The Measure of a Man
by
Jenny Guttridge
 
 

For Kathy

Who gives so much

And makes this possible

A tale of rite of passage.
 
 

Authors note: Acknowledgement and sincere thanks to Gwynne G. Logan for her magnificent poker sequences Ė and for all her other help.

One

It was raining again. To the inhabitants of northern Nevada, situated as it was on the western edge of the Great Plains, it seemed as if it had been raining, without respite, for the best part of forever. Following a deceptively short but severe winter, the thaw had come early to the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was turning out to be a long, cold, and dismal spring. Rain had fallen, unfailingly, every day for the past five weeks. When the wind blew out of the mountains it brought a driving rain that beat diagonally into a manís face, stung his eyes, and soaked through his clothes until he was drenched to the skin and chilled right to the marrow of his bones. When the wind failed to blow the rain fell straight down out a leaden sky. The result was much the same.

Ben Cartwright rode into Virginia City at about midmorning. His big, buckskin horse was coated in mud all the way to his shoulders; the goo hung down from his belly like the exudation of some dread disease. Benís legs were plastered as well, all the way up to his knees.

Keeping close to the edge of the boardwalk where the mud was little more than hock-deep, he allowed the horse to pick his own way. Out in the centre of the street, where the mule teams and the heavy-duty freight wagons ploughed back and forth, the mire was a good deal deeper. ĎCí Street, inevitably, had turned into a quagmire. Yellow mud, grey mud, black mud, it was all much the same: wet, sticky, clinging, and most of it stank.

Roy Coffee, venerable, kindly and authoritative upholder of the law, leaned on the upright post of the veranda outside his office and watched the rain slant down into the street. He was quietly digesting breakfast and contemplating lunch. Seeing his long-time friend approaching, his weather-beaten face broke into a grin, and he raised a hand in greeting,

"Howdy, Ben. Come on down fer a spell."

Ben drew rein at the rail. He touched a gloved hand to the dripping brim of his hat.

"Roy, I donít mind if I do." He stepped out of the saddle into the pale mud of the street.

The expression on his dark-eyed, not unhandsome face spoke entire volumes of what he thought of the morning, the weather and, in particular, the mud. Any invitation to get out of it, even for a brief while, was very welcome. Climbing the steps to the boardwalk he took off his hat and ran a hand through his silver-grey hair. A big man in every respect, he stood half a head taller than the sheriff though Roy, at six feet tall and broad with it, was no lightweight milksop himself.

Roy made a beckoning gesture with his head and led the way into his office, "Sit you down, Ben."

The coffeepot that sat perpetually on top of the pot-bellied stove contained a strong, black brew. Roy poured generous measures into chipped china mugs. He carried them back to the equally battered - and paper strewn - desk.

Ben had shed his coat and gloves, despaired of removing any of the mud from the legs of his pants, and settled into a chair. For a few moments the two men sipped hot coffee and shared that companionable silence that only old friends enjoy.

Roy set his cup down. His professional responsibilities nudged him firmly. "I hope youíre not here on official business." He couldnít help a trace of anxiety seeping into his voice, "No rustlers? No squatters? No horse thieves?"

"No, no. Nothing like that." Ben shook his head with a wry smile, "I think that this year, itís too darned wet for the whole passel of them."

Roy put on an expression of mock ferocity, "Well, Iím realí glad ta hear it!" He had been hoping that Ben would answer in the negative. Roy had no desire whatever to go riding the range in the rain. Strolling to the café for breakfast and to the Cornerhouse for lunch were about the longest excursions he cared to make. Then another thought occurred, "You ainít got no one sick out there at the Ponderosa, have you? No one with bright pink spots?"

"Spots? No." Ben looked at him in surprise.

"I sure hope you donít want doc Martin fer nothiní Heís got his hands full with a typhoid outbreak over on the eastside of town. Itís all this dang rain. It just ainít healthy."

Ben frowned, "Typhoid? Thatís bad, Roy."

"It sure ainít good."

"The only sick man Iíve got out at the ranch is Sam Haynes. He smashed his arm coming off of a bronc. Wonít be good for much before the autumn."

"You just be careful you donít take the fever home to Jenny and the boys."

Roy got up and offered a refill. Ben declined. Pleasant though it was to sit in Royís untidy, warm and, above all, dry office and chew over the fat, he had business in town. "Iíll be careful. I have to call over at the Freight Office with some messages for Kingdom Jones, and then to the Draperís Store. Jennyís given me a list for the boys to pick up next time theyíre in town."

"More fripperies for the baby, eh?" Roy chuckled.

"We have to keep them happy."

Roy hooked a thigh over the edge of the desk, "And how are things out at the ranch?"
 
 

"Fine, fine." Ben hid his scowl behind the rim of the mug. If he told the truth, things at the ranch were not fine at all. Most of the immediate problems could be put down to the weather. The Cartwrights, father and sons, had met their commitment to that yearís timber contract by the skin of their teeth. Hauling the massive pine logs out of the forests in the torrential rains and through rivers of mud had been an experience to be revisited only in nightmare. In the end, they had been scrambling for the deadline, working every daylight hour the good Lord provided and well into the night as well, their muscle-cracking efforts lit by storm lanterns and torches when the rain relented enough to let them burn.

The prolonged bout of logging had put them a long way behind with the spring round up. The unrelenting rain was slowing that still more. The rivers were swollen to, and beyond, bursting point; the ranges were sodden and the cattle, recalcitrant. Several horses had come down with an attack of thrush, a fungus that rotted the soft tissue of the foot, and more had picked up red-worm from the perpetually wet ground. Ben, as always, was short handed, and the hired men he had were wet, frustrated, and morose. He and his sons were putting in long, hard hours in the attempt to catch up. Sometimes he wondered how long they could keep up the pace.

He set the mug on the desk in the only available spot and standing, reached for his sodden coat. Roy walked with him to the door. Outside in the street the rain was still falling with relentless determination. The two men gazed at it with resignation. Ben knew that if it kept on going the way it was, the floods would be out in the lowland pastures again, and that would mean more work, moving cows and calves to higher ground.

"I almost fergot ta tell ya," Roy said as a laconic afterthought, "Thereís a bunch Ďo fellas over at the Silver Dollar threatening ta ride on out ta your place aní sign on the pay roll. Just as soon as the rain lets up enough ta let Ďem."

Ben raised his eyes and looked at the sullen sky. The solid grey overcast showed no signs of breaking any time soon. He muttered something profound about Ďnot holding his breathí. Aloud, he said, "I sure could use some extra hands right now. Iíll call in there and talk to them about it before I head for home. Thanks for the coffee, Roy."

"Anytime."

Roy resumed his station at the veranda post and watched his friend climb back aboard his horse. Ben rode across the muddy street to the Freight Office and then along to the Draperís Store with his wifeís amazingly long list. Then he went to the bank and the General Store with the grocery order. His errands completed, he headed for the Silver Dollar.

Pushing through the bat-wing doors he found himself hoping that the men Roy had mentioned could at least rope and ride. The fact was, he was so desperate for hired help he would have employed anyone that could sit on a horse.

Despite the weather, or more probably because of it, the saloon was proving to be a very popular place. The men who couldnít - or wouldnít - work outside in the rain had gravitated to the townís most popular drinking hall. All the tables were filled and there was a press of men at the bar. The atmosphere was warm and dank with the steam from menís clothing and breath from their mouths. The large barroom was loud with the grumble of conversation, the harsh bark of masculine laughter, and the occasional shouted expletive. It smelled of sweat, beer, cigar smoke and, of course, the ubiquitous mud.

Peeling off his gloves again, Ben bellied up to the bar.

"Make that a beer, Josh."

"Sure thing, Mister Cartwright."

"Mister Cartwright?"

Ben turned at the mention of his name. The soft, Midwestern drawl had been familiar. The smiling, gap toothed face that went with it was more so.

Ben's face broke into an answering smile and he stuck out a hand, "Auron Prior!"

The cowboy hadnít changed at all in the year since he and his brothers had ridden for Ben. He was still tall and spare to the point of thinness. His misty blue-grey eyes sparkled constantly with incipient amusement. His face was pleasantly amiable and he had overly long, wavy hair.

The two men shook hands, slowly and sincerely.

Prior was a man Ben was truly delighted to see, "Auron Prior, youíre a sight for sore eyes. What are you doing in Virginia City?"

Prior pushed his hat to the back of his head and hooked his thumbs behind the buckle of his belt. It was a stance Ben remembered well. The smile remained, "You said to stop by anytime we were passiní by aní needed a job. I sure hope you meant it!"

Ben laughed, "I meant it all right! And right now I can use every man I can get. With this weather and all, weíre way behind with the round-up." The smile faded a fraction, "You donít mind working in the rain?"

Auron Prior threw back his head and laughed, "After all this time in Arizona, Mister Cartwright, working in the rain will be pure delight!"

Ben didnít believe his ears, or his luck! "By any chance, would your brothers happen to be with you?"

If it were possible the gap-toothed grin widened still more, "They surely are. Címon over aní join us."

Ben retrieved his beer from the bar and followed the lean cowboy through the press of damp people to one of the larger tables. He claimed himself a seat, looking around and putting names to the circle of faces.

They were, in fact, several variants of the same face. Benís own sons, each born of a different, and strikingly beautiful woman, had faces as individual and distinctive as their characters. The sons of Abel and Mary Prior had all inherited the same, regular, rather rounded features, and all of them had the same blue-grey eyes and the same ready-to-wave sable-brown hair.

Auron Prior, at thirty-three years old, was the eldest, and acted as spokesman for the family group. Astley Prior, the next in order of age, was a man of similar size and build to his brother, long-legged and lean. Quieter by nature and generally content to let Auron do his talking for him, he usually wore a pleasant, sometimes, sleepy expression. He had so far avoided any such encounter as the one with the mean steer that had cost his brother his front teeth. The sleepiness, Ben had learned, was an illusion.

Ashley Prior, while sharing the common family features, was an altogether shorter, stockier man, quick eyed and alert; his movements were the sharpest and fastest of all. He carried a Colt .44, the same gun favoured by Ben's eldest son, and again like Adam, he wore it tied very low down on his thigh. Arthur Prior was taciturn and huge; he was a man of carefully controlled power - as all big men must be. He was as strong and as far around as Hoss Cartwright, if half a head shorter. Both were the men to be avoided in a fistfight.

The youngest Prior was Asia. Of all of them he had changed the most. A year ago, when Ben had seen him last, he had been soft skinned and boyish. He was fast maturing into a tall, fine looking young man. He wore the family hair long and tied back behind his head, neatly plaited. Like Joe Cartwright, he wore his gun left-handed.

Sitting at the table with the Priors were the two friends who had ridden with them before. Peter Nash, his dark hair now receding apace, was a gambling man. Wryly, Ben recalled that after sitting in a game with him few of the trail crew had retained anything but empty pockets. Peter Barnes was the smallest man of the group. An expert trail cook, he produced the best bacon, beans and biscuits Ben had ever eaten. He would be as valuable on the trail drive as any of the others.

Each and every one could ride and rope, tie and brand as well as any man Ben had known. Both the belated spring gather and the drive to the railhead were likely to be a lot smoother with them on the payroll. He bought another round of beers while they negotiated terms.

Auron Prior retained his amiable nature and pleasant smile, but he was a tough talker. Ben had to agree to pay top rates and a bonus at the railhead if the herd was on time. In the end, he was glad to do it.

And to lighten his mood still further, when they stepped out of the saloon they found that the sky was a paler shade of grey. The rain had slackened from downpour to steady, persistent drizzle. Ben had hopes that by afternoon it might even stop for a while. The Prior brothers and the two Peters fetched their saddle horses and the string of sturdy pack animals that carried their belongings, and the whole party set out with a will for the Ponderosa.

********

Despite the wet and soggy start to the season, in spring the ranch was a beautiful place. The wide, open ranges that rolled unbroken from horizon to horizon were green with grass sprung fresh from the tussocky roots of the old. The shoots were sweet and tender, tempting and full of nutrition for the winter-hungry stock. The broad-leaves that clothed the hillside and stood as solitary shade trees, sentinel across the land, were unfurling new leaves in all their different shapes and shades. On the rare occasion when the rain stopped and the cloud lifted, the forested hills appeared through the mists. Each hill was a little greyer, a little less distinct, as they rose, rank on rank, towards the mountain peaks. In the high hills and on the broad shoulders of the Sierras, the snow still lay deep and undisturbed. There the majestic, slow-to-stir Ponderosa pine reigned supreme and winter lingered on.

The vales and spinneys were noisy with birdsong and alive with bob-tailed deer. All the wild things had eaten well of the lush spring growth and reproduced in rare abundance. There were more squirrels and rabbits and lop-eared hares than anyone could ever remember.

If the wildlife had done well, then the domestic stock had thrived, Jenny Cartwrightís Jacobís sheep had multiplied to the point where Ben had become alarmed at their fecundity. Jenny had laughed and explained to her scowling husband that now they could turn the wool and the meat into a cash crop for the ranch instead of using them for home consumption only.

Following a slow beginning, Joe Cartwrightís plans for raising purpose-bred horses were showing promise. Monarch, his coal-black three-quarters bred Morgan stallion was proving to be an effective sire. His first crop of yearling foals, separated from their dams, frolicked belly-deep in grass in the water meadows below the big house.

And of course, the cattle, mainstay of the ranching empire that Ben Cartwright had built, had proliferated. The short, sharp winter and early spring had meant minimal losses to the cold, the cougar, and the single marauding wolf pack that had come down from the mountains. ĎMost every cow had a calf at her side, and the yearling steers had grown fat on the spring fodder. The two-year old stock, destined for this yearís market, were well-grown, muscular animals that were more flesh than fat. The trick was in gathering them up and delivering them to the buyers without working all the weight off them.

It had all the promise of being a good year - if only it would stop raining!

As if in response to a heartfelt prayer the rains eased, and then slowed to a fine drizzle.

A wet wind blew across the range and into the faces of the horsemen. Shortly, a watery sun glimmered through the clouds. Ben reined the buckskin to a halt at the top of the rise. His newly hired help, homogenous in yellow oilskins, fell into line on either side.

"The boys were gathering steers from this section to add to the main muster."

They looked down into a wide, shallow valley. There was a small herd of cattle gathered in the bottom. A watercourse, glutted with rainfall and running full spate, flowed through. The creek twisted its way between banks that rose and fell with the landscape. A wagon and horses stood next to the usual watering hole, together with several saddle horses. Ben touched his heels to the buckskinís sides and led the men down to the waterside.

Despite the cold wind, Joe Cartwright was sweating with the sheer effort of hard work. As soon as the rain stopped, he shrugged out of the heavy, waxed-wool overcoat and dumped it in the back of the wagon. He wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his forehead. Seeing the approaching horsemen, he walked to the back of the wagon and waited, squinting against the weak sunlight. He recognized his fatherís big buckskin gelding at once, but a frown clouded his face as he wondered who the other men might be.

Even when the faces were close enough to be seen it took a long moment before recognition struck home. Joe let out a wild whoop and a holler.

"Hey, Hoss! Look who it is!"

Joeís older brother, caught in the act of collecting a coil of rope from the wagon bed, joined him. An uneven, but sparkling-white grin split his amiable, broad-featured face.

The horsemen pulled up and stepped down, and within moments the Cartwright boys and the Priors were exchanging handshakes and mutual greetings. Joe was especially pleased to renew his acquaintance with Asia Prior. The two were of a similar age and a year ago had formed an enduring friendship.

Ben looked towards the gathered cattle. A frown gathered over his brow. "I thought you boys would have moved those steers half way along the valley by now."

Hoss harrumphed, trying not to exchange glances with Joe who was looking just too innocent. "Weíre workiní on it, Pa. We was moving Ďem along just fine when we found three - four critters stuck in the creek here."

"We was hauliní Ďem out when you rode over the hill," Joe grinned.

Ben looked around with an air of puzzlement. "Whereís your brother?"

As if on cue, a somewhat irate, baritone voice carried from over the bank, "Hoss, are you cominí back here with that rope?"

Joe and Hoss looked at one another and said, with one voice, "Adam."

Everyone climbed to the top of the bank.

Sure enough, there were three steers still deeply mired in the bend of the creek. In there with them was Adam Cartwright. Benís eldest son, in open shirt and pants and little else, was hip deep in mud and river water. He had a rope around his chest that ran up over the bank and was tied to the wagon wheel. It secured him against the tug of the current. He was cold, soaking wet, and plastered from head to foot in black, clinging mud. He was also considerably put out at his brotherís abandonment. He gazed up at the row of faces above him.

Following Adamís close brush with death from a bushwhackerís bullet, Ben was still fiercely protective of him - a fact he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide. He frowned at Hoss, "Why is Adam in the creek?"

"I guess he volunteered, Pa."

Joeís grin widened, "Adam kinda drew the short straw, Pa." The two brothers exchanged looks and secret smiles. They were far more prepared than their father to take at face value their brotherís claim that he was completely well again. Neither one of them was going to explain to their father exactly how they had manoeuvred Adam into the creek. Ben looked from one to the other, well aware that they had been up to something. Their faces were totally without guile. Looking at the sorry state of his eldest, he couldnít keep the glimmer of amusement out of his own eyes. He leaned forward against his knee.
 
 

"Just how did these two manage to get you into the creek?"

Adam wasnít about to explain the trick that had been played on him or to confess that he had walked right into it with his eyes wide open. Instead, he planted both hands theatrically on his waist. He heaved a mighty sigh and raised a hand in a gesture of high drama, "How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Ďtil seven times? I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but Until seventy times seven"*

As if in critical acclaim of his rendition, thunder rolled low across the land. The sky opened, and the rain deluged onto his head in an unwanted and unwelcome blessing.

Amid the general laughter Adamís expression changed from pained to resigned. He ran a muddy hand through his wet hair. Through clenched, white teeth he said to Hoss, "And now, brother dear, will you please throw me down the rope?"

Hoss laughed and tossed down the coil of rope. While Adam secured it around the horns of the nearest steer, Arthur Prior cheerfully stripped to shirt and pants and waded in to help push.

Two
 
 

Far away to the south, the rainstorms that swept the ranges of the Ponderosa had also fallen upon a motley collection of shacks that bore no official name, nor were they marked on any map. Locally, and to those who frequented it, the spot where the wagon track ended on a river bank, was know as ĎMa Hofferísí, or, more simply, as ĎMaísí. The buildings, weathered to drabness and in a sorry state of repair, had slumped into the background of trees and underbrush until they were almost indistinguishable from the landscape itself. They comprised a combined store and drinking house, where basic commodities and raw liquor were available for purchase, and a barn, in somewhat better condition than the main building, together with its associated corrals. Further along the riverbank were a number of tumbledown shanties inhabited by ladies of dubious pedigree. They were places where certain personal services were always available to gentleman travellers and local inhabitants alike. The only acceptable currencies were gold and silver, in coin, bullion or dust. Credit was not available. It was the last stopping place between civilization and the Wilderness Mountains, otherwise know as Godís Back Doorstep.

At this early hour, in the first, filtered, grey light of the morning, two men were working in the yellowish mud of the yard. Both were big men, made to look bigger still by their bulky waterproof coats. Both wore their hair long and had been unshaven for many days. The beginnings of beards were sprouting from their faces, one as midnight-black as a ravenís wing, the other mousy brown and sprinkled liberally with grey. They worked methodically, tightening straps and securing loads on to the backs of a dozen sturdy mules. They were glad that for an hour or so at least, the rain had stopped.

The youngest and tallest of the two, he with the black hair and the deep set, brooding brown eyes, leaned his forearms on the broad back of a mule. He gazed across the river towards the forest and the foothills that were emerging, as the mists cleared, one behind the other against the distant backdrop of the mountains. The tops of the Sierras, standing high above the panoramic vista of hills and forest, were already bathed in sunlight.

"You think," he said to his companion across the animalís back, "Thereís really any money to be made trapping in these hills?" His tone was harsh and abrasive; his nasal accent placed his origins somewhere in the eastern states, perhaps Pennsylvania or New York.

The older man also stopped and turned. Pushing his soft felt hat to the back of his head he raised his face to look in the same direction. His eyes, a faded brown in a heavily tanned, leather-skinned face, squinted almost closed against the dazzling sun-brightness of the peaks. His expression was thoughtful, speculative. It was his habit to consider carefully everything that he said. "I think perhaps, so," His voice was heavily accented with the French of the far northeast. "They havenít been so heavily hunted as the eastern hills."

The younger manís mouth twisted sourly. "I still say, we should have gone north."

"íBel, you are an impatient man," The Canadianís laugh was short and humourless. "You are in a hurry to make a fortune, eh?"

"Iím in a hurry to make my fortune, yes!" Corbel Lighterman returned to harnessing the mules with unnecessary vigour. His eyes remained fixed, for the most part, on the bright peaks. His expression was one of intense dislike and bitter determination. "I hear the rivers up there are thick with beaver. So thick a man doesnít have to move more than five miles in a season, and he ends up with more pelts than he can carry out."

"That may have been true once." The Canadian went on smiling as he worked, but his face held a certain regret, "Not so now. Unless you go far, far to the north. And for that the season is already too late."

"Too late?" Lightermanís dark eyes were hard, angry; always, his eyes were angry, "What do you mean, too late?"

A shrug, a smile, "It is spring now. By the time we have ridden half way across the country, it will be mid-winter. Too late to reach the northern forests before they are cut off by the snow."

"The best time to take beaver is in the coldest part of the winter, when the pelts are thickest!"

"What you say may be true. But the winter is not the best time to be trekking north. By the time the first snow falls, a man wants to be safely installed in a log cabin, with all his trap lines set and a good log fire burning."

Lighterman jerked a strap tight with unnecessary savagery, "You make it sound almost cosy!"

"Cosy it is not. But it is - was once Ė a good life for a man." Jules Perriot, sometime trapper, logger, woodsman and guide, finished with the last mule and rubbed the stoic, dark brown animal on the muzzle.

"So what are we gonna take out oí these hills?" Lighterman threw another hostile glance towards the forests.

Perriot shrugged, "We will take anything we can get. A few beaver perhaps but not many: wolf, fox, bear. Bojun is a hunter. I have worked with him before. He is Ė efficient?" He shrugged eloquently, "Whatever he finds, he kills. One long sweep through these hills and there wonít be very much left alive."

"Just so long as these mules are loaded down with pelts when we ride down outa there."

Perriot smiled at the younger manís angry enthusiasm, "Why are you so very eager to make money so quickly?"

"You bet your butt Iím eager!" Lighterman slapped his hand down hard on the rump of a mule. The dust flew and the animalís hide flinched, "Eight Goddamn years Iíve been west of the Ohio, tryiní ta get a Goddamn stake!" The angry eyes flared, "Iíve done everything there is for a man to do! Logginí, gold-panniní, silver mininí, gambliní. Even tried raisiní steers, one time. Until Goddamn rustlers burned me out. Nothiní ever works out fer me!"

Perriot pursed his lips. It was his opinion that the younger man was not the type to apply himself for long to anything that resembled hard work. Upon consideration, he decided to keep his thoughts to himself. Instead, he said, "I hope youíre not going to be disappointed. The English no longer prefer to wear the beaver hats when they ride out in their carriages. The price of skins is not so good as it used to be."

Scowling darkly, Lighterman finished by tying the lead rope of one mule to the packsaddle of the next. Side by side the two men slogged their way through the mud to Ma Hofferís store.

Herricule Bojun was the third member of the little party. He was a man whose name had once been well known throughout the western states, although many now believed him to be dead. He had gloried in a reputation for single-minded determination bordering on the ruthless, and a total disregard for all living things. He stepped now from the dark interior of Maís store into the brighter light of the morning. He stood for a moment on the veranda while his eyes adjusted. Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, he surveyed the scene in the yard. The mules with their canvas-covered pack saddles stood waiting patiently, hock deep in the mud. Three saddle horses, tough, rugged, dark-coloured and longhaired, selected to cope with rough terrain, were ready at the rail. He lifted his eyes, an intense blue, to the vista beyond. Bojun saw none of the beauty. He saw only possibilities.

Bojun tipped the jug he carried over his elbow and turned his head to take a long hard drink. He needed a good drink first thing in the morning. It didnít numb all of the pain, but it sure as hell helped. The jug was empty. He pitched it far out into the mud. In two, long, limping strides he crossed the veranda. His right leg, almost useless, dragged behind him. A falling horse rolling over him years before had smashed his knee beyond any hope of repair. Now, the leg didnít bend at all and it hurt constantly. It did nothing whatever for his affability. Without stepping down from the veranda, Bojun reached for his stirrup and swung his stiff leg over the horseís back. Mounted, he looked, and functioned, much like any other man. Bojun conducted the bulk of his life from the back of a horse.

A large man, deep chested and lean-hipped, he rode with his bad leg in a long stirrup. With a full-lipped mouth that looked constantly moist amid a silvered, grey beard and thinning grey streaked hair that had once been thick and dark red, his face had the hard, weathered appearance of an old leather mask. After a lifetime in the wide outdoors, trapping, hunting, killing, he was about as hard and as tough as a man could get. Like the others, he was bundled into a heavy coat and wore high boots and thick weatherproof pants. A black-handled Navy Colt revolver rode in a holster on the horn of his saddle and a long-nosed saddle gun under his knee. He settled himself into the saddle and gathered his reins.

A mountain man of the old fashioned sort, he squinted at the sky, sniffed the wind, sampled the flavour of the air. He looked down at Perriot and Lighterman. "Reckon itís gonna rain agíin Ďafore midday," he said, in a flat, monotone drawl. He rubbed at his stiffened knee in an unconscious, habitual gesture, trying to ease the pain out of it. "You git yore-selves mounted up, aní weíll git some miles aíhind us aífore we gits wet."

Perriot moved stoically to his horse while Lighterman hesitated. His hands clenched and unclenched. It was as if he were still undecided whether to make the trip or not, even now. Finally, he snatched the reins from the rail and swung aboard. Both men were glad to get their feet out of the mud.

Bojun led the way down to the riverbank and urged his horse forward. The water, flowing straight from the mountains, was icy cold, and his horse was reluctant. It fought the bit. Bojun forced its head round and kicked hard. The animal splashed in. The current ran fast and deep and the water came up to the horseís shoulder - almost to the top of Bojunís boot. Angling across to the far bank, it waded across the river in a series of lunges and emerged, dripping on the other side. Lighterman, sitting tense and erect in the saddle followed. His dark eyes were alert; his glance darted everywhere. Perriot, more relaxed, more patient, brought up the rear. He led the first of the mules on a long line. With Bojun leading the way and the others following in Indian file, they started to wend their way northwards into the hills.
 
 

********
 
 

Ben Cartwright called down the blessing of his God upon his household and felt it descend like a mantle of peace about his shoulders. He offered up thanks for the food that graced his table and said a silent prayer for those assembled to eat it. As the meal began, he took his customary moment to consider each of the familiar faces.

The only woman at the breakfast table, seated immediately to Benís left, was Jenny Cartwright; his much loved fourth wife, mother of his infant son, and light of his life. She had striking, sea green eyes in a lively, animated face that followed the ebb and flow of the conversation around the table. This morning she wore her lustrous, dark hair in a cascade of tight ringlets, tied back with a ribbon and tumbling about her shoulders. Her skin was flawless, and if her high cheekbones were just a fraction too wide for conventional beauty, and her chin a little to pointed, that didnít matter to Ben one little bit. To him, she was the loveliest woman alive.

Jenny was picking, birdlike, at the food on her plate. Ben had a suspicion that her lack of appetite had more to do with the corsetry that she laced herself into each morning than with any natural disinclination to eat. Ever careful of her needs, he offered her bread before it all disappeared from the plate. Jenny declined with a bright smile and a "Thank you."

Right across the table from Jenny was an appetite of an entirely different order.

Slow to anger, swift to forgive, Benís second-born son was a small mountain of a man. Hoss was cheerfully munching his way through the first of two, or possibly three, helpings of breakfast: hot corn bread, ham, eggs and fried potatoes, followed by fresh biscuits spread with butter and black-strap molasses. At the same time he was carrying on an animated conversation with his brothers. The subject, of all things, was the jumping prowess of bullfrogs. Hoss had broad, open features and the ice-blue eyes and fine fair hair of his beautiful Swedish mother. Ben noticed, not for the first time, that the hair was noticeably thinning.

At Hossís elbow sat Joe Drury. Not a family member, he was a young man Ben had brought from the streets of Silver City to learn the trade of a cowboy. In the few months he had lived and worked with the Cartwrights and eaten at their table, Jody had grown like a weed in a garden patch. Now he stood taller than Joe and showed every sign of broadening into a big, powerful man. He was the only man Ben knew who could challenge Hoss in a straight eating contest and stand any chance of winning. He had an unruly mop of pale hair and the most startling eyes; they were a bright hazel-brown flecked with emerald green and gold.

Opposite Jody, and taking an enthusiastic part in the discussion, was Joe Ė still known affectionately upon occasion as ĎLittle Joeí, although his position as the baby of the family had been usurped. Joseph was slight of build and light boned in a world where big men ruled. He had retained his boyish good looks into manhood, and relied upon his charm, his ready wit, and, just occasionally, his fast, left-handed gun to keep him out of trouble. Joeís youthful, expressive face contained a pair of lively, hazel eyes and a wide mouth that was always ready with a smile and a not always carefully considered reply. His hair, brown and wavy with a distinct tendency to curl in the nap of his neck, needed cutting yet again.

Finally, almost with reluctance, Benís dark gaze settled on his eldest son. It still made his innards creep to think how close he had come to losing him. In his accustomed place at the far end of the table, Adam was slowly but surely demolishing a meal of scrambled eggs and bread, and, Ben was pleased to observe, a reasonably sized portion of ham. It gave him immense satisfaction to see his oldest son eat. A tall, broad shouldered man with a big, physical frame, his injury and the long period of recovery that had followed, had left him gaunt, wasted. Paul Martin, the family physician, had warned that he might never fully recover his robust appetite, or indeed, his full health. Watching him now, Ben was, at last, prepared to dismiss that prognosis. Throughout the winter, Hop Singís careful feeding regime and the ceaseless encouragement of his family had reconstructed Adamís superb physique, rebuilt his sculptured muscles, and even filled the hollows of his cheeks.

With the coming of spring, Ben was beginning to accept that Adam had truly recovered. The knot of fear that had been resident in his gut for so long was starting to unwind and the worry lines that appeared every time he looked Adamís way were fading. His undeniably handsome, black haired son moved fluidly with his old, panther-like grace; his skin glowed with regained health, and his deep-set, hooded eyes had gotten back their sparkle. Adam had also recovered his sharp and sometimes cynical humour.

"The next time I find myself in the creek," he was telling his brother in precise, clipped tones, "I shall make a point of introducing you to my friends, the bullfrogs, personally!"

Joe grinned at him, "You and what army?"

Adam drew a breath and there was a dangerous glitter in his eyes. His voice was developing an edge, "I donít need an army to give you a dunking, little brother." He gave the word Ďlittleí just enough emphasis to make it an insult. Visibly, Joe bristled.

"Thatís enough," Ben said firmly. "Unless itís absolutely necessary, I donít want to find either of you back in the creek." He knew these two well enough to step in before banter became battle. "If thereís not enough work around here to use up your surplus energies, Iím sure I can soon find you some more."

The brothers exchanged glances that hinted of un-concluded business and duly subsided. Both knew better than to continue, at the table, an argument that their father had forbidden.

Ben favoured both of them with an extra glare for good measure. With a more pleasant expression, he addressed his wife,

"Is everything prepared for your trip, my dear?"

"Indeed," Jenny smiled at him and her green eyes sparkled with excitement, "Our boxes are all packed, and I have a ticket for Fridayís stage to Reno."

A little frown of concern flickered across Benís face as he considered the journey his wife and his small son were about to undertake, "Are you sure itís a wise thing? Itís a long and difficult journey, even in the best of weather."

"Oh, Ben," Jenny sighed, "Weíve been all through this at least a dozen times. The road through the mountains is perfectly safe. Once we get to Sacramento we can take the paddle-boat down the river all the way to San Francisco."

Ben was unconvinced, "You make it sound a great deal easier than it is. With all the rain thatís fallen in the hills, the rivers will be swollen. The roadsÖ"

"The stage has been getting through without any difficulty at all. Thereís no reason to suppose that will change, simply because Daniel and I are aboard."

"Couldnít you put it off for a month or two?"

Jennyís lovely face took on a fiercely stubborn look that could only have been learned from a born Cartwright, "I will not put it off!" she said, hotly. Unlike Benís sons, Jenny had no compunction about arguing with him, at the table or anywhere else. "You know very well that Iíve been planning this trip for the whole of the winter!"

"I know you haveÖ"

"And youíre not about to talk me out of it now!"

"Iím not trying to talk you out of anything!" Without his realizing it, Benís voice was rising in volume, "Iím merely suggestingÖ"

"Danielís already eleven months old, and my sister hasnít set eyes on him yet!"

Momentarily thrown by the abrupt change in the direction of the argument, Ben floundered.

"Perhaps I should come with you."

Jenny was incredulous, "Come with me? Just listen to yourself! Can you see yourself sitting in my sisterís parlour sipping tea when you have trees to fell here? And calves to brand? And a herd to drive to the railhead?"

Ben was aware of a suppressed snigger from somewhere around the table but didnít have time to track it down, "I could send one of the boys."

"Daniel and I are going on Fridayís stage." Jenny stood up with an air of finality, "Weíll be gone for about six weeks. And, thank you, but we wonít be requiring any company!" Without giving any of the men time to do more than start from their seats, she flounced up the stairs in a flurry of cream and gold skirts.

The boys settled back into their chairs, and Ben, aware that he had been bested by his diminutive wife although not quite sure how, glowered Ďround at them. He found a variety of expressions on their faces. Hoss was plainly embarrassed beyond belief, fiddling with the last buttered biscuit on his plate and only the thinning top of his head to be seen. Jody was flushed to his ears and wishing furiously that he was somewhere else Ė anywhere else! Joseph was frantically trying to conceal his amusement. Ben suspected that the snigger had been his. The look on Adamís face, as he met his fatherís eyes squarely across the rim of his habitual, extra cup of coffee, was, frankly, speculative. It was an expression Ben had seen a number of times in recent weeks - it made him uncomfortable.

"Donít you men have any work to do?" he growled.

There was a general pushing back of chairs and the three younger men headed for the door. Adam, as was his habit, remained at the table sipping his last cup of coffee. He was looking into his cup now, rather than at his father, but the look on his face was the same. Ben felt another wave of unease. He hesitated.

"Adam."

Adamís hazel-brown eyes lifted. His expression was one of inquiry, tempered with Ė no, Ben was sure he hadnít mistaken it Ė just the faintest tinge of defiance.

In the months that had passed since his wounding, and especially in the last half of his long, slow convalescence, Adamís feelings towards his family, and in particular towards his father, had undergone a sea change. Unquestionably, he still loved them without reservation. But his self-image had been severely tested by his long period of incapacity and his emotions battered. It had been a trial by fire that had led him to make that final, if considerably delayed, leap into adulthood. Of course, he still looked upon his father as a man to be respected - a man whose opinions and advice were always there should he wish to avail himself of them. Nonetheless, Adam saw him now, more than ever before, as a man - sometimes fallible, sometimes weak and sometimes wrong. He was no longer a demi-god to be obeyed without question or a paragon before whose anger he quailed. For Adam, Benís word was no longer absolute law. Adam had, at last, come to understand that his lifelong idol had feet, not of clay, but of flesh. The principle dilemma he faced now was how to assert himself without a catastrophic confrontation.

"Pa?"

Still, Ben hesitated. For some reason he couldnít account for he felt almost as if he were talking to a stranger. This dark, brooding man sometimes bore little resemblance to the son he knew, and now was one of those times. It was as Adam were watching him through hostile eyes, waiting for him to trip up. Ben scarcely knew how to address him any more. "Iíd like you to check the final tally with Charlie before we move the herd out."

Adam gave that some swift thought, "Youíve always trusted Charlieís count before."

"Thatís as may be," Ben walked round the table, his thumbs hooked into his belt in a familiar attitude, "This is the largest herd weíve ever driven off the Ponderosa. If you remember, we estimated about fourteen hundred head."

"Weíve got more than enough men to handle them."

"Hmm. Yes. Thatís not what Iím worried about. I want to talk to you, Adam."

A frown on his face, Ben walked across to his desk. Adam followed him with his eyes that same look of speculation on his face. He was well aware that his father was trying to say something to him; he wasnít at all sure he was going to like it. After a moment, he put down the cup, scraped back the chair and followed his father across the room.

"What is it that youíre worried about?"

Ben turned, looking up at him from under lowered eyebrows, "Adam, I might not be taking you with me on the drive this year."

Adam opened his mouth with an instant, angry retort, and then closed it again as he considered a more measured response. He wondered just what bee his father had in his bonnet this time. Was he still fretting over the gunshot wound that was now no more than an ugly scar on Adamís belly and a memory of pain? It was an episode in a past that Adam wanted very badly to put behind him. Above all, he was sick and tired of being treated like and invalid, or, worse, a child not yet out of soiling- rags.

"Iím quite capable of riding herd. Pa," he said, more testily than he had intended. His hands were on his hips and his eyes were angry.

Ben was surprised by the snap in his voice. "I know you are. But, as you said yourself, having the Prior brothers on the payroll gives us a surplus of men for the drive. Thereís something else I want you to do for me."

Watching his sonís face closely, Ben saw the play of emotions: surprise, irritation, curiosity, and again, that fleeting glimpse of resentment, swiftly masked. There was something going on in Adamís mind that he didnít understand. He worried at it.

Adam was considering the possibilities. While he was determined not to be manipulated, he had no wish to offer the outright refusal of a petulant child. He decided to hear his father out.

Deliberately relaxing his aggressive stance, he asked, "What do you have in mind?"

Ben settled back into his chair, "Itís your brother."

"Joe?"

Ben smiled wryly as Adam jumped to the inevitable conclusion. "Your brother, Hoss." he elaborated.

"Hoss." Adam couldnít help the edge of exasperation. Why the heck couldnít his father come to the point he was trying to make instead of following this tortured, circuitous route, "I thought Hoss was doing just fine, sparkiní with that Mary Fletcher."

"Thatís right." Ben allowed himself a small chuckle. "They make a fine couple. Iíve hopes that they might even make a match of it before too long."

Adam let go of his anger and smiled, "Thatíd be realí swell, Pa."

Ben enjoyed the rare moment of companionship. He leaned forward onto the desk. "Hoss has been promising himself a trip into the Reserved Section for a good long time now. Every time he makes plans, something seems to come up to get in his way. I thought now might be a good time for him to go - and that you might like to go with him."

Adam thought about it. Certainly the idea had its attractions, and the way his father had put it, as if he would be doing his brother a favour, made it hard to refuse.

And, abruptly, he didnít want to refuse. A trip into the high hills in springtime was a pleasant prospect; it would be nicer by far than following steerís backsides all the way to the railhead, and Hoss would be amiable company. He would value his brotherís advice on the management of the land. And besides, the fresh air blowing straight down out of the mountains just might serve to clear his thinking, enable him to get a few things straight with himself, and perhaps come to some decisions.

"All right, Pa. If Hoss wants to go, Iíll be happy to ride along with him."

"Thatís good." Pleased, Ben sat back.

Adam had another thought, "Why donít we take Jody with us? Half grown, he wouldnít be a whole lot of use on the drive."

Ben made a gesture of agreement. "I can spare him, if youíd like to take him along."

"Then Iíll go find them and tell them."

Adam headed for the door, and Ben sat and watched him go. His breath sighed softly out. Wise in the ways of the world, Ben Cartwright reckoned he knew now what his sonís trouble was. He was well aware that in order to keep the things he loved the most, a man sometimes had to be willing to let them go. Adam wanted his freedom at last, and Ben wasnít about to risk driving him away by clinging too tightly. He found himself hoping that this trip into the hills might help his son decide exactly what form he wanted his freedom to take.
 
 

********




The sorrel mare shifted restlessly and flicked her ears back and forth. She was a finely bred, high-spirited animal, and she had little time for the manís painstaking examination. Asia Prior made a soft, soothing sound with his tongue, and, for a moment, she quieted. He took his own good time, moving his hands slowly, almost sensuously, over the polished red hide. Beneath his palms he felt the smooth, flat firmness of her neck, the harder, bunched muscles of her powerful shoulder, the taut tendons in her long forelegs. He moved back over her withers, along the lightly ribbed barrel of her body. He ran his hands across her loins and over the broad expanse of her rump, looked under her tail, and worked his way back along her other side. The mare snorted and stamped her foot with impatience. There was fire in her eye. Asia laughed and rubbed his hand up and down her nose. He looked up, and the smile on his youthful, wolfishly handsome face was wide. Like all the Priors, with the exception of Auron, he had a full set of large, startlingly white teeth.

"Sheís a beautiful animal, Joe. A little too high and mighty for ranch work Iíd have thought."

Joe Cartwright, perched on the wall of the stall with his knees wide apart and his feet dangling, grinned,

"Sheís surely no rope aní tie cow-pony! I bought her from a friend of Adamís. The fella breeds some mighty fine horses on a big spread east of Sacramento." His pride in the animal was obvious.

"What do you plan on doing with her?"

"Next time she comes onto heat, I puttiní her up to Monarch. We should get some nice, light boned stock out of her."

Asia Prior stepped back and took in the mareís general appearance. "She looks like sheís got a turn of speed in her. Have you tried her out yet?"

"Not yet." Joe slid off the woodwork and walked over to give the mare a pat. "Adam tells me she comes from some pretty fast stock."

A speculative look came to Asia Priorís face. "Letís give her a run, then. Your mare against my gelding. The loser pays for a night on the town."

It was an idea that appealed instantly to the competitive side of Joeís nature. "Hey, youíre on!"

Joe swung a saddle onto the mareís back and reached underneath for the cinch.

Asia Priorís black gelding stood half a hand shorter than the mare. He had a shorter, altogether stockier build and massively powerful quarters - the ideal cutting and roping horse. Asia swung easily into the saddle and settled himself, waiting for Joe to mount.

Joe brought the mare into line. She was sweating and throwing her head about, "Weíll race to the lone oak in the water meadow."

Asia flashed him another wide, white smile, "Get ready to put your hand in your pocket!" He dug in his heels and let out a yell. The black gelding took of in a flying gallop.

Left standing, Joe cried out to the mare and kicked hard. She leapt in pursuit.

The two horses, with their excited young riders bending low over their necks, galloped flat out along the road that ran beside the corrals. Then they veered sharply right, running downhill through the trees and across the wide, shallow place in the stream. At first the black horse led, maintaining his flying start - even improving on it as they splashed through the water. Joe felt the power of the mareís shoulders surging beneath him, felt the thrust of her quarters. She carried her head high as she ran which made it difficult for him to see where they were going-*98 and harder still to keep from losing his teeth. She didnít flatten out in the same way as Asiaís gelding. But she knew what was required of her, and she didnít like to be beaten. Pulling away from the river, she drew level with the black. They raced neck and neck into the water meadow.

The pounding of the horseís hooves jarred through the young menís bodies, even though the grass muffled the sound. The sigh of their blood was loud in their ears and the taste of excitement sharp in their throats. The wind of their passage whipped tears from their eyes. Each of them got their open mouths and their eyes full of coarse, ropy mane.

Asia let out another wild, whooping yell, calling on the gelding for yet another huge effort. He responded with a will, laying back his ears and stretching his neck. He surged ahead again. Joe leaned close against the sorrel mareís neck, urging her on with hands and heels, driving hard. The mare extended her long legs, reaching for a longer stride. Her belly lowered into the grass. She drew level, then pulled ahead as they sped past the ancient, solitary oak that graced the meadow.

Joe and Asia shortened their reins and pulled their mounts to a shuddering stop. They sat laughing, breathlessly, while their horses heaved and caught their second wind. Once the animals had recovered, they rode off through the grasslands at a much more leisurely pace. Their friendship was firmly re-established, and they were content in each otherís company.
 
 

********

With the rapid onset of maturity, Joe Druryís speaking voice was breaking into a pleasant, light baritone. This morning, as he raced excitedly at top speed through the yard, shouting at the top of his lungs, to reverted to a high alto.

"A mud fight! A mud fight! Down at the duck pond!" Scattering squawking chickens before him, he vanished around the side of the barn without pausing to elaborate.

Adam and Ben, pausing in mid-conversation to observe his headlong flight, gazed after him, slack jawed.

"Did he say, a mud fight?" Ben asked his son, not quite believing his own ears.

Adamís look of bemusement mirrored his own, "Iím almost certain thatís exactly what he said. At the duck pond."

Ben drew a long breath. "This, Iíve got to see." With a long stride, he set off in Jodyís wake. Adam, equally curious, quickly fell into step beside him.

There was a crowd already gathered around the pond when they arrived. In fact, every man not on a horse on the range was there - even Hop Sing, smiling broadly. There was an air of excitement, and money was changing hands as the hired help weighed up the comparative physical virtues of two big men. Ben and Adam had to push their way through to find out what was going on.

Hoss Cartwright and Arthur Prior, stripped right down to their long drawers, had already waded out knee deep into the water. Both were massive men: Hoss a little taller than Arthur - Arthur a little broader in the beam. Both had wide shoulders and vast barrel chests - Hossís very lightly furred, Arthurís covered with a darker, denser mat of hair that disappeared below the waistband of his undergarment. They had huge hands and their bare arms bulged with muscle. Warily, they were circling one another, stirring up the rich, fragrant silt with their feet. The ducks and the geese, the usual inhabitants of the pond, had gathered up their feathered families and fled.

Ben looked at Adam, who arched a wry eyebrow and shrugged. He had no idea what had brought this on either.

The two giants slapped the surface of the water, splashing it into each otherís faces, each trying to break the otherís concentration. Their expressions, while grimly determined, were not overtly hostile. This was not a grudge match. Ben relaxed, folding his arms and settling back to watch. Adam, standing hip-shot on the bank with his lean, brown hand resting on the butt of his gun in a familiar, casual attitude was already smiling.

The men in the water made several small feints, attempting to catch each other off guard. From the banks came yells of encouragement, helpful suggestions and a number of ribald comments as the hired help entered into the spirit of the thing. Adam joined in with enthusiasm, and Ben was content to let the contest run its course. He remembered with amusement the last time there had been a wrestling match in the duck pond; that time, Hoss and Adam had been the protagonists. Inevitably - Ben grinned at the thought - it had been Hoss who had won.

Hoss and Arthur came to grips, clasping each other first by the forearms and then, closing with each other, above the elbow. Below the water, as they circled, they reached with their feet, each trying to hook the otherís legs out from under him. They pushed and pulled, trying to topple one another into the water.

Hoss, the taller, leaned back and tucked his heel behind Arthurís knee. Arthur wasnít about to go down alone. He shoved himself forward, twisting. Hoss went over backwards. Locked together, the two of them went down into the water with an explosive splash. Adam, leaning close enough to shout advice to his brother, was caught in the deluge and got almost as wet as they did. Ben laughed aloud at the sight of him and at the disgusted look on his face.

Hoss and Arthur rolled over in the water, floundering, smothered in mud. Each was grappling for the upper hand. Hoss got his feet under him and stood up, spitting out foul water and clawing mud from his eyes. Arthur Prior grabbed him from behind by the waist of his drawers and pulled him down. To the applause of the onlookers both men splashed back into the water.

The rain, which had been falling lightly and almost unnoticed from the lowering clouds, turned abruptly into a downpour. Suddenly, everyone was getting wet. The spectators headed for shelter, arguing loudly over which man had the moral victory and settling their bets. Hoss and Arthur, when they came up, spluttering, for air, found that their audience had disappeared.

********

It was the sound that attracted Joe Drury first of all. It was a curious little noise to be breaking the sleepy afternoon silence. It resembled the sudden rattle of raindrops on a shingle roof, or the rifling of the pages of a book. It came from somewhere right at the back of the horse barn. Ever curious, the young man went to investigate.

Peter Nash sat, wide kneed on a nail keg in an empty stall. He was shuffling a pack of playing cards in his aesthetic, thin-fingered hands. Nash was a man built on a deceptive scale: tall and very wide in the shoulders, lean in the hips and long legged. He was a man who, with his propensity for card playing, would have looked, and undoubtedly felt, more comfortable on a riverboat in a full skirted frock coat, than in leather vest and chaps on a ranch. A man in his middle years, it was impossible to say where his wide forehead ended and the smooth, evenly tanned skin of his scalp began. All that remained of a once superb head of black hair were the ravenís wings behind his ears. As a young man he had possessed the devilish good looks that can turn womenís heads; still he had a finely chiseled, pleasantly featured face. He looked up with a keen sharpness as Jody entered the stall, and then, when he saw that it was only the boy, he relaxed. His warm, brown eyes became amused at the look of rapt attention on the young manís face. A friendly smile touched his lips.
 
 

"Come on in, kid."

Jody slid into the stall. His expression of intense fascination remained. His green and gold flecked eyes glowed.

Nash nodded towards an upturned box. "Sit yourself down."

Slowly, Jody sat. The movement of the cards transfixed him. They danced between Nashís lean, brown fingers, back and forth in an intricate and seemingly endless series of patterns. So skilful were Nashís hands that the cards might have been living things, trained to obey his commands.

Nash hardly glanced at what his hands were doing; he watched Jodyís face. The smile still played about his mouth. He was a skilful man and handling cards was the love of his life. He practiced it purely because it gave him pleasure. Finally, when he had been through his entire repertoire of tricks, he straightened the pack and handed it over. "Here, you try."

The tip of Jodyís tongue touched his lip. He took the cards into his hands. The thin pasteboards were cool and hard to the touch; their texture was velvet smooth. Red and black on creamy-white, their designs bewitched him: clubs and hearts, diamonds and spades. The queens, each clutching a flower, smiled at him with sad, sweet smiles. The kings glowered in regal majesty. But it was the knaves that whispered their wiles into his soul.

Jody bent and compressed the pack, as Nash had done Ė but clumsily. The cards leapt from between his fingers and scattered on the floor. Embarrassed, he scrambled to pick them up.

Nash laughed gently and helped him gather them. He faced them around, his fingers swift and sure, and automatically shuffled the pack. Jody watched the cards dance.

"Díyou play, kid?"

Jody shook his head. He had stood behind menís shoulders in the bunk house and watched them play all evening for a few dollars. He had seen a monthís pay change hands in a few hours in the saloon in town. Twice, he had asked Joe to explain the rudiments of the game to him, but Joe had been reluctant, wary of what his father would say when he found out. There wasnít much Ben Cartwright didnít find out, one way or another. Jody hadnít dared to ask Adam. "No, sir. I donít."

"Would you like to?" Nash smiled his warm smile and made the cards leap in his hands.

Jody leaned forward, "Yes, sir. I surely would."

Nash brushed the straw from an old packing crate and dealt out cards face up.

"Do you like to watch people?" Nash asked. "Try to get inside their heads and figure out what makes Ďem tick?"

Jody hesitated. "Well, sir, I guess I do watch folks. Iím tryiní to learn most anything I can. Sometimes I can kinda guess what theyíre gonna say or do."

The rangy hand had finished his dealing. A line of twenty-five cards lay between them on the crate. "Thatís a good start, kid," Nash said with a grin. "You might not think it, but if you want to do more than throw away wages for the fun of a game, you got to be patient, and you got to understand folks."

"Patient?" Jody questioned. "Game seems to go pretty fast to me."

Nash leaned back and stretched his shoulders passing a long-fingered hand across his almost bald head. "Odds, itís all about odds, and they are dead against you getting more than one or two good hands in any hour of play. You got to be able to set quiet and pitch in hand after hand until the cards come your way. Then you got to play Ďem smart Ďn that means you got to know the men youíre up against, or theyíll get the drop on you every time."

"Reckon we ought to start with some basics first though. Now you take these twenty-five cards Iíve just spread down here. Iffení I canít make five pat hands outta any twenty-five card nine times out of ten, I jest ainít half tryiní." His hands flew over the spread.

"Three Queens and a pair of tens Ė a full house is worth playing in damn near any game. You do know not to open unless you have a pair of Jacks or better, donít you boy?"

"Yes, sir. I figured that out from watching."

He next selected a simple straight: the five, six, seven, eight and nine of mixed suits. "Nothing flashy here youíd think, but it beats two pair and three of a kind. If you been watching what the other players got showiní and how they been playiní, it can win you a nice pot. Iffen you draw any four of those cards on the deal and both ends are open like in this here hand, you got one chance in five of improving it on the last card. Now an Ace at either end of them four straight card and you only got one chance in eleven of improving your hand."

Jodyís eyes widened in amazement, "Gosh, Mr. Nash, Adamís been teaching me my numbers, but how in tarnation can you know all them things?"

"A good playerís got to know the odds agin him, boy." Nash nodded up and down several times agreeing heartily with himself. "You serious about larniní how to be a good poker player?" Nashís piercing brown eyes bored into Jody.

Jody took a deep breath. "Yes, sir, reckon I am at that." He looked back and didnít drop his gaze.

"All right then, Iíll scratch you out a chart of the hands and the odds on Ďem. You got to study it until itís stuck in your head so hard it donít never come out. Can you do that?"

Jody nodded. "Yes, sir."

"You find me tomorrow, Ďn Iíll have it for you. Now, look at the cards left here. What can you make of Ďem?"

Jody studied the fifteen cards remaining. He carefully picked out an Ace of Hearts and four other small hearts not in sequence and held them up for Nash to see. "I think Iíve heard the men call this an ĎAce high flush,í" he said tentatively.

"Thatís exactly right Ďn a respectable hand in any manís game. If they were in sequence, youíd have a straight flush and likely a fistful of other folks money."

Nash made the remaining cards into a hand with two pair and another into one pair with an Ace kicker and discussed them both.

"Thereís a lot more to learn, but reckon we ought to talk a little about bettiní," Nash mused. "The boys here mostly play draw poker, so weíll start there. Before any cards are dealt the dealer will most generally call for an ante Ė donít have to ante, but most games do. Can be anywhere from a penny to a thousand dollars depending on whose playing. Here on the Ponderosa most games start with a dime. You keep an eye on the dealer. He should keep his sleeves clear of the cards, shuffle them pasteboards good and pass Ďem to the fellow on his right for a cut. If you donít see that happeniní, just get on out of the game and go about your business. You wonít want to be around when the shootiní starts." Nash rubbed his hands together and made the motions of a deal.

" After the dealer gives everybody five cards, you pick yours up and look at Ďem real calm like. Donít make no faces, or twitch and fidget. Good player can learn to read you real quick thata way. Fellow to the dealerís left goes first. If heís got an opening hand, he bets what itís worth to him. Then each man-jack at that table has gotta meet that first bet, raise it or fold his hand and drop out of the deal. The bettiní ends when all the fellows left in the game has put up the same amount of money. Now, you got to watch who checks and who raises real close, Ďcause itís your first clue as to what they hold.

"Next thing, the dealer starts on his left and, one by one, asks everybody still playing how many cards they want. They throw down their discards, most likely one or two cards, face down in the middle of the table, and the dealer replaces them. Nobody should see any of them cards! No indeedy. If one turns up the dealer should call a misdeal and start fresh.

"Well, sir, you take up your new cards and ask yourself, Ďdid I do myself any good here, or is this hand still a piece of crap?í Dependiní on what your answer is and what the other folks in the game did you get another chance to bet, raise or fold. When every player has met the last raise or folded, them oleí boys still hanginí on show their hands, and the one with the top hand takes the pot."

Jody nodded solemnly.

"Sound easy does it, boy? Not by a long shot! After the draw is when the real poker playiní starts. For instance, if a man draws one card, he may be holding four to a straight or flush. But there is always the possibility that he has three of a kind and is holding a high kicker hoping for a full house. He might have two pair, sure enough, but he also could have four of a kind. Only what you know about the fellow youíre going up against and them odds Iím gonna give you, can help you thru this pass without losing your scalp.

"Iffen a manís a fool and a plunger, chances are heís drawiní to an inside straight or flush." Nash broke off and shook his head in sorrow. "Donít never do that foolishness, kid. Donít never! Just fold your hand and wait for another deal.

A high-pitched voice calling, "Jody, Jody," broke their concentration.

"Cookieís hollariní for you, kid. Better get a move on," Nash laughed. "You come stand behind me when we play tonight, and if you promise to keep your face real still, Iíll learn you some more about poker. One last thing though: donít never play with somebody who canít afford to lose and donít play yourself if you canít spare the cash. No game was ever worth losing your ranch, your horse, nor your wife over."

Hop Sing called again, and Jody spun around. "Thanks Mr. Nash," he shouted on his way out of the stall. "Iíll be there tonight." He disappeared through the door into the spangled sunlight of the yard.

********




Adam was slogging his way doggedly uphill through the mud, heading for the house, some well-earned coffee, and a bath! He was cursing himself for all sorts of a fool for not having the foresight to have taken a horse - if he had, he would have at least saved himself this unpleasant walk. Like most cowboys, he disliked walking when he could ride. It was a disagreeable end to what had been a disagreeable afternoon.

He had started it off by spending an hour treating the soft and decaying hooves of several horses that had picked up an unpleasant parasitic infection from the constantly wet ground. The sweet smell of the rot still lingered on his hands despite the scrubbing he had given them. Then he had drawn the job of sewing up an ugly gore wound in the shoulder of a frightened and foul-tempered cow. She had given him a hard time and had crowned it all off by standing on his foot. Adam knew he was going to have several, beautifully blue toes.

The afternoon had ended, in the pouring rain, at the pigpen where he had overseen what had, as it turned out, been a particularly messy slaughter. There were days, he reflected with sour philosophy, when nothing went right. He was spattered with a variety of colourful substances, none of them savoury, and he was well aware that he smelled of rather more than his own sweat.

A shadow fell across his path. Adam looked up. Four horsemen sat in front of him, barring his way. Adam felt a momentary unease, knowing that he had left his gun behind as well as his horse, and feeling naked because of it. The sun was setting behind a thin cloud layer and the sky was bright. Adam squinted against it, screwing up his face. He made out the forms and the faces of the Prior brothers. Only Asia Prior was missing. Adam didnít doubt that he was off somewhere with Joe, either talking horses, or chasing women. They were the two things that they had in common.

The Priors were all dressed up in their best suits, with white shirts and silk string ties, and they were riding their Friday-night go-to-town horses. Gazing up at them, Adam wiped a none too clean forearm across his face, then he planted both hands on his hips.

"Something I can do to help you boys?"

Auron Prior leaned out of his saddle. His distinctive, gap-toothed grin split his face. "Itís more a case of what we can do for you."

"Oh?" Adam looked from one face to the other. "Howís that?"

"Weíre heading inta town. Gonna pay a visit ta that fancy cat-house we heard all about." Big smiles spread across the other three Prior faces.

"Miss Lucyís?"

"Thatís the place." Auron Prior sat comfortably back, "Figured you might like ta ride along with us."

To a man accustomed to playing as hard as he worked, the prospect of spending an evening in the most sumptuous whore-house in the west had an instant appeal. Adam thought about it, but not for long. After the afternoon he had just worked through he reckoned he deserved a little rest and relaxation. Getting off the ranch for a while would be a pure delight, and he was man enough not to turn down an opportunity when it flew in his face. The close company of a perfumed, and undeniably pretty young woman was exactly what he needed. He felt a pleasant and familiar tightening in his body at the mere thought of it. A slow smile spread over his face.

"You boys give me ten minutes to clean up, aní Iíll be right with you."

It took Adam rather longer to get clean than he estimated. It was some twelve minutes later when, washed down and smelling a good deal sweeter, dressed in a dark, long-coated dress-suit, silk shirt and tie, he came out of the house. He swung aboard the best horse in his string. By now he was really looking forward to an evening in town Ė hell, he might even spend the whole night at Miss Lucyís, in one of her extra special rooms with a hot tub and all the trimmings - and a couple of lovely ladies to share it with him! He exchanged anticipatory grins with the waiting Prior brothers, and the whole bunch of them rode out for Virginia City.

Three




Herricule Bojum stood stiffly erect beside the small breakfast fire. He took a long, slow sip from the battered tin cup in his hand - a last mouthful. It was trail coffee, black, and strong, and bitter, heavily laced with liquor. He swilled it Ďround in his mouth while, with faded eyes, he gazed calculatingly at the surrounding hills. Then, swallowing the mouthful, he turned and regarded the mule train, already standing harnessed and waiting. Only two of the packsaddles were loaded with assorted pelts, dried and salted and tightly rolled. Bojunís face, bearded and weathered to the texture of old, brown leather darkened with a scowl. By now, he would have expected half the saddles to be full. The hunting in these forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadaís had been poor. The weather had been against them: wet as well as cold, with sudden storms blasting down at them out of the mountains. Game had proved elusive. Even the normally dependable trap lines, set along well used animal trails and beside watering places, had failed to produce their usual rich harvest. These woods, like others Bojun had hunted in recent years, were all but played out. If nothing else, Bojun was a realist. He was prepared to admit, phlegmatically, that, in this part of the world at least, the day of the fur trapper was done. What he was not prepared to do was to ride out of these hills empty handed.

Lighterman led his horse over to him on a long, slack rein. Bojun emptied the dregs from his cup into the embers of the fire. He thrust the cup into Lightermanís hand and took the rein. He took one, long, awkward stride and stepped up to the saddle, swinging his straight leg over. He sat for a moment, rubbing the pain out of his thigh while Perriot brought up the mules. Lighterman kicked apart the remains of the fire.

"So," Lighterman said with an edge of impatience, "What happens now?" His visions of making money had started to fade away right at the outset. Time and again he had seen the trap lines come up empty. Of those pelts they had taken many were small and of poor quality. Once again his hopes had turned to ashes in his mouth. Always a vexed man, his anger had turned into scarcely masked, simmering resentment. It was only the awe in which he held Bojunís reputation that kept his explosive temper in check. With Bojunís ongoing failure to produce promised results, Lightermanís awe was fading.

Bojunís eyes swept over him, mildly contemptuous. In his sixty years the old hunter had encountered Lightermanís kind before: impetuous, impatient and prepared to work - but not too hard and not for too long. Basically, Lighterman was a loser. Bojun raised his face to survey the hills again, turning in the saddle until the morning sun shone on his left cheek. They had come to the end of their trip, as originally proposed. They should be turning back, riding in a wide arc through the hills they had already hunted, clearing the last of their trap lines as they went. None of them were under the illusion that the snares would be anything but empty. In front of them were the higher ranges where the trees grew tall and the snows of winter still lay on the ground. "Reckon weíll take a good long sweep through those hills," he said, indicating the way ahead with a nod.

Lighterman followed his gaze and didnít much like what he saw. He turned back with an angry expression. "What makes you think weíll find more up in them hills than we have down here?"

Bojun chose, for the time being, to ignore the irritation in the younger manís tone. "I reckon we might just find somethiní ta make it worth our while takiní a ride up there."

Lighterman was unhappy and impatient. "I think weíre wastiní our time!"

Regarding him thoughtfully from the saddle, Bojun said, "You want out, you cín walk away right now. Itís a down hill ride all the way back."

"Aní what about my gear? Some oí them hides we got Ďre mine!"

Bojunís lips compressed into a thin sneer. Both men were developing a healthy dislike for each other. "You ride out, you go empty handed," he said. He lifted his reins, and, with the heel of his left foot only, he kicked his horse into motion.

Lighterman stared at his back with glittering resentment bright in his eyes. His big hands knotted into fists at his sides. Then he jammed his hat onto his head and climbed onto his own horse. Glaring for a moment at Perriot as if daring him to comment, he urged the animal after Bojunís. Keeping his own council and leading the pack-mules, Perriot fell into line. The three of them let the horses pick their own pace, heading steadily north.

********




Ben drove Jenny and Daniel into Virginia City in the buckboard. The morning sun was shining weakly through thin cloud. It hadnít rained at all in two whole days. It was warmer. It felt as if spring might just be getting under way at last. The mud of Main Street had lost its liquid consistency and had become thick and extremely sticky. It clung to the wagon wheels and to the legs and the bellies of the horses.

Someone, of necessity, had thrown some boards down outside the Wells Fargo Office. They were intended to keep clean and dry the feet of the passengers that boarded, and alighted from, the stagecoach. Ben pulled the buckboard up alongside and, stepping past Jenny, jumped down. He reached up to lift his wife to the boardwalk and steadied her, his hands on her narrow waist, while she regained her balance. She gave him an impish grin.

Jenny shook out the long skirts of her dark-red velvet travelling dress while Ben lifted out the baby. Ben handed the child to his wife. At Benís bidding, several men set about transferring Jennyís boxes from the buckboard to the stage, loading them up on top. Side by side, Ben and Jenny walked along the boardwalk to the door of the coach.

"Have you everything you need for the journey?"

Jenny looked at the pile of luggage being lashed to the roof of the stage and a smile danced in her eyes. "Oh, I think so."

"And you have the letters I gave you for our lawyers?"

"I have them, Ben."

"And the bank draft I gave you Ė you have it safely put away?"

"Indeed." Jenny smiled openly, thinking of the slip of paper tucked securely away inside her corset. Ben saw the glow in her face and sighed inwardly. The draft was for a substantial amount of money, and he had an uncanny feeling that most of it would end up in the hands of the various dressmakers of San Francisco.

The door of the coach stood open, and several other passengers were already aboard. Jenny handed Daniel to Ben to hold while she climbed inside. Having said their more intimate goodbyes in the privacy of their bedroom, they parted with a chaste touch of lips to cheek. Ben looked at his youngest son. A well-grown little boy, Daniel Cartwright was more robust that either Adam or Joe had been at the same age, if not as sturdy as Hoss. His small head was covered in a shock of raven black hair reminiscent of Benís eldest sonís, or of Benís own as it had been in his youth. He had Benís own grave, dark eyes. At that exact moment he was earnestly engaged in trying to consume his own fist. Ben guessed that by the time he saw Daniel again, the baby would have several more brand-new teeth.

Ben whispered a blessing on him and brushed his lips against the babyís head. He passed the child up into his motherís waiting arms.

"You carry my affection to your sister, now," he admonished his wife.

Jenny gave a deep throaty chuckle. "Oh, Ben! You know full well how much you dislike my sister!"

Caught out, Ben reddened. "I do not dislike your sister. I merely thinkÖ"

Jennyís chuckle became open laughter at his discomfiture. "Fie! Listen to yourself, fickle man!"

Ben bristled and blustered. To be truthful, he was not overly fond of Jennyís sister. He was grateful when the coachman climbed up to the box. It saved him having to think of an answer. He slammed the door shut and stepped back, touching his hat to his wife. "Take care, my dear."

Jenny smiled and lifted her hand in farewell. The driver yelled to the horses and slapped the broad leather reins against their backs. As the coach pulled away, Ben wished his little family Godspeed and watched until it vanished from sight.

The sun was coming out in earnest now, warm and bright with the promise of so many better days to come. It warmed the town and all the people in it. The steeply canted roofs began to steam. For the first time, Ben noticed that the street smelled rank. The mud was liberally mixed with the droppings of horses and oxen. They were odours Ben was well used out at the ranch, a part of everyday life that he thought nothing about. Here in town, they merged with other, less wholesome aromas to create a more dubious miasma. It brought a frown to his face. It just didnít strike him as healthy.

He climbed back aboard the buckboard and drove at a leisurely pace along Main Street to Eli Huxtonís General Store. There were a number of last minute but essential items that he needed to purchase for the cattle drive, and this was his final chance to do it. Winding the reins around the brake lever, he climbed down into the street. His boots sank a good way into the sticky surface. Ben pulled a face and set his hat firmly on his head. He was certainly looking forward to the longer, hotter days of summer when a man could walk on top of the ground instead of having to wade through it. Resolutely, he made his way though the mud to the steps and climbed onto the boardwalk.

Ben pushed open the door of the store. Immediately, a snarling, animated bundle of flying fists collided squarely with his midriff. Benís breath oofíed out of him, and he staggered back a long step. The bundle resolved itself into a pair of very grubby young men, aged about eight. They were clearly brothers, if not twins. They were of a height, dark haired and dark eyed. Both of them were too intent on venting their frustrations on each other to notice Ben Cartwright.

"Come on now, young fellas," Ben extricated the boys from the region of his belt buckle and held them at arms length by the ears. "Whatís all this about then?"

Both boys twisted and squirmed, but Ben wasnít about to let go. Heíd had a wealth of experience when it came to bickering boys. He looked them over, first one and then the other. They were not a savoury sight, although there was nothing wrong with them that a large quantity of hot water and some soap wouldnít cure. And some new clothes, he added as a qualifier to the thought. The ones they had were dirty in the extreme, smeared with mud from the street outside and what looked like the remains of several meals. "What are you two fighting about?"

The boys looked shame faced and sullen. Neither was prepared to answer him. Satisfied that the battle, for the moment, was over, Ben let go of the ears. He put his hands on his hips and assumed the severe expression that he had found made a suitable impression on very young men.

"Sir? I am so sorry if my boys have inconvenienced you." The voice was low - a womanís. It effectively defused the lecture Ben was about to deliver.

Ben looked up, his scowl fading. At about thirty, the woman had a face that had been pretty, once, and was now harassed and care-worn. Her formerly dark hair was streaked with grey. In addition to the two boys there were two more small children clinging to her skirts and, unless Ben missed his guess, another baby well on itís way.

"Maíam." He touched the brim of his hat and stepped aside to let her pass.

The woman thanked him and shepherded her brood out onto the walkway.

Ben handed his list over to Eli and took a moment to look round. The interior of the store was cool and vaguely damp. If Ben had been a gambling man, he would have laid odds that, right now, the whole of Nevada was damp. It smelled of leather boots and iron hoes, of lamp oil and soap. As a man concerned, in a very practical way, with firearms, he was interested to see the latest Springfield rifle in the gun-case on the wall.

As he was looking at it, the door opened, and Paul Martin came in. For once the doctor did not look his usually dapper self. His immaculate suit was a trifle rumpled. He appeared tired and pale, and there was a trace of stubble on his chin. Ben was concerned.

"Paul?"

"Ben." Paul held out his hand in greeting. There were shadows haunting his eyes, but his smile was genuine enough, if a little weary.

Paul and Ben had been friends for a very long time. Ben felt entitled to speak frankly. "You look as if youíre having a hard day."

"Hard day, hard month!" Paul shook his head, and a wry grin twisted his mouth. "Weíve got a typhoid epidemic running wildfire all over the east-side of town, and itís headed this way.

"So Roy was telling me." Ben was alarmed to see the state of his old friend.

Paul pinched the bridge of his nose; it was a brief submission to weariness that he would not usually confess to. How could he explain to his prosperous and wealthy friend the horrors he was subjected to, daily, in the poorest quarters of the town? Could he even begin to describe the extent of the human disaster that was taking place? Could he talk about the sick children who died? About the children whose sick parents had died? About the parents who had lost all their children? While Ben was something of a philanthropist, he lived in a world apart from poverty and squalor. Although he had suffered himself and could understand tragedy at an individual and personal level, could he begin to comprehend the catastrophe that was taking place right on his doorstep? Would it be fair to tell him about it? At that moment, Paul looked more tired than Ben had ever seen him. "Is Jenny all right?" he asked, "And the baby? No fever? No spots?"

"Theyíre just fine. I just put Jenny and Daniel onto the stage for Reno. Theyíre going to spend a few weeks with Jennyís sister in San Francisco."

"Well, thatís two I wonít have to worry about. The safest place to be right now is west of the mountains." Paul sighed. Ben felt he would have run a hand through his already disordered hair if it were a gesture he was given to. Paul looked at his friend critically. One thing he didnít want was the epidemic spreading beyond the limits of the town. "And yourself, Ben? And the boys?"

Ben smiled reassurance. "Joe and I are trailing the herd out tomorrow. Adam and Hoss are heading for the high country."

"Iím glad to hear it. Here in town the feverís reaching plague proportions. The further you are from people, the less likely you are to catch it."

"And what about you, Paul?"

For the first time in a long time, Paul laughed aloud. "Ben, Iím a doctor! I donít have time to get sick!"

Eli Huxton came back at that moment to tell Ben that his buckboard was loaded up and ready to go. Ben and Paul shook hands and wished each other well. While Paul went to make his purchases, Ben decided on a bite of lunch before heading back to the ranch.

Outside in the street, the woman was still trying to bring her unruly brood under control. The two boys were tussling again, down in the mud, and totally ignoring their motherís admonishments. Ben shook his head. She certainly had her hands full. And thinking of hands rather made him wish heíd had the chance to wash his own before eating Ė the ears of those boys had been none too clean. But that wasnít to be. Unconsciously wiping his palms against his pants, he headed for the Silver Dollar.

********




The herd was the largest that the Cartwrights had ever assembled. It represented a huge investment of time and labour, and when delivered to the cattle pens at the railhead, would increase the family fortunes by a considerable amount. Most of the steers were the brown and white Hereford cross that thrived on the high, dry ranges. Interspersed among them were typical Texas longhorns, and animals of a hugely muscular type with black, slightly curly coats. They all wore the distinctive brand of the Ponderosa pine. They filled to capacity the wide, shallow basin in the land that God might have created specially for the purpose of gathering them together.

The cattle were all on their feet and the hired hands had them milling slowly in a great, animated cartwheel. Their restless lowing carried clearly to the rim of the basin where the Cartwrights, father and three sons, sat on their horses, looking down. It was an immensely satisfying sight for all of them - the culmination of three yearís grinding and sometimes grim, hard work.

The four Cartwright men sat in a row along the rim of the basin, sharing, just for a moment, the pride of achievement and of ownership. Every one of them had worked his guts out to produce this herd.

From below, a lone horseman started up the hill. Charlie rode up and pulled his dark, slightly shaggy cow pony to a snorting stop. He touched his hat to Ben and nodded to the younger Cartwrights. "Morniní, Ben. Boys."

Smiling, Ben returned his nod. "Charlie. Howís it going?"

"Itís goiní," Charlie turned his head and spat amber coloured tobacco juice all the way to the ground. "Them steers has eaten jist about every blade oí grass in that valley. ĎTime ta move Ďem out, boss, Ďafore they starve."

Ben drew a long breath of satisfaction. He looked again at the restless, slowly turning herd. Beyond the cattle, on the far rim of the valley, the small horse herd that would provide remounts for the drovers was already on the move. Along with them went two covered wagons drawn by two-horse teams. One was the cook wagon driven by Pete Barnes, the other, containing the menís belongings, by a boy named Rolo that Ben had hired from town.

"Best get them started then, Charlie."

Charlie nodded again, turned his horse and set off back down the hill. Joe Cartwright grinned a final farewell at his brothers and kicked his pinto into motion, following the ranch foreman to work.

Ben turned in his saddle to look at his other sons. There was Adam, sitting hard by his stirrup on his favourite trail horse, and beyond him, Hoss astride his big, black gelding. Wearing their warm woollen coats and with gloves on their hands, they were all set to leave for the hills. The pair of packhorses that waited patiently alongside them carried all the gear they would need for the projected, month-long trip.

Hossís always-expressive face betrayed the excitement that he felt inside. Had he been asked, he would have confessed to being a happy man. For a good bit longer than a year he had been promising himself this adventure. Every time he had made plans something more urgent had come up to prevent him going. His brother had been shot and had taken a long time to heal. That had meant extra work for everyone, and especially for the family. All of them had been forced to stretch themselves thinly to cover the gaping hole Adamís incapacity had left in the workforce.

The Ponderosa was a working ranch, and, as the seasons rolled on, one essential job followed hot on the heels of another: the gathering, branding and castrating of cattle, the felling and transportation of timber and the replanting of small trees to replenish the forests. Then there was the maintenance of fence lines that stretched for a hundred miles and more, the breaking of horses and the clearing of scrub land for new pasture. They were all jobs that required the supervision of a Cartwright at some stage, if not his actual participation.

And then there were the incidental problems. The silver mine in which Ben had a substantial stake had inexplicably flooded; it had taken weeks to pump it dry, and no one was sure it wouldnít happen again. Kingdom Jones, Benís partner in the freight business, had been hit by a series of robberies in which no one had been hurt, but which had cost the business a lot of money. He had asked for help, and Ben had been glad to provide it, in the shape of Hoss, even if it had made things more difficult at home. The heavy rains had washed out a long stretch of road, which had to be repaired before the timber contract could be completed.

Work had started, and had continued intermittently, on the fancy new bathhouse Adam had designed and seemed to have set his heart on having. They had been required to provide two men to ride on a sheriffís posse, and on Christmas Eve, Jennyís Jacobís sheep had broken out of their pasture and his Pa had had apoplexy until they were all rounded up again. Hossís lips jerked into a little smile at the memory. He had even been required to take a trip to San Francisco to negotiate with the buying agents and to sign the contracts for next yearís timber and beef. It was a job Adam had always undertaken. Good experience, his father had said. Now, having done it himself, Hoss understood the quick wits and iron-hard nerves that it required. He had an even greater appreciation of his brotherís agile mind.

Looking across at Adam, Hoss was very glad to have him fit and well again. Adam sat tall and straight in the saddle. There was no trace of the terrible, hunched attitude that had characterized the early days of his recovery. His handsome features wore a slight frown of concentration as he studied the cattle, but otherwise, they were serene.

Hoss was glad to have him along on this trip. The Reserved Section was, by the common consent of the family, Hossís domain. He looked forward to asking the advice of his much admired and respected brother concerning the management of the land and of the wildlife that inhabited it. A trained and accredited engineer, Adam had poetry in his soul, and he would appreciate the way Hoss felt about all the wild places. And more, even, than that, Hoss was going to relish, pure and simple, the pleasure of his beloved brotherís company. Hoss knew for sure that he was really going to enjoy this trip. And when he got back, well - Hoss smiled a small and secret smile - when he got back, Hoss had very specific, personal plans.

Adam caught his eye and smiled - a sudden rare expression that lit his face like sunlight and dimpled his cheeks. He was looking forward to this trip as well, and for some of the same reasons. Hoss beamed back at him, and Ben smiled benevolently on them both.

Below them, under the careful control of the drovers, the cattle were starting to move in a slow stream towards the mouth of the valley. The menís whistles and shouts of encouragement mingled with the bellowing of the steers.

Adam clasped his hands together on his saddle-horn and sat way back in the saddle, stretching out his arms. "Ainít that the sweetest little herd oí doggies you ever did see?"

"Take a good long look, boys," Ben said, chuckling, "Itís the last youíll see of them."

The entire herd was moving now, an undulating tide of brown and black backs, stringing out across the range. Behind them they left the denuded pastures to regenerate and re-grow to feed next yearís steers. For the Cartwrights the time had come for more farewells.

Leaning well forward, Ben reached out and shook hands with Hoss across the withers of Adamís horse. "Have a good trip, son."

"I shore will, Pa." Hoss beamed a gap-toothed smile. Turning in his saddle, he spoke to the younger man beside him, "Címon, Jody, letís make some tracks for the high hills."

Together, the two men turned their horses and set off at a steady walk, the pack animals trailing along behind them.

Adam and his father regarded each other. Instinctively, both of them knew that this was an ending - possibly a parting of the ways. Adam had some very serious thinking to do. By the time they met again, he would be a different man with a whole new set of dreams and aspirations. Both of them hoped that they would find it possible to like each other. They tried to hold the moment, but, as moments will, it slipped away.

"Adam." Ben held out his big hand, iron hard, roughened and scarred by a lifetime of hard work.

Adam took it in his own: strong, lean, browned by the sun and the wind, pink palmed and pink padded. "Pa."

The handshake lasted for an extended time. The two men gazed into each otherís eyes. Benís were as deep a brown as a manís eyes could be, solemn, intense, deeply caring. Adamís eyes, with the sun in his face, were a light, bright hazel. Ben had a feeling that they were already fixed on the future. Each man etched the otherís features indelibly in memory.

A smile touched Adamís face. It moved his mouth and lifted his cheeks and put sparkle into his eyes. He backed his horse several steps, and then, with a last nod of respect, he turned the animal and rode to where his brother and Jody waited for him on a rise in the ground.

Ben sat his buckskin horse on the rim of the world and watched the last of the cattle move out. He felt hollowed out inside. There was a dull ache of loss in his heart. Already, he was missing his son with his lively, razor sharp intelligence, his insight and his intuition, his ready wit and sometimes acutely cynical humour, his rare, welcome laughter. He could only hope that, while today had indeed been an ending, it might also herald a new beginning.
 
 

********




Adam took the lead, following familiar trails that climbed through the higher pastures into wooded hills. He rode with an erect, alert posture, his head up and his fine shoulders well back; his lean, horsemanís hips were pushed well forward in the saddle. He set a steady pace, moving easily and with an unconscious grace to the horseís long stride.

Hoss was content to follow his brother. The big man wore a smile that, in recent days, had become permanently embedded in his face. He had selected his favourite, sturdily built, black trail horse and he quickly adjusted to the loping, ground covering pace that Adam had chosen. Born to the saddle, he rode well for such a heavily built man, swaying with the animalís gait. He trailed one of the packhorses on a long lead rope.

Leading the other packhorse, Joe Drury brought up the rear on a stocky bay that Adam and Hoss had picked out for him. It was an animal well suited to the steep hills and rough terrain of the hill country.

Jody had been surprised when the Cartwright brothers had asked him to ride with them. He had expected to go as a trail hand with the herd. Jody enjoyed the company of Hoss Cartwright. The big man had a sunny, easy-going disposition, and if he was a little slow with words, he had a deep insight into the natures of men and beasts alike. Jodyís relationship with Adam Cartwright was altogether a more complicated affair. Adam was a very complex man and hard to know. Intelligent and educated, articulate and artistic, Adam sometimes seemed out of place on a cattle ranch. There were moments when he was aloof from, even contemptuous of, the life that he and his brothers led. Nonetheless, he was friendly in his own, reserved manner, and he had put himself out, even when very ill, to give Jody the learning that he lacked. Jody regarded the big-built, darkly good-looking man with some awe and a shy liking. He was hoping that during this trip, he would get to know the elder Cartwright better.

By silent, common consent, Adam led the way, first, to the shores of the greater lake. On that particular morning, the vast expanse of fresh water, whose name meant ĎBig Waterí in the native tongue of the Washoe, was placid, disturbed only by dancing cats-paws and the inevitable flocks of waterfowl. It was an intense blue. With its surface more than six thousand feet above sea level, most of its twenty-two mile eastern shoreline constituted the western boundary of the Ponderosa. Although they regarded it with a proprietary interest, the Cartwrights lay no claim to the lake itself. The water that lapped the stony shore was clear and cold, and it belonged to no one.

As was their habit the brothers, Jody along with them, sat their horses and feasted their eyes upon the familiar but always changing panorama. Fed by numerous small streams and drained in the north by the Truckee River, the lake lay in a cleft in the hills. Its surface reflected perfectly the azure sky and the surrounding hillsides.

With very little shoreline to mark the boundary of water and land, the hills rose steeply. Widely spaced and sentinel, the trees that clothed them were the omnipotent Ponderosa pine. In all, it was a prospect of unbelievable beauty. It possessed a mysterious serenity that had the power to work magic in a manís soul Ė especially if the manís name happened to be Cartwright. Even Jody, who was not a Cartwright, felt it softly stirring.

Adam rode on a way, keeping close to the waterís edge. He allowed his horse to pick its own way among the stones and the huge white boulders that littered the shore. Hoss and Jody followed, the big man pointing out the details of the landscape as the sculpted hills revealed themselves, one behind the other.

At about midday they turned away from the water and shortly afterwards, Adam brought down a small mule deer with his saddle gun. He selected a young male animal that would yield tender meat and leave no dependent young to starve. They made short work of cleaning and skinning it, bundling the waste up in the hide and burying it in the ground. Wrapped in thick canvas, the muscle meat and internal organs would provide all the fresh meat the men needed for several days to come.

Now, Hoss took the lead. Eagerly he turned the head of his horse towards the higher hills. They followed less well-known paths and, sometimes, no path at all, urging the horses straight up the sheer hillsides. Hoss had been here before on other, shorter trips, and he knew the way he wanted to go. Adam was prepared to sit back in the saddle and let his brother cut the trail. This was, after all, Hossís trip.

Hoss guided the little party over the shoulder of a hill and into a small densely wooded valley. A crystal stream tumbled musically over a ledge of exposed rock and into a sheltered pool. Several ancient, half-decayed logs partially jammed the outlet Ė the remnants of an old beaver dam. Behind them, the water was dark and deep - a secret pool hidden away in the cusp of the hillside.

Hoss stopped his horse and looked back with a big grin. He waited while Adam and Jody rode up alongside,

"Hey, Adam, ainít that the prettiest little spot you ever did see?"

Adam leaned forward in the saddle to ease his butt and pushed back his hat. He looked around with narrowed eyes and an expression of amusement. Knowing Hoss as well as he did, he had a very good idea what his brother was thinking.

Sunlight danced on the shifting surface of the water. Trees jostled each other right up to the waterís edge - tough broad-leaves surviving against the odds in this secluded spot. The grass beneath the horseís hoofs had been nibbled to green velvet by the teeth of visiting deer. Adam returned his brotherís smile, "It surely is."

Hoss looked at the water and mischief sparkled in his eyes. "Are you thinkiní what Iím a thinkiní?"

"Could be that Iím way ahead of you." Adamís smile widened.

As one man, the two of them swung out of their saddles and started to strip off their clothes. Jody watched in open-mouthed amazement as two fully adult men raced with each other to see who could get out of his clothing the quickest. Hat, coats, boots, shirts and pants all came off in hurry; most of it hung, with the gunbelts, from the saddle horns. Unashamedly naked, they were a pair of huge, powerfully built men with bodies made hard and muscular by the lives that they led. Hoss was decidedly the larger: taller, broader in the shoulders and wider in the girth. His pale skin was finely furred in light coloured hair.

Adam was of a more compact build and altogether darker. His superb body was deeply bronzed above the belt line, less so below. His body hair was thicker and darker, a mat of tight black curls that covered his chest, narrowed over his lean belly and then widened again. It was easy to see why the ladies took such delight in his company. Even relaxed, Adam was a magnificently built man.

To the right of his navel, the scar on his belly was puckered and still purpled where the skin was thin. A slight frown touched Hossís wide face at the sight of it. It was a sharp reminder of how very close he had come to losing a much-loved brother. It still made him shiver deep inside.

Adam was unaware of Hossís discomfort. Hands on hips in a typical attitude, he looked up at Jody, "You just gonna sit there Ďní watch, boy, or are you cominí in ta cool yourself off?"

Jody wasnít feeling particularly warm. In fact, he was wondering if both men had entirely taken leave of their senses. Uncertainly, he dismounted and started to take off his clothes. He didnít want to be though unmanly. Besides which, the mood they were in, he didnít put it past the Cartwright brothers to dump him in the water fully clothed.

The two big men chased each other into the pool, shouting and laughing and splashing the water into each otherís faces. Jody, tentatively, followed.

They made a trail camp not far from the pool, still within the shelter of the trees. The water, runoff from the snows that still whitened the hilltops, was icy cold. Although noisy, energetic and refreshing, the swim had been necessarily short. All the men felt the need of a fire to warm them through.

Adam displayed his talents as a trail cook, slicing and frying the liver of the deer, together with onions and potatoes Hop Sing had provided. They finished the meal with coffee and a slab of sweet, dark fruitcake from the Chinese cookís kitchen.
 
 

As soon as the sun set behind the western mountains, the darkness, and the profound silence of the woods settled around them. They built up the fire to drive back the shadows and the chill of the night. The swim had relaxed them into a holiday mood. Replete and warm, Hoss and Adam related trail stories and tales of the lake to Jody until the wood burned down and the silver faced moon had climbed high into the sky. Jody yawned and rubbed a fist across his face in a gesture retained from childhood.

Hoss looked at his brother, "Adam, why donít you sing somethiní for us?"

Adam laughed and sat up straighter. He threw back his head and his fine baritone voice soared to the tops of the pine and beyond, into the night sky.

"The water is wide. I cannot get over.

And neither haveÖ I wings to fly.

Give me a boat, that will carry two.

And both shall row, my love and I"


When all the verses were finished Jody, content, wrapped himself in his blankets and lay back in his upturned saddle to sleep. The ground was hard, but not as uncomfortable as he had expected it to be. Gradually, he grew warm and the murmur of the menís voices lulled him towards sleep. He began his regular, nightly routine. He recited in his mind, and pictured as he went, all the combinations of cards that Nash had written down for him. He no longer needed the three, now dog-eared sheets of spidery writing. The hands and the pattern of play were embedded in his mind. As he drifted into slumber, his dreams were filled with Kings and Queens and Jacks and deuces.

The brothers sat and shared the deep companionship that only the best of friends experience.

Adam threw a few sticks on the fire and looked at Hoss across the renewed blaze. The expression he wore was a strange one. It was open and amenable enough, but his eyes were hooded, as if they concealed secret thoughts. "So, you finally made it the high country."

"Yup." Hoss grinned and gazed round at the surrounding, darkling trees. They loomed into the firelight. "Reckon as I did."

"What are your plans, now that youíre here?"

Unused to expressing himself fluently, Hoss fumbled for the words. "I was plannin ta ride south all the way ta the boundary line an then take a sweep through the high hills. I figure we should be back ta the house Ďbout the same time as Pa. Aní thenÖ" Hoss flushed scarlet. He guessed he had to get it said sometime. He drew a big breath and let it all out in a rush. "Aní then I plan on askiní Mary Fletcher ta marry me, Adam."

A slow smile spread across Adamís face. It was a natural, happy smile. Hossís words only served to confirm what he and his father had suspected for some time. He was as pleased for his brother as he could possibly be. Hoss was a good man with a kind and generous heart. He needed, and deserved, the love of a good woman. Little Mary Fletcher, practical and sweet natured, was ideally suited. "Sheíll make you a mighty fine wife, Hoss."

"I reckon as she will." Still blushing furiously, Hoss grinned at the thought. Then he sobered abruptly, "Say, Adam, donít you go telliní Pa nothiní Ďbout this. You know how he takes on. Heíll push me on up ta that altar quicker Ďn you can say rabbit pie! Iíll tell Ďim my own self jist as soon as Iím ready."

"I wouldnít dream of telling him a word." Adam wasnít about to reveal that their father already had wedding plans in mind.

For a while, they sat in silence, each of them thinking his own thoughts. Adamís face was brooding, shuttered, while the play of emotion across Hossís features was plain to see. He poked about in the embers of the fire with a stick. Finally, he looked up.

"Adam, what you gonna do?"

Adam raised a quizzical eyebrow, "Do?"

"Now that you got over that gunshot wound, what you gonna do with yourself? You gonna stay here on the ranch with us? Or you gonna go off aní see all them fancy places you always talkiní Ďbout?"

Adam gazed into the flames. Hoss always managed to amaze him. Obviously the big man had been thinking deep, quiet thoughts for a long time. He might have known that his reticent, slow-speaking brother would have the insight to ask aloud the very questions that he was putting to himself. Right now, he was uncertain of the answers.

Against all the odds, he had survived what should have been a lethal bullet wound. The fates had given him back his life and his future. Now that he had recovered his health, he was uncertain of the direction he wanted his life to take. He loved his family dearly, and he loved this land. His roots ran deep. But there was a restlessness in him, an un-quietness of spirit. He yearned to see other places and other peoples. It was a conflict he didnít know how to resolve.

He answered honestly; Hoss deserved that much.

"I donít know, Hoss. I havenít made up my mind."

Hoss drew up his knees and wrapped his arms round them the way he had as a child when he needed comfort. Adam recognized the gesture and it made his conscience ache.

Awkwardly, Hoss said, "Weíre gonna miss ya, Adam, iffen you decide ta go. Iím gonna miss you."

Adam pulled a long breath. He knew that whatever he decided, there were going to be a lot of moments like this. He framed his reply with the utmost care. "I know you will, Hoss. And Iíll miss you. Whatever happens, remember that Iíll be thinking of you, and that one day, Iíll be coming back."

Even as he said it, he knew that it was true. The land itself was his home, and he was tied to it by his blood.

Still troubled, but somewhat mollified, Hoss sat a while longer and then turned in. It was a while before he slept. Adam threw some more wood on the fire to make the shadows dance. He sat for a long time, staring into the flames and considering his options.

Four




Adam put his finger against his lips in the age-old gesture that commanded silence. Looking faintly ridiculous in high-heeled riding boots, the big, black-clad man tiptoed forward to the edge of the stream. Before he reached it, he lowered himself down and lay flat on his belly on the bank. He took off his hat and rolled the sleeves of his shirt up above the elbow. Following his example, Jody crept up beside him. Adam gave him a grin and a wink and slid his hand, fingers first, into the water.

Out in the center of the stream the water ran swiftly, but here under the bank there were deep holes where the flow was slower and less turbulent. The water was dark, crystal clear and icily cold.

Keeping their heads low, the two men peered over the edge of the bank. Without disturbing the surface, Adam slipped his arm in as far as his elbow and just a little bit further. Ignoring the cold, he reached right down into the depths of the pool. Remaining absolutely motionless, he shot Jody a warning glance. Keep still. Keep quiet. Holding his breath, Jody gazed into the water.

Very soon, he saw a dark, streamlined shape slide into the pool. He could see the rows of pale spots along the fishís back, the filmy fins fanning the water, the cold, dark eye. The fish hovered, suspended, weightless. Slowly, Adam moved his hand. He brought it up under the fishís belly. His long, strong fingers gently stroked the smoothly scaled sides. Un-alarmed, the fish settled a little, into the palm of Adamís hand.

Adamís face was a study of concentration. Lips parted, he pressed the tip of his tongue hard against the inside of his teeth. His eyes were intent. He drew a long, careful breath.

In one convulsive move, he grabbed the fish by the tail and flipped it out of the water and on to the bank. It flopped until Adam knocked it firmly on the head with his gun butt. He grinned at Jody and, without a word, slipped his hand back into the water.

Ten minutes later they had three, fat, brown, river trout lying on the bank. Enough to make a regal breakfast for all of them. Adam cleaned the fish swiftly, and they carried them back in triumph to where Hoss already had the fire burning brightly.
 
 

********

A long way from the boundary of the Ponderosa, the trail herd moved out of a narrow-necked, funnel-shaped valley onto a wider plain. It was drier here, a region of semi-desert with little free water and nothing for the animals to eat. In a different season the feet of the cattle would have kicked up a great cloud of dust to hang like a yellow pall over the herd. It was essential to keep them moving here, and with shouts and whistles and the pressure of the horses the drovers kept up a steady pace.

Ben sat on his horse and watched the river of steers flow by him. At that moment, his mind was not on the herd or even on the drive itself. His gaze kept drifting back the way they had come, toward the familiar, and now, far distant peaks of the mountains.

Charlie rode up on a leggy roan gelding and pulled in beside him. Chewing stoically, he looked his boss over.

"íYou still frettiní Ďbout that growed-up boy oí yours?"

"I guess I am, Charlie." Ben laughed gently at his own folly.

Charlie considered. He had known Ben Cartwright for a very long time: in good times, in bad times and in some terrible times. He had watched him raise those boys of his, and he knew just how much they meant to him. Charlie also knew the boys. He had watched two of them grow from childhood, and he had seen Adam turn into a man. He was surely different that first-born Cartwright son. He had a good brain on him and Ben had seen to it that he had a fine and fancy education. Charlie hoped that wasnít a mistake that was about to come home to roost. But then, he figured, with an inward sigh, Ben, being Ben, couldnít have done it any different. And Adam, being Adam, had needed that book learning like another man might need bread.

He leaned over the horseís shoulder and spat. Straightening, he said, "You donít want ta worry none about Adam, Ben."

Ben bit down hard on the bullet. "Heís restless, Charlie. Iím afraid he might leave us."

"Reckon he might." Charlie switched his wad from one cheek to the other and chewed on for a bit. "Reckon he might want ta take a look at some oí them fancy places in them books he looks at."

Shaking his head, Ben chuckled. Charlie could neither read nor write. He could only know of the places that Adam read about if Adam himself had told him. "Some of those places are a very long way from here."

"Thatís as may be. A man has ta git that sort oí thing plumb out oí his system aífore he cín settle down."

Ben remembered his own restlessness as a young man - his years at sea and his wanderings since. It had taken him a lot of years to find his place and put down the roots that bound him to this land. Had he been foolish to hope that what had been right for him would also be right for his son?

"íYou gotta remember," Charlie was saying, "Roads run both ways - goiní aní cominí." He looked at Ben quizzically, "Course, it could be that he donít want ta go no place at all."

The abrupt change in direction caught Ben unaware. "Charlie?"

"íCould be you just need ta give Ďim a little more line. Donít rein him in so hard. Adamís a full-grown man now, Ben, aní heís got his head screwed on realí straight. Man his age should have his hands on the reins already. The good Lord knows, thereís enough work on the ranch fer all of us. With that fancy education oí his and everything weíve managed ta git in ta his thick skull, might just be he can out figure the pair oí us. Give Ďim his head. He might just decide that he likes it right where he is."

Ben narrowed his eyes and looked again towards the distant peaks. He was about to say that Adam was no more than a boy when he realized that wasnít true at all. It hadnít been true for a very long time. He shook his head ruefully. Looking back, he could see that he had been squandering his very best asset Ė using his highly intelligent, educated, motivated son as, often, little more than an errand boy. Heíd had him digging holes for fence posts when he could have been arranging the cattle drives and lining up buyers for the herds. Heíd had him hauling on a strap saw when he should have been using his quick wits to negotiate contracts for selling and shipping the timber. He spent his time standing behind his fatherís shoulder watching when he might have been utilizing his remarkable engineering skills to design equipment and organize systems to get the work done. He was financially astute. He had a sound business head and a razor sharp mind. There was no doubt that Adam was quite capable of running each and every aspect of the family business with no trouble at all. Perhaps Charlie was right. It was time to let him get on and do it.

He resolved to have a long talk with Adam just as soon as he got home from the hills; he would find out what he wanted to do and make it possible for him to do it right where he was. It could be that he could make the boy Ė the man Ė an offer he wouldnít want to refuse. He felt a calmness enter his soul. Hopefully, Adam would stay. If he decided to go Ė well, he would always have a place to come back to. Ben had to believe that whatever Adam decided to do it would be the right thing for him. He could only hope that one day the magical spirit of the lake would draw him home and keep him there. "I think youíre right, Charlie."

Charlie nodded and drew himself up straight. "Well, you think on it some," he said. "Reckon his roots go deep here. Wouldnít do him no good at all ta tear Ďem out." Touching his heels to the roanís sides, he lifted the gelding to a canter and rode away after the herd.

Ben sat a while longer, contemplating. Then he made a conscious effort to dispel the melancholia. He had a herd to deliver to market. He gathered up his reins and kicked his horse into a canter.

********




Adam was content to ride second in line behind his brother and pull the packhorse. Hossís enthusiasm for this land was infectious. The big man simply couldnít keep the beaming smile off his face, and every time he saw it, Adam felt his own lip quirking in quick response.

It was a magnificent country, and now that he had come to terms with his own confusion, he was able to sit back and enjoy it. Following a nightís anguished soul-searching, Adam had still not arrived at a reasoned and reasonable decision. He was torn two ways. He could take a year, or may be two, to see the wonders that the world had to offer. He could visit the great cities of Europe: London, Rome and Athens. He could travel to Egypt - even as far as India. Perhaps that would finally quell the wanderlust in his soul, sate the need he had to see new people and learn new things. Perhaps then he would be content to come home.

Another part of his mind, a part he hardly dared to acknowledge, wanted to plough right in and help his father manage the vast, and ever expanding, business-empire that the ranch was becoming. With interests in cattle, timber, mining, freight and shipping and the new petroleum extraction in the north, the family needed his acumen and expertise. And with the coming of the railroad and the advent of a new and modern world, it was essential for someone with a grasp of up to date business methods to have some say in the running of things. Somehow, he doubted that his father would see matters in quite the same light, but in his heart that was what Adam felt that he wanted to do.

When he got home he was going to have a long, hard talk with his Pa. Adam anticipated some interesting conversations.

Adam was totally unaware of how closely his deliberations mirrored those of his father. If he had known, he might not have been surprised.

Hossís horse stopped abruptly in the path in front of him, and Adamís gelding pulled up sharply. Adam was jolted out of his reverie. Hoss was swinging down out of his saddle, a frown eclipsing the sunny expression on his face. Something on the ground had attracted the big manís attention, and now he hunkered down beside it, trailing his horseís reins from his hand.

"Hey, Adam, címon down aní look at this."

Adam climbed down and dropped the ends of his reins on the ground. He had no fear that his horse would wander. He joined his brother, crouching on the forest trail.

"Lookee here." Hoss moved a twig and a leaf, and then Adam could see what his sharp-eyed brother had spotted from the saddle. Something large and heavy had walked over this trail and not too long ago. There was a broad depression on the surface litter, and, very close, another. Hoss pointed and Adam followed with his eyes. He could see were a huge creature had crossed the trail diagonally from right to left.

"Thatís a big olí grizzly bear walked through there, Adam," Hoss said.

"I didnít know there were any grizzlies still left in these hills."

"There ainít many and thatís fer sure. They was all but hunted out oí here ten - fifteen years ago."

"I remember Pa having trouble with bear when we first ran cattle here. They used to take the young stock regular. Havenít seen sign oí one for years now."

"What there is left usually stays up in the high country." Hoss nodded towards the bulk of the mountain range. "Itís realí unusual ta find one down in these hills. ĎSpecially at this time oí year." He moved along, still bending, studying the marks on the ground.

Jody joined Adam and looked at the big, soft paw-print in wonder. Adam showed him the way the pads had spread to take the animalís weight, and the little scrape marks made by the long, straight, razor-sharp claws.

"Adam!" Hoss made an urgent, beckoning gesture, calling his brother over. He had found another paw-print, and it was worrying him. Leaving the horses, Adam and Jody joined him. "This here bearís got a hind foot thatís all crippled up." Hoss pointed out the details in the track. "íDonít look like he cín hardly put no weight on it at all. Heís limpiní real bad."

Adam studied the sign in the dirt and then straightened. "That would explain why heís come all the way down into these hills. With a bad foot, heíll be finding food hard to come by."

A scowl darkening his face Hoss stood beside him. The two of them gazed towards the thicker trees that clustered away to the left Ė the way the grizzly had gone. Jody could feel a sudden and, to the young man, unaccountable, tension emanating from them. Their relaxed attitude had dissipated abruptly. The wind blew cold across the hillside and made him shiver inside his coat.

Hoss said, "Weíre gonna have ta go after him, Adam."

Adam planted his hands firmly on his hips. "I know how you feel about animals in pain, Hoss, but chasing after an injured grizzly through this sort of country isnít a good idea."

"Heck, I know that. It ainít just that heís sufferiní. Iffen that critter keeps on moviní the way heís goiní, heíll get in among the yearling herd in the south section. We could lose one hell of a lot of stock."

Adam thought about it. "I guess youíre right. But I donít like it."

"Canít say as Iím so keen on it myself, big brother, but I donít see as we got any choice."

Adam sighed. "Címon, Jody. Letís get the horses aní get after him before he gets too far ahead of us."

They started back towards where they had left the ground-tied animals. Jody shot Adam an anxious look. "What Ďre you gonna do when you catch him, Adam?"

"Weíre gonna shoot him, Jody."

"Shoot him?"

Adam laughed without humour. "An adult grizzly stands twelve feet tall and weighs the best part of a thousand pounds. In a good mood, heís mean. Wounded, and hungry, heíll tear your head off, any chance he gets." He put his foot in the stirrup and lifted himself into the saddle. He looked at Jody. There was concern in his face and grey shadows shifting in his eyes. "You keep close now. A grizzlyís quick and heís clever. He can run faster than a horse, and when he figures out that weíre huntiní him, he could lay in wait for us, up ahead, or even circle around to get behind us."

Seeing the look on Adamís face and hearing the tone of his voice, Jody found his mouth had suddenly gone dry. What had started as a pleasant little holiday jaunt into the hills had turned unexpectedly into an affair with much more serious overtones.

Adam looked at him a moment longer, trying to ascertain if the young man had understood his warning and was fully aware of the very real danger they were riding into. An enraged, adult grizzly bear was not a creature to be trifled with. He turned in the saddle and nodded to Hoss. The big man was the expert tracker in the family. "You lead the way."

Still scowling, Hoss nodded curtly, "He ainít that far ahead oí us. You keep your eyes peeled realí good."

Kicking his horse into motion, Hoss rode off the path to follow the trail of paw prints that angled into the trees. Jody noticed that as he moved off after him, Adam loosened his saddle gun in the sheath beneath his knee.

********




Although they had heard of the vast, sprawling spread that lay somewhere to the north, at exactly what point the trio of trappers had crossed the boundary line and rode onto the Ponderosa, they neither knew, nor cared. The Southern border of the ranch was unfenced and marked only on the maps in the land registry and on the documents that the Cartwrights held. The trappers knew only that, as they had travelled north, the hunting had become better and the prey animals more prolific. It was as if they had been undisturbed for a long time. Secluded valleys and small, protected pockets of woodland had provided rich pickings. Half the mules were now laden with furs.

As they rode, they spent just a few days in each spot to set and clear traps and to preserve the skins they took. When they moved on, they left long lines of snares behind them in a host of likely places, and many savage-jawed traps for the larger animals. Their intention was to ride back over the same path and collect any hides that were worth salvaging on the way back.

Here, they were high above the snow line. White drifts lay thick in all the shady places, and where the weak sun shone, there were dirty patches of slush. Many of the hillsides were bare of trees and denuded of other plant-life. The tall pine alone survived here, widely and evenly spaced. They provided little shelter from the wind that blew steadily out of the mountains and sighed through their branches.

Huddled in his oilskin coat against the bitter chill, Bojun sat stiff legged in his saddle. He sipped slowly at a jug of liquor while he watched Lighterman deal with the last capture from last nightís traps. It was only a minuteís work with a broad-bladed knife to strip the fox of its precious black, silver-tipped fur and to clean the scraps of flesh and fat from the inside of the pelt. Lighterman applied a good handful of saltpetre to the raw side of the skin and rolled it tightly. That night when they camped it would have to be stretched on a wooden frame and set to dry.

Perriot straightened up from examining the forefoot of a mule. The animal had been walking lame for some time and despite being excused the duties of carrying a load, it showed no signs of improvement. Perriotís bearded face was grim. "This one ainít gonna walk no further."

Lighterman glared. "Weíre gonna need all the Goddamn mules ta carry these hides out Ďo here! We ainít pulled it all this way ta git no work outa it!"

Perriot gazed at him bleakly. "There ainít no cause fer you ta git all fired up, íBel. The mules we got left cín carry all the pelts weíre gonna git."

In furious appeal, Lighterman turned to Bojun, "íN what if we pick up more skins than we cín carry?"

Bojun eyed him, "It werenít more Ďní a few days past Ďyou was whininí that we werenít gonna get no hides. Reckon you change your tune mighty fast."

"That ainít the point! That Goddamned mule cín carry a load out Ďo here, lame or not!"

Perriot shook his head. "There ainít no point in it. ĎSides, I donít like ta see nothiní suffer fer nothiní"

Lighterman spluttered furiously, spittle wetting his black beard, "You just gonna let Ďhim shoot it?"

Bojun hung the liquor jug from his saddle horn by the cord around its neck. He rubbed his hand up and down his aching thigh and gazed calmly a Lightermanís angry face. His expression spoke volumes. By now he had only cold contempt for this young hothead, and he didnít care to conceal the fact. The critteríll only slow us down," he said "Could do with some fresh meat in the pot, anyways." Bojun looked over Lightermanís head at Perriot. "You do what you gotta do."

Perriot pulled out his gun and turned towards the mule. Lighterman spun Ďround, rage blazing in his dark eyes. He could foresee yet another cut in the potential profits from this expedition and in his own share. His face worked and his hands clenched spasmodically. It was in his mind to do something decisive and permanent to stop Perriot killing the mule.

Then he became aware of Bojun shifting in his saddle. Sitting behind and above him on the back of his horse, the grizzled trapper was ideally placed to forestall any move Lighterman might make. If Lighterman had touched his gun there would have been more than one man lying dead on the hillside. These two wouldnít be the first Bojun had left behind him. Lighterman turned. Sure enough, Bojun was watching him narrowly and with an almost eager expectancy. Lighterman unwound the tension in his body and made himself relax. His snarl turned into a sneer. Abruptly, he turned and walked away towards his horse.

Perriot sent a sour look of scorn after him. Then he shot the mule and pulled out his skinning knife.

********




Joe Drury dismounted and took a few long steps off the trail to relieve the pressure in his bowel. After a bright, if chilly morning, it had degenerated into a grey, damp, and unpleasant afternoon. The rain had been falling for hours - a dismal, cold drizzle blown into the menís faces by the wind. The light undergrowth at the trailís edge was wet around Jodyís ankles, and water dripped steadily from the branches that hung over his head. He was heartily glad of his thick, oiled wool coat and of the hat that kept the cold rivulets of water from running down his neck.

Since the discovery of the grizzly bearís paw print, the Cartwright brothers had become taciturn and watchful. They had done little more than exchange monosyllabic sentences for the past hour. Their eyes, hard and alert, searched the gloomy, grey-green woodlands as they rode through them. Hoss still led the way, following the tracks of the lame bear along what seemed to be an old animal path. Often, he stopped and leaned a long way out of the saddle, scanning the ground; sometimes he got down from his horse to examine the paw prints at close quarters. When he remounted his expression was always grim. Jody noted that Adam had drawn his saddle gun and, for the last hour, had ridden with the butt of it resting on the edge of his saddle. The two men, still mounted, waited for him on the trail.

Finished with his personal business, Jody stood up and reached down for his pants.

Over on the trail, one of the packhorses threw up its head and squealed, a startlingly loud sound in the dark, dripping forest. Jodyís saddle horse and the other packhorse, roped to Adamís saddle, started to dance in the path. Their nostrils flared wide, and their rolling eyes showed white.

Hoss and Adam twisted in their saddles. Their faces registered alarm as they cast about for the cause of the disturbance. All the horses were panicking now, prancing about and tossing their heads as they scented something frightening in the wind. Adamís packhorse reared. Adam freed the lead rope and cast the animal loose.

Behind Jody, in the denser, darker bushes, something stirred. There was a crashing, and a thrashing, and a crack of breaking branches. A huge, formless shape loomed out of the shadows. Turning, Jody glimpsed a towering grey-brown beast. He saw enormous paws and claws and gaping jaws lined with discoloured, dagger-like teeth. He caught the reek of foul breath full in the face. Adam Cartwright yelled a warning.

Jodyís saddle horse took to his heels and bolted. The pack animals took off after it; one of them slipped in the trail and tumbled head over heels. It rolled on its side and it didnít get up. Adam fought for the control of his own horse. He struggled to bring the long gun to bear on the target.

With a strangled shout of terror, Jody took a long step backwards, his pants still hanging somewhere about his knees. With his legs tangled, he tripped and yelped as he went down hard on his butt.

Enraged, the grizzly came after him. Balanced on its huge hind legs, it stood a good twelve feet tall, and it walked erect, just like a man. A hoarse, hissing roar came from deep in its chest, and Jody was engulfed in another gust of rancid, animal breath.

Adam screamed something incomprehensible at him as his terrified horse buck jumped and tried to rid itself of him. Hossís mount had swung around, and the big man found himself facing the wrong way. He sawed furiously on the reins.

The bear lunged at Jody, dropping to all fours. Jody, on his back amid the wet bushes, scrambled away. The bear swiped at him with a mighty forepaw. Jody threw up a hand to protect his face. He felt the snag of vicious claws in his sleeve and sudden, sharp pain in his arm. The bear reared up again, its full-throated roar deafening in the young manís ears. It readied itself for a final attack.
 

Adam, still battling with his struggling horse, finally got off a shot.

Either he was an extremely skilful marksman, or he was just plain lucky. At much closer range than he liked, Jody saw the great ursine head erupt and gout with blood as the heavy ball smashed through the roof of its mouth and exited through the back of its skull - carrying a goodly portion of brain material with it. Dead in an instant, the mountainous creature stood poised, teetering on the pillars of its hind legs. Then it crashed to the ground at Jodyís side.

Witless with fear, Jody squawked, crabbed sideways, turned on his hands and knees and fled.

Adam, off his horse now, grabbed him by the arm. The elder Cartwrightís eyes were wild, and he was breathing hard. With all his physical strength he yanked Jody out of there. Jody clung to him and, staggering, they beat a hasty retreat.

Hoss had a grim expression and the business end of his saddle gun aimed at the fallen bulk of the bear, but the creature did not move again. The three men crouched together on the path, drawing comfort from each other while they got their breath back and gathered their scattered wits. Trying not to snivel, Jody struggled, one-handed, to get his pants back in place.

Adam pulled a long breath and wiped a hand across his face. Recovering himself, he looked at Jody, and his face took on an expression of concern.

"Youíd best let me take a look at that arm."

Jody looked down at himself and found that the sleeve of his coat was ragged and soaked in blood. The sight of it made him feel sick all over again. His arm was starting to burn with pain.

Adam knelt in the mud of the trail and helped the young man ease his arm out of his sleeve. His shirtsleeve was in tatters and there were three long gouges in his forearm. Two of them were shallow and just oozing blood. The central one was deep and bleeding steadily. Adam had seen worse. He looked at Jodyís pale face and knew that the boy was feeling faint at the sight of his own blood. He gave him a reassuring grin.

"Youíre lucky you had your coat on. A swipe like that should have taken your arm off at the shoulder."

For some reason what was intended as friendly reassurance didnít help. If anything Jodyís skin became paler. Adam showed him how to hold the edges of the wound together while he bound it firmly with strips of cloth.

Hoss walked down the trail and looked at the stricken packhorse. The animal was still alive but he had broken both forelegs in the fall. Hoss shot him on the spot. His face screwed up in anguish, the big man went over to look at the bear.

As he had guessed, it was a gigantic male animal. Adamís ball hadnít left much of the head intact. The body was solidly muscled. The forepaws were twice the size of Hossís big hands. As he looked the carcass over, Hossís frown deepened into a scowl. His lips compressed into a thin line of anger and his jaw set.

"Hey, Adam, Ďreckon you better come on over aní look at this."

Adam helped Jody to his feet and draped the young manís coat around his damaged arm. "You stay here with the horses."

Adam went over and hunkered down beside his brother. Jody hesitated, then followed. He felt the need to know what was going on. Both the Cartwrights eyed him a little strangely, but neither of them said anything. Stern faced, Hoss pointed out what he had found.

"Lookee here at this critterís foot, Adam. Heís had it caught in one oí them snap-jaw traps. ĎChewed half his danged leg off ta git free."

Sucking at his teeth, Adam took a good look. The bearís back leg was badly mangled, and from the smell of it, it had happened about a week back. It was no wonder it had been lame and limping. Adam sat back on his haunches and squinted round at the surrounding trees as if trying to extract their secrets from them. He stated the obvious. "No oneís been trapping in these hills for years."

Hossís face was all scrunched up. He ran his hand through the grizzly bearís coarse, silver tipped coat. "Someoneís sure trappiní Ďem now, Adam." It was as if the big man felt the pain the bear had endured. Agony emanated from him.

Standing, Adam let go the long breath he had been holding. "He could have travelled a long way, Hoss. Even with a foot like that."

Hoss straightened up beside him. "I donít like the idea oí no one trappiní in these here hills."

"I know you donít. Right now I donít see that thereís a whole lot we can do about it."

Two chips of blue ice, Hossís angry eyes glittered. Adam saw the big fists clench tight.

"If someoneís trappiní on our land, I cín sure as heck do somethiní Ďbout it."

Adam shook his head. Ever practical, he said, "Not this trip. Tomorrow weíll have to head back. Jodyíll need a doctor to look at that arm."

"Hey, no!" Jody leapt up. "We donít have taí go back Ďcause oí me!"

The look that Adam gave him was more than a little jaundiced. "And what will your Ma say if you get an infection. Or soured blood? Or gangrene? More to the point," Adam smiled wryly at the thought, "What would our Pa say?"

Jody blanched and clutched his injured arm against him. He hadnít thought about any of those things and didnít know which of them he feared most: illness, his motherís distress, or Ben Cartwrightís wrath. Adam knew what he was thinking and cocked him a grin. "Címon, letís light a fire and get that arm cleaned up."

They made a night camp a bit further up the trail where there was water bubbling out over a rock and a break in the trees. Both Adam and Hoss were regaining some of their former good spirits. Although Hoss continued to fret about the possibility of trappers on the ranch, for the Cartwrights, the immediate problem of the bear was over and the danger dealt with. Jody found it harder to put the matter behind him. Every time he closed his eyes, and sometimes when he didnít, he saw the monstrous beast looming over him and smelled the rank stench of its breath.

He ground his teeth together and blinked the bright tears from his eyes as Adam Cartwright carefully sewed together the edges of the deeper gash. Adam packed the wounds with a yellow ointment that he had in his gear and bound them up with clean cloths.

That evening they ate a supper of stewed deer meat and crisp biscuits. The food made everyone feel better, but the rain was still falling. They had to rig up a canvas shelter before nightfall to sleep under and to keep the fire burning. Adam and Hoss sat beside the fire, quietly discussing the likelihood of poachers while Jody, suddenly and unaccountably weary, lay down in his blankets to rest. He lay awake a long time, listening to the soft tones of the menís voices. His arm burned and throbbed by turns, and it was a long time before he slept.

********




So far, the steers had travelled well. Moving at a slow but steady pace, they had covered a good many miles since they had left the home range. At sundown, the drovers bedded them down in a shallow valley. Still in desert country, there was no water for them or any grass for them to eat. Ben was not concerned. He had ridden this trail many times before and he knew that tomorrow they would come to a watering place close by a little town called Maryville. If he remembered rightly, it wasnít all that much of a town, but the grazing would give the cattle a much-needed chance to rest and feed. And doubtless the men would take the opportunity to unwind in one of the townís three Ė at the last count Ė saloons.

Riding side-by-side, Ben and Charlie made a last, leisurely circuit of the herd as it settled for the night. Neither of them cared much for the way the thunderheads kept building up over the distant hills. Mostly though, the storms dissipated long before they drifted out over the flat lands. Charlie chewed, spat and said phlegmatically that he hoped their luck held. Ben offered up a heartfelt agreement to that. Tonight, at least, the sky was clear, and the fair faced moon rode high overhead, just a fraction past full. It touched the backs of the cattle with silver light and illuminated the way ahead for the horsemen.

Pete Barnes had produced a standard trail meal of beef stew and soda bread. By the time they had settled the cattle and climbed down from their horses, all the men were ready for it. As it turned out, there was nothing standard about the meal itself. The stew was thick with grains and root vegetables, the gravy was rich, and the bread was soft and spongy. Everyone, including Ben, wanted second helpings, and there was enough in the pot to provide them.

After eating, Charlie rode off to set the night watch on the herd. Ben, replete with food and tired after a long day in the saddle, settled himself down beside the fire with a cup of coffee in his hands and a pot sitting in the embers to provide refills. He noticed that there was some activity over by the baggage wagon. With a storm lantern overhead and boxes to act as table and chairs, Peter Nash was setting up a game of cards.

Ben was a man who played infrequently himself, and then only with friends, but he knew there were a number of gamblers among the trail crew, and most of the men enjoyed an occasional game. Three of the keenest were the first to sit down with Nash and the others gathered round. Ben noticed that the Prior brothers, who rode with Nash, were interested spectators only; none of them was prepared to draw a hand. He was rather less amused to see his younger son in close attendance. The game was rapidly becoming a spectator sport, and shortly, Ben got up and wandered over to take a look for himself.

With a pack of cards in his hands, Nash was a man of exceptional skill. His long, agile fingers cut, shuffled, and dealt across the makeshift table with speed and accuracy. Tonight, looking curiously out of place in a trail camp, he wore his black dress coat and a black hat pulled well down. Only the gleam of his eyes showed below the brim; his handsome face was alert and friendly, but, essentially, it gave nothing away.

Joe Cartwright liked to play poker. He was good at it and often won. He liked to think that he was very good at it. He stood in the forefront of the small crowd and watched the fall of the cards with an avid interest. The money, mostly low stakes of a dollar or two, ebbed and flowed around the table. But generally it seemed to gravitate towards Nash. The man played quickly and well and with a cheerful efficiency. One by one, as the cowhands found their pockets empty, they vacated their seat and another man sat himself down. Joe had a few dollars in his pocket, and they were starting to burn a hole. Joe touched the tip on his tongue to his lower lip.

Right next to him, a seat became vacant as a cowboy lost his last dollar. Without any conscious decision, Joe slipped into the empty place. Carefully not looking in the direction of his fatherís dark eyes, Joe grinned across at Nash.

Just for a moment, Pete Nash hesitated, his diamond bright eyes fixed on Joeís face. Joe knew the reason for it; he was the bossís son. Joe wasnít about to let an accident of birth get in his way. He had his eyes on the pile of coin and paper money that had accumulated in front of Nash, and it was in his mind to take some of it away from him. He pulled out his wallet and extracted a thin sheaf of notes. "Címon, Pete. Deal the cards will ya?"

Nash relaxed and smiled his friendly smile. "Table stakes only, Joe. Weíre playing five-card draw, Jacks or better to open. Okay with you?" He liked to have the rules clear before he took a manís money. "Sure," Joe muttered. Draw was really more Adamís game with lots of mulliní the hand over and tryiní to out fox the other players. He really preferred stud. It was faster and more wide open, but what the hell, he could play either one.

Nashís lean fingers danced, and he started to deal out the cards. With the inward thrill of anticipation that was the thing he enjoyed the most, Joe picked up his hand. He held a five of diamonds, a Queen of clubs, a four of diamonds, a Queen of diamonds and a Queen of hearts. Three Queens! Three big ladies on the first deal Ė a damn fine hand in any manís game! Actually he had three diamonds on a flush as well, but he wasnít crazy enough to throw away a pair of Queens in the hope of drawing two more diamonds.

"Youíre under the gun, Joe," Nash told him. "Can you open?" Seated to the dealerís immediate left, it was up to Joe to make the first bid or pass. They had all anted a quarter into the pot before the deal, so there was already a dollar on the table. Joe didnít want to scare off the other players by opening with a big bet. He pretended to think it over and finally said with mock reluctance, "Guess Iíll risk another quarter."

T.J., the remuda wrangler, was sitting across the table from Nash. The deal had delivered him nothing more than a pair of sevens. ĎA smart man would fold,í he thought to himself as he plunked down his quarter and grudgingly said, "See you."

"I ainít playiní this mess," complained Huey Worth and pitched in his hand face down. His seat was on Nashís right. Nash studied his hand. He had a pair of Aces and three small cards of little use. "Reckon Iíll see one round," he said and pushed out a quarter. "Itís up to you, Joe; you raising?"

Joe shook his head. "Not me." T.J. nodded his agreement. Nash hadnít learned much on that round except that T.J. wasnít happy with what he was holding. Open-faced and friendly, the young puncher wasnít much of a bluffer.

Nash picked up the deck. "Whatíll you gents have?" he asked. "Iíll take one." Joe hesitated just a second and then placed his four of diamonds face down on the table. Nash dealt him one replacement card face down. T.J. tossed away two cards and received two fresh ones. "Dealer takes three." Nash set down the deck, discarded the three worthless cards from his hand, picked up the deck again and dealt himself three more cards. Pete Nash didnít cheat at poker, and he was careful never to give the impression that he did.

Joe slid his new card into his hand, schooled his face to show nothing and glanced casually down. A thrill shot through him like a jolt of lightening. He was holding a five of spades. He had a full house! It was all he could do to keep from whooping and hollering aloud. T.J. looked at his cards and sighed. Nashís face remained an agreeable mask as he added his new cards to his hand. He now had three Aces. "Itís up to you, Joe," he grinned. "You opened."

Joe ran a thoughtful hand through his curls. "Well," he said at last. "I see a dab of improvement here. Guess Iíll risk a dollar." T.J. groaned aloud and folded his hand. "Ainít no dang use sending good money to chase after bad," he remarked to the crowd in general. Nash pushed out two well-worn bills. "Iíll see your buck and up it one more."

Joe thought it over. Nash would have to be holding four of a kind or better to beat his full house. The odds were heavily against it. Still, if he bet too high, heíd scare his opponent out of the game with only a small pot to be won. "Iíll see your raise and kick in another two." He stacked three more dollars on the pile. Nash tugged on an earlobe and winked at Joe. "Expect Iím just paying to see your hand, amigo, but Iíll call." He added another two dollars to the pot.

Joe spread his cards. "Queens full; read Ďem and weep! Yes, sir, some folks are purely born lucky."

"That shore beats me," Nash said pleasantly as Joe raked in the $10.00 pot.

The deal moved left to Joe for the next hand. He ended up with two pair: tens and sixes. T.J. couldnít improve his sorry hand and folded fast muttering forlornly, "This ainít no hand; itís a foot." Huey opened and bid a couple of rounds on a pair of Aces, but folded when the bid went up from a quarter to fifty cents. The draw saw Nash supplement his two Kings with a pair of Jacks for footmen. Joe lost six of the ten dollars he had just made on that round.

The game continued for some time with small ups and downs for all the players. Watchers began to drop away and crawl into their soogans. They would be turning out before daylight. Joe was about $12.00 ahead when the deciding hand was dealt. The deal had returned to Pete Nash. Huey had dropped out two hands earlier and been replaced by Stubby Longbough, a tough little puncher and long-time Ponderosa hand.

Everybody put their quarter in the ante, and Nash flipped out the cards in a blur of pasteboard. Joe picked up his hand and studied it. He held a Queen, Jack, ten, nine and a three of mixed suits, four cards on a straight with both ends open. He knew the odds were five to one against making it. Adam had forced him to memorize the odds when he first began playing for money, but his luck had been fair all night. He couldnít open, but if someone else did he would go for it.

T.J. opened for another quarter. He had a pair of Aces and three indifferent cards. Stubby was disappointed to find he held an ice-cold hand. He had three clubs led by a King and not much else. Because he wanted to play, he decided to see the bet around once and hope they went straight to the draw. Nash was pleased to see his hand held four small hearts: a three, a four, a seven and an eight along with a Jack of spades. He calmly added his two bits to the pile as did Joe in his turn.

"Cards, fellows?" Nash asked and picked up the deck. Joe took one. T.J. took the full three, and Stubby called for two. Nash dealt himself one card. Joe drew a deep breath and looked at his cards. He had swapped his useless three for a King. He had a King high straight. T.J.ís draw hadnít improved his two Aces one bit. As opener it was up to him to bid first. He checked. Stubby hadnít filled his club flush and ended up with only a pair of fours. He checked as well.

Nash had discarded his Jack of spades and drawn a two of hearts. He now held a low-end flush. Apparently neither T.J. nor Stubby had much of a hand, but he was unsure about Joe Cartwright. It was hard to tell in the flickering lamplight, but the kidís cheeks looked a little brighter. He wanted a better feel for a hand he thought might prove productive. He checked.

"Looks like itís up to you Joe," he said. Joe felt luck flowing to him, but he bet with cool indifference. "Iíll take a chance on fifty cents." He tossed out two quarters. T.J. saw his fifty cents, but didnít raise. Stubby wisely folded his hand. Nash appeared to think deeply then said, "Iíll see your fifty cents and raise you a dollar."

Nash didnít seem all that sure, and Joeís blood ran high. Maybe he could lure the gambler into sweetening the pot. "Dollar to me, huh? Probably foolhardy, but Iíll see it and bump you up another dollar." T.J. was curious about the game Joe and Nash were playing. If they were both bluffing, he might win a decent pot. He saw the $2.00. Nash paused, sighed deeply, scratched an eyebrow. "You tryiní to bluff this olí boy out, Joe? Reckon as how I got to keep you honest. Iíll see your raise and raise you $5.00."

ĎDamn,í Joe thought. ĎIs he trying to buy the pot? Iím not lettiní that happen!í "Your five and five more." T.J. wasted no time throwing in his cards. "This here gameís too rich for a poor waddy like me," he said and stood up.

Nash studied his hand. He seemed very hesitant. "Five to me, eh? You shore fancy that hand. Think Iím gonna have to ask you to prove how much Ė your $5.00 and $10.00 more. Joe considered; he wasnít ready to quit, and after all, Nash had checked on that first round after the draw. If it were such a great hand, he would have bet it. "Your $10.00 and $10.00 more," Joe said.

Nashís response was quick. "Raise you $20.00." That was a shock. Joe glanced at his money. They were playing table stakes; he couldnít get up and try to borrow more from Charlie or one of the Priors. He had about $27.00 left before him. He shoved it all into the pot. "Your $20.00ís covered and $7.00 more. Itís all Iíve got."

Nash could have raised again and forced Joe to fold, but he didnít think it was smart to make an enemy of the bossís son. "Iíll just call then," he said good-naturedly and added $7.00 to the pile. There was now better than $120.00 on the table. $60.00 of it was Joeís. Joe spread his hand. "A King high straight." He reached for the pot.

"Hold on a minute there!" Nash fanned out his hand. Joe saw only a jumble of small, red cards. "Why, you donít have a damn thing," he said.

"Look again, son. That thereís a heart flush, and it still beats a straight." Joe looked closely and saw that Nash was right. His heart dropped. Suddenly he flashed back to the start of the game. "You sandbagged, Nash! You could have bet that flush, and you checked instead!" Nash grinned showing sharp, white teeth. "Werenít nothing said about it at the start of the game, Joe. T.J. opened and then checked. Nothing illegal about lying low for a bit."

Peter Nash scooped the pot towards him, and Joeís elation collapsed. The man was right. The players had to agree not to allow sandbagging at the start of a game, and they hadnít done that. He didnít quite believe what had happened. One moment he had been holding what he had been certain was a winning hand. Now he had lost, and he was stone cold broke.

Nash looked across at him with his usual, agreeable expression, but there was something flinty about the look in his eyes. "Thatís the way it goes, Joe."

"Sure it is." Well aware of the smirks and the surreptitious rib-digs of the watching drovers, Joe gathered what dignity he could. With a shrug and a wry grin, he stood up and thrust his hands into the depths of his now empty pockets. The onlookers started to disperse. The excitement of seeing a Cartwright fleeced was over, and the men had an early start in the morning. Joe joined them in walking away.

Asia Prior gave him a sympathetic but amused grin and a slap on the back and fell into step beside him. "Guess I should oí warned you about that, Joe."

Joe returned the grin ruefully. "Wouldnít oí made any difference. I never can resist a game oí cards."

In a business like manner, Nash tucked his money away in the inside pocket of his coat and gathered up the scattered cards. He was well aware of Ben Cartwrightís scrutiny, but if it made him at all uncomfortable he gave no sign of it. Standing he turned to face him, "Mister Cartwright."

"Nash." Ben was still standing with his back to the wagon. His arms were folded and his expression was polite. He hadnít enjoyed seeing his son beaten, but he wasnít about to say anything about that, now - or ever. The steady light from the storm lantern threw sharp shadows from the angles of his face. "You play a good game."

Nash nodded a pleasant faced, if wary acknowledgement. It was unspoken between them that the game had been entirely honest and above board.

"Iím surprised you donít play professionally. Thereís a great deal of money to be made for a man with your undoubted skill. This is hardly the sort of job I would have expected you to be doing." Benís brief gesture encompassed the encampment and the lowing herd of cattle in the darkness beyond. He knew he was using his age and his privileged position as employer to violate one of the most cherished tenets of the west Ė that of a manís privacy. His curiosity had been piqued.

Pete Nash considered his words carefully. He didnít want to offend his boss, but on the other handÖ "Money isnít everything, and there are times when I prefer the company of cows to that of people. Their attitude to life is a whole lot more straight forward."

Ben kept his face carefully neutral. "I wasnít implying any intrusion." He knew he had been told, carefully and politely, to mind his own business.

Nashís lips quirked, but the pseudo-smile came nowhere near his eyes. His expression said clearly that his affairs were his own and that he intended to keep them that way. He touched the brim of his hat in respect. "Mister Cartwright."

Ben watched the broad-shouldered, lean-hipped figure in black walk away. In the half-light Nashís frame and his long, rolling gait were achingly familiar. He heaved a sigh and went to find out if there were any fresh coffee in the pot.

Five

Hands on hips Hoss Cartwright stood toe-to-toe and chest-to-chest with his elder brother. He had the advantage of several inches in height and he used it to look down with an expression that approached belligerence. Adam was not intimidated by his brotherís height or by his equally impressive breadth. A solidly built, immensely powerful man himself, it had been Adam that had taught Hoss, as a youth, how to use his strength and how to control it. Not only had he no fear of the big man's sledgehammer fists, he had no reason to fear them.

Essentially, the two men were not arguing. They held opposing views, and both had inherited from their father a full measure of the Cartwright mule-headedness that had tamed a wilderness. Neither was prepared to back down, and their discussion had become just a little heated.

"I donít see as we need ta go back home right now," Hoss said. "Jody just donít look that sick ta me." He was becoming more and more unhappy as he saw his dream trip about to come to an abrupt and unwelcome end. As a grown man he was trying to keep the petulance out of his voice.

Adam wasnít any more pleased about the situation than his brother. As the eldest, he was shouldering the responsibility and making the necessary decision. "We donít have any choice in the matter, Hoss. The boyís arm looks like itís infected, and heís starting to run a fever. Weíve got to get him down out of these hills so that Doc. Martin can take a look at those scratches."

Both of them looked at Jody. The unhappy subject of their discussion was standing with his arm in a makeshift sling, shuffling the toe of his boot through the smouldering remains of the fire.

Hoss heaved a great sigh, reluctantly surrendering to Adamís inescapable logic. He knew that he couldnít bear to be responsible if anything bad happened to the young man. It didnít make him any more sanguine about the matter. "Well, iffen you say heís gotta go back, then I guess heís gotta"

"Right." Adam eyed his brother uncertainly. Glad that his brother was finally seeing sense, he was still wary of the sudden capitulation. He knew that Hoss was working around to something. He could see it in the way the broad face was creasing up. It was just a matter of time.

Sure enough, Hoss got there in the end. "Iffen Jody has ta go on back down ta the house, why donít you go ride along with him, aní Iíll take a look see further up into these hills."

Adam drew a long breath and looked into Hossís face; he was momentarily wrong footed by his brotherís deviousness. His mind ran swiftly over the implications of the suggestion. "You canít go off roaming through these hills on your own."

Hoss started to look stubborn. "Who says so, that I canít?"

Adam cursed himself. He knew well the way his brotherís mind worked, and he should have seen this coming. His hands came up onto his own hips. "Right now, Iím saying so!"

"íNí who put you in charge oí this trip?"

The conversation wasnít going the way Adam wanted it to. "I guess Iím putting me in charge."

"Just Ďcause youíre the oldest?"

"Because Iím the eldest, and because, just at the moment, Iím the one thatís thinking straight." Adamís voice was taking on the tutored tones heíd learned back east. It was a sure sign that his patience was wearing a little thin. "Suppose those poachers are still riding loose in these hills? And supposing you just happen to run across them?"

Hoss thought about the grizzly bear and the way it had suffered, and his eyes hardened. He stuck out his lower lip. "Píraps thatíd suit me just fine."

Adam shook his head. "Youíre not thinking too well, Hoss. What if there are more of them than you can handle? These days, those sorts of men usually hunt in packs like animals. What happens if they get the drop on you?"

"Heck, I ainít gonna let Ďem do that, Adam."

Irritated at his brotherís dismissive attitude, Adam poked a finger into Hossís chest. "Theyíre not going to get the chance to do that. Youíre riding with us!"

Hoss looked at the finger and then into his brotherís face. It was obvious that Adam wasnít about to be persuaded. The big man changed tack again. "Well, iffen you say so. But there ainít no point in us jist ridiní over the same ground as we covered cominí in. We go up a ways, we cĎn pick up another trail aní ride out a different way."

Adam, to whom Hossís thinking was usually transparent, hesitated, and in that moment knew that the argument was lost. "How much longer would it take us to get home?" he asked, still reluctant to concede.

Hoss swallowed his triumphant grin before it got a chance to show on his face. "No more Ďn half a day."

Adam glanced again at Jody as if trying to make out just how ill he was from the colour of his face. He sighed, "All right. But if the boy starts to get realí sick, weíre gonna have to do some mighty hard riding."

"Sure thing, Adam!" Despite his efforts Hossís grin broke through.

Seeing it, Adam sighed again and threw up his hands. Shaking his head he strode off towards the picketed horses.

Still grinning, Hoss strolled over to Jody. Without seeming to, he looked the boy over. He was a bit pale, perhaps, but it was a job to tell for sure under all those freckles, and after the fright heíd had, it was only to be expected. His curiously coloured, green and gold speckled eyes were bright, but then, they were always bright. He wasnít sweating. To be sure, Hoss asked him outright, "Howíd you feel, Jody?"

Jody shrugged and rubbed his bandaged arm. It was sore and the pain made him chew at his lip. "Iím okay, Hoss. Adam says Iíve got an elevated respiration rate. Whatís that mean?"

"Heck, I donít know. I told you afore, Jody, you donít want ta take no account oí Adam. He talks a whole lot oí fancy stuff what he learned at that college he went ta. It donít necessarily mean nothiní"

Jody looked miserable. "I donít want ta go home yet, Hoss." He glanced towards Adam who was strapping harness onto horses. "Canít we persuade Adam ta go on a bit further?"

"I donít reckon." Hoss scowled and carried on stuffing the last of their camping gear into a canvas bag. "Adamís got a bee in his bonnet. It happens from time ta time. You leave him be aní heíll simmer down some. "Sides, heís most probably right. Adam most usually is." The admission was honest, if reluctant.

"I wanted ta ride right up inta the high hills."

"I know. I did too." Hoss kicked apart the last remnants of the fire. Even though the woodland was soaking wet, he made sure every last spark was out. Cheering up, he said, "Donít you worry none. The way weíre gonna go, thereís some right pretty country. Itíll sure take some lookiní at."

Slowly, Jodyís face started to return the big manís smile. Hoss hefted up the bag and the two of them walked towards the horses.

Hoss had caught up with Jodyís mount and the runaway packhorse, and the men had redistributed their belongings among the remaining animals. In meant that each horse had to carry more. Being careful of the young manís injured arm, Adam boosted Jody into the saddle, and the two men mounted their own horses. Adam looked meaningfully at his brother. He said, with a tight smile, "Would you care to lead the way?"

Hoss returned the look uncertainly and sighed. Sometimes there was just no understanding olí Adamís moods. He kicked his horse into motion and turned its head uphill. Jody fell into line behind him, and Adam, leading the packhorse, brought up the rear.

********

Riding drag at the back of the trail herd was, perhaps, not the most auspicious position that the son of a wealthy and influential rancher could aspire to. Upon this occasion, Joseph Cartwright had chosen it for himself. The rear end of a whole bunch of steers was one that suited his mood perfectly. The humiliation of last nightís poker game was not yet entirely behind him. Already that morning he had endured some gentle joshing from the hands and been the subject of some not so kindly jibes. Morosely, he reflected that he wouldnít be likely to hear the last of it until the next newsworthy event came along.

Joe came out of his reverie as a rider fell in beside him. He recognized the short-bodied, chestnut gelding that Asia Prior had drawn from the remount string that morning. Like Joe, Asia had his hat pulled well down over his eyes and his face mostly covered by a bandanna to fend off the debris thrown up by the herd. The two of them looked like a pair of highway robbers. They allowed their horses to slow and drop back from the herd so that they could talk.

Asia pulled the handkerchief away from his mouth and looked at Joe with his typically cheerful, somewhat lopsided grin.

"Cheer up, Joe. This afternoon we get to Maryville. We cín ride in ta town tonight and raise us a little hell." His blue-grey eyes sparkled with incipient mischief.

Joe glanced across at him with mock irritation. "Just how much hell díyou reckon a man cín raise on one dollar and seventeen cents?"

Laughing aloud at the memory of Joeís ignominy, Asia slapped a hand against his thigh. "Hey, wonít your Pa give you an advance?"

In the privacy of his own mind, Joe went over the possible conversation with his father. It would not be an interview to be relished. It wasnít that Ben disapproved of gambling. Hell, Joeís big-brother Adam played poker from time to time, and their father had never said a word about it. Ben had even been known to draw an occasional hand himself, along with the sheriff and some of their cronies in Virginia City. It was only when his younger son was involved that he got all tight-lipped and hot under the collar. Joe didn't understand it, but he supposed that it had something to do with him being the youngest for such a long time before Daniel came along. Joeís mouth quirked at the thought of his baby brother. The little tyke was sure going to have a lot to contend with when he started to grow up.

In any event, Joe didn't think much of his chances of getting any advance on his wages, and the fruitless discussion with his Pa was likely to be long, heated, and publicly humiliating. He dismissed the idea out of hand.

"Nope. I wouldnít even ask him."

The ever-cheerful Asia Prior accepted that. Still chuckling, he said, "Well, Iíve got around three dollars. ĎReckon between us, we got enough ta have us a good time, even iffen we donít git ta see the devil himself."

Joe laughed despite himself. He remembered the last time that he and Asia had been out on the town together. He didnít doubt that, one way or another, they would find a way to raise a riot. All of a sudden, he started to feel a great deal happier. He flashed Asia a grin and covered his face up again. He urged his horse into a canter to catch up with the herd.

********

It was about mid-morning, when the rain that had been falling steadily for hours finally stopped. A weak and watery sunlight broke through the clouds and filtered down to the forest floor. There was no heat in it, but it brightened the woodlands. Adam called for a halt, and they stopped at a pleasant enough spot where a stream ran swiftly between deep-cut, moss-covered banks. Scrub pine and foxtails grew close to the waterís edge with majestic Ponderosas standing further back, towering over all. The water was cold and clear and danced musically over the rocks that littered the streambed. All the men were relieved to get out of the saddle. There wasnít one of them who wasnít sick and tired of sitting on wet leather and having cold water tipped on his head.

Lunch was uninspiring. It consisted of bread and cold beans, eaten standing up and washed down with cold water scooped from the stream. Afterwards, Hoss and Adam stood shoulder to shoulder and discussed their route home. Their mood had changed yet again. With their decision to curtail the trip they had become sombre, business like and efficient. Hoss pointed out the trail that he proposed taking. "If we turn downhill here, we can follow the bottomland all the way home."

Adam screwed up his face and followed the lie of the land with his eyes. He had a feeling in his gut that he was being manoeuvred, but he couldnít quite put his finger on how. "Itís a steep path," he said finally, "Weíll have to zigzag some to get the horses down safely."

"I reckon we cín make up the time we lose. The ridiní Ďll be a whole lot easier down in the valley."

While Adam wondered if his brother was right about that, he wasnít prepared to dispute the matter. He swilled his mouth out with water and spat it onto the ground. "Iíll check the horses over again before we start down. Now weíre an animal short, we canít afford to have one go lame on us."

Adam turned to the horses, and Hoss and Jody took a stroll along the bank of the stream. The pinewoods were quiet. There was an air of brooding about them, almost a foreboding. The massive trunks, further around than three men could span with their arms, were widely spaced. High above, darkening the sky, horizontal branches swayed majestically in the strengthening wind. Far off, on the slopes of the distant mountain, a rumble of thunder promised the approach of yet another storm.

"Hey, Jody, come look at this." Hoss hunkered down close to the waterís edge. "Thereís a big old mama elk come down here ta drink. You cín see how sheís spread her legs wide open ta reach the water." He pointed out the splayed hoof marks in the soft soil. "íN hereís the marks oí here liíle one right along side oí her."

Crouching down at the big manís side, Jody put out his free hand and touched the imprints with his fingertips. He looked up at Hoss and a smile lit up his face like sudden sunlight. The rising wind stirred the strands of his overly long, rough-cut, tallow pale hair. "Hey, Hoss, what kinda tracks are those?" His bright eyes had lit upon something further along the bank.

Hoss studied the marks in the ground. "I reckon this is three, may be four, oí them liíle prong horned deer. ĎLooks like they use that there game track regular." He pointed out the path through the sparse undergrowth. "Iffen you was ta sit here realí quiet like, theyíd come right down beside you, so close you could almost touch Ďem."

"Iíd sure like ta do that, sometime." Jodyís eyes were glowing. "Iíd sure like it if youíd teach me some oí the things you know about the wild critters."

Both embarrassed and pleased by the young manís interest, Hoss straightened up. He lifted his head as he heard, or thought that he heard, something out of place among the trees. The melodic sounds of running water merged with the sighing of the wind in the trees and the monotonous drip of water. The thunder rumbled again, louder and closer. Dark cloud drifted across the face of the sun, and the world grew dim. The branches creaked and groaned with the strain of the rising wind. The odd sound did not come again.

Finished with the horses, Adam dusted off his hands. "Címon over here, Jody. I want to take a look at that arm before we start out."

"Sure thing, Adam." Jody started towards him.

Overhead the boughs tossed against the stormy sky. The wind sighed through the treetops, and the mighty pines thrummed in response.

Scowling, Hoss looked about him. A man very much in tune with nature and the ways of the wild, he was uneasy. As was usual in these hills, the storm, sweeping out of the mountains, was rising fast. It looked like being a bad one. Over the increasing noise, Hoss yelled at his brother. "Iím aí thinkiní you ought ta hurry it up, Adam. We want ta git off aí this hillside aífore this storm breaks." He took a step away from the riverbank.

Directly above him the thunder roared. The branches, all in motion now, tossed in a sudden gust. Sharper and closer than the thunder, something cracked.

Branch tip to branch tip with its cousins the pine tree had stood, straight and strong, on the hillside for more than eight hundred years. It had witnessed the coming of man - both the white man and the red man. It had known long times of drought when there was not enough rainfall to swell the seeds in the pinecones. It had known winters when the weight of snow was so great that it bent the huge branches right down to the ground. It had stood firm through devastating tempests far worse than the one that assaulted it now. It knew, in the way of trees, that an occasional sacrifice was unavoidable. The branch had been flawed for a long time. It had been split by the winter freezing of sap. It had been further weakened by the spring storms. The wind blew strongly, and with a sound that sounded like a pistol shot, the branch broke.

Hoss looked up at the sudden crack, his round face raised to the sky.

Adam spun round at the sound, straightening from his examination of Jodyís arm. He looked up and up again, into the treetops. He saw the branch falling. A wordless yell of warning sprang from his open mouth.

Hoss saw the branch coming. It hurtled towards him, huge and black. It made a rushing, crashing noise as it smashed its way through the tops of the lower trees, tearing off branches and foliage as it went. The sight of it and the sound of it for a moment froze Hoss to the spot. Then he stepped back, stumbling as the falling timber crashed into him. He threw out his arms to regain his balance. His foot slipped in the mud. He gave a shout of denial as he went down on his back. A side branch, as thick as a manís body, landed across him and crushed him into the earth.

Yelling his brotherís name, Adam hurled himself towards him, arriving before the noise of falling had stopped. Heedless of the razor edged pine needles that slashed his hands, he searched frantically through the shattered foliage. "Hoss!" Thigh deep, waist deep in the entangled leafage, he ignored the rain of debris that continued to fall on his head and the sharp pine needless that scraped and scratched at him even through his clothes.

Twisting and turning, he sought desperately for his brother. He knew he was here. He had heard his desperate cry, and he had seen him go down, borne to the earth by the weight of the branch. "Hoss!" Thunder rolled again and drowned out his voice. Big, fat raindrops started to fall from the brown clouds that blotted out the sun - great angel tears of anguish to match the tears on Adamís cheeks. They pattered onto the ground with a noise like that of lead shot hitting water. "Hoss!"

Adam found his brother. It was fortunate that the main branch had caught him only a glancing blow across the chest as he had stumbled backwards. Hoss was flat on his back, pinned to the earth by the weight of a lesser, side-branch across his lower chest. He was conscious, but barely so. His flesh was grey beneath the sun-bronzed skin. His pale blue eyes were open, unfocused, seeking for Adamís face when he heard his voice. His hands were pushing futilely against the rough bark of the branch. For all his great strength, he had no hope of moving it. The rain was falling into his face.

Carefully, Adam eased himself down into the small space beside him. "Hoss." Hossís head turned towards him, his eyes still unseeing, blindly seeking.

"Adam? ĎYou there, Adam?" His voice was a breathy whisper, full of pain.

"Iím here. Hoss." Adam put his hand on the bulging biceps of his brotherís arm in a gesture of reassurance. He was gazing around, searching desperately for a way out of a nightmare situation.

It was fortunate that the branch was laying low down on Hossís chest, across his lower ribs; otherwise he would be a dead man already. As it was, the tremendous weight held him pinned firmly to the ground and was slowly crushing the life out of him. Adam feared for Hossís lungs, and for his stomach, liver and spleen. Hoss gasped and his breath hissed, "You gotta get me outa this Adam. You just gotta. I canít move. I canít breathe." Hoss coughed. Anxiously, Adam searched for traces of blood on his brotherís lips. He found none.

"Iím gonna get you out, Hoss. Just take it easy." It was a promise, although, at the moment that he gave it, Adam had no idea how he might deliver it. The pine log that had felled his brother and now held him pinned was a lot heavier than any human strength could lift.

The tempo of the rain increased and thunder growled across the land as the storm drew rapidly nearer. Hossís eyes closed, and he panted for breath. Adam straightened up, still looking urgently about him for some means of getting the pressure off his brother's chest. At his sides, his hands clenched and unclenched in a frenzy of frustration. He lifted his face into the rain. Far above, the tops of the trees lashed in the fury of the storm. The lowest branch was four times his own height above his head, far higher than any man could reach, even with the best throw in the world. There had to be another way. As a man trained to understand forces and angles, he knew he couldnít raise that log; that with the equipment he had available it was physically impossible. His only hope was to roll it, just a little, just enough to rotate the side-branch off Hossís rib cage.

He sought and found Jody, not far away. The boyís young face was anguished, and he was transfixed into immobility by the unfolding disaster. Adam yelled at him above the din of the storm. "Get the ropes from the horses! Get all of them!"

The frantic urgency in Adamís voice jolted the young man out of his shock. He raced to the horses and returned quickly with the ropes from the saddles and the extra yardage that the packhorse carried. He tossed them across to Adam.

Adamís hands were numb and shaking. They felt slow and clumsy, as if they belonged to another person entirely. His mind was disorientated, operating on a different level, racing ahead faster than his body could operate. He had only one thought - Hoss was lying at his feet dying - would very soon be dead - unless he could do something, anything, to prevent it.

Adam searched around desperately. He tossed the ends of the ropes around a tree. If he could get the angles right he could use it as a lever. Hunkering down beside his brother, he started to work the loose ends under the log.

Hossís breath was coming to him in short gasps. He was losing ground against the crushing weight on his chest. A lesser man would already be dead. He was clinging to consciousness with a grim determination, desperately afraid to let it slip away in case the darkness was forever. Rolling his head towards Adam, he opened his eyes. Pain and fear made them bright.

"Adam?" He was finding it hard to focus on his brotherís face.

"Youíre gonna be all right," Adam told him, wishing that the telling would make it so. "Just hang on in there."

"Canít breathe, Adam! Canít breath!"

It was true. Each time his chest fell he was finding it harder to lift it again - more difficult to fill his tortured lungs with the most basic requirement of life.

Adam double hitched the ropes. Looking up, he could see that Jody had been thinking ahead. He had already secured the other ends of the ropes to the saddles of their two strongest horses, Adamís mount and Hossís own black. The ropes ran from the log, around the trunk to the horses. It was Adamís hope that the strength of the horses would be enough to roll the big branch, to lift the smaller limb off of Hossís body. He hoped that the ropes would be hold and that luck would be on his side. He was unaware that he was weeping again. The rain washed away his tears. He wiped his sleeve ineffectually across his face. He called to Jody, "Walk Ďem out! Take it slowly!"

Jody backed up, leading the horses by the bridle. The ropes pulled tight at once, jerking against the saddles at an odd angle. The knots held firm. Both the horses balked, throwing up their heads and skewing sideways. Jody held onto their heads while Adam resisted the urge to yell instructions. Regaining control, Jody spoke to the horses calmly, quietening them. In a moment he had them pulling together, taking the strain and leaning against the ropes. Despite the urgency of the moment, Adam was impressed by the younger manís composure.

With his eyes, Adam followed the line of the light ropes. They shivered and shed water. The fibrous, red bark of the tree was offering fierce resistance. Adam wished he could have greased the rope - wished that he had a pulley and the means to attach it, wished that he had more time!

Hoss groaned. His breath was bubbling on his lips. Adam couched down. "Just a minute, Hoss! Just hang on one more minute!"

At Jodyís desperate urging, the horses lunged. The ropes jerked several inches around the trunk. They tore off a shower of broken bark that was whipped away by the wind. Adamís knots tightened but the log did not move. Adam leaned on the broken branch, adding his strength to the efforts of the horses. As best he could, he sheltered Hossís body from the weather with his own. The rain ran down his face and into his open mouth.

The horses strained again at the ropes, steam rising from their haunches. The wet ropes creaked. The branch stirred and shifted, just a fraction. Adam yelled at Jody, a wordless shout of encouragement, and gestured wildly - pull harder! Pull harder!

The sweating animals heaved and the shattered limb lifted - just and inch, not enough! Then it moved again as the branch rolled, rising a miraculous three inches. Lightening flickered, dancing among the clouds and immediately, the thunder rolled. The storm was passing directly overhead. One of the horses, Adamís, squealed. Adam seized his bigger, heavier brother under the armpits and pulled. Hoss bellowed with pain. There was nothing Adam could do to make it easier for him. He had to do what heíd set out to do.

Hossís weight was all but immovable, as if he were already a part of the earth itself. He was quite unable to help himself. Adam dug in his heels and heaved. He felt the strain of the effort in his gut. From the corner of his eye he saw Jodyís frightened face, a pale oval turned towards him. He knew that the horses couldnít hold this weight for long. It was up to him alone to get Hoss out from under. He redoubled his efforts, dragging Hoss inch by inch through the mud. His muscles cracked with the effort.

Gradually, the big man was pulled clear Ė chest, belly and all the length of his legs. Only when his booted feet were out from under the branch did Adam drop, breathless, speechless, gasping, to his knees.

Jody left the horses and hurried to join Adam at Hossís side. They knelt together in the rain - two stunned and frightened men, each, in the privacy of his own mind, praying, while the storm continued to rage around them.

*******

Maryville, as Ben Cartwright had correctly remembered, was not really that much of a town. Principally, it was the centre of a farming community - a collection of wood frame and clapboard buildings huddled together as if for mutual support and reassurance at the edge of the desert. It was comprised of one, wide, main street, running directly from east to west, with clusters of shanties and outhouses behind. The street was faced by the high, weather beaten false fronts typical of small, pretentious towns anywhere west of the Missouri River.

Behind the elaborate frontages, again as was customary, the buildings themselves were much more modest. All the essential elements of an embryonic township were in place, although, as yet, there was no bank, hotel or resident doctor. There was a livery stable and blacksmithís shop, wheelwrights and a cooperís, a barberís, a bathhouse and a brothel. A community hall served as both church and dancehall as the occasion required. The sheriffís office was equipped with two sturdy cells and presided over by a lean and lanky elected representative of the law. A range of stores provided the local populace with the basic commodities of life and, again, as Ben recalled, three lively and flourishing saloons.

At the western end of the street clustered more elaborate houses where lived the well to do. To the south was an expanse of coarse pastureland watered by a by a small, slow river that ran out of the hills and soon disappeared into a sinkhole. Officially the place was called Waterís End, but universally it was known as ĎThe Devilís Potí.

The herd arrived in the early afternoon, and the drovers allowed the thirsty cattle down to the water in small bunches. Ben paid a small levy per head to the town council for the use of the water and the grass. It was a valuable source of income for a community.

After a weekís hard work in the saddle, all the men were looking forward to relaxing and letting their hair down in town. Evening saw the trail camp in a frenzy of preparation. Men shaved for the first time in a long time, put on their spare shirts and brushed the worst of the trail dust off their pants.

Ben and Charlie stood beside the brightly burning cook fire sipping well-boiled trail coffee from tin mugs. They watched the men ride out.

"I guess itíll be midnight before we see any of them back," Ben said with a smile. He had no objection to the men enjoying themselves once the work was done and couldnít have stopped them if he had.

Charlie swallowed the last of the bitter coffee, chewed a fresh mouthful of tobacco off the block he kept in his pocket and gazed after the men, his jaws working slowly as he thought. "Donít reckon as weíll miss Ďem fer a while. The herdís got grass Ďní water Ďní there ainít no storm cominí. They ainít gonna wander far."

"Itís the men that are more likely to wander," Ben replied, chuckling.

As always, Charlie took his foremanís duties seriously. "Iíll ride on in later on tonight and make sure they all git back here in time fer work in the morniní."

"Good idea, Charlie." Still smiling to himself Ben poured himself a refill.

Joe Cartwright and Asia Prior were in the vanguard of the horsemen who rode, at sundown, into town at a gallop. Despite the paucity of their pooled funds they were both looking forward to having a beer or two in the saloon. After all, if a man was real careful and sipped slow, he could make a pint of beer last one hell of a long time.

Joe had done his best to smarten himself up. He had polished his boots, brushed the tangles out of his hair and tied his good, black-silk scarf around his throat. Riding his favourite pinto horse, he was filled with a sense of anticipation. Asia Prior, astride his black gelding, returned Joeís grin. He had braided his long hair into two pigtails and bound them with black satin ribbon. His eyes sparkled. They were both glad to be out from behind the herd and on their way for a night on the town.

At the sight of The First - and Last - Chance saloon, the cowhands spurred their horses forward and rode, whooping and hollering, for the rail. Joe and Asia held their horses back, taking in the look of the town. With the sun already hidden by the western mountains, the main street was filled with shadow; the alleyways between the buildings were already dark. Here and there lanterns were being lit at the edges of the boardwalks, and up and down the street many of the windows showed pale light within.

At this early hour of the evening Maryville was a busy little town. Heavy farm-wagons stood outside most of the stores already loaded with essential supplies for the scattered, outlying farmsteads. One burly, bearded farmer, half again the size of Hoss, was loading seed potatoes two sacks at a time, as the young men rode by. He looked up at them with a scowl. While the local residents might be well used to the visitation of passing drovers and profit from their custom, not all of them liked it.

Further on, another man was loading his family of what seemed like a dozen children into the back of his wagon. His wife, in shawl and deep, frilled bonnet, sat up on the front seat with yet another baby in her arms. Out of respect, Joe and Asia touched their hats to her as they rode by. The shirt-sleeved, balding owner of the hardware store was busy sweeping out after the dayís business. He leaned on his brush and wished the boys a cordial good evening. Not everyone resented the cowboys coming to town.

As the farmers and the families loaded up and headed for home, the younger men were coming into town for an eveningís relaxation and entertainment. Saddle horses were already lining the rails outside the saloons, and more riders were coming into town all the time. In no particular hurry to spend their meagre dollars, Joe and Asia walked their horses slowly along the street and absorbed the sights and the sounds.

Two young women stepped together out of the lamp-lit draperís store into the shadowy gloom of the covered boardwalk. Each of them held several paper-wrapped parcels in their arms, and they were giggling, their heads close together. It was the sound of their light laughter that attracted the men's attention. For a moment the light of a lantern fell across their faces and their figures.

Asia winked meaningfully at Joe and they pulled their horses over to the rail, climbing down and stepping up onto the boardwalk. The girls looked at them with surprise and mock alarm. They clutched their packages tight against them, as if for protection. Their mothers would surely not approve of young men, however handsome, accosting them in the street. It was deliciously frightening.

The men touched their hats, and Joe said, "íEvening, ladies."

For a moment he thought the women would bolt back into the safety of the drapery, but they were made of sterner stuff than that. Matilda OíToole was a young woman of direct Irish descent, and she prided herself on not being afraid of anything, certainly not of a man, and least of all of a slightly built cowhand with a youthful face and a bright, boyish grin. Her own smile lit her light green eyes. "Aní a good evening to you."

Joe looked her over. She was just his own height, neat and trim in a full skirted, chocolate-brown dress trimmed with cream-coloured lace. Her face was heart shaped with a pert nose and pointed chin, her complexion, peaches and cream pink. Dark curls framed the smiling, colleen-green eyes, and on them she wore a little brown hat with two feathers in it, pink and cream. Mischief played in the dimples around her mouth.

Joe remembered his manners and tried not to leer. "Iím Joe Cartwright, Maíam, aní this is my friend, Asia Prior. We just rode into town aní we was wondering if you could recommend us a good place to eat?" Very much aware of Asia hovering behind his shoulder he slid him a sideways look. Asiaís attention was entirely taken by the other young woman. With hair a lighter shade than her friends and brown eyes, she was blushing prettily under his scrutiny.

"Iím ĎTilda OíToole," ĎTilda said, a trifle tartly. She didnít like a manís eyes to wander. "Aní this is my cousin whoís stayiní with us a while. Miss Alinda Gessop."

The introductions made, the two men touched their hats again. "Iím quite sure," ĎTilda said, "That Mrs. Neally will still be serving afternoon tea. Across the street and two blocks down."

Joe smiled lopsidedly. Afternoon tea was not what he had in mind. He fidgeted. ĎTilda contrived to drop a package of newly purchased cambric fabric onto the boardwalk. Joe hastened to pick it up. The girlís hands were still full of packages. She looked at him coyly. Joe was man enough to take the hint. "Hey, Maíam, why donít you let me carry those for you?"

ĎTilda smiled happily, and before they knew it, Joe and Asia had their arms loaded with parcels of fabric and trimmings and needles and thread.

Joe walked alongside ĎTilda, and Asia with Alinda, through deepening twilight. The young people quickly found that getting to know one another without benefit or hindrance of a chaperone was easy and fun. By the time they reached the front stoop of the impressive, white painted edifice that ĎTilda called home, they were on first name terms. Joe had learned that she was daughter to a merchant and councillor, a prominent member of the community, a big fish in a very small pool. She had made it clear that she was unattached, despite anxious parents and a number of admirers, that she had a hearty contempt for the local hick farmers, and that she was bored beyond belief with a hum-drum existence in a small, rural township. He had also discovered that she was opinionated, headstrong and flirtatious.

In turn, ĎTilda had satisfied herself that Joe was eligible, well connected and just a little gullible.

At the steps of the house she turned to reclaim her belongings. "That was very kind of you, Joe." There was a sweet smile on her lips and a coy look in her eyes.

"It was my pleasure." Joe took off his hat and held it in his hands. His fingers fiddled with the brim. His eyes returned her smile. "Itís a real shame that I wonít get to see you again."

ĎTilda wasnít about to let him slip away so easily. "We donít have to say goodbye right now." She told him boldly. "We could take a walk after supper tonight." Her expression changed into one of open invitation. She had a good deal more than walking in mind. "If you wanted to, that is."

Joeís smile turned into a broad grin. Just at that moment there was little else on his mind. 'Though still a young man and unwed, Joe, like all well to do gentlemen of his time, was a man of wide experience. As soon as he had turned fifteen, his big brother had seen to it that he got a proper education in women and in the ways of the world. They had been thorough and practical lessons that their father, though he knew of them, chose not to acknowledge. Joe had continued with his studies assiduously and had become proficient. While physically, he was not a big man, he was devilishly handsome with a rakish southern-influenced charm and an eternally cheerful, sunny disposition. He was never short of a lady or two on his arm, and he knew how to treat the fair sex kindly. And in certain situations manners had their own reward. It looked as if he was going to have a good time tonight after all.

"Iíd like that realí fine, ĎTilda."

ĎTilda OíToole gazed at him from beneath modestly lowered eyelids, just to make sure that there was no misunderstanding and that he was properly captivated. "íLinda aní Iíll step out ta take the air Ďout nine oíclock. If you Ďní your friend was here ta meet us we could take a stroll aní see all the sighs oí Maryville."

From what Joe had seen of Maryville, the best sight of all would probably be the one looking over his shoulder as he rode away, but he wasnít about to say so right now. As a means to an end, he was happy to play any game the girl liked. He grinned his most impish grin. "I reckon as we might be passing by just about that time."

ĎTildaís eyes glowed with understanding. Alinda, having made a very similar arrangement with Asia, joined her cousin on the steps. With a few last words, a couple of winning, flirtatious smiles and a flurry of skirts, they disappeared inside.

Joe and Asia exchanged grins and set their hats at appropriately dashing angles. Feeling ridiculously pleased with themselves, they strolled back through the town towards the Last Chance saloon.

For the most part, the trail crew consisted of seasoned and experienced hands. They could trail a herd through dust storm and blizzard, through rain and hail and wind, across rivers and over mountains. It was said, in the more inebriated moments, that they could drive a bunch of steers through hell itself and bring them out the other side with their hides barely scorched. They knew how to work hard, day and night for weeks on end, for as long as it took. They also knew how to play hard. All three saloons were doing a roaring trade. Light and noise spilled out of the windows and over the half-high doors into the - now dark - street.

Inside, they were bright with colour and movement and loud with menís voices: shouting, laughing, and swearing. The tables in the Last Chance saloon were crowded, and men stood three deep at the bar. Hot and humid, the air stank of their breath and their bodies, of the smoke of cigars and the smell of beer. A man in a round-topped hat and a green-checked shirt hammered out a tune on a battered and beer-stained upright piano. The men shouted the louder to be heard over the music. The noise level spiralled around and around.

Farmers and drovers made up most of the clientele, and mostly the two groups rubbed along together affably enough. The resentment and suspicion that had always existed between men in two diametrically opposed walks of life simmered below the surface. It rarely resulted in more than a little pushing and shoving

Just to be sure the lid stayed firmly on, the long, lean sheriff showed his face every hour or so. He wore a low slung six-gun and carried a shotgun tucked under his arm. A man of middle years, he had picked on Maryville as the place he wanted to settle down in. No one was going to raise hell in his town and get away with it.

Joe and Asia bought themselves a pie and a beer at the bar and found themselves a place at a table where they could sit down and eat. Looking Ďround, they saw any number of faces that they knew. Asiaís brothers were standing in a group with T.J. and Stubby and several other cowboys, beer glasses in their hands, holding a ribald conversation that elicited a lot of laughter in sudden, loud outbursts. Peter Nash, resplendent in his black dress coat and string tie and wearing his broad brimmed hat, was engaged in a poker game with the locals. Already, he looked as if he were winning.

The time passed easily and pleasantly enough. Joe exchanged some mild ribbing with hands from the Ponderosa and bought another couple of beers. Both he and Asia were relaxed and experiencing a warm glow of anticipation. Sooner than seemed possible, it was time to leave the Last Chance and ride slowly back towards the residential end of town.

The fine, white house glowed in the dark. A pale, misty moon, now past full, rode over the mountains, its light reflected by the whitewashed boards. Upstairs and down, every window spilled the yellow light of oil lamps. Joe and Asia tethered their horses and walked casually past. Then they strolled back. They loitered in the shadows and kicked their heels. The girls were obviously content to keep them waiting.

The two young women were well practised in the tantalising of men. It was half past nine before the front door of the house opened and they slipped out. They were in no doubt at all that Joe and Asia would still be there and that their wait would have done nothing but sharpen their appetites. Each of the girls had left their hat behind in the house and slipped a warm shawl about her shoulders. The evening was turning cold, and a shawl had many uses.

ĎTilda slipped her small hand through the crook of Joeís elbow. "Címon, Joe, letís walk."

"You promised to show me all the sights of Maryville," Joe reminded her with a smile. "Iíve been looking forward to a guided tour."

Laughing lightly, ĎTilda squeezed his arm. "Then youíll have to let me lead the way."

"I leave myself entirely in your hands," Joe said, appropriating a phrase he had heard his father use. A little smile settled on ĎTildaís lips. That was exactly what she had in mind. It was just possible that Joe Cartwright was her ticket out of this one horse town.

Matilda OíToole took a firm grasp of Joeís arm and guided him away from the bright, white house. It turned out that Maryville had a lot more interesting places than Joe Cartwright could ever have imagined, and ĎTilda OíToole knew them all. There were sheds and stables and comfortable corners that were a lot warmer than one would imagine. Having quickly lost track of the other young couple, Joe and ĎTilda made good use of them all, and Joe quickly found that having no funds in no way prevented him from having a good time.

None of the trail hands had wandered far from the Last Chance saloon. The noise from inside had topped out at a level that made the wealthier residents of Maryville glad that it was situated a long way out of earshot.

At almost ten oíclock, the liberal flow of beer and cheap whisky had led to an atmosphere of frenetic celebration - a rowdy boisterousness that ebbed and flowed though the crowd. Most of the drovers, and the farmers as well, were more than a little drunk. No one noticed the burly farmer who pushed through the half doors and stood looking Ďround the room. It was the same farmer who had looked at Joe and Asia with such belligerence in the late afternoon light. He now felt that he had good reason for his instinctive dislike and mistrust.

Head and shoulders taller than everybody else, he searched through the sea of faces. Not finding the one he was looking for, he grabbed the nearest cowboy by the shirtfront. The cloth bunched in the huge, ham-like fist, and the manís boots came up off the floor. At close range, the farmer scowled into the cowboyís face.

"Iím a lookiní fer a man," he snarled, "Fella that rides a fancy pinto horse. Rides wií a man wií ribbons in his hair."

His unfortunate victim struggled, hands clawing frantically at the huge fist. He was quite unable to answer, and his face was turning a strange shade of puce.

Arthur Prior, tall, broad, barrel-chested and bull-necked, pushed his way through the crowd. His face was flushed with drink and dark with anger. A huge and immensely powerful man himself, Ďthough not nearly as big as the farmer, he was not used to being faced down. His hands clenched into balls of flesh and bone - white knuckled and iron hard. "Mister," he said, in a low rumble, "That thereís my brother youíre choking the life outa. I kinda think as youíd better put him back down on the floor."

The farmerís glare refocused itself on Arthur. Seeing an adversary on something approaching his own scale, the dark brown brush of his beard split open to reveal bright-white, tombstone-square teeth. He opened his hand and dropped Astley Prior onto the floor. The barroom, which had been becoming progressively quieter as menís attention turned to the confrontation, fell silent.

"I want the man who rides the pinto horse." The farmer said again. "Heís bin seen wií Miss ĎTilda, aní Miss ĎTilda is síposed ta be walkiní out wií me."

Huey Worth looked at T.J. but the wrangler ignored him. He was carefully watching the by-play by the door. All the Ponderosa hands were playing close attention.

Ever the spokesman, Auron Prior stepped forward. He pushed the still gasping Astley towards Arthur, effectively keeping them both busy. He smiled his familiar gap toothed grin, but, on this occasion, it came nowhere near his eyes. His brother Ashley came up beside him, his eyes narrowed, his right hand hovering somewhere near his gun butt. Auron held up a restraining hand. This was neither the time nor the place for gunplay.

"Now, Mister, you cín see fer your own self, there ainít no ladies here.

The farmer sneered. Did this long cowpoke take him for a fool? "I reckon as you might jist know where them folks is at."

Auron Prior gave an elaborate shrug. He was aware of his brothers gathering around him, and behind them, the hands from the Ponderosa. "Then, I reckon as youíre mistaken, friend."

"I ainít your friend!" The big farmer gave Auron a shove in the chest that sent his stumbling back into the men behind. Arthur Prior set Astley aside and went to help Auron, interposing his bulk between his brother and the farmer.

The farmer swung a massive, knotted fist at Arthurís head, roundhouse. Arthur ducked and the punch swung harmlessly over his head.

Arthur launched his own assault on the farmerís rock-hard gut. The punches bounced off without any noticeable effect. The farmerís leer widened. He roared with joyous rage and launched himself at Arthur Prior. Within moments the room had erupted into violence as the barely contained resentment between cowman and sod-breaker flared into open warfare.

The half dozen young women who graced the saloon made rapid exits. Peter Nash gathered up his winnings and stuffed the money into his side pocket as his poker-playing partners disappeared into the melee. He let himself thoughtfully and gracefully out of the back door. The piano player abandoned his instrument and ran for cover. The two bartenders carefully lifted down the precious behind-the-bar mirror, before ducking into the sheltered space behind the bar. Furniture sailed over their heads and shards of shattered glassware fell all around them. The room resounded to the smack of fist on flesh and the crash of breaking furniture. Bodies flew and tables and chairs disintegrated into matchwood. In just a few seconds the room, and everything in it, was reduced to a shambles.

Farmers and cowboys alike threw their punches and took their own punishment in a grim-lipped silence. From them, there was only the grunt of effort, the hiss of expelled breath and an occasional exclamation of pain.

The uproar was brief and brought to an abrupt end. The sound of gunshots, resoundingly loud in the enclosed space, put a stop to all the fighting. Men froze with fists drawn back, punches undelivered. All heads turned towards the swing doors. The sudden quiet was broken by the sound of debris falling from the ceiling. Two new, neat holes punctured the planking. The lean sheriff blew the smoke from the muzzle of his pistol and slipped it back into his holster. He hefted the shotgun Ďround, front and centre where everyone could see it. His eyes, as grey and as hard and as sharp as flint moved slowly, surveying the ruin of the room.

Under his cool scrutiny, the men gradually unwound from their various postures of violence. Somewhat sheepishly, they started to brush themselves off. There wasnít much left of the furnishings to straighten.

"You-all hold it right there," the sheriff said, unnecessarily. His slow drawl betrayed his deep-south origin. He swung the double muzzle of the shotgun in a long arc that threatened every man in the room. "This here scatter-gunís a-loaded up wií bird-shot. Any more outa any oí you aní youíll all be a-pickin' pellets outa your hides fer a month." The barrels made a second, slow sweep. "Now, you-all Ďre goiní ta walk over ta the gaol-house, nice aní orderly, like."

Auron Prior finished extracting himself from the remains of two chairs and a table. Straightening, he brushed off a few splinters and wiped a smear of blood from a rapidly swelling lip. Finding his midriff threatened by the twin maws of the shotgun, he spread his hands and smiled disarmingly.

"Hey, sheriff, it werenít nothiní! We didnít set out ta cause no trouble."

The sheriff eyed the devastation again. "Fer fellas that didnít want ta cause no trouble, you-all did pretty Goddamned well."

Auron looked around him. He shrugged. The flint-eyed sheriff was not amused. He was aware that there was a great deal of money to be made from the trail herds, mule trains, and occasional groups of settlers heading west. He was not going to stand by and let the rowdier elements break up his town.

Auron estimated the number of men in the room. "You canít be aiminí ta lock us all up," he suggested, amiably.

The grey eyes narrowed. "Thatís exactly what Iím aiminí ta do. Each aní every man-jack oí you. ĎTill someone turns up ta pay fer the damage ta this here saloon." He gestured with the shotgun. "Now, if youíll step this way, gentlemen, the gaol-house is right across the street."

It was moving on towards midnight, and there was a damp chill in the air when Ben and Charlie rode, stirrup to stirrup, into Maryville. The moon had set behind the mountains, and the main street was dark and entirely deserted. There were no horses standing waiting at the rails, and no noise, or even light, spilled from the saloons. Ben and Charlie traded worried looks. They had passed none of the trail hands on the road, and now there was no sign of them here in town either.

The two men walked their horses slowly along the centre of main-street to the Last Chance saloon. Stepping down from their saddles they mounted the steps and took the couple of strides to the bat-wing doors. There was no need to go inside. Even in the dark they could make out the scene of devastation within Ė a décor of broken furniture and shattered glass. It wasnít necessary for either of them to say anything. Leading their horses, they crossed the street to where a single lantern burned like a beacon outside the door of the sheriffís office.

The lanky sheriff had, at least, been even handed. He had locked everyone up, drovers and farmers alike. One group was confined to one cell and one to the other. As the cells were none too large, there was standing room only. The sheriff took his feet off the desk and stood up as Ben opened the door and came in.

Ben took in the scene at a glance: a haphazard pile of guns and gunbelts in the corner, a collection of hats on a table, the battered, bruised and somewhat disconsolate faces of the men behind bars. He favoured them all with a thunderous glare and centred his attention on the lawman.

"Good evening, sheriff. My nameís Ben Cartwright. I own the trail-herd watering south of town. This is my foreman, Charlie."

The sheriffís grey eyes flickered between the two men assessing them: Cartwright, past middle age, grey, big built and still powerful, tired looking, the man called Charlie: older, smaller, capable. They exchanged nods. "Evening, Mister Cartwright. Kinda figured youíd be along sometime afore morniní."

"You appear," Ben said, stating the obvious, "to have almost my entire trail crew in you gaol." The only face missing was that of Pete Nash.

The sheriff smiled a slow smile. This Cartwright had a dry sense of humour that he could appreciate. He looked forward to some verbal sparring. "íReckon as I do," he drawled. "Reckon as thatís where-as theyíre gonna stay, lessen you-all Ďre gonna bail Ďem out."

Benís expression became blacker still. He was sorely tempted to leave the errant cowhands right where they were for a while, in gaol. "I see," he said heavily. "And how much is that going to cost me?"

The sheriff looked towards the cell. Twenty or so pairs of suddenly oh-so-sober eyes gazed back at him. Scratching his lean, stubbly jaw, he made some fairly basic calculations. "Reckon as five dollars a head should do it."

Ben gaped. "Five dollars a head? Thatís preposterous!"

The sheriff was well used to the bluster of passing trail bosses. "You cín leave Ďem there ta cool their heels fer a week, iffen you like," he said laconically. "íCourse, it ainít gonna be too comfortable Ė or smell too sweet - after a bit."

They all turned their heads to look again at the overcrowded cell. Ben sighed. "Five dollars a head then." It was the price of a good steer at the railhead.

"Aní then thereí all that damage they done ta the saloon," the sheriff went on, gazing at Ben through narrowed, speculative eyes. "Reckon seventy-five dollars should about cover it."

"Seventy-five dollars!" Benís face went red, then purple. He looked at Charlie, who shrugged. They both knew that they had to move the herd and that they had to have the men out of gaol to do it. Fret and fume as he might, Ben had no choice but to look big and pay up. "All right. Seventy-five dollars for the saloon." He reached inside his coat for his wallet.

The sheriff eyed the rancher up, and down. He noted the tailored cut of the manís clothes, the elaborately tooled gunbelt, the general air of authority that, in his experience, went right along with prosperity. There was some more money to be made here yet.

He waited until Ben had counted out a pile of notes onto the desktop. "Aní then thereís the bill down at the livery stable."

Benís eyes lifted, dark with anger. "The livery stable?"

With a shrug of his high shoulders, the sheriff smiled a droll smile. "íDidnít know how long itíd be afore you-all got here. Couldnít leave all them horses a-standing around in the street all night long, now could we? Shall we say a dollar a head fer feed aní rubbiní down?"

Ben brushed a hand across his eyes. All this was giving him a headache. He pulled out another twenty dollars and added it to the money already on the desk. He knew he was being skinned alive but didnít see what he could do about it. Charlie was carefully looking elsewhere and trying not to be amused.

Content, the sheriff gathered up the notes, tapped then into a neat pile and slipped them into the drawer of his desk. Collecting the keys to the cell from the prominent nail in the wall, he jingled them loudly as he unlocked the door and threw it wide. Shamefaced, the cowhands filed out. There was momentary confusion as they sorted out whose hardware was whose and more muddle as they shuffled through the hats, and then they all broke for the door. None of them cared to meet Benís dark and angry eyes. Charlie nodded a goodnight to the sheriff and followed the last man out.

Ben put his wallet away. It was now a good deal thinner than it had been. "What about them?" he inquired, indicating the farming folk crammed into the other cell.

"Donít you worry yore-self none about them, Mister Cartwright." The sheriff gave him an easy smile. "I cín take care oí them jist fine."

Ben harrumphed ineffectually and glared. He could just imagine how leniently the local men were likely to be treated, and it did nothing to improve the way he was feeling. Not only did he have a headache, but now he was feeling a distinct pinch in the pocket as well. He wished the sheriff goodnight cordially enough and went out to his horse. It had been a long, hard day and he ached in every bone and muscle. He grunted with effort as he climbed into the saddle. The chill in the night air made him shiver, and he drew his coat more tightly about him.

He had ridden halfway back to the trail camp before it occurred to him that his son, Joseph, hadnít been among the errant cowpokes and was still missing.

********

The fire was small but burning brightly, a beacon of warmth and comfort in the moonless darkness of the early morning hours. Adam sat close, feeling the welcome heat seeping into his face and his hands. The rest of his body was icy cold. His clothing was still wet. His leather boots were soaked right through. He fed the flames slowly and sparingly, keeping the fire burning but not wasting a single stick of their steadily decreasing supply of dry wood Nearby was a stack of giant Ponderosa pinecones, gradually drying out in the heat. When their wood was gone, they would burn the pinecones.

Adam was numb, both in body and in mind. His thought processes had turned in on themselves. It was impossible to plan, impossible to concentrate on any details of the past - only the immediacy of the present had any relevance. He knew that it was an inevitable effect of shock and that his inertia would soon wear off.

In the hours immediately following Hossís accident he had acted, and reacted, purely by instinct. Not knowing the extent of his brotherís injuries, he hadnít dared to move him far. He had rigged up what shelter he could. Although it was little more than a canvas awning on a framework of broken branches, it kept off the rain and enabled him to keep the little fire alight. Occasionally, the wind blew in under the open sides and brought with it a light spray of rain that made the flames hiss. The darkness pressed in on the small oasis of light. Adam had prepared a basic meal, and both he and Jody had forced the food down. If they were to help Hoss, they had to keep up their strength. The food had tasted like ashes and now lay in an indigestible lump in Adamís stomach.

After dark, the two of them sat beside the fire and drank coffee and listened to the steady drumming of the rain on their makeshift roof. A rumble of distant thunder attested to another storm drifting along an adjacent valley. It was too distant for the lightening to light up the sky. They hadnít talked much. There hadnít seemed a great deal to say, and each man had been engrossed with his own, sober thoughts. Jody hadnít yet asked what they were going to do next, or how they were going to get Hoss off the mountain; a fact for which Adam was grateful. At that moment, he had no clear answers to either question.

Now Jody lay wrapped in his blankets beside the fire. Adam couldnít see his face or whether his eyes were open or closed. From time to time he stirred restlessly as if his sleep, if indeed he were sleeping, was troubled.

Adam had done everything within his power to make his brother comfortable. Carefully, he had stripped the sodden clothing from the big manís body and wrapped him Ďround in the driest of their blankets. Hoss drifted in and out of awareness, never fully losing consciousness, never becoming completely lucid. He spoke Adamís name frequently, but didnít seem to hear when he responded. There was massive bruising all across his body, particularly over the area of his lower ribs. Adam was sure that several of them were broken. He had bound Hossís chest with strips torn from their spare clothing, supporting the crushed chest as best he could with the materials to hand. Now, Hoss lay on the other side of the fire to Jody, wound in the blankets and propped into a semi-sitting position against a saddle.

Adam fed another piece of wood to the fire and listened to the rasp of his brotherís breathing. Not for the first time he found himself counting the breaths, first in tens, then in hundreds, listening always for the next one. A small part of him was constantly afraid that each breath might falter and that the next one might be the last. Adam was under no illusions. He knew that his brother was very seriously injured indeed.

Hoss groaned and made a feeble movement with a blanket wrapped hand. Adam abandoned his stewardship of the fire and went to him at once.

"Hoss?"

"Adam? ĎThat you?" In the flickering firelight, Hoss still wasnít seeing too well.

"Itís me." Adam put his hand on his brotherís shoulder, offering reassurance, trying to avoid all the bruised and battered places.

Hoss moved his head against the saddle as he struggled to focus his eyes on Adamís face. All he could make out was a vague shifting of light and shade, as if firelight danced in darkness, as if his brother were already a part of a different world. He couldnít make out how it had gotten to be nighttime so quickly.

"Adam? What happened there? I donít remember?"

Adam moved closer. Hoss made out his features in the unsteady firelight. The concern he saw there scared him. Becoming agitated, he asked again, "What happened, Adam?"

"Take it easy." In a way it was a relief that Hoss had no memory of what had happened to him. Adam mouthed a few platitudes to calm him. "You had an accident. Itís gonna be fine, but you have to lie still." With both hands against his brotherís shoulders, Adam held him firmly against the saddle until he subsided.

Hoss was confused. He could remember nothing after showing Jody the tracks of the elk in the soft soil beside the stream. That had been broad daylight with a storm brewing. Now it was full dark, and the storm, if indeed it were the same storm, was far away. It was hard to breathe, and his chest burned with pain. He just couldnít make sense of it. He licked his dry lips. "Awful dry, Adam."

Adam reached for the canteen and poured a measure of water into a cup. He lifted his brotherís head and steadied it, holding the cup to his lips. Hoss sipped slowly. He didnít dare cough. He didnít think he could stand the pain. When he had drunk enough he subsided against the saddle. He was still puzzled.

"You gotta tell me, Adam. What sorta accident did I have? I feel kinda like Ė my chest is all stove in." He didnít see the shadow of fear that crossed Adamís face.

"Donít you worry about it now. Try and get some rest."

Adam watched the pale eyes close and listened to the ragged breathing. Except for the tortured heaving of the chest, the big man lay quite still. Adam thought, for a moment, that he was sleeping. Then the eyes opened again, opened wide with alarm. Hoss struggled to get free of the blankets; clutched at his brotherís arm.

"Adam!"

"Iím right here, Hoss." Adam found himself trying to hold the larger man down. Even now, that was no easy task.

Hoss was frightened Ė very frightened. He had been struck with the deep primordial terror that had afflicted man since his earliest awareness: the fear of the unknown, and of death. Hoss expressed his feelings in the only way he knew how. "Heís a-cominí fer me, Adam! I know heís a-cominí fer me!"

"Thereís no one here, Hoss. No one but me and Jody." Adam couldnít make out what was causing Hoss so much alarm, but the distress was genuine, and he gave what reassurance he could.

Hoss refused to be placated. Despite the pain and his brotherís restraining arms, he continued to struggle. "Itís the varmint, Adam! Itís the varmint! I cín feel him! I cín smell him!"

Perplexed, Adam looked around. All he could see were the flickering outlines of the makeshift campsite, rimed in the firelight with the darkness of the night beyond. All he could sense was the storm, far-off now and moving away, the still falling rain and the unseen, looming presence of the pines. He sucked air through his teeth. "I wonít let him come, Hoss. Iíll keep him away."

His huge hands locked immovably on Adamís arms, Hoss gazed into his face. He was anxious, pleading, a small boy again desperately needing the assurances of his beloved and trusted big brother. "Youíll sit up? All night? You wonít let him git me?" It was a plea Adam hadnít heard for twenty years, since Hoss had finally banished the night terrors of childhood.

He eased Hoss back against the saddle and gave the old, well-remembered promise. "Iíll sit up all night, Hoss."

Very gradually, Hoss relaxed. Adam was at last able to free his arms. He pulled the blankets up about Hossís shoulders.

Hoss was calmer now, soothed by Adamís assurance. He settled back; his eyes still searched through the darkness beyond the dripping awning. At last he heaved a great sigh, and his eyes closed. His breathing, though still noisy and laboured, slowed and steadied. Adam was sure that this time, he slept.

Adam sat beside his brother for a long time. Although he was in no way to blame for Hossís accident, he was suffering the twin agonies of self-recrimination and overpowering responsibility. Only when the fire began to die did he stir himself. In the fading light he saw the gleam of Jodyís eyes and knew that the young man kept his own, sleepless vigil. Adam hunkered down and put more wood into the flames.

Out in the pinewoods a dark and strangely different intelligence stirred. Huge, black, and sleek, vaguely feline in form, the beast snarled softly and lifted its lip in an expression of distaste as it scented the air. The varmint did not care for these damp and dismal hills. It would not have come here at all, except that the soul of one with whom it had an unaccountable affinity had summoned it. Prowling through the night on soft and silent paws, its green eyes were slitted against the rain, glowing embers banked within. It sensed that it was near Ė very near.

The varmint paused and tasted the air again. Black jaws gaped; dagger-like, razor edged teeth, black as jet, gleamed. Just ahead was a bright burning and clustered about it, no less than three of the soft man things. As always it pondered, in its un-human way, at the tenacity of the fragile creatures. They were so ill equipped for survival with their dull teeth and their blunt claws. Shaking its great head to shed the rain drops from silken whiskers and settling low to the ground, the great beast began to stalk.

At the picket line, one of the horses caught the scent of something frightening in the wind. It threw up its head with a snort. Its anxiety spread rapidly to the other animals on the line. They all began to shift uneasily.

As always, Adam had kept his promise. Although he was more comfortable now, his clothes having dried on his body to a warm, clammy dampness, and his eyes were gritty with fatigue, he had made no move to settle into his own blankets, and sleep was far from his mind. He sat beside the fire and gazed across the flames and into the night. Hearing the disturbance among the horses, he got up and moved swiftly to the edge of the awning.

It was still raining relentlessly; a fine, silver sleeting angled down through the pine branches and hissed onto the wet ground. Beyond the rain, he could make out the dark bulk of the horses, agitated and uncomfortable because of the rain and, perhaps, because of something else. Hossís concern had communicated itself to Adam. He searched the darkness with keen and discerning eyes. He listened and heard only the wind, a low and constant moaning in the tops of the trees and, not far away, the musical stream running full spat. All his senses told him that there was nothing at all out there among the trees, but instinct, intuition and imagination combined to convince him otherwise. He reached for his rifle and stepped out into the night.

Immediately, the rain soaked him again, right through to the skin. He shivered as the wind blew cold. The light from the fire did not penetrate beyond the boundary of the shelter and the moon had long since slipped from the sky. It was hard to see anything. With the rifle held ready across his body, Adam moved into the trees.

Mere yards away the varmint crouched, black on black, unseen and unseeable against the Stygian gloom of the forest floor. It watched this man-thing with wary interest. It was not the one who had called him. That one lay in the crude shelter. This one stood between. The varmint did not fear the man, or his gun, or his fire - none of them could touch his ephemeral hide. It felt the fierce determination, the anger and the anxiety, tightly contained. Now, it concluded, would not be the best time for the inevitable confrontation. It would wait Ė a little longer.

Adam felt the pressure of alien eyes upon him. He turned sharply, the breath hissing through his teeth. Sensing motion among the trunks he brought the rifle round, level and steady. He saw nothing moving as the varmint slipped silently away.

The tempo of the rain increased abruptly, and thunder growled again as a new storm moved down from the mountains. Cold water ran out of his hair and down his back. He lowered the rifle and relaxed. The horses were settling again, and there was no point in chasing phantoms through the forest. He took a long, last look around, his dark eyes still troubled. His breath sighed out, and, shouldering the rifle, he returned with long, weary strides to his place beside the fire.

Part 2



 
 


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