Staccato Sun    
Valerie Blythe  
       Chapter 1


      Relent, stark darkness, claims to shaded eyes

      And ne're to wake while hearts still beat as one

      Then shadows flee and blinded fury dies

      Staccato rays of hope regale the sun


      It was cold and hard where he knelt on the frozen ground, but Adam didn't notice. Held tight within his arms was the woman he dared only see again in fitful dreams and wild imaginings. He opened his tear-stained eyes long enough to fill his vision with the only thing that mattered, and to see in her face the same drunken joy that gripped his heart with endless relief. Against his cheek the child moved lightly in its mother's belly as if in recognition of the man clinging there. Adam sighed deeply and pressed himself closer to that life, content to remain thus in the crowded and dusty street.

       Suddenly rough hands were pulling at him, trying to separate him from the embrace. He cried aloud in anger and desperation, and clung tighter still. Someone took hold of Amanda, gently but firmly steering her from his arms. She screamed in protest, shaking from a fear that seemed to grip her very being and would not be calmed. Adam felt himself being lifted to his feet and lurched against the restraining arms.

       "NO!!" he growled as old fears and anger returned in force. He struggled toward Amanda and more men joined the fight to hold him still. Amanda was crying uncontrollably, unable to break her bonds, and her desperate cry for him tore at his burdened soul.

       "HEY!!" a strong voice shouted above the crowd. It was Hoss, moving as quickly as a big man could to reach his brother's side.

       "What are you doing?" he growled. "That's his wife! Let them go!"

       The crowd fell silent but they didn't release them.

       "Who's in charge here?" Hoss demanded, his anger growing like the fire of desperation on his brother's face. A tall middle-aged man stepped forward, his strength and edge undiminished by the years. A sheriff's badge glinted brightly against his vest.

       "I'm sheriff Bauman," he announced while practiced eyes took stock of his questioner. "And you are...?"

       “I'm Hoss Cartwright," came the curt reply. "That's my brother you're holdin', and his wife whom he's been searchin' all over this dang land for. Can't ya see they're hurtin'? Why don't you let them go?"

       The sheriff studied Hoss a minute then glanced back at the man they held--unkempt and smelling strongly of liquor.

       "I just saw this man shoot another without so much as a word," he accused. "I have a duty to take him in."

       Hoss glanced down the road where they were just now lifting Sinclair's crumpled body. His eyes held no remorse when he turned back to the sheriff.

       "That man brutalized my entire family and kidnapped my brother's wife," he countered. "Nearly killed us all! If Adam hadn't shot him, he'd probably be dead now!"

       The sheriff eyed him with open suspicion and glanced again at the wild-eyed man his deputies held securely behind him.

       "Got any proof of this?" he asked curtly. "Or should I interview the dead man?"

       Hoss stared at him with rising frustration. "His name's Sinclair," he told him in measured tones. "He was partnered up with an older man named Dawson. That's the one you ought to be going after!"

       "That so?" the sheriff drawled noncommittally. "Well I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to lock this wild man up before he kills somebody else."

       He turned and gestured to his deputies who began to drag Adam toward the jail. Turning and twisting in their grip, Adam fought them all the way, his eyes never leaving Amanda, his voice--an animal cry too distressed for words.

       "Wait a minute!" Hoss demanded, fighting his way through the crowd that followed the spectacle. “At least let his wife go with him! That ain't gonna hurt nothin', is it?"

       The lawman stopped and looked back at the terrified woman and wondered what she could possibly see in the crazed prisoner. But then, he thought, she looked half mad herself as she fought the hands that held her and cried the man's name in frantic desperation.

       "Bring her along if you want," he relented then turned abruptly and led the way to his office.

       Hoss went to Amanda and pulled her close. Her bare arms were cold under the ragged shawl she wore, but slowly she stopped shaking and her eyes brightened in recognition.

       "Hoss?" she questioned tentatively.

       Hoss nodded and helped her to stand on her own.  "Come on. Let's go see Adam."

       Wiping her tears, she nodded eagerly and followed him to the jail.

       Even before they opened the door, they could hear the desperate struggle emanating from the cells. Three men were attempting to imprison Adam, whose strength and sobriety were increasing with each step away from his beloved. His enraged cries filled the jail with a sound at once frightening and very, very sad.

       Amanda paused in the doorway only a moment before rushing to her husband. With a final effort he shook off the offending hands and opened his arms eagerly, pulling her to his chest and burying his face in her hair. For a blessed moment no one moved, and the quiet ticking of the wall clock marked the seconds of their embrace.

       A loud jangle of keys spoiled the moment and the sheriff stood in the doorway, a shotgun hung loose but ready in his arm.

       "Get inside," he ordered.

       Adam raised his eyes to glare again at this persistent impedance. His arms wound tighter around his wife and he said nothing.

       "Look sheriff!" Hoss interjected. "Why don't we just sit down and work this out? You'll see that Adam had no other choice for what he done!"

       The sheriff raised his weapon in annoyance and motioned for his deputies again. "What I need to do," he reaffirmed, "is get this man locked up before any more mysterious bodies show up in my street! Time enough for talking after that."

       Under guard this time, the deputies were able to disengage Amanda from Adam's arms and close the cell door between them. Immediately their hands twisted through the bars to join again and their heads bowed together against the cold steel.

       The sheriff shook his head and stepped back into his office, shutting the door behind him. The gun clattered loudly on his desk as he sank back in the chair and turned his attention to the big man before him.

       "Now suppose you start at the beginning," he prompted." And don't leave out any sordid details, hear?"

       Hoss sat down in a chair opposite the desk.

       "It's like I told ya, sheriff," he began. "Last fall that man Sinclair and his boss Dawson kidnapped my Pa and bothers and me. Robbed us, and meant to kill us too! They would have if my older brother in there hadn't found us first..."

       "So what reason did these men have?" the sheriff interrupted. "There some family feud going on or something?"

       Hoss shook his head. "No sir," he said. "These men were crazier than mad dogs. Jealousy, I reckon, drove 'em to it in the beginning. They meant to take everything we had...or ruin it. Sinclair especially took great pleasure in torturing us. See here..." He bent to roll up the leg of his pants. "That's where they shot me."

       Sheriff Bauman looked at the scar and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "So how did this brother of yours escape capture?"

       "He was in Denver on business," Hoss answered. "Came home with his new wife and found his world turned upside-down."

       "But then he found you?"

       Hoss nodded. "He had just about given up when he fell into the trap set by them animals. Amanda was with him and they caught her too." He paused and looked the sheriff in the eye." I don't need to tell you what two crazed men will do to a pretty young thing like that..."

       The sheriff nodded but didn't interrupt.

      "Well, " Hoss continued. "They tortured Adam near to death. But I guess nothing hurt him more than when they took her away. A man changes, sheriff, when you break his heart."

       The sheriff leaned back in his chair and studied Hoss for a long moment.

       "Did you see this Sinclair draw his gun today?" he finally asked.

       Hoss lowered his eyes. "No," he admitted. "He had his hand on it, but I can't say for sure whether he drew it or not. But sheriff! I know for a fact he would have killed Adam if he could!"

       The sheriff turned to one of his deputies.

       "Ask around and see who might have seen the shootin'," he said. "There were a lot of people out there this morning; someone had to have seen something." Then he turned back to Hoss.

       "Anyone around who can vouch for this story of yours?"

       "There's my Pa and brothers," Hoss answered. "But only Amanda in there can tell about the last few months. Though I don't reckon she'd much want to..."

       The sheriff let out his breath and rose from his chair. "Well you get your Pa and brother in here to tell their piece. I'm gonna send out some wires about this Sinclair."

       Hoss rose too. "I'll have to wire my family in Virginia City. It'll take them a few days to get here with the roads like they are."

       "Fine," the sheriff said, then glanced back toward the cells. "I reckon I ought to set up a hotel room for the young lady."

       "I'll take care of that," Hoss offered. "Don't suppose you'd consider letting my brother out on bail?"

       The sheriff looked at the closed door again then back at Hoss. "Sorry. I can't do that," he answered.

       Hoss nodded; it was a long-shot anyway. "Can I talk to him a minute?" he asked instead.

       The sheriff nodded. "Just let the deputy know when you're leaving. He'll be nearby."

       Hoss acknowledged the warning and stepped through the door that led to the cells. Adam and Amanda were just as he had left them, but the wildness was gone from their eyes and their faces held a rare peace. He hated to disturb them.

       "Adam," he began, finding it hard to put that name with the gaunt bearded man in the cell. "You're gonna have to stay in there a little while." He held up his hands at Adam's sharp look. "I'm sending a wire to Pa and Joe and when they get here we'll get this all worked out." He clasped Adam's hand and was surprised at the strength there.

       "Don't worry," he promised. "I'll take care of Amanda."

       She looked up at the sound of her name and Hoss put a gentle arm around her shoulders.

       "Come on. Let's go send that wire then get you a nice hotel room."

       A moment of panic clouded her eyes and she looked at Adam anxiously. His dark eyes met hers with a reflection of the same fear, but with a trust and a promise that he would see her again. She bent close to the steel bars and their lips barely met through the unyielding barrier.

       Hoss put his arm around her again and steered her to the door. "We'll be back straight away Adam," he promised. "Don't you worry about a thing."

       Adam watched them go until they were completely out of sight, then sank down on the creaky bunk. He did trust Hoss to take care of her, but nothing could stop the dull ache from creeping into his heart again. He leaned his head back against the stone wall and closed his eyes. In that dark retreat he saw her face again, and his lips softened into a smile as he drifted once more into an old familiar dream.

       Hoss led Amanda out into the street and glanced around for a telegraph office. He spotted one just a little way down the street and started toward it. Halfway there he pointed Amanda to a dress shop across the street.

       "Why don't you go on and get yourself a new dress and things?" he suggested. "I'll only be a minute."

       But Amanda wrapped her hands around the comfort of his big arms and shook her head curtly.

       "Please don't leave me, Hoss," she begged quietly.

       Hoss laid his big calloused hand on her tiny one and felt the coldness of fear.

       "It's ok," he tried to comfort her. "Sinclair is dead. Ain't nobody gonna hurt you now."

       But her eyes darted fearfully and she only moved closer to him.

       "What is it, Amanda?" he wondered, then suddenly remembered that other terror. "Is it Dawson?" he asked urgently. "Amanda, is Dawson here too?"

       Amanda seemed to melt into his shadow. "I don't know, Hoss," she admitted. "He was here a few days ago, but now...I don't know..."

       Hoss glanced up and down the street but everything seemed calm.

       "It's alright," he said as they started toward the telegraph office again. "Ain't nobody gonna hurt you no more." But the hairs on the back of his neck had begun a frantic dance, and old ghosts were lurking in every shadowed alley. He held Amanda closer still and wished to heaven he was wearing his gun.

       Chapter 2  

      Then phoenix flies again in golden light

      And naught is lost, lest hearts, their stake, refuse

      Then bind, brave souls, to true love--cleaving tight

      And lend no thought to games of win or lose

       They both were somewhat calmer when they returned to the jailhouse later that afternoon. After sending the telegram they had found a bathhouse, and then a barber to smooth the ragged ends of Amanda's ravaged hair. The next stop was the dress shop as Hoss had promised, and while the dress maker attended to Amanda, he picked out some new clothes for Adam next door. At last they stopped to retrieve his gun and other belongings from the hotel and then found a better establishment for them both.

       The sheriff was back at his desk when they entered, and Hoss laid his gun down without having to be asked. The sheriff inspected the package he carried then nodded them toward the cells.

       Adam heard their approach and was waiting at the cell door when they entered. He smiled to see Amanda cleaned and properly dressed again, and subconsciously wiped his grimy hands on his ragged shirt.. Hoss handed the package through the bars.

       "I got you some new clothes, Adam," he said. "Figured you'd be wanting to clean up a bit. Maybe the sheriff would let me get a barber in here later."

       Adam accepted the gift and shook his hand warmly. Hoss usually thought of everything.

       Amanda approached her husband as if seeing him for the first time, and slowly traced the hardened angle of his chin. His beard was rough and ungroomed, but his gentle eyes were soft and welcoming behind the stranger's face. She raised her other hand to draw him near, and their   faces pressed the steel again in a longing featherlight kiss. Hoss quietly excused himself and left them to their reunion.

       "Sheriff ..." he asked when he had closed the door." Any chance my brother can get a bath and a shave while he's in there?"

       The sheriff looked up from his papers and shrugged.

       "Not a proper bath," he said. "But I can probably come up with a bucket of hot water later. Afraid I can't let him have a razor though."

       Hoss nodded and gestured toward the stack of papers on the desk.

       "You find anything on Sinclair?"

       "Nope," Bauman answered. "Either this fella was very, very careful or he was clean before you met him."

       "I don't believe that, sheriff," Hoss affirmed. "By the way, Amanda says that Dawson might still be in town."

       The sheriff considered this new information. "You got a description?"

       "Yes sir," Hoss answered, seeing the man clearly in his mind. "An older man--'bout 50, I guess. Silver hair, grey eyes. Guess he stood about 6'1"; near 250 pounds."

       "I'll have a look around," the sheriff promised. "Now why don't you and the young lady go on and get some rest? We'll still be here in the morning."

       Hoss nodded at the hint; guess it was getting late after all. He turned back toward the cells to convince the lovers of another separation.

The room was dim and quiet and Hoss stretched tiredly. He was almost numb with relief at finding Adam and Amanda. They had a long recovery ahead for sure, but together they would be alright. He hoped Pa and Joe could get here soon to help clear Adam.


      A slight creaking made him turn, and he saw Amanda standing at the door between their rooms.

       "Hoss?" she called hesitantly.

       "I'm here, Amanda," he answered and quickly lit the lamp by his chair. She made her way slowly into the room, her bare feet making scarcely a sound on the polished floor. Hoss guided her to a chair and sat down beside her.

       "I can't sleep," she murmured almost apologetically. She rubbed her eyes and Hoss could see that she had been crying.

       "Me neither," he said. "We can just sit and talk if you like."

       She smiled appreciatively at him and settled back in the chair. But tears were welling in her pretty eyes again.

       "What if they won't let him go?" she blurted. "There could be a trial....I...I could lose him, Hoss!"

       Hoss's heart broke near in two. To find each other only to be separated again was a cruel fate. He dared not voice his own fears on the matter.

       "Don't worry, Amanda," he tried to reassure her. "We're going to do all we can to get Adam free again. That sheriff is just gonna have to see things our way!"

       Amanda watched his bright blue eyes, so different from Adam's dark ones.  He was just as Adam had described him, and she was so glad he was here now. She needed someone to lean on.

       "I'm afraid, Hoss." she admitted as she searched his face for an answer. "I can't live without him anymore..."

       "Hey," Hoss tried to calm her. "We're gonna get Adam out! It...just might take some time is all!"

       She wrapped her arms around her swollen stomach and sighed. Time was not  something she had much of, she thought anxiously. But Hoss was right; she couldn't think that way. There was only one way out of this, and that was with Adam safe and free.





       Ben Cartwright pulled his horse to a stop and shielded his eyes from the glare of the snow. The trip was taking longer than he had planned, but the horses just couldn't travel any faster in this mud and slush. All through the trip his mind ran circles around the information in Hoss's telegram:

       He had found Adam!...And there had been a shooting!...Sinclair was dead...But Amanda was there!...Now Adam was in jail...could be a trial...

       Ben glanced over at Joe and saw the same worry there. They rode on in silence.

       It was well past noon when they reached the outskirts of town, and Ben's gut tightened with anticipation. He hadn't seen Adam in months; not since Adam had made his choice to leave the ranch and search for his wife. His mood had been dark, and they had argued. He wondered if Adam could forge the rift as he wished desperately to do.

       Joe spotted the sheriff's office and led the way down the street. There were very few people about and he realized that it must be Sunday. He hoped the sheriff would be here.

       Their boots clapped loudly on the wooden sidewalk, announcing their arrival to whomever was inside. It was no surprise then to see the sheriff rising to meet them when they entered.

       "I'm Ben Cartwright," he announced without preamble. "You're holding my son."

       The sheriff acknowledged the curtness without comment and led the way to the cells.

       "This way," he said.

       Hoss and Amanda were already there and greeted them with relief. Ben's eyes widened at Amanda's obvious condition, and he was twice as thankful they had found her at last. He turned then to the man in the cell. He was dressed in the new clothes Hoss had bought and had cleaned himself as best he could. But his scraggly beard only barely hid the hell he had endured. Ben held out his hand then paused, wondering how he would be received.

       But Adam smiled and shook his hand firmly. "Good to see you Pa," he said and greeted Joe with the same warmth.

       "Adam..." Ben wasn't sure how to begin. "Adam....what happened?"

       Adam closed his eye tiredly as he tried to recall that day again.

       "I'm not sure," he finally admitted. "Sinclair was walking towards me...that laugh...I couldn't let him take Amanda again...I had.... to shoot him..."

       Ben nodded. He did understand. But there was something he had to know.

       "Adam," he asked hesitantly. "Did Sinclair draw on you first?"

       Adam bowed his head and rubbed at his temples. His booze-starved brain still pained him some. Especially with remembering.

       "I don't know, Pa," he finally admitted. "I'm not sure it would have mattered anyway."

       Ben shot Hoss a questioning look but he shook his head too.

       "It all happened so fast ,Pa," he said. "I'm not sure what I seen."

       Ben absorbed this then looked around hopefully.

       "Well," he said with forced enthusiasm. "Let's go have a talk with the sheriff."

       The men left the room leaving Amanda behind with Adam. She smiled up at him and tried to think of something encouraging to say, but her mind was too twisted with worry. Adam ached to hold her again and ease every fear from her mind, but his own heart was beating in anticipation of his future. And he knew his eyes betrayed him. He slid his fingers through the bars and intertwined them in her soft hair, drawing her as close as he could. Then with feigned confidence and an aching heart, he softly began to sing.



      "I'm telling you!" Ben Cartwright was shouting. "You don't know what those animals are capable of!"

       "That may be so!" the sheriff argued just as loudly. "But half the good citizens in this town say your son shot in self defense, and the other half claim he killed an unarmed man! Now which do I believe?"

       "Sheriff!" Joe spoke up. "That man kidnapped his wife! Hurt her in every conceivable way! Doesn't he have a right to defend her?"

       "Naturally he does," Sheriff Bauman answered him. "But you can't go around killing folks no matter how much you wanna, unless he draws on you first!"

       "My son is no killer," Ben challenged.

        The sheriff met his gaze. "I've got a dead man on boot hill with your son's bullet in his gut."

       Ben slapped his hand down on the desk. Legally the sheriff was right of course, but this was getting them nowhere. Slowly he turned and met the man's eyes again.

       "What will it take to get my son out of there?" he asked as calmly as possible, but dreading the answer.

       "Acquittal by a court of law," was the reply.

       "Then let's do it," Ben declared, facing the problem head-on. "I demand a judge and a jury to settle this once and for all."

       The sheriff nodded slowly. "Ok," he said. "I'll notify Judge Wilcox. Figure we might be able to start tomorrow." And he rose to make the arrangements.

       Hoss watched him go then turned sharply to his father.

       "But Pa!" he argued. "A trial with all the witnesses split down the middle? Adam could lose!"

       Ben leaned on the desk and took a deep breath before answering.

       "Don't you think I know that?" he grieved.


       Dark clouds blew across an otherwise sunny sky--the uncertainty of nature mirroring the unknown outcome in the crowded courtroom. The loud murmuring of the spectators increased an octave as Adam was led through a side door. His hands were cuffed in front of him and an armed guard led the way to his seat. He paused to search the crowd and his eyes fell on Amanda where she sat with his family. She was safe now; that's really all that mattered.

       The sharp crack of the gavel brought the room to order.

       "This is only a hearing," the judge announced. "To weigh the evidence against this young man. But I will not tolerate disorder in my court, is that understood?"

       An expectant silence descended on the onlookers, and the only sound was the shuffling of papers as the judge read the particulars of the case. At last he looked up and called the first witness to the stand.

       Adam sat silently through the proceedings that lasted well into the afternoon. His mind drifted to the house he wanted to build for his family. To the child soon to be born. To his beautiful Amanda. To a lifetime of love that might help her forget the hell she had known.

       He closed his eyes and prayed silently that she could forgive him a guilty verdict. That someday his child would know his name and love his memory.  His family would see to their needs, he knew. And he could rest easy knowing that. Nothing would ever hurt them again...

       But then an icy chill ran screaming through his veins. Dawson!...oh God!...He might return...would surely return!....He couldn't leave them to that!...Had to get away from here!...had to get away!...oh God!... His hands started a relentless tremor that rattled the steel chain between   them, and his eyes flew open with the terrified look of a caged beast.

       The judge was banging the gavel again and stirring him from his thoughts. The crowd had resumed its murmuring, and the sound rose up around him like the buzzing of so many angry bees. He realized that the witness stand was empty now and the judge was looking at him expectantly.

       "Adam Cartwright, please stand," he heard from somewhere in his consciousness. He rose on weak legs and faced the judge's seat. His heart thundered against his ribs with an agonizing tempo and the room grew deathly still.

       "From the testimony we have heard today," the judge began," it is evident that you have suffered a terrible loss and an even greater misery. The undeniable evil of your tormentors is recognized by this court. It is therefore understandable that upon finding your wife, you wished to lash out at the cause of your suffering. No one here denies that you did indeed kill a man; countless witnesses have so testified. The only consideration is whether this was self defense or murder."

       The judge paused and studied Adam's face. Countless emotions played havoc in those dark eyes, and tense muscles belied the calmness of his stance. The judge continued: "We have heard both opinions from innumerable witnesses who firmly believe that they spoke the truth. The physical evidence is scarce, and in the end we must weigh one opinion against the other and choose which to give credence. You acted in a rash and thoughtless manner and committed an act that cannot be undone. In different circumstances I would be obligated to condemn you."

       He paused again and gave his full attention to the quiet young man who even now dared to hope.

       "But your wife and family have spoken well on your behalf, and it would seem that you are an honorable and upright man. It is therefore my ruling that you have suffered enough, and I will not compound that suffering. Adam Cartwright, I find you not guilty of the charge of murder."

       Adam sucked in his breath and held it, and his heart beat a cacophony in his ears. The room erupted around him in cries of victory, but the sound seemed muted and far away. He was free! He only half noticed the sheriff when he removed the handcuffs and nearly stumbled in his eagerness to leave his place. The drunken joy of living swam through his head like no earthly liquor, and dancing eyes turned to search for Amanda's. He found her there at his father's side as they pushed their way toward him. He hurried forward, his hands reaching to span the distance and a long-forgotten smile lit his face. Their hands met...arms...lips...sighs.  His heart forgot to beat then made up the oversight in triple time. She was crying and laughing all at once, and catching his breath, he realized that he was too. Hoss and Joe were slapping him on the back and Ben gripped his shoulder in a gesture that said many things. At last they were a family again, and the giddiness of that relief stole his breath away. He took hold of Amanda's face in his large hands and looked deep into her shining eyes.

       "Let's go home," he said.


Chapter 3


      Love's mind holds true to timeless heart's discourse

      And clings to memories of some ancient rhyme

      Then renders songs from spirit's secret source

      And keeps the pace with soul's unending time


      Adam wrapped the thick blanket around his wife then lifted her onto the haywagon next to Hoss, even though she protested repeatedly that she could ride.

       Joe watched the exchange and laughed lightly.

       "Would you look at that," he said. "Not even five minutes into the trip and they're already arguing!"

       "Now Joseph," Ben teased. "They've got lots of time to catch up on! Besides," he added with a wink, "making up is half the fun!"

       Amanda blushed and Adam pretended not to have heard as he climbed up on his big sorrel horse. He had shaved the beard and at last cleaned up properly and felt ready and rested for the trip.

       The journey went easier this time since Joe and Ben remembered the rough places and were able to detour around them. They had judged the travel time perfectly and were able to rest in hotels and waystations along the way. No sense asking Amanda to camp on the hard ground in her condition!

       At last the wait was over and they topped the ridge leading to Ponderosa land. Amanda gasped suddenly, remembering the same view so many months ago. Adam rode alongside the wagon and reached down to take her hand.

       "It's ok," he comforted, knowing how she felt.

       They continued on, resisting the urge to hurry the tired horses. Adam rode in front with an outward show of confidence, but Ben knew better. He felt the same way.

       The trees parted and the house came into view, just as they had left it. Smoke was rising from the chimney and they could see Hop Sing by the kitchen door with scraps in hand for the chickens. They smiled at one another and hurried to cover the distance.

       Hop Sing waved happily as the riders dismounted. Adam helped Amanda down from the wagon and led her forward.

       "Pretty lady must be Miss Amanda," Hop Sing observed without introduction. "First you rest; hot tea all ready. Then we prepare warm bath." He smiled and led the way through the kitchen door.

       Ben laughed as they disappeared. "Well how do you like that?" he said. "He takes one look at her and forgets all about us!"

       "I don't see as how I blame him," Joe drawled as he pushed his hat back on his head. "That's one fine lookin' woman!"

       Adam grinned and poked him in the chest. "Just watch it, little brother," he warned. "That fine looking woman is taken!"

       Hoss backed the horses a little and turned them toward the corrals. "I'll get some of the men to unload this hay," he said. "Then I think I'll get in line for that bath!"

       Ben dusted his hat against his twice-as-dirty pants. "That's a good idea, son," he agreed "Though I bet we'll be toting our own water!"

       They entered through the front door and gladly shucked their coats and hats. The room was pleasantly warm and the scents of dinner wafted from the kitchen. How did Hop Sing always seem to know when they'd be home? They shook their heads and settled down by the fire with an ease they thought they had forgotten.

       Amanda was nowhere in sight but soon Hop Sing appeared with a tray of tea for them. Perhaps they hadn't been forgotten after all!

       "Miss Amanda upstairs preparing for bath," he announced. "Mister Cartwrights also wish to clean?"

       "Yes we would!" Ben assured him, wondering how so much dust could cling to a man.

       Hop Sing nodded as if anticipating the answer. "First I take towels to young lady," he said. "Then prepare more hot water."

      Adam rose suddenly and took the towels from the cook. "I'll take those up, Hop Sing," he offered.

       Ben smiled. Adam and Amanda hadn't been alone in a very long while.

       Adam showed his enthusiasm by taking the stairs two at a time, but he slowed when he reached the landing and carefully opened the door so as not to startle her. The clawfoot tub was set up next to his bed and she was already immersed and luxuriating in the heady warmth. Her back was to the door, and he carefully eased his way in without drawing attention to himself. Her hair clung in wet strands to her slight back and sudsy rivulets streamed downward along her smooth skin. Adam loosened the collar of his soiled shirt and pulled the shirttails from his slacks to better unfasten the buttons. Soon his shirt fell away to broad shoulders and hardened chest, though somewhat shrunken from months of self-deprivation. Hard work and good meals would soon put that right again. He loosened his belt and undid the buttons of his pants, all the while watching Amanda as she lay back in the water and closed her eyes.

       His boots came off next and were carefully set aside without a sound, and he pulled is slacks down his muscled legs and away from his bare feet. He stood self-consciously a moment, realizing that he looked half-starved and not sure what she'd think. But the sight of her peacefully floating so near soon urged him forward.

       Very slowly he bent down and brushed his lips across her forehead. She gasped and opened her eyes, but her face brightened at the sight of him and she drew his mouth near for a proper kiss. He opened his mouth to her, sucking greedily on her moist lips. Tentatively she traced her tongue across his teeth and chewed hungrily at his lower lip. He held her face in his roughened hands and ran his fingers through her dripping hair, feeling the forceful stirrings in his heart; amazed at what their bodies remembered. He broke away briefly to step behind her into the tub. She looked at him with both longing and sudden fear, but she moved forward to give him room.

       He sank down into the warm water, wrapping his long legs around her and drawing her back to lay against his chest. Without a word he picked up the wash sponge and lathered it well. Then with the gentlest motion he began to scrub her shoulders and back. Slowly his hands traveled the soft curves of her spine and up along the delicate tapering of her neck. She closed her eyes and leaned forward a bit to give him better access.

       His hands began to inch lower, massaging her thighs with the sweet smelling soap and traveling the length of each leg. Her skin tingled from his touch, at once longing for him and fearing the nearness.

      He stopped as if sensing her indecision. Then very lightly he traced the outline of her ample breasts. The sponge put some distance between their bare skins, which seemed to calm her anxiety but heightened the sensation as well. He rubbed downward again across her swollen belly, feeling the tightness of his child beneath her delicate skin. He gasped at the sudden movement there and she laid the sponge aside so he could feel directly.

       He smiled, seeing and feeling the life stirring within her as he rested his chin on her shoulder and sighed contentedly. His steady breathing in her ear surrounded and enveloped her with a certain peace. Slowly she retrieved the sponge and began to trace the length of his long legs where they rested against her own. Then turning to face him, her hands traveled  along his prominent ribs and left sudsy trails in the dark hair of his chest. She reached up to stroke his face and for a moment, to lean into the safety of his body, the thundering of his heart a welcome resonance in her ear. Then slowly she turned him around and lowered his head into her lap, and his eyes closed as she massaged the soap into his hair. She bent double to kiss him then, and ever so slowly their heads dipped under the water. He surfaced without breaking the embrace and turned around to take her into his arms. With his head resting against the edge of the tub, he     sank down into the comforting water and Amanda lay across him with her head nestled on his shoulder. He draped his arms protectively around her and listened to the gentle slap of the water as it moved in time with their breathing. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply. The world would have to wait.


      The sun left a wide wash of light across the sleepers in the bed. At some point they had left the cooling water and retreated to the warmth of the soft blankets. They lay intertwined, her small form nestled completely in the crook of his body; his arm draped protectively across her shoulders. Their faces were peaceful and quiet, still lost in some comforting dream.

       A sharp rap on the door stirred Adam from his rest, and he quickly pulled the covers around them both. Amanda stirred at the sudden movement but she only wound herself closer around him and continued to sleep.

       "Adam?" Hoss was calling from behind the closed door. "Adam, you alright?"

       Adam shook his head to clear it and licked at his dry lips.

       "I'm fine," he answered. "You can come in."

       The door opened slowly but Hoss bashfully kept his eyes downcast. "Pa just sent me to check on you," he murmured. "It's getting pretty late, I guess."

       Adam rubbed his eyes and glanced out the window. The sun was high in the sky and he could hear the ranch hands well into their day's chores. He laughed sheepishly.

       "I suppose it is," he agreed. "I'll be right down."

       "Oh, no hurry," Hoss assured him. He dared to glance up and was relieved to see them hidden by a large blanket. "Joe and I took care of your chores this morning. I'll just let Pa know everything's ok." He left hurriedly and the door clicked shut behind him.

       Adam lay still a moment just watching Amanda sleep and listening to her steady breathing. The peace he felt just to have her in his arms again was almost overwhelming, and he was tempted to spend the day just holding her tight. But he wanted to ride down to the lake to look over the spot he had in mind for their house, and he needed to blaze the trees he'd cut as soon as the snow melted. Reluctantly he left the warmth of the bed and padded quietly across the floor to search for some clean clothes.

       Soon he was dressed and headed down the stairs just as Ben entered from the front door.

       "Morning, Pa," he called, stopping to pick up his jacket and hat.

       Ben looked him up and down, noting his unbrushed hair and still rumpled appearance.

       "Morning, son?" he teased. "It's almost lunchtime! Did you sleep well?"

       Adam nodded with a smile. "I'm just going to ride down to the lake. I won't be long."

       Ben grinned. "Just be sure you're back for lunch," he said. "Hop Sing will have a fit if we're not all at the table this time!"

       Adam laughed and practically ran out the door. Ben chuckled to himself. They were going to be alright after all...


      Amanda stirred in the big bed and drew the covers under her chin. She hadn't slept so well in a long while, but she knew she had to get up sometime. What would this new family think of her if she spent all day in bed like a pampered queen?

       She rolled over and found the space empty where Adam had been, and she sighed in disappointment. She opened her eyes then and looked around the bright room. The bathtub was still there and Adam's clothes lay crumpled by the door where he had dropped them last night. But someone had brought in her trunk with all her clothes inside! They must have had it delivered from the Virginia City hotel where she and Adam had left it. She wrapped the blanket around herself and got up to search for something that still fit.



      She felt a little self- conscious as she descended the stairs in the light blue dress that at one time had hung full and loose, but now pulled snug across her stomach. She sighed and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders.  She supposed she'd have to get some new clothes in town, or at least the cloth to make them.

      She paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked around the big room. No one was around but she could hear Hop Sing puttering in the kitchen. She decided not to disturb him and moved instead to the front door.

      It was still quite cold outside but there was very little wind, so she just pulled the shawl tighter around her arms and made her way to the new barn to see if anyone was home.

      The barn was pleasantly warm and smelled of horses and hay and leather. She stopped to stroke a little bay mare and laughed when it mouthed the fringe of her shawl.

      "That one's yours," a voice announced, startling her. She turned and saw Little Joe in the doorway with an armload of harnesses and bridles that needed tending. He dropped the trappings in the corner and went to stand by her.

      "Adam just picked her out," he said, stroking the horse's neck. "But he warned me not to let you ride until the baby comes."

      She smiled and ran her hand along the horse's head between its eyes. Adam was a protective husband for sure!

      "Is Adam nearby?" she asked hopefully.

      "He took a ride down to the lake," Joe answered. "I think he might have a surprise one day soon," he added to ease her disappointment.

      She smiled at him and wondered how easy it was to be with this family she barely knew. She hoped Adam wanted lots of children because she planned to add a great legacy to the Cartwright name!

      "Well there you are!" Ben cried happily from the doorway.

      "She's getting to know her new horse," Joe explained. "" he added with feigned seriousness," I'm standing guard so she doesn't ride away."

      They both laughed. "Adam tells me you're quite a rider," Ben said. "But you've got four very protective men to deal with here!"

      "Don't worry!" Amanda assured them, "I don't feel much like riding at the moment."

      She gave the horse a final pat.

      "But I do need to get into town," she added. "It appears my clothes don't fit anymore! And I can't keep wearing the dress Hoss got me in Reno!"

      Ben smiled. "Well it's almost lunchtime and if I don't get someone to the table Hop Sing will have my hide! But afterwards we can take the buggy into town. Or Adam will; he should be home by then."

      She took his offered arm on one side and Joe's on the other and walked back to the house.

      Lunch was a simple affair but quite filling. She was disappointed that Adam hadn't returned yet, but the others warned her with a wink not to mention it or Hop Sing would go into one of his indecipherable tirades again. She smothered a laugh and glanced sideways at the cook who scurried to clear the dishes and mumble about misplaced Cartwrights.

      That afternoon Ben hitched up the buggy as he had promised and drove her into town. He just hoped Adam wasn't going to make a habit of neglecting this beautiful woman, or he'd have to give that boy of his a talking to!

      A rather spring-like breeze was drifting over the mountain when they arrived in town. Ben stopped in front of the general store and tied the horse.

      "Jake in there will help you with whatever you need," he said. "And the dress shop is just down the street. Would you like me to wait?"

      "That's ok," she smiled, "I don't want to keep you."

      "Fine," he said. "I've got some business down at the bank. "We'll meet back here in hour?"

      Her eyebrows shot up. These men had a lot to learn about shopping with a lady!

      "Two?" Ben offered hesitantly.

      They both laughed and Amanda nodded. "Two hours," she agreed and turned toward the store.

      The store was crowded but she finished there in record time and soon deposited her packages in the buggy. Now there was plenty of time left to spend at the dress shop!

     The bell tinkled softly when she pushed through the door, and an older woman smiled at her from across the room.

      "I'll be right with you," she called from where she tended to another customer.

      "No hurry," Amanda answered and busied herself by admiring the merchandise.

      Shortly the woman finished her business and approached Amanda.

      "I'm Mrs. Stiles," she introduced herself. "Is there anything in particular you are looking for?"

      Amanda patted her ample stomach. "Just something that fits!" she laughed.

      The woman smiled then nodded in recognition. "Mrs. Cartwright, isn't it?"

      "Yes," Amanda answered, realizing that some might remember her from her brief stay in town.

      "Well, welcome back," Mrs. Stiles said warmly and led her to the first selection.

      Amanda was able to decide on a few outfits and even have a pleasant conversation before the two hours were up. As she said goodbye to Mrs. Stile and pushed out the door with her packages, she thought she might even beat Ben back to the buggy!

      "Well, good afternoon Mrs. Cartwright," a voice spoke behind her. She turned and saw several women on the sidewalk near the adjacent business. They looked at her strangely but she smiled anyway.

      "Good afternoon."

      "We heard you came home yesterday," one of them spoke. "Was it a difficult trip?"

      Amanda wondered why they were looking at her like that, and she shifted the packages around so she could see better.

      "Not really, " she answered then smiled. "Adam was with me."

      "Oh yes...Adam..." another spoke up. "Staying close to home these days, is he? What with a baby coming..."

      Amanda frowned and decided she didn't care for this conversation. "Good day," she said, excusing herself. As she turned to go she bumped into someone and her packages flew in all directions.

      "I'm sorry!" she blurted, but the gentleman smiled and bent to help her with her belongings. The women only stood and stared and their hushed voices drifted easily over the short distance:

      "So who do you suppose the father is?"

      "Well if you ask me, Adam is a good man for taking her in--in her  condition!"

      "How can she bear to go out? I'd lock myself in my room for sure!"

      "That child will be a bad seed! I can just feel it!"

      "She's tainted, poor thing. Adam deserves better."

      "Why isn't he with her? He must be ashamed."

      "I suppose he'll raise it as his own; he is an honorable man."

       Amanda finished retrieving her packages and quickly thanked the gentleman. Then with tears building in her eyes, she hurried down the street to the buggy. She could see Ben approaching from the bank, and taking a deep breath she climbed up to wait for him.

       Well," he said. "Did you find everything you needed?"

      She bit her lip and nodded. "I'd like to go home please,” she said quietly.

      Ben studied her face with concern as he climbed up beside her. "Is everything alright?" he asked.

       She put a hand up to cover her mouth and her eyes were brimming with tears. "Please," she whispered. "I just want to go home."

       Ben frowned as he released the brake and urged the horses forward. She had been in good humor when they had arrived in town, and he wondered what had happened to change that. He realized that her pregnancy might affect her mood as it had his wives, but something told him this was different. He took the long route home to give her time to compose herself, and to show her the beautiful land that was now her home. After they had been traveling in silence for some time he pulled up near a creek and stopped to rest the horses.

       "Amanda," he said softly, taking her hand. "What happened back there? Why the tears?"

       She sucked in her breath and tried to stop the silent crying, but there was something about this man---this father---that made her feel safe enough to share her grief. She leaned against his steady shoulder and let the tears come, and he rocked her gently and waited to help if he could.

       At last she raised her head and wiped her face with her handkerchief. "I'm sorry," she said as she sniffed the tears away.

       Ben patted her hand. "There's nothing to be sorry about," he said sincerely and watched her gentle eyes for some clue to her grief. "I'm ready to listen."

       She gave him a small smile and dabbed at her eyes again. "It's silly, really," she said. "Just a bunch of talk in town..."

      Ben leaned closer and searched her face, waiting. She just couldn't lie to such a sincere listener.

       "The...the women," she stuttered. "Were saying things about the baby..."

       Ben waited. He suspected he knew where this was going.

       "They...said it's not Adam's baby...that...that I don't deserve him..."

       Her eyes were threatening to spill over again and Ben drew her head back to his shoulder.

      "Sssshh," he comforted. "What they say doesn't matter. You are Adam's wife and a part of this family. Your child---Adam's child-- will be loved beyond reason."

       She clung to his mature certainty and dried her tears once again.

       "Thank you," she said as he gave her hand a final pat and turned the horses back toward home. She knew in her heart that it was Adam's child she carried, but it was comforting to know that any child would be welcome to this family. She sighed and settled back in the seat, watching the breathtaking scenery as far as the eye could see. A great land full of promise and hope that she was now a part of. And that her child would inherit. No matter what.


Chapter 4


      Still fearful minds guard fertile history's seed

      And memories give them reason to regret

      Let time and aching hearts resolve the need

      And love's staccato rhythm pay the debt

      They arrived home just in time to unload the buggy and wash up for dinner. Hoss and Joe were already seated, and Hop Sing was just beginning to mumble when Adam hurried through the door and slid into his place. He smiled brightly at Amanda beside him and ran his fingers lightly across the top of her hand.

       "Family all the time come late for dinner!" Hop Sing fussed at him. "Some time family not come at all! Maybe Hop Sing cook no more till family decide to eat again!" He stomped away and disappeared into the kitchen mumbling loudly in Cantonese.

       Ben and Joe were trying to hide their laughter but Hoss looked genuinely worried.

       "You don't think he's figurin' to leave again, do you?" he asked.

       This made the others laugh even louder and Hop Sing returned, looking more indignant.

       "Cartwrights should stop merriment and eat food before it gets cold!" he complained.

      Ben put on his most serious face. "You are quite right, Hop Sing," he stated. "And we really do appreciate all you do around here. I think Hoss would fade away without your cooking!"

      "That's right," Hoss agreed through a mouthful of potatoes. "Clean away to nothin’!”

      Hop Sing grinned happily and resumed his chores. "That better," he said. "Always best to see good appetite!"

      Ben waited until he had returned to the kitchen before laughing at Hoss's expense.

       "He's right after all," he pointed out. "If he has to cook it, the least we can do is be here to eat it."

       Adam lowered his eyes and grinned ruefully. "I suppose I had that coming," he agreed. "I did try to make it home in time for lunch, but I guess the time got away from me."

       "Did you find a good site?" Joe asked, hoping he wasn't spoiling some surprise. Amanda glanced at him curiously then back at Adam.

       "Site?" she questioned.

       Adam grinned widely. "For our house," he announced. "I was going to tell you tonight, though I should have known little brother would spill the beans!"

       Amanda glanced all around then leaned over and kissed her husband. "I want to see!" she begged. "How long until it's finished?"

       "Now isn't that just like a woman," Ben remarked. "Wanting to see the goods the minute she hears of them!"

      Adam took Amanda's hand. "I can take you up there tomorrow," he said. "But we can't start cutting until the snow clears. Shouldn't be but a month or two."

       She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him again.

       "I can't wait!" she beamed.



 Amanda pulled on her nightgown and shook out the crumpled blanket on the bed. She smiled, catching Adam's scent on the woolen spread. It was a sweet musky odor of outdoors and work and something absolutely him. She climbed into bed and wrapped herself in that comfort, remembering their gentle bath last night and the sweet sleep afterward in his arms. But an insidious fear was creeping into her heart again, and she waited for Adam with a strange but certain anxiety.

       A creaking of floorboards in the hall announced his arrival and her heart skipped a beat. She loved him with every ounce of her being! Why was she feeling like this? A shaft of light broke the darkness of the room as the door opened, and Adam slipped inside. His boots were already off and his shirt hung loose and unbuttoned. She watched his eyes that shone cat-like in the moon's glow, and her heart wasn't sure whether to run or stay. He glided silently across the room, shrugging out of his shirt and easing his slacks down his long legs. Bits and pieces of bare skin glowed in the dim light and she amazed herself by wishing for morning.

       The bed creaked softly as he slipped under the covers with her and his breath was hot against her ear.

       "I love you," he breathed, turning her face to settle his lips on her soft mouth. She responded in spite of the nameless fear and pulled his head hard against her. Their breathing was urgent and primal, and his teeth raked her neck and nipped sharply at her ear. She dug her fingers in his    hair, assaulting his face with her own--tasting him, teasing him, and taking pleasure in the savagery.

       He sucked in his breath between kisses, taking her mouth completely--caressing her tongue, her teeth, her lips.

       "Oh God, I missed you!" he murmured, drawing her nearer. His hand reached under her gown, tracing her delicate ribs before settling on her breast. Amanda gasped into his mouth, a forgotten flame setting her on fire. His fingers caressed the generous outline of her bosom--feather touches on the eager peaks. She gasped again, her body craving the tantalizing touch of     his long fingers. He smiled and ran his hand down along her hip and slid it under her to draw her even nearer. She gripped his muscled shoulders eagerly and leaned toward his urgent kiss.

       Slowly his hand drifted around her again, parting her legs, stroking...seeking...needing. His touch was gentle and familiar, but her breath was freezing in her throat and her heart was thudding in her ears. Couldn't he hear it? His lips were drawing lines of chills around one eager breast, and he pulled back briefly to find his place between her legs.

       She gasped sharply and froze and a wildness entered her eyes. He stopped his advance and his face transformed with concern.

       "Did I hurt you?" he asked softly, his hands seeking to relieve the tension in her thighs. But she drew away from him. Her body wanted him with painful intensity, but equally painful memories were screaming through her mind. Memories of a beautiful act reduced to a hurtful     torture; scars of a terror not yet forgotten. She longed to erase the confusion on Adam's lovely face, but with him poised there above her, she could only cry a single word.


       His eyes told her he did not understand. He sank back on his knees and rested his hands gently on her legs.

       "Amanda? What is it?"

       She pulled herself upward in the bed. She wanted to tell him the things she had done...had to do. But she was so frightened and ashamed.

       "No!" she sobbed again, drawing her legs under herself and pulling her gown around them. "Please..."

       There was a hurt in his eyes that she hated herself for causing and a particular look descended on his face. He did understand...didn't he? Slowly he retreated from the bed and his belt jangled softly as he hurriedly redressed.


       There was no answer, just the squeaking of the door as it opened and shut again. Amanda let her head fall to her knees as hot tears came.

       Adam descended the stairs in his stockinged feet, not bothering to button his shirt or even properly fasten his belt. He was confused and hurt, and he had to admit—rather angry. Not at her. At them for what they had done to her. What no woman should endure and no man could really understand. Old furies rose like bile in his heart and he stared into the fire and tried to settle his mind.

       From the shadows Ben emerged from the kitchen, a glass of milk in his hand. He looked up, startled to see Adam there, and set the milk down on the table as he approached him.

       "Adam?" he questioned, glancing at his rumpled, half-dressed appearance. "I thought you went to bed already..."

       Adam continued to stare into the fire for a long moment then forcibly snapped himself out of his reverie'.

       "" he hedged as he retreated to a chair and picked up the book lying there. "I...thought I'd read for a bit..."

       Ben studied him in the ghostly flickering light, and started to speak then changed his mind.

       "Well..." he finally managed. "I expect you to be up in time for chores tomorrow. We've got a ranch to run!"

       Adam nodded but stared resolutely at his book. Finally Ben turned and started up the stairs.

       "Good night, Pa," Adam called after him, hoping his neutral tone sounded convincing. But as soon as Ben was out of sight, he dropped the book into his lap and turned his eyes to the dancing flames again.


A cold room and footsteps on the stairs woke him the next morning. He rubbed his tired eyes and sat up quickly, and the book tumbled loudly to the wooden floor. Hoss and Joe jumped at the sound and squinted into the shadows of the great room. Ben looked closely at Adam's drawn face and simply laid a hand on his shoulder.

      "It's morning," was all he said.

      Adam nodded silently and stood stiffly, turning to follow them to the table.

       "Gee, Adam," Hoss said over his shoulder. "If you're figurin' to ride fence with me, you might want to put your boots on first."

       Adam looked down at his feet distractedly and sighed then turned to go upstairs. At the same moment Amanda came into view, hugging his boots to herself as she glided toward him. She handed them to him almost reluctantly and her hand remained on his.

       "Adam..." she began tentatively.

       He gazed at her with nothing but love and held both her hands together.

       "Ssshh," he comforted. "It's ok."

       He bent down and kissed her, gently and long, heedless of the three pairs of eyes that pretended not to be watching. At last Ben cleared his throat and motioned them to the table just as Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen.

       "All Cartwrights ready for breakfast this morning!" the cook declared happily. "Even newest Cartwright get up early like ranch wife!"

       Amanda blushed and smiled at him. "I'm learning, Hop Sing," she agreed. "Though I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do now. You men seem to take perfectly good care of yourselves!"

       "Just you wait," Joe winked at her. "Won't be long before big brother there has you slaving over a hot stove with babies in every room!" He giggled while ducking from the biscuit Adam threw his way.

       Amanda smiled and stroked Adam's hand where it rested between them.

       "I hope so," she said sincerely.


Later that afternoon Adam hitched up the horses to take her to the lake. The sun was shining brilliantly, and as they set off she commented quietly how memories of the lake should upset her, but instead how it had brought comfort during her captivity. Anytime they had been near the lake she had felt close to the ranch and to him. He glanced at her knowingly, and wondered how many times their paths had crossed without their knowing it.

       He pulled up on a hill overlooking the water and she smiled in awe at the glorious view. Then helping her down, he led her around the place he had marked, pointing out where each room would be. Amanda laughed excitedly and wrapped both arms around his waist.

      "I want to move in today!" she declared.

      "Well," Adam smiled, kissing the top of her head and gesturing toward the raw hillside. "Perhaps I should put up some walls first...maybe a roof...some doors..."

      She laughed and punched him lightly in the chest. "You know what I mean!" she giggled. "I just can't wait for a house of our own."

      "I know," he grinned then guided her back to the wagon. "Come on! I've got a picnic basket in here someplace, and we can pretend we’re watching the lake from the kitchen table."

      She grinned with delight and helped him spread the blanket on a level spot. He settled down beside her and began to unload the picnic basket. Amanda's eyes widened at the amount of food and she began to laugh again.

      "Adam! I don't think I'll fit through the door of our house if I eat all that!"

      He looked at her sternly but with a sparkle in his eye. "Now, you're eating for two, remember?" he chided. "And I expect you to at least try everything here!"

       She smiled but her eyes grew suddenly somber. She ran her hand up his arm as she built up the nerve to ask a question.

       "Adam?" she said softly. "About the baby... Do you ever wonder...if...if..." But she couldn't even say the words as if speaking them aloud might make them true.

       Adam looked away and his eyes clouded with a dangerous fire, but when he turned to her again his face was gentle and reassuring.

       "No," he said. "Don't even think that. This is our baby. Always. Forever."

       She looked out over the lake and bit her lip. "But there's a chance..."

       But he wrapped his arms around her and drew her closer.

       "Amanda," he said earnestly. "Whatever just doesn't matter! And I want to spend my life with you, helping you forget it."

       He pulled her head down on his shoulder and stroked her soft hair. She leaned into him, doubts and fears playing in her eyes, and tried to believe his words. She had to forget, for his sake as well as her own. And for their child whom nothing in the world would take away. She looked up at Adam's shadowed profile and saw the proud set of his jaw and the fierce determination in his dark eyes. How could she deny him anything? She sighed wistfully and followed his gaze out over the water. If it weren't for the dreams she could forget they'd ever been apart. She sighed again and wrapped her arms tighter around his broad shoulders. If only for the dreams...


Chapter 5


      Seasons of the moon will wax and wane

      And whispers of the heart, their vision, find

      Then life's eternal reason smiles again

      Remembering the pathways of the mind


      In the high country winter was just giving into spring, but at the ranch the first wildflowers had already made their appearance. Amanda breathed deeply of the clean mountain air and rocked gently in the new rocking chair on the front porch. Adam had surprised her with it just yesterday and promised to bring it to the house when it was ready. He was making great progress with the building and described every detail to her when he came home at night. Hoss and Joe helped out every chance they got, and they were hoping to be finished in just three weeks--maybe two! She couldn't wait. Her child would be born in her own home, just as it should be.

       She patted her stomach and rose to go back in the house. Hop Sing had surprised everyone by letting her in "his" kitchen, so once a week she cooked the evening meal. Good practice, Hoss had said, for when he made a habit of visiting around suppertime. She had smiled and hoped they'd all visit often.

       The smell of roast chicken wafted into the great room, and she wandered into the kitchen to check on dinner. Then satisfied with the progress of the meal, she pumped some water onto the potatoes and set the pot on the stove. It was so nice to have the water pump right in the room, and on hearing her delight, Adam had promised to make her one just like it. She grinned at the memory of her husband, so eager to please, and returned to the great room to finish her sewing before the men got home.

       She pushed another log on the fire before settling down in Adam's favorite chair. She loved being around his things and since he sat there often, the chair had taken on the comforting shape and scent of him. Humming softly she picked up the shirt she was mending. She wouldn't tell anyone, but she often wore his shirts when no one was around, wrapping herself in the soft essence of him. She giggled and wondered if he knew.

       The fire popped quietly but otherwise the house was silent. Hop Sing had gone to town to visit friends and the men were still out working. She put the finished shirt aside and thought about walking out to the barn to visit her horse Cinnamon, but remembered that Joe had taken the mare out today for exercise. She suspected it was Adam's idea really, to keep her from riding out to see the house. As if she had any hope of sitting a horse with this enormous belly to contend with!

       She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes contentedly. Adam was a wonderful husband and she was genuinely happy. There was no greater peace than lying in his strong arms at night, feeling his gentle hands on her face, and tasting eager kisses on her mouth. He never asked more of her--wordlessly giving back the power her captors had stolen. And the dreams didn't come as often anymore, but when they did he would cradle her through the night and softly sing her to sleep again.

       She opened her eyes and glanced at the big clock by the door. Probably should check on dinner, she thought to herself, and reluctantly rose from the comforting chair.

       The potatoes were cooking nicely and she added some secret spices that still had Hoss guessing. A quick peek at the chicken told her it had at least another hour yet to go. She started humming again and gathered some plates from the shelf above the stove. As she went to set the table she thought how she really didn't mind housework. But she couldn't wait to do it in her own home.

       When the table was set she wandered back into the great room and picked up a book Adam had been reading. She wondered how he could concentrate on a story after a hard day's work, then realized that his active mind was never really quiet. Except sometimes when he slept. She loved to watch him sleep; his long lashes at rest on high cheeks, his hidden eyes dancing to   some secret dream. Sometimes he fell asleep in his chair with his book in his lap, and the shadow of a day's beard somehow making his face more inviting. The soft pout of his lips relaxed at rest and made her mad with loving him. Occasionally Ben would look up from his own reading and see her adoring stare, and just smile.

       Then there were the times at night when he fell asleep before she did, and only the moon's glow illuminated the highlights of his face. She would lay on his chest, listening to his soft breathing, her fingers lightly tracing the angles of his chin. Sometimes he would stir and moan softly, and his lips would part just a little as if waiting for a kiss. She often honored the silent request, lingering on his generous mouth and mingling her breath with his own. His silky hair--made rumpled and boyish by the sheets--would intrigue her fingers and her hands would be lost in the soft curls. Then he would sigh and she would echo the sweet sound of contentment before settling on her pillow and drifting into her own slumber.

       The book slid off her lap and thudded to the floor, stirring her from that state between waking and dreaming. She shook her foggy head and suddenly remembered the dinner she was cooking and the four hungry men who would be home any minute. She pushed herself out of the chair and turned toward the kitchen.

       The sharp pain that assaulted her stomach frightened her and she gasped through her teeth. No! she thought, It's not time! She leaned on the edge of the couch and breathed deeply, and slowly the hurt subsided. Probably nothing... she breathed with relief and started for the kitchen again.

       The movement sent another agonizing jolt through her body and she sunk to her knees, gripping her stomach. Adam would be home soon, she thought; everything would be ok.

       She sat there on the floor sucking in breaths that seemed too shallow, and the pain that ran up her back and sides almost made her cry. This was no place to have the baby, all alone! Why was it coming now? She had counted the days so precisely and it just wasn't time yet! A fine time for Adam to come home late! She needed to find someone...she needed to get help...

       Slowly she eased herself to her feet and tried a few simple movements. The pain wasn't so bad now. Maybe she could make it to the bunkhouse and find one of the hands...

       Taking a deep breath she carefully moved toward the front door, but increasing twinges of pain warned her of a greater ache to come. She leaned against the credenza by the door and a sudden hot wetness came tumbling down her trembling legs. Her eyes flew open at the shock of it and she backed hurriedly toward the couch again. Another wave of torment gripped her insides, and the room seemed to spin in on itself and back again. She cried out and curled herself into the corner of the couch and tears spilled down her cheeks with fear of the unknown.

       She didn't know how long she lay there, but at last the pain reached a threshold and her mind cleared enough to let her focus. She could hear the hiss of steam as the pot boiled over on the stove, and the ticking of the clock sounded like a cannon in her ears. She pushed the sweat soaked hair out of her eyes and took a long ragged breath. Waves of pain ricocheted to the very core of her and caused her to gasp once again. Where were they? she cried silently. Where were they?

       Pure stubbornness got her to her feet again and she swayed a little on aching legs before trying to move. At least let me make it to the bed she thought I will not have my baby on the cold hard floor!

       Each step reminded her of the urgent life within her and she sobbed in time with the sweet torment. Her head had started to ache by the time she reached the stairs, and every muscle was shaking from the terrible concentration. The pains were coming faster now and the pressure between her legs was threatening to tear her in two. She cried out in sheer desperation and clung to the banister as she began to climb the stairs. With each stabbing pain her insides wrenched violently with the force of their struggle, and she screamed vainly in the lonely house. Why didn't they come? her silent mind pleaded  Why didn't someone come?

       Distractedly she noticed that her fingers were turning white from gripping the railing, and she forced her leaden legs to climb the last few steps to the landing. She squatted there in a desperate attempt to stop the tremors and her breath echoed fast and sharp in the long hallway. With tears in her eyes she stood again and clung to the wall as a wave of nausea almost won the battle. She cried without restraint and followed the wall until she found the doorway. The downward pressure was increasing and a primal need urged her to bear down on that pain. Not yet...Almost there!

       She stumbled to the bed as quickly as she could and tore at the undergarments beneath her skirt. As if sensing that the barriers were gone her labor rebounded in earnest and she fell into the bed with a heart wrenching cry. Her bent knees began a rhythmic shaking as the cramping came in rapidly urgent waves, and she strained against the pain with all the strength that she had left.

       With certain fear she felt her body being split in two; felt her flesh tearing and saw the blood on the sheets. She cried hopelessly and bent into the agony of releasing the life within her.

       Tears were clouding her eyes but she gasped when a tiny head appeared between her legs. Her breath came in urgent pants and with a terrible cry, she embraced the pain to free her child.

       He slid into view, all wet and shiny from his passage, and she cried and laughed all at once, forgetting the pain that proceeded him. With eager hands she reached down and lifted him up. His unfocused eyes wandered aimlessly and with a start his new lungs sucked in air and let it out in a lusty cry. She laid him on her bent knees and inspected every inch of him, counting his fingers and toes and marveling at the waves of black hair on his head. She stroked his little face and watched his eyes search for her. Is this what Adam looked like as a child--for there were his dimples and his strong chin! And those eyes--even new and unused--reflected Adam's intensity! Very gently she lifted him up and cradled him against her chest, and the lullaby of her sighs lulled him to sleep.


Chapter 6


      And mind's wild sea does toss in memory's wake

      Staccato sun eclipses blinded eyes

      A warrior's soul claims honor for love's sake

      And tips the scale, in league with lover's sighs


      The front door swung open and four tired men strode into the house. Hoss breathed in deeply and patted his stomach.

       "Mmmmm...Mmmmmm," he said appreciatively. "That little gal sure can cook. I think I'll go in the kitchen and see if she needs any help."

       "To see if you can swipe some food, you mean!" Joe called after him. "I tell you, Pa," he added. "From the way he acts, Hop Sing has been starving him all these years!"

       Ben laughed and threw his hat down on the credenza. "I'll tell you one thing, boys," he said. "I'm so hungry that Hoss might have to fight for his dinner tonight!"

       "Ain't that the truth?" Joe agreed. "Hey Adam! You'd better move out soon before that wife of yours spoils us all!"

       Adam grinned. "A few more day's work like we just had, and that might be sooner then later!" he said happily.

       Hoss reappeared from the kitchen looking a bit concerned.

       "What's the matter, Hoss?" Joe teased. "Did she run you out?"

       Hoss shook his head. "No," he said. "She ain't in there. And a whole pot of taters done boiled over on the stove."

       Sudden panic clouded Adam's face and he glanced anxiously around.

       "Amanda!" he called.

       "Now just stay calm," Ben said. "She probably just went out to the henhouse or something. Let's have a look around."

       Hoss and Joe went out the front door while Ben went out the back way. Adam glanced once more around the great room before charging up the stairs, his heart in his throat. He paused on the landing and saw that the door to their room was wide open. He rushed inside then stopped midway when he saw her lying peacefully under the covers. He sighed with relief and slowly approached the bed.

       "Amanda," he called softly.

       She stirred and her eyes fluttered open and found his face.

       "Oh...Adam..." she breathed sleepily.

       Something was stirring under the blankets and he pulled back in shock. Then hesitantly he reached out and lifted the covers back.

       A tiny hand shot into view and a little face turned to gaze in his direction. Adam's face broke into a glorious smile and he eased himself down on the bed next to his wife and son.

       "You're home..." Amanda murmured groggily and reached out for his hand.

       Adam looked at her with the greatest wonder and stroked his son's bare back. "Sorry I'm late..."

       She smiled a sleepy smile and pulled the covers back so he could see the baby fully. Adam reached out to lift him up, but she laid a hand on his arm.

       "Wait," she said and showed him the cord that still tethered them together. It no longer pulsed with life and she nodded when he asked if he could cut it. With only a brief hesitation he found his knife and cut the tie. But it was a nervous father who then lifted his child into his arms.

       The baby cooed and wiggled a moment as he found his place in those strong arms. Adam smiled brilliantly and placed a calloused finger in a waiting fist.

       "He's beautiful," he breathed.

       Anxious footsteps echoed in the hall and the others appeared in the doorway.

       "It's ok; she's here," Adam announced then turned so they could see the small life in his arms.

       Their faces relaxed with relief and the three men slowly advanced into the room.

       "Why, he ain't no bigger than a frog's toe!" Hoss declared, stroking the soft hair on his head. "But I thought you was gonna wait 'til you was home before havin' him," he added with a wink.

       Amanda sighed tiredly. "I guess he had other ideas," she said. "But," she added, "if I ever ask to do anything by myself again, I expect one of you to stop me!"

       They all laughed and agreed to try.

       "We'll get out of the way and let you get some rest," Ben said.

       She smiled then frowned apologetically, "My dinner..."

       "Don't you worry about that," Joe giggled. "we've got Hoss to lead us to the food!"

       "But it's probably ruined..." she worried.

       Ben grinned. "Honey, we're so hungry we could probably eat the pot you cooked it in! Now you just lie still and rest. Your baby needs you more than we do."

       The others left the room but Adam stayed behind, rocking his baby to his chest. Then slowly he lowered him back to Amanda's waiting arms and guided his mouth to one tender breast.

       "I love you," he smiled at them both, and bent to kiss Amanda gently on the lips. Then he settled back against the headboard and cradled her to his side, happily watching the tiny gift of life nestled securely at her bosom.



      The fleeting days of spring transformed eagerly into the longer days of summer, and Amanda was so restless she was finding it difficult to concentrate.

      "Amanda?" Adam was asking for the third time. "I have to head into town. Would you like to come?"

       She blinked and shook her head. "No...I've got plenty to keep me busy here."

       He tilted her face up to look at him. "Are you ok?"

       She smiled and kissed the hand that held her face.

       "Yes," she said as she finally focused. "I'm fine."

       He grinned at her and bent down to kiss her lovingly on the mouth. "I'll be back by supper," he promised.

       She watched him go and the idea that had been forming in her mind vied for her attention again. She went in search of Hoss and Joe.

       After a brief search outside she returned to the house and found Hop Sing in the kitchen.

       "Hop Sing, have you seen Hoss or Joe?" she asked him.

       The Chinaman smiled. He always smiled so easily.

       "They both go upstairs to check on crying baby," he told her.

       She thanked him and made her way up the steps. She could hear exasperated voices arguing from her room, and she paused on the landing to listen.

       "Joe! That ain't the way it goes!" Hoss was saying as he rearranged the diaper once again. "It ain't a nightgown, you know."

       "Well, I don't see you doin' much better!" Joe answered indignantly. "At least I've watched Adam do it a time or two! I'm tellin' ya! You've got to lay him right here!"

       "But Joe!" Hoss fussed. "He's just got them little legs! I don't think he'll be able to move if we do it that way!"

       "Well what's he got to move for?" Joe argued back. "He ain't even crawling yet! We'll probably have to change it again before he learns anyway!"

       Amanda stifled a giggle and eased around the corner so she could see into the room. Her naked baby lay happily on the bed with the folds of the diaper wrapped hopelessly around him. Hoss and Joe pulled the cloth back and tried to start over.

       "Well," Joe suggested. "Can't he just go without?"

       "What? Let him go around neked?" Hoss asked.

       "Well why not?" Joe grinned. "He's just a baby! Ain't nobody going to mind!"

       Hoss shook his head in frustration. "You can't do that!" he scoffed. "He might catch cold or something. Besides, you plannin' on holding him over a bucket all day?"

       Joe giggled. "Guess you're right on that! Ok, let's try it again..."

       Amanda covered her mouth to hide her laughter and walked into the room. She looked from one to the other without a word and they meekly handed her the diaper.

       "Gosh darn it, Amanda!" Hoss said when she had finished. "If Adam can learn how to do that, then we ought to be able to!"

       She only laughed and lifted Matthew to her shoulder. She was going to miss having them around. Though she suspected they would find an excuse to visit as often as they could. Ben had been right. Little Matthew was loved beyond all reason!

       When she had fed the baby she carried him to the little crib downstairs. It had been Joe's, Ben had told her when he retrieved it from the loft, but Joe had promptly informed everyone that there was no way he had ever fit in that thing! She smiled and lay the sleepy baby down, tucking the blankets around him. Hoss and Joe entered quietly through the front door and she was happy to see that they were finally learning to enter a house without sounding like a herd of wild steers!

       "He asleep?" Joe asked, peering into the crib.

      "Umm hmm," she answered. "Would one of you mind watching him for a little bit? I've just got to ride out and see the house..."

       Hoss looked a little worried. "Well...sure...we don't mind keeping an eye on him...But do you think it's safe to go out there?"

       "No one has seen Dawson anywhere," she said. "It's been weeks! Even the sheriff has stopped searching!" She put on her hat and tied the string beneath her chin. "I'll be fine!"

       She found Cinnamon in the paddock and wasted no time saddling her. Amanda wore boots and a riding skirt which was split into full separate legs, so it was no trouble to swing astride the little mare. She turned her toward the lake and was soon trotting out of sight.

       The sun felt good on her back and a warm breeze played through the loose wisps of her hair. She pushed the hat back and let her hair blow freely. It was growing out nicely and she could almost remember the long tresses she had last year at this time.

       The trees opened up to the first view of the impossibly blue lake, and she urged the horse into a slow, rocking canter. The horse was strong and willing, and Amanda was sure she could beat Adam's tall gelding in a fair race. Or perhaps--one not so fair, she smirked.

       She crossed the ridge and slowed as she guided the horse off the trail and through a stand of cottonwoods. A green meadow opened up and stretched along the shore of the lake, and she could see the house just as Adam had described it on the hill, flanked by pines. She kicked the horse into a careless gallop and raced to see it closer.

       She pulled up in front of the long porch and jumped lightly down. Then leaving the horse to graze on the succulent grass, she hurried to inspect her new home. The windows were open to the fresh air and she peered in. A large fireplace dominated the front room and two comfortable-looking chairs faced the hearth. She ran to another window and saw a well-appointed kitchen and there at the basin--her own hand pump! She smiled like a child at Christmas and hurried around the house to look in all the windows. She found their bedroom and the already furnished nursery, but was surprised to find another small room at the back. Perhaps Adam was hoping for future additions to his family! She wanted to go inside and look at everything in detail, but it wouldn't be right not to wait until Adam was here.

       Humming happily she rounded the far side of the house back to the front porch. Down near the water she thought she saw something moving and she stared curiously in that direction. Perhaps a deer or coyote, she thought, but her horse continued to graze without alarm.

       A step... and her concentration was broken... a creak of new wood...she gasped and turned... the sound of breathing...the soft jangle of spurs...

       She held her breath. A man stood on the other end of the porch. He was silhouetted against the sun, but she knew immediately who it was.

       "Hello, sweetheart," the harsh voice raked against her mind.

       "Don't call me that!" she hissed and was surprised by the force of her own voice. "What do you want?"

       Dawson took a step forward and a shock of sunlight washed across part of his face. The effect sent terror screaming through Amanda's mind.

       "I've come to see my child of course," he stated in a quiet, unearthly tone.

       Amanda stiffened and stepped backward off the porch. "He's not yours!" she countered desperately.

       Dawson took another step. A rifle hung loosely from one hand.

       "I will have the Ponderosa after all," he mused with a smile. "Our son will inherit it for me." His smile was sickening and deadly, and she wanted to run but her legs didn't know how.

       "All you'll be getting is a bullet and a grave!" she retorted. Her eyes darted to the horse yards away. She knew she'd never make it.

       He doffed his hat, mocking her.

       "And who's going to shoot me?" he purred. "You, my dear?"

       Her blood went cold but her mind felt hot as fire. She had never killed anyone and didn't think she could. Even this monster was still a man, and her mother instinct revolted at the thought of murder.

       He was laughing and she wanted to cover her ears to block out that hated sound.

       "Tell you what," he offered grandly and laid his rifle across the wooden chair by the door. "Why don't you come get it, hmmm?"

       Her eyes darted to the gun and back to Dawson as he took a few steps back. She'd never beat him to it. And what would she do if she could?

       He started to laugh and she thought about running for the horse again.

       "Domestic life has made you soft, darling," he gloated. "I expected more fight from you."

       She glared at him and thought about Adam and Matthew. She had to get out of this--for their sakes. Fighting the rising panic in her heart, she stood very still as he approached her. He came with purpose and arrogance---always the winner. And his pale gray eyes were thick with hunger.

       Suddenly she sprang past him, taking him totally off guard. He growled and lunged for her, just barely missing a handhold. She tried to scream but couldn't and concentrated on running instead. He followed, but ever so slowly, knowing she had nowhere to go. And his laughter filled the still air.

       On the road beyond the ridge Adam jogged home on his favorite horse. Not to the Ponderosa, but to his own home. It would only take a little while to look things over, then he could be back at the ranch by dinnertime. The talk with Sheriff Coffee had been encouraging; perhaps Dawson had moved on. He didn't want to keep disappointing Amanda, and they couldn't put off their move forever.

       He turned off the trail and rode carefully down the hill in back of the house. He liked to approach from this direction sometimes, just to see the house unobscured by trees.

       When he was nearly to the back door he pulled his horse up sharply. He could hear voices coming from the front of the house. Slowly he dismounted and drew is gun.

       His boots never made a sound on the new grass as he approached the back door and eased it open. The angry voices drifted through the open windows and echoed in the shadows of the empty building. Adam stepped inside as quietly as he could and made his way to the front of the house. Then removing his hat, he eased up to a front window and peered outside.

       And his heart stopped beating. Amanda stood on the porch just to the side of the front door and faced a man a hundred feet away on the lawn. Steel gray eyes watched her every move and laughed in eagerness of the deadly game.

       Adam drew back from the window afraid he had been seen. But the sun was behind Dawson and cast a thankful glare on the window. Still, Adam had to squint into the light and his enemy was obscured by shadows. His heart was hammering in his chest as he squatted beneath the window and waited for a chance.

       Outside Amanda stood with her back against the rough wood of the wall. The gun still lay on the chair beside her and her eyes darted hesitantly toward it. He was taunting her, daring her to pick it up. It couldn't be that easy, could it? Why would he risk his life like this? Her heart was racing franticly and her hands were ice cold. He must have another weapon!...He had to have another weapon...

       "You know what you are?" he leered at her. "Just a plaything for a man's pleasure--nothing more."

       He chewed on his lip and dared to even glance away. "Maybe I should take my son and raise him proper." He laughed loudly. "Don't suppose you're going to stop me, hmmm?"

       Her hand on the back of the chair, inching downward...

       "NO!" she growled at him.

       "You won't even fight for your child!" he mocked her.

       She didn't move; dared not move. He was watching her closely, his hand hidden in the folds of his shirt. She fought to think...Her mouth was dry and bitter-tasting.... Was the rifle even loaded?...Oh God!......Her heart tore violently at the walls of her chest...Dawson's hidden hand was moving... not now...don't let me die...

       "...suppose the child will need a wet nurse," he was saying. "You'll come with us, of course."

       His hand paused and his eyes flashed a warning. But all her mind could see was her sweet child and Adam...and a dream ended too soon...

       At the window inside Adam fought the urge to rush out the door and kill Dawson with his bare hands. But that would probably get him and Amanda both killed. The man had another gun---he could feel it! Just one more more step out of the glare of the sun...Dawson's hand was    reaching for something inside his shirt... no time to time...Adam raised his gun...

       The hammer clicked back---a small sound, but snapping like thunder in the sudden stillness of expectation. Dawson turned his head slightly, searching the shadowed house, and the derringer in his right hand flashed into view.

       Adam aimed carefully.................Amanda's hand was on the more step............ ................steady!.........Steady!..........................................bullet in the chamber........a flash of steel............................................. come closer!......... find the mark!.........................................the trigger!........... Just one chance! chance........

       AND FIRE!!!

       No one moved. Were they breathing? Were they alive? The sun seemed impossibly bright and the sound of the waves slapping the shore was deafening. A strange gurgling noise arose very near...

       Dawson lifted one leg and inched a step forward, but he seemed to be moving in slow motion and his eyes stared blankly ahead. Amanda held the rifle steady and stared at him strangely, then realized that the gurgling noise was blood bubbling in his throat. She dropped the rifle and covered her mouth with both hands just as Dawson toppled forward, his head striking the steps with a sickening crunch.

       She gasped repeatedly and started to shake, and Adam rushed out the door to scoop her into his arms.

       "Ssshh," he said as he held her head close to his chest. "It's all over now."

       "Adam?" Both a question and a relief. She looked at the crumpled figure again and at the rifle at her feet, and her face paled with the reality of what she had done.

       "Adam...I..." But she couldn't find the words to explain. Then suddenly she noticed Adam's pistol still in his hand. She reached out and laid her hand on the muzzle, feeling the heat of spent fire. She glanced at the dead man again, then back at Adam, her eyes questioning.

       Whose bullet? Whose gun?

       He understood her silent question and drew her close again.

       "It doesn't matter," he whispered against her ear. "It doesn't matter."


Chapter 7  

      Convergent hearts rebound in freedom's grace

      And speak in smiles that lover's kiss unfurls

      Forever's mind draws life from soul's embrace

      And laughter lights the stars and turns the world

       Joe finished tying the rocking chair in the back of the wagon, then checked that Sport and Cinnamon were properly tied to the back. Hoss emerged from the house with a trunk of clothes and two suitcases stacked on top.

       "Is there room for this stuff, Joe?" he asked.

       Joe jumped up into the wagon and shifted some things around.

       "Don't worry--we'll make room," he said. "But I don't think there'll be any place left for Matthew; he'll just have to stay behind!"

       "Don't you let Adam hear you say that, Little Joe!" Amanda scolded playfully. "That's one very devoted father!"

       As if on cue, Adam emerged from the house with Matthew resting against his shoulder.

       "Is everything ready?" he asked.

       "Packed and ready to go!" Joe announced as he jumped down from the wagon. He smiled at the little baby almost covered by Adam's big hand.

       "I..uh..see you saved up your strength for the littlest package, hmmm?"

       Adam grinned and handed Matthew to Amanda.

       "Just the most important, little brother," he answered.

       Hoss dusted his hands on his vest and looked suddenly pensive.

       "Sure you don't need us to ride along and help you unload all this?" he asked hopefully.

       "Now Hoss!" Ben said. "Adam and Amanda are perfectly capable of setting up housekeeping on their own."

       "Sure they are," Hoss grinned. "I was just thinking they might need a babysitter while they was doing all that work."

       "That's right," Joe agreed. "I can babysit while Hoss unloads everything!"

       Ben crossed his arms and looked at his two youngest sons with a certain amount of exasperation.

       "You know, boys," he said with a grin. "Adam doesn't hold a patent on babies..." He gave them a meaningful look and they promptly changed the subject.

       When they had said their goodbyes, Adam helped Amanda into the wagon and climbed up beside her. Then with a wave to his father and brothers and a last look at his old home, he started up the road to a new life and a new beginning.



       It wasn't a long trip but it seemed to take forever for both of them. The reality of raising a family and building a ranch alone was both exciting and terrifying. The others were more than happy to help of course, but for the most part it was just them and a new dream.

       As they rounded the last curve, the house came into view and the lowing of six young cows greeted their arrival. Adam smiled. They were a wedding gift from his father--the beginning of his own herd. He couldn't wait to put his knowledge of selective breeding to use and develop a steer to rival even the Ponderosa's. Nothing like a little friendly competition, he thought to himself.

       They jumped down from the wagon and stepped up on the porch together. Matthew looked around with great interest at all the new sights, and Amanda shifted him to one hip so she could open the door.

       Suddenly her feet were no longer on the ground and she found herself held aloft in Adam's arms.

       "Adam!" she cried as he pushed the door open with one foot and carried her inside. He set her down gently and kissed her gallantly on the cheek.

       "Welcome home, Mrs. Cartwright!" he said, and enclosed his family on his strong arms


Adam unpacked the wagon while Amanda tended to Matthew and prepared a light dinner. She was delighted to find that the woodbin was full and he had even stocked the cupboards. She loved that man more with each passing minute!

      As she washed the dishes she watched out the window as Adam bedded the stock for the night. They didn't have a proper barn yet, just a corral for the horses and one for the cattle, but there were simple lean-to's that provided ample shelter for the animals. She watched Adam heave a fork-full of hay over the fence. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and his shirt was open all the way to his waist. He had just finished chopping a stack of wood and a sheen of sweat glistened on the exposed skin. She shivered a little although it wasn't cold, and wondered if he knew the pleasure she took in watching him.

      He ran a hand through his damp hair and leaned on the fence while he studied the animals with a practiced eye. Then satisfied that all was well, he turned back to the house. An old thrill crept up Amanda's spine as she waited for the door to open.

      He came inside quietly and smiled at her, easily, naturally. Then he crept to the blanket by the fireplace and settled down next to his son. The baby gave him a toothless grin and scooted close to explore his face. Adam laughed and kissed the little hands when they came near. Amanda smiled at her two favorite men playing happily on the floor, then went back to her dishes so she wouldn't disturb them.

      When she had finished tidying up she returned to the main room. Adam lay sleeping there on the blanket with Matthew tucked securely inside his unbuttoned shirt. She stood a long time memorizing the scene and her eyes welled up with happy tears. She loved them. More than she could ever explain. And she knew they loved her too. For better or worse. Always. Forever.

      Reluctantly she picked up Matthew and moved him to his crib. Then she returned to wake Adam. He looked so peaceful she hated to disturb him, but he would be sore and stiff tomorrow if he slept all night on the hard floor.

       She eased down beside him and watched as his eyes danced behind closed lids and his chest rose and fell with his rhythmic breathing. His face was quiet and content, and the corners of his mouth turned up in the way she loved. That same shiver rose up again to engulf her mind, and she knew that she wanted him. Fully. Completely. And there was no fear.

       Carefully she loosened his belt and pulled his shirttails free from his pants. Then leaning forward she kissed his handsome chest and ran her fingers through the curls. She loved his chest; loved the hard muscled feel of it and the opposing softness of the delicate curls. His broad shoulders beckoned her hands and lips, and she eased his shirt down to expose work-hardened arms that ended in long tapered fingers. Softly she traced kisses from end to end of each long arm. His taste was intoxicating.

       With a smile she watched his face as the sensations were adopted by his dreams. His mouth relaxed into a smile and a soft moan escaped his parted lips. She moaned in chorus and felt an old welcome fire.

       She scooted down and pulled off his boots and socks. Even his feet seemed desirable and she laughed at herself for thinking so. The longing was driving her mad, but she was having too much fun with her explorations to wake him.

       He stirred a little and stretched full length on his back, his arms thrown haphazardly above his head. She sighed deeply and one by one eased the buttons of his pants loose. Her touch stirred an inner longing and his body responded to the nearness of her hands. He moaned again to welcome the dream.

       Slowly her fingers eased along his pants and the outline of his manhood, remembering completely the look and feel and essence of him, and her heart groaned with the need for him. She slid back up to his begging mouth and wrapped her lips around his while her eyes waited for his reaction.

       His arms were around her before his eyes fully opened and he smiled into the kiss. She lay across him, eager and inviting--and he took full advantage of the invitation. His hands on her face sent an urgent fire aching through her veins, and his hungry lips found her mouth and owned it completely. He rolled them over and bent close to her face in the shadowed room. And he hesitated, his eyes questioning.

       He found the answer in her face and slowly he smiled. Then with unusually awkward fingers, he eased the buttons of her blouse open. Her breasts were visible through the thin material of her camisole, and he brushed his fingers lightly over the shadowed peaks. She gasped sharply and pulled his head down, her tongue darting hungrily into his mouth. He caressed it with his own, his noisy breathing fueling her inner fire. He pulled back briefly to rid her of her skirt and underclothes, then rained hot kisses on her exposed shoulders. She could feel his excitement hard against her leg and she longed for that fulfillment again. Her heart was reverberating against his bare skin and his hands on her breast threatened to send her mind screaming out of control.

       He kissed her mouth again, then laughed as he struggled to remove his pants without breaking away. She giggled too and encircled his hips to help ease them down. Then free at last, he paused to admire her eager glistening body, and to search her eyes once more for any sign of retreat. But he saw only love there, and desire. She reached a wanton hand out to stroke his firm anticipation, and her legs pulled him nearer and intertwined themselves with his own. He grinned and sighed then very slowly eased forward to join together in love.

       She cried out as their bodies melded in an ancient dance. He found the rhythm; joined her sighs. Time seemed to hang in the moment and love-remembered danced in the closeness of their embrace. She gripped tight to his shoulders and arched to meet his achingly slow movements. The depth of her love shone in her eyes; in a face gone wild with wanting; in the way her body moved with his caress. Her fingers found his hair and pulled his mouth down to smother her cries. His breath sucked at her mouth and sent a tremor through his rocking body. Nothing existed to their senses except each other--the sweet taste of kisses, the hotness of their skin, the desire in the other's eyes.

       Suddenly Adam's tempo took on a new urgency. The fire of need seared through his veins with a flush that warmed his cheeks and flooded his mind. He felt the room spinning and pushed deeper into her sweet embrace--welcoming the surrender of his body to hers. Her hips rose to meet his, mingled in the flame, riding the wave of some blessed torment. She cried with her own urgency and felt herself spiraling to some long forgotten place. He caught her hands, held her eyes, matched her moans that seemed to be the only sound in their universe.

       He felt his control ebbing and gave it to her willingly. Her body clutched around him, every muscle, every nerve seeking his essence. His body jerked within her and shuddered with its effort. Her softness enveloped and caressed his gift, holding tight with her own tremors. They cried together and surrendered to one another, their breath a raging torrent in their ears.

       Time was passing but they didn't notice. They lay joined still, mesmerized by the other's thundering heart. The world was glistening eyes and hot sweet skin and warm embrace. Adam rolled onto his back and pulled her on top of him, and his body hummed with the raw afterglow of passion. The simple rightness of this love tumbled through his mind in a dizzying freefall, and he held onto her as if to steady himself. She buried herself against his chest and sighed contentedly, and the moonlight shifted the darkness to shine in her eyes. This is where she belonged. Always.    Forever.

       And the past retreated into the shadows of the night.

       THE END

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 Valerie Blythe

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