapped at Pa like that but I just couldn’t take any more of his pesterin’ me to talk to him.”

What was most frustrating was that Adam did want to talk. He wanted nothing more than to pour out the whole disgusting tale to his father and have him say it was all right, that it wasn’t his fault. But he had to work his courage up … what would his family say when they found what he’d done?

“Well, since he didn’t snap back, I’m figurin’ he’s chalkin’ it up to you bein’ a little outta sorts right now.” Hoss sat up straight, looked at his brother and a faint grin played at the corners of his mouth. “Damn, you do look a sight.”

“Huh?” Adam looked down at himself and saw the cuts, scrapes and bruises that stood out on his chest and arms, especially now that he was cleaned up. “Well, I wondered what was makin’ me so sore.” He smiled a little ruefully and then looked up at Hoss again. “But how’s my face? I’m still good-lookin’ aren’t I?”

Hoss snorted but his grin got larger. “Oh yeah, brother. You’re one good-lookin’ man. I guess you’re the second best-lookin’ man in this family.”

“Second best, huh? You think Pa’s better lookin’ than me?” Adam asked, with a mock serious look on his face.

“Very funny.” Hoss just shook his head, pretending to be disgusted. Inside, though, he was glad to see a spark of the old Adam in his brother’s banter. And he was sorry to bring things back to serious now, but he did have something on his mind after all.

“Adam, I have somethin’ I gotta tell ya. I owe you an apology.”

Adam looked up at his brother and his smile faded. “No, you don’t, Hoss.”

“Yeah, I do. I had Pa talked into givin’ up.” The words were coming in a rush now, as if Hoss had to get it all out before he either forgot what he had come to say or lost his nerve entirely. “I told him we weren’t never gonna find ya. I shoulda never done that. I shoulda known you’d find a way somehow to make it back to us. I’m just so sorry, Adam.” He dropped his eyes to the floor – looking at his brother right now was just too hard.

“Giving up, huh? That’s news to me, Hoss.” Hoss looked up. Adam didn’t look particularly upset. Thoughtful, perhaps.

“You mean, Pa didn’t tell you on the trip home?”

“Nah … I slept most of the way, I guess. What did he say when you said he should give up?”

Hoss didn’t know what to reply. He thought his father had told Adam that they had given up their search and Hoss just felt he owed his brother an apology. He hadn’t expected to be the one to tell his brother what they had done. Hoss now felt, even more than before, that he had betrayed his brother by giving up on him. And he had come up here to help Adam, to make things right with him. Now he feared he had made things much worse.

“Hoss? … I need to know.” His voice was quiet but Adam was watching his brother intently.

“Well … He was worn out, Adam. He was practically fallin’ asleep in his saddle. We’d been ridin’ for days, looking for you.” Hoss’s words again came in a rush. Was he trying to convince Adam or himself? “None of us had slept and he couldn’t go on no longer.”

“Hoss … ” Adam’s voice got lower and sounded like it was coming through clenched teeth. “Please!”

“He said, ‘Let’s go on back home.’ ”

Adam exhaled – he hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath – and once more closed his eyes, dropped his head off his hand and let it fall back onto the pillow.

“Adam, I’m sorry. It’s my fault. Pa never would have given up if I hadn’t said he should. He woulda looked for you until he fell off his horse. You know that.”

When Adam spoke again, his voice sounded tired once more. That spark Hoss had seen in his brother a few minutes ago was gone again. “It’s OK. It was just luck you ran into me when you did. Nothin’ you said to Pa – or didn’t say – would have changed that.”

Hoss thought for a few seconds. “I guess you’re right about that, Adam.”

And then, “What was you doin’ draggin’ that dead man like that?”

Adam gave a sharp bark of a laugh but it didn’t have any humor behind it. “Sounds kind of dumb, the way you put it, brother.”

“Well, if you don’t wanna talk about it, that’s fine. I’m just kinda curious. We all are.”

“Well, in my defense, he wasn’t dead when I started dragging him. But I’ll tell you all the whole story. I just gotta get some more sleep right now, OK?”

“That’s fine. I believe I’ll join you in that nap.” And Hoss once more slid down in his chair and putting his chin to his chest, closed his eyes. Adam also closed his and quickly was asleep again. Mercifully, there were no dreams this time.




Sometime late in the evening, Adam woke to a noise in his room. Opening his eyes, he looked over to Hoss’s chair, but his brother was gone. At the door was his father holding a thick white mug.

“Do you feel like you could take something besides water now?” Ben held the mug up and offered a smile.

“Sure … I’ve been on pretty short rations for awhile.” He struggled to sit up, wincing a little, and reached for the mug handle as Ben crossed to the bed and handed it to Adam. Then he perched on the side of the bed, facing his son.

Adam sipped at the steaming broth. “Not too hot?” Ben asked.

“Just right,” Adam said, taking another drink.

“How are you feeling?” Ben looked at his son intently, hoping to see the old familiar Adam’s eyes looking back at him.

“Tired and sore,” Adam said, with a faint smile before putting the mug to his lips once more. Two more gulps and it was empty. He handed it back to his father who put it on the night table. “I’m hoping tomorrow I’ll get to eat some real food.”

“Probably. We’ll see how you feel, OK?” Ben was still looking – make that staring – at his son.

Adam felt uncomfortable under his father’s intense scrutiny – he knew he wanted to talk to him, to hear the whole story and get all his questions answered. But he had to wait and do it on his own terms, if he hoped to avoid another outburst like he’d had earlier. He made sure his voice was even when he said, “Pa, let’s talk about it tomorrow, can we? I’m still pretty worn out and I’d rather wait until I feel a little more myself to go over it all with you, if that’s OK.”

“That’s fine, son. We’ll keep to your schedule.” Ben rose and picked up the empty mug. “I don’t mean to be putting pressure on you. I just …”

“Have a lot of questions … I know. I guess I have some of my own, but I don’t know there are any answers. I’ll do my best.”

Ben needed to know exactly what Adam had been through so he could start to help him heal. Physical healing was only half the battle here, Ben was sure. But he couldn’t force Adam to talk with him, so patience – not his strongest suit – was going to be required.

“You get some more sleep … that’s the only way you’re going to feel better.” Ben went into the hallway but left Adam’s bedroom door open. He knew Adam wouldn’t want anyone sitting up with him but he wanted to be able to hear him if he should need him in the night.




Joe opened his eyes but at first saw only the faint shape of his bureau in the darkness of his bedroom. He had heard something, hadn’t he? He stilled his own breathing to listen for a moment. The moon still was bright enough to shine through the sheer curtains hanging limply across his open window. No cool breeze, tonight, that’s for sure.

“If I didn’t hear something, then what woke me up?” Joe rubbed at his eyes with one fist while he shoved himself to a sitting position with the other. He held his breath again and listened hard. There it was again … it was so subdued but sounded like someone trying to stifle a moan through a pillow or ... “Adam!”

Joe was off his bed and lunging for the hall before the strangled sound came again. The next door down was open and he grabbed the doorway and swung himself just inside. He saw Adam on his back in bed, perspiration shining on his face in the moonlight. Adam slept, but restlessly, his head tossing at regular intervals from one side to the other. The words he was saying were unintelligible to Joe – they sounded as though they were trapped down in his throat and his mouth couldn’t form them properly.

Joe went to his brother’s side and laid a hand on his forearm. “Adam,” he said quietly, not wanting to wake the entire house. He again noted the sheen of sweat on Adam’s face; his eyes didn’t open and that strangled half moan and half whimper came again. Joe hadn’t heard anything like it before and it just had to stop. “Adam,” Joe hissed more loudly now. At the same time he reached up and gave his brother’s shoulder a good shake.

Adam’s eyes opened at that and his breath seemed to catch. Then his voice came again, this time angry and through a jaw clenched tight but with words Joe could understand: “No … I won’t! … You can’t make …” He shot out a hand and locked it onto the wrist that lay on his shoulder. Joe immediately tried to pull away, but that only seemed to make his brother’s grip tighter.

“Hey! Adam … it’s me!” Joe looked into his brother’s eyes then but didn’t see Adam. He saw someone who was angry and in pain and then he was gone, so quickly that Joe wasn’t sure what he had seen after all.

Adam dropped his brother’s wrist like it was something too hot to handle and said, “Oh Joe, I’m sorry.” He held his hand out, looking down at it as if to wonder how it had betrayed him so. Joe rubbed at his wrist with his other hand and said, “It’s OK … nothin’ hurt. Was it a dream again?”

Adam nodded. “Guess so,” and offered nothing else.

Joe sat on the side of the bed. “You were talkin’ in your sleep … not so I could understand ya, but that’s what woke me.” He again saw the sweat beading on Adam’s forehead. He reached over to the night table, picked up one of the cloths there and held it out to his brother. Adam, still looking at his own hand, didn’t notice and Joe nudged his arm with the hand that held the cloth.

“Huh?” Adam looked over at Joe and then saw the proffered cloth. “Oh … thanks.” He took the cloth and wiped it across his forehead and then swabbed his neck, under his chin and around the back.

Joe stood and walked over to the window. He stood in front of it, felt no breeze, but smelled the incredibly sweet fragrance of the white syringa that bloomed in profusion under Adam’s window. “It is a warm one tonight.” He looked back worriedly at his brother who was sitting up on the side of his bed now, his right elbow on his thigh and his head resting on the cloth he still held in that hand.

Adam looked up at his brother across the room and, noting the look of concern on his face, said, “I’m just tired, Joe. I’m not sleepin’ too well, you know?” He smiled wearily.

Joe walked back over to his brother’s bed and stood looking down at him. “You do look a bit worn out,” he said critically.

“Well, thanks.” Adam lay back on the bed then, his bare feet still on the floor. Joe sat down next to him and then lay back as well alongside his brother. They were silent for several minutes.



“I sure wish I’d gone along with you that day. I wish I hadn’t stayed in town to watch that dumb trial. I could have packed up and ridden out with you just as easy.” Joe sounded miserable. “I don’t know why I didn’t just go with you,” he finished in a low, anguished voice.

“Joe, I don’t think it would have made a bit of difference. I think they would just have left both of us out there to die, or killed us outright. I will admit to wishing I had you there with me at the end, though.”

“Why?” Joe looked to his left, but Adam had his arm over his face, the crook of his elbow covering his eyes. He answered without looking at Joe.

“I didn’t see any way out of the fix I was in. I would have given anything to see you all one more time ...” He stopped, remembering how much he had craved the comfort of his father and brothers and how deep had been his despair and sadness at suspecting he might die without seeing them again.

As if he knew what his brother had been thinking, Joe said, “We thought we weren’t going to see you again either.” His voice broke off at the end of his sentence as he remembered that moment in the sheriff’s office when he realized it was likely those two men had murdered his brother.

Adam didn’t say anything to that right away. Both men lay on the bed, their thoughts going back a few days to when Joe thought Adam was dead and Adam thought he’d surely never see his little brother again.

“I’m gettin’ to where I dread falling asleep, Joe.”

Joe turned his head to look at Adam again but his brother continued to stare at the ceiling. “Maybe it will go away,” Joe said.

“Maybe it will. I’ll find out soon, I guess. I’m having trouble keepin’ my eyes open just now.”

“Why don’t you get back into bed then?” Joe sat up again. “Want me to stay for awhile?”

Adam looked up at his younger brother and smiled wryly. “I remember having to go into your room at night and stay with you after nightmares.”

“Then let me pay you back, huh?” Joe looked at his brother earnestly.

Adam swung his legs back onto the bed and said, “OK, I’ll do it for you.” He yawned and turned onto his side. “Lie down and talk to me.”

Joe walked around the end of the bed to the other side, climbed onto the bed and stretched out next to his brother. He crossed his arms behind his head and looked at the ceiling again. “Pa wanted to keep going, you know. Hoss and me were telling him it was no use. We both thought he was drivin’ himself to exhaustion. We worried he might collapse out there.”

Adam’s voice came back, quiet and almost a murmur: “I know, Joe. It’s OK.”

“Are you sure? You’re not mad?”

“I’m sure.” Then his brother’s breathing became steady and even. And soon after that Joe fell asleep as well.




Day three


Ben put one arm through his vest as he left his bedroom and headed for the stairs. He slipped the other arm through as he stopped at the door to Adam’s room and poked his head inside. He smiled at the sight of two of his sons, stretched out on the bed, backs to each other. Adam’s legs were longer than his brother’s but otherwise they slept in the same position: on their sides with arms hanging over the edge of the bed.

His boys. He stood in the doorway, watching them breathe. No matter how many times he forced the thought out of his mind, it always came sidling back in: “I almost lost him.” And really, he could just have easily lost Joe at the same time. He caught himself before the groan he felt rising in his throat escaped his lips.

It was late to still be abed, but there was no chance he’d be rousting Adam out of bed today. And he guessed Joe could sleep in just awhile longer; he felt better having someone with Adam right now anyway. They both looked pretty peaceful.

Ben continued down the hall on his way out to the barn to check on the progress of the hands’ morning chores and to give the day’s orders. By the time he reached the stairs, he was whistling.




Hoss stabbed his fork into the pile of steaming hotcakes and transferred four to his breakfast plate. “Ain’t no one can make a better hotcake than Hop Sing.” He reached over to the plate of sausages and stabbed a couple of those as well.

“Well, save just a couple of those famous hotcakes for me, would ya?” Joe reached over and grabbed a couple for himself.

Ben listened to the chatter absentmindedly while reading the newspaper one of the hands had picked up in Virginia City the day before. But suddenly something Hoss was saying caught his attention.

“Well, good mornin’, Adam!”

Both Ben and Joe turned their heads in unison toward the stairs. Adam was on the landing. He raised one hand in a brief greeting and continued walking slowly and stiffly down the stairs. He gripped the banister tightly and took each step gingerly, wincing in pain as he reached the floor. Joe pushed his chair back and started to rise, as if to go help his brother. Ben reached out and put a hand on Joe’s arm to stop him. Joe looked at his father and saw Ben shake his head slightly. Joe slowly sat back down.

Adam was dressed in his regular work clothes, his sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows but his shirt tail out, as if the detail of tucking it in was just too much effort. He grinned a little as he approached the table, almost embarrassed at how good it felt to be joining his family for breakfast again.

“How do you feel, son?” Ben asked.

“How do I look?”

“Like you been pulled through Hop Sing’s clothes wringer and hung out on the line to dry,” Joe piped up, unable to resist a gleeful dig at his brother.

“Thanks Joe.” Adam tried to look stern but gave it up and smiled again.

“Joseph! That’s enough,” Ben gave his youngest his best glare and then turned to his oldest. “Sit down and eat something.”

“Adam, let me help you with that chair, huh?” Hoss pulled his brother’s chair away from the table and Adam sat down.

“There ya are … right as rain.” Hoss beamed at him.

Adam ran a hand through his hair and looked around the table at his father and brothers. “You know, it does feel good to be home. I believe I’ll try a couple of those hotcakes.”

Ben watched Hoss pass the plate to Adam and listened to his sons’ banter start up again. He couldn’t ignore the still-angry-looking bruises and welts on Adam’s wrists and Adam noticed him noticing.

“I’m sorry Pa … I should keep them covered but I just can’t. And I tried buttoning my cuffs over them but it hurt too much. They’ll have to heal up a little before I can do that.”

Hoss and Joe stopped talking to look at their brother’s arms.

“Don’t apologize, Adam. None of that is your fault.” Ben reached for the coffee and poured himself another cup. “Adam?” He held up the pot.

“Sure, Pa,” Adam said as he accepted a fresh cup of coffee from his father.

When they all had finished eating, Adam pushed his chair back from the table. He looked at his father who again was reading the newspaper. “Pa, is it a good time now?”

Ben put his paper down and looked across the table at Adam. “Sure son. We’re listening.” Hoss and Joe looked up expectantly.

And during the next three-quarters of an hour, Adam told them everything that had happened since that day he had ridden away from Eastgate alone. They let him tell it pretty much all the way through, though Hoss and Joe couldn’t resist a question from time to time.

And when it was all out there, every detail, every last emotion and shameful humiliation, Adam was all talked out and Ben felt like his family finally could begin to put the last few weeks behind them and begin to heal.



Ben came through the front door at lunchtime, followed closely by Joe and Hoss, arguing as usual, over whose turn it was to split firewood after they had eaten. “Hush boys,” Ben whispered, pointing to the sofa where Adam stretched out sleeping, with a blanket over him. Almost as soon as the words were out of Ben’s mouth, Adam’s eyes popped open.

“It’s OK, Pa. I think my stomach would’ve woke me if those two loudmouths hadn’t.” Adam stretched his arms above his head and then shoved the blanket down off his chest.

“Loudmouths?” Joe asked, pretending to be hurt. He looked up at Hoss. “Is he talkin’ about us?”

“He is, Joseph. And I don’t understand it one bit. But I’m hungry and lunch is on the table so I’m not wastin’ time trying to figure out how our big brother’s brain works.” Hoss stalked over to the table in mock insult.

“Still feelin’ OK, Adam?” Ben leaned over the back of the sofa to put a hand on his son’s forehead. He still wasn’t convinced Adam would escape from his ordeal without a fever and took any opportunity to put a hand on him to check. But his skin felt normal.

“I feel fine, Pa, really.” Adam ducked out from his father’s hand and sat up. “I’ve just got some sleep to catch up on still.” He lowered his voice and looked at Ben. “I think talking it out helped. I didn’t dream about him just now.”

“That’s good, son.” Ben nodded and looked expectantly at Adam in case he had more to say. But Adam eased himself off the sofa and walked slowly to the table saying, “Hey Joe, don’t take three sandwiches before I’ve gotten one!”




Ben put the towel over his arm and then picked up the mirror, the razor, the shaving mug and the basin of hot water, carefully balancing his load, before walking through the kitchen door to the front porch. He began to unload his burden onto the table next to where Adam was sitting, staring out at the gentle rain that fell. The porch cover kept the rain off them and the summery temperature kept them from needing so much as a light jacket.

“How about letting me get rid of that stubble for you, Adam?” Ben held the razor up.

“I’m afraid it’s more than stubble by this time, Pa.” Adam reached his hand up to his cheek and rubbed the two weeks’ growth of dark beard that covered his face. “I’ll take care of it, though.” He reached out to his father to take the razor from him.

“Son … please.” Ben looked at his first born, not offering the razor but keeping it for himself. He felt so strongly about doing this one thing for Adam. He hadn’t been there for him when he was out in the desert fighting for his life, in fact had been ready to abandon him. “I want …” Ben paused. “I need to do this for you. Please.”

Adam heard his father’s voice falter and saw the concern in his eyes. He knew he had to give in on this trifle or risk breaking his father’s heart.

“OK Pa, OK,” Adam said with a resigned sigh. Then he grinned and said, “I just hope that thing is good and sharp.”

Ben smiled back and, reaching for the mug, gave the soap several stirs with the brush. “Lean back and I’ll take care of everything.” He set the mug down, grabbed the towel soaking in the basin and squeezed the hot water out. He turned to Adam and draped the steaming towel over his face.

Adam let out a groan of pleasure as the hot cloth settled onto his cheeks. “That feels exquisite.”

Ben smiled and returned to whipping the soap into a thick lather, the handle of the brush clacking against the mug. “Hoss told me he talked to you about the decision we came to when we were out looking for you.”

Adam was glad his eyes were covered with the towel because he didn’t want to look at his father at that moment. Seems like all anyone had done for the last day and a half had been to tell him how sorry they were. But he was the one who was sorry for turning out not to be the son and brother they’d thought he was. “Pa, I don’t want to hear this.”

“You’re going to hear it!” Adam didn’t need to see his father’s face to know his dark eyes were now angry and fixed on him – he could hear it in his voice. “You’re going to sit there and listen to me.” Ben lifted the towel from Adam’s face and began to lather his cheek. He expertly moved the shaving brush in a circular motion as he covered Adam’s heavy beard with the thick soap.

“You need to know how much I regret giving up on you. That’s all. I would never do it again.” Ben kept busy with the brush.

Adam kept his eyes closed but said, sarcasm edging his voice, “Fine Pa. You regret it. There are a lot of things I regret about the last couple of weeks, too.” He absently reached over to his left wrist with his right hand and rubbed the rope burns there that already had started to scab over. They itched.

Ben knew that soon the dark purple and red bruises on his son’s wrists would fade, lighter and lighter, before disappearing. And when the scabs fell away, they would leave scars that were dark at first and those too, would lighten over time.

“They’ll fade away, son. The bruises will fade, the scars will fade and so will your memories of this awful time.”

“I’m not sure I want them to, Pa.”

“Why would you say that?” Ben tried to keep his voice casual as he picked up the razor and carefully made his first pass over the lathered whiskers. He wiped the blade clean on the towel he had slung over his shoulder and made another.

“I’m just not sure I deserve to forget. I was arrogant. Maybe he was right.” This last he said almost in a whisper.

Ben knew his son was testing the waters, hoping his father would give him the reassuring response he sought. Some things never change between a father and a son. Ben just had to make sure he gave the right answer.

“He wasn’t right.” Now Ben’s voice was fierce and shaking with anger. “What happened to you was beyond comprehension, beyond what one human being should do to another. And none of it was your fault. Do you understand me?”

Adam was still.

Ben took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, trying to calm himself and get back to his task. He pressed his thumb against the front of Adam’s ear, pulling the skin tight, and shaved carefully below the sideburn. “You should take away anything useful you learned about yourself and let the rest go. Let it go with your memories of him. Let them fade away like your scars.” He stopped again. “Adam … look at me.”

Adam opened his eyes and looked at his father, the razor forgotten for the moment.

“That man cannot carry any weight in this family. Don’t let him. Don’t let him hold any power over you, over us.” Ben’s deep voice was grave and serious. He reached out, put a hand on Adam’s shoulder and leaned over him. His voice softened. “Do you understand what I’m saying, son?”

Adam looked into his father’s tanned and lined face and saw love and wisdom there. So often, when he had been trapped and made to work like a mule, he had felt all would be well if he could just see that beloved face. And here it was and he knew what his father was saying was true.

“Yeah Pa … I understand you.” Adam looked up at his father, spots of white lather here and there on his mostly clean-shaven face. Ben’s face broke into a smile at the sight of his dignified son looking so, well … undignified. Adam’s serious face was transformed as he smiled in return.

Ben returned to the business at hand, scraped away the last of Adam’s whiskers, gave the razor one final swipe on the towel and set it down. He wiped the remnants of soap off Adam’s face and said, “Want to take a look?”

Adam reached for the mirror which lay on the table. He sat up a little straighter and held it in front of his face. Ben watched closely.

Adam looked at the man who stared back at him in reflection. The dark circles under the eyes and the cheeks sunken just slightly were all that looked different from the man who had looked back from the mirror the last time he had shaved, more than two weeks before in Eastgate.

He knew, however, that under the surface, there had been changes. But he was determined to do as his father said: take and use the good and discard the bad.

“That’s more like the face I used to have, I guess.” Adam rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “Feels pretty good, too.”

Adam set the mirror down and looked out at the drizzle. The rain wasn’t pouring but coming down steadily, the kind of light summer rain the farmers loved because it nourished the crops without beating them down to the ground. It was the kind of rain that settled the dust and washed away the accumulated grit.

He caught the scent of damp earth and breathed it in. Yesterday’s heat was forgotten for now and maybe he could forget a lot more than just the heat. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the chair, listening to the patter of the raindrops as they landed on the edge of the wooden porch and the dirt of the yard. He reached up once more to rub his cheek: He guessed he just couldn’t get enough of that smooth skin.

“You look mighty good to me, son. There was a time when I thought I might not see you again.” Ben finally could say those words without his voice breaking.

“I know, Pa. I almost gave up, too.” Adam opened his eyes but didn’t look at his father, instead gazing out into the drizzle. “I didn’t, though, because I knew you were out there. I knew you all were looking for me. And I just felt like you’d find me if I could just keep on going.”

“Maybe it was the other way around,” Ben said, also looking off toward the barn. He liked the way the rain collected along the top rail of the corral, the fat drops hanging off the bottom of the timbers like jewels. “Maybe you found us.”

“Joe, get back here and finish this.” Hoss’ raised voice now came from the open door of the barn. Both Ben and Adam looked in that direction as Joe scooted out the door, putting his hat on his head and trotting toward the shelter of the porch.

“You can take care of it, Hoss. It’s your turn to finish up anyway,” Joe called over his shoulder as he headed toward the house. Turning back to his father and brother, Joe let out a low whistle as he reached the porch. “My, you do look pretty, older brother. Don’t he look pretty, Pa?”

The corners of Adam’s mouth turned up in a faint grin at his brother’s crack. Ben said, “I think he looks mighty good, if I do say so. That new barber they got in Virginia City couldn’t have done a better job, I don’t think.”

Joe approached Adam’s chair and, reaching out a hand, rubbed it along Adam’s freshly shaved cheek. “Ooooo-weee! You’re right, Pa. That is one smooth shave.”

Adam reached up and slapped Joe’s hand away, as if he were swatting away a pesky mosquito. “OK Joe, that’s enough.” Adam’s grin got wider. Although it was couched in teasing, Adam felt the love in his brother’s caress. And Joe was glad Adam had allowed it, if only for a moment.

“Dang it, Little Joe!” Hoss came out the barn door, scolding the youngest Cartwright. “Just you remember, next time it’s your turn to finish the last stall. I think it was your turn this time.” Hoss continued up to the porch, also at a trot to avoid getting too wet.

Joe, looking to distract his brother from the scolding he seemed intent on giving him, said, “Hey Hoss, don’t Adam look mighty fine now that he got rid of that beard he was cultivatin’?”

“Well, he does at that,” Hoss said, a note of mock admiration in his voice. He now stood over his brother’s chair, trying at first to play along, but unable to keep his face-splitting smile away. “Adam, you do look a sight. A good one.”

“Thanks Hoss. It feels pretty good to be back to normal.” Adam finally let the grin go into a full-fledged smile to match his brother’s. He absently rubbed his left wrist with his right hand, hoping to relieve the itch the healing scabs caused.

Ben came to stand between Hoss and Joe, putting a hand on each of their shoulders and looking down at Adam. “Boys, what do you say we go inside and have some supper?”

“I’ll lead the way!” Joe ducked under his father’s arm and jogged toward the door. He speeded up when Hoss gave chase, saying, “Oh no you don’t, Little Joe. You wait for your elders.”

Ben smiled down at Adam. “Son, if you want more than scraps, you’d better get moving.”

“I’ll be inside in a minute, Pa. OK?” Adam squinted up at his father. Seemed like the sun was trying to shine while the rain was still coming down.

“OK. Don’t be too long.” Ben gave one final squeeze to Adam’s shoulder then walked to the front door and inside to the table.

Adam looked out into the yard again. It always seemed strange to him when the sun shone during a rain, like perhaps the good Lord just couldn’t make up his mind. Adam felt like it was a battle to see which was stronger, the sun or the rain. Right now it was a stand-off.

He switched hands and began rubbing the opposite wrist. He blew out a long breath and then stood, rubbed his chin once more, relishing the smooth skin there, and went into the house to join his family.

Behind him, visible over the pasture beyond the barn, a rainbow curved, vivid with color as the sun shone through the falling rain.



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Jeanie C.

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