THE MAN WITH MY FACE

 

 



For Halloween Ė Adam picks another dubious friend and the Cartwrights find themselves held in thrall by a being that brings out the dark sides of their natures.

 

 

Man with my Face

By

Jenny Guttridge

 

 

Looking into the strangerís face was like gazing into a dark mirror. Seen from across the room, it could have been his own face, reflected in the distorting depths of a crystal pool. It was a ruggedly handsome, oval face with a straight, narrow lipped mouth, strong jaw-line and deep-set, dark-brown eyes lightened with the barest fleck of gold. His hair was jet-black, receding just a little from a wide, smooth brow and worn slightly long Ė a fact which reminded Adam that he needed to visit the barber himself before he set out for home. Tall and broad and dressed, like Adam himself, all in black, he dominated the barroom of the Silver Dollar Saloon.

Drawn by a strange fascination, Adam sauntered across to where the big man stood, hip-shot, with his foot on the bar-rail. There was an empty shot-glass on the mahogany bar in front of him and a black, California-style hat. Adam parked himself alongside, and the two men eyed each other with a certain uneasy caution.

"Buy you a drink?" Adam offered. In truth, after a full day dealing with recalcitrant cattle buyers, he felt the need of one himself. The buyers could be more stubborn and bloody minded than the beasts they bargained for.

The stranger shrugged. "I donít see why not?"

Adam waggled a forefinger at the barman, who fetched a bottle and a glass and set them down on the bar before the tall cowboy. Adam put down a dollar and indicated that he should leave the bottle behind. Pouring generous measures into both glasses, Adam took the time to study the man more closely, albeit from the corner of his eye. Close up, the likeness was even more apparent. The stranger had a scar on his mouth very similar to Adamís but longer and deeper and on the other side. He had the same long, black eyelashes and shell-like curvature to the ear. The two of them were exactly of a height with the wide shoulders, born of hard work, a deep, strong chest and the lean hips of a man born to ride.

Of course, there were differences as well. The stranger had a wider nose, bulberous at the tip, and a distinctly deeper cleft in his chin. He carried his gun on the left hip, low down, and wore a silver ring on the smallest finger of his right hand Ė an affectation that Adam, in his line of work, would find intolerable. He picked up his glass and lifted it to Adam in silent salutation. He seemed amused by their confrontation.

Adam took a drink and felt the whiskey bite. It was what he needed. "I havenít seen you around before. You new in town?"

"I havenít been around. Iím just passiní through." The stranger tossed back his glass and finished his drink in a single swallow.

Adam leaned back on his heels and looked at him frankly. The resemblance was truly remarkable. They could well have been brothers. The stranger even spoke in educated, eastern tones that reminded Adam poignantly of distant days.

Adam was intrigued. He put on a friendly smile and held out a hand. "Iím Adam Cartwright."

The stranger put his glass back on the bar and studied Adamís face. Again, there was that faint suggestion of laughter dancing in his eyes. "My name is Isaac," he said, shaking hands. "Isaac Rimmel."

Adam topped up his glass and offered the bottle. Rimmel declined. "Two is enough for me any day, friend."

"Are you looking for work?" Still fascinated, Adam leaned against the bar. He found that he wanted to know more about this man who looked and sounded so very much like him.

"No." Rimmel lounged himself and smiled a slow, lazy smile. "Like I said, Iím just passiní through."

Adam finished a drink and put a quarter on the bar. "If you change your mind, just ask for me by name. Anyone in town will point you in my direction."

Isaac Rimmel picked up his hat and nodded to Adam. "Thank you kindly for the offer. Iíll bear it in mind."

Watching him walk out into the gathering gloom, Adam found that even the rolling, horsemanís gait, with that faintest hint of a right-legged limp, was achingly familiar. Heaving a sigh, he took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He remembered again his decision concerning the barber.

Adam treated himself to a professional shave along with the quality haircut, and several hot towels afterwards, to ease the tension out of his skin. Paulin Allias, the elderly, Jewish barber who had known him for years and always welcomed him personally into his shop, plied him with a stream of constant, cheerful chatter as he cut and trimmed and shaved and steamed. Paulin knew everything that happened in Virginia City Ė news was his stock in trade. Adam was always glad to listen. Sometimes he gleaned a lot of useful information from the mish-mash of seemingly unconnected facts. Tonight, he found it hard to pay attention. His mind kept drifting back to the stranger who wore his face.

A dash of astringent cologne completed the job, and Adam stepped out of the chair. He gave Paulin a dollar and a cordial goodnight and went back into the street.

By now, it was full dark. Lamps had been lit in the windows of shops and businesses up and down the street. Lanterns glowed above the boardwalks, and bonfires burned at intervals up and down the main street. Clouds of acrid smoke blotted out the canopy of stars and turned the faint moonlight red. The fires lit the street and provided warm spots for people to gather; they kept at bay the savage swarms of mosquitoes that plagued the town at this time of year.

The thoroughfares of Virginia City were never quiet. Life in a boomtown didnít stop just because day turned to night; it still went on at a constant, frantic pace. The streets were filled with colour, movement and noise. People thronged the boardwalks; Adam heard a dozen different languages spoken within yards of where he stood. Some of them he understood: French, Spanish and some Chinese, a little German and Swedish. Others he didnít know at all.

In the open street in front of him, an assortment of wagons pulled by horses, mules and oxen plied a busy trade. It was a constant flow of traffic, back and forth. The rumble of iron shod wheels against hard dirt was continuous. There were men on horseback, men driving carts and men on foot. Right across the street, the Salvationists were holding an open-air meeting and had gathered up quite a crowd. Their preaching was lost in the din. Further along a bell was ringing and several dogs barked wildly at the man who pulled on the rope.

In the other direction there were three saloons within easy reach. Each and every one of them and a dozen more like them around the town belched light and music and raucous laughter, snatches of song and drunken brawlers across the boardwalks and into the street.

"Adam? You look a little lost."

Adam came to himself with a jolt. His mind had been drifting a million miles away. The gravely drawl belonged to Roy Coffee, the local sheriff and a long-time friend. Adam was always glad to see him and gave him a pleasant smile. "Eveniní, Roy. I was just thinking about getting on home."

Grey haired and grey moustached, Roy was a big man in his own right. Languid, almost lazy, his faded eyes missed nothing that happened in the busy street. He leaned on a post at the edge of the boardwalk and squinted up at the sky. "Youíve left it late. Thatís one hellíve a ride in the dark."

Chuckling, Adam shook his head. "I figure Iím old enough to find my own way home by now."

"Well, that just might be." Roy sucked at his teeth and looked the younger man over. Roy had been sheriff of Virginia City for all of twenty years, since it had been no more than a shabby collection of mis-matched tents pitched in the mud. He had known the Cartwrights almost as long. He had watched Adam grow from a boy to a man. His fine-honed instinct for trouble told him that there was something on the manís mind, and, as a friend of the family, he had a personal interest as well as a professional one. "Seeiní as youíre already late, how about a bite oí supper? Belleís got liver and onions on the menu tonight." Roy smacked his lips suggestively. Adam Cartwright would be good company, and Roy just might find something out.

"That sure sounds tempting." Adam had a liking for onions, and Belleís was a friendly and comfortable place to eat. Come to think of it, a night in town would be good. He could pass an hour chatting to Roy, and then visit the bathhouse for a good long soak. Afterwards, a long evening in the company of the lovely ladies at Miss Lucyís would be pleasant, followed by a room at the International Hotel for the night. He sighed. "But Hop Singíll be keeping something hot for me, and thereíll be hell to pay if I donít go home and eat it."

Straightening up, Roy clapped him on the shoulder. "Wouldnít want you ta git into no trouble on my account. The two men laughed together. The reputation of the Cartwrightís Chinese cook was a legend throughout the length and breadth of the Comstock Valley. Many a boisterous saloon conversation revolved around who was really the boss of the great, sprawling ranch that lay south of Virginia City and filled most of the territory between there and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Roy had heard them all and laughed along with them, but he knew the truth of the matter. Old Ben Cartwright, rancher, timber baron, mine owner, patriarch and lord of all he surveyed, kept the reins very firmly in his own hands. He could be a stern and unforgiving man and, in Royís opinion, kept his three, grown-up sons snubbed a little too close to the post. He had a gut feeling that might be what Adamís problem was: too tight a hand on the bridle. But Adam was obviously intent on getting back. Roy figured he would have to wait until some other time to nose into the other manís affairs. "Another day, then, Adam?"

"Sure thing." Another thought crossed Adamís mind. "Roy, thereís a stranger in townÖ"

"Lots of Ďem." Royís mind was turning more and more in the direction of his supper. He didnít want Belle to sell off all those onions before he got there.

"A man named Riddel. Isaac Riddel. Know anything about him?" If Riddel had a story attached to his name, then Roy was the one to tell it.

Roy hitched up his pants and hooked his thumbs onto the edge of his belt. It was a typical and familiar attitude that seemed to help his thought processes. He pursed his lips and focused his eyes somewhere in the air above Adamís head. "Big man, Rode in from the south-east a couple of days ago on a big, black gelding. Stayiní at the Palace hotel over on ĎDí street. Says heís just passiní though. Keeps his business to himself. Keeps out of trouble. Nothiní else." Roy shrugged, and then, suddenly probing, "You know the man?"

Adam laughed. Roy could be as inquisitive as a cat. "No. I donít know him. I just met the man in the saloon." Adam wiped away the little frown that threatened to form on his face. He found it a little strange that Royís brief, but succinct, description of the man hadnít included the fact that Riddel resembled Adam enough to be close kin. "I guess Iíd better get going." He held out his hand. "Goodnight, Roy. Have a good supper."

"You too, Adam."

The two friends shook hands, and Roy started for Belleís Cafť, two blocks down on the same side of the street. Adam stepped down from the boardwalk. Crossing the street at an angle, he was heading for the stable where he had left his horse. His mind was busily putting into order all the things he had to tell his Pa.

Somewhere close at hand, a manís voice shouted a sudden warning. A woman screamed. Adam started to turn, his hand moving towards his gun even as he looked for trouble. Something hit him hard in the shoulder.

Then he found himself falling, not hard, but in a sort of slow-motion tumble. He hit the ground rolling, trying to save his face with his hands and failing. Next thing he knew, he was sprawled in the dirt, the weight of a man holding him down. Winded and stunned, he lifted his head. A six-mule team and a fully loaded wagon ploughed right through the place where he has been walking only a moment before. Iron shod wheels rolled by mere inches from his face. Not far away a horse squealed and danced as its rider fought for control.

It took Adam a while to gather his wits. He was at the centre of some sort of commotion. Folks were shouting and running towards him. He could feel the hard earth under his body and taste the coppery flavour of blood in his mouth. He had split his lip on the edge of a tooth. The weight lifted off of his back, and someone stuck out a hand to help him up.

Still confused by what had happened, Adam struggled to get him knees under him. A dozen willing hands lifted him onto his feet. He looked around at the sea of faces, trying to understand. Roy Coffee pushed his way through the crowd. The elderly sheriff was anxious.

"Adam? Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Adam looked at his palms; they were smarting where heíd scraped the skin. There was blood on his lip and dirt in his mouth. He spat onto the ground and began to dust himself off. "What in hell happened?"

"Reckon you-all walked right out in front oí that ore wagon. This here fella jist about saved you from beiní run down." In the light of the bonfires, Roy peered into Adamís face "You want ta go visit with the doctor?"

"No. Iím okay." Adam turned his head. The man who had thrown him down and away from the hooves of the mules and the crushing wheels of the wagon was the man who wore his own face, Isaac Riddel. Adam looked into that familiar countenance and offered his hand. "I have to thank you. I guess I had other things on my mind."

Riddel smiled a lazy smile. "Think nothing of it. But letís get out of the street."

They moved to the boardwalk while Roy broke up the crowd. Adam felt his shoulder and winced at the pain. Riddel looked at him with some concern. "Are you sure you donít want to see that doctor?"

Adam consulted with all the sore spots that were just starting to make themselves felt. He decided that, apart from a few bumps and bruises, the split lip and, perhaps, a black eye, he was essentially undamaged. "No, Iím all right." Adam was embarrassed by all the fuss; he felt he had made a fool of himself. "I just wasnít looking where I was going."

Having cleared the onlookers out of the street, Roy rejoined them on the boardwalk. "Adam, you look like you could use a drink."

Stubborn to the last, Adam wouldnít admit to feeling a little shaky. He was insistent. "Iím all right. I have to be getting home." He looked for Riddel - he felt he owed the man something Ė but Riddel had disappeared into the crowd. Adam made another start for the stable and staggered; suddenly, as reaction set in, his legs were unsteady.

Roy grabbed him by the arm "You look a mite wobbly there, Adam. I reckon you ought ta see Doc Martin afore you ride all that way on your own."

Adam raised an objection, but Roy wouldnít hear anything of it. He had a firm grip of Adamís elbow, and he wasnít about to let go. "You fall off a horse aní break yore head, yore Pa ainít never gonna let me ferget it." Adam felt like he was eight years old all over again and had just fallen out of the westbound wagon. He remembered the look on his fatherís face and submitted. Roy marched him across the street to Paul Martinís office.

Paul already had a customer. He was busy sewing up a long, jagged cut in a cowboyís arm. The man had been in a fistfight that had turned nasty and had come off worst in an encounter with a shattered bottle. He had lost a lot of blood, but the amount of whiskey he had consumed more than made up for it and acted as an anaesthetic to boot. Even so, it was going to take the Doc quite some time to compete his embroidery.

Roy parked Adam in a chair in the outer office. "Now you wait right here Ďtil the Doc gets a chance ta look you over," Roy warned again.

Resigned to his fate, Adam sighed. "All right, Roy. Iíll talk to the Doc." If he were truthful, Adam felt a whole lot better now that he was sitting down.

It was a Friday night, and Adam knew that Roy would be anxious to get back on the street before the weekend rowdies started to take over the town. "You donít have to wait, Roy. Iíll be all right."

Roy chewed on his lip, considering. "Well, okay. If youíre sure youíre gonna be all right waiting on your own. Donít you go wanderiní off no placeÖ"

"Iíll wait, Iíll wait!" Laughing, Adam held up his hands in mock self-defence.

"All right, then." Mollified, Roy turned towards the door. You make sure that you do."

Adam took the opportunity to ask, "Roy, that fella RiddelÖ"

"What about him?"

"You notice anything funny about him? About his face? The way he looks?"

Roy scowled, thinking hard. "Canít say that I had. Whyíd you ask?"

"Oh nothiní." Adam made a dismissive gesture. "Just a passing thought."

The sheriff gave him a long, puzzled look. He was starting to wonder if Adam Cartwright had taken a bang on the head after all. "You just make sure you get to see the Doc afore you set for home."

Once Roy had gone, Adam set himself in for what looked like being a long wait. Paulís waiting room was harshly lit and sparsely furnished and none too warm. Like every waiting room Adam had ever known, it was not designed to be comfortable. He pulled his hat over his eyes against the glare of the lamp and tipped the ladder-backed chair against the wall. Arms folded across his chest, he did his best to doze.

It was the better part of an hour later when Paul emerged from the inner room, still in his shirtsleeves and leading the wobbly drunk by the arm. He hadnít expected to find another customer waiting and cocked an inquiring eye. "Adam? You sick or something?"

"No, Iím not sick." Adam pushed back his hat and planted all four legs of his chair firmly on the floor. Briefly, he explained to Paul what had happened out in the street. "I just took a little tumble, thatís all. I feel fine now."

"From the looks of your face you took more than a tumble." Paul took the cowboy to the door and relieved his pocket of a silver dollar as his fee before launching him back into the night. "Better come in the office and let me look you over, just to be on the safe side. One thingís for certain, youíre going to have some bruises to show your Pa in the morning."

Adam went on through and tossed his hat onto Paulís desk. "Iím all right, Paul. Itís just Roy being an old woman. He made me give my word to see you."

"I know what heís like." Paul chuckled. Never the less, he went over Adam from top to toe and looked long and hard into his eyes. Ten minutes later, he stepped back. "Guess you can put your shirt on now. I donít reckon thereís much wrong with you that a day or twoís rest wonít cure. Not that youíll get it out on that ranch. You feel dizzy at all?"

"I feel fine." Adam buttoned his shirt. "Paul, you seen a man around town name of Riddel? Tall, black haired, looks something like me?"

"Canít say that I have." Paul dried off his hands and shrugged his way into his coat. "He somethiní to you?"

"No. Not really. How much do I owe you?" Adam felt for a coin.

"Donít you trouble none." Paul put on his hat and reached for the door. "Iíll just put it on your País next bill." He held the door open for Adam to precede him into the street.

Adam laughed. "Iím sure heíll appreciate that."

"Iím just stepping out for some supper. You care to join me?"

Adam put a hand to his face and felt for the tender spots. "Iíd better get on home. Iím late as it is, and Iíll have some explaining to do. Paíll be madder than a hen in a rain barrel, aní Hop Singís likely to chew my ears off for not being home for supper."

Paul chuckled appreciatively. "You take it easy, Adam. You feel dizzy again, you send someone to get me."

"Iíll be sure and do that." The two men shook hands and parted company. Paul headed across the street to his favourite eating place, and Adam started once again for the stable.

He led his horse out into the yard and swung himself up into the saddle. He worked his shoulder again. Paul had said it was just a bruise, but it felt pretty sore. It was going to be a long and unpleasant ride home through a dark, cold night. Adam wished he had his coat with him. Gathering his reins, he turned his horseís head towards the western mountains and the road that would, eventually, lead him home.

A darkness moved in the shadows beside the barn. Ever alert, Adam pulled his horse up; his hand slipped towards the gun on his hip. Someone was there; he couldnít quite see. The light from the stable lantern didnít reach that far. "Who is it?" His fingers brushed the butt of the gun. "Come on out and show yourself."

The shadowy form moved again. A figure rode out into the yard. It was Isaac Riddel, still all in black and mounted on a tall, black horse. He sat easily in the saddle with his hands clasped together on the saddlehorn. There was smile on his face. "Peace, friend. Peace."

Adam relaxed and sat back. "You change your mind about that job?"

"Donít reckon I did." Riddel rode his horse over and pulled up alongside Adam. Adamís gelding laid back his ears and danced nervously in the dirt. Adam frowned. This horse didnít usually act like that. He tightened the rein and brought him under control. Eventually, the animal settled. "Itís a pleasant night," Riddel said. "Cold and bright. I thought Iíd ride out with you part way. Take me a look at the stars."

Adam looked at him. In the dark of the night the manís resemblance to him was even more striking, almost uncanny. With the colour of the eyes concealed by the darkness, he would have sworn that the features were the same ones he saw every morning in the mirror as he shaved. In fact, tonight, Riddel looked more like Adam Cartwright than Adam did himself.

"Youíre more than welcome." Adam nodded and touched the brim of his hat. He nudged his horse with his heels, and, side by side, the two men rode out of town.

It was a long way from Virginia City to the sprawling ranch house that Adam Cartwright knew as home. Most of the way lay across the vast, rolling grasslands that belonged to his family. The Ponderosa ranch, the heart and home-place of the Cartwrightís ever expanding and highly successful business empire, covered a thousand square miles of God-given country, some of it the wildest and most beautiful territory on earth. Silver tinged in the starlight, otherwise very dark, the rolling rangelands flowed from the tree-covered slopes of the High Sierras, all the way to the fringes of the desert in the east.

At first the two men rode hard, putting some distance behind them and warming themselves and their horses. The first grass of summer, fresh grown, passed swiftly beneath the galloping hooves. Later, they slowed to a ground-covering canter, a pace that ate the miles away. Despite the fact that he was already late, Adam succumbed to temptation and took the long road home Ė the one that led through the pine forests and up to the high vantage point that overlooked the lake. While the horses caught their breath after the long, hard climb, Adam and Riddel sat and feasted their eyes of the glory of the good Lordís creation.

The night was still chilly, the stars hard and bright, but, now, Adam wasnít cold. Up here on the heights, the mosquitoes didnít bother him the way they had in town. Far below, the lake lay like a pool of quicksilver caught in a fold of the hills. Its surface was utterly flawless, unreflective, as a page of history yet to be written. The hillsides, dark with trees, arose straight out of the water and reached halfway up to the sky. It was a sight that Adam never could resist; it was embedded in his soul.

He planted a palm on the rump of his horse, leaned back against it and sighed. Riddel glanced at him, then returned his attention to a study of the scenery. "Itís a funny thing," he said thoughtfully. "I would never have taken you for a cowboy."

"You wouldnít?" Not quite sure how to take the remark, Adam laughed gently, mocking himself. "What then?"

Riddel shrugged. "Oh, I donít know. Some sort of business man. A lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, perhaps. Maybe a politician. You donít look right or sound right out here in the west."

"You should hear me when Iím up to my knees in mud and cow dung and swearing like a three-stripe sergeant."

Now it was Riddelís turn to chuckle. "I donít doubt it. But somehow, you just donít fit the part. You been to school?"

"I went to school in the east. Spent four years there."

Riddel looked at him again, searchingly, and then quickly looked away. The starlight shifted in his eyes. "I thought so. I can hear it in your voice. What did you study?"

"Architecture, engineering, literature," Adam remembered. "They were good times. I made some good friends; I still have some of them, now."

"What do you miss the most?"

"Apart from the people? The art, the music, the conversation Ė and the plumbing."

The two men laughed together as if they were friends. Riddel sobered first. "Yet you left all that behind to come out here and break your back chasing long-horn steers?"

"Guess I did." Adamís smile died and was replaced by a reflective expression that furrowed his brow and deepened the shadows in his eyes.

"Do you ever regret it?"

"Sometimes." It was an admission that Adam felt justified in making, even if it made him a little uncomfortable.

"You ever feel like going back?"

Adam sucked his lips and shifted his weight uneasily, sitting up straight in the saddle again and stretching his back. He had no idea why he was talking so openly to a complete stranger. These were deep and personal matters that he often avoided thinking about, even in the privacy of his own mind. Perhaps it was simply that Riddel looked so much like him; he even seemed to know the thoughts inside his head. It was almost like talking to himself Ė and Riddel made one hell of a good listener. "Once in a while," he admitted. His thoughtful face became wistful "Especially when I row with my Pa."

Leather creaked in the night as Riddel moved in the saddle; his voice came to Adam though the darkness. "Díyou row with your Pa often?"

Adamís breath hissed in through his teeth. "More often than I like. Much more lately than ever before. He never sees things my way, never wants to try anything new Ė and he never lets me be my own man. Heís just getting old and sourÖ" Adam bit his bitter complaint off short. A man didnít talk this way about family to someone he didnít know.

"You donít mean that." Riddel suggested mildly.

"Donít I?" Adam said shortly. Then he sighed, but his face remained bleak. "Perhaps not."

There was a pause, and when Riddel spoke again, Adam could hear the smile in his voice. "Perhaps your País afraid."

"Afraid!" Suddenly, Adam was angry. "Whatís he got to be afraid of?"

Riddel shrugged. Adam could see the hunch of his shoulders against the silver of the lake. "Of you. Of the future. You could take over from him. You know that, donít you?"

"All I want is to introduce new ways of doing things, innovations, advancements, new techniques. All I want to do is to help!"

"Your País seeing those things as a threat, signs that his time is passing. Just as you said, heís getting old. A man doesnít like to see those things. Thatís why he fights you. He sees you stepping into his shoes."

Adam made an exasperated gesture that made his horse toss its head. "It isnít like that. He just never listens to me!"

"He listens Ė and he watches you. Youíve seen the way he follows you with his eyes." Riddel smiled again. "Youíre the brains of the family. Thatís why heís scared."

Adam turned his head sharply a frown on his face, but the man Ė so very much like him - was gazing out across the valley at the trees and the mountains beyond the lake. He had said it so softly that his voice might merely have been an echo of Adamís own thought. Adam asked, "What would he be scared of?"

"Heís afraid that youíll stay and afraid that youíll go." Now Riddel turned to look him full in the face. Adam saw the gleam of moonlight flash in his eye. "How would he manage without you?"

Adam thought about it. From where he sat at the top of the bluff, he could see the moonís pale face plainly reflected in the mirrored surface of the lake. As it slid into the cusp of the hills is made a silver highway over the water. This place was his home. He had chosen it as such a long time ago. His roots ran deep into the rich, dark ground. Whenever he was away it was these trees and these mountains and this still deep water as much as the love of family and friends that summoned him back.

There was no doubt that his father needed him here: more and more as time went on and the extent and the diversity of the familyís business interests grew. Increasingly, it was Adamís talents, intelligence and education that were called upon to hold things together. But he still hadnít built a windmill.

"Is this really what you want to do with your life?" Riddel asked quietly, merely a suggestion on the cooling night air.

Uncomfortable, Adam shifted again in the saddle. "I guess there are places Iíd like to see," he said at last, "and things Iíd like to do."

"Then perhaps you should go there and do it Ė before itís too late." Adam looked to him again. This time, he couldnít see his face.

The two men sat silent for a while, each man thinking his own deep thoughts as he watched the moonset over the lake. Then Riddel gathered his reins. "Well, Adam, I guess Iíd better get back to town."

Adam came out of his reverie. "You canít ride all the way back to Virginia City tonight. Weíre a whole lot closer to the house than we are to town. Youíd better stay the night with us."

Riddel laughed his gentle laugh and shook his head. "I wouldnít want to upset your Pa."

"Pa likes company," Adam sighed ruefully. The big house was often filled with mismatched waifs and strays. "We have plenty of room. I insist."

A momentís further hesitation and Riddel relaxed and accepted, "Well, okay. Since you put it like that Ė you lead the way."

Two men, so alike that they could have been twins, turned their horses and cantered downhill to the road that led Adam Cartwright home.

 

*******

Ben Cartwright leaned down and tapped out his second pipe of the evening on the hearthstone. There was a slight frown of concern clouding his distinctive and still handsome features. Adam was late. In fact, it was beginning to look as if he wasnít going to come home tonight at all. Ben wasnít really worried Ė Adam, after all, was a full-grown man now, and quite able to take care of himself. Ben was just a little anxious, and a little annoyed as well. Adamís stated intention had been to ride straight home to tell him all about his meeting with the cattle buyers. Ben had planned for the two of them to get their heads together and spend a long evening discussing the autumn cattle drive. The boy Ė the man Ė Ben corrected himself firmly Ė must have decided to stay the night in town. Ben pulled a disapproving face. The fast growing township had all too many attractions for a hot blooded young man, and none of his sons had proved to be immune.

Ben consulted his silver-cased pocket watch. As he had thought, the hour was late. The rest of his household was long abed, and the house was quiet. Ben turned down the lamp until the light in the living room was reduced to a mellow glow and went out into the yard. It was his habit and his pleasure to take a last breath of fresh air before he turned in for the night.

Ben raised his eyes towards heaven. The full-faced moon had already set, and the sky, now lit only by an array of glittering, diamond-hard stars, was deep, velvet black. The starlight shone on Benís silvered head and reflected in the dark depths of his eyes.

Across the yard a lamp still burned in the bunkhouse window, but the boisterous shouting and singing of the early evening had long since abated into silence. The hired men were resting up for tomorrow, if not actually asleep. Three milk cows that kept the kitchens supplied and a team of solid draft mules destined for the lumber camp shifted in the home corral. The horses were bedded down in the barn, and Hop Singís poultry was all locked away, safe from the deprivations of the family of foxes that had moved into the water meadows early that spring. Ben reminded himself, and not for the first time, to have those critters dug out just as soon as he could spare a man to it.

Ben pulled a long breath and filled up his barrel chest. The air smelled good. Still and frosty cold, it was laden with the fresh scents of pine and growing grass and the inevitable aromas of cattle and horses. The breath, when Ben released it, turned into steam in front of his face. There was no breath of wind, no clouds in the sky; the underlying silence was intense. Content that all was well with his world, Ben turned once again towards the house.

Someone was coming; Ben could sense it. He could feel the beat of their horseís hooves transmitted through the ground before he could hear it with his ears. Two men, coming in fast along the trail that led through the woods. They were riding as if they owned the place. Ben wondered about that and thought about getting his gun.

Before he could make up his mind, the riders emerged from the trees. He could see the horses, black on black, and then the men who rode them. He relaxed. He recognized one of them at once: the broad shouldered bulk of the man in the saddle, the lithe way he moved with the horseís gait. It was unmistakably Adam.

Ben stepped out into the yard and held up his hand in greeting. "Adam!" His strong voice rang in the night. "I didnít think you would make it home tonight."

Adam stepped down from his horse. "Got held up a little, Pa."

Benís irritation over took his concern. "I thought you were intending to get home early tonight. We were going to go through all those figures." Then he caught sight of his sonís battered face. His took him by the upper arm and swung him towards the porch light so that he could get a better look at the damage. Adamís lip was split and swollen, and there was a spreading bruise on his cheekbone. "What have you gotten yourself into? Have you been fighting, boy?"

Adam shook his arm loose. "No, Pa, I havenít been in a fight - just a little accident." Irritated to be treated as a child in front of his newfound friend, he spoke with exaggerated care. "Pa, Iíd like you to meet a friend of mine." He turned to the man still sitting silently on the big black horse. "This is Isaac Riddel. Isaac saved my life tonight."

Benís eyes switched from the face of his son to that of the stranger. He was somewhat taken aback by Adamís sweeping statement. "If thatís right, then I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mister Riddel. Wonít you step down?"

"My pleasure, sir." Riddel smiled his friendly smile and stepped down from his saddle. He shook Benís offered hand. "But call me Isaac, if you will."

Ben looked the man over. He didnít look the sort of man he would have expected Adam to take for a friend. He was about Benís own height and build, with the thickset chest and narrow, horsemanís hips that could make a man appear top-heavy. When he stepped into the light, his face was vaguely familiar, like that of someone Ben had met, many years ago. He couldnít quite place the face nor call the name to mind. The deep-set eyes were lost in shadow; it was impossible to see their colour, though Ben had the impression that they were dark. The cheekbones were high and the chin, narrow; when he took off his hat, Ben saw the glint of silver shining in his hair.

Adam said, "I told Isaac he could stay here the night." His voice filled an awkward silence.

"Of course, of course!" Ben realized that he had been staring. He spread his hands expansively. "Do come into the house."

Having missed supper, Adam found himself with a man-sized appetite. He headed straight for the kitchen to see what Hop Sing, the Cartwright familyís cook and general factotum, had left him to eat. Hat in hand, Riddel watched him go. There was a smile on his face. He cocked an eyebrow at Ben. "Thatís a fine, young man youíve raised there, Mister Cartwright. You must be very proud of him."

"Indeed I am. Very proud." Ben turned up the lamp so that he could see the man more clearly. He was even older than Ben had thought, perhaps about his own age, grey-haired and dark-eyed. He wore a dark business suit of good quality cloth, but dusty from miles of travel on horseback. "Heíd a fine man and a great help to me."

Riddel put his hat down on the table and, uninvited, sat down in the blue velvet armchair close beside the fire. "And stubborn and headstrong as well, Iíll wager."

A slight frown creased Benís handsome face. "Well, a little wilful now and again, maybe," he confessed. "Have you known my son long, Mister Riddel? Isaac?"

"Not long at all. I just met him this evening."

Ben looked after his disappeared son. "You certainly seem to have made an impression. I donít really know how to repay youÖ"

Riddel made a dismissive gesture. Ben noticed that he wore several rings on his hands - an affectation he did not wholly approve of. Rings were apt to get in a manís way. "Think nothing of it. It was a minor incident in the street."

"But Adam said he owed you his life."

"I was in the right place at the right time. I did nothing youíd not have done to save another manís son."

"Even a stubborn and headstrong one?" Ben suggested.

Riddel smiled and looked around him in appreciation. "Letís say no more about it. Adam asked me come and meet with his family. I must say, you have a lovely home."

For the first time in a long time, Ben saw the room as a stranger might see it: generous in proportion, the great hearth and fireplace built of roughly-dressed grey stone, pine timbers and split log walls, well worn furniture of warm, solid wood together with touches of faded French elegance and of Indian artistry. "Adam designed it," he said, unbidden. "And he worked alongside me to get it built."

"He told me he was an architect." Riddel settled back in the chair. "He has a great deal of talent. A drive. An intellect. A desire to get things done."

"Oh, heíd got that all right." Benís small frown returned.

At that moment Adam came back, munching on a fist-full of sandwich and carrying a plate, which he gave to Riddel. "I found bread and cheese and some cold meat," he said, speaking around the food. "But Hop Singís tipped the coffee away. Thereís only buttermilk in the pantry." His face showed what he thought about that. As a child, Adam had hated buttermilk, much to Benís annoyance; often it had been all he could get to give to a hungry child. He still wouldnít drink it, given a choice.

Ben felt the sharp spur of aggravation. "At one time you were lucky to get it!" he said, rather more sharply than he had intended.

With an air of something that closely resembled defiance, Adam stared at him. "Donít we have something better to offer a guest?" He stood beside Riddelís chair in an attitude that said, bruised and battered as he might be, he was still quite ready to take on the world, and that included his father.

Ben felt a shiver course through him. His son might be spoiling for a fight, but, just at that moment, with a stranger in the house, he wasnít prepared to oblige him. He didnít understand what was happening here. "Iíll see what I can find," he said abruptly, but his eyes delivered a different message. He crossed over the room to the dresser and took out a bottle of wine. It was one he had been saving for a special occasion, but with the eyes of both men upon him, burning into his back, he didnít hesitate for more than a second. He poured three generous measures and passed them around.

Ben reminded himself firmly that this stranger was Adamís friend and his invited guest. If what Adam had said was true Ė and, looking at his sonís damaged face, Ben had no grounds to doubt it Ė Riddel was owed a debt of gratitude.

"Isaac," he said with as much sincerity as he could muster, "Our guestroom is yours for as long as youíd like to stay."

*******

 

The first, faint flush of gold above the eastern horizon heralded the start of another dayís work on the Ponderosa. Long before the sun was fully risen above the horizon, Joe Cartwright sat down on the lowest step of the staircase and began to pull on his high riding-boots. It looked like being a long, hard day in the saddle chasing recalcitrant cows when what he really wanted to do was take pretty young Ellen Walden up to the meadow beside the lake to share a picnic basket Ė and, perhaps, to steal a kiss or two. Ellen was just about as sweet a girl as any man could dream of, and, lately, sheíd been more than willing to spend time alone with a Cartwright man. Sheíd been on Joeís mind a lot. Joe sighed a little wistfully and started on the other boot. This week, with all the jobs heíd already been given to do, it didnít look as if he was going to have any time at all for the important things in life.

Adam came down the stairs behind him and stepped over his brother with a long stride; he missed his ear by a precisely calculated inch.

Joe yelled at him and swatted him away. "Watch it, will ya?"

Adam ignored him. He was running late. His face was still swollen here and there from the accident the night before, and the bruises were becoming colourful. Having to miss all the sore spots with the razorís edge, it had taken him longer than usual to shave. He took a look around the room. The table was all set for breakfast with red and white checked tablecloth and pink edged china. The aromas of bacon and strong, black coffee issued tantalisingly from the kitchen. Someone was missing. Adam planted his hands on his hips. "Whereís Hoss?"

His over-sized brotherís place at the table was empty. A man of legendary appetite, usually he was sitting up and ready to start eating as soon as the food was delivered. Everyone else had to shift for himself if he didnít want to go hungry.

Joe stood up and stamped about to settle his feet in the boots. "I guess heís out in the barn fussiní over that sick colt again. Heís been out there Ďmost every spare minute he gets."

Adam sighed with a trace of exasperation. "I donít know why heís bothering. That coltís never going to be any use for anything anyhow."

"You know how he is. Anything thatís weak and helplessÖ" Joe shrugged.

"I know it." Adamís tone became resigned. In his own way, big Hoss Cartwright was as stubborn a man as any one of his kinfolk, and he didnít like to admit defeat. The colt, born a week ago, had been a weakling right from the beginning, but Hoss wouldnít give up until the last breath was breathed. It just wasnít in the manís nature.

Joe finally got his toes comfortably into the ends of his boots. Looking up, he caught sight of his brotherís bruises. "Hey, Adam! Who you been fightiní with? You look like you walking into a wall!" His young face brightened into a smile. It was not often his elder brother got up in the morning looking the worse for a tussle, and from the looks of him this one must have been a dandy.

Adam favoured him with a furious glare, but otherwise didnít answer. He was obviously out of sorts.

Adam brightened a little as the food arrived on the table. "Well I guess that means that you and I get to eat first!"

"Hey-hey! I guess it does." Joe backhanded his brother hard in the chest and started for his chair. "Hoss is likely to be a while. That fella you brought home last night has gone out there with him. I reckon theyíll be chewiní it over for quite some time."

Adam grabbed Joe by the back of the collar and hauled him back, holding him up on his toes. "Who díyou think your pushiní, little brother?"

Joe yelped and struggled, arms flailing wildly. "Put me down, will ya?"

An early cup of coffee already in hand, Ben, followed Hop Sing and the breakfast dishes through from the kitchen. He looked at his sons, the eldest and youngest, with disapproval. "Boyís, you know I donít like horseplay inside the house. Adam, put your brother down."

Adam held Joe aloft a moment longer than absolutely necessary, just to prove a point, then dropped him. Joe glowered belligerently and shrugged himself back into his shirt. Ben frowned at the pair of them.

"You say Riddelís out in the barn with Hoss?" He had only heard the last part of the conversation. "He didnít seem the sort of man to take that much interest in livestock."

"Oh I donít know, Pa." Adam took his accustomed seat at the table. "He seems to be quite a horseman."

Ben looked at his son with faint surprise, but he wasnít about to dispute the point. Joe, still wearing an aggrieved expression, joined them, and Ben gave thanks to his God for the food on his table.

*******

The colt nuzzled into Hossís hand, and once more he turned the small, brown nose towards the mareís belly. He was a cute little thing, all long legs and huge dark eyes - a sort of pale, red-roan colour with big liver spots over his rump. For some reason Hoss couldnít account for, he just hadnít grown right. He had been small when he was born, and he just hadnít caught on to the knack of feeding properly. And now the mare wasnít helping much either. She was losing interest in her young one, and Hoss was afraid that before very long her milk would start to dry off.

"Címon, little fella. You just gotta get some oí this stuff down ya." Hoss talked to the colt as if he could understand. The colt banged his head into his motherís belly. Eventually, with a little help from Hoss, he succeeded in getting the nipple into his mouth. He didnít seem to have much of a notion what to do next. Hoss rubbed the front of the little horseís throat vigorously, encouraging him to swallow. Wide eyed, the colt looked at him and let the nipple slip out again. The mare stamped her foot in irritation.

Perplexed and frustrated, Hossís broad face creased into a scowl. "You just gotta eat, little one, or you just ainít gonna grow up inta a big, strong horse like your Pa."

A shadow fell across the floor of the barn. Still frowning, Hoss looked up. A large man stood in the doorway, blocking out the early morning brilliance. Sharply angled sunbeams danced around wide shoulders, and, just for a moment, the face was invisible, obscured by the contrast of dark and light. Hoss didnít know who it was. Then he remembered. "Say, you must be that Riddel fella my brother, Adam, brought home last night." From the way that he said it, his brother was the one in the habit of adopting waifs and strays.

Riddel stepped into the barn, smiling and holding out his hand. "Isaac ís the name, friend. Isaac Riddel."

Hoss wiped his palm on the seat of his pants and shook hands with Riddel. He introduced himself. "Iím Hoss Cartwright."

"Iím right pleased ta meet ya, Hoss."

Hoss found himself returning the smile. He found himself liking this big-built man with his easy smile and his lazy drawl. He had a broad, bluff-featured face that was somehow familiar. Then, just for a moment, Hoss felt just a trifle uneasy, a little chilled, as if a shadow had passed across the face of the sun.

Riddel hunkered down beside the colt. "Whatís the matter with this little fella? He looks kinda sickly."

"I guess he was just born puny." Hoss scratched his head through his thinning hair. "My folks tell me Iím wastiní my time with him, that itíd be kinder ta put a bullet through his head."

Riddel shot him a swift glance. "And you donít feel right about doiní that?"

"Heck no." Hoss reached out a hand to pet the colt again and the sad smile came back to his face. "I reckon he ought ta have the chance ta grow up just like any other critter."

"You like animals, Hoss?"

"Sure do." Hoss frowned. "Most times, I like animals a whole lot better than I like people." He flushed a little at the admission. This friend of Adamís didnít seem like he was such a bad sort of fella for a man to know.

Riddel nodded understanding. The look on his face mirrored Hossís own. "I donít reckon critters judge a man like folks do. They donít look at a man like theyíre scared oí him or laugh at him if heís kinda big aní clumsy, or if he donít look so pretty."

Hoss looked at him in earnest amazement. "Is that how you feel too?"

"You bet I do." Riddel grinned at him, and Hoss saw that he had jagged, gappy and very uneven teeth. "Goodness knows, I ainít nothin ta look at."

"It ainít just that they point aní poke fun at a man. Heck, that ainít nothing at all." Hoss crouched down on the other side of the colt, hiding his flaming face behind the animalís neck. He didnít know why he was talking this way, but, somehow, this friend of Adamís understood. "Sometimes people just plain ainít nice ta each other. They go out shootiní aní killiní and hurtiní one another fer no good reason at all. Animals just ainít like that."

Riddel thought about it. Then he spoke into the sun-spattered, dust-moted, warming silence of the barn; "A man canít let himself be pushed around the whole of his life. Comes a time when he has ta stand firm for the things he believes in. It about the only way he can do some good in this world.

"Guess you could be right." Hossís face creased into lines of fierce concentration as he fondled the little coltís ears. A man of great stature and physical strength, he had learned from an early age that might did not always mean right. His Pa and his big brother had taught him to control his temper and always to pull his punches. Now that he thought about it, he could see things another way. Very slowly, he began to smile. "Isaac, I reckon you are right!

"Thatís just what you do." Riddel straightened up and dusted off his hands. "And I reckon that this little horse is gonna be just fine too."

Heíd had his fingers stuck into the coltís mouth and had been working them around until he had got the animal sucking hard on his hand. Then heíd turned the coltís head towards his mother, and the little creature had stretched out his neck and was taking a good, long drink.

Hoss grinned Ė and then laughed out loud. "He sure is."

"Say." Riddel looked at Hoss sideways. "Díyou you think weíre too late for breakfast over at your house? Seeiní him eat like that sure makes a man hungry."

Hoss realized that he was hungry too. "I reckon itís about time we went and found out."

The two huge men draped their arms across each otherís shoulders and started across the yard.

Ben welcomed his son and his guest to the table with a warm, if wary, smile of greeting. "What do you think of the Ponderosa, Isaac?"

"Itís a beautiful country, and you have a fine spread here."

Hoss surveyed the table and the remains of breakfast with dismay. "Hey, didnít you fellas leave a man nothiní ta eatí?"

Adam, already replete with scrambled eggs and bacon and fried corn fitters was drinking his third cup of coffee. He sat back in his chair and stretched out his long, lean legs under the table. "Well, we got us a growiní boy to feed here, Hoss." He indicated Joe with nod of the head. "íSides, we thought youíd decided to forgo breakfast this morning."

Hoss favoured Adam with a withering glance and looked at Joe reproachfully. "Heck Adam, some oí us bin working already today, ístead oí wrestliní with grizzlies like it looks like you bin doiní. Joe, you gonna eat all oí that bread?"

Adam grimaced. He was painfully aware that his close encounter with the ore wagon the night before had done little to enhance his appearance; it didnít look as if anyone was going to let him forget it. "I reckon he might just do that," he said in a slow western drawl, answering for Joe who had his mouth full. He eyed Joe with speculation. "I reckon he might."

Meeting his eyes with defiance, Joe popped the last piece of bread into his mouth and chewed it. Hoss watched mournfully as he swallowed it down.

Hop Sing appeared around the corner from the kitchen carrying a fresh tray of bacon, eggs and new bread. Hossís expression lightened. He nudged Riddel in the ribs. "This hereís Hop Sing. The best darn cook in the whole oí the territory. You git some oí his eggs Ďní bacon inside ya, youíll feel a whole different man."

"That is, if you manage to get at it before Hoss eats it all," advised Adam, gravely over the rim of his cup.

Hoss gave him a glare that was full of resentment. "Why donít you mind your own business, big brother?"

"Gentlemen," Ben said from the end of the table, "Please remember we have a guest in the house."

Adam smirked at Hoss, and Hoss kicked out at Adamís leg under the table. For a moment it seemed that Ben might have a full scale riot on his hands as the brothers squared up to each other.

Hop Sing set down the tray. As Hoss settled down in his seat and started to help himself from the dishes, The Chinese cook bowed low to the tall, lean oriental in rusty black silk. "Mister Hoss always tease Hop Sing." He explained with a self-depreciating gesture that spoke volumes of respect and humility.

The se-mu jen acknowledged his obeisance with a nod of the head. "I am sure you fill your place in this society admirably and with honour," he said quietly. No one else heard. "But a man of your undisputed abilities could undoubtedly do better for himself in this new land of golden opportunity."

Hop Sing looked up into the tall manís eyes. He saw in their darkness an aloof contempt of one in so menial a position. It was with trepidation that he dared to reply; it was not usually acceptable to question the opinion of such a high ranking official. "Hop Sing is very happy working for Cartwrights."

"Happiness is a quality that a man carries inside himself," the se-mu jen told him mildly. "Consider carefully what I have said. I am sure that in San Francisco or one of the fine cities in the east, you would do very well for yourself."

Afraid to answer further and strangely disquieted by what he had heard, Hop Sing bowed once more and retreated into the kitchen.

Isaac Riddel sat down in the seat beside Hoss, served himself from the platters and started to eat.

"Howís that little colt this morning?" Ben asked Hoss.

Hoss took a mouthful of bread and shovelled eggs in after it; he spoke Ďround the food. "Heís a whole lot better, Pa. In fact, I think heís gonna be just fine. Isaac here, heís got him ta eat proper."

A frown clouded Ben Cartwrightís face. "Is that a fact?" It seemed unlikely. With his suit brushed clean and his tie neatly knotted, Riddel looked more like a banker than a man who would know about horses.

"You still think that coltís going to grow up to be useful?" Adam inquired of his brother. "He looked pretty sickly to me."

Hoss was still eating. He was as hungry as a bear. "Just goes ta show what you know about horses, big brother. Iím gonna call him Isaac, after Isaac here. Aní when heís done growing Iím gonna give him ta Little Joe. Heíll make a real fancy saddle horse - fer a puny sort oí a man."

Joe was both pleased and insulted. "Say, who you calliní puny?" I can outride you any day."

Hoss paused in his chewing and scowled "You know I didnít mean nothing by it!"

Adamís breath hissed in through his teeth, and his face tightened with annoyance. Normally, he let his brotherís bickering simply wash by him, but, this morning, it was getting under his skin. He sat up straighter in his chair, and his cup rattled into its saucer. "Why should Joe be the one to get the horse? It seems to me that Joe gets all the privileges." It was a thing that, normally, wouldnít have bothered him. Joe was his younger brother and now, as always, the baby of the family. Any other day of the week, Adam would have denied him nothing. This morning, it was a source of intense irritation. Then he caught the glint of steel in his fatherís eye and subsided.

Ben said sternly, "Itís only reasonable that Hoss should do as he pleases with his own horse."

Ben glanced at Riddel who had just about finished his breakfast and was dabbing his lips with his napkin. The silver haired banker Ė as such Ben still thought of him - was politely ignoring the altercation his hostís table.

Changing the subject, Ben Cartwright said, "Talking about riding, donít you three have some work lined up for today?"

"Thatís right, Pa," Adam acknowledged, "We were going to work those draws down in the south section, out as far as the ridge. Thereís always a lot of unbranded mavericks hiding out in the brush."

"And then thereís that cabin up in Craigís Cutting want fixiní up for the winter." Ben reminded him. "And a dozen head of broom-tails still left in the corral need breaking for the winter remuda."

Joe didnít need telling. Finished with his meal, he got to his feet. He looked at his elder brother, who seemed disinclined to move. "Hey, daylightís a-spendiní. You gonna sit there aní drink coffee all day, or you gonna come and do some work?"

Adam raised a sardonic eyebrow, surprised at Joeís unusual enthusiasm. "So what got in to you all of a sudden? Itís not like you to want to get to work."

Joe pointed a finger. "I work just as hard as you do. I donít make so much noise about it, thatís all!"

"Noise?"

Adam caught his fatherís look again. It occurred to him to mention the instructions Paul Martin had given him Ėall those wise words about taking it easy. With all the work that was waiting to be done, he could imagine what his family would have to say if he claimed to be sick. Besides, it wasnít in his nature. With a sigh he got out of his chair and followed his brother to the door. Both men buckled on hardware.

"Adam." Ben called after his son sternly; "Tonight after supper I want you to go through the books with me. We have to come to some decision about what to do with that land on the southern side of the river. And we still have to work on those round-up figures"

"Yes, Pa." Adam ground his teeth and rolled his eyes towards heaven. He already knew what had to be done, and, sometimes, the tone of his fatherís voice made him feel about six years old. He walked slowly back to the breakfast table and put his foot on his empty chair. He looked at his big younger brother. "We," Adam began, his voice heavily laced with sarcasm, "are going out chasing cows." He gave Hoss a little bow. "Would you care to join us, brother?"

Hoss hadnít finished eating. He heaved a mighty sigh. "I guess Iím cominí too, iffen you fellas canít manage it all on your ownsome." He grabbed a slice of bread and the last of the bacon, folding it into a sandwich as he went through the door. Irritated voices were heard from the yard, evidence that the half-serious arguments continued outside, and then the drum of horseís hooves as the three men rode away. A sudden, velvet silence descended on the ranch house.

Still scowling at his offspringís antics, Ben took his coffee with him to his desk. He would have preferred to be out in the sunlight and fresh air himself, but he had a whole heap of paperwork to catch up on and several important letters to write Ė and still there were those figures that he and Adam hadnít gotten to last night. He wasnít looking forward to any of it. With a sigh of his own, he sat down in the green leather chair. The sooner he began, he supposed, the sooner heíd be done.

Riddel trailed after him, his own refilled coffee cup in his hand. Once again, Ben experienced that momentary measure of unease. From the corner of his eye he watched Riddel scan the elaborately tooled spines of the books on the shelves. Here and there, the man paused to read a title, head on one side. He seemed genuinely interested, and Benís disquiet passed, fading, finally, as Riddel turned and smiled.

"Quite a collection of reading material you have here."

Ben had to agree. "Most of it belongs to Adam. Heís the one for reading. He gets it from his mother."

"His mother? Ah, yes." Riddel surveyed the row of tiny, painted faces, each in its golden frame, that adorned Benís desk. Suddenly, Ben wanted, quite irrationally, to sweep them into the protection of his arms and hold them against his chest. This manís eyes somehow sullied them and the memories that they engendered.

"Do you miss them?" Riddel asked. Ben didnít answer. White faced, he sat at the desk. His hands clenched slowly into white knuckled fists. Of course he missed them! Every single day and more than words could tell.

"I had a wife once too." Riddel said unexpectedly. "A beautiful woman, very similar to Adamís mother: raven-haired, with eyes as dark as midnight and a laugh like the tinkle of bells." He sighed a small sigh. "Thereís nothing quite like the love of a good woman."

Ben breathed into a silence broken only by the tick of the long case clock and the distant clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. Gradually, he relaxed back into the chair. The frown was still on his face. "What happened to your wife?" he asked quietly.

Riddelís eyes focused on some distant horizon in the landscape within his own mind. "She died in childbirth. The child died too. Iíve missed her dreadfully for a very long time." Lost in thought and the memory of loss, he stood with his head lowered and his broad shoulders hunched. The silence extended.

Ben looked again at the three painted faces - each one so different, each dearly loved. They gazed back patiently over the span of the years. Finally he spoke, his voice harsh with pain. "A man has to learn to let go; he has to move on Ė appreciate the things that he has."

"Thatís easy enough for you to say," Riddel responded heavily, "A man with all this: a ranch, a great house, three fine sons."

Benís brow creased further. Despite the warmth of the sun spilling in through the window, he shivered. "Theyíre good boys, I know, but sometimes Iím not sure what gets into their heads. Joe can be so hot-headed at times, he seems almost out of control."

"The wild ones are always the hardest for a father to control," Riddel said softly Ėso softly Ben barely heard him.

"Adamís always got his head in some book, or heís off in the clouds with his mind filled with windmills, and Hoss Ė thereís times when he seems to live in another world entirely with his animals and his love of the wild."

Riddel smiled a slow, secret smile. "Theyíre fine young gentlemen - a credit to you in every way," he said slyly. "Theyíre bound to run wild from time to time. Joe might be impulsive but, with luck, heíll settle down someday and make a fine husband, and Hoss is as strong and as steadfast as the land itself."

He paused, and Ben looked up sharply at the noticeable omission. "And Adam? What do think about Adam? Heís the reason youíre here, after all." For some reason he couldnít account for, Ben felt he needed to know.

"Adam." Riddel thought for a moment. "Adamís a man of many talents, not all of them readily apparent. He has ideas of his own and a desire to make his own path through life. As much as he has here, I donít think it will be enough for him."

Ben voiced a fear heíd held for a very long time Ė since the day that his son had been born Ė and the day that Elizabeth died, "You think that Adam will leave?"

Riddel left his answer unspoken. Now the house was completely quiet except for the tick of the clock. Even the rattle from the kitchen had stopped.

"You seem to know my family very well on such a short acquaintance." Ben was disgruntled again, disturbed and unhappy. This man seemed to know far too much about him Ė and his sons. And he still had that uncomfortable feeling that, somewhere, heíd met him before. He looked at his big hands, folded together on top of the desk: powerful, capable hands that had tamed a wild country, brought civilization to a wilderness, hand that were work-hardened, callused and scarred and seemed, at the moment, incapable of holding together what they had created.

"Surely the bookwork can wait," Riddel suggested mildly. "Iíd like to see the lake. Adam showed it to me by starlight. Iíd like to see it again Ė in the full light of day."

Ben closed the ledger with its neat rows of figures in his hand and in Adamís and ran his blunt fingertips over the gold embossed edges of the cover. The book represented the whole of his achievement. It didnít seem to matter that much any more. If Joe got himself shot and killed in some senseless saloon brawl, if Hoss wandered off someplace and took up residence in the hills, if Adam Ė if Adam just went away Ė it would all have been for nothing. He straightened abruptly, jack-knifing himself out of the chair. All of a sudden he needed to renew his relationship with the lady of the lake. "Youíve gotten yourself a deal, Mister Riddel. Letís go and saddle ourselves some horses."

*******

The hammer-headed sorrel gelding had made up his mind: he wasnít about to be ridden. Heíd made his decision abundantly clear, right from the outset, and, the third time he came out of the saddle and hit the hard packed earth, Joe was inclined to agree with him. He sat up slowly, this time determined not to rush it, and probed gently with his finger tips for all the various sore spots that he knew for dead-certain sure he was going to discover later. The accumulated effect of this morningís work was going to leave him black and blue in some very interesting places.

The cowboys had already hustled the bucking pony away and were busily loading him back into the chute. Joe guessed he had no choice but to get up off the ground, brush himself off and do what was expected of him Ė it was one of the duties of being the ownerís son. He shook the last of the wooziness out of his head, gathered his hat and clambered stiffly back onto his feet.

Right there and then he could think of about three hundred things heíd rather be doing than banging the grit out of ill-mannered brush-horses: most of them involved spending time with sweet Ellen Weldon. On thing was sure, by the time heíd finished in this corral heíd need a bath and a fresh change of clothes before he went anywhere near her. Dust rose in clouds from the seat of his pants when he banged his hands against them and an itchy trickle of sweat ran down his neck.

"Hey, little brother!" Hoss hailed him from a precarious perch on the top rail of the fence. "That was a mighty fine ride, but ainít you supposed ta end up sittiní on the back oí the horse when youíve done?"

Still dusting his rear, Joe limped over. Not for the first time in recent days, the usual, light-hearted reposte failed to rise to his lips. He had no idea how long his brother had been there, but obviously, it was long enough to witness the ignominious end to his ride. He squinted up at him, his dirty face pinched tight with irritation. "I donít seeiní you doiní much ta help. When was the last time you put your butt on a bronc?"

Hoss chuckled again. "Heck, Little Joe, I sit down on one oí those ponies, Iím apt ta break Ďim in half!"

"I still donít see why you shouldnít do some oí the work." Joe was prepared to grumble on, although his heart wasnít in it. That thought led to another. "Whereís Adam? Off someplace wií that new friend oí his?"

"Donít reckon." Hoss looked vague. "I saw Riddel goiní out a while back, buggy ridiní wií Pa."

Joe thought about it. From where he stood it seemed unlikely that either his Pa, or his big brother, Adam, would make such elaborate overtures of friendship to a man like Riddel. So far, no one had bothered to explain it to him. His expression soured still more. "Looks like Iím the only one around here doiní any work at all."

"Aw, it just seems that way, Joe." Hossís smile broadened with mischief. "Leastwise itís keeping your mind off that pretty liíle Ellen Weldon!"

Joe looked at him sharply, his eyes bright and hard with irritation. "Whatís it to you if I think about Ellen?"

The amusement faded from Hossís face to be replaced by a puzzled frown. "It ainít nothin' at all ta me, Little Joe. But you just might manage ta stay on that horse iffen you kept your mind on the job."

Joeís face went white with fury. He was angry on three separate counts. Irrationally, he felt that Hoss had cast a slur on Ellen purely by speaking her name; he had certainly ridiculed Joeís ability to ride! Most insulting of all, he had dared use that hated word Ďlittleí.

Joe lunged for his brother. He used the corral fence for a ladder and grabbed for the front of his shirt. Hoss was already out of his reach. Moving remarkably quickly for a man of his bulk, he was down from the fence rail and heading towards his horse. His big voice boomed back over his shoulder. "I just donít know whatís got inta you, Joe. You want ta keep your mind on bustiní them broncs."

Furious, Joe hurled his hat to the ground and resisted, manfully, the urge to jump up and down on it. The sorrel was still waiting and there was nothing else for it but to get himself back to work.

*******

The day had been a long one, hot, dry and dusty for the Cartwright brothers. They had spent every last minute of it chasing lazy, summer-plump steers out of the brush. They had gathered several, small bunches of twenty and thirty head and driven them several miles across rough country to the makeshift corral. Now, it was the later part of the afternoon, and they had a sizeable herd gathered in the steep sided valley and every reason to be feeling pleased with themselves.

Joe Cartwright was far from pleased. Every time, he had drawn the short straw and he had gotten to ride drag. He was tired of getting dirt in his mouth and sick to his soul of the sight of steerís backsides. To add to Joeís indisposition, both his brothers were in the most ridiculous of good humours. They had spent the early part of the day swapping loud and bawdy jokes that, a few years ago, they wouldnít have dared speak aloud in front of their baby brother lest he inadvertently repeat them to their father. Then theyíd taken to exchanging senseless riddles across the cattleís backs: riddles that neither one had bothered to explain to Joe. Theyíd kept up the banter all afternoon, hardly pausing for breath, and Joe felt that, somehow, heíd gotten the worst of it. Now, at the tail end of the day, with the sun tipping into the western hills and the sky taking on the colour of beaten bronze, Adam was spouting high sounding verse, stumbling slightly on the words when his swollen lip got in the way. Hoss was laughing his fool head off, and every trip of Adamís mouth made him haw-haw harder. Joe had just about had enough.

Riding, yet again, at the back of the bunch, he chased the last, reluctant steer into the holding pen. He stepped down from his horse and wiped his sleeve over his face. He succeeded only in smearing the mask of sweat and dust. Glaring at up at Adam, who was in mid quote, he said, irritably, "Why donít you shut up?"

Hoss leaned out of his saddle, his big face beaming. "Whooóee! Whatís the matter, little brother? A little culture getting to ya?"

"I donít need culture!" Joe turned furiously on Adam. "All that fancy book learniní you got, it donít count for nothiní out here on the range!"

Adam pressed his hand to his breast; his horse, tight reined, danced on the spot in the dust. "What eíre you think, good words, I think, were best!"*

Hoss hooted with laughter. "Little Joe, iffen you concentrated more on book learniní Ďstead oí chasiní every high-tailed filly that comes pranciní by, youíd be able ta talk all that fancy stuff, just like Adam here."

Adam slapped his palm against his thigh and laughed aloud. Joe didnít see the joke, and, suddenly, he was angry. He leapt back into the saddle and snatched up his reins. "I donít know what the hellís got into you two today, but Iíve had enough of it!"

"Aw, heck, Joe, we didnít mean nothing." Hoss wiped tears of laughter from his face. "We was just joshiní along!"

Joe looked from face to face: Adam was struggling to compose himself, and Hoss was still chuckling. "Wellí I donít like it!" He reined his gelding in hard and spun him about on a dime. "You two can finish up here on your own!" Well aware that there was still an hourís work to be done Ė and it would take longer with just two men to do it - he kicked his horse into motion.

With his brothersí laughter still echoing loud in his ears, Joe rode at a furious gallop all the way to the top of the rise, and then home at an easier pace. His mind was in turmoil, and the hot fires of resentment burned in his belly. This was one of those days when his half-brothersí sometimes-weird senses of humour simply got under his skin. He led the gelding into the corral alongside the barn and stripped off the saddle. The horse was sweating and blowing hard, and Joe felt rather ashamed at having pushed him so cruelly.

At first he though there was no one about. Then the front door of the house opened and Isaac Riddel came out. Joe watched the stranger approach over the horseís steaming back. Still angry, he didnít feel like being sociable Ė especially with this new friend of Adamís. Joe had disliked Riddel from the moment they had been introduced. The smile was a little too easy, the gleam in the bright hazel eyes a little too bright. Joe didnít buy the idea of a chance encounter in the street, and an older brotherís friends should be Ė well Ė older.

With the rapid, easy movements of a fit young man, Riddel climbed to the top of the corral fence. Joe shivered as the manís shadow fell across him. Wide kneed, Riddel sat and watched as Joe rubbed the cow pony down.

Joe eyed him warily but didnít speak. He was prepared to allow the silence to grow until the other man became uncomfortable.

Riddel wasnít in the least disconcerted. "Nice gelding," he ventured. "Iíll bet heís a fine cutting pony."

Joe shot him a hostile glance. He refused to be flattered. His response was reluctantly honest. "Heís a good enough horse."

"Did you train him yourself?" The friendly enthusiasm in Riddelís voice made Joe bristle all the more.

"I trained him," he answered shortly. He continued to work, polishing the geldingís black hide with a piece of cloth until it was bone-dry and shone in the afternoon sky.

"You donít like me, do you?" Riddel asked from his place on the top of the fence.

Joe came around the rump of the horse. Still scowling, he studied the strangerís face. It was a young face, as young as Joeís, younger it seemed than the man who wore it, and there was something about it that was uncannily familiar. Right now, that face was as wary and watchful as Joe knew his own to be. "What is it you want, hanging about my family the way youíre doing?"

The cowboy shrugged and ran a hand through his curls. "A bed for the night, a few free meals, perhaps a little spending money."

Joe was taken aback. It was what he had suspected all along, but he hadnít expected the man to admit it so readily. He slapped his hand on the horseís rump to move him out of the way and took a long step nearer the figure that loomed, menacingly, so it seemed, from the top of the five-barred fence. "Is that all there is to it?"

"Sure. What else?" The young cowboy smiled disarmingly.

Thinking about it, Joe didnít believe it Ė not for a minute. No common cowboy would go to the elaborate lengths of this deception, not even to eat at the Cartwrightís fine table. There had to be something more behind it: something deeper, colder and darker.

There was something sly behind the young manís smile.

Joe shivered again, as if, years in the future, someone walked over the place where heíd lie. He threw the sensation off with a shrug. "So how long do you intend to hang around?"

"A few more days." Riddel eyed him narrowly. "Perhaps until after the weekend. Long enough for your Pa and your brother to show their appreciation properly." Sitting up on the fence, Riddel was silhouetted against the sky. His expression was unreadable. Joe squared up to him and pointed a finger.

"I want you to pack your gear and get off the Ponderosa."

Riddelís eyes narrowed. "Iíll go when Iím good and ready, Cartwright, and not a moment before."

Joe took another long stride. He reached out for Riddel, fully prepared to drag him down off that fence and beat the living daylights out of him. At the very last moment, Benís bellow from across the yard summoned him to the house, "Joe? Joseph!"

Distracted, Joe looked away. Then he looked back at Riddel. The cowboy hadnít moved. The sun had set behind the mountain and now Joe couldnít see his face at all. He said, "You be on you way tonight, Mister. I donít want to see you around here any more."

With eyes that glowed very slightly in the gathering gloom, Riddel watched him walk away. A sudden, cool breeze ruffled the scrub oak alongside the house. Joe didnít look back. After a moment, Riddelís smile reasserted itself.

*******

 

It took the combined strength of all three brothers to hold the mule still. Joe had him firmly by the bridle, the big head tucked underneath his arm and his free hand clamped on the meal-coloured muzzle. Adam had his arms wrapped around him somewhere aft of the saddle; he was using all his strength to keep the animalís rear end pinned against the side of the stall. It was Hoss who had drawn the short straw, and his was the job of doing the cutting. He had the sore and swollen hoof in between his legs and wedged up on his knee. Even so, he was doubtful about the security of his position.

The mule was stubborn and angry and frightened. He was in pain, and he didnít like all these men holding on to him. He heaved, dragging everyone with him. The knife poised, Hoss chewed at his lip.

"Hey, hold on ta him, will ya?"

Adam, balanced on one leg, his other foot braced against the stall post, yelled right back at him. "Weíre holdiní him down as best as we can! Just get on aní do it, will ya?"

For once, Joe was inclined to agree with his eldest brother. This job was taking altogether too long. "Yah! Stop yakkiní aní get on with it!"

Hoss considered the spot a moment longer while his brothers fought with the mule. Then, with a scowl, he neatly lanced the abscess, cutting deep to tap the infection and let the poison out.

The mule squealed with pain and wreaked his revenge. Dropping his head, he broke free of Joe and paid him back, in spades, with his teeth. Adam, abruptly, ran out of room and found himself crowded into the wall of the stall by half a ton of enraged and pain-driven animal. Hoss let go of the leg in a rush and caught only a glancing blow from the inevitable two-footed kick that would have disembowelled him if it had caught him squarely.

The golden, afternoon air turned abruptly blue with the string of not-so-muffled curses that issued from the depths of the barn. Shortly afterwards, the three men emerged, two of them limping and Joe clasping his arm. The mule, doubtless, was feeling much better.

Favouring his often-sore hip, Adam hobbled to the water trough and cooled his neck with a palmful of water. He glared angrily at Joe. "I thought you were holding on to him!"

Joe snarled right back, "I thought you had him too!" He rolled up his sleeve to inspect the bruise on his arm. The muleís big, blunt teeth had not broken the skin, but theyíd dented it considerably and it was starting to pain him something awful. It was already blue turning to black, and the damage was spreading. He dunked it deep in the water to cool it.

Hoss rubbed ruefully at a knee that was rapidly swelling. "Iffen you two had held on tighter..!"

Both his brothers turned on him. The argument developed very quickly into pushing and shoving and would have come to blows if Ben hadnít ridden up at just that moment with Isaac Riddel in tow. Ben swung out of the saddle and shook his sons apart. His face took on all the hues of a thundercloud. "I canít leave you three alone for a minute before youíre brawling over some sort of nonsense!"

The three young men stood and dusted themselves down. Their expressions were rather more stunned than sheepish. Isaac Riddel sat back in his saddle, that inescapable smile still firmly in place. "Now Ben," he said affably. "Boys will be boys." Adam and Joe stared at him in bemusement. It wasnít the sort of thing they would have expected a man like Riddel to say. Hoss, who had come off worst in the scuffle, was too busy to notice.

Ben continued to glare furiously from one of his progeny to another. "Boys? They act more like children!"

Joe stared past his father at Riddel. There was something in the back of Joeís mind, something he couldnít remember: something about Riddel going away and a deep, residual anger.

Adam fingered his lip, which had only just healed over. He half expected it to be bleeding again and was relieved to find that it wasnít. He considered offering some sort of explanation and decided it really wasnít worth the effort. His Pa was mad enough already and talking about it, in Adamís considerable experience, was only likely to make matters worse.

Ben pointed an imperious finger towards the house. "I think you all better go and get washed up for supper." It was more a command than a suggestion. Hands on hips he watched until the young men were more than half way towards the door. Riddel dismounted, and the two of them led their horses into the barn.

 

*******

The hammer missed the nail-head and, only narrowly, Adamís fingers. It wasnít the first time that day. He let rip with a furious expletive. "Hold the damn thing steady, will ya!"

"Heck, Adam, thatís just what Iím tryiní ta do!" Hoss was struggling with the far end of the board. It was a long, whippy plank with a life of its own and this was the fourth attempt the brothers had made to get the thing nailed in place.

Adam threw the hammer down on the floor. His hands went to his hips in the archetypal Cartwright attitude of annoyance. His tawny eyes flashed with fire. "Well, I think perhaps you should try a little harder, brother. Why donít you watch what youíre doing?"

Hoss bristled resentfully. His hands on his own hips, a taller and bigger man, he leaned over Adam. "Iffen you reckon you cín do this job better on your own...""

"Thatís not what Iím saying!" Adamís voice had lost its even modulation and was starting to rise.


"Well thatís what itís soundiní like!" By now the two men were chest to chest and glaring at each other.

A physical confrontation with Hoss Cartwright was never a good idea, and no one was more aware of it than Adam. It was he who had taught the big man to use his fists in the first place. Hoss was not only taller and stronger but he packed a punch like a mule, and his temper, when roused was legendary. Nevertheless, Adam was not prepared to back down. He leaned back on his heels and stared deep into his brotherís angry blue eyes. "You heard Pa say that he wants this shack fixed in time for the winter," he said with controlled intensity. "And he said he wanted you and me to get the job done. We still have to fix up this panelling and mend the holes in the roof. Now, are you gonna set to and help me do it, or are we gonna step outside and do something we might both regret?"

"Regret!" Hoss jabbed a forefinger into Adamís chest. "Rearranginí your pretty face ainít somethiní Iíll regret one little bit! I reckon them bruises youíre weariní kinda suit ya!"

Both men stood and considered Hossís pointing finger. Adam raised his eyes and looked resentfully into Hossís face. He said, with deliberate precision, "Why donít we find out how a few bruises would look on you?"

A small voice of caution whispered in Hossís ear. He knew his own strength, and he knew if he fought with his brother, which of them was going to win. He also knew that neither of them would emerge from such a battle unscathed. He stepped back and held up his hands. "I ainít gonna fight ya, Adam, but I had just about as much as I cín take oí your smart mouth! Reckon I might just go away and live some place where I canít hear it no more." Turning on his heel, he walked away, out of the cabin and into the sunlit morning.

It was a bright fresh day of early autumn. The sunshine was warm on his face. The fresh air served to clear his head and to cool his temper. He was aware that Adam took two long steps after him, and then stopped in the cabin doorway. He didnít look back, nor did Adam call after him Ďthough he could feel his brotherís anger burning into his back. Hoss kept on walking until he reached his horse, then stepped into the saddle and rode away.

*******

Leaving his horse tethered in a stand of trees, Adam went for a walk by the shore of the lake. It was Saturday, and a big day in the social calendar of the southern Washoe Valley, second in importance only to the ritual gatherings at Christmas and the traditional spring picnic: it was the night of the annual Harvest Dance. Preparations had been underway for weeks, and anticipation throughout the wide spread community had reached fever pitch. Adam should have been home, getting himself bathed and shaved and oiling his hair. Instead, he felt divorced from all the excitement; he felt he needed some time on his own.

The water lay in a slate grey sheet reflecting the sky-blue sky. Lightly ruffled by a vagrant breeze from the hillsides, it looked chill and uninviting. As always, it had adjusted itself to his mood. Adam was in a bleak frame of mind. His life had lost its balance. His home-life was in a state of disruption, his family, usually able to rub along together with no more than the usual, human differences of opinion, was tearing itself asunder. His father, who normally tempered his innate paternal sternness with patience and good humour, had become irascible and possessed of a black despair. Hoss still grumbled on about leaving and going to live on a mountaintop someplace, and Joe stormed about in a perpetual dark cloud of anger.

And Adam himself Ė he wasnít at all sure what he felt any more. At one time, not so very long ago, although it seemed like forever, his life seemed settled in its course; his wanderlust, except for a little occasional dreaming, was mostly laid to rest. As his fatherís business associate, professional advisor and confidant, as well as being the first-born son and principal inheritor, his future and his place in the upper echelons of society were assured. He had decided that travel, the arts and culture could all come later. Now, he was unsettled again, restless and uncertain. He was no longer at peace with his world. It all stemmed back to that singular evening when he had first encountered Isaac Riddel, the man who had stepped out of nowhere, who looked so very much like him and reflected his thoughts and deepest emotions.

In a little more than a week, his guest had become a part of the family. He shared Adamís love of books, poetry and music, participated in Hossís overwhelming absorption in all things connected with nature and the call of the wild, and would happily spend all night discussing history and politics and the state of the nation with Ben. He had even developed some sort of strange relationship with Hop Sing, the Chinese cook. He got along well with everyone - except for Little Joe.

He was always there, ready with a word of advice or encouragement and that ever present, always friendly smile. Was he also sowing seeds of dissension and dissatisfaction among the ranks of his hosts: a viper nesting in the heart of the Cartwright family? On reflection, Adam thought that perhaps he was. It was yet another friendship that Adam had been enjoying that was destined to bite the dust.

Adam skimmed a few rocks out over the water and watched the ripples spread. It was plain to him what he had to do. It was he who had invited Riddel to stay; it was up to him to tell him to go. A grim look of determination settled onto his face. There was no time like the present when it came to getting an unpleasant job done.

*******

Ben emerged from his office corner. The deep-folded frown that he wore had taken up more or less permanent residence in the last several days. He had a headache, and he was feeling out of sorts. He was angry and resentful; if the truth were known, he would have liked to go to the ho-down as well. He might have enjoyed a glass or two of the traditional, stunningly strong brandy punch, some convivial conversation and perhaps a turn or two around the floor with the pleasant faced and always obliging widow Burns. It wasnít to be. Those half dozen letters were still to be written, and the tally cards from the autumn gather were waiting to be tallied up. They were jobs his eldest son was strangely reluctant to undertake.

It was six oíclock by the dial of the long case clock. The great room of the ranch house was lit by pale lamp light against the gathering gloom. A log fire blazed in the fireplace, relegating the creeping chill of the evening into the farthest corners. The three younger Cartwrights were making their final preparations to go to the Harvest Ball. Mixed with the smell of wood smoke, Ben could detect the aromas of soft soap, shoe polish and lavishly applied pomade. The atmosphere of joviality and friendly competition that was the usual bill of fare on such an occasion was missing.

Hoss was pensive, as was normal of late; his mind was on other things. His broad face was scrubbed to pinkness and his thinning hair brushed until it shone. He wore his habitual garb, the sort of clothes that made the big man comfortable: a bead-trimmed, soft leather vest over a full sleeved shirt of white linen. He had not yet put on the coat to his suit and stood by the hearthstone, one hand upon the mantle. His blue eyes were focused somewhere far beyond the flames. Ben wondered what he was thinking. Was he still considering that log cabin high in the hills, so far removed from the rest of humanity. He had mentioned it a lot lately and seemed to be permanently angry. It was plain to his father that Hoss was not a happy man.

A log fell in the fire and sent the sparks jumping. Hoss stepped back sharply, and then looked up as Joe came clattering down the stairs. The youngest Cartwright had taken longest to dress. With his heavily bandaged arm confined in a sling it had taken a while to button his trousers. He had found himself left with one final problem.

"Hey, Hoss, can you help me tie this thing?" The black, shoestring tie around his neck already showed evidence of Joeís one-handed struggles. Hoss walked over and straightened it out. His big fingers fumbles with the narrow, silk ribbon.

"Just hold still a moment, will ya, Joe I canít tie this darn thing with you danciní about all over the place.

To Benís paternal eye, Joe looked very young and vulnerable: a little boy all dressed up in a grown manís suit. The frown still firmly in place, he said, "Joe, Iím not sure that you ought to go."

Joe turned on him; his young faced flushed abruptly with anger. "I can take care of myself, Pa."

"With your arm all bundled up like that?" Ben thought that he sounded the very soul of reasonableness. "I doubt that you can."

Hoss had just about fumbled the tie into some sort of bow. "Joeís jist worried that arm might cramp his style a little."

Joe stepped back, his fury increasing. The ribbon unravelled in disarray. "What díyou mean by that?

"I donít mean nothiní, Joe." Frustrated, Hoss attempted a feeble joke. "You git ta spooniní wií liíl Ellen Weldon, Iím sure youíll manage jist fine."

Pointing the furious finger of his good right hand, Joe shouted into his brotherís face, "I told you before, donít you talk about Ellen! Donít you even mention her name!"

"Joseph!" Ben moved forward to intervene before the brothers came to blows.

Hoss was more than a little bemused. "Hey, Little Joe...!"

"And donít call me Ďlittleí!" Joe was enraged, his face turning purple.

"Boys, boys." Adam stepped between them and put his hands on their shoulders. Benís frown deepened into a scowl. In the thigh length, full-skirted jacket and pin striped pants, a bow of black silk tied at his throat and his hair slicked back from his face, Adam looked all too much like some riverboat gambler or Ė worse Ė a gunslinger, for Benís peace of mind. Adam went on, unperturbed, "Thereís no need to argue. Iíll be there to take good care of the pair of you. Thatís what big brothers are for."

Hoss snarled, "Adam, there ainít no need fer you ta patronize me! I told you afore, I donít need no more oí your smart mouth!"

Joe tore away from Adamís hand "Aní I donít need no lookiní after neither! You just take care oí your friend Riddel aní leave me alone!"

Joe! Adam! Hoss!" In despair, Ben saw his family falling apart in front of his eyes There was nothing he could do to prevent it. He saw the expression on Adamís face freeze.

"Isaac Riddel isnít coming to the dance tonight."

Possessed of black rage, Joe hadnít listened to a word that Adam had said. "What is it with you and him anyhow? You keep on tryiní ta shrug me off oí your coattails because you say Iím too young! Riddel ainít a whole year older than I am!"

Adam stared at him blankly and so did Ben. Hoss frowned steadily at his little brother as if he were trying to think it through. Ben began, slowly, "JosephÖ"

"I donít want ta hear it!" Joe threw up his hand; his wild stare was inclusive. "I donít know what sort of hold heís got on any of you, but Iím not taken in by him Ė not one little bit!"

Almost in tears that belied his manhood, Joe ran for the yard. The door slammed shut behind him, then swung slowly open again, letting the cool breath of evening drift into the room and making the flames dance higher. Adam took a long step as if to go after his brother, then stopped. He turned to look at his father, dismay on his face. In the stunned silence that filled the great room, another log fell in the fire and the clock ticked on. Predictably, perhaps, it was Hoss who fitted the mystery into words. Perplexed, he inquired, "Pa, what did Joe mean when he said Isaac werenít no older Ďn he is?"

Ben shook his head. "Iím damned if I know. Riddel is my age, if heís a day."

Adam looked from one to the other. "But heís more like me than I would have believed possible!"

Hop Sing came through from the kitchen. He was tall for a Chinaman and sturdily built. He had on his coat and his black, bowler hat. In his hand he carried the all-too-familiar carpetbag that the Cartwrights knew, from experience, held all his worldly possessions. "Hop Sing go now," he announced, without preamble. "Go to San Francisco Ė start business of own."

Ben and his sons all stared at him, their mouths falling open. For Hop Sing to leave was nothing new. He did it on a regular basis. Every minor disagreement or imagined slight was a sure signal for a prolonged holiday with one of his many cousins, but this was totally unexpected. This blow, on top of their other problems, left them all reeling. It was Ben who recovered first, by reason of longer experience. "What do you mean, youíre going to San Francisco? Why now? Why tonight?"

Hop Sing bowed low. "Honoured Chinese gentleman, Is Aak, tell Hop Sing he make good life in San Francisco. Much better than here on Ponderosa."

The men breathed several, long breaths. "Did he indeed?" Ben turned to Adam. "I think weíd better get to the bottom of this. Where is Isaac Riddel?"

Still stunned. Adam replied without thinking. "Heís saddling his horse. I already told him to leave."

Ben had a flash of intuition. He pulled himself tall. "Heís out in the yard, and Joeís out there with him!"

Adam took his gun from its holster and stepped through the door. Night had fallen; it was dark and very quiet. Alongside the house, the bunkhouse was already deserted Ė the hands had all left for the dance in town. The breeze was silent in the tree-tops, and even the stock was still. By common consent, Ben went one way and Hoss the other. Soft footed, Adam crossed to the barn.

A shiver of movement caught Adamís eye: the glint of starlight on silvered metal. He took a long stealthy step to the side of the barn. Riddelís horse stood there, saddled and ready. While not exactly hidden, the tall, black gelding stood in the shadows, out of open sight. The animal shifted, and Adam caught the gleam of his eye. There was no sign of Riddel nor yet of Joe. His gun in his hand, Adam sidled to the half open door.

Inside the barn, the lantern had not yet been lit. It was very dark, and the shadows were darker yet. Adam pushed the door open with his foot, and the moon, half past full, sent a shaft of light inside. Aware that he made a broad target against the open doorway, he ducked inside. He smelt the horses, fragrant and familiar, and felt their body heat warming the air. In the dark, he couldnít see them, but he could feel the bulk of their presence, and he knew that they were uneasy, fidgety, shifting their feet.

Something moved in the gloom, up at the back where there were no horses but only feed sacks and broken harness and other assorted jumble. Adam said, uncertainly "Joe? Joe, are you in here?"

Joeís voice came right back to him; it sounded odd. "Iím here, Adam. Your friendís got the drop on me."

"I donít think heís any friend of mine."

Adamís eyes were adjusting to the light. By moving his head just a little, he could make out their faces, or, rather, their face! The two were exactly alike, each the mirror image of the other. If it hadnít been for Joeís bandaged arm, he couldnít have told them apart. The two men stood close together in an attitude of bitter confrontation. Riddel had his right hand wound in the front of Joeís silk shirt and seemed, somehow, to loom over him. The maw of his left-handed gun was pushed hard against Joeís gut. Adam pointed his gun at Riddel. "Let my brother go."

Riddel turned his head and smiled. His features flowed like putty warmed in the summer sun. They melted and changed until Riddel looked so much like Adam that the eldest Cartwright son might have been seeing his own reflection in a dark, ever flowing pool.

"You canít shoot me, Adam," Riddel said softly. "You canít shoot yourself."

Adam eased the hammer back to full cock. "Are you prepared to risk it?"

Riddel jammed his Colt even harder into Joeís belly. "Are you?"

Adamís mouth was dry. It was a stand off. He could kill Riddel, whatever he was. A good slug of lead would kill anything he had ever encountered. But Riddel would kill Joe. He licked at his lips. "I donít know who you are, Mister, but Iíve got a gut feeling you can bleed and die just like any other man. Youíve been trying to tear my family apart, and I want to know why youíre doing it."

"Perhaps because I can." At close range, Riddel gazed into Joeís face. His golden eyes glowed in the dark. Sorely afraid, Joe wriggled and squirmed but Riddel held him fast by the collar. "I could do that right now, simply by blowing a hole through your brother." Adam saw his finger tighten on the trigger.

Desperate, he said, "What would that gain you? Heís not much more than a boy. Why donít you step outside and fight it out with a man?"

"A man?" Riddel considered. "Oh yes, youíre that all right, Adam. But I think you might find yourself outmatched." Still smiling, he let go of Joeís shirt. Joe edged away from the gun, then scuttled into the shadows. Adam could hear his harsh breathing and trace his movements by the rasp in his chest.

"Are you all right, Joe?"

Joe shifted position, and Adam could see his face, a stark and bloodless oval, his features all pinched together with fear. Adam turned to Riddel. "Whatís it going to be, then? Just you and me?"

Riddel smiled and put his gun away. "Iím not going to fight you, Adam. Iím just going to leave you wondering if you would have won."

Adamís breath hissed through his teeth. "Get out of here. Get off my property before Iím tempted to find out just how much youíd bleed!"

"Adam?" Joeís voice came sharp with a question. "Youíre going to let him go?"

"Iíll let him go," Adam said. "As far as I know, heís not broken any law." He cocked one, wry eyebrow at Riddel. "If I ever see you around here again, Iím likely to change my mind."

Riddel laughed again, and it was Adamís own, warm laugh, strangely disconcerting. "I never ride the same road twice, my friend. In any event, in just a short while, none of you will even remember me. But youíll see me again, all of you, every time you look in the mirror."

With that damnable smile still fixed on his face, he stepped past Adam into the yard. Seconds later, they heard the sound of his horseís hooves as it cantered away.

Joe emerged from the shadows, and, just for a moment, the brothers clung together Ė afraid for each other, afraid of the dark. Ben and Hoss ran in from the yard. Ben looked at his sons, and then gazed round at the inside of the barn. Except for the horses and the stable cat, the rest of the building was empty. "Are you boys all right?"

Adam and Joe looked at each other. Adam slapped Joe on the back. "Weíre all right. Pa."

"And that friend of yours," Ben frowned. "Riddel?"

"Heís gone, Pa." Adam sighed. "Heís not coming back."

Ben looked at his sons, one after the other. "Well, thatís good. I think."

As a family, they had some healing to do, but a dark cloud had lifted from over their heads. Already, the memory of another manís face was fading from their minds. "I think," Ben said, "that weíre going to be late for that party!" With their arms wrapped about each other, the four Cartwright men set out for the house.

 

*William Shakespeare - King John ĖAct 4, scene 2.

 

Potterís Bar 2001.

 

RETURN TO LIBRARY