Sheltered Heart




Gray storm clouds shrouded the sky as deep rumblings of thunder shook in the distance. The air was still and heavy; an ominous absence of movement prevailed as if instinct had driven all wildlife to the protection of their dens. Tiny droplets of warm rain fell downward at an angle, picking up momentum with each passing moment. The mahogany gelding, coat shiny with sweat, tried to outrun the storm, its rider pressing small black boots into the mount’s flanks, urging it toward the yard, toward protection, toward home.

Two men stood on the expansive porch. The older one glanced up for perhaps the tenth time in ten minutes, willing the storm to wait. He ran a callused hand through thick hair the color of those storm clouds, drawing two black brows together in concentration. The younger man, tall and dark haired, nervously wiped perspiring palms down the sides of his pants, never taking his eyes from the other’s face. Two minds shared one thought as the horse came bounding into the yard. The approach was much too fast.

How it happened, neither was sure. The hurried clopping of the hooves, the shrill scream of fear, the horse’s frightened whinny, the dull thud of the animal falling over on its side, the crack of bone – all were frighteningly deafening. But it was the silence that followed that was eerily surreal; the calmness almost as terrifying as the accident itself. The older man scrambled to the rider, stumbling twice in his haste. The younger man stood paralyzed, boots rooted to the planks, eyes wide with horror as he watched his father cradle his stepmother in his arms, another love and another life prematurely snuffed out.

"NO!" The young man sat bold upright, breath coming in short quick gasps as he wildly scanned his surroundings. He felt a light touch upon his forehead, and turned his bright hazel eyes toward the person who crouched beside him.

The soft cool grass that earlier had lulled him to sleep in the midday sun now seemed to mock him as realization set in. Embarrassed, he ran his hands roughly over his eyes, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill over. It was just a bad dream, he told himself, another nightmare – or ‘day’ mare as he had taken to calling them – which threatened his sanity.

"You think bad sleep thoughts," the girl beside him spoke haltingly, her face drawn in concern. "Must think good things now to chase away bad pictures." She smiled slightly then, her teeth startlingly white against the brown of her face.

"I…I…just had a bad dream is all," he explained, confused at her presence. Suddenly, a thought sprang into his mind. "Hoss! Joe!" He yelled, jumping to his feet. Heart pounding, he turned to her, grabbing her forearms, "My brothers! I’ve gotta…"

"Big boy with little boy, near water. They are safe, no bad thoughts." She studied his face for a moment before adding, "I watch boys and you from there." The girl pointed to a thicket of brush nearby.

"Oh," he managed to choke out. "I’m sorry." He released her arms then and stared at her as if seeing her for the first time. Close to his age of seventeen, she stood a head shorter, her long black hair tied loosely with a wide strip of rawhide. She wore a shapeless tan dress, legs bare beneath it. Her eyes, black, were slightly almond shaped as she gazed into his own troubled eyes, trying to understand what was distressing him.

"You’re Paiute," he stated more than asked, sitting back down. She folded her knees beneath her and sat also.

"Yes. We travel from North, better hunting now, join more Paiutes to make stronger tribe." She explained, then hesitated a moment. "I am called Toi." She pronounced it ‘Toe-eye.’

"Toi." He held out his hand. "I am called Adam Cartwright. Adam." He tried to smile, but the pain of the bad dream was still too fresh in his mind.

"Tell me your bad thoughts, Adam Cartwright," she whispered, taking both his hands in hers. The color drained from Adam’s handsome face as he waged an internal war. A private person, he seldom shared emotions with others, especially strangers. There was something about her though, something that made him want to pour his heart out to her, share some of the burden he’d been carrying for the past few weeks. But that had never been his way. Not before, not now, not ever – he promised himself.

"You speak English well," he changed the subject, averting his eyes.

"Thank you. So do you," she replied, and for the first time in a while, Adam smiled ever so slightly. "There," she continued. "Your face is much prettier now."

At those words, his lips curled. "Thanks. No one’s ever told me that before."

Toi plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between her fingers. "You are very pretty," she declared and at that, he laughed aloud, something he thought he’d forgotten how to do.

"And so are you. Very pretty, I mean." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Listen, Toi, I…uh…I wanna apologize for before. I fell asleep and…" he shrugged, unable to put into words his shame that she had witnessed his being frightened by a dream.

"Apologize?" She repeated, cocking her head.

Adam ran his hand through his hair, unwittingly mimicking a gesture his father so often made. "You know, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to see me…you know…"

"Sad?" She finished for him.

"Yeah. Sad." After a few moments of silence, he looked up at her, wanting to explain but not knowing how. "Some…somethin’ bad happened a coupla weeks ago, that’s all. Seems like bad things have been happenin’ all my life." He muttered the last words to himself, but her acute hearing picked up not only the words, but the despair behind them as well.

"Only bad things?"

Once again he shrugged, not trusting his voice.

"Those are good things, over there." She gestured with her chin towards the nearby stream. "You have two brothers. That is a very good thing. I have no brothers."

Adam merely nodded, seeing the wisdom of her words but not yet ready to loosen his grasp on self-pity.

"You have home? Father? Mother?" She fired the questions at him not unkindly, and he flinched at her last word. She understood immediately. "You have home and father and brothers. So you do have good things, things to be happy for."

Before he had time to ponder her statement, the two younger boys came rushing toward them. The smaller one, a curly headed boy of six, reached the pair first.

"Hey Adam, who’s that?" He pointed to the girl.

The middle brother reached them in time to hear the young boy’s question. He was tall and sturdily built for a twelve-year-old, with eyes bluer than the clear stream they’d been fishing in. He swatted the younger boy’s hand down. "Joe, dontcha know it ain’t polite to point?"

Adam frowned slightly at Hoss’s bad grammar but chose not to correct him. "Toi, these are my brothers, Hoss and Joe. Boys, this is my friend, Toi."

Little Joe Cartwright wrinkled his nose at her name and wiggled his bare toes. "Like this?" With one hand on his left foot and the other covering his right eye, he hopped around until he landed with a plop in Adam’s lap. Toi, Hoss and Joe giggled, and the welcoming sound eased some of the creases from Adam’s brow. He squeezed the little boy tightly. "Are you an Injun?" Joe asked innocently.



Adam and Hoss cried simultaneously, although neither was surprised by the child’s forthright question.

"What did I tell you about mindin’ your manners?" Adam admonished, but Toi placed her hand on the little boy’s cheek.

"Yes, I am Indian. Paiute. What are you?" There was a twinkle in her eye as she spoke.

Little Joe wrinkled his face in bewilderment. "I…I don’t know. I know I’m Joseph Francis Cartwright." Hoss and Adam tried to keep a straight face as their baby brother searched for an answer. "And I know I’m a boy cause I got a…"

"JOE!" Adam’s voice rose a pitch and Joe grinned devilishly.

"I ain’t gonna say it in front of a girl! I’m a good horse rider and a good egg c’lector, and…and…what else am I, Adam?"

Adam hugged him again, giving his ribs a little tickle. "Hmmm, what do you think, Hoss? He can be a pest and a squirmy worm…"

Hoss guffawed and tousled the little boy’s curls. "Yeah, he’s trouble, plain and simple."

"I ain’t neither!" Little Joe shot back, trying to decide if they were teasing or not.

"I know what you are," Toi spoke softly, pulling the child onto her lap. "You are a very good brother. A boy who brings smiles wherever you go and much happiness to his family."

Her eyes locked with Adam’s, and for what seemed an eternity neither pulled away. Adam felt the hope he’d so recently lost starting to find its way back into his heart, broken as it was.

The three boys reluctantly rode into the yard of the Ponderosa, where the first sight that greeted Adam’s eyes was the porch he had dreamed about only a few hours earlier. He closed his eyes as he passed the place where the horse had toppled on top of Marie, his and Hoss’s stepmother, Joe’s birth mother. He fought the familiar churning in his stomach.

"Why couldn’t we stay with Toi?" Joe asked for what Adam felt was the millionth time. Biting back an impatient retort, he gently lowered the little boy who rode with him into Hoss’s waiting arms.

"Because she had to get back to her own people and we had to get back to…to…" The word "Pa" stuck in Adam’s throat. Taking a deep breath, he finished, "We had to get back. Hop Sing’ll have dinner waitin’ for us. Now why don’t you bring him these fish you caught?" With those words and a light swat on his backside, Adam pushed Joe toward the back of the house.

Hoss looked at his older brother, eyes cautious. "Do ya think Pa’ll eat dinner with us? Once he smells them catfish cookin’, maybe he’ll…"

Adam threw an arm around Hoss’s broad shoulders, noting they were just about the same height despite the age difference. But Hoss was still a child, a child who had just lost the only mother he’d ever really known, and Adam knew from experience twice over what the youngster was feeling.

Added to the burden was the fact that their father, Ben Cartwright, could not seem to pull himself from the depths of his depression – it was as if he’d stopped living -burying himself in physical work, distancing himself from his sons. Sure, the shell of the man was there, his hollow eyes unfocused on everything but his own loss. Adam had been through it before when he witnessed Hoss’s mother killed so many years ago by an Indian. He thought he’d never experience that emptiness and fear again – and the nightmares - but he was wrong. And what upset him more than anything else was the fact that his brothers were suffering the same cruel fate and there was nothing he could do to change that.

"Adam?" Hoss startled Adam from his thoughts.

Choosing his words carefully, Adam explained, "Listen, Hoss, I don’t want you to get your hopes up. Pa, well Pa’s still grieving hard, and it’s gonna take some time…"

"How much time?" The tears in Hoss’s eyes attested to his sorrow. "When is he gonna start bein’ Pa again?"

Adam hung his head. He had no answer.

Late the next night Adam worked at his father’s desk, trying to read over lumber contracts until he grew bleary-eyed and the words started blending together. Rolling his stiff shoulders, he scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, trying to forget Joe’s screams of terror as his own nightmare invaded his sleep earlier that night. Thank the Lord the child usually only had one a night since his Mama died – Adam didn’t think he could handle more than that. Not that he had a choice. Despite the volume of the little boy’s cries, his father had made no effort to comfort the child. After Adam got Joe settled and back to sleep, he angrily made his way to his father’s room, determined to have it out with him.

He pushed open the door without knocking, an offense that formerly brought at the very least a tongue-lashing. Adam kept his voice low although the fury could be heard loud and clear.

"Didn’t you hear your baby son crying?" Sitting on his bed, Ben did not look up at the intrusion. "Pa!" Adam knelt before him, and what he saw scored him to his very soul. Unheeded tears streamed down his father’s face. "Pa?" He said gently then, anger forgotten.

"Yes. Yes I heard him crying. He was crying for his mother." The older man’s voice was soft and filled with anguish. Adam swallowed convulsively, trying to keep a rein on his own emotions, not knowing how to cope with this side of his usually stalwart father. Without a word, he removed Ben’s slippers and tenderly pushed him onto the bed, drawing the covers up to his chin. Adam’s heart was nothing but a burdensome stone in his chest as he blew out the lantern and shut the door behind him.

Pushing away from the desk, Adam rose and strode to the door, strapping on his gunbelt as he walked. He had to get out of the house. He had to go somewhere and just be free of all the obligations that had been thrust on his young shoulders - the ranch and his brothers and his father and his own barely controlled feelings. Not bothering with a saddle, he gracefully swung onto Sport’s back and rode hard. Despite the protests from his body, weary from lack of sleep, his mind was restless and he felt himself inexplicably drawn to the spot where he had met Toi. He slid off the horse’s back and sunk to the ground, trying to clear his head and find some peace.

"Adam?" a soft voice called.

"Toi?" Adam answered, and in the dim moonlight saw the Indian girl, her soft-shod feet noiseless as she walked to him. "What…what are you doin’ here so late?"

"I felt you," she said as she sat beside him. "I sensed you here." She pointed to her heart, and Adam exhaled deeply, confused yet somehow comforted by her simple words. "You have more bad sleep thoughts?"

Adam looked down, glad for the darkness that hid his blush. He shook his head. "No. Joe, he had a nightmare…I mean bad sleep thoughts. He misses his Mama."

Toi drew up her knees to her chest and asked, "And you? Do you miss your Mama as well?"

Silence was his answer.

She sighed and extended her arm, her fingers grazing Adam’s chest. "Tell me, what do you feel here?"

Adam licked his lips nervously before responding. "It…it doesn’t matter what I feel. It’s my brothers I’m worried about. They’re just kids and I’ve gotta…I’ve gotta take care of them till my Pa gets back to livin’."

Toi’s eyes held all the wisdom in the world as she stated, "You are man, strong man. But even strong man must say what in heart. You say nothing, you die inside."

Adam couldn’t, wouldn’t look at her, for her words struck a chord in that very heart he was trying so hard to shelter. For a fleeting moment he thought he’d break down and cry the tears he’d so far been unable to shed. With a firm resolve he pushed that notion away and let himself be drawn down the path to another emotional outlet. He slowly bent his head toward the girl, his lips gently brushing hers and was almost frightened by the sensation that brief touch evoked.

"Toi, I…"

"Tell me what is in your heart, Adam Cartwright," she pleaded.

"I can’t." His voice caught. "I’m not even sure what I’m feelin’. I’m not sure of anything anymore."

"I can help you," she persisted. "My people say I have gift of healing."

"Healing?" Adam whispered. "But I’m…I’m not hurt."

Toi shook her head. Her eyes sought his, trying to make him understand. "I cannot heal outside hurt, only inside hurt. I wish to heal your heart."

No one can help with that, Adam thought. "Toi, it’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just…I don’t know…it’s just not something I can talk about right now. Can you understand that? I…I…"

She silenced him then with her finger on his lips, brushing back a stray lock of raven hair that had fallen across his forehead.

"I know what is in both our hearts. That is enough for now."

Toi opened her arms and he fell into them. The two of them clung to one another through the night, waking only when the rising sun warmed their faces. Groggy from the first uninterrupted night’s sleep in weeks, Adam opened his eyes to find Toi snuggling close to him against the early morning dampness.

"Toi," he murmured.

"Hmmm?" She sighed.

"Toi," Adam repeated, a trifle louder this time. "I’ve gotta go. I’ve gotta get home to my brothers."

"I know. You go now to your brothers." Yawning, she sat up, reaching both arms high above her head in a languid stretch. "I must go also. My father will worry."

Her words jolted Adam back to the reality of the reversing roles he and his father had now. What if the boys had needed him during the night? What if Joe had called out and no one came? These questions spurred him to his horse. She ran after him.

"Will you come back?" she asked, eyes probing.

He turned and drew her to him, kissing her forehead. "Yes, I’ll be back. Later, I promise." The tension in his face was plain as he rode away, his mind jumbled with images of his brothers, his father, his mothers and an Indian girl who made him feel things he didn’t want to feel.


The two youngest Cartwrights dashed down the stairs to find their big brother sipping coffee and shoveling eggs into his mouth.

"Sorry we’re late," Hoss apologized. "We kinda overslept."

Adam simply nodded, relieved they hadn’t noticed his absence. He grabbed Little Joe as he ran by, tucking in the little boy’s shirt and tightening his suspenders, giving them a small snap before he released him.

Hop Sing scurried in with another platter of ham and eggs. He set it on the table, his penetrating gaze falling on Adam’s slightly pale face.

"You sleep?" The diminutive Chinaman asked politely.

"Uh…sure," Adam answered, concentrating hard on the piece of meat he was cutting. Outsiders thought Hop Sing was just the Cartwright’s cook, but he was much more than that. He took on many roles – caretaker, advisor, disciplinarian, conscience, friend – and Adam squirmed under his close scrutiny.

"You up plenty early today. Bed all made but have no time to take clean shirt from laundry?" Hop Sing motioned knowingly to the black shirt Adam wore, mud stained from yesterday’s branding.

"Guess I forgot to change it. I’ll do it now." Anxious to escape Hop Sing’s all knowing gaze, Adam swiped the napkin across his face and rose.

"Adam, are we gonna see Toi today?" Joe asked, pushing the food around on his plate.

Adam sensed Hop Sing’s ears perking up at the mention of Toi’s name as he poured milk into Joe’s cup, but knew he would never overstep his bounds by intruding into the conversation.

"Maybe. If you eat your breakfast and if you behave today. Now I’m goin’ up to change my shirt and when I come down, I’d better see some clean plates!"

Hoss gave a wide grin. "No problem for me, Big Brother!"

Pausing outside Ben’s door, Adam closed his eyes – maybe his father would be more like his old self today. He rapped softly. No sound came, so Adam entered hesitantly, almost afraid of what waited for him. The bed lay unmade, covers twisted in a heap at the foot, evidence of a fitful night. Standing before the window, hands clasped behind his back, stood Ben Cartwright. Although his face still held that vacant expression and his hair was wild and unkempt, he was fully dressed except for his boots.

Adam didn’t dare let himself hope – it saved a lot of disappointment that way. Instead, he eyed him suspiciously and asked, "Pa? You coming down for breakfast?"

"Breakfast?" Ben repeated as if he’d never heard the word.

Not realizing he’d been holding his breath, Adam exhaled. "Yeah, breakfast. Maybe you could eat with the boys," he suggested tentatively. As much as he wanted his father to come downstairs and take his rightful place at the head of the table, he wasn’t sure he wanted Hoss and Joe to see their father this way.

"No, I don’t think so. Not today." Ben’s shoulders slumped in defeat. "Thought I’d ride out and check the south pasture, see if I can track that mountain lion. Camp out." His voice trailed off.

"Why? Why are you running away from us?" Adam pleaded, his voice throaty with raw emotion. "The boys need you – Joe’s nightmares are getting worse and Hoss is worried sick." Adam didn’t mention how much he needed his father as well, needed his help with the ranch, the books, the contracts, the children – needed his help coming to terms with the loss of his stepmother. Ben continued to stare out the window, so Adam came around to stand before him. "Pa? Dammit, Pa, answer me!"

As if Adam hadn’t spoken, Ben gestured weakly out the window. "See that spot there?" Adam didn’t have to look to know where his father was pointing. "That’s where it happened. That’s where Marie…"

"I know, Pa. I was there. I saw."

"You were there?" Ben blinked.

Adam’s jaw was set in a hard line as his bitter words tumbled out. "Yeah, I was there when Marie died. I was there when Inger got killed too. And I was there when my Ma…when my Ma…"

The stark pain on his father’s face kept Adam from finishing his sentence. His tone was devoid of emotion as he spoke. "Doesn’t matter. Go on, Pa. Go find that cat. We’ll get along just fine without you." Purposefully, Adam stalked out of the room, biting his lower lip until he tasted blood.

Fists clenched tightly to keep control, Adam ran down the stairs, back to the dining room. Both boys looked up, surprised.

"What happened to yer lip?" Hoss asked, noticing the thin line of red on his older brother’s chin.

"Nuthin’. C’mon boys, we’re taking the day off. Hoss, go saddle the horses," Adam ordered brusquely.

"Yippee!" Joe squealed, hopping off his chair and into Adam’s arms. "Where we goin’? We gonna go see Toi?"

Hoss was wary. He knew his older brother had been struggling to keep things running smoothly while their father grieved and wondered what prompted this sudden change of heart. Not wanting to spoil Little Joe’s obvious joy, he kept his doubts to himself, but that didn’t stop him from worrying.

"Why you no change shirt?" Hop Sing admonished, brows knit. "Little boy no finish food. Where you go and when you be back?"

"Don’t worry, Hop Sing. I’m not sure where we’re going, but we’ll be fine. You need a break too – take the day off – get some rest." Adam called over his shoulder as the three Cartwright boys headed out the door.

As they rode away from the ranch, Adam started to think that maybe their ‘day off’ wasn’t such a good idea after all. Although their father was keeping up with the actual hands-on aspects of running the ranch, mines, and mills, he still avoided any human contact, leaving that to Adam. There wasn’t too much time left on one of the timber delivery deadlines and tomorrow was payday for the hands – Adam had to get to the bank and withdraw enough cash to cover their wages. Yanking the reins, he stopped his horse abruptly. Hoss followed suit. Little Joe, seated in front of Adam turned his face toward his oldest brother’s.

"Why ain’t we goin’? Why we stoppin’ here?" He questioned as Adam swiveled in his saddle to glance back from where they came.

It was obvious to Hoss that Adam was wrestling with his earlier hasty decision. "We headin’ back now?"

It wasn’t the words Hoss used but rather the tone of voice that made Adam take notice. He sounded so defeated, as if he was very used to being disappointed.

"Why do ya say that?" Little Joe asked quizzically.

Hoss directed his answer to Adam. "Work’s gotta get done and there ain’t nobody else gonna do it." He stated flatly.

Adam cleared his throat. "You’re right, Hoss, work’s gotta get done. Except for going to the bank later on, I think we can get the rest done tomorrow, don’t you?"

A slow smile spread over Hoss’s face. "Yeah, I reckon."

"What do you say we do a little hiking, maybe catch a few rabbits for lunch?" The two boys nodded enthusiastically and Adam knew he’d made the right choice.

"Can I shoot your gun?" Joe fairly jumped up and down on the saddle, trying to cash in on Adam’s good mood.

"Nope." The little boy’s face fell. "But I will show you how to set a snare and maybe, if you behave…" He paused dramatically.

"What? I’ll behave, I’ll behave!" Joe shrieked.

Adam winked at Hoss. "I might just teach you how to skin what we catch."

Little Joe’s eyes fairly popped out of his head with excitement. "Ya mean I can use your knife?"

Adam chuckled. "Well, can’t very well let you use your teeth now, can I?"

True to his word, Adam let Joe skin one of the two rabbits they trapped, under his strict supervision. Hoss tended to the other one and the fire as well, designating himself as official cook.

"Wait till I tell Pa I skinned a rabbit all by myself!" Joe exclaimed. Hoss looked up from stoking the fire and caught Adam rubbing his forehead wearily. But before either could say another word, Joe sprang up and yelled, "Toi!" He raced to meet her. Grabbing the girl’s hand he led her to their campsite, jabbering all the way about his latest accomplishment.

"Very big boy use knife." She patted him on the head. She glanced around and smiled at Hoss, "And boy – almost man – cook over fire." Hoss beamed with pleasure. Adam took all this in, silently sending a ‘thank you’ to Toi with a barely perceptible nod. They quickly devoured their lunch, with Little Joe’s chattering, Hoss’s smiles and Toi’s sweet laughter a salve for Adam’s troubled mind.

Little Joe sat as close to Toi as possible. "Are ya comin’ hikin’ with us?"

"Hiking?" Toi looked to Adam for an explanation.

"A walk. We thought we’d take a walk after lunch." Adam clarified and she nodded. "So where do you boys wanna go?" he asked, licking the last of his lunch from his fingers.

Before Hoss could speak, Joe pointed to the top of the closest mountain. "There. That’s where I wanna go."

"All the way up there?" Adam frowned, hoping to dissuade him. He knew he’d be carrying the child before long as Joe was not overly fond of heights. "The meadow is nice. How about …"

"No!" Joe stamped a small foot. "I wanna go where I’ll be closer to Mama!"

The little boy stood and moodily made his way to the nearby stream, picking up a handful of stones and throwing them into the water.

Hoss stared at the ground, afraid to look up as unbidden tears filled his eyes. Adam opened his mouth but no words came out.

"You must go to him," Toi softly advised.

"But…but I don’t know what to say," he moaned. Instead of answering, she laid her head on his shoulder and he knew what she was telling him without words.

"I know," he spoke into her silky hair. "Say what’s in my heart." He rose reluctantly and with great difficulty, put one foot in front of the other until he came to where his young brother stood.

"You go too," Toi told Hoss. "I stay here and wait." She prayed to her god that in helping his younger brothers, Adam would help himself.

Absentmindedly, Adam reached down and grabbed a couple of stones, skimming one across the water – one, two, three, four, five skips. He squatted down by the water’s edge, close to his little brother but not touching him.

"Ya ain’t gonna take me to the top of that mountain, are ya?" Joe asked, running his sleeve across his eyes.

"Well, Joe, if you really want me to, I will. But that’s not gonna bring you closer to your Mama." Since Marie’s death, Adam’s belief in prayer had become shaky, to say the least. But right now he sent up a silent prayer, not to his Maker but to Joe’s mother, for guidance in helping her son.

"Why not? Ya said she’s in heaven and heaven’s up in the sky, right?" Little Joe’s eyes were round and full as he tried to understand.

"Of course she’s in heaven – she’s with God and all the angels…"

Joe interrupted, "And with your Mama and Hoss’s Mama too?"

Adam’s eyes slid sideways to glance at his middle brother who was listening intently, maybe needing to hear the right words more than Joe. The seventeen-year-old blew out his breath, feeling very inadequate and wishing their father was there. But he wasn’t, Adam reminded himself grimly, and forced himself to try to explain something even he didn’t fully understand.

"Yeah, with…with our Mothers too. But like I said, you don’t have to climb a mountain to be close to your Mama. You just have to look inside your heart and you’ll find her." Adam frowned at the look of confusion on both his brothers’ faces.

"But…" Joe began.

"Listen to me." Adam’s voice was a bit stronger now, his words coming faster as he spoke. "Love is way stronger than death and your Mama’s love and your Mama herself is in you, in Hoss, in all of us. All you have to do is think of her and remember her love, her voice, the stories she told, the hugs she gave…" He paused, swallowing back a sob that threatened to escape. "Do you understand what I’m trying to say? Sure, maybe…maybe when you see something like that blanket she was knitting or…or that blue scarf she always liked to wear, it’ll make you feel closer to her. But even without that stuff, your Mama will always be with you, loving you, watching over you and trying to keep you out of trouble."

At that, Hoss gave a little snort through his tears and all three boys gave a little smile.

"So you’re sayin’ all I gotta do is think of Mama and she’ll be here?" Joe pointed a grubby finger to his chest. Adam nodded, unable to speak. "So I don’t hafta go up high to be with her?"

"Nope," Hoss answered. "And me and Adam don’t hafta go up high neither, ain’t that right?"

Adam’s voice was a little hoarse when he answered, "That’s right. All I have to do is look at Hoss and I see…I see Marie’s kindness and I can hear her laughter. And when I look at Joe, I can see his Mama’s eyes and her patience and her love." He stood then and turned to stare out onto the water, afraid - ashamed to let his brothers see what he felt was weakness.

"Yeah," Hoss mused aloud. "Like every time I go past one of them fancy French bakeries in San Francisco and smell one of them cro…cro…"

"Croissants," Adam whispered.

"That’s it. Croissants. Whenever I smell a croissant, she’ll be right close by."

"And whenever I hear Adam playin’ the guitar, she’ll be there too!" Little Joe supplied, smiling, remembering.

"And when we’re out by the lake, havin’ a picnic!" Hoss added, warming up to the game.

"How ‘bout when I get tucked in at night, will she be there too?" the youngest Cartwright asked anxiously.

Adam nodded, pinching the skin on his forearm hard, trying to concentrate on that pain instead of the memories his brother evoked.

"Adam? We don’t hafta climb up that big mountain. Maybe we can walk along the stream here and see if there’s any bull frogs hidin’." Joe sounded relieved and with a child’s abandon ran back happily to get Toi.

"Ya okay, Adam?" The concern was evident in Hoss’s voice.

"Sure," he murmured.

Hoss turned to follow Joe, but Adam caught him under the elbow. "Hoss, I’m real proud of you. I know…I know I don’t say that often enough, but you’ve been a really big help to me, what with Pa…" He furrowed his brow and chose different words. "I mean I appreciate your help with Joe and the chores and …and I’m sorry you had to grow up so fast these past couple of weeks."

Hoss seemed to stand taller and his expression relaxed as he said sincerely, "I know, Adam. Ya don’t hafta say it. I’d do anythin’ for you or Joe. Pa too"

"You’re a good person, Hoss Cartwright, and I’m lucky to have you for my brother," Adam declared. With their arms around one another’s shoulders, Hoss and Adam walked up the slight incline to Toi and Joe.

"C’mon!" yelled Little Joe. "Ya two are slower than molasses in July!"

"You mean January," corrected Adam. "Did you break down those snares like I told you?"

"Uh…sure….I mean, I think so," Joe hedged.

Adam raised his eyebrows and placed his hands on his hips.

"Okay, okay. I’ll go check." He ran off a ways.

"I’ll make sure he does it this time," Hoss said.

Adam turned to Toi, "Sure is a lot quieter with those two gone."

"I like their noise," she stated and he chuckled.

"Yeah, I guess I like it too. Most of the time." They sat on a fallen log and Toi slipped her hand into his. He took advantage of their solitude and asked, "Does your father know about me – I mean, us? He just lets you go off on your own like this?"

She wrinkled her nose slightly and raised her shoulders. "I do what I am told to do. My father hunts much and talks with men in other tribe. Women stay together, not miss me when I go."

"Well I’d sure miss you," he said emphatically. "But you never answered my question. Did you tell your father about my family and me?"

"There is no need for him to know. Father not trust your people."

Adam drew his head back. "But why? We’ve always been friendly with the Paiutes. My father lets them live and hunt on our land."

Toi’s face became serious. "That is good. But land is land, belong to no one and everyone. I believe your father good man because he has good sons, but he live by white man laws. My father good man also. Live by Paiute laws."

Taking a minute to digest her words, Adam put his arm around her and drew her to him. "I wish things were different – that there wasn’t so much hate in this world. There must be some way that whites and Indians and everybody could live just together in peace. There’s enough sadness in the world already without people having to add to it."

Although she didn’t understand all he said, Toi smiled at his passion. "You say pretty words, Adam Cartwright. Not all people think those words."

"I don’t care about ‘all people’," Adam retorted. "I care about Toi and what she thinks."

"I think," she brought up her index finger and gently traced the outline of his lips. "I think," she began again, but this time his kiss silenced her. He gathered her into his arms and the outside world disappeared as they succumbed to their desires.

"Uh hmm." Joe stared at Adam and Toi, locked in a tight embrace and cleared his throat again, grinning broadly. "Uh hmm." The boy crouched down to get a better look at their faces, both seemingly glued together at the mouth. A giggle escaped the little boy, as he heard a loud smacking sound.

"Eww! Your tongues were touchin’!" Joe exclaimed in horror.

Face beet red, Adam released Toi so abruptly she fell off the log.

"Just what do you think you’re doing?" Adam yelled at his brother as he helped Toi to her feet.

"Watchin’ ya two kiss," he replied earnestly. Adam made a move to grab him, but Toi placed a restraining hand on his arm.

"Weren’t you supposed to be doing something?" For the life of him, Adam couldn’t recall what Joe had been told to do, but he wasn’t about to let his brother know how flustered he was.

"Oh yeah. I’m s’posed to be gettin’ rid of the traps." Joe remembered, still smiling.

"Well then, why aren’t you doing that?" Adam hissed between clenched teeth, his embarrassment fueling his temper.

Joe scrunched his face in thought for a moment. "Now I ‘member. Uh…somethin’ got trapped so I came to tell ya."

Exasperated, Adam hollered, "Just let whatever it is you caught go! Is that so hard to do?"

Toi’s eyes sparkled with amusement at their exchange.

"No…yeah…well, maybe it’s hard to do. Hoss said he’d take care of it," Joe hemmed and hawed and Adam narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

"What exactly got trapped?" He had a bad feeling about this and Joe soon confirmed that feeling.

"A skunk," he muttered so softly Adam leaned down to hear him.

"A what?"

"A skunk." Joe watched as his brother’s expression went from pure anger to utter disbelief. "It’s only a small one, don’t worry."

Adam sat back down and put his head in his hands. "Joe, a skunk’s a skunk – a small one smells just as bad as a big one." His head was spinning, trying to figure out how to free the animal.

"But Hoss is gettin’ it. He’ll be real careful."

Hearing those words and seeing Adam’s grimace, Toi burst out laughing. "Oh Adam, small skunk, small problem."

"Sure." He muttered. "Come on, let’s go watch Hoss get that skunk. I’m not going near it though – I’ve still got to go to the bank and I don’t want to stink." He grabbed Toi and Little Joe’s hands and walked in silence, still seething at Joe’s interruption.

"Hey Adam," piped Joe, a mischievous smirk covering his small face.

"What?" Adam replied, annoyance plain in his voice.

"How could ya and Toi breathe like that? I mean, with all that spit flyin’ and…"

"Joe, so help me," Adam shouted. He foolishly let go of his brother’s hand and the boy took off running. "Wait till I get my hands on you!" Adam raced after him, leaving the young Indian girl collapsed on the ground in a fit of giggles.

After successfully freeing the skunk, Toi and the Cartwright boys lazily strolled alongside the stream. Little Joe managed to spot one rather large bullfrog that wisely hopped out of reach. At one point, they stopped near some tall grass and Toi showed the younger boys how to select the best reeds for making a basket.

"I wanna try!" Joe insisted and Toi patiently demonstrated, quickly and expertly making a small, tightly woven basket. While Hoss and Joe tried their hand at it, Adam lay on his side watching, deep in thought. His brothers’ faces were pictures of intense concentration, Little Joe’s tongue sticking out as his fingers struggled to twist the wet reeds. Hoss, long used to braiding leather bridles, had little trouble following Toi’s instructions. They look so happy, Adam thought, glad that their minds were occupied with something pleasurable for a change. He wondered what his father was doing, if he was thinking of Hoss and Joe as Adam was.

"Look!" Joe exclaimed, proudly holding up a very loosely woven basket.

"Good job," Adam complimented, swallowing his amusement.

"Boys make good Paiutes," Toi commented, and Hoss’s lips curled into a smile.

"Do ya think mine can hold water like yours?" Little Joe asked Toi seriously.

She examined his creation carefully, rethreading some loose ends here and there. "First basket never hold water. First basket special, keep only…only…" She glanced over to Adam, unable to find the proper word.

"Important?" he guessed.

"Yes, important. Keep things important to only you in first basket," she directed.

Hoss spoke up then, "Well, I know what I’m gonna put in this here basket – candy! Lots and lotsa candy!"

"Me too! Me too!" shouted Joe. "Can we get some candy while you’re in the bank, Adam? Please?"

Adam rolled his eyes over what his brothers felt was ‘important’, but agreed anyway.

"Can Toi come too? I’ll share my candy with her," Little Joe pleaded, then added, "And if ya two wanna kiss or somethin’, I won’t laugh no more, I promise."

Embarrassed, Adam dragged his hand over his face and peeked at Toi from between his long fingers. She was smiling and it suddenly struck Adam that when she smiled, they all smiled. And he liked that.


Outside the mercantile, Adam handed Hoss a few coins. "Here’s some money for the candy. I’m just going to the bank. I should only be a few minutes, so try to keep him," Adam tousled Joe’s hair, "out of trouble, okay?"

"Sure, Adam. He’ll behave. Ain’t that right, Joe?"

Little Joe’s head bobbed up and down as he tried to pry the coins from Hoss’s hand.

Adam glanced at Toi, who was anxiously looking up and down the street. The town was busy with horses and wagons crowding the dirt road. People paced along the boardwalk, a few stopping to stare openly at the young Indian girl.

Noticing her discomfort, Adam asked, "You want to come with me? It’s right down there." He pointed across the street and down a bit to a green building with fancy lettering above the door.

"No," she shook her head, a bit daunted by the look of the bank. "I will stay with them." She swallowed and gave a slight smile. "We will be fine," she tried to assure him.

"I’ll be fast," Adam replied, and jogged down the street, an uneasy feeling brewing in his belly.

"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" Someone spoke as Hoss, Joe and Toi turned to enter the store. The voice belonged to Orel Hueber, who sprang out of nowhere into their path to block them.

Hoss tried to sidestep him, but Orel moved with him. A few of Hueber’s friends laughed as they advanced menacingly toward Toi. Hoss was familiar with Orel and his group; they were a few years older than Adam and in trouble with the law on a fairly regular basis. Orel reached out and touched Toi’s shiny black hair.

"Leave her alone!" Hoss shoved Orel’s hand off the girl.

"Yeah, leave her alone!" Joe echoed loudly.

Toi looked down at the ground. "Please, let us go now." She grabbed Little Joe’s hand.

The older men all laughed again, and a few made some vulgar comments.

"What if we don’t want ya to leave?" Orel said, leaning his pockmarked face close to hers. "Yer a mighty fine lookin’ squaw," he continued, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. He grabbed her arm. "Yer comin’ with us – we’ll teach ya a few things, won’t we fellas?"

Instinctively, Hoss stepped between the girl and Hueber, and just as instinctively, Little Joe gave the man a resounding kick on the shin.

"Why ya little runt!" Enraged, Hueber raised his hand to slap the boy.

"Touch my brother and you’re a dead man."

All eyes turned to see Adam Cartwright standing behind them, hand poised over his pistol. Although he was younger and outnumbered, the other men stepped aside slightly, as the look on Cartwright’s face made them pause in their sick game. His eyes held such blatant hatred, flashing as if he wanted them to move so he could truly follow through on his threat.

Orel lowered his arm and sneered, giving them all a good view of his yellowed teeth. "Calm down, Cartwright. Why ya gettin’ yerself all worked up? I wasn’t gonna hit yer little brother here. We wuz just havin’ a little fun is all."

Adam motioned with a slight nod of his head for his brothers and Toi to get behind him. "Well, your fun’s over now, Hueber." He turned to walk away. "Let’s go."

As soon as Adam’s back was turned and Orel knew he was out of immediate danger, he taunted, "Whatsa matter? Ya want that dirty Injun for yerself?"

Adam stopped dead in his tracks, hands balled into fists.

"Adam, please, take me away from here," Toi whispered urgently. She was suddenly afraid – not of Orel and his group, but of the fire that lay behind Adam’s too calm demeanor. He stood so still that she stared at him to see if he was still breathing.

Hueber found courage in Adam’s hesitation as well as from the encouragement of his friends. "Ya gonna walk away from me? Is that what yer gonna do?"

Slowly, so slowly, Adam turned. "I make it a point not to bother with people like you."

Orel’s smirk faded. "People like me? Now what the hell’s that s’posed ta mean?"

"You know," Adam explained as if he were speaking to a two-year-old. "People like you who’ve got shit for brains."

Somewhere behind him he heard Joe give a nervous giggle.

"What’d ya say, Cartwright?" Orel stood up straighter, face flushed.

"Guess ya’d better clean the shit out of your ears too," Adam answered, turning to walk away. His palms were itching and some part of him hoped he’d goaded Orel into a fight. It would feel so good to hurt him right now, Adam thought.

Orel stepped off the boardwalk and came up behind Adam. "Want her for yerself, that it? Didn’t know ya wuz such an Injun lover."

Adam halted.

"Please," Toi whispered again.

"A dirty Injun lover. Is she good, Cartwright? Heard them squaws are wildcats…"

Adam spun round on his heel.

Toi gripped his arm. "No."

"Looks like yer dirty lover don’t wantcha to mess up yer pretty face, Cartwright."

Adam took a step toward Huber.

Toi tried to pull him back, but he easily broke from her grasp.

"Oh, I get it," Orel snickered. "Ya wanna bring that smelly Injun home to yer Daddy since yer Mama went and got herself kilt."

Orel Hueber was so busy congratulating himself on his witty remark that he never saw it coming until it was too late. Adam’s right arm shot up and his fist pounded Hueber’s face, showering both men with a spray of blood from his now broken nose. Momentarily stunned, Orel took a moment to react, but when he did, he caught Adam hard in the ribs, yet it was as if he’d never touched him. Lunging at Hueber, Adam sent the older man sprawling into the dust and landed with a thud on top of him.

"Get him, Adam!" shouted Little Joe, as Toi held him back from the melee. Hoss shifted nervously from foot to foot, wanting to help his big brother but knowing if he joined in, so would any number of Orel’s companions.

The two men wrestled a bit, fists flying, rolling over and over until one of them bumped into the edge of the walk. The crowd was growing bigger now. Men cheered from the sidelines while women cautiously peeked over and under heads to catch a glimpse.

Hueber outweighed Adam by at least forty pounds, and was certainly the more experienced fighter. However, Adam fought with an abandon and passion ignited by his pent up rage. He fought like there was no tomorrow. He fought for Toi, his brothers, his father and his stepmother. But most of all, he fought for all the hurt he held in his heart.

Both men breathed raggedly as they landed their punches. Adam found himself straddling Orel’s chest with his knees. Oblivious to blows Orel executed, Adam pummeled Hueber with renewed vigor. The crowd fairly erupted at the beating Adam administered and he could not hear when Toi screamed, "STOP! PLEASE STOP!"

Little Joe was no longer smiling and his eyes were wide and tearful as she commanded, "Go get law man. Hurry!"

Hoss could not draw his eyes from the brawl. He’d never seen his brother like this and was frightened by his total lack of control. Adam fought like a person possessed, the ferocity of his attack so out of character for the usually reserved young man.

Breaking into a cold sweat, Hoss moved forward. People yelled and screamed but he ignored them all. He had to stop his brother before he did something he’d regret, if it wasn’t already too late. Orel Hueber wasn’t fighting back any longer; his arms and legs stretched out on the ground, unmoving.

"ADAM!" Hoss shouted, grabbing his older brother’s arm, stopping him mid swing. "STOP! YOU’RE GONNA KILL HIM!"

Hoss could feel the muscles in Adam’s arm tense as he fought to break Hoss’s hold, but the younger Cartwright was firm in his resolve. The crowd began to boo. Ignoring them, Hoss repeated a little softer this time, "You’re gonna kill him."

As if the air had been sucked from his lungs, Adam dropped his arms. His eyes burned with the salty sweat that dripped into his eyes, and he blinked several times before he actually focused on Orel’s bloodied face. Chest heaving, he covered his face with both hands and felt Hoss’s strong arms pull him to his feet.

The mob dispersed as Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin ran to the scene, with Little Joe Cartwright close on their heels. The doctor knelt beside Hueber, placing two fingers on a vein in his neck and the other hand on his chest. Roy Coffee stood next to Adam, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Martin turned his gaze to Adam who was starting to feel and show the effects of the beating he had taken, and saw the desperation in his eyes.

"Is…is he…" Afraid of the answer, Adam could not finish his question.

Paul Martin shook his head slowly. "He’s alive. Barely."

The sheriff pointed to a few men who had remained to watch. "You men there, take Hueber over to Doc Martin’s." Grumbling, they did as they were told.

"Wanna tell me what went on here?" Sheriff Coffee asked Adam, who stood mute. He handed Adam his handkerchief to stem the flow of blood from his nose. Roy was a close friend of Ben Cartwright and had known Adam since he was a youngster. He was well aware of all the family had gone through the past month, as well as the extreme pressure the boy was under. He also knew that Hueber was a troublemaker, so he already had a good idea where the blame lay.

Clutching Toi’s hand, Little Joe spoke up in tremulous voice. "Orel…he was bein’ mean to Toi." Roy glanced at the Indian girl who kept her eyes lowered. "He started sayin’ some bad stuff to her and was gonna hit me. Adam was just tryin’ to stop him."

Roy cupped his hand under the child’s chin, checking to see that he was uninjured. Satisfied, he turned to the girl. "He hurt ya any, miss?" Roy asked gently, and she shook her head no.

"Ya’d better git yerself over to Doc Martin’s too," Roy instructed Adam, who was busy trying to quiet the tremors that threatened to overtake his body. "And then I want all of ya to go on home now, hear me? And make sure ya tell yer Pa what went on here." Hoss and Joe nodded vigorously. "I’ll be over there some time tomorra to talk with him."

One arm wrapped around his middle trying to ease his aching ribs, Adam muttered, "Don’t bother. Nothin’s changed from the last time ya were out to the ranch."

Roy cocked a bushy brow at him. "I’ll be the judge of that. Ya just let Paul doctor ya up, then git home. And stay there. I don’t wanna see any of ya in town for at least a week, understand?" After tipping his hat to Toi, he walked over toward the jail, mumbling to himself.

Adam limped to his horse, gathering the reins in his free hand, swaying a bit as his foot tried to find the stirrup.

"Ain’t ya gonna go see the Doc?" Hoss couldn’t keep the worry from his voice. "Ya mighta cracked some ribs."

Adam barely suppressed a moan as he pulled himself into the saddle. "I’m fine."

Hoss shrugged and lifted Little Joe high into his saddle, them climbed up behind him. Toi mounted her own horse and pulled it next to Adam’s, her probing eyes silently speaking volumes.

"There now," Adam wheezed in a low, painful breath. "You finally saw what’s in my heart. Not so pretty, huh?" With that, he clicked his tongue and spurred his horse into a painful gallop, eager to get away from the town and its people.


When Adam arrived home that night, he bound his own ribs and cleaned himself up as best he could, then let two rather large glasses of his father’s best brandy do the rest. Unfortunately, he overslept the following morning, unsure if his throbbing headache was due to the battering his head had taken or the alcohol. Gingerly, he tiptoed down the stairs, boots in hand, trying to avoid Hop Sing and his inevitable interrogation. Almost to the front door, he heaved a relieved sigh. Small shuffling footsteps came up behind him and he stiffened in anticipation.

"Where you go? Why you no eat?" Hop Sing questioned. Adam heard his brothers tittering in the dining room at his dilemma.

Still facing the door, he answered, "Uh…not hungry." Because of the cuts on the inside of his mouth, he knew his voice sounded a bit garbled, but hoped the Chinaman wouldn’t notice.

"Why you walk funny? Talk funny too," the astute servant observed before springing in front of Adam. "What you do to self?" He gasped, then narrowed his eyes. "You fighting.  Fatha say hundred times, maybe more, no fighting." He tried to lead Adam toward the kitchen to tend to his wounds, but Adam didn’t budge. "You come to kitchen now and I fix…"

"I don’t have time now. I’ve got to take the payroll up to the lumber mill, then take the rest over to the mine." Reaching for his gunbelt, Adam nodded a curt good bye to his brothers.

"Fatha be angry Hop Sing no take care of son."

"You’re right, Hop Sing, but Pa isn’t here, so don’t worry about it." Seeing the look of disbelief on the older man’s face, Adam reached out and hesitantly touched his shoulder. "Really, I’m fine. Honest."


Two days passed with no sign of Ben Cartwright. On the third night, the three boys sat around the fireplace, each lost in his own thoughts. Curled up on Adam’s lap, Little Joe had his thumb in his mouth, an old habit he’d resumed since his mother had died. Next to them sat Hoss, who stared into the fire while shoving fistfuls of popcorn into his mouth. Adam held an open book, not once turning a page.

"Do ya think Pa’ll be home soon?" Hoss asked between mouthfuls.

Pursing his lips, Adam lifted his shoulders in reply.

"When are we gonna see Toi again?" whined Little Joe. They hadn’t seen the girl since the incident in town.

"Don’t know," came Adam’s simple answer, which of course didn’t satisfy his little brother.

Pulling his thumb from his mouth, Joe asked innocently, "Are ya gonna marry Toi?

"What?" Adam cried, caught totally off guard by the child’s earnest question. "Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. We’re just friends."

Little Joe’s face puckered in confusion. "But ya was kissin’ her."

Hoss paused in his eating, curious to hear his older brother’s explanation.

"It’s…uh…you see…" Adam sputtered, the book tumbling from his lap as he shifted uncomfortably. Taking a deep breath, he plowed on. "Look, when you get older, boys and girls, well, sometimes they like to hold each other and kiss."

"Why?" Joe questioned in a disgusted tone.

Adam leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. " ‘Cause it feels good – I…uh mean, it feels good after you get to a certain age. Like me."

"I ain’t never gonna kiss a girl!" Joe asserted vehemently. "But can’t we see her again anyways? Please?"


"Why not? Why can’t ya take us to see her?" he demanded.

Adam massaged his temple with his right hand, stalling. He missed Toi too. Confused, he was drawn strongly to the attractive Indian girl – but vowed to keep his distance from her – not let her or anyone else chip away at the wall he’d so carefully constructed around his heart. She had a way about her that forced him to examine his own feelings and right now he was having enough trouble just existing, much less trying to sort out what was in his heart. Besides, he told himself, there’s only enough room in my heart for Hoss and Joe and Hop Sing. And of course, Pa too, although the only emotion Adam felt toward his father lately was resentment. How much simpler it was to bury his emotions and not feel anything; the price was too great to live any other way. Surely I’ve proven that by almost killing a man, he thought with shameful remorse.

"I just can’t, okay?" His excuse was weak but Joe finally accepted it without a word, too tired to argue.

The big clock in the great room had already struck two when the front door creaked open. Ben Cartwright slipped the gunbelt from his hips, placing it on the hook beside the door. Noticing no one had banked the fire, he automatically stepped over to the huge stone fireplace when something caught his eye. There on the settee were his three sons, sound asleep. Pausing in front of them, he watched them in wonder for a few minutes, their chests rising and falling in unison in peaceful slumber.

His lips twitched as his eyes fell upon his middle son. Hoss’s head lay against Adam’s shoulder, his left hand nestled in a bowl of half eaten popcorn. Reaching out, he tenderly brushed Hoss’s sandy hair back from his face. Ben’s eyes filled as he saw Joe’s thumb planted in his mouth, saliva dripping down his tiny chin and forming a small wet circle on Adam’s black shirt. Ben bent over and lightly placed a kiss on Joseph’s brown curls. Raising his eyes to Adam’s face, Ben inhaled sharply as he caught sight of several angry bruises and scrapes, the right side of his handsome face swollen. It was obvious the boy had been in one helluva a fight and Ben worried about what other injuries he might have sustained. Hand poised to stroke Adam’s bruised cheek, he drew back, afraid of waking him. Instead, he walked to the staircase and pulled the blanket from the railing. Ben Cartwright carefully draped it over his sleeping children before climbing the stairs to his own room, alone.


Early the next morning, Adam woke, stiff and achy. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he disengaged himself from his brothers and stood, surprised when a blanket fell to the floor. Figuring Hop Sing had placed it on them some time during the night, he didn’t give it another thought. He left to go outside to the outhouse when he spied his father’s hat and gun by the door. Adam fingered the hand-tooled leather on the holster, puzzled yet oddly comforted.

Once outside, he took a few deep breaths of fresh air, wincing as his ribs reminded him of Orel Hueber’s fists.

"Adam!" A soft voice called from the porch.

"Toi?" He returned, wondering if he was dreaming. He soon found out he was not, as the young girl stepped into view.

"What…what are you doing here?" he asked.

She stood an arm’s length away and gave a smile that did not reach her eyes. "I have come to say good bye, Adam Cartwright."

"Good bye?" he repeated, his need for the outhouse forgotten. "Why? Where are you going?"

She hesitated a moment or two then explained, "Father need sons. He choose man for me. I have many sons now."

"What? That doesn’t make sense." Adam took her hand and led her to a bench where they both sat, shoulders touching. "You mean you’re going to get married? To give your father grandsons?" He couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice.

She nodded.

Agitated, Adam stood, throwing his hands up. "But you can’t marry someone you don’t love!" he exclaimed. Then a thought came to him. "Do you love him? Is that it?"

She rose and placed her arms around him, both needing the physical contact. "Adam, I am Paiute woman. Marry Paiute man, make Paiute sons. It is the way of my people."

"No! That’s not right! I mean, you can’t be with him if you don’t love him – it’s just not right." His voice held a note of panic.

Her voice, however, was calm. "It is not right for you. It is right for me. Do you understand?"

He shook his head stubbornly, although he’d lived around Indians long enough to know their customs.

"I travel now with husband’s people," she said, then sighed. "Adam, I am all right."

"Well, I’m not," he pouted childishly, lower lip out.

She tried to tease him out of his bad mood. "You make face like Little Joe."

Unsure of what he exactly he was feeling, he brushed past her and headed toward the barn. Just another person out of my life, he thought as he kicked a stone in his path.

"You have a good life, Toi," he called over his shoulder before he disappeared into the barn and quickly rode away on the nearest horse.

He didn’t see her dark eyes fill with tears as she watched his retreating back, nor did he see his father’s startled expression as he opened the front door to find a young Indian girl crying on his porch.

Stunned, Ben stood, mouth agape. When he finally found his tongue, he stammered, "I…uh…who are you? Is something wrong?"

For Toi, there was no mistaking Adam’s father – the resemblance was obvious, as was the pain in the man’s eyes.

"You are father," she stated simply.

"That’s right. Who are you?" He repeated, totally baffled, then reassured her, "You have nothing to be afraid of."

"I am Toi and I am not afraid of you. You are good man, have good sons."

"You know my sons?" Ben’s head spun. This was the first person he’d had a conversation with in weeks and she spoke in riddles. Although part of him wanted to go back into the house and be left alone, something drew him to her, something he couldn’t explain or deny.

"Yes." She took his rough hands in her small brown ones and stared into his troubled eyes. . "Do you?"

He pulled his hands away. "Of course I know my sons. What kind of question is that? I’m their father!" His voice rose with each word as she stirred something in his heart.

"Oh. You know that little son weave basket? Speak some Paiute words? Skin rabbit with knife?" She continued, trying to make a point. "You know he cry for his mother?"

Ignoring her last words, Ben pulled back his head. "Joseph? He used a knife?"

She nodded.

"He’s too young for that. Why, I haven’t taught him how yet."

Toi lifted one shoulder. "Big brother teach him. Big brother hold him when he cry, teach him that mother in heart, not on mountain top."

Ben was silent.

"And middle son, very big, very gentle," she pressed on.

"I know that," Ben commented, staring at his hands.

"He hold skunk close, keep skunk safe, happy. Keep brothers safe. He not afraid of much bigger, mean man. He cry for his mother too."

"Hoss stood up to someone?" Ben wondered aloud about his gentle son, again ignoring her last statement. "Did he get hurt?"

"No, big brother protect him." She hesitated before she continued, "And big brother teach him that mother in heart as well."

Ben swallowed audibly, wanting her to stop this torture. Thinking about his sons and what they were going through was almost as painful as his thoughts of Marie.

"You know big son almost kill man with hands?" She watched his face carefully for his reaction.

Ben’s head shot up, and she knew she had reached him.

"You know he not cry for mother – he make heart hard."

Wringing his hands, Ben stepped away from her – he had to leave. The truth of the words she spoke made his own heart physically ache for his sons, for himself.

"You must listen to me!" Her tone was insistent now, desperate. "Your sons need you…"

"I can’t…"

"Yes, you can. You show them what in your heart, they open their heart to you. Easier for boy, harder for man. Sons need father!" She lowered her voice then. "And father need sons."

"It’s too hard. You don’t understand. Every time I look at them, I see Marie…and…" He stopped. "I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this!"

"You speak because you need to. It is good to see your woman in sons, keep her close to you that way, keep her alive. But you hide from sons, you lose their mother again. And they lose mother and father. Not right."

Ben sat, defeated. I’ve been hiding from Adam, Hoss and Joseph, the most precious things in my life – the only things that really matter – he thought to himself. And for what? To wallow in my own sorrow, leaving them to handle their own grief alone. Marie is gone, I have to accept that. But I can’t lose my sons – I won’t lose my sons!

With grim determination, Ben stood tall and set his shoulders back. "ADAM! HOSS! JOSEPH!" He called out in a strong voice, suddenly anxious to put things right.

The door swung open and two very befuddled boys came outside, amazed at finding Toi and their father together.

"Pa?" Hoss spoke first, unsure. "Are ya okay?"

"Yes, son. I’m better than I’ve been in a long time." He held his arms wide and Hoss and Joe needed no other encouragement before they ran into the security of his arms and his love.

From over his father’s shoulder, Little Joe looked up at Toi and gave a blinding smile. She winked at him and quietly turned to leave.

"No, don’t leave, Toi," the little boy called out.

Still clutching his two sons, Ben spoke, "Please. I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but I want to say thank you. Thank you for opening my eyes and making me see what is really important."

Tilting her head slightly, she answered, "Do not thank me." She motioned to Hoss and Little Joe. "Their hearts open, never close. You only hide heart, now you find. But Adam, I could not help him. For that, I am sorry."

Ben pulled away a bit from his two youngest sons. "Where’s your brother?"

Before either could answer, all eyes were drawn to a horse and rider that galloped into the yard. Roy Coffee pulled the reins hard to stop his mount and worriedly surveyed the group on the porch. Dispensing with pleasantries, he asked gruffly, "Where’s Adam?"

With his arms still around Hoss and Joe, Ben narrowed his eyes. "Why? What’s wrong?"

"Orel Hueber’s brother’s gone gunnin’ for him – wants revenge for the thrashin’ Adam gave him the other day in town."

Mystified by Roy’s words, Ben felt a flutter of fear in the pit of his stomach for his eldest son. Toi’s hand flew to her lips, feeling responsible for putting Adam in danger.

"He ain’t in the house, Sheriff." Hoss replied, his voice wavering. "And he don’t have his gun neither."

"Yeah," Little Joe interrupted. "It’s still in the house."

"He take horse and ride," Toi offered.

There was a moment of stunned silence before Ben’s booming voice barked out orders. "Roy, you double back to town – maybe he’s headed that way. I’ll head out toward the lake. Hoss, Joe, you go inside the house and stay put."

"But Pa," Hoss started to disagree.

Ben’s tone brooked no argument. "You heard what I said. There’s no telling what Enos Hueber’ll do, and I need you to watch out for Joseph." He glanced over to Toi. "You too – you stay with the boys until we get back."

Roy headed out without a word and Ben purposefully strode into the house for his gun. Little Joe threw his arms around his older brother and whimpered into this shirt, "I’m scared for Adam."

"Pa’s back." Hoss squeezed him. "And everythin’s gonna be just fine now."


Sitting cross-legged on the damp morning grass, Adam stared unseeing at the marker in front of him that read "Marie Cartwright". He vividly recalled a similar cross from his childhood with the name "Inger Cartwright" etched on it. And he knew, although he’d never seen it, that there was a granite marker high on a hill somewhere in a Boston cemetery that was engraved "Elizabeth Cartwright." Three mothers all gone in the span of his lifetime.

Faces from the past flashed through his mind. He couldn’t recall all their names – there were too many – faces from the wagon trains, from tiny towns too numerous to count, from boarding houses and trading posts and Indian camps and forts and big cities and… Adam clutched the sides of his head to stop the images – too many people gone from his life. Whether it be through death or moving on like Toi or even leaving through an emotional detachment like his father – one way or another, eventually they all seemed to abandon Adam. Why? Why does everyone have to go away?

He was so engrossed in his hopelessness, Adam did not hear Enos Hueber approach. Dismounting, the older man drew his gun from the holster and advanced like a cat stalking its prey. Just a few feet from where Adam sat, Enos cocked the trigger and Adam’s body tensed at the sound of the ominous click, but he did not turn around.

"I know ya hear me, Cartwright. And don’t try nuthin’ ‘cos I got ya dead ta rights."

"What do you want, Hueber?" Adam asked, knowing the answer but stalling for time.

"Ya almost kilt my kid brother. Made ‘im look like a jackass in fronta the whole town. Think I wouldn’t find out how ya wuz makin’ funna ‘im, how ya beat the shit outta ‘im all over some stinkin’ rotten Injun?"

Adam remained silent, wondering, is this how I’m going to die - right here, across Marie’s grave?

"And now it’s yer turn. Better start sayin’ yer prayers, boy!" He laughed evilly.

"You’ll never get away with it," Adam said calmly. It wasn’t his words but the complete lack of fear in his voice that infuriated Enos.

"Ha! Who the hell do ya think is gonna come after me, huh? Them stupid little brothers of yers? Ya ain’t got nobody else watchin’ yer back since yer Daddy went all soft in the head. Face it Cartwright, yer all alone."

"He’s not alone," a voice declared in no uncertain terms, and Adam and Enos spun around.

It was hard to tell who was more amazed to find Ben Cartwright standing there, feet planted firmly and gun leveled at Hueber, his face a picture of grim determination. "Get the hell away from my son," he ordered, and Enos wavered in his resolve.

"Listen, my beef’s with Adam here…" Enos began.

"You have a problem with my son, you have a problem with me, understand? Whatever happened between your brother and Adam is done, and according to the sheriff, was done legally." He gave Hueber a moment to digest those words. "Now, get back up on your horse and go on home before I decide to take the law into my own hands and shoot you where you stand."

Enos Hueber’s eyes flickered first toward Ben Cartwright then toward Adam before reholstering his weapon. Climbing onto his horse, he spat on the ground in a final futile act of defiance, then spurred his horse toward his home.

An awkward silence descended upon Ben and Adam. Ben stared at his eldest son for a long moment, noting the dark circles under the bruised skin around his eyes. Those same eyes, normally bright and lively, now held no spark, only despair. Feeling oddly dissected by his father’s penetrating gaze, Adam lowered himself to the ground, unsure of what to make of his father’s sudden change in behavior.

Ben swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. At his son’s side in a few measured strides, he sat beside him and confessed, "First time I’ve been out here since…since…"

"I come here sometimes," Adam mumbled, "bring the boys so they can take her some flowers – wildflowers."

Ben nodded. "They were her favorite." Ben exhaled and placed a tentative hand on Adam’s arm. "Son, I…" Adam moved slightly away from him so that his father’s hand slid off.

"Thanks for taking care of Enos," Adam interrupted, not wanting his father to speak – afraid of his own reaction to whatever his father might say.

"I haven’t been taking very good care of you or your brothers for a while now," Ben dragged a weary hand over his face.


"No, Adam, let me finish." Ben struggled to find the words that would bring his son back to him. But Adam jumped to his feet, torn between wanting his father to take him into his arms and running away as fast as his feet could carry him.

"Just forget it, Pa. It doesn’t matter!" Adam’s voice broke.

Ben was on his feet in a flash. "Of course it matters! You’re the only thing that does matter – you and your brothers!" Gripping Adam’s shoulders, Ben forced him to meet his eyes. "Adam, I was wrong. I got so caught up in my own…my own self pity that I stopped living for a while. But that was wrong, I see that now and things will be different from here on. I’m going to be the father you and your brothers need, the father you deserve. Son, you must believe me – don’t shut me out of your life!" He pleaded, voice hoarse with emotion.

"Why? So you can leave again?" Unheeded tears streamed from Adam’s accusing eyes as his face contorted with pain. "So you can leave like everyone else and not come back?"

Stunned by his son’s outburst, Ben was silent. He knew exactly what Adam meant. He knew how many people Adam as a baby, as a toddler, as a child, as a boy, and now as a man he had lost in his short lifetime. And the fact that he’d added to this grief was like a knife twisting in Ben’s heart. Adam had never spoken about his losses before and the depth of his anguish sent a shiver through Ben.

Adam mistook his father’s silence as proof of his intention to leave again. Though his control was shattered, Adam managed to whisper, "Don’t do that to Hoss and Joe – they don’t deserve it."

Openly weeping now for his son’s pain, Ben raised his arms and wrapped them around Adam as if he were a small child. "I will never leave you again, Adam. I promise you."

Adam seemed to crumble under his father’s loving touch, and he sobbed into Ben’s shoulder – cried the tears that he’d held locked away for too long. He cried for a mother he’d never known, a mother he’d adored as a child, and a mother who had helped him become a man. He cried for the agonizing loss his father and brothers suffered. He cried for fear of losing his father. He cried for a young Indian girl who was compelled to marry a man she did not love. And Ben wept along with him, tears for the sons he’d almost lost through his blind grief.

"B…but Pa," Adam stammered, gulping for air, "I tried to…to take care of Hoss and Joe…the ranch…I can’t d…do it with…without you."

"You don’t have to. We’ll do it together from now on, like it should be," Ben assured him through his own tears.

The words spilled from Adam’s mouth in a torrent he was unable to stop. "I…I almost killed Or…Orel with my hands – if Hoss had…hadn’t stopped me…"

"But you didn’t, Adam. I know you and I know you would never…"

As if Ben hadn’t spoken, Adam rambled on, "And Toi…she…she’s gotta marry somebody she doesn’t…doesn’t even love and…and she’s so good, try…tryin’ to help me…wanting me to talk ‘bout…’bout you and…and Marie, but I…I couldn’t. I…I can’t."

His last words ended with such a gut-wrenching sob that Ben had trouble getting his own words out. He finally managed to choke, "You talk to me when you’re ready, son. I’ll always be here for you."

Ben held his firstborn for a long time, gently rocking him until his sobs subsided. In the distance, they spied two horses approaching and made out the figures of Hoss, Little Joe and the Indian girl. Unwilling to move from his father’s comforting arms, Adam merely looked up. His cloudy eyes met Toi’s moist ones. She smiled slightly, tapping her small hand on her heart. Adam nodded in understanding, and watched through his tears as Toi rode away from them and toward the sun, gone from his life but not from his heart.

Surprised but not angry that they hadn’t obeyed his order to remain at home, Ben was overjoyed to see his two younger sons. Tears of joy glistening on their cheeks, Hoss and Joe slid off their horse and ran toward their father and older brother, throwing their arms around them with reckless abandon. Ben smiled then – the circle was smaller than it once had been, but it was complete.

The End


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