IN THE DARK OF THE NIGHT

 



This is dedicated with gratitude and affection to my new friend, Vicki. She found me lost and alone, and took me by the hand and led me out of the wilderness.

In The Dark of the Night
By
Jenny Guttridge
A tale of Marriage, Infidelity, and Murder.

One

"...Cartwright, take this woman to be your lawful wife? To love, honour and cherish her for the rest of your natural life?"

Surrounded by his friends and neighbours, and with his family standing, smiling, at his back, Ben Cartwright turned to the woman at his side and gazed into her eyes. They were beautiful eyes of the deepest sea green, and they shone with love, and trust, and the promise of the future. As always they took his breath away. He felt he could drown in their sparkling depths. He took a deep breath, "I do."

"Then, I pronounce you man and wife together," The preacher closed his book with a snap, "You may kiss the bride."

For a long moment longer Ben gazed at her, freezing the moment in time, sealing at away for ever in memory. Then he took her in his arms, felt her melt against him, and kissed her gently, tenderly on the lips.

Sound erupted abruptly around them, shouts, and cheers, and whoops and hollers and a deafening round of applause that seemed to go on for ever. For a moment of eternity they stood isolated, locked together in a world that contained just the two of them. Then, as the kiss ended, they were swept apart into two separate, but interlocking, whirlwinds of congratulation. Benís back was pounded until he felt the blows would drive him to the ground. His hand was pumped furiously up and down, while a kaleidoscope of faces spun before him. He was aware only that the woman, his wife, Jenny, was carried away from him in the arms of the crowd, surrounded by her own circle of admirers.

In turn each of his sons steeped forward and shook his hand. Their pleasure was the equal of his. And each of them made a point of taking his brand new stepmother into his arms and kissing her soundly. Jenny laughed her hearty, gurgling, infectious laugh. She ruffled Little Joeís curls, specially shorn for the occasion, she squealed and laughingly scolded as Hoss swung her up and around in his big arms, she smiled tenderly as Adam offered his almost shy salute. She was a vision of loveliness in a blue and white brocaded gown, fine lace at her throat and at the edges of the elbow length sleeves. Her long, dark hair was loosely coiled into a shining knot behind her head. Her face, while not strictly beautiful in the traditional sense, was strikingly attractive, with high cheekbones and a narrow jaw. Ben found he couldnít keep his eyes off her. Oblivious to the good wishes heaped on him he kept seeking her out among the crowd.

Someone put something cold into his hand, "Ben, you look as though you could do with this."

Ben looked down - at a glass of ice cold punch, and then up - into the smiling face of the local doctor, a dear friend for many, many years.

"Thank you, Paul. I think perhaps youíre right."

"Best prescription I can offer," The doctor smiled and raised his own glass, "Itís so good to see you all so happy. A complete family again."

Ben smiled broadly and sipped his punch, "Itís good to be a family."

"Ben!" Roy Coffee the sheriff and another very good friend, arrived with a hearty slap to the back that threatened to drown Ben in the punch glass, "Congratulations! We never thought youíd really go and do it!"

Ben was amazed, "You didnít?"

"No, sir. Why, theyíve been taking odds in every saloon in town as tí which one oí your sons that lovely lady would marry, ever since she swept into town and set her cap at the Ponderosa ..."

Ben held up a hand, "Roy, I donít think..."

"But no-one thought itíd be you that swept her ofín her feet!"

"I wish Iíd known about those bets," Paul said with mock thoughtfulness, "I think I could have made a real killing there."

"Ah!" The sheriff dug him in the ribs with a sharp elbow, "but that would have been abusing a professional confidence."

Ben looked from one to the other of them, and abruptly the three men burst into howls of laughter.

The party spilled out of the big log ranch house into the yard where trestle tables groaned with the weight of the food prepared in a dozen local kitchens. The barn had been specially cleaned for the occasion, and strewn with fresh straw. At one end, the local fiddle band had set up all ready to play. As the Cartwrights entered they played a fanfare on their fiddles.

Ben and Jenny Cartwright took the floor first, surrounded and admired by their guests. They made a handsome couple, he in his silver waistcoat and silver grey suit, and she in her swirling, ground sweeping dress. He held her, gingerly at first, very much aware of all the eyes on them. Then they melted into each otherís arms, drowning in each otherís eyes, and for all they knew, or cared, the rest of the world might have ceased to exist. They circled the floor twice with the automatic steps of a slow waltz, and then each of the Cartwright sons, all handsome men in their own right, together with the lady of his choice, stepped out on the floor to join them. Soon the improvised dance floor was filled with colour and laughter as the guests joined in, and the party to end all parties got under way.

 

Little Joe pulled at the stiff collar of his shirt. Hours had passed, and it was now much later in the day. The barn was still cool, but airless with all the people crowded inside, and the music and the rising tide of high spirits were combining to create a wall of sound that was making his head ring. That, and the fact that his best suit was distinctly tight across his still broadening shoulders, conspired to drive him back towards the wide open doors. His retreat was considerably hampered by well wishers whom, it seemed, were determined to encompass all the Cartwrights in their unstinting congratulations. Outside he took a long draft of fresh air, and then let it out very slowly in a long heartfelt sigh.

"Whatís the matter, Joe?"

Joe turned at the familiar voice. His brother Adam, resplendent in new black broadcloth, was standing just outside the barn door, apparently done with socializing for the time being, and just watching the crowds that milled in the yard. He held a glass of the patent punch in his hand, and wore a pleasant enough expression on his face, but Joe, who knew him as well as any man could, could see that the smile didnít quite reach his eyes. Adam, as always, was under control.

"I thought youíd have been in there with everyone else having a good time."

"The same thing could be said for you, elder brother," Joeís hazel eyes sparkled with mischief, "I thought youíd be taking that little Moira Turney round the floor another time or two."

Adam eyed him cooly, " I think Iíve about had my fill of dancing for a while. And you?"

"Itís this suit," Joe said, with a half shrug that stretched the seams of his dark green jacket almost to ripping point, "Whenever I think Iíve done growing and get something tailored up, I seem to put on another two inches and nothing fits. And this collar has so much starch in it I think Iím gonna choke!"

Adam laughed, and it was a natural laugh, "You sound as if you could do with getting away from this hum-ding for a while. Why donít you come and give me a hand rigging up the buckboard for Pa and Jen?"

Joe looked doubtful, "Donít you think theyíd miss us?"

Adam smiled a slightly cynical smile,"What do you think?"

Joe looked round at the amazing mass of people. Everyone who was anyone in the entire territory seemed to be there in an overwhelming swirl of colour and movement. The piles of food were diminishing at an alarming rate, and the white clad Chinese servants, specially hired for the event, and all of them related in some way or another to the Cartwrightís cook, scurried hither and wither to replenish them. The drink was flowing freely, fruit cup for the children and the ladies of the church, beer and brandy for the hard drinking men, punch for everyone else. There was plenty of it. No one had been overlooked, and no expense had been spared. It was clear that this party would go on for a very long time without much attention from anyone.

Another blast of music and laughter from inside the barn made up Joeís mind for him.

"Letís go find that buckboard, brother"

Adam took a last sip of the punch and carefully set the still almost full crystal cup down on top of a post before leading the way round the back of the barn.

Hoss Cartwright gazed round the barn. A lot of the noise had died down, though the dancing as still going hard and strong. The younger people had taken over now and were setting up square dancing sets with lots of whoops, and hollering and foot stomping. As far as the middle Cartwright son could see, everything was going well. Everyone was having a wonderful time, and it pleased Hoss just fine to know that his Pa and his lovely new wife were having such a good send off. Every face was flushed and smiling with happiness.

Every face that is, except, perhaps, for two. And those two faces were, in fact, one and the same face, that of the Boxer twins, William and Teddy. They were about Hossís age with hair the colour of old straw, lean pitted cheeks and sun washed, almost colourless eyes. They were so alike it was said that even their own mother, when she was alive, couldnít tell them one from the other. They were watching the proceedings with hostile, almost angry expressions from up against the far wall of the barn. The sight of them brought a frown to Hossís own broad features. He was determined that nothing, absolutely nothing was going to spoil his fatherís great day. With an absent nod to the folk on his left, and then on his right, Hoss made his way through the press of people towards the pair.

The Boxer boys watched his approach with identical expressions of hostility, and Hoss found himself wondering inhospitably why they had been invited to the wedding in the first place. Of course they were neighbours, they, and their little brother, and their Pa, but Hoss, even with his big charitable heart, regarded them as little more than squatters on a patch of desert land so poor it didnít rightly warrant being called a farmstead. In fact, Hoss reflected, their land was so poor that it was hard to figure out just how the four of them made a living, especially as it seemed that none of them actually did any work, on the land, or off it.

Hoss pasted a pleasant, if puzzled expression on his round face as he came up to the twins, "It donít look like you two fellers are haviní much of a good time," he said, "Why donít you go get yourselves some of that punch we got mixed up,"

The two identical faces appraised him, "We donít want none of your punch, Cartwright," one of them said. It might have been Teddy, "Aní weíre haviní just a swell time as it is."

Bemused by the obvious enmity, Hoss felt the frown settle back on his face. The last thing he wanted was any sort of trouble, today, of all day, "Well you sure donít look like you are. Whereís your folks, anyhow? Your brother aní your Pa?"

"They diínít come," the other twin, possibly William, said in a voice identical to that of his brother, "Our Pa, he diínít feel right well, Ďn our brother ..." his thin lip lifted in a sneer, "Andy was sort Ďa busy today."

"Yeah," The other brotherís lip lifted in a matching expression of contempt. Hoss decided he didnít like these boys once over, let alone twice. "Our brother got somethiní better to do than prance around in your barn aní drink punch."

Hoss leaned back on his heels, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, but not knowing what it was, or what he could do about it. He was still unwilling to let anything throw a shadow over the day, "You two boys put a grin on your faces aní try at least to look like youíre haviní fun," he said finally.

The Boxer twins smiled thin, mirthless smiles. They understood perfectly, "Sure thing, Cartwright," one of them said, "Sure thing."

Adam backed the last of the two horses up to the buckboard, and Joe set about fastening the traces. As his brother had suggested, it was good to take a break from the festivities for a while, just to get a breath of air and clear his head. Adam, carefully keeping his dark suit clean, leaned on the horse and watched Joe fasten the last of the buckles.

Joe straightened and looked at him. Finally he got to saying what had been on his mind for sometime, "How do you really feel about Pa getting married again, Adam. I know weíve all talked through it, and through it, but I get the feeling that youíve never really spoken your mind. For a while Hoss and I, well, we thought it might be you and Jen..."

Adamís lips quirked, but the attempted smile never got anywhere near his eyes. He had no intention of letting his little brother know that, for a brief time, he had harboured thoughts along the same lines himself, "I think Jenny is a very lovely lady, and that sheíll make Pa a wonderful wife," he said carefully.

"You say that, but you never sound as if you really mean it."

Adam sighed, "Then what do I have to say to convince you, Joe? Pa deserves happiness, and I think that heís found it. I hope that he has. Iíve seen the way he looks at her, just as you have. I donít think I could bear to see him torn apart again." The last, he said as if it came from his very soul.

Joe gazed at him. He knew that Adam was remembering their fatherís previous wives, Adamís own mother, lost in childbirth, Hossís mother, killed by Indians, and Joeís own mother, dead in a riding accident. Joe had never known the first two women, and he sometimes found hard to remember his own mother, "I donít think I could bear that either," he said quietly.

Adam put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a large handful of ribbons, white and blue, the exact match of his stepmotherís wedding dress. He smiled at Joeís stunned expression, and this time, the light did reach the depths of his dark eyes, "Then why donít you help me put these on the bridle and pretty this thing up a bit?"

Joe looked from his face to the ribbons, and back, and slowly, a smile lit his own face as he realised the significance of the gesture his brother had made. It seemed that at last they were really going to be a whole family again.

Ben closed the bedroom door and stood for a moment, just holding the cool smoothness of the handle in his hand, looking at the rich polished grain of the dark wood. The noise of the party going on outside could still be heard, under-lain by the sound of high speed fiddling from the barn, but here, in this room, all was quiet and still; familiar but somehow strange at one and the same time. This had been his room for so many years. He had built it with his own hands, at first sharing it with Joeís mother, but then, and for so long, occupying it alone.

Now there was another woman here.

He turned slowly, almost reluctantly, and there she was, her hands clasped before her, standing between him and the four poster, the light from the window laying lightly on her pale shoulders. A vision in blue and white, watching him with compassion, and with love, in her beautiful eyes. He smiled wryly and took a step towards her, spreading his hands, "I was just thinking..."

"I know what you were thinking, Ben," she said gently, "I know what you were remembering. She wouldnít mind. None of them would mind. They would all wish you happiness. Wish us happiness."

Ben took another step and put his arms round her, "youíre right of course. They were all wonderful women. Iíve been four times blessed. No man deserves so much happiness in one lifetime."

"You deserve it, Ben," she said softly, "No-one could deserve it more."

She rested her hands, slender and white, fragile looking, on his upper arms, lightly pressing the bulge of his muscles through the brocaded cloth. He ran his hands over her shoulder blades and down her back to her waist, feeling the warmth of her body through the cloth of her dress, and through the stiffened thickness of the heavily boned corset that constricted her. Her waist was so small he could span it with his hands. In all his years it had never ceased to amaze him how woman folk could bear to wear such contraptions. And then he felt the touch of her breath on his face and smelled the sweetness of the perfume in her hair He became very much aware of the closeness of her body. He forgot about the mystery of the corset. He drew her tightly too him and closed his mouth gently over hers in a long, and lingering, kiss.

It was she that drew away first. She moved her hands to his chest and pushed him away gently. She opened her glowing green eyes and gazed at him, slightly breathless. "If weíre leaving today, my love, then itís time we changed and went down."

Ben barked his hearty laugh, "Youíre absolutely right. Once weíre out of the way all those good people can really start to enjoy themselves!"

"And so.." she said coyly, pulling at the strings of his tie, "Can we.."

Adam pulled the team to a halt outside the front door and jumped down. He looked at his brother expectantly, "Are they down yet?"

"No," Hoss shook his head, "I guess theyíll be a little time yet."

"Well, whatís keeping them?" Joe asked, joining the little family group from the other side of the buckboard.

His brothers eyed him silently, and he felt the hot colour climbing into his cheeks. He looked from Adam to Hoss, "But they wouldnít be ... I mean they wouldnít... Would they..?"

Adam sighed and put a hand on his little brotherís shoulder, "Joe, you should know by now, when you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging."

Joe, scarlet by now, gaped at him "But Adam.."

"Hush up, Little Joe," Hoss hissed, "Here they come."

Ben emerged from the front door of the ranch house to the cheers and applause of the assembled crowd. He was a handsome man still, tall, and broad and vigorous looking in a dark broadcloth suit. His silver hair shone in the afternoon sunlight, and his obvious happiness had stripped years of care from his face. His friends and his neighbours, and in particular, his sons, were delighted to see the joy on his face. It glowed in the almost black depths of his eyes. The woman on his arm, his brand new wife, in a deep red travelling suit and bonnet, radiated that same joy as she smiled round at all the faces. Ben covered her hand with his, and together, they made a stately progress from the front door to the waiting buckboard. They exchanged a word here, and a smile there, thanking their special friends and all the people who had helped make it such a special day. Finally Ben turned to his sons, waiting more or less in line at the buckboardís side.

"Well, boys, I guess this is it ..."

"It sure is, Pa," Hoss grinned.

"Time you folks got going," Joe agreed, hoping almost against hope that his father wouldnít notice his recent discomfiture.

Ben noticed. He looked with interest at Joeís ears, which were still distinctly red, but decided to say nothing. He turned to Adam, "Iíll write from San Francisco ..."

"Donít you bother yourself, Pa. Thereís nothing here that we canít handle."

Ben drew a breath to re-institute an old discussion, then thought better of it, and smiled. He knew very well that Adam could run the ranch in his absence, and that there was absolutely no need for him to worry about anything. Not even Little Joe, "I guess youíre right, son." He solemnly shook hands with each of them in turn, and then he turned to his wife, "Are you ready, my dear?"

Jenny kissed the last of her girlfriends on the cheek, and with a smile that included all three of the boys, offered Ben her hand, "Iím ready," she said.

Ben handed her into the buckboard and got up beside her. He set his hat on his head and gathered up the reins.

"Good Bye, Pa," Adam said, stepping back.

"Have a real good time, Pa!" Joe called.

"Aní weíll see you ín about a month!" Hoss added.

Ben lifted a hand in final farewell and slapped the reins against the horseís rumps. With a rattle of hooves and the flutter of blue and white ribbons from the horseís bridles, the buckboard started away to the cheers of the crowd, and was soon lost to sight.

Ben Cartwrightís three sons stood close together in the centre of the yard, alone in the middle of the crowd, and watched the dust settle in the road. Long after the buckboard had vanished, each of them remained isolated with his own thoughts of the future.

For Joe, with his naturally sunny outlook, it was a pleasure to look forward to a genuine feminine touch in what, for about as long as he could remember, had been a purely masculine household. It would be good to have her there in the house when he brought his lady friends home to call and good to have the house filled with laughter and pretty dresses. His stepmotherís age was such that he could regard her as a big sister. She would be fun to have around.

Hoss had quietly searched his soul long and deep. A reticent, gentle man, his fatherís new wife had won him over with patience and kindness. She had a joyous spirit that had reached out to the big man. Her love of all the Lordís creatures, while not exactly rivalling Hossís own, provided him with a ready ally in his occasional battles with his father and brothers. And her cooking almost equalled that of the legendary Hop Sing, a factor impossible to ignore. Hoss with his placid and optimistic nature, viewed the years to come with contentment.

Adamís view of the future was darker, overshadowed by his memories of the past. He had forebodings born of those memories. The eldest of the three, he had trekked in with father from the east in the earliest days of the frontier. His own mother had died at his birth, but he remembered Hossís mother, and Joeís, and he remembered only too well how their deaths had all but destroyed the strong man that was his father. In recent months, he had seen twenty years fall from Ben Cartwrightís shoulders, and he hoped with every ounce of his soul that this time, everything was going to work out all right; that no more tragedy awaited them just round the corner. He sighed and put an arm across each of his brothersí shoulders, "Well, boys, I guess we better go take care of all these folks."

His voice broke the spell.

"The first thing Iím gonna do, is go inside and get myself somethiní to eat!" Hoss declared, with sincerity.

"But thereís food all over the place!" Joe gestured round at the tables that surrounded them, "Just grab a plate and help yourself!"

Hoss screwed up his face, "I donít want none oí those fancy little bite sized do-dads," he scoffed, "I want me some real man sized food."

Joe and Adam laughed as he headed for the house.

Inside, it was cooler and quieter. Much quieter. For once, no fire burned in the great stone fireplace. Instead, the hearth was filled to overflowing with flowers, and the whole room was perfumed with their sweet fragrance. There were more flowers on the table and a little bit of prettiness here and there. It sure was going to be a whole lot different, Hoss thought, as he headed for the kitchen, with a woman around.

He had almost made it when he felt, as much as heard, a sound from somewhere in the big room behind him. He turned, and a frown darkened his face. For a moment he didnít see anything amiss. Then he spotted one of the Boxer boys, Hoss didnít know which one, and right then, he didnít much care, standing over in the office corner where Benís desk stood. He was doing his darndest to blend into the background, and failing.

Hoss took a step forward, his mind wrapping itself round the problem, and coming up with a solution he didnít much like. He raised his voice in a bellow, "Adam! Little Joe! Get in here quick!"

Hoss advanced across the room, his frown developing into a glower of rage, "What díyou think youíre doiní, messiní with our País things?"

Adam and Joe, not having moved far from the front of the house and hearing the bark in their brotherís voice, came running.

Adam looked from Hoss to the Boxer twin, "Whatís going on, Hoss?"

"I donít rightly know, Adam," Hoss was angry and uncomfortable, "I found this feller messiní wií País desk. He was in here all on his own when everyone else was outside."

"Was he now?" Adam stepped forward, "Then letís see what he has, shall we."

The Boxer twin backed away from Adam until he came up against the bookcase and couldnít back any further. His voice rose in a whine, "You stay away from me, Cartwright!"

"Iíll stay away from you, just as soon as I find out what youíve stolen." Adam was very close to him now. He could smell his fear.

"I wasnít doiní nuthiní!" Boxer put up his hands to fend him off.

Adam glimpsed the glitter of a blade. Boxer stabbed at him, aiming for his eyes. Adam threw his head back and raised a hand to protect himself. The keen edge of the blade sliced across the base of his thumb. Adam grabbed the knife hand by the wrist and twisted expertly, turning Boxer round. With perhaps more force than he intended to use, he wrenched at the elbow and shoulder, and made the smaller man yelp as he all but lifted him off the feet. With his other hand he made a rapid search of Boxerís pockets and came up with a number of trinkets that rightly belonged in the drawers of his fatherís desk. There was an enamelled snuff box that had been his grandfatherís, a huge silver Spanish coin that Ben kept as a lucky piece and a small leather bag that Adam knew contained gold coins.

Disgusted, he threw the things down on the desktop and pushed Boxer away from him, "Do you still say you werenít doing anything?"

Boxer glared at him and rubbed his sore shoulder. He said nothing but his face spoke volumes of hatred.

Worried, Joe looked from the stolen treasures to his brotherís angry face, " Iíll go and find the sheriff, Adam."

Adam drew a deep breath and released it carefully. Much as he disliked the whole of the Boxer clan, he was reluctant to spoil his fatherís wedding day with a lot of fuss over what was, after all was said and done, an act of opportunist petty pilfering, "No, Joe. Let it go this time."

Joe protested, "You canít do that, Adam. We caught him red handed!"

"Yes, we did," Reminded, Adam lifted his right hand and inspected the cut across the heel of his hand. It was deep and bleeding steadily, "But I donít want to stir up any trouble today."

"But Adam... Hoss..." Enraged by the sight of his eldest brotherís blood, Joe turned to his other brother in appeal, "We have to turn him in!"

Hoss screwed up his face in an agony of indecision, "Well, I donít know, Little Joe, there ainít no real harm done, except to Adam. Heís the one thatís cut. Itís up to him to decide."

Adam glared at Boxer, his face still dark with anger and his hooded eyes glittering, "You get off our land. You and your brother. And donít you ever come back."

Boxer looked from face to face to face and found the same enmity in all of them, "All right - all right!" still rubbing his sore shoulder he edged carefully round the three furious men and started to back away towards the door, "Iím going. But you havenít seen the last of me!" This last was delivered over his shoulder as a challenge as he turned and bolted for freedom.

"Why you..!" Joe set out after him, but Adam caught his arm with his good hand.

"Let him go, Little Joe," He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, inspected it briefly for cleanliness and started to wrap it round his hand, "We donít have time right now to worry about the Boxers. We have a whole passel of people that are supposed to be enjoying themselves. I think weíd better go see to it that they are."

The last of the wagons pulled out of the yard to the waves, and the called goodnights, of the Parson family. Ma and Pa Parson were sitting up front behind their chestnut pair, and the four smaller Parsons were curled up together in the back. The three Cartwright sons stood in the light of the multicoloured lanterns strung across the yard and watched them go. As the rumble of the wheels died away a blessed silence descended on the big house. Each of the three let out a pent-up sigh of relief. The last hours of the party had turned into an ordeal of seemingly endless proportions, and they were all heartily glad that it was, at last, over.

Hoss gazed round at the disarray that filled the yard. There were empty plates and glasses everywhere. One of the trestle tables had partly collapsed under a game of tag, and there was a litter of napkins and spent streamers. Never before had the Ponderosa had looked less like a working ranch and more like a Louisiana Dance hall. Hoss heaved a mighty sigh.

"I guess weíd better get to work clearing this mess up," he said gloomily.

Joe cast a glance at Adam, "Canít we leave it Ďtill tomorrow?" He asked without much hope.

To his surprise, for once Adam agreed with him, "I donít suppose itís going anywhere," He said with a hint of amusement, "Tomorrow will do."

Hoss beamed, "Well, Iím for my bed then. Danged if it ainít almost midnight already," He turned towards the house, "You cominí Adam?"

"In a minute," Adam took a deep breath of night air, "Iím a little too wound up to sleep right now. Iíll just take a turn around the corrals before I turn in."

Their arms about each otherís shoulders, Joe and Hoss headed for the house. Adam went the other way, taking his time and letting the peace of the land calm his soul. It had been a day that none of them would soon forget, and he needed time to relax and unwind. Besides, other than feeding and watering, the animals had not had the attention they should, and he felt it his responsibility to check up on them before turning in.

The moon had set, and despite the abundance of stars, it was a very dark night. Adam needed no light to find his way round the back of the barns and on to the holding pens beyond. He knew the layout of the outbuildings and the corrals as well as he knew the pattern of the hairs on the back of his hand. He had, after all, designed them himself. That thought brought a renewed memory, and he brought up his bandaged hand, flexing it. His thumb was stiff, and sore, and he wondered if he should have asked the doctor to put a stitch or two in it before he left.

The half dozen little heifers they had bought just last week to bring about a long-term improvement in the bloodline of the Ponderosa cattle were huddled up against the rail of their corral. They still looked a little lost, and Adam remembered that they were very young. Probably they were still missing their mamas. Although they were just cattle, he felt a little sorry for them, and paused to stroke a their soft noses and to say a few kind words to them.

As he left them he became aware of a stir among the horses in the next corral. He hesitated. From the way they were milling around all of a sudden, something was in amongst them, and Adam, for once, was unarmed. He thought about going back to the house for a gun. Then one of the horses - he recognised it as his own favourite mount - gave a sharp whicker of alarm.

Adam squinted through the gloom. Something was among the horses all right. Or rather, someone!

"Hey!" With a yell, Adam ran forward, vaulting the corral rail in one stride.

The horses stirred round again, clearly agitated. Adam caught a glimpse of a human figure in the midst of them. He started to cut through them slantwise. One of the horses reared. Under its belly Adam caught sight of the figure again, turning towards him with the light from the house behind. Adam slapped the rump of a horse out of his way, and then something hit him very hard on the back of his head.

He must have blacked out for a moment. The next thing he knew, he was face down in the dirt of the corral with a mouthful of grit and blood. The horses milled round him. Their hooves churned up the dust and their shrill cries of alarm filled the air. Adam knew he had to get to his feet or be trampled. He gathered his wits for the effort, but before he could make it, someone grabbed his shirt by the back of the neck and hauled him partially erect. Someone - another someone - by now Adam was neither seeing, nor thinking, too clearly, buried a hard driven fist in the depths of his belly, and followed it up with a sharp upper cut to the jaw that jarred Adamís head back, and crashed his teeth together. Pain blasted its way through Adamís body and then through his face. He reeled and would have fallen but for the rough hands that held him more or less upright. Held from behind he was unable to fight back. He couldnít do anything other than try to roll with the punches as they came. Several more times the fist smashed into his face. His lips split against his teeth. A cut opened up along his cheekbone. His nose bled onto the pristine white of his shirtfront. Then another hard punch caught him a long way below the belt, and he doubled up as agony flared upwards through his body. A double handed blow landed on the back of his neck, and the black pit of unconsciousness yawned in front of him.

"Adam! Adam!" Hossís voice came it seemed, from a very long way away. Adam clawed his way upwards through the darkness and found himself curled on his side in the corral The horses were still stamping all around him. His vision was distorted. Everything was twisted and out of focus and sounds were pre-naturally loud. Despite his pain, his instinct was still to get to his feet. Somehow he struggled up onto his hands and knees, still clutching himself where it hurt most. Then there were hands helping him, "Hey, Adam! Adam."

Hossís strong arms were round him, holding him tight against the barrel of his chest. Adam lifted a weak hand as if to fend him off and then shook his head, confused. He struggled to focus his eyes and found Joe on his knees beside him, his face a study of anxiety. He forced words through broken lips, "Iím all right."

"The hell you are!" Joe exclaimed, angry and confused, "What the devil happened?! Did you fall? Were you trampled?"

"No," Adam tried to shake his head again, and then thought better of it, "There was someone in with the horses. Hoss, check the horses!"

With a grunt of alarm, Hoss passed Adam over to Joe, and went to where the horses, calmer now, were bunched against the far rail.

A whole gamut of emotions ran across Joeís face, rage; concern; fear and determination. He dabbed ineffectually at Adamís mouth with his handkerchief, "Who was it, Adam? Did you see?"

Adam frowned. He had the memory of a manís shape, outlined against the house lights, but no more, not enough to identify anyone, "I donít know. I didnít see who it was," He made an effort to get up, and with Joeís help, made it to his feet on the second attempt.

Hoss came up, his face as black as thunder, "Whoever it was, Adam, itís a darned good job you interrupted what they were doing. They were trying to hamstring the horses," Joe and Adam gaped at him with naked fear in their eyes, "Itís OK, itís OK," Hoss reassured them gruffly, "Thereís no real harm done. Just a few cuts. They must have run off after they - after they done what they done. But heaven help them if I ever get my hands on them," He took a firm grip of Adamís arm and started him towards the house, "Címon. Letís go get you cleaned up and then weíre calliní the sheriff."

Two

Hoss hefted the last of the grain sacks off his shoulder and into the back of the wagon before pausing for breath. He pulled out a large yellow bandanna and wiped the sweat from his face. It surely was a hot day. Without doubt, by the time the sun had climbed to its highest point, it would be the hottest day of the year so far. Already the main street of Virginia City was all but deserted. Apart from the Cartwrightís wagon and team, only a few horses stood at the rails, flicking their tails to ward off the flies. Even the die-hards that customarily lined the board walk outside the Silver Dollar had abandoned their posts for the cooler interior.

Roy Coffee sauntered across the street, "Howdy, Hoss. Howís you brother feeliní now?"

Hoss stuffed the bandanna back into his pocket, "Heís pickiní up just fine, Roy. You know what a darned hard head heís got. Heís in the mercantile now, payiní what we owe."

As if on cue, Adam came out of the store. Even now, a week on, his face still showed signs of the beating he had taken, and he walked as if he were still sore. He cast his eye over the neatly loaded wagon, then joined the sheriff and his brother, "ĎMorning, Roy."

"Adam," The sheriff nodded to him, scrutinizing his face. The cuts had closed but the bruises and swellings were still clearly in evidence. Roy was heartily glad that Ben wasnít around to see them. "You had any more thoughts on who might have done that to you?"

Adam flexed his still bandaged hand, "Iíve had some thoughts, Roy, but nothing Iíd care to turn into accusations."

Hoss scowled, clenching his big fists, "Iíd sure like to get a hold of those fellas. Weíve still got some pretty sick horses over at the ranch."

Adam and Roy exchanged glances and shook their heads. It was just like Hoss to stay mad longer over the horses than he did his brother.

"You heard from your Pa?" Roy asked, following the earlier thought.

"I just picked up a letter from him," Adam pulled a slightly rumpled envelope out of a pocket.

"He says theyíre having a real good time, but San Francisco isnít the place to be in high summer."

Roy considered a long moment, "Well, I guess Iíd better talk to you two boys. Come on over to the saloon, and Iíll buy you both a beer."

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, agreeing silently that that was an offer they couldnít refuse. Roy clapped them both on the shoulder, raising a cloud of dust, and led the way.

Joe pulled his horse to a halt in the shade of the trees, took off his hat, and wiped his sleeve across his sweating forehead. That morning, when he had drawn the short straw that meant he checked the lower pastures while his brothers drove into town for supplies, he had been nothing short of delighted. Now, some six hours of riding later, he was wondering if his luck was quite what heíd thought it. He took a mouthful of the brackish water from his canteen and pulled a sour face. No doubt about it, Adam and Hoss would be in a saloon by now, with a cool beer inside them and another one on the table in front.

He hung the canteen back on the saddle horn and spent a minute fanning himself with his hat. Then a slow smile spread across his handsome face. Upon consideration, he decided that he had got by far the best of the bargain after all. The view he had right now, of lush pasture land turning brown and gold in the summer heat; of rolling hills and clumps of shade trees, of a blued brass bowl of a sky upturned overhead and the dazzling bright orb of the sun, by far outweighed the inside of any saloon. The fact that his drink was warm while his brotherís would be cold, in no way compensated the difference. He smiled, and sat his horse, and let his eyes rest lightly on the landscape. He was secure in the knowledge that all he could see, as far as he could see, and for a long way beyond, all the way to the foothills of the Sierras, was his familyís land, by deed and in fact.

Afar off in the distance, something moved in the shimmering heat haze. Three steers were walking one behind the other across the grassland. Joe squinted up his eyes. There was something odd about the way they were moving, a purposefulness that was strange in the middle of the day, when, generally, the cattle would be holed up in a draw somewhere where it was cooler. Cattle, Joe thought, usually had a darn sight more sense than people. But these three mavericks certainly seemed to have something on their minds.

Then Joe stiffened, sitting up in the saddle. Out from behind the hill, following at a walk in the wake of the cattle, was a horseman. Joe couldnít see who the rider was, nor could he make out the horse other than that it was a dark one. A gut feeling told him he didnít know either man or horse. Certainly none of the Ponderosa hands were working the cattle down this way today.

Someone was sure as heck herding those steers towards the nearest fence line.

Joe gathered his reins and, keeping carefully in the shadow of the trees, nudged his horse forward.

The fence had been cut. Joe held the shiny end of the wire in his hand and studied the tracks in the dirt. The three steers, and the lone rider, had passed through the gap not an hour ahead of him. The trail led out onto the dry scrub land that lay out to the west of Virginia City. Joe had no doubt that he could have caught up with them easily had he had his pinto, but the mare was back at the barn still feeling sore in her legs. The black gelding he had with him was walking tender on a forefoot. He had no choice but to make a temporary repair to the fence and head for home before he found himself afoot.

Joe put his foot in the stirrup and was about to swing up, when something caught his eye. Stepping down again, he hunkered down and studied a patch of ground close to the fence post, where the grass was thinner. There in the dirt was a strange mark, as if the horse ridden by here just a short time before had a splayed out hind hoof.

Roy Coffee took a long sup of cold beer, "Thereís somethiní I think you boys aught tí know."

Hoss wiped foam off his upper lip. The beer sure was good, "Whatís that, Roy?"

Roy pulled a face, "Thereíve been a fair few killinís to the north oí here. Bush-whackings."

"Anyone we know?" Adam asked.

"I donít think so. Men from the silver workings mostly. Shot from ambush, robbed aní left tí die. ĎSeems to be a gang operatiní and lately theyíve been working their way further south. Just thought you boys aught tí know. You got a lot of country out there, just about right for those no goods tí hole up in."

"Thanks for telling us Roy. Weíll tell all the hands to keep their eyes open," Adam finished his beer and set the glass down. The cold drink had been good on his still sore mouth, but now it had started the pain off again. He rubbed his jaw with his hand, "I guess weíd better make a move and get those supplies back to the ranch, Hoss. Thanks for the beer, Roy."

"Any time," The sheriff said.

Hoss contemplated appealing for another beer, but his brother was already on his feet and didnít look likely to acquiesce, besides, this was already his second. Hoss finished his drink and got up, gathering his tall hat. The three of them made for the door.

Outside in the street, the heat of the day had just about reached its peak. The air itself was warm to breathe, and the reflected sunlight coming up off main street was dazzling. Sweat broke instantly from their skins, and they all put their hats on against the glare.

There were several more horses now, hitched to the rails. A bay and a roan outside the store, two more dark bays and a rangy chestnut at the bank.

The two Cartwright men said goodbye to the sheriff and started across to their wagon. Hoss was starting to wonder just what might be for supper that night, while Adam was thinking about the six little heifers and how well they were settling in to the small home pasture behind the house.

All of a sudden there was a ruckus over by the bank. The door flew open and slammed back against the wall. Three men tumbled out of the doorway. Their hats were pulled well down over their eyes, and their faces were covered up by their neckerchiefs. One of them fired off his gun, aiming back into the bank. The retort was loud in the street. Roy Coffee shouted and came pounding back up the boardwalk. The three men rushed for the horses tied at the rail. Austin Damier, manager of the bank, came to the door, grasping at the frame for support. His hairpiece was awry, and there was bright blood on the front of his dress coat.

"Stop them!" he raised an unsteady hand. There was blood on his fingers as well, "Theyíve robbed the bank! Stop them!"

The robbers wheeled their horses, two of them setting off at a pounding gallop down the centre of the street. The third, the man on the chestnut gelding, swung his mount round again in a tight circle. He aimed his gun at the bank manager.

A second shot rang out, and the robber toppled slowly, backwards, from his saddle.

The whole thing, from beginning to end, was over in just a few seconds.

Adam, ready to fire again, realized it wasnít necessary and eased back the hammer of his Colt. Lightening fast with a gun, and nearest, he hadnít been about to stand by and watch Damier, whom heíd know for years, shot down in cold blood.

Roy Coffee was the first to reach the fallen man. Adam and Hoss came close second. The sheriff turned him over. Adamís bullet had taken him full in the chest. He was quite dead.

Roy sat back on his heels, "Nice shootiní, Adam. Letís see who this fella is," He pulled the mask down off the robberís face, and they all looked at him silence for several seconds.

Adam felt a cold knot of nausea forming in his gut. He holstered his gun slowly and took off his hat, turning it slowly by the rim. He knew the man heíd just killed. Knew him very well indeed.

Hoss looked at his brother and knew from his face just what was going through his mind, "Hey, Adam! You had to do it. You couldnít just stand by and let him kill Mister Damier."

Roy straightened up, "Hoss is right, Adam. It would ía been murder. You did what you had to do."

Adam drew a careful breath, "But thatís Andy Boxer, Roy. He was just sixteen years old!"

Roy picked up the stuffed gunnysack that had fallen alongside the body and pulled it open. It was crammed full of banknotes, "He was old enough tí rob a bank. Old enough tí shoot a man." He nodded to where Damier was being led away to the doctor.

Adam lifted his face to look at him, for the first time looking away from the man he had just killed. Self-disgust was clearly evident in his dark eyes, "He was just a kid," he said tightly, and walked away.

Three

The stage was only a few minutes late arriving in Virginia City, and all of Ben Cartwrightís sons were there to meet it. The team of four sweating horses came to a halt outside the stage line office. Ben opened the door and stepped down. He looked well, relaxed and happy in a smart new suit. He turned and offered his hand to his wife as she alighted. Jenny smiled at the boys, her pleasure at seeing them again obvious on her face. She wore a bright blue costume with a very tight nipped in waist and a long straight skirt that flared at the bottom. It was the very latest fashion on the west coast. Her dark hair was teased into a cascade of loose curls that tumbled from beneath a jaunty matching hat.

Ben turned to his sons.

"Adam. Joe. Hoss," Smiling, he shook hands with each of them in turn.

"Pa. You sure look as if you had a good time," Adam said, including his fatherís wife with a pleasant look.

"We sure did!" Ben put his arm loosely round Jennyís tiny waist, "And now weíre back, and Iím ready to start work!"

His sons met this announcement with an uneasy silence.

Ben looked from one to another of them, "You do have something for me to do?"

The boys exchanged doubtful glances. Joe and Hoss looked away, by their silence electing Adam as their spokesman. Adam looked uncomfortable, "Well, Pa, weíve got it fairly well nailed down at the moment," he said slowly, "But I guess... We could find something for you to do."

Taken aback by the response, Ben stared at him with his mouth open.

Jennyís pealing laugh filled the air, "Oh, Ben! Canít you see theyíre teasing you?!"

Ben saw the glimmer of amusement breaking through in his sonsí faces and finally caught on, "Well, I certainly hope they are!" He joined in the laughter.

Stepping back, he made room for his sons to greet their stepmother, each with a hug and a welcoming kiss on the cheek.

When the hellos were over, Ben looked round at the huge pile of boxes that had come down off the stage, "I hope you boys brought the wagon with you. We seem to have accumulated rather a lot of luggage."

"We brung it, Pa," Hoss started tucking boxes under his huge arms, "Itís over by the International House. Why donít you, and Jen, go get yourselves a coffee while we take care of all this stuff?"

Ben smiled at his wife as willing hands started to demolish the pile of baggage, "I think we might just do that," He offered Jenny his arm, "Mrs. Cartwright?"

"Mister Cartwright." She placed her hand on his forearm and together they set off towards the townís premier hotel.

It was the best part of an hour later, and the sun was angling towards the west when, with the wagon loaded to capacity, Ben and his wife started out on the last leg of their journey home. Their sons, on horseback, formed a mounted escort round them, and heads turned as impressive little procession drove out of town.

Ben was surprised at just how much Virginia City had grown. In the few short weeks he had been away new buildings, new streets and whole city blocks had appeared where before there had been scrub land and thorn brush. Building work was still progressing apace, with timber frames being thrown up in a day and ready for habitation inside a week. Adam had told him that the town was growing just as fast to the north. With the discovery of rich silver deposits in the northern hills, the town was booming and would soon become a city in more than name.

If he were honest with himself, Ben would have confessed to having a belly full of the cosmopolitan life. San Francisco had been a frantic, noisy, blight on the face of the earth. Heíd enjoyed the theatres, and the restaurants, and the grand hotels, and heíd marvelled at the new gas lighting that lined the streets and turned night into day, but the place had never slept! Even in the more select districts on the hills above the harbour, the traffic noise had gone on all night, every night. Jenny had relished the big city atmosphere, and Ben had enjoyed escorting her, although, he thought wearily, having sat for hours in every dress shop in town, he must have the patterns of their little gilt chairs permanently imprinted on his butt. Ben had found himself longing for the peace, the beauty and the silence of the Ponderosa. He was more than a little disquieted to find this frenetic bustle invading what he thought of, as his home town.

But the Ponderosa was still there. As soon as he crossed the boundary line onto his own property he felt the difference deep down in the very core of his being. The majesty of the land with its vast pastures, rolling hills and towering trees brought him peace. With his beautiful wife at his side, and his tall sons riding beside him, he was truly content.

The sun had set by the time they reached the house, and the sky had become a deep cobalt blue. Inside, the lamps had been lit, and the light glowed in the gathering darkness, welcoming them home.

Ben helped his wife down and walked her to the front door, while the boys took the horses away. He turned to look at her. The light from the porch lantern was shining on her flawless skin, a soft golden glow that highlighted the look of love in her eyes. He kissed her gently on the lips, then swept her up in his arms and carried her, giggling, over the threshold.

The boys joined them for supper, and the gathering around the table was a happy one. Hop Sing had excelled himself, and the meal he presented was superb. Try as he might, Ben found it difficult to make sense of the disjointed snippets of information dropped by his sons in conversation. It was not until later, with Hop Sing clearing the table and Jenny gone upstairs to start putting away her multitude of new dresses, that he was able to settle into his favourite armchair with his pipe, and begin to gather the reins back into his hands.

He found that his sonís teasing outside the stage office had not been so far short of the truth. The ranch was running smoothly, the contracts for beef and timber were on schedule, and the boys, apparently, had got along together remarkably well. In fact, in their own different ways each of them was brimming over with enthusiasm for new projects. It was Hoss that got in first.

"Pa" the big man hunkered down on his haunches beside his fatherís chair. His broad features contorted with the effort of putting his thoughts and emotions into coherent words. Ben just sat and waited. He knew his middle son wasnít the fastest talker and needed time. "Pa, that idea we had about making a plantation for little pine trees is working out just fine. Iíve got a whole half section all planted out, aní those little trees are all growing away like all-git-out. I reckon we can aim to put in two baby pine trees for every big tree we cut down."

"Well, thatís real good, son," Ben was genuinely pleased. The land had to provide them with a living, but he hated to see its resources depleted, "Now you have to plan where to plant the trees so that theyíll be easy to log when the time comes."

"But, Pa," Joe hooked his knee over the arm of his chair, "No-oneís going to log those ity-bity little trees for more than a hundred years."

"Thatís as may be," Ben said, "But we have to think about it now."

Adam joined the little group, nursing his second cup of coffee, "Anyway, itíll be closer to two trees and a half for every tree we cut."

"Dad-burn it, Adam," Hoss scowled at his elder brother, struggling with an unknown concept, "How can you plant half a tree?"

Little Joe whooped, and Ben smiled indulgently. Nothing had changed, "Iíll explain it to you, Hoss. Now tell me about that other plan."

"Yes, sir," Hoss frowned, composing his thoughts, "I think we could set aside the whole of that section up by the lake and sort of - do nothiní with it. Just leave it to be as the good Lord intended, for the trees aní the plants aní the animals. We donít really need to use all that land, and heck, the way folks are flooding into the territory, there plumb wonít be no land left for the wild things ifín we donít set some aside."

Ben sucked on his pipe, "I see what you mean, son. But it might be kind of hard just to keep that land untouched."

"The land would need managing, Pa," Adam put in, "Dead trees felled, scrub cleared away, drainage maintained. It would be a lot of work for someone for no return."

Hoss looked up at him, unwilling to see his project put down, "I could do that work, Adam."

"Iíll give it some thought and see if it can be done," Ben said. He turned his eyes to his youngest son, "What about you, Joe?"

Joe swivelled round straight in his chair, his youthful face alive with enthusiasm, "Pa, how about we start to breed the horses we need right here on the ranch, rather than rely on the mustangs we can catch. That way we can improve the stock the same way we have with the cattle..."

Ben listened as Joe talked on about bloodlines, and brood stock, and eventually, to Joeís delight, agreed to finance the purchase of a stallion, but his attention had centred on Adam. To Benís experienced eye, there was clearly something troubling his eldest son. Adam wasnít saying much, but Ben knew from the look on his face, that he had something clammed up tight inside. It wasnít any use trying to force the pace, Adam would talk to him, but only when he was ready.

It was getting late when Joe and Hoss finally said their goodnights and went up to bed. Ben tapped out his pipe and contemplated refilling it. Adam sat tucked in a chair staring into the empty fire place. Ben could follow his thoughts. He missed the dancing flames as well and wondered what visions his son saw. He lay the pipe down.

"Joe mentioned something about rustlers," he said, "Have we had a lot of trouble?"

Adam turned his head, and his dark eyes focussed on his fatherís face. Ben could see him mentally changing tracks from his own thoughts to the question asked, "Not really, Pa. Just a few steers from the west section. Two, or three at a time. Probably just the dirt farmers taking

a few head to feed their families."

Ben frowned. He knew how strongly Adam felt about the plight of the poorer families and he knew that a few steers could easily be spared, but he had his own equally strong principles and theft was theft, "Itís not something we should condone."

"Itís just a few head, Pa."

"Never the less, I want those fence lines watched a lot more closely. If we can put a good scare into them, we might not have to call in the law."

Adam drew a deep breath, and Ben prepared himself for an argument. But Adam let the breath ebb away in a long sigh, "Yes, Pa," He lowered his eyes and resumed his focus-less gaze into the fireplace.

Now Ben knew for certain that something was wrong.

"Well, what is it?"

Adam looked at him again. His eyes were hooded and his face shuttered, an expression Ben knew too well, "Pa?"

"Iíve heard about Hossís trees and his plans for a nature reserve, and Iíve heard about Joeís horses. What I havenít heard about is the irrigation system you were designing for the lower pastures, or the logging road you were planning to lay, or the railroad spur you were so full of before I went away. So what is it? Whatís eating at you?"

Adam wrapped his arm around his knees and drew them up tight against his chest. It was an attitude he had adopted since childhood when in need of comfort but unwilling to ask for it. The three brothers had agreed to gloss lightly over the events of the night of the party, but the bank robbery, and its fatal consequences, were another matter entirely, and not something he could, or would, keep from his father. The problem was how to tell it. Despite numerous attempts, he still found it difficult to make sense of his confused feelings, so haltingly, in an emotionless monotone that didnít fool Ben one bit, he told it in a few simple sentences, exactly the way it had happened. At the finish of it his voice cracked on the words.

"I killed a man, Pa. Except that it wasnít a man. It was Andy Boxer, and he was just a kid."

Ben wished now that he had re-lighted his pipe. It would have given his something to suck on, something to do with his hands. It was no use telling Adam that the Boxers were a bad lot and had been destined for trouble since birth, even though it were true. He had to say something to assuage the personal guilt that he knew his son, however unnecessarily, was feeling. He fixed Adam with his dark, almost black irised eyes, "Adam, I can only tell you that I believe that what Roy said to you was right. You might have killed a man, but that man was guilty and you saved another, innocent, manís life."

Adam hugged himself tighter. Although the summerís night was warm he felt cold on the inside as well as out, "He was so young." He said it so softly that Ben had to strain to hear the words, "He looked like Joe did only a couple of years ago."

"There comes a time in every manís life when he has to choose his own path. For some it comes sooner than others."

"I keep seeing his face. Every time I close my eyes I see his face."

"I know. Itís something youíll always remember. But the memory will fade if youíll only give it the chance."

Adam sighed, "Thatís just it, Pa. How much longer are we going to live by the gun? When is this territory finally going to be civilized?"

Ben knew Adam had harboured these feeling for a long time, ever since his days at college in the east. They were feelings that he was not at all comfortable with himself, but he knew that his son held them sincerely, "Civilization will come soon enough," he said slowly, "But I think it will be a long time before we can give up the gun."

Adam unwound himself from the chair and stretched his long limbs. This was a conversation heíd had with his father before, and he knew where it headed, "I guess youíre right. Itís something Iíll just have to come to terms with."

Ben got up and touched him lightly on the shoulder, far from sure he had convinced his son of anything. The two of them turned together towards the staircase.

Ben was both surprised, and pleased, to find that Jenny had waited up for him. She had thrown a loose soft robe over her under things and was sitting at Marieís mirror - now her mirror, Ben reminded himself sharply - brushing out her hair with long slow strokes. The lamplight was soft on the angles of her face, and he saw her smile at him in the glass as he closed the bedroom door.

"Iím sorry Iím so late, my love."

"You needed to spend some time with the boys," Jenny lay down the brush and turned, rising from her seat. She saw the trouble in his face and crossed the room to him, "What is it? Whatís wrong?"

"Iíve been talking to Adam," He rested his hands lightly on her shoulders, "He had to kill a man involved in a robbery. Heís having a hard time dealing with it."

Jenny watched his face earnestly, seeing there the deep concern for his son and loving him all the more because of it, "Adam will be all right," she said gently.

Ben brought his eyes to focus on her beautiful face, "I think he will. Heís a strong man. It just might take a while." His frown eased and he reached out for her, running his finger tips lightly up her arms to her shoulders and then down the soft curve of her back.

Jenny smiled, her green eyes fathomless. All thought of his son fled from Benís mind as she let the robe slip from her shoulders to the floor, "Time for bed, Mister Cartwright," she whispered.

"First things first," he murmured softly in her ear as his increasingly experienced hands began to unlace the mysteries of the corset.

Adam closed his door quietly and released a long held breath. The room was comfortable and familiar. His personal possessions made it intrinsically his, his books, his pictures, his guitar, his motherís musical box on the dresser together with the silver backed hair brushes his father had presented to him on his thirtieth birthday. Polished wood glowed warmly in the glow of the lamp, and the bed, with itsí native blanket throw, looked inviting. Adam moved past it to the window. Despite the tiredness pricking at his eyes, he was unwilling to lie down just yet.

Adam had killed men before. Not many, admittedly, but enough to know that while you never forgot their faces, after a while they did sort of slip into the back of the mind. The ghost he was living with now was not ready to be laid to rest quite yet. He sat down in the chair by the window and gazed out into the night. It was a long time before he relaxed enough to consider sleep.

Four

Benjamin Cartwright, silver haired barrel chested patriarch of the Ponderosa was frightened, and like all big powerful men, when he was frightened, he became angry, covering his fear with shouting and bluster. He stood now in the centre of the ranch house living room, hands on hips, his expression as black as a thunder storm and his dark eyes blazing, "I forbid it!" his mighty voice boomed through the house, "I absolutely forbid it!"

Hop Sing scooped up the last of the breakfast things and scurried for the kitchen. The tirade of Chinese muttering was cut off abruptly by the slamming of the door. Benís sons would have liked to make an equally expeditious exit, but their irate sire had stationed himself between them and the front door, and none of them felt inclined to challenge him. Instead, each of them was keeping a low profile and trying to avoid becoming embroiled in the argument that raged around their ears. Their stepmother, Jennifer Cartwright, stood in front of the stone built fireplace. She was several inches shorter than her formidable husband, and of much slighter in build, but her stubbornness, her determination and her physical attitude exactly mirrored his.

"Who do you think you are?!" she yelled back furiously, "Youíve no right to forbid me anything!"

"Iím your husband!"

"My husband - not my gaoler!" The sea green eyes spat savage sparks, "Youíre turning this house into my prison!"

"Donít be absurd!" Ben bellowed, "You can go anywhere, anytime you want to!"

Collectively, the Cartwright boys winced, knowing from experience that their fatherís rage was approaching apoplectic proportions.

Jenny clenched her teeth. How dare he treat her like a small child? She resisted with all her might the temptation to stamp her foot on the floor and prove him right, "And how pray, do you expect me to do that?" She asked icily, "Grow wings on my back and fly?"

"If you want to go out Iíll drive you!" Ben said in a more reasonable tone, something just short of a roar, "Or one of the boys will drive you!"

"Wherever I want to go?" she demanded, "Whenever I want to go? And how are you going to run this ranch with one of you waiting full time on me? Suppose itís not convenient? Suppose none of you happen to be here? No, Ben!" She help up her hand to forestall another explosion, "It wont do! Iíve made up my mind! I want a horse of my own!"

For Ben, time flipped back more than twenty years.

It was another bright summerís day, early in the afternoon. He smelled the sharp scent of Jasmine from the vine that climbed the front of the house and felt the heat of the sun on his face. He heard the rattle of hooves coming into the yard - too fast - too fast! He saw a flash of gold in the sunlight as the chestnut mare stumbled and fell - saw the woman thrown through the air and heard her scream abruptly cut off. Marie - his own, dear, sweet Marie - would be dead before he could reach her. He closed his eyes but the vision was still there, burned into his brain.

He heard his wifeís voice as if from a long way away, "I know what youíre thinking, Ben."

He opened his eyes and looked at her, "If you knew what I was thinking you wouldnít ask this of me," he said heavily.

Jenny gazed at him with sympathy and love, but she wouldnít give way, "I wont be held prisoner by another womanís memory, Ben."

He felt his face begin to crumple, "I couldnít bear to lose you to," his big voice was scarcely more than a whisper.

The anger in Jennyís face finally faded away, "You wonít lose me, my love. I used to be a good rider when I was a little girl. With a little practice..."

Ben sighed, knowing he was defeated. He was still frightened, but his anger was dissipating like smoke in the wind, "Youíll ride only the horse I choose for you," he said firmly, "And you wont go out alone until Iím satisfied that itís safe. And you wonít ride side saddle. Not ever."

With each condition imposed Jenny nodded, love, and a glimmer of amusement, shining from her eyes.

"Very well. You shall have a horse."

Benís eyes moved round the room as he realized that his sons were still present, and not only were they avoiding his eyes, but they were all trying very hard not to laugh. It was rarely they saw their father bested in an argument, mainly because he could shout louder than anyone else they knew.

"Well, what are you three still doing here?" Ben barked crossly, "Donít any of you have work to do? Doesnít anyone in this house do as I tell them any more?"

He stepped smartly aside as Hoss and Adam with muttered, "Yes, sirs!" bolted for the door. Joe was a little slower and Ben caught him by the arm, "Joseph, when you have time, cast your eye over the riding stock and let me know which horses might be suitable for a lady," He shot his smiling wife a severe look, "I want a nice, quiet horse."

"Sure, Pa," Joe grinned at his stepmother, and caught her look that said as plainly as words, ĎDonít you dare bring me old Dobbin,í He winked at her, "Iíll do that, Pa."

Suspecting the exchange, but not certain of it, Ben sighed again, loudly, and picking up his hat followed his sons out of the house.

The hillsides, cloaked in pine trees and blued with the haze of distance, rose steeply, straight up out of the icy blue water of the lake. A cool breeze came up off the water, ruffling the manes of the horses. Ben sat back in his saddle and took a long deep breath. The air was sweet with the smell of pine and summer flowers. This spot on the headland, with its magnificent, breath taking view, was the place on Earth that he loved the most. The view was one of the things that had caused him to settle this land and that had made him stay and fight for it when times had been hard. One of the things that called him back whenever he had been away for too long. A God fearing man, it was the place he felt closest to his Lord.

He looked across at his wife, sitting quietly on her horse beside him. He could tell by the expression of pure rapture on her face that she too, had been captivated. The spell had worked again, and the lake had entranced yet another Cartwright with its magic.

Ben looked out again over the water. Despite his misgivings, he had to confess that Jenny, and his sons when they had sided with her, had been right, and he had been wrong. The horse that he had been manoeuvred into choosing for her was the perfect mount for a lady. The gelding was intelligent, and responsive, and very well mannered, and although it was a touch livelier than he would have liked, if he were honest the only thing about it he could really object to was its colour. It was a sun bright chestnut.

His son, Adam, had found a sturdy fore-and-aft rigged saddle, and fitted it out with new buckles and straps, and oiled and polished it until the leather glowed. Joe had gentled the horse, and Ben himself had helped his wife step into the saddle for the first time. True to his word, Little Joe had taken it on himself to teach her, and once she had become accustomed to sitting astride, Jenny had learned quickly and well. Ben admitted, but only to himself, that she could now ride as well as any of them.

When they had looked their fill, Ben reined his horse round, and led the way down onto the narrow strip of sand that edged the water. They dismounted and led the horses.

Ben indicated with a sweep of his arm the whole of the north shore, "Thatís the section Hoss wants for his nature reserve."

Jenny gazed into the misty distance, "Can we really set aside all that?"

"We can afford the land, but Adam keeps telling me how much management a project like that would take. Iíll have to give it some more thought."

She turned and looked him straight in the eye. She knew that while her husband was not averse to change in principle, he could be very slow to get started, "Donít keep him waiting too long, Ben."

Ben frowned, "You think I should let him go ahead?"

"Hoss is a man, now. Every man has his own dream. Yours was the Ponderosa and you built it with your own hands. Hossís dream is to work with, and care for the wild things. Perhaps itís time to let him try."

"Itís a lot of work for one man."

"If he encounters difficulties, then heíll overcome them - with our help if he wants it."

"In the same way Iím helping Joe with his horse breeding project?"

A slight smile touched her lips, "Sort of," she said.

"And Adam?"

"Ah yes, Adam," Jenny scuffed her boot in the sand and studied the patterns she made "Adam the engineer, Adam the architect, Adam the poet. Ben, I fear that all this..." she raised her eyes to encompass the whole of the landscape, "May not be enough to hold Adamís dream."

Ben objected but Jenny insisted. She pulled off her high riding boots and peeled off her stockings. She squealed at the icy bite of the water and laughed as the sand squeezed between her toes. She waded out until the water came half way up her calves, holding her skirts high above her knees. Then she sat on a grassy bank and dried her feet on Benís handkerchief.

Feeling rather foolish, he lowered himself down beside her, and they sat side by side in silence for a while watching the ever changing aspect of the lake.

"I think youíre right," Jenny said at last, reading, as she often did, his innermost thoughts, "This has to be the most beautiful place in the world. I love it!"

Ben lay back on his elbow in the grass, "And I love you," he said, meaningfully.

Jenny gazed at him, a slight frown on her face, a slight smile on her lips, "Here? Arenít we a little old for this?"

"Iím told, reliably," he said, "That I need to be more innovative. Now come on down here and Iíll show you just how innovative I can be."

In an effort to avoid the worst of the ruts, Adam steered his horse to the side of the track, and then let it pick its own way among the stones and the weeds, while he cast his eyes over the farmstead. The colloquialism Ďdirt farmí was an apt one, and the place looked all but derelict. The fences were broken, and the fields, which had once been planted with a corn crop, lay un-harvested and un-watered. Even the weeds were having a hard time in the poor dry soil.

The house, if the two-roomed shack at the end of the track could be called a house, leaned at a distinct angle. Windows were broken and patched with scraps of old canvas, and one end of the roof was almost totally bare of shingles. Even the door of the outhouse was hanging from only one hinge.

The corral was another matter. The rails and the gate showed evidence of recent, if slip shod repair. There were no animals inside it, but there was fresh manure from both horses and cattle that had not been cleared away. The only other sign of recent habitation was a line of laundry strung from a corner of the shack to a solitary cottonwood tree.

Adam let his horse come to a halt a few yards from the shackís single door.

His darkly handsome face wore a frown and bore the ravages of any number of sleep deprived nights. He was uncertain of his own motives in coming here, and he had no clear idea of what he hoped to achieve. A compulsion had been building up inside him for days. Heíd just felt the need to see for himself what it was like to live like this. Well, he thought, looking round at the abject poverty, now heíd seen, and he didnít much like it.

He turned his horse and was about to ride away, when a movement caught his eye. For a moment a face appeared behind one of the grubby quarter panes, and seconds later, the door opened. A woman stepped out into the yard. She was small and thin, starved looking, with painted pink lips and loose lank yellow hair. She wore a manís pants and a low cut pink blouse with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

She stood hip-shot, with her arms folded, and looked him over, "You want somethiní, Mister?"

Adam touched the brim of his hat to her, "I was looking for Nathan Boxer."

"Well, he ainít here. Heís offín someplace with his boys. What heís got left of Ďem."

Adam looked away towards the cottonwoods across the fields and drew a long steadying breath. Just what he needed right now was another dose of guilt. When he looked back the woman was still watching him with narrowed cat-like eyes. He nodded to her and started to gather his reins, "Iím sorry to have bothered you, maíam."

"Donít go." The woman sauntered towards him across the yard, "Nathan wont be back for quite a while, but youíre welcome to come in aní set."

She reached out a hand and fingered the tooled leather of his saddle flap, moving close. His horse shied away. The woman watched, as Adam regained control and kneed him round. He knew the kind of look she had in her eyes. He had seen it a dozen times before, and it was an offer he was not currently inclined to accept. He pulled out his billfold and started to peel off some notes.

The woman recoiled as if heíd slapped her. "We donít want none of your damned money Mister Adam Cartwright!" He reacted to his name, and she laughed at him, "Oh, I know who you are! I bin expectiní you! Iím surprised it took you so long to get here. I know your sort. You just couldnít stay away!"

The womanís shouting upset Adamís horse again and he danced away from her. Adam stuffed the money back into his pocket and fought for control.

"Maíam." He touched his hat again and turned the horse away.

The woman spat at him.

As he rode away Adam could feel her eyes burning into his back. On reflection, he decided, coming here had not been a wise move. Had Nathan Boxer and his grown sons been at home, or had the woman managed to delay him until their return, his reward might well have been a shotgun blast.

Ben stared at his son as if he just suggested something totally preposterous, like a flight to the moon, "What do you mean, give cattle to the dirt farmers?" he demanded, his voice already taking on an edge of anger.

Adam, still holding his hat and wearing his gun belt, stood on the other side of the desk. He held his fatherís gaze steadily, "I mean just what I say, Pa. If those folks donít get some help this winter, theyíre going to starve."

"I suppose next youíll suggest we provide firewood and building lumber?!"

Adam looked uncomfortable. Already he could see which way this discussion was going, "It wouldnít hurt us any."

"While weíre about it, why donít we just open up an account for them at the General Store?" Benís voice was heavy with sarcasm.

Adam sighed and glanced briefly heavenwards, a look that was not lost on his father, "Pa, if youíll just listen to me..."

"No, I wonít listen to you!" Benís mighty voice was swelling to a bellow, "All this is because of what happened to Andy Boxer, isnít it?!"

"Itís not just the Boxers," An edge of exasperation was creeping into Adamís voice now, and nothing he could do would keep it out, "There are a dozen families who arenít any better off."

"Now let me tell you..." Benís voice dropped dangerously, and he pointed his finger for emphasis, "Weíve put a great deal of time and effort into fencing those pastures, and now we have to patrol the fences! And we are still losing cattle from that west section. Your dirt farmer friends are already helping themselves to our beef without any help from you!"

"Theyíre not my friends, Pa."

"Thatís not the way it sounds to me! This ranch raises cattle as a business, not for charity. And donít tell me again..." Ben held up a forbidding hand as Adam opened his mouth, "That itís only a few head. It looks like weíve lost more than a hundred head in the last few months!"

Adam closed his mouth, shocked. Heíd been so concerned with his own personal turmoil that he hadnít realized the losses were so severe. His mind took another track, "That sounds like a full scale rustling operation."

"Youíre darned right it is!" Ben muttered, settling back into his chair. His eyes still burned with anger, "What we have to decide, is what weíre going to do about it."

Adam leaned his butt against the desk and turned his hat in his hands, "If that many cattle were being slaughtered in Virginia City then the sheriff would have to know about it."

Ben harrumphed and pulled a sour face, "Iíve talked to Roy, unofficially. He says no. My guess is that the dirt farmers have something going with the mining camps. An unofficial contract to supply them with our beef."

"What do you want to do, Pa?"

Ben looked up at him. Now that his son seemed to be back on his side, his anger was abating. "Weíll have to watch that fence line closer. Find out whoís taking those steers and where theyíre taking them too. And then, if I have to, Iíll call in the law."

Adam looked unhappy with that, "That would mean sending men to prison. It would make it even harder on the families."

Annoyed again, Ben shot him an angry glare. "In the old days weíd have hanged them where we found them. That was the only law there was!"

Adam sighed and acquiesced, glad that at least his father wasnít advocating a return to barbarism.

The stallion that Joe brought back with him from his trip east was a truly magnificent animal. Tall and deep chested, he had a fine head and a spirited eye. His coat was coal black and had the sheen of silk. As Joe walked him back and forth in front of his admiring family huge muscles rippled fluidly beneath his skin.

"He's seven years old and a three quarter bred Morgan," Joe informed his father, "When we cross him with our mares, weíll get sturdier, stronger saddle stock without losing any lightness of foot. We can sell off any surplus colts and by the time his fillies are grown weíll be able to buy in another stallion to avoid in-breeding."

Ben ran his hand over the horseís powerful shoulder, "youíll have to keep careful records, Joe, of which horse you cross with which."

"I know, Pa," Joeís youthfully handsome face radiated enthusiasm, "Adam loaned me a book on it. You write everything down in a big book like a ledger. They call them stud books."

Hoss, who had been at the horseís head making friends joined them, "that sounds like a whole lot of work for cow ponies, Little Joe."

Adam, at the other end examining hoofs, straightened up and dusted off his hands, "I hope you get you moneyís worth, Joe."

"What do you mean?" Joe was immediately concerned that his brother had found something amiss with the horse.

Adam leaned on the horseís rump, "I was reading in the paper íbout a fella in Germany, called Nikolaus Otto, talking about building an engine that runs on powdered coal. Reckons it could revolutionize transport, do away with the horse altogether,"

Despite the sunshine Ben felt suddenly cold, as if a dark shadow from the future had fallen across him, "I hope that revolution doesnít come anywhere near the Ponderosa," he said, "At least, not in my lifetime."

"Have you thought of a name for the horse?" Hoss asked his brother.

Joe shook his head, "I thought Iíd let Jenny name him."

Smiling, Jenny stroked the stallionís nose. He snorted softly and nuzzled her. "Weíll call him Monarch," she said.

Ben smiled. They made a lovely pair, the woman and the horse. He had to admit, his youngest son had become the finest judge of horseflesh heíd ever met, and the woman - the woman was just perfect. He slapped Joe on the shoulder, "Heís a fine horse, son."

Hoss sidled up to his older brother, "Adam - is that Germany, Europe?"

Adam laughed, "Itís the only one I know, Hoss. The only one I know!"

Jenny and Hoss sat their horses on the hillside overlooking the carefully fenced pasture behind the house. They both wore silly smiles on their faces as they watched the small, shaggy animals that dotted the grassland.

Hoss shook his head in disbelief, "I never thought Iíd see the day when my Pa would allow a sheep to set foot on Ponderosa land."

Jenny laughed musically, "Believe me, Hoss, it wasnít easy!"

"No maíam." Hoss joined in the laughter. They both remembered well the rows that had threatened to lift the roof off the ranch house.

Ben had been adamant. No sheep on the Ponderosa! Absolutely no sheep! They were tic infested; they contaminated the land; they broke down the banks of the water courses; and, most condemning of all, they cropped the grass to the roots, or at least far too short for the cattle to be able to graze it after them It was impossible for the two animals to share the same range, Ben had maintained, loudly. The cattle, mainstay of the Ponderosaís business, would starve.

It had taken Jenny a long time and a lot of extremely heated argument, together with a certain amount of documentary evidence, to convince him that a small, carefully maintained flock would do no harm at all. Ben had insisted on the fences, and on a dedicated water supply, and a ruthless examination of the animals skins, but eventually he had given way, somewhat gracelessly, to his wifeís wishes and allowed her to purchase her heartís desire, a two dozen strong flock of Jacobís sheep.

When they had arrived Ben had admitted, grudgingly, that the little creatures with their four in-curving horns and their cream, russet and brown spotted coats were somewhat endearing. Now they were grazing peacefully in their allocated field, and showing all the promise Jenny had hoped for.

Hoss shifted in his saddle, "Maíam, some of those little sheep íre getting awful shaggy. Do we have to get in one of those specialist sheep shearers to cut them coats?"

"No, Hoss," Jenny shook her head, smiling again, "They shed their hair all year round. You can just pull it off in handfuls, and if you keep the colours separate you can make patterns in the cloth as you weave it. If youíd like, Iíll make you a coat from the first piece off the loom."

Hoss gave her his broad, gap-toothed smile, "Iíd like that real fine, maíam Real fine!"

Five

The summer days were stretching, long and golden, into autumn. The weather held hot and dry and the grasslands were brown.

In the main street of Virginia City the temperature, in the early afternoon, had reached oven-like proportions. Joe Cartwright leaned on the post that supported the board walk awning and mopped his face with a black handkerchief. He took off his hat and fanned himself with the brim. The sky was brassy and the sunlight so bright that he had to screw up his eyes to watch the heat devils dance.

Joe had been looking forward to getting away from the ranch, even if for just a few hours. Hot or not, work on the Ponderosa followed, of necessity, a set pattern, and that pattern dictated that preparations be started for the winter to come. The second crop of hay had to be cut and stored for winter feed, cattle had to be gathered and bunched, building repairs made and, Joeís least favourite task, a whole winterís firewood laid in beside the house. His father, while allowing his sons more authority these days than ever before, believed firmly that they should work alongside the hired help, and he wouldnít hear any arguments to the contrary. No, on the whole Joe was glad to have come to town, even if the town was sweltering and airless.

Hoss came out of the hardware store and pulled out a huge red and white bandanna to wipe the sweat from his face. He had loaded most of the wagon, and he was even hotter that Joe.

"Sure is hot," Joe ventured.

"Sure is," Hoss looked up the street, then down. It was very quiet.

"You reckon Pa wants us to head straight back with all this fencing gear?"

Hoss looked over the wagon, neatly loaded with wire and a couple of kegs of nails, "Reckon so."

"You think Pa would notice if we were just a half hour late?"

"Joe, I think our Pa knows where we are every second, of every hour, of every day."

"I guess you're right," Joe sighed, "I sure could use a beer."

"Me too."

Joe looked sideways at his big brother, "Hoss, I donít think Pa would begrudge us a cold beer on a hot afternoon. After all, we are grown men."

"Sure we are," Hoss gazed speculatively at his brother, "Iíll buy the beer, but if Pa yells at us Ďcause weíre late you can be the one to tell him we was in the saloon."

"Sounds fair," Joe grinned boyishly, and the two set off along the boardwalk, headed for the Silver Dollar.

They had just reached the first intersection when a door opened behind them, "Hoss - Hoss Cartwright!"

It was Johan Schulzer, the draper, beckoning urgently.

Hos nodded to Joe, "You go on and get those beers set up on the bar. Iíll be there in just a tick," he turned back to the draperís shop. "Hey there, Mister Schulzer, what can I do for you?"

The little Austrian draper smiled and bobbed, "I have the package of silk fabrics your mother ordered from Boston, Mister Cartwright. If you would just come inside..."

Hoss followed him into the cool, slightly scented depths of the shop and Joe, amused, went on towards the saloon.

He had crossed the intersection and reached the front of the harness and leather goods store, recently bought and refurbished by the Kylle brothers, when two figures moved out of the shadows, neatly bracketing him, one on either side. It was the Boxer twins. The two identical faces were smiling but it was not the sort of smile Joe liked. The best way out of this, he thought to himself, was the fastest. He made to step round them but Teddy, Joe thought it was Teddy, moved to block him.

"Where are you goiní, Cartwright, in such a hurry?" The other one, possibly William, inquired with a smirk.

Joe backed off a step and they followed him, toe to toe, crowding him into the saddles and harness that hung on display outside the store. He tried to step round them again, and again found himself blocked. He raised his hands to fend them off as they moved in on him threateningly. "What do you fellas want?"

"What do we want?" One of the twins leered across at the other, "Joe Cartwright wants to know what we want."

"We want you, Cartwright." The other twin gave Joe a push in the chest that sent him stumbling back. There was some more pushing and shoving that ended in Joeís back slamming into the wall hard enough to rattle his teeth. Some of the harness fell off its pegs and tangled round him. He could feel his nose starting to bleed.

"Your brother killed our brother!" one of the twins snarled, "Shot íim down in the street like he was a dawg!"

Joe tried hard to keep his voice level, "Your brother was robbing the bank."

"You Cartwrights want to mind you own damned business!"

"Weíre gonna find our how much you Pa likes it to put his boy in a hole in the ground."

"Weíre gonna kill us a Cartwright."

"We just gotta find the right Cartwright."

"You need some help there, Joe?" The question came over the Boxerís shoulders, from behind and above them. As one man they turned and found themselves face to shirt buttons with the man mountain that was Hoss Cartwright. Hoss stood casually, his thumbs hooked in his pants belt, but his pale blue eyes were like chips of flint.

At one and the same moment both the Boxer brothers thought about the guns on their hips. Their hands twitched spasmodically, but Hoss was quicker. Faster than the eye could follow his huge hands whipped out and caught both of them, one by the wrist and the other by the throat, lifting him up onto his toes. Hoss looked beyond them at his brother, "You all right?"

Joe disentangled himself from the harness and dabbed at his face with his sleeve, "Iím fine. But I think youíd better let that fella down. Heís goiní a sort of funny colour."

"Oh, yeah." Hoss admired the Boxer twinís slowly purpling face, "Guess youíre right," He lowered the smaller man until he could just take his weight on his own feet. The other twin was whimpering, white faced with pain and sweating. Hoss eased his grip just a little.

"You boys haviní a problem?" The slow drawl belonged to Roy Coffee. Where-ever there was any sort of trouble, the white haired sheriff was never far away.

"No problem, Roy," Joe cocked him what he hoped was a grin, "We was just funniní around."

Roy eyed the blood spots on Joeís shirt front, "Just funniní. Right."

"Heís breakiní my arm!" squeaked the Boxer Hoss had by the wrist.

"Let go ío them, Hoss," Roy ordered. Hoss sighed with reluctance and let go of both Boxers. One staggered, clutching his throat, the other rubbed furiously at his wrist, "It donít look broke to me," Roy said without sympathy, "You two boys get on home."

With a glare and some muttered curses, the Boxer twins gathered their hats and started to move off. One of them, possibly William, looked back over his shoulder, "Make sure you tell your brother what we said, Cartwright!"

Roy Coffee watched their retreating backs until he was sure they were going without more trouble, then he turned to Joe and Hoss, "Sure is hot, boys. You look like you could do with a beer."

A huge smile spread across Hossís face, "Dad-burn-it, Roy! Thatís just what we was thinkiní!"

Hos retrieved the brown wrapped parcel that contained his step motherís silks, and a few minutes later, the three of them were seated at a table in the Silver Dollar saloon. Three tall glasses of dark beer stood in front of them.

A frown troubled Hossís face, "Roy, you reckon those Boxer twins couldíve been the men ridiní with their brother the day he was shot?"

"Nope," Roy supped his cold beer, and picked up a second moustache of foam, "Those boys keep some pretty bad company, but they got what they call an a-li-bi," He sounded the word out carefully, "They was in a saloon three blocks over, as drunk as lords and with two dozen men as witness. But it was those two other fellas I wanted tí talk tí you íbout."

Joe and Hoss exchanged looks and prepared to listen. They might have known the beer would not be for free. Roy wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, "That Andy Boxer, he was mixed up with some real tough hombres from up in the mining camps. I have an idea that they might have been the gang that have been doiní all the killinís up that way."

Hossís look of concern deepened, "That still goiní on, Roy?"

"Three in the last couple oí months. Theyíre still keepiní tí the north of town and with the winter cominí on I expect theyíll go tí ground pretty soon now. You boys be sure tí remind your Pa to keep a look out. You got a lot of line shacks up among all them pine trees. Ideal places fer a bunch ío killers to hide out."

"Weíll remind him, Roy," Joe said.

Roy finished his beer and smacked his lips, "Sure was good" He gathered his hat and nodded to the Cartwright brothers, "Gíday, boys."

When he had gone Joe took a long swallow of beer, but Hoss merely frowned into his glass. It was plain the big man had something on his mind.

"Joe, do you think those killers might really be hidiní out in our hills?"

Joe shrugged, "I suppose they might, but theyíre more likely to hang out around the mining camps this time of year."

"I was wantiní to take a ride up into that section that Pa says I can set aside. Take a few days to look around before winter sets in."

Joe grinned at him, he was as pleased as could be to see his big brother embarking on what looked like being his lifeís work, "Sounds like a good idea, Hoss."

"I was wonderiní if Adam would come with me ifín I asked him. Iíd kind of like him to explain to me about this land management he keeps on talkiní about. Might be easier to understand if we have the land right there in front of us."

"That sounds good as well."

Hoss looked up at Joe, his expression both troubled and hopeful, "Adamís been actiní kind oí funny lately, ever since that run in with Andy Boxer. You reckon heíd come with me?"

"Sure he would. Some practical problems are probably just what our older brother needs"

"Iíll ask him then," Hoss made up his mind, "Now weíd best be gettiní back, Joe. Weíve still got all that fenciní to deliver, aní tomorrow Pa wants me to check up on those six little heifers we put down in the water meadows. They should be cominí on a real treat by now."

The two Cartwrights drank up their beer, picked up their hats, and the parcel, and headed back to where theyíd left the wagon.

Adam came down the staircase freshly bathed, and shaved, and all dressed up for his trip to the big city. In his hand he carried a book bound in well-handled green leather. It was one of his favourites.

With a smile in her eyes Jenny met him in the centre of the room. With a proprietary air she brushed the tiniest speck of lint from the lapel of his dark, broadcloth coat and stepped back admiringly. She was pleased at how smart her tall, handsome step son looked.

He held out the book to her, "This is the novel we were talking about yesterday. I thought you might like to read it while Iím away."

"Why, thank you Adam," she took it from him, well aware of how much Adamís books meant to him and what a privilege it was to be loaned one, "Iíll just have time to finish it before you get back. Adam, Iíve written some letters to my family. Would you be kind enough to post them for me?"

His deep brown eyes smiled warmly into her green ones, "It will be my pleasure to, maíam" He took the small stack of neatly addressed, cream coloured envelopes and turned to his father, holding out his hand, "Iíll be gone about two weeks Pa. Thatíll give me time to talk to our lawyers and visit Major McKenna in the hospital."

Ben shook hands with his son, "Give Peter my best wishes, and make sure you get us the best price for that lumber," He handed over a briefcase full of papers, "You take care of yourself, now."

Ben slipped his arm round his wife, and smiling, they watched as Adam shook hands with his brothers, gathered his hat, and his gun belt, and went out of the door.

Two pistol shots in rapid succession, fired into the air. That was the Cartwright familyís signal that something was wrong, and that everyone should come running. Ben and Joe pulled up and exchanged looks of alarm. As one, they turned their horses and set off at a gallop in the direction of the shots.

Hoss was in the water meadows, down in the thigh high grass near the stream. He had stepped down from his horse and was looking down at something that lay out of sight on the ground. Ben remembered that this was the field where they were grazing the six yearling heifers to get some meat on their bones before winter. He looked round anxiously. The heifers were up on the hill in a little group - but not enough of them.

Hoss looked up when he heard their horses, his broad face strangely puckered up. Ben was off his horse before it had stopped moving. He could see now that two of the heifers lay on their sides in the long grass, and he could tell from the amount of gore around that they were not going to get up again. He joined Hoss, and a second later Joe came up beside him. The three of them stared in horrified disgust at the remains of the young cows.

"What did this?" Ben asked, his voice low and gravelly, "Varmints?"

"It was varmints all right, Pa," Hoss hunkered down and showed his father some of the grisly details, "It was two legged varmints. No cat ever did this."

"What about the others?" Joe looked up the hill to where the remaining four cows huddled forlornly against the rail, "Are they all right?"

Hoss followed his gaze, "I ainít looked yet."

"Go look them over, will you, Joe?"

As Joe stepped back into the saddle, Ben turned to Hoss, "Son, I know you were planning to ride up into the reserved section with Adam when he gets back, but with this trouble.." he gestured round, "I donít think I can spare either of you."

"I know, Pa," Hoss pulled a face, "Donít you worry about it none."

Ben squeezed his shoulder and crouched down to take a good long look at the slaughtered stock.

Hoss had already seen enough of it. He moved down towards the stream, studying the ground as he went. There were a lot of tracks in the soft soil beside the water. It was easy to see where the cattle went down to drink and there were some horse tracks that looked fairly fresh. Among them was the mark of a splayed-out hind hoof. Hoss scowled and with a heavy heart went back to help clear up the mess.

Six

If summer had been prolonged then autumn was short. It was a brief period of ever shortening days and cooling nights. Daily, clouds started to form up over the High Sierras threatening rain. They dissipated as they drifted lower, but the streams flowing out of the foothills began to fill, indicating rainfall higher up. Dew lay heavily on the land every morning, and the welcome moisture brought forth a lightening crop of fresh, bright green grass in the pastures.

In the ranch house log fires once more roared in the stone fireplace. The warmth and the resinous scent of burning pine logs permeated the whole house. Beside the house, despite Joeís reluctance, the woodpile had grown to mountainous proportions. The smokehouse worked overtime, and the store rooms filled to bulging with preserved and dried goods. To everyoneís delight, Hop Singís apple pies became studded with huge ripe blackberries.

The ranchís prosperity for years to come was finally assured. Adam had come back with a long term lumber contract safely signed and sealed, and arrangements had been secured to supply Ponderosa beef to the army, the mining company, and the newly opened cannery on the West coast. After careful consultation, Ben and Adam purchased share certificates in the new company mining the shale deposits that spread from the north of the state, across Utah and Colorado, and into Wyoming for something they called petroleum. Adam thought it was the coming thing and Ben, despite his misgivings, had a gut feeling that he was right.

As predicted, the spate of assaults and killings to the north of Virginia City ceased as the weather cooled, and now that the cattle had been gathered close to the feeding stations in the centre of the ranch the cattle thefts also stopped.

Then, in the final halcyon days before the weather broke, came the good news that had been anticipated for some time. A railroad spur was to be constructed north and west as far as Reno. The Cartwrightís annual trail drive would be shortened by more than two weeks. Adam immediately got out his drafting tools and began to design a complex of cattle pens for the border of the ranch closest to the new railhead.

Winter arrived abruptly out of the north-west, announced by a tremendous double clap of thunder that split the heavens apart and rattled the glass in the window frames. Rain and hailstones deluged the land. Low laying ground became quagmires, trails became rivers and rivers raging torrents. It was a relief when, after two weeks, the temperature plummeted and partially solidified the sodden ground. The needles on the Ponderosa pines turned black with the cold. The first snowfall covered everything with a pristine blanket of white.

Ben took down the huge old family Bible from its place on the shelf. His eyes lingered on the entries, hand written on the front pages, listing marriages, births and deaths in an endless cycle of grief and joy. There was room on the pages yet for more entries. He began to read, as he did every year, at Genesis, Chapter One. By spring he would have read right through to the end of Acts.

Jenny had the boys unpack, and set up, the loom she had bought in a corner of the sitting room. She had been teaching herself to spin on an old treadle driven spinning wheel, and after a number of coarse and somewhat lumpy practice pieces, had started to produce a fine, even yarn from the wool of her sheep. Her next project was to turn the yarn into cloth.

It was the first winter that Jenny had lived in the house with them, and Ben was delighted at the harmony she brought to his family. His sons still quarrelled, and sometimes the discussions became furiously heated, but there was none of the on going bitter dissent, or the displays of temper that had characterised recent years.

The previous winter Ben had started to teach both Joe and Hoss the game of chess. Joe was eager to renew the lessons. He had a sharp agile mind and was developing a certain innovative flare that sometimes took his father by surprise, but he also had a short attention span that would work to Benís advantage. Hoss, on the other hand, completely failed to grasp the finer points of the game and found it tedious. He preferred to play checkers with Joe or Jenny, and happily spent long hours discussing land management and resource husbandry with his older brother.

Adam had saved several new books to read during the dark days of winter, and spent a lot of his time pouring over maps and working at his drafting table. Eventually he produced the plans for the required logging road, and also detailed drawings of the sluices for the proposed irrigation of the arid eastern section. His plan, which Ben viewed with some doubt, was to increase the carrying capacity of the land by some thirty percent.

Evenings were spent gathered round the fireplace talking, reading or playing games. Sometimes, Adam would bring down his guitar and he and Jenny would sing popular songs together, he snuggled comfortably into his favourite armchair and she on the floor with her head against Benís knee.

As the days foreshortened still further and the snow became deeper, trips out of doors became restricted to checks that the cattle were finding food and water, and a rare excursion to Virginia City. Half a dozen times a day, Ben thought to himself that he would have to have a talk with Adam about the design and deployment of the outhouse.

Christmas, with all its associated festivities, came and went. True to her word Jenny presented Hoss with a new woollen coat checked with all the colours of the Jacobs sheep, and she gave promises of similar garments to all the Cartwright men, including Hop Sing, as soon as the sheep provided sufficient wool.

The New Year was barely begun when winter clamped down with a vengeful white hand. Blizzards howled down out of the mountains, one chasing another, burying the land many feet deep. The great pine trees lowered their branches almost to the ground under the weight of snow. All the trails were blocked, and the men had their work cut out merely to reach the cattle that were, by now, depending on them to distribute the hay from the feeding stations. Most of their days were spent digging in the drifts, and after dark, they were to tired to do anything much but sleep.

To the people confined there, the huge ranch house seemed to shrink daily. Food remained plentiful, but the diet became monotonous. None of them liked to think what conditions were like in the mining camps, or in the poorer parts of town.

Spring started early for the Cartwrights, much earlier than any of them had anticipated. It was still snowing heavily when the Jacobís sheep started to drop their lambs. Ben, with a foresight that made Jenny think he knew a great deal more about sheep than he pretended, had built a secure shed for them. It was thanks to that and to the fodder provided that not a single animal had died in that winter.

Although the ewes seemed quite capable of managing on their own, Jenny wanted to be there as every lamb was born. With a sigh Ben gave up the argument and had a stove and firewood carted down to the pasture, and either he or one of the boys stayed with her.

Jennyís main concern was that a higher proportion of lambs than expected were male. Ever a practical woman she consoled herself that when grown they would provide mutton to add to the basic Cartwright diet of beef, pork and chicken.

The lambs were born mostly in pairs without any help at all, and in a week the little flock had increased two times over, and only one ewe had died. Jenny and Hoss wrapped her two tiny lambs in their coats and carried them up to the house to be hand reared.

Winter had one final savage fling. A blizzard blasted through Western Nevada from North to South. It lasted two whole days and three nights. On the next morning the sun lifted into a clear blue sky and spring had truly arrived.

Seven

Two riders stopped their horses on the crest of the rise and sat a while, looking down into the meadowlands spread out before them. A stream ran through, deep and fast, filled with melt water and icy cold. Willows hung over its banks on either side, their branches a fragile tracery of bursting green. Here and there, in the shadows of the surrounding trees where the sun never shone, patches of snow still lingered. Elsewhere the grass was already showing healthy new growth.

Adam pushed his hat way back on his head and leaned on his saddle horn. He breathed deeply. The air, still cold and wet, carried the scent of growing things and the promise of summer to come. He looked across at the woman sitting next to him, a sparkle lightening his brown eyes, "Are you glad now, that you came?"

Jennyís face was pink from the cold and the fresh air, and the sheer exhilaration of their ride. She returned his smile, then threw her head back and laughed with the sheer joy of being alive, "Oh, yes, Adam. Itís been such fun!"

"When we were small Hoss and I used to sneak here with our fishing poles. Pa thought it was too dangerous, and I guess he was right," He looked ruefully at the speed of the flowing water, "We used to race our ponies across these fields to the old oak." he indicated the solitary, still leafless oak tree almost a mile distant across the meadow.

Jenny gazed at him wondering when it was that small boy went away. Was it possible to see a mischievous, perhaps naughty child lingering in this introverted, often cynical man? Yes, she decided, the child was still there, buried deep perhaps, but evident now in the up-tilted profile and the far focussed eyes. She gathered up he reins, "Well then," She said, "What are you waiting for?!"

She kicked her horse into motion and in a moment was flying away from him down the hill. Adam, caught totally by surprise, took several seconds to get his horse pointed in the right direction and took off after her. They both hit the bottom of the hill running and were away, their horses stretching into a flat out gallop.

Waving their hats in the air they whooped and hollered like a pair of Comanche children, quite oblivious to the speed at which the grass flashed by beneath their horseís bellies.

The race, for all practical purposes, was a dead heat. They passed on either side of the oak tree and pulled up beyond, breathless and laughing like lunatics. When she could finally speak Jenny pointed a shaking finger at her step son, "Donít you ever, ever dare tell your father!"

Ben rode into Virginia City on a horse that was just beginning to limp. The shoe had been thrown while he was riding the boundaries of the ranch casting a proprietary eye over the land and making mental notes of the most urgent repair work. It had been a shorter ride into town than back to the forge at the ranch house. Even so, it was already fully dark when he arrived.

Lanterns hung at intervals along the awnings, lighting the boardwalks and casting pools of cool radiance into the street. Many of the stores were still open, and there were a lot of people about. Ben tipped his hat to several that he knew. Further down the street two saloons were doing good business. Ben could hear the music and laughter. Later, he thought, he might buy himself a beer before heading home. That thought reminded him that he would soon have to hire on extra hands for the spring round up.

The blacksmithís shop was a well-lit hive of activity. Josh Gillford and his two sons Marty and John were hard at work at separate forges. Ben noted that the boys were fully-grown now; big, hard muscled men like their father. Their arms and their faces shone in the light of the fires, and the ring of their hammers sounded out into the night.

Ben dismounted and led his horse inside.

Josh Gillford looked up briefly from his work at the anvil, " íEveningí, Ben. Be with you in a few minutes."

"No hurry." Ben looped his reins round a convenient post and wandered over, "Whatís that your making?"

Josh was working a very curious sort of horseshoe on the block, sort of blunt and wide with a bracing bar across the open ends.

"Itís a special, Ben." Josh turned the hot metal, and hammered it, and turned it again, "Itís for old Nathan Boxerís horse there. Got that splayed out hind hoof."

Ben strolled over and looked at the dark bay horse tethered in the stall. It stood four square well enough but the near-side hind hoof was split and splayed.

Josh came over with the smoking horseshoe in the pincers, and Ben got out of the way. Expertly the blacksmith fitted the shoe in a cloud of acrid smoke, then quenched it in a bucket of water.

"Howís that stallion of yours Little Joe brought home?"

Ben laughed, "Joeís not so little now, you know. Monarchís just fine. Seems to get bigger every time I see him."

Josh started to nail the new shoe to the hoof, "That boy of yours sure knows horseflesh."

"He sure does," Ben remembered he had recently had the same thoughts himself.

"You put him up to any mares yet?"

"íBout half a dozen I reckon. Joeís looking after that side of things."

Josh put down he horseís foot and gave him a pat, "Thatíll hold him for another month. Now what can I do for you?"

Josh and Ben walked towards Benís horse.

"He threw a shoe. Heís walking lame."

Josh picked up the hoof and swiftly trimmed off a few rough bits with his knife.

"You seem to be busy." Ben remarked looking round at all the activity.

"Sure am. Fella named Kingdom Jones started up a new haulage business out of Sparks. Got a lot oí wagons and a lot oí mules," Josh looked up with a cheerful grin, "Means a lot oí horseshoes. Iíll have this fella fixed up for you in about twenty minutes."

"Then I think Iíll just go along and get myself a beer."

"If youíre goiní over to the Silver Dollar thereís fellas there asking for you. Lookiní to sign on for the spring drive."

Ben shook his head, "Josh, thatís twice in five minutes youíve read my mind."

"All part oí the service."

Every night in Virginia City was celebration night. And if no one was quite sure what they were celebrating, then that didnít really matter. The town was still booming on the back of the silver lode, and if evidence were needed, then the Silver Dollar saloon provided it. By the time Ben arrived, the place was already overflowing with light, and noise, and music. Elaborate contraptions of lamps and mirrors hung from the ceiling. A bar with a vast and hugely expensive mirror behind ran the length of the back wall. A grand staircase swept up to the not nearly so grand rooms above. The patrons were all men, mostly miners and cowhands still in their works clothes, laughing, and shouting, and holding loud conversations across the room. The tables were tight packed, and all of them were occupied. Card games were just getting started. Over in the corner someone was playing the piano loudly and with considerable skill. The only women present were a half a dozen artificially pretty saloon girls in their bright low cut dresses already working the crowd. The whole place smelled of sweat, and dirt, and cheap perfume, and overwhelmingly, of drink.

Ben pushed his way up to the bar

"Donít often see you in here, Mister Cartwright," remarked the bartender, putting Benís beer down in front of him.

Ben sipped appreciatively, "If the beerís this good Iíll be coming more often," He put his money on the bar and hooked his foot in the rail.

"You Ben Cartwright?"

Ben turned at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. It belonged to a tall whiplash thin man in his late twenties. He had a pleasant face marred by the loss of both front teeth, overlong curly hair and wore the standard western dress of pants, shirt, boots and vest.

"Thatís right," Ben said.

"Iím Auron Prior," The stranger held out a broad work hardened hand, "I hear tell youíre looking for hands this time oí year."

"Josh Gillford said you were asking for me." Ben looked him up and down with new interest and found himself liking what he saw, "You know something about cattle?"

"I know everything there is to know about cattle." Auron Prior said it easily, with a pleasant expression on his face.

"I pay a dollar a day and everything you can eat. Round up starts next week, calf branding and then the drive north. I provide remounts, and I might pay a bonus if itís a good year."

Auron nodded, "Sounds good to me. I got four brothers aní two friends. You hire them too?"

Ben looked beyond him, and found himself confronted by the same face repeated over and over with only slight variations. A practiced judge of men, he made up his mind quickly, "Iím hiring."

The expectant faces broke into smiles.

Auron made the introductions, and Ben realized that despite appearances, this set of brothers were as different from each other as were his own sons, "Aubrey," shorter, quick eyed, "Asia," the youngest, still soft featured, "Arthur," a powerful taciturn man not quite as big as Hoss, "And Ashley," pleasant faced like Auron, but with a full set of teeth that he displayed in a wide smile, "Weíre all Priors. Youíd better call us by our given names or we ainít gonna know who youíre talkiní to. This is Pete Barnes..." a small darker man, weasel faced, "And Pete Nash." balding, with a prominent nose and bright blue eyes.

Ben shook hands all round, "Whereíre you boys from?"

"We from out Utah, Wyoming way."

"Youíre a long way from home."

One of the younger Priors, Aubrey, spoke up, "We ainít rightly got no home to speak of."

"We do a lot oí travelliní," Auron, probably the eldest and obviously spokesman, smiled easily, "We heard you might be hiriní aní we come a long way to ride for you. You got a reputation, Mister Cartwright."

"Is that a fact?!" Ben shook his head in wonder, and then smiled back, suddenly at ease in the company of these men, "Why donít I buy you all a drink?"

That night as he rode home, Ben reflected that in the space of a half-hour he had hired himself all the extra help he needed. He smiled at the thought of the look on Adamís face when he was confronted by the names of five A. Priors and two more Petes in the wages book.

As good as their word, the Prior brothers showed up on the range at sunrise on Monday morning. The Cartwright boys liked them immediately, and it soon became clear that Auron Priorís claim to know cattle was no idle boast. They could ride, and rope, and brand as well as the Cartwrights themselves, and they knew how to ferret the mavericks out of the brushy hollows and the dry gullies where they liked to hide. Even Charlie, Benís foreman for fourteen years and as much a stickler for men pulling their weight as Ben, himself declared himself satisfied. As a bonus, it turned out that Pete Barnes was an expert trail cook. His bacon and beans was as good as any of them had ever tasted, rivalling even Hop Singís.

Roundup was complete, and the branding almost done on the bright spring morning when Hoss came striding in from the yard, a frown screwing up his normally amiable features,

"Hey, Pa! I was just talking to some of the hands that went into Virginia City last night. Thereís bin two more killinís just outside oí town. Couple oí miners shot up aní robbed oí their winter digginís. Folks saw two fellas ridiní away real fast."

Ben looked up from his breakfast, concern etched deeply into his face, "Thatís bad news, son. I was hoping we were done with all that killing."

Joe shook his head, "Until the miners get themselves organized, pa, theyíre goiní to be real easy pickinís."

Ben glanced across the table at him, still able to be surprised at his youngest sonís rapidly developing maturity, "You and Adam checked out the line shacks a while ago. Was there any sign that anyone had been hiding out up there?"

"No Pa," Adam set his coffee cup down carefully in its saucer. He was bristling slightly, "No oneís been up there since we closed them up last autumn."

Ben looked round the table. His gaze lingered on the face of each of the men his sons had become and came to rest, finally, on the empty chair at his side. For some days Jenny had declined to join the family at breakfast, pleading some minor indisposition.

"I donít like the idea of leaving Jenny alone with those killers about." he said slowly.

Hoss looked up between bites, "What do you plan on doiní Pa?"

"Now that the Priors are on the pay role, I donít see that we all need to go north with the cattle drive," Ben saw the looks exchanged around the table. He put a stronger note of authority into his voice, one that brooked no argument, "I shall go myself and I shall take you, Joseph, and Charlie, with me," Hoss and Adam looked at one another long and hard. Ben ploughed on, knowing they werenít liking it, "Adam, I want you to start right away on that logging road out of the high country. Iíll leave you enough hands for the job. Youíll give him a hand, Hoss, with the heavy construction work. Then, if you like, you can take that ride up into the reserved section."

Hoss beamed, instantly won over, "Sure thing, Pa."

Adam pushed his plate away just and inch, obviously selecting his words very carefully, "Pa, I donít think thatís altogether fair. You know that I wanted to..."

"I know, Adam. But later in the year I shall need you to go to San Francisco for me. You can take some time off then to visit the theatre, and the libraries, and whatever else. You wonít need to hurry back. In the meantime I shall be happier if I know that youíre here, especially at night."

Only partially mollified, and feeling that heíd been out manoeuvred, Adam sighed heavily "Just as you say, Pa," He shot Joe a venomous glance, and Joe grinned back at him in delight.

Ben stood up in his stirrups and looked the herd over. Separated out from the cows and calves, the steers had been mustered in a shallow basin ideally suited for the purpose. They looked fit and well, fattened on the spring grass. All he had to do now was deliver them to the cattle pens in Reno without running the meat off them.

Charlie came riding up the hill. His sorrel cow pony was already putting on a sweat.

"Thatís it, boss. All set to go. Final tally comes to fifty head or so more than you need to cover the contracts."

Ben, who knew that Charlie could neither read, nor write, trusted his count, "Thereís no point in leaving them here eating their heads off. Letís hope we get a good price for them"

Old Charlie turned his head and spat tobacco juice, "Letís get Ďem there afore we count it,"

Ben laughed, "Youíre right. Letís move them out!"

"Yes, Sir!" Charlie swung the sorrel round and galloped off down the hill.

The cattle drive was not without incident.

Somewhere along the way Joe Cartwright struck up a friendship with Asia Prior that was to endure for the rest of their lives. They were of an age and shared a love of life, of horses and of pretty young women. Asia, northern born and bred, had northern manners and neatly complimented Joeís southern influenced charm. The two of them quickly developed a double act that never seemed to fail. Ben worried that they were leaving a string of broken hearts and irate fathers along the trail behind them.

Pete Browning, one of Benís regular cowhands, got thrown from his horse and broke his leg. They had to leave him at a farmstead along the way. Ben went soft in the heart and gave away a horse from the remount string to a couple who had just had to shoot their only animal. He paid the fines of four men who got locked up after a saloon brawl, and docked their wages accordingly. Pete Nash turned out to be a gambling man, and a good one. During the course of the drive he managed to skin every man who would sit down with him, including, much to his shame in front of his father, the youngest Cartwright. Ben sighed and hoped that one day, his son might learn. One man got into an unwise fight with Arthur Prior and ended up with a cracked rib from the inevitable bear hug, and Ben bought his way out of trouble with a far ranging, and hungry, band of Paiute with a handful off cattle.

Perhaps worst of all, was the afternoon when six steers fell into a hole in a washed out river bank. The trail crew spent hourís chest deep in the river, digging in the mud and hauling on ropes, and didnít manage to save any of them.

The herd was delivered to Benís shipping agents a whole week before the due date on the contacts. Once the losses were tallied up, there were only a few extra head to be sold off, and the price for beef that year was not good. Ben, however, was pleased with the drive and was able to pay the men their promised bonus.

Charlie promised to round up the Ponderosa hands after a few days of freedom in the big city and herd them back to the ranch. Ben hoped that some of them might still have some money left.

Outside the stock-yards Ben shook hands warmly with each of the Prior bothers, and with the two Petes. They had proved willing and able workers, and he had grown used to their amiable faces. He was sorry to see them go, "Are you sure you boys wont come back to the Ponderosa? I guarantee youíll eat regular."

Auron Prior pushed his hat back, "You make that a mighty tempting offer, Mister Cartwright. Itís sure bin a pleasure to ride for you. But you see, we got what you might call a Prior engagement down Arizona way."

"Well, if you happen to be passing by next spring, you be sure to stop by. Iíll be glad to hire you. All of you."

Auron patted the pocket where heíd tucked his bonus pay and gave Ben a last gap toothed grin, "We might just do that," He tipped his hat to Ben and to Joe and went off with his brothers to find their horses.

Sightseeing, Ben and Joe strolled through the busy streets back to their hotel. They ate lunch together in the dining room.

There was a slight frown between Benís eyes as he gazed at his son over the coffee, "Joseph, I told you that when Iíve finished my business in town Iíll be going to visit with the OíKeefs awhile. Iím sure theyíd make you welcome if you wanted to come with me."

Joe gave him a grin, "Thanks, Pa. But no, thanks. You go on ahead and say hello to Mister OíKeef for me. Iíll be just fine."

"They have a big house, and servants, and some real pretty daughters that must be quite grown up by now."

Joe stifled the inevitable sigh that he knew would annoy his father. He had heard all about the OíKeef daughters, and their motherís enthusiastic matchmaking, from his brothers.

"Iíll be alright, Pa. Iím a grown man now. I can take care of myself."

Ben mustered as much conviction as he could, "Of course you can," If he were honest he had serious misgivings about leaving his youngest son alone in the city, "What are you going to do with yourself?"

Joe flourished a piece of paper and Ben recognised a familiar handwriting, "Adam gave me a list of addresses. Galleries and museums and places like that."

Ben looked from the list to Joeís face, mystified. His sonís expression was guilless.

Joe shrugged, "I thought I might give it a try. See if I can figure out what makes big brother tick," Joe thought about that other list Adam have given him - the list of names and places of less academic interest such as Belleís Palace, The Lotus Flower and The Paradise Garden. There were, he figured, things a grown manís father just didnít need to know.

Ben was not fooled for an instant. He had been a father long enough to know when something was being put over on him. Joeís expression was just too full of innocence to be true. However, he knew Joe was a man now, just as heíd said, and old enough to make his own mistakes. He just hoped they wouldnít be big ones. He pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and peeled some off, "Hereís half your wages, son. I put the rest in the bank. You can draw it when you get back to Virginia City."

A flicker of resentment crossed Joeís face. He would have liked all his money, but knew better than to say so, "Thanks, Pa," He pocketed the cash quickly before Ben could even think of changing his mind, "Iíll just spend a few days around town and then Iíll head for home."

Ben nodded slowly, still doubtful, "All right. Iíll see you back at the ranch."

The two men shook hands and Ben headed for his lawyerís office.

The Lotus Flower was an impressive building of yellow brick. It stood on a corner plot at a busy intersection, and from the number of men coming and going it was doing a brisk trade. Joe looked up at the impressive facade. It was all windows, and every window had curtains and a vase of flowers on the sill. Joe set his hat at a jaunty angle and set off across the street. Older brothers, he reflected, sometimes had their uses.

Four days later and flat broke, Joe set out for home. With no money for the stage or for lodgings he had to ride horseback all the way and sleep out under the stars. A week later he sat at the familiar fork in the trail. Ahead of him the lights of Virginia City spread invitingly across the landscape. To the right lay the trail to the Ponderosa, a long dark hourís ride away. For Joe, saddle sore and hungry, it was not a difficult choice to make. He rode into town and spent the night with a friend. In the morning, rested and fed, he set out on the last leg home.

Jenny Cartwright had taken full advantage of her men folks absence. With Hop Singís help she had spring-cleaned the ranch house from floor to rafters. Lamps had been taken down and cleaned, curtains washed, rugs beaten, and the furniture wax polished until it gleamed. There wasnít a speck of dust anywhere and the morning sun shone in through spotless windows to pool on the floor. She stood now beside the dining room table humming softly to herself arranging flowers in a shallow bowl.

Adam sat in his fatherís high-backed leather chair finishing up the backlog of paper work. At the sound of her singing he looked up and smiled. In a narrow waisted lilac coloured dress she looked ethereal against the light that spilled around her.

He stacked the papers neatly on the corner of the desk and slipped the big ledger into the drawer. It was in his mind to take the long ride up to the new logging road, just to check on how things were going. The road was complete now along two thirds of its length and Adam trusted his work crew, but he knew his father would expect him to keep a personal eye on it.

Hoss had ridden away into the reserved section a week ago, and while he could be back anytime now, he couldnít be expected to take another long ride out. The ranch hands that had gone on the cattle drive were drifting home, mostly broke, and he anticipated his fatherís imminent return. He knew Ben would want an up to date report on everything, so it was all down to him. Good old Adam, he was always the responsible one. And it was time to get going.

He got to his feet and crossed the room to stand behind his stepmother, "That looks real pretty, maíam."

"You think so?" Jenny tucked the last flower into place and set the bowl in the middle of the table.

Stepping back to admire her handiwork her hip brushed against his. She stumbled and Adam quickly put out a hand to save her. As she fell she turned, clutching at him. The next thing either of them knew, she was standing in the circle of his arms. Her thanks froze unspoken on her parted lips. His face was very close to hers, his breath fragrant and warm on her cheek, his brown eyes softening, becoming curious, inviting.

Adam gazed into her face. Her perfume and the clean smell of her hair filled his head and stole away his senses. The heat of her body reached him through the thickness of their clothes. He saw curiosity and wonder in her eyes. He lowered his face towards hers, his lips parting in anticipation.

Across the room Little Joe stood in the doorway, stunned by what he saw. His fatherís wife held in the arms of his brother. Numbed beyond thought he drew back, closing the door silently behind him.

Adam felt a pang low down as his body responded naturally and pleasantly to the close proximity of hers. His arms tightened, drawing her closer.

Jennyís lips trembled, her eyelids starting to close as she lifted her face to him, and then, in the same moment, both of them realized the deadly trap they were falling into. Their first forbidden kiss unborn they pulled apart. She put her hands flat against his chest as if to push him away and he stepped back, releasing her.

He looked away, not able to face her, "I am so sorry, maíam," he said in a low voice that shook, "I didnít mean for that to happen."

Jenny drew a long breath, "It wasnít your fault, Adam," She turned and walked away from his, putting furniture between them, and determinedly quelling for ever the intense yearnings his nearness had awakened, "It wasnít anyoneís fault," She faced him directly, by force of will making him meet her eyes, "And it wont ever happen again,"

"No, maíam," Adam didnít know what he felt or what he ought to feel, but he had already made himself that same promise, "What are we going to do?"

"Nothing!" Jenny drew herself up tall, "I am your fatherís wife and I love him dearly. You are his son. I see no reason to cause him pain. We will say and do nothing. It didnít happen."

Out in the barn Joe buried his face in his horseís neck and wept as his world fell in shattered ruins around him.

Eight

Hoss led his horse into the barn on a long loose rein. He was a happy man. He was bone tired from long days in the saddle and trying to sleep on the rock hard ground at night, but sated with the majestic beauty of the landscape to which, in his heart and soul, he was quite content to dedicate his life. His head was full of the things heíd seen and the ideas heíd had. He wanted to talk to his family about them and to discuss finance and practicalities with his father and with Adam.

A big smile split his face when he saw his little brother, "Hey, Little Joe! You back now from the big city?! How'd the drive go? You get to visit all those fancy whore houses Adam was talkin' Ďbout?"

Joe scrubbed his shirtsleeve across his face to remove the last traces of his tears. It had been over an hour since he had heard his eldest brother ride away, and he still couldnít make any sense of what he felt. There was anger, and confusion, and grief all mixed up together. He had no idea how he was ever going to look Adam in the face again, or his stepmother, or, worst of all, his father. What he did know was that he couldnít describe what heíd seen, not now, not to Hoss.

Hossís face was clouding over as he came nearer, "You all right, Little Joe?"

Joe drew a breath and put a grin on his face that didn't look anything like right, "I'm fine," How could he say that the universe had just fallen into ruin, "been living a little high on the town I guess."

Hoss looked more than doubtful, "ĎYou sure you're all right?"

"Iím all right, alright?" Joe disguised the catch in his voice by burying his face in the horseís mane.

Hoss squinted up his face the way he always did when he was trying to figure something out, then gave it bestí "Well, alright, Little Joe, Ifín youíre sure..."

"Címon," Joe gave the horse a slap on the rump to encourage him into the stall, "Letís get your horse put up, aní get you some decent coffee."

"I sure could use the coffee," Hoss said slowly, still puzzling with the problem as he started work on the horse, "Aní I got lots to tell you about. Díyou know I saw a little moose calf with his mamma? He couldnít aíbin above two hours old aní he was as cute as all-get-out..."

Joeís primary method of dealing with his problem was one of avoidance. As much as possible he stayed away from both his brother and his stepmother. He took to rising early, before anyone else was about and leaving the house before breakfast. He spent the days working in the farthest flung sections of the ranch, or in town, in the saloon. He soon drank away the rest of his wages. He didnít eat. He got home late, often drunk, and long after supper, going straight to his room without speaking to anyone. That is, on the nights when he went home at all.

He changed from his normally sunny and somewhat reckless disposition to one of silence and moroseness, and obviously the abrupt switch in his behaviour could not go unnoticed. Hoss was perplexed, then bewildered, and finally downright worried. He was afraid that his little brother was in some sort of desperate trouble that he was refusing to talk about, or worse, that he was ill. When Jenny spoke to him he mumbled monosyllabic replies and refused to look at her or wouldnít answer her at all.

Twice Adam tried to talk to his youngest brother, to ask him what was wrong and if there was anything he could do to help. On the first occasion Joe slammed out of the house, angry and close mouthed. The second time his reaction was one of such violence that he physically attacked his brother, accusations bubbling on the edges of his lips. Hoss had to haul him off and restrain his flailing arms. This time when Joe fled the house the tears were coursing down his face. The three of them watched Joeís descent into depression and chaos of the mind in helpless horror and hoped that Benís return would bring some resolution to the crisis, and that it would be soon.

The worst day of all for Joe was the day his father came home. Ben rode into the yard just after nine oíclock one evening, just as it was growing dark. He had pushed hard all-day and foregone the chance to stay at the hotel in town in order to be reunited with his family.

Joe had only just finished putting his own horse up in the barn, when he heard Benís horse outside.

Jenny, and Adam, and Hoss came out from the house to meet him with glad smiles on their faces. Ben looked rested and well after his stay with the O'Keefs. He swung his wife up and around in his arms. Her squeals of delight made Joeís insides cringe and when he saw Ben kiss her soundly, he had to look away.

Ben shook hands warmly with Adam and Hoss, then looked round for his youngest. Joe, still standing in the dark shadows of the barn doorway, came out slowly to say hello. The smile on Benís face faded. He could tell at once that there was something wrong. Joe was pale, almost ashen. His face was drawn and he had lost weight. There was something lurking in the depths of his eyes, something that gave him a haunted, hunted look. Almost reluctantly he shook hands with his father.

Ben held on to his hand and looked him closely in the face, "Joe, what is it son? Whatís the matter?"

Joe shook his head, a study in abject misery. He could barely bring himself to speak, "It ainít nothingí, Pa," He managed finally, "really, it ainít nothing."

Ben gazed at him a long moment longer, his shrewd mind debating endless possibilities, and then came to the conclusion that he wasnít going to solve anything standing in the middle of the yard. He handed his horse over to Hoss and herded the now, rather subdued little group into the house.

Joe sat quietly in a chair for as long as he could bear while the talk of the cattle drive and Ben's stay with the OíKeefs and the doings of the ranch flowed around him, steadfastly refusing to be drawn into the conversation. When he could stand it no longer he muttered the requisite Ďgoodnightí to everyone in general and beat a hasty retreat to the solitude of his room.

He knew his father would come, and got himself into bed and safely under the blankets. When at last he heard Benís step in the hallway outside and heard the door start to open he avoided the impossible discussion by the simple expedient of pretending to be asleep.

Ben stood in the room for a long time looking down at the huddled up figure in the bed. He knew Joe wasnít sleeping, his breathing and his position were all wrong, but it was plain that his son didnít want to talk to him about whatever was wrong, not tonight anyway. With a sigh and a shake of the head he turned away and closed the door silently behind him, leaving Joe to another restless, sleepless night.

Joe was up early and away from the house even before Hop Sing was awake. He was galloping his horse hard across the range as the sun came up trying to escape the agony that continually knotted itself up in his belly, and the terrible obscene thoughts that chased themselves round and round, inside his head, until he teetered on the verge of insanity. He was unaware that he wept as he rode, and that the wind whipped his tears away.

He had to talk to someone - had to! Or he would go mad. Evening found him far from home, up by the lake that he loved and that often brought peace to his soul. He followed the shoreline round until he came to the familiar place, then stepped down and tied his horse to a tree. He sat beside the place where his mother lay, and haltingly, at first, and then all in a rush, he told her all about it. Then he cried some more, long and hard, spilling out all the pain, and the anguish and begging, just plain begging, to be told what to do to make everything right again. And then he just sat for hours, dry eyed, trying not to think, just watching the moonlight track across the water.

There were no answers for Joe, that night. No revelations from heaven and no tranquillity for his spirit. It was late - very, very late - when he finally mounted up and tuned his horse for home.

The yard was quiet and the house, except for a single lantern turned low, in darkness when he got home. He closed the door very quietly, shed his gun belt, and coat, and made for the stairs.

"Joseph," His fatherís deep voice came softly from the chair beside the fireplace and froze Joeís foot on the bottom step, "Come over here, son, and sit down"

Woodenly, Joe turned and did as he was bidden. In the low light of the fire he could see his fathers face in contrasts of light and shadow. Ben was puffing on his pipe, a concerned look on his face, watching as Joe settled himself uneasily on the very edge of the chair across from him. Joe gazed into the flickering flames to avoid meeting his fatherís eyes.

Ben puffed away a moment longer, then took the pipe stem out of his mouth, "Jenny and your brothers tell me that youíve not been a happy man since you came back from Reno" Ben said quietly, "Did anything happen while you were away that I should know about? Did you get into some sort of trouble?"

Joe shook his head slowly, just once, his face a picture of misery, "No, Pa," His voice was little more than a whisper, "I didnít get into any trouble."

"Itís obvious somethingís troubling you, Joe. Troubling you very deeply. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"You canít help me. No-one can help me!" Joeís voice caught just short of a sob.

Ben was silent a long moment. There was nothing he wanted to do more at that moment than to go to Joe and put his arms round him and hold him close while he poured out his troubles, the way he had when he was a little boy and woke up sometimes with a nightmare. But Joe wasnít a little boy any more and what he was living through now was some kind of waking nightmare. Ben had the distinct feeling that if he tried the fatherly embrace he would be confronted at best by ridged unyielding shoulders and at worst by outright and perhaps vehement rejection. He suppressed a sigh and, trying to keep his voice level, made one more try.

"Are you sure thereís nothing you want to talk to me about, son?"

Joe stood up suddenly, startling his father, "I canít talk to you about it, Pa! I canít ever talk to you about it!"

He bolted for the stairs and fled, but not before Ben saw the unmistakable gleam, in the firelight, of tears on his cheek. For the second time that night Joe cried himself dry. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, before it started to grow light, Joe came to what was certainly the most momentous decision of his life so far. Having seen what he had seen, knowing what he knew, he couldnít bear to go on living in this house. His fatherís house. If he left, if he went away and stayed away, maybe his family could one day find a way to heal itself, and perhaps someday, somewhere he himself might be able to find a measure of peace. In the morning, before the sun came up and before anyone could try to stop him, he would ride away with no intention of ever coming back.

With the decision made finally and irrevocably, Joe found a certain peace of mind. He lay down on his bed, just to snatch a little rest before being on his way. His eyes drifted shut and before long his breathing became slow and even. For the first time in a long time, Joe slept.

When Joe opened his eyes again he was confused. Not only was it no longer dark but the sunlight was streaming in brightly through the bedroom window. Someone, certainly his father, had been in during the night and pulled off his boots and laid a blanket over him. He looked at the clock on the dresser. It was past ten oíclock! In the back of his mind he realized that his father had allowed him to sleep in long past the usual time.

With the decision of the night before still fresh he sat up on the edge of his bed and pulled on his boots. He rubbed a hand over the stubble on his chin and decided not to bother with shaving. Perhaps a beard would help give him a new identity. Certainly it would make him look older. Making his way alone in the world he was going to need all the advantages he could get.

He stuffed a few clothes haphazardly into his saddlebags and paused to look round the room. There was so much here that he would like to have taken with him, mementoes of his mother, gifts from his family, memories of happier times. He decided to leave it all right where it was, behind him in the past.

Very quietly he opened the door and stepped out into the passageway. The house seemed still. By this time in the morning his father and his brothers would be out working on the ranch and he remembered, when he thought about it, that his step mother had been talking about driving into town in the buck board that morning with Hop Sing. It was unlikely that anyone would be about to see him leave, which was just the way he wanted it.

He closed the door and walked softly to the head of the stairs. The main room with its warmly coloured rugs and comfortable furniture was empty. Joe went down the steps, took down his favourite rifle from the gun rack and helped himself to a box of cartridges from the draw underneath. He debated taking some money from his fatherís desk and decided against it. Just as soon as he was out of Nevada, somewhere where the name Cartwright didnít evoke an immediate reaction, he would have to get a job and earn himself some money. Probably a job with horses. The thought of leaving Monarch and the mares behind, knowing he never see the soon to be born foals, brought a fresh pang of pain.

He headed for the door, grabbing his coat and his gun belt on the way.

As he reached for the door handle the door opened and Hoss came in. The two of them met in the doorway and the collision all but knocked Joe off his feet. He stumbled backwards into the sideboard. Hoss looked his brother over, taking in the dishevelled unshaven appearance, the stuffed saddlebags and the rifle. His face folded into a frown as his mind got itself round the implications.

"You goin' someplace, Little Joe?" He asked finally.

Joe drew a breath, recovering himself, "Yeah! Iím going someplace," he moved to step round his brother but Hoss stood four square between him and the door and wouldnít budge. Joe pushed him. It was like pushing a rock.

The frown on Hossís face deepened,, "Where is it youíre goin?"

Joe hadnít thought that one out yet, "I donít know! Any place! Just so long as itís away from here! Now will you get out oí my way you great oaf?!"

Joe tried to charge round Hoss but Hoss put out a great arm and stopped him dead. The big man was really worried now, and getting just a bit frightened, "I donít think you aught to go no place just now, Joe. Not until you talked it over with Pa aní Adam."

"Adam?!" The mention of his brother's name was just enough to tip Joe over the edge. He backed up and his voice rose to a shout, "Adamís the reason I have to go! Don't you see that?! I saw them! I saw what they were doing!"

"You saw who doing what?" Benís voice asked from behind him.

Hoss looked up and saw his father coming round the corner from the kitchen. Joe spun round, his face draining to paper white. Hoss thought he was going to fall over and caught him by the arm to steady him.

Ben gave his youngest son a good hard look, "I think, Joseph, youíd better come over here and tell me all about it," He continued on to his desk with his coffee and sat down.

Joe followed him as if were walking in a dream. His head was spinning and he wanted desperately to be sick. His father looked up at him sternly, concern making his dark eyes all but black. Joe half turned to bolt for the door and found Hoss right behind him, still blocking the way, and the big manís expression said he wasnít going to move. There was no way of escape.

"Now weíre going to get to the bottom of all this," Ben said firmly, "Whom did you see doing what?"

Joe wished then that the floor would open up and swallow him right down into hell. He opened his mouth but no words came out. Benís expression hardened. Hoss looked from his father to Joe and back.

"Pa, Joe said somethiní about leaviní aní Adam beiní the reason."

"Adam?" Ben looked confused, "What has Adam to do with it?"

Joe shook his head, dumbstruck.

Ben started to piece the puzzle together on his own, "You say you saw Adam doing something, with someone. I think youíd better tell me what this is about."

Joeís mouth worked, "Adam..." he breathed, "Adam and Jenny... They were..."

"They were what?" Ben asked in a dead flat voice that suggested he had already figured half of it out for himself. The silence grew, "What were they doing, Joseph?"

Joe let his breath all the way out. He wanted to look away, to close his eyes, to do anything to avoid seeing the pain as it dawned on his fatherís face but he couldnít, his eyes were locked to his fathers by some terrible attraction, "They were kissiní, Pa."

He said it in a whisper but it had all the import of a mountain falling.

For Ben it was as if the Earth had stopped turning. He sat quite still in his seat and stared at his son. At that moment there was nothing he wanted more than to leap up and fly at Joe. To make him take back the evil words. To make him admit that he was lying. But Joe wasnít lying. Joe was white faced and trembling and frightened, on the verge of collapse, but Ben knew he wasnít lying. For the fourth time in his life his world had shattered into pieces around him and this time in the worst way of all.

His head was starting to ring and he realized that he had stopped breathing. Carefully, for fear that something inside might break apart, he filled his lungs.

"Joseph," he said, almost gently, "Are you sure? Are you very sure?"

Joe nodded dumbly and Benís face became bleak, "Tell me exactly what you saw, Joseph. Exactly!"

Joe looked down at the floor and then up again, into his fatherís face, "They were standiní over there by the table, Pa. They had their arms round each other and they were standing awful close."

And at that moment the door opened, and Adam came into the house.

None of them had heard his horse in the yard, and he had no idea what he was walking into.

Ben raised his voice in a hoarse command, "Adam! Come here!"

Adam responded to the tone in his fatherís voice and walked directly over to his fatherís desk. His eyes flickered from the confusion on Hossís face to the anguish on Joeís to the sudden dawning fury on Benís. He didnít need words to tell him that something very serious had happened, "Whatís going on, Pa?"

Very slowly Ben got to his feet, "I suggest that you tell me whatís going on. Between you and my wife," his voice was very soft. Dangerously soft. He moved round the desk towards his son.

Adam looked at him in bewilderment, "Nothing Pa! Thereís nothing going on!" He shook his head; glanced at his brothers; returned his gaze to his father.

"I know," Ben said with heavy finality.

"Know what, Pa?"

"I know about you, and Jenny," Benís voice was level, but it cracked, "I know what youíve been doing behind my back. You were seen!"

Adam drew back, "Pa..!"

"You were seen kissing!" The level of Benís voice rose.

"But Pa..!"

"Do you deny it! Do you call your brother a liar?"

Adam looked at Joe who was weeping openly, and realized with a dawning horror what must have happened that morning, "No, Pa. But it wasnít like that!"

Ben raised his hand, his fist clenched so tightly that his nails dug bloody crescents in the palm of his hand.

Adam made no move to defend himself. He stood quite still, holding his fatherís gaze, waiting for the blow to fall.

For a long moment the tableaux held, and then, very slowly, Ben lowered his hand and unclenched his fingers. He could not, under any circumstances, strike his son.

"It wasnít like you think, Pa," Adam said, "We didnít do anything other than what Joe saw. It was an accident. A mistake. I swear it!" He saw the unyielding iron in Benís gaze and started to grow desperate, "Youíve got to listen to me, Pa!"

"A mistake!" Ben fixed him with a hard eye, the stare never wavering, "Youíve made a mistake that I think youíll regret for the rest of your life!" And then he found himself saying words he never thought heíd utter, "I think youíd better leave, Adam. Get out of my house. Go now. Donít ever come back."

Adam stared at him for what could only have been seconds, but seemed like a very long time. The blood drained from his face. Then, abruptly, he turned on his heel and a moment later, the front door slammed shut behind him.

Ben slumped down in a chair and buried his head in his hands.

Nine

It was an awkward night time meeting in the Silver Dollar saloon. The three brothers found themselves a table in the corner, and the bartender brought over a bottle of good corn whiskey and three glasses. Hoss poured out generous measures all round. They all felt as if they needed them.

Joe sat and stared miserably into his glass rather than look his brother in the face, "Iím awful sorry, Adam. I didnít mean to cause you all that trouble."

"You called it as you saw it, Joe. There isnít any point in hauliní it over."

"I went off half cocked. I should have know better."

Adam made a dismissive gesture and looked at Hoss, "I donít suppose thereís any point in trying to talk to Pa?"

"Nope. Donít reckon there is. Not right now, anyhow," Hoss shook his head, "He donít want ta talk about it to no one, an ifín you try, heís like as not to tear your danged head off," He took in his brotherís appearance. Adam hadnít shaved in two days and his clothes looked rumpled, slept in. More than that, his eyes held lurking shadows that hadnít been there before. It was amazing how much a man could change in just a few days, "You got someplace to stay?"

"Iíve got somewhere," Adam finished of his whiskey and poured himself another while he thought about the small, bare little room heíd rented in a boarding house on the edge of town.

With his foot, Hoss pushed forward the carpet-bag he brought with him, "I managed to pack up a few oí your things. Shirts aní pants, aní a spare pair oí boots. You diínít get a chance taí take nothiní with you when you went."

Adam tucked the bag under the table. He knew how difficult it must have been for his brothers to smuggle even so few things out under their fatherís scrutiny "Thanks, Hoss."

Hoss downed his drink, "Weíd better not hang around no longer. If Pa finds out we bin here, heís like to nail our hides tí the barn. Címon, little brother."

The three men stood and shook hands all round. Adam gave Joe a grin that didnít come anywhere near reaching his eyes, and Joe and Hoss went out into the night to find their horses. Adam sat down again and pulled the bottle closer.

He was gazing morosely into his third, or it might have been his fourth, glass of whiskey when he felt a feather light touch on the back of his neck. He stiffened, and then relaxed as one of the saloon girls began gently to massage the tense muscles in his shoulders. She was new into town and he hadnít seen her before. Small and young, the hard lines caused by her profession had not yet formed on her face, and she was still pretty. She let her fingers slide down his arm and she slipped into the seat beside him.

She smiled at him coyly and asked the time-honoured question, "Buy a girl a drink?"

Adamís lips twitched in the slightest suggestion of a smile. The last thing he wanted right now was company, "Honey, why donít you find someone else?"

The woman studied his face. She had seen him from across the room, sitting all alone with a bottle and steadily pouring the contents inside himself. It was clear that he had some deep misery, but he was a handsome man with smile lines at the corners of his deep set, dark eyes and a firm mouth that would be sensuous if it wasnít set into a thin, hard line. She let her fingers trace the muscles of his arm through the cloth of his shirtsleeve. They were toughened and corded by habitual hard work.

"I kind of like what I see here," she let her fingers trace further, to rest lightly on the back of his sun browned hand. He looked down, fascinated by the contrast of her pale skin against his.

"My nameís Mirri," she said, "I havenít been in town long, and I havenít made that many friends yet."

Adam looked up into her eyes and found her smiling at him, but not with the forced, brassy, saloon girl smile. It was more a look of sadness and sympathy. Courteously, he exchanged names with her.

"You donít look like youíve got all that many friends, either."

Adam smiled, briefly, and Mirri saw that she had been right about the way his face lit up. When he smiled, he was darkly, devilishly, devastatingly handsome. She felt something begin to knot up deep inside her and let her eyes travel over him. All dressed in black clothes, he was a big, powerful man. As he sat back in his chair, fully aware of her scrutiny, she could see just how powerful. He had wide shoulders and a broad, deep chest with a suggestion of dark curls in the open neck of his shirt. Her gaze drifted lower, and Adam picked up her little white hand in his.

"Do you really want that drink, Mirri?" he asked.

He wondered if he was really doing the right thing. Handsome, wealthy and charismatic, saloon girls were not his normal fare, but right now he was feeling lonely. He wasnít relishing a night alone in the drab little boarding house room.

Mirri smiled into his eyes, "Iím not really thirsty," she said softly, and her fingers tightened on his, "But if you like, you can bring the bottle along for later."

Forgetting all about the bag of clothing, Adam picked the bottle up by the neck and followed Mirri upstairs.

Jenny sighed and finally gave up what was proving to be hopeless struggle. There was no earthly way she was ever going to get the laces of the corset done up. She tossed the offending garment on the bed and examined herself critically in the looking glass. There was doubt about it, her slender waist, of which she had always been so proud, was gone. Probably forever. She ran her hands down over her body. Her belly was showing a definite bulge. There was no help for, it she was going to have to present her husband with what was going to be, in the present circumstance, a most unpalatable fact.

She closed her eyes for a moment, and found, lurking behind the lids, the ever-present memory of the scene that had greeted her on her return from Virginia City. It had been the same day that Adam had left home, now two weeks ago. She had been so happy and so full of the news that the doctor had confirmed for her; so confident that Ben would share full measure in her joy. What she had found was a family torn apart.

She winced as she remembered the confrontation that had followed. The accusations, the denials, the tears - from both of them- and finally the awful silence that had lasted ever since. Ben had scarcely spoken a word to her from that day. It was as if he had removed himself to a different world, one in which she had no place at all. He barely acknowledged her existence. He had taken all his things out of the bedroom that same day and moved into the downstairs guestroom. If he could, he avoided being in the same room with her. Certainly he never seemed to look at her, although sometimes, when her back was turned, she felt his dark eyes burning into her like hot coals.

It was not that he hated her, she was sure of that. The front he presented was one of studied indifference, but neither was that the whole story. The expression she saw, from time to time, on his still handsome face was if anything, one of infinite sadness.

Well, she thought resignedly, she had already left this far too long. However unpleasant it was going to be, she had to confront him now. She sighed again and buttoned herself into the loosest dress she possessed, a high waisted bronze coloured creation that had come originally from Paris, and turned towards the door. It was not going to be an easy interview.

Ben was sitting at his desk in the corner of the living room, struggling with what seemed to be an ever-growing pile of paperwork. Jenny, pausing on the landing, felt a pang of sympathy for him. He had never been fond of the book keeping. In recent years, his son Adam had taken most of it off his hands. Now Adam wasnít there any more, and Benís heart wasnít in it. He looked old and very tired.

She went on down the stairs and walked steadily across the room to stand before the desk.

"Ben, I have to speak with you."

He glanced up, his eyes hard and angry, "I donít think we have anything to say to one another."

"I have something to say to you," Proudly, Jenny drew herself up tall and straight, "And you are going to listen."

Ben humphíd and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. He was trapped in the corner and had no way to make the escape he would have liked, "Then I suppose youíd better get on and say it."

Obviously, he wasnít going to make this easy for her, "I have to explain to you, just one more time, what happened that morning."

"I donít think I want to hear it again," He said gruffly.

For a moment, anger flared in the green of her eyes. She choked it back, "You will hear it again, because you must understand that it is the truth. I tripped. Adam caught me. For a moment, for one single instant of time, we were tempted! Does it surprise you? You breed fine handsome sons, Ben Cartwright. But there was no more to it than that. Not then, not ever!"

Ben stood up slowly, looking at the beautiful woman before him. Her cheeks were flushed pink and her eyes flashed with green fire. That fire was one of the first things that had attracted him to her. Her dark hair was loose, tumbling down over her shoulders and contrasted starkly with the dress she wore, a curious metallic looking affair with a full skirt that started somewhere just under her bosom, "You are my wife," he said, "You have my name. You live under my roof. What more do you expect?"

Jenny folded her arms around herself protectively, "I expect a little understanding. A little compassion. A little forgiveness."

His mouth worked a moment, "Perhaps one day. For the moment I am unable to give you any of those things."

He moved to step round her. She caught at his arm and stopped him, then let her hand fall, "Ben," she said, "I am going to have a baby."

Ben stared at her. A dozen different emotions chased each other across his face. His thoughts churned in confusion. It was to his eternal discredit that it was the ugliest thought of all that surfaced first, "Is the child mine?" he demanded, "Or is it Adamís?"

He turned away from her stricken face and headed for the door without waiting for any sort of an answer.

Adam pulled his horse to a halt at the hitching rail and sat, comfortable in the saddle, looking down at the old man who sat snoozing in the sun on the porch, "íYou Kingdom Jones?"

The old man opened one eye and then the other, looking his visitor over, "I could be. What díya want?"

Adam leaned forward in the saddle, easing his butt, "I hear tell youíre looking to hire some help."

The old man rocked his chair forward onto all four legs and stood up. He was a lot bigger than heíd looked, sitting, and nor was he so old. He had a sharp face and a keen eye that missed nothing. He ran that eye over Adam, and his horse, and his gear, "You good with horses?" he asked.

"I manage well enough," Adam looked round at the place, taking in the weather beaten shack that served both as home and offices for Kingdom Jones, the neat corrals, mostly empty, and a couple of well kept looking wagons.

"Cín you write Ďn figure?"

Adam gave a wry smile, "I can."

"Whatís yer name?"

"Adam," Adam took a breath, "Adam Cartwright."

Kingdom Jones screwed up his eyes, "Say, you one oí them Cartwrights from over Virginia City way?"

Adam sighed. This was the way the conversation usually went - and from here on it usually went downhill. With his fatherís influence all over the State, no one wanted to employ a Cartwright. The inevitable question followed,

"What you doiní lookiní for work when your pappy got all that great big ranch?"

Adam sat back and gave his stock answer, "Even a Cartwright has to eat."

Jonesís eyes narrowed shrewdly, "Your pappy turn you out?"

Adam looked away over the corrals wondering if it was possible that someone hadnít heard, "Something like that."

"You diínít steal nothing, did ya?"

"No. I didnít steal anything."

Jones looked him over again, carefully. He wasnít a man to be influenced by anything that other men said. He trusted his own judgement, "I think I like your cut, Cartwright. Why donít you step right down and set awhile and weíll see if we can talk us some business."

The little group of cattle, cows and calves numbering, perhaps, a dozen head in all, were moving purposefully towards the Cartwrightís fence line. It was difficult to see for certain just what was going on at such a distance, but it wasnít normal for cows to be walking that way. Hoss scrunched up his face in a effort to penetrate the heat haze that shimmered over the grass land. Sure enough, after a few moments he made out the forms of horsemen moving the cattle quietly along. There looked to be two of them. Hossís face set into a hard expression. Rustlers taking steers was one thing, a wicked crime against the law and something that had to be stamped out, but taking cows and their young ones before they even got a chance to grow was something else again. Hoss just wasnít going to stand for any such thing.

The big man pulled his rifle from its scabbard under his knee and urged his horse to a faster pace. He was aiming to cut the rustlers off while they were still on Cartwright land.

Where the third rider came from, Hoss was never quite sure. He appeared suddenly from behind a fold in the land. He was close enough for Hoss to see the rifle come up, and the smoke come from the muzzle, as the stranger snapped off a shot.

Hossís horse gave a deep cough and started to crumple under him. Hoss kicked free of the stirrups and stepped away as the animal went down on its side. Its hind legs kicked a few times, and then it lay still.

Hoss said a short, very rude word of which his father would not have approved. He had grown very fond of that horse.

The sound of hooves coming up behind made him turn. His Pa and Joe pulled their horses up in a shower of stones and stepped down beside him. Ben took in the scene at a glance, the downed horse and the look on his sonís face, "What happened here?"

"Danged rustlers. I was on to them, Pa. Theyíre taking the cows now, aní the little calves. They shot my horse clean out from under me."

Ben put a hand on his shoulder, gazing out the way the cows had gone, "I just thank God it wasnít you, son."

Ahead of him the trail dipped down sharply into the valley, and then curved round to run for a way alongside the fence line of his fatherís land. To Adamís mind, it was one of the prettiest patches of country around. The whole of the landscape spread itself out in front of him like a map. A small river edged with broadleaf trees ran through, with a shallow ford where the road crossed over. There was meadowland with bushes, and wild flowers, and further on some thicker wood-lands showing all shades of green in the early summer sunshine.

Sitting his horse at the top of the hill, Adam shrugged out of his coat and laid it across his horseís withers in front of him. It was a pleasure just to sit for a while, with the warmth of the sun on his back, and the scent of growing things in his nostrils, and feast his eyes. It was so beautiful, so peaceful, so evocative that he felt, not for the first time, a painful twinge of homesickness.

In fact, it was almost too peaceful. A slight frown formed between Adamís dark eyes. Usually, the valley was filled with the sound of birdsong, and the flutter of butterflies, and if you sat very still for a while, you could hear the rustling of all the small things that lived in the grass. Today there was none of this. Other than the background gurgling of the water where it tripped over a weir, there was no sound of any kind.

The little hairs on the back of Adamís neck started to prickle. It was a sensation he had come to trust. He studied the country on either side of the road. There was no apparent reason for the desertion of the local wild life, or for his sudden feelings of unease. The only things that moved were the surface of the water and a shimmer of heat haze above the road. Not even a breath of wind stirred the flower heads.

He gathered the reins and sat up straighter. He had Kingdom Jonesís money in his pocket and an appointment to inspect some mules at a farm up ahead. Heíd better be moving on. He put the feeling of disquiet behind him and nudged the horse on along the road down into the valley.

He had just reached level ground when something up ahead caught his attention. A puff of white smoke drifted lazily up from among some bushes around a half-mile away. Closer, a couple of partridge flew noisily from cover. Instinctively, Adamís knees tightened, pulling the horse round. There was just time for a frown to form on his face. The retort of the rifle shot, and the bullet reached him at the same moment.

 

Ten

Bone weary, Ben rode slowly home from the logging camp. It had been a glorious God given day with all the fresh promise of early summer. Shifting sunlight dappled the forest paths, and the air was warm and fresh, redolent with the scent of pine and flowers. Up in the pine forests it had been mostly still and silent, but here in the lower woodlands, there was birdsong, and small animals, and once he sighted a group of deer in the underbrush. Their heads had all turned towards him with noses quivering. Deep in his heart, he knew that he should give thanks. In recent days, he had been unable to find grace, or serenity enough, in his soul to commune with his God.

Once, he had willingly taken up the challenge of this majestic land and carved out an empire, for himself, and for his children. The work had always been hard, stretching both a manís spirit and his back. Now it was just backbreaking toil, a burden on his shoulders that became greater and greater with each day that passed. As he rode along, he never once lifted his eyes from the trail in front of him to gaze upon the glorious creation of his Lordís hand.

For the greater part of his journey he followed the new road that Adam had built, turning off when he reached the lowlands onto the older more familiar trails that led towards the house. It was into the second half of the afternoon when at last he turned his horse into the front yard.

He pulled up abruptly, frowning. It took his tired mind a moment to register that the yard was full of horses.

His sonís horses were tethered in a row outside the house - all of his sonís horses he realized abruptly, Adamís tall chestnut was among them. At the other rail stood a somewhat shaggy bay he recognized as belonging to Roy Coffee and another horse. Pulled up outside the house was the doctorís Surrey. His heart starting to rise up in panic, Ben vaulted from his horse before it had stopped moving and broke for the door.

After that events took on a slow motion quality, as if they happened under water, or in some kind of waking dream. The door slammed back under his hand. His mind, running at lightening pace, catalogued the faces turning towards him, working out which ones were missing. Ben let out a shout, "Jenny!"

"Jennyís all right, Pa," Joe put out a hand and touched his fatherís arm. His face was pale, drawn tight.

Ben breathed, "Adam!" and leapt for the staircase.

Hoss stepped in front of him, interposing his big body between Ben and the steps, "You canít go up there, Pa," he said heavily. Hossís face was as white as Joeís and his expression was somehow all twisted sideways. He looked as grave as Ben had ever seen him.

"Whatís happened?"

Hoss gave that curious little shake of the head so characteristic of him when he had bad news to tell. He was finding it difficult to look his father in the face, "Adamís been shot, Pa. Little Joe found him and brung him on home."

Ben half turned to look at Joe.

"I was ridiní the fence line, Pa. I heard the shot aní I got there as quick as I could. But theyíd gone. Adam was just lyiní there in the road."

Ben looked from one to the other. His heart was like a stone in his breast, "How bad is it?"

Hoss struggled to meet his eyes, "Itís bad, Pa. Itís real bad. Adamís bin gut shot."

Ben recoiled as if heíd been shot himself. It was as if all the steam had suddenly been let out of him.

"Jen and Hop Sing are up there helping the doctor," He heard Joe say from what seemed like a long distance away, "They wont let us go in there. They say thereís nothiní we can do," Privately he thanked heaven his father hadnít been there a half-hour before when Adam had been crying out with the pain of his wound.

Ben turned away, his face a study of stunned bewilderment.

The sheriff stepped forward from where he had been loitering uncomfortably with his deputy, "Looks like your boy ran foul oí that gang oí bush-whackers thatíve bin operatiní outside oí town, Ben. Either they were lying for him Ďcause he shot young Andy Boxer outside the bank, or they were after Kingdom Jonesís money he was carryiní. Leastways, they cleaned out his pockets after they shot him."

"And left him to die," Ben said softly. He moved slowly to the desk and lightly touched the frame that held the picture of Adamís mother, a tenuous link with his son.

Roy and his deputy exchanged looks, "Ben," Roy said, "I need Little Joe to ride out with us to where he found his brother. We need to scout around for sign before it gets dark. Tonight Iíll put a posse together and weíll ride out first thing in the morniní. See if we can find the men who did this."

Hoss stepped forward, "Iíll be ridiní on the posse with you, Roy," He looked at the sudden anxiety on his fatherís face, "There ainít nothiní I can do for Adam sittiní here, Pa. But I can sure as heck try to catch up with them fellas what shot him."

Roy Coffee looked at Hoss sternly, "I canít say no to you, Hoss. Every man has the right to do that much for his brother. But you ride behind me. You hear?"

Hoss gave him a curt nod, "I hear you, Roy."

Roy nodded to Ben and headed for the door, trailing his deputy, "Iíll stop by in the morniní aní pick you up then. Címon Joe."

Joe, already wearing his gun belt and hat, gave his father a long look that spoke volumes of regret before following the lawmen out of the door.

Time took on a surrealist quality marked only be the sonorous ticking of Marie Cartwrightís French, tall-case clock. Just once there was a flurry of activity, when Hop Sing came down the stairs carrying a bowl, covered so that no one could see what was in it, and muttering a torrent of Chinese. He wouldnít say anything in English to either of the Cartwrights, and soon went up again with a stack of clean towelling. Ben and Hoss took turns in trying to sit still in a chair and pacing the floor.

The sound of the doctorís tread on the stair brought them both to the foot of the staircase. The lines of strain were evident in Paul Martinís face. His troubled brown eyes flicked from Hossís face to Benís, settling gravely on that of the elder Cartwright.

"Itís not good, Ben. The bulletís out and Iíve cleaned him up inside as best I can, but you know what these belly wounds are like."

Ben suppressed a shudder, "Iíve seen them," he said steadily.

The doctor nodded, "They can turn real nasty, real fast." He moved aside to let Jenny and Hop Sing pass behind him on the way to the kitchen, "Iím not going to feed you any false hopes, Ben. This is one fight we might not win. About all you can do is keep him quiet and help him ride it out."

Ben took note of what the doctor wasnít saying, "And? You can tell me the rest of it, Paul."

Paul sat down with a sigh and accepted the coffee Jenny handed him, "Itís not totally hopeless, Ben," he said, seeing the awful expectation his old friends face, "Iíve seen men recover from wounds like that. Not many, but some. In my experience, a man has to have a driving urge to stay alive," He sipped his coffee and then met Benís eyes levelly, "I have to tell you, Ben. I donít think Adam has that urge. I think your boy might just let himself slip away without a fight."

Ben drew a long steadying breath. He was just discovering a few home truths about his own feelings, "Oh, heíll fight, Paul. Believe me, heíll fight!"

Adam lay so still in the bed that Ben thought he was already dead. His face was ashen, and his closed eyes were bruised looking and sunken back into his head. His breathing was so slight his chest hardly moved at all. Ben stood at the end of the bed not knowing what he could do to avert what he saw as inevitable. This was his beloved first-born son, and despite what Ben had said to the doctor, he was dying.

Paul Martin came back into the room, all business like efficiency. He checked Adamís pulse and breathing with his pocket watch, and, briefly, he laid a palm on the pale forehead. He only turned to Ben when he had finished.

"Iíve left him something for pain, if it gets real bad," He indicated a small dark bottle on the dresser, "Iíll call back in the morning."

Ben tore his eyes away from Adam and stared at the bottle. He knew, without being told, that if the pain got that bad, nothing that came in a bottle was going to help, "Youíre going?"

"I canít do anything more for him. And I have a man with pneumonia and a woman about to have twins waiting on me," Paul touched Benís shoulder lightly, "Iíll be back tomorrow." He didnít add that his visit might not be necessary.

In the doorway he paused and looked back, "If youíre on good terms with your Maker, Ben, you could try a few prayers."

Hoss and Jenny came and went a few times, offering coffee, and food. At one point in the evening, as it grew dark, one of them lit the lamp. First one, then the other sat for a time in the chair on the other side of the bed. No one said much. All of a sudden there didnít seem to be a great deal to say. Ben was unable to take his gaze from Adamís face. He found himself listening for each shallow breath his son drew, always afraid that it might be the last. Adam stirred only once, whimpering as if in a bad dream and tossing his head against the pillow. Ben soothed him and cooled his face with a cloth. He peeked under the covers. Adamís belly was bandaged, and there was no sign of the hideous wound. There was no blood seeping through. He pressed Adamís hand between his own and talked to him, but there was no answering pressure, and no sign from his son that he even heard.

Hoss, eventually, took himself off to bed, knowing that he had to get some sort of rest if he were riding out with the posse. Joe, refusing to lay down, was sleeping in a chair down stairs.

Jenny opened the bedroom door and slipped quietly inside. Ben looked up at her. In the low lamplight his tired eyes were haunted. Without a word, she sat down in the chair across the bed and picked up Adamís other hand.

Ben studied her profile. He felt a well remember burgeoning in his chest, a feeling of love, of possession and of pride. She was a handsome woman, beautiful woman, a fine woman. She was his wife.

He drew a deep breath, "You love him, donít you?" he asked quietly. His voice was a deep whisper in the quiet room.

She looked at him then, her face a pale oval in the lamplight, her eyes soft and sad,. "Yes, Ben. Of course I love him. As if he were my own, dear son."

Ben lowered his silvered head and closed his eyes. At last he was able to pray.

A single tear splashed onto the back of his hand where it clasped Adamís. Jenny reached out a hand to him across the counterpane and Ben met her halfway. Their fingers entwined and locked the three of them together in a triangle of love.

Later that night, Adam began to burn with fever. His waxy face became wet with sweat, and he fought to throw off his coverings. Ben caught his hands and restrained him, afraid that he would start to tear at his dressings and then at the wound itself. It was something he had seen happen before. He wondered if this was the start of the thing he dreaded most, the hours, perhaps days, of tearing agony that would end, eventually, perhaps mercifully, in death. Adam cried out sharply, and the pain seemed to bring him half way to consciousness.

Ben bent over him "Adam? Adam, do you hear me, son?"

Adamís eyes opened, fevered and frightened. Ben took his hand, "Listen to me, youíre home now. Home to stay." Adamís breath shuddered as he tried to speak but Ben couldnít make out the words. "Adam," Ben put steel into his voice, "Iím right here with you. You have to fight this. Fight hard, son!" For just a moment it seemed as if Adam struggled to focus his eyes. Then he sighed, and groaned with pain, and rolled his head away.

Ben sank back into his chair and prayed again.

Ten

Hoss pulled his cinches up tight and lowered the leathers into place over the cinch rings. His face was set with determination, and his eyes were deep frozen chips of blue ice.

Joe came out from the house. He looked dishevelled, and tired, and old beyond his years. Hoss looked up at him anxiously and then relaxed. There was no fresh grief in his brothersí face. In answer to the unspoken question Joe shook his head.

"Thereís no change."

Hoss let out a pent up breath, "Well, I guess the docíll be out real soon."

"I donít think thereís much he can do,"Joe said miserably, "Hoss, Iím cominí on that posse with you."

Hoss shook his head, "You just canít do that, Joe. You gotta stay here."

"Thereís nothiní I can do here!"

"Joe," Hoss leaned on his saddle and chose his words carefully. It wasnít easy for the big man to say what he had to say, "If Adam..." His voice failed, and he had to swallow hard and start over, "If Adam donít make it, País gonna need one of us to be right here. Heís gonna need it real bad."

Joeís eyes filled up with tears, "I donít think I could handle that, Hoss."

Hoss pulled a face. "You can handle it, Joe. You can do whatever you gotta do. Just like I gotta do what I gotta do." He swung himself into the saddle and gathered the reins into his big hands, "You take good care oí things, little brother," Reining the horse round he kicked it into a canter and left Joe in the yard looking after him.

There were four men waiting for Hoss at the crossroads aside from Roy Coffee and Olí George, his deputy. Two of them Hoss already knew slightly by sight, the other two were strangers. Roy reeled off the names by way of introduction, "This hereís Hoss Cartwright whoís brother was the man shot down yesterday. Now them tracks we were folleriní last night petered out right soon, so what weíre gonna do, Hoss, is take another turn through them northern hills, aní see if we can pick up a trail again."

Hoss was unhappy, "Ainít you searched through them hills afore, Roy?"

"We searched íem," Roy turned his horse, "Then hills is full oí lilí hidey holes aní olí mine workinís aní such. So lessen you got a better idea..?"

"I guess I ainít got no better idea."

"Daylightís burniní then," Roy kicked his horse into motion, and the posse strung out behind him.

The posse had tracked back and forth through the low hills to the north of Virginia City for hours. Now it was past noon, and the temperature was soaring. They had stopped for a while in the sparse shade of a cottonwood patch, to rest the horses and themselves. Hoss was both hot and frustrated. To him, they didnít seem to be getting any closer to the men whoíd shot his brother.

He sipped sparingly at the tepid, flat tasting water in his canteen. Roy coffee was standing at the edge of the trees, his permanently squinted up eyes studying the trail. Hoss wandered over, "Roy."

"Hoss," Roy acknowledged his presence with a nod.

"How we ever gonna find these fellas in these hills?"

"I diínít never say it was gonna be easy. I bin chasiní íem round these hills for nigh on a year now aní I don't seem to get no closer. I think them fellas is just moviní round from one hidey hole to another aní itís kind a like tryiní to hit a moviní target all the time."

ĎWe just gotta find íem, Roy!" Hossís frustration was showing round the edges, "They done shot Adam, aní they killed a lotta other men besides."

"I know it, Hoss!" Roy took off his hat and wiped his face with his sleeve, "I just plum run out oí places to look! Weíll go on another couple oí hours over that way." he indicated with a sweep of his arm, "Címon, fellas. Let's mount up!"

The posse rode more slowly now. The heat had drained the energy, and a lot of the enthusiasm, out of most of them. Their horses followed one another, nose to tail, along narrow trails and deer tracks, and sometimes, what seemed to be no more than rabbit paths, through the brush covered hills. Once or twice, Hoss and the sheriff got down to examine what might have been fresh sign, but there was nothing to indicate who might have passed this way, or when. Finally, Roy called a halt and gestured for Hoss to ride up alongside him.

"You ainít gonna like it, but weíre gonna have to start back trackiní now ifín weíre gonna get back to town by nightfall."

Hoss shifted himself in the saddle, "I ainít ready to give up on it yet, Roy."

"I know how you feel, Hoss, but these fellas ainít gonna follow on much longer, an ísides these hills get awful cold this time oí year after dark. It ainít gonna be no fun tryiní ta camp out."

"Canít you and I go on just a while longer? Oí George can take the rest oí the fellas back to town."

"I donít like to split the posse up, Hoss. It ainít safe, not with them killers ridiní around loose."

Hoss looked round at the landscape, "letís just take a look over that hill up yonder, an then weíll turn back ifín we have ta."

Roy shook his head, "There ainít nothiní over there but some old mineís shacks aní a couple oí closed off shafts. Couple oí my deputies checked íem out just last week. There ainít no one there."

Hoss screwed up his face, "You said them fellas was moviní around, Roy. I got me a gut feeliní that we aught to try just over that one more hill."

"Alright then," Roy kicked his horse on, "One more hill it is."

It was further ahead than it looked, but at last, seven sweating men on their sweating horses climbed to the top of the last hill. Just as Roy had said, there were several ramshackle cabins huddled in a cusp in the land, most of them in the final stages of dilapidation and ruin. Only two of them retained any sort of a roof. Further along, over- grown spoil heaps, and several chunks of decaying ironwork, indicated the location of the old workings. The whole of it shimmered in the heat. It was a depressing footnote of early industrial pollution.

"Just as I said," Roy said, "There ainít no-one there."

Hoss nudged his horse forward, "I just wanna take look in them shacks, Roy."

Roy sighed, and shook his head, and started his horse on the down slope.

By the time Hoss had reached the level ground, he had just about come to the conclusion that what Roy had said was right. All that was likely to live in this desolate spot were sand lizards and the occasional snake. Then a flicker of movement caught his eye. Away off to one side grew a couple of old shade trees that looked like theyíd been struck by lightening at some time or other. If he squinted up his eyes tightly, he could see something in the darkness underneath. He reined his horse over that way.

In the patch of deep shade under the trees, stood a couple of saddle horses The were dark coloured and hard to see, but close to, Hoss thought they looked vaguely familiar. One of them was switching its tail, and that was the movement Hoss had seen. Hoss and Roy stepped down.

"Looks like you were right, boy," Roy said, scowling, "Them fellas bin watching my deputies check these places out then moviní right on in as soon as they rode over the hill."

"Yeah, Roy," Hoss straightened up from a rapid examination, "But there ainít neither oí these critters got a splayed out hoof."

Roy stared at him, "Splayed out hoof? I donít know nothin íbout no splayed out hoof."

"Diínít Little Joe tell you? When he was pickiní out those tracks last night, over where Adam was shot he saw the marks of a splayed out hoof. Just like I saw down where our liíl heifers was slaughtered."

Roy shook his head, "He diínít say nothiní tí me íbout it."

"Guess he was too upset over what happened to Adam aní just wanted to get after them varmints."

"ĎOnly horse I know round these parts with a splayed out hoof is Nathan Boxerís bay."

The two of them were only just getting their heads round the implications of that when there was a lot shouting from over by the cabins and someone started firing off a gun.

Hoss and the sheriff hauled out their firearms and ducked down behind a fallen trunk of the cottonwood. The posse was on foot now and their horses went pounding off, alarmed by the gunshots, while the men scurried for cover.

There were two guns firing wildly out of the best repaired of the shacks. The men inside had been laying low hoping that the posse would pass them but the lawmen had got too close for comfort. They were killers and they were desperate. The first fusillade made everyone keep their heads down. Then it went very quiet. Hoss and Roy made ground by keeping low and running from the cottonwoods to a bunch of scrub brush to the more substantial cover of a pile of half rotted timber. On the other side, George, the deputy, was spreading the rest of the men out and trying to get them organized. A few desultory shots were exchanged, and then two figures made a bolt out the back window and hit the ground running. A hail of lead followed them as they made for the old workings. One of them turned and fired back. The bullets cut him down, each one producing a little puff of dust from his clothing as it hit. He went over backwards and lay still on the ground, spread-eagled. The other man kept on running until a bullet took him in the back of the knee, and he went down heavily, sprawled on his face.

"That's enough!" Roy Coffee shouted, "Hold your fire! Hold your fire!"

There were a few late shots that went wild and then silence descended. A couple of the younger men whooped with delight at the excitement. They gathered round the body of the first man shot. He had so many holes in him it was a job to tell which one had killed him. There was a coppery smell of blood in the air. Roy and Hoss went on to the other man and got there just as George was dragging him up into a half-sitting position. He was whimpering and shaking with shock, clutching at the leg with the shattered knee.

Roy kicked his gun away into the brush, "Iím arrestiní you for the attempted murder of Adam Cartwright, aní the actual murder oí twenty ír so other men in the last year. He said it all in one breath, "George, get that leg tied up. Donít want him tí bleed tí death afore we get tí hang íim."

Hoss reached past him and one handed lifted the injured man off the ground by his shirt front. His thin face blanched, and he screamed with pain.

"Set Ďim down, Hoss." Roy ordered.

Hoss shook the captive, just a little, "Ifín heís the fella that shot Adam..."

"Heíll get a trial. Now set Ďim down."

Hoss hesitated a second longer, then dropped the man ungently onto the ground.

"Címon over here away from him," Roy moved off a yard or so, and Hoss followed, albeit reluctantly. He would dearly have liked to have torn the prisoner limb from limb there and then. Roy hooked his thumbs into his gun belt, "I doní think that these here fellas are the ones that shot your brother. They ainít got no horse with no splayed out foot, aní the day your liíl heifers was butchered, they was a long ways north oí here doiní a murder."

Hoss pulled a sour face, "Dad burn, Roy. Reckon youíre right. Reckon I wanna have me a talk with that Nathan Boxer real soon."

"Reckon Iíll ride right along with ya. Make that talk official like. Letís catch up them horses. George, you make sure that fella gets back to town fer a hanginí."

Ben fetched himself a cup of coffee and lowered himself into the chair across the hearth with a long expulsion of breath. Jenny was sitting upstairs with Adam, having ejected her husband forcibly from the bedroom with firm orders to drink, and eat, and if possible, sleep. The last dictate was out of the question. Ben hadnít slept in thirty-six hours and he wasnít about to sleep now.

Joe put down the book he had been attempting to read. He hadnít turned a page in a half hour, and he still had no idea what the words were about. He looked up into Benís brooding dark eyes. Lines of exhaustion had etched themselves deeply into his fatherís face, "Howís Adam?" he asked in a small voice.

Ben pressed his lips together, "Heís quiet," Ben didnít like to think about just how quiet his eldest son was. Paul Martin had come that morning and stayed until the dreadful fever had broken. He had been unable to offer any further comfort.

Adam hadnít screamed again. Upstairs, he lay like a man already dead, scarcely breathing. Ben didnít know if that was a good sign or not. As least, so far, he was showing no further signs of the fearful pain a belly wound usually induced as peritonitis set in. It was the thing Ben feared the most, and his palms were sweating in anticipation.

Joe knew what was going through his fatherís mind. It was written in horror on his face. He cast around for something, anything to say to distract his thoughts. He ventured, "Díyou think Hoss caught up with them bush-whackers yet?"

"Huh?" Benís eyes refocused, "Iím sure your brother will do what he set out to do."

"At least we know that the fella that shot Adam is the same one as was rustliní our cattle."

Ben looked at him over the edge of his coffee cup, arrested in mid-sip, "how do we know that, Joe."

Joe shrugged eloquently, "like I told Hoss, I saw that same sign at the river crossing last night as I saw by the cut fence line. A horse with a splayed out hoof. I told you about that."

Ben stared at him, "I donít remember that you did."

Joe looked confused, "I thought I did."

"Nathan Boxer has a horse with a splayed out hoof." Ben said, a dawning awareness on his face as he started to add two and two together.

"And the Boxer twins threatened to kill a Cartwright." Joe added, "They were looking for the right Cartwright."

"The Cartwright that shot their brother. Adam."

Ben put his coffee cup down on the table slowly and with exaggerated care. He stood up. His face was settling into a mask of rock hard determination, "Nathan Boxer and his sons shot Adam."

Joe stood up as well, watching his fatherís face, "What are we going to do, Pa?"

Ben's mouth worked, "Saddle my horse, Joseph. Iím taking a ride out to Boxerís farm."

"Shouldnít we get the sheriff in on this, Pa?"

"The lawíll get its chance. Iím taking Nathan Boxer in myself. The Cartwrights look after their own."

"Iím coming with you, Pa." Joe said quietly, "Iím a Cartwright too."

Ben looked at him a long moment, seeing the man the boy had become, "Then saddle your horse as well, Joe. We can be there before nightfall."

Joe headed for the barn for the horses, and Ben went upstairs to tell Jenny he was just stepping out for a while.

 

Eleven

The sun had gone down, and a deep twilight was settling among the cottonwood trees by the time Ben and Joe Cartwright arrived at the Boxer farm. There were no lights showing, as yet, in the window of the shack, but there were horses in the corral, together with several cows and their calves. There was just enough light left for Ben to make out his own, distinctive, pine tree brand on the cowís hind-quarters. He and Joe exchanged long looks and rode slowly towards the cabin, their hands hovering close to their holsters.

Ben reined his horse to a stop in the yard and raised his voice to something just short of a bellow, "Boxer! Nathan Boxer! Get yourself out here. I want to talk to you!"

The response was predictable and very much as expected. If Ben were truly honest, it was what he had hoped for. Someone smashed the shack window out from the inside and poked a rifle barrel through the gap. Someone else started firing steadily from round the back of the outhouse, the bullets coming alarmingly close to their targets.

Ben and Joe left their saddles in a hurry and dived for what cover they could find.

Now there were two guns firing from the house and another from out the back, and the lead was flying thickly enough to make both Cartwrights keep their heads well down. There wasnít a lot of shelter out there in the yard. Joe scooted along the corral rail, keeping low, widening the angle of their return fire. Splinters exploded into Benís face, and he retreated behind the corner of the corral.

Whoever was up behind the outhouse found himself vulnerable from the younger Cartwrightís fire and decided to make a bolt for the house. He was a flitting, shadowy figure in the fast fading light, the gun in his hand spitting spurts of fire along with the bullets. Then he ran out of ammunition and made a desperate dash for the shackís door. Joeís snapped shot caught him just under the breastbone, and he toppled head over heels out into the yard.

There wasnít going to be any trouble now, telling the Boxer twins apart. One of them was dead.

There was a momentary pause while the folks holed up in the house took in what had happened. Ben took advantage of it to get round the side of the building, out of the direct line of fire from the window. Joe slipped fresh cartridges into the chamber of his gun, the noise loud in the sudden stillness.

Ben drew a deep breath, "Come on out Boxer! Iím takin youíní your boy in for stealing my cattle and shooting down my son!"

The answer was a fresh hail of bullets, now from just the two guns in the house. Ben and Joe answered in kind, their bullets finding their way clean through the rough planking that made up the shackís walls. Someone inside the building screamed, a manís voice, the cry cut off abruptly. Everything went suddenly very quiet.

Ben saw Joe start to emerge from his hiding place and waved him back. There was still another gunman in there somewhere. The door of the shack opened slowly, and a man emerged into the last of the daylight.

He had been a big man once, and a proud one. Now he had a thin, wasted body on a big manís frame, wearing a big manís clothes - what had once been a good dress suit and a stained white shirt. His face was drawn, sunken eyed, hollow cheeked with a small grey beard. He carried a six gun loosely at his side, the muzzle pointed at the ground.

Nathan Boxer stepped down into the yard and walked to the fallen body of his son. For a long time he stood looking down, then his eyes turned to where Ben was hiding half behind the woodpile.

"You think youíre a big man, donít you Cartwright ?" he said slowly in a deep, hollow voice that sounded remarkably like Benís own "You done killed my boys, All my boys!"

Ben straightened up slowly, coming out into the open, "You shot my son."

Nathan Boxer lifted his left hand, finger pointing in accusation, "After he shot mine! An eye for an eye, Ben Cartwright, and a son for a son!" The gun came up remarkably quickly, turning as Boxer swivelled on his heel. The muzzle levelled on Joeís chest. Shocked, the youngest Cartwright found himself staring down the weapons black maw. Boxerís finger tightened on the trigger. Ben Cartwright shot him right between the eyes.

The beat of hurrying hoofs turned both Joe, and Ben, towards the road. Roy Coffee and Hoss galloped up out of the near darkness, both stepping down as soon as their horses had stopped moving. Hoss went straight over to his father, "ĎYou alright, Pa?"

"I'm all right," Ben looked past Hoss, "Joseph?"

His youngest son came up, pale and shaken by his close encounter, holstering his gun, "Iím fine, Pa," he said, a trace uncertainly.

Roy Coffee came back from looking at the bodies of Nathan Boxer and his son, sprawled one on top of the other in the yard, "We heard all the shootiní Ben, aní come arunniní. What went on here?"

"Itís just the way you see it sheriff."

It was a womanís voice. As one man they turned. A woman appeared in the open doorway. It was the same lank haired woman Adam had met months before. She looked without emotion at the two bodies laying in the yard, then raised her pale face to look the men in the eye, "Ben Cartwright rode in here ta take Nathan aní his boys in. Nathan set out to kill himself Cartwrights. I guess he got the worse of it."

Roy Coffee touched his hat to the lady, "Just as you say, maíam," he turned to Ben, "I guess thatís it, Ben. You cín take your boys aní git on home now. Iíll clear it up from here."

Ben put a hand on each of his son's shoulders, "Come on boys, letís catch up the horses and go home."

Adam opened his eyes and closed them again quickly. The light, although it was only lamplight, was just too bright. Seeing the movement in his face, Jenny Cartwright leaned over him, picking up his hand from where it lay on the coverlet, "Adam?"

Ben moved closer to the bed and spoke softly, "Adam, son. Are you awake?"

Adam let out his breath carefully, finding it not nearly as painful as he had expected, "ĎIím awake, Pa," he said, in a voice hoarse from disuse, "Either that, or Iím dead," He cracked his eyelids open again and caught Ben with a most peculiar expression on his face.

"Youíre not dead. Youíre home."

He tightened his hand round his fatherís, surprised at how weak his fingers were, "I guess, I nearly didnít make it this time, eh?"

Ben eyes were filling up again. He gave his son the best smile he could muster. "Youíre going to be just fine, Adam, with a little rest..."

Adamís eyes were already drooping shut again, but right now he couldnít afford to sleep. He had a small problem that was becoming increasingly urgent the more he thought about it. He made an effort to look at his step mother, "Maíam, I could sure use a drink. Something warm, from the kitchen."

Jenny glanced across at Ben, slightly worried, "From the kitchen? Are you sure, Adam?"

"Iím real sure, maíam."

"Then Iíll get you some milk."

The moment the door had closed behind her, Adam rolled his eyes towards his father. It was all he felt up to moving at that moment, "Pa, I could use you help here."

Ben came closer, "What is it, son?"

"Pa," Adam closed his eyes again, "I really do need to piss."

Later, much later, Ben stepped out onto the porch and breathed deeply of the night air. It was cool and scented with pine resin. He looked up. The moon had set, and the dome of the world was pitch black and sprinkled with star dust. His family was gathered about him, whole again, sleeping. For the first time in a long time, he knew true contentment. There, in the dark of the night, he gave thanks to God.

 

Potters Bar 2000

 

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