This is for Gwynne G. Logan

Who reminded me of everything that I had lost

And then gave it back to me.

A Gunfighting Man.

A tale of Decision and Destiny

By

Jenny Guttridge

 

One

 

One of the privileges of advancing age, so Ben Cartwright had come to understand, was the chance to sit, just once in a while, in a favourite armchair after breakfast to enjoy an extra cup of Hop Singís good coffee, and the most recent edition of the Virginia City Clarion. Around him he heard, without consciously listening, all the normal domestic sounds of his household. Hop Sing was clearing away the breakfast dishes with the usual rattle and clatter together with a seemingly endless stream of totally incomprehensible Chinese. This morning Benís Oriental cook, housekeeper and a long time friend did not seem too irate. The boys, as Ben would always think of them, had cleaned up everything on the table. Even Adam, despite his continuing poor appetite, had, for once, eaten a reasonably sized meal.

Ben could hear the baby crying somewhere in the depths of the house. A slight frown formed on the elder Cartwrightís face. For the life of him, he couldnít remember any of the other boys being so fretful as babies, except perhaps for Joe, one winter, when heíd had the croup. The continual wailing set his teeth on an edge. Perhaps, after all, he was getting old.

Upstairs a door closed, and the sound became less intrusive as Jenny went in to feed the child and to see to its comfort. The frown on Benís face faded away as peace returned. He settled again to his coffee and his newspaper.

"Iím telling you, Hoss, thereís nothing you can do for that horse except to shoot it!" The voice was his eldest sonís, raised, querulous, intrusive, coming toward the house from the front yard.

The frown reappeared on Benís face.

The front door opened, and Adam and Hoss came in through it, arguing furiously.

"Dad-burn it, Adam, Iím telliní ya. I already done treated that foot. That mareís gonna be just fine!"

"You cut the abscess last week! You cut it the week before! It just isnít doing any good!"

Adam threw his hat down on the sideboard and followed his bigger, younger brother further into the room. "It just keeps on filling up again!"

Ben rustled the pages of his newspaper in irritation. Both men ignored him. Hoss turned round and pointed his finger into his brotherís chest. "Now you listen here! I cut that abscess Ďní I drained it proper! It ainít my fault if..!"

"Do you two mind!" Ben roared.

The two big men, his sons, stood toe to toe in the centre of the living room, glaring hard at one another. Hoss wore his habitual white shirt, tan vest and pants. Adam, as was his habit, was all in black. Hoss leaned forward into his brotherís space, angry. Adam was standing slightly hip-shot in a posture that had become all too familiar of late, the knuckles of his right hand driven into the side of his belly, somewhere under his belt. Ben knew that that hand was pressed hard against the scar of a recently healed bullet wound that still seemed to plague him.

Benís sons had very different faces, but at this moment, both wore the archetypal expression of mule-headed, Cartwright stubbornness.

The pair of them looked across at their father as if he were some mythical beast suddenly appeared out of fairyland. Their eyes, blue, and hazel-brown were still hard with anger.

Ben threw down the paper and stood up. He was a big man himself, as tall as either of them and barrel-chested, even if not quite as big around as Hoss. Despite his silver hair he could still out-shout either of them. He looked from one to the other. "Now, just whatís this all about?"

Hoss and Adam eyed each other, wondering which of them was going to go first.

It was Adam that started in. "The roan mareís gone lame again. Thatís the third time in as many weeks."

Hoss turned on him, "Aní I already told you. Iíll take care of it!"

"Yeah? Like you did the last time?"

Hoss bristled at his brotherís sneer. "Now look here, Adam..."

"No! You look!" By now Adamís temper was really getting fired up. His voice took on the tutored tones heíd learned back east the way it always did when he got mad. "If you stayed round the place a bit more, doing what you ought to be doing, instead of riding up into the hills communing with nature...!"

"Communing...! Now see here...!"

Afraid that they were about to come to blows right there in the house, Ben stepped between them, holding up his hands. Gentlemen, gentlemen..."

Adam flared. "Itís the truth, Pa! Whenever thereís work to be done, heís always up there in the Reserved Section, someplace!"

Hoss leaned over his fatherís shoulder; his huge hands were working as if itching to get hold of his brother. "Pa told me himself...!"

"Thatís enough!" Ben bellowed. Used as he was to squabbling between his sons, a serious falling out between these two was unusual, and worrying. "Where do you think you are? The Silver Dollar!"

Adam made the mistake of rounding on his father, "And thatís another thing." He said, acidly, "Where the hellís Joe? Heís another one thatís turning work-shy around here!"

"Work-shy!" Hoss roared.

Benís face was darkening, "Your brotherís gone to Virginia City. On an errand for me."

"And to stop off at Ellen Weldonís house!" Adam interjected bitterly. "He spends more time at the Weldonís ranch than he does here!"

Ben drew a long breath, "John Weldon and his family are good neighbours, and Joseph has been seeing Ellen for a year now..."

"And that excuses him from doing any of the work, does it?"

"No! Of course it doesnít!" By now, Ben was getting worked into a rage himself, "Joseph will do his share..."

"It seems to me," Adam snarled, "That the only man pulling his weight around here is me! And I tell you now, Iíve just about had enough of it!"

He turned on his heel and headed for the door, his strides long and angry.

"And where do you think youíre going?" Ben bellowed after him.

Adam picked up his hat and turned in the doorway, holding it in his hand. His face was dark with anger. "In case you hadnít noticed, Iím a grown man, Pa," He said, tightly, "And Iím going to town."

He went out of the door without bothering to close it behind him.

Ben and Hoss stood looking after him, both with open mouths, until they heard the drumming of his horseís hooves in the yard, fading away in the direction of Virginia City.

Ben looked at Hoss, "What brought that on?"

"Danged if I know, Pa," Hoss looked confused and embarrassed. "We was out in the barn lookiní at the mareís foot, Ďní all of a sudden olí Adam took up aní hit the roof like someone set fire ta his tail. Telliní me I gotta shoot my horse."

"But you must have said something..."

"No, sir." Hoss shook his head "I didnít say nothiní. Adam just started soundiní off about how I didnít know nothiní, aní how I werenít never around here no more. You heard about all of it."

Ben knew that his eldest had a cynical, and sometimes caustic, tongue. It was the result, he often felt, of that fancy eastern education. Usually, his remarks were leavened with a certain good humour, but this morningís outburst had all the hallmarks of a serious rift. Ben wondered, briefly, if he had been so tied up in his new family that he had missed, somewhere along the way, the signs of trouble taking shape in the old one.

Hoss sat himself down in the armchair and stared morosely at the carpet between his feet. He was a troubled man. "What is it with Adam these days, Pa? These last few weeks, he just ainít been the same." Hoss hated any form of dissent, particularly in his own family. To be at odds with his much admired elder brother weighed heavily on his broad shoulders.

Ben knew just what he meant. Adam was well again now, according to Paul Martin, the family physician, following several months of recovery and recuperation from the bullet in the belly that had all but cost him his life. He just needed time to build up his strength, Paul had said. But sometimes, when Ben looked at his son, he wondered. Adam didnít sleep well, nor eat properly, and he seemed to tire more quickly than he should. Although tall, broad and powerful, his big frame had never put back all of the bulk that heíd carried before his wounding. He looked lean, his face all hard, flat planes, and sometimes, something dark seemed to haunt the depths of his eyes.

And his temper had suffered as well. He was polite to his stepmother, sometimes barely so to his father, and, occasionally, downright mean to his brothers.

Furthermore, Ben had heard mutterings among the hands. Adam was driving himself hard, perhaps too hard. Everyone else was being driven along with him. He guessed it was time he said something about it.

He put a hand on Hossís shoulder. "I donít know, Hoss. Iím sure Adam didnít mean the things he said."

Hoss looked up at him with that curious little sideways twitch of the mouth that was so characteristic. His pale blue eyes were filled with unhappiness, "Oh, he meant it, pa. He sure meant every danged word of it."

Benís hand tightened, squeezing Hossís shoulder muscle. He hated to see his big, gentle giant of a son so distressed. "I think, thereís a devil riding on your brotherís shoulder, son," he said. His dark eyes mirrored the concern of his soul, "Iíll talk to him."

*********************************

Sitting high up on the driving seat of the Ponderosa buckboard, Joe Cartwright was a contented man. Unusually, for him, he had been out of bed early that morning, long before any of the rest of his family was astir. Using his charming personality and his boyish smile, he had persuaded Hop Sing to serve him an early breakfast of bacon and hot buttered biscuits in the kitchen. In the first grey light of the dawn he had hitched up the team, and by sunrise he had been on the road to Virginia City.

It was the most brilliant autumn morning Joe could remember. Before the sun came up, the sky had been filled with light, thin clouds high over the pine-clad hills. The first touch of dawn had turned them pink, then orange and finally a glorious gold as the burning rim of the sun had risen in splendour. The clouds were gone now, burned away, but the sky was still blue, and the air cool and crystal clear. If Joe turned his head, he could see all the way to the foothills of the Sierras.

The team pulled steadily and well, putting the miles behind them in a steady ground-covering canter. Joe held the thick leather reins loosely in his hands, letting the willing animals take their own time. He had errands to run for his Pa and a schedule of his own to keep, but he had all day and there was no particular hurry. He was happy to let the beauty and the tranquillity of the landscape seep into his soul. All this country, from the magnificent mountains in the west, to the deserts in the north and east, to the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the south was his familyís land. Their property encompassed a thousand square miles of prime grazing, the hills and valleys, the bottomland and the pastures, the rivers and lakes and woodlands, and the forests that grew half way to heaven up the mountainsides. Joe couldnít help but experience a certain proprietary pride of ownership.

The road curved and took a dip into light woods. The trees here were broad leafs, tall oaks for the most part with a scattering of ancient hazel. Although touched by the colours of autumn, all the shades of red, and gold, and copper, the trees were still fully clothed with leaves. They were all old trees, tall, with broad trunks and great gnarled roots that twisted amongst the sparse underbrush. Beneath their canopy, in their shade, it was still dark, damp and cool. Joe rather wished he had put on his jacket as the chill struck through the cotton twill of his shirt.

He slapped the reins against the broad rumps of the horses, urging them to a faster pace, and they responded with an extra burst of speed. The rumble of the buckboardís iron rimmed wheels was loud on the surface of the hard dirt road.

The road turned again as it left the wood, bending to the right around the cylindrical shape of a huge, dark-green holly tree, and then ran straight as an arrow across grassland towards the nominal boundary line of the ranch. The horses ran at an easy gallop out into the bright sunlight, and for the sheer joy of being alive on such a wonderful day, Joe gave out a wild rebel yell.

In the earliest days of the frontier, Ben Cartwright had staked out the best land for himself. Although only a simple sign marked the place, Joe could see the change in the territory almost as soon as he passed over the boundary of the ranch. The land became more arid, and harsher, less able to support the large herds of cattle that still remained the mainstay of the Cartwrightís business empire. Joe slowed the team where the track joined the main road to Virginia City, and then urged them on again, turning them down another trail that led away from both the town and the giant, sprawling ranch that was home.

The new road, through the more barren grasslands, led eventually to the corrals and the barn and the little two-storey house that formed the core of John Weldonís ranch. By the time Joe drew the buckboard to a halt in the front yard, the sun had risen a fingerís breadth above the eastern horizon. The blue was beginning to fade from the sky and there was a hint of heat in the air - a mere promise of what was to come.

Weldon was already at work in the yard when Joe drove up, harnessing his big bay workhorse to a heavy wagon. He was a taller man than Joe, lean, broader in the shoulders than he was the butt. Joe guessed him to be just a year or two younger than his own father, but he hadn't weathered the years nearly so well. His dark hair was turning to salt and pepper, and the hard lines of his face had become deeply etched. He squinted at Joe with hazel eyes all but lost in a cross-work pattern of wrinkles. Weldon had spent his lifetime working out of doors in the sun and the wind, and his face was as weathered as a wind stripped pine.

His smile, when he saw Joe, was genuine enough. He left the horse and came across the yard, "Gímorning there, Joe. Didnít expect to see you so far from home quite this early," he held out his big, work-toughened paw in welcome.

Joe reached down and took the rancherís hand in his own, "Good morning Mister Weldon." Joe wondered how it was that his reputation for not being an early riser seemed to have spread all through the county. On reflection, knowing his brothers, he came up with a fair answer to his own question. "Thought Iíd make a bright and early start and get into town before it gets too hot. Iíve come to pick up Ellen."

"Guessed you mightíve done. She was talking just last night about going into town with you this morning." Weldon stood back and looked at the younger man with something of a speculative expression. He liked Joe Cartwright. The young man was friendly and accommodating - always willing to help out around the place and pleasant company. More to the point, his daughter, Ellen, seemed to like him too. Despite his repute as a lady-killer, young Cartwright had been calling regularly for almost a year now, and lately, Ellen had been turning real sweet on him. It was an attraction Weldon was prepared to countenance. Cartwright came from about the richest and most highly respected family in the state. If he and Ellen decided to make a match of it, then John Weldon would be a very happy man.

"Donít reckon Ellen is through helpiní her Ma with the chores yet. Why donít you step on down a while?"

Joe set the brake on the buckboard and wrapped the reins round it. He jumped down from the driving seat and dusted his hands against the seat of his pants. He looked around at the ranch buildings. The Weldon ranch was on a far smaller scale than the Ponderosa. Weldon couldnít run more than five hundred head, all told, on his property. For all that, the ranch was neatly kept. The house had been given a coat of paint in the last year, all the shingles were on the barn roof, and the corrals were clean and in good repair. There were a couple of horses in one of them, both bays, standing noses to tails and flicking the first of the dayís flies from each otherís faces. In the other, in the shade beneath a knotted old cottonwood tree, the familyís milk cow was drowsily chewing. Although sadly short of water, it was a pleasant enough little spread that just about earned its way.

"Step on up to the house, Joe," Weldon invited. "Thereíll be coffee on the stove and if you havenít eaten, Ellenís Ma will soon rustle you up some breakfast."

Joe touched the brim of his hat. "Thatís real kind of you, Mister Weldon. Iíve already had breakfast, but that coffee would go down realí well." He moved towards the porch of the house and Weldon went back to harnessing his horse.

Joe rapped his knuckles on the frame of the open door. In a moment there was a flurry of movement in the little living room as Ellen Weldon came bustling through from the kitchen. When she saw Joe standing there, her face lit up with a smile as bright at the sunshine outside.

Ellen and Joe were just about the same height. She was a pretty young woman who had inherited her motherís fair hair and sparkling blue eyes. Her cheekbones were just a little wide, and she had a neatly pointed chin. This morning, she had wound her hair up into a fancy knot, and tied it with a length of shiny green ribbon. The dress she wore was made of green and white checked gingham; it nipped in tightly at the waist and flared out over her hips. The skirt dropped almost to the ground and the toes of little green shoes peeped out from underneath. Ellen was very proud of her tiny feet.

Enchanted, Joe took off his hat and grinned his best boyish grin, "ĎMorning, Ellen."

"ĎMorning, Joe," Ellen flashed him a coy look from under her eyelashes and a faint blush of colour rose into her cheeks. "Come on in. Maís got fresh coffee on the stove and thereís corn bread and bacon left over from breakfast."

Hat in hand, Joe followed her into the kitchen.

Joe Cartwright admitted readily to himself, and to anyone else who was prepared to listen, he liked the ladies. Especially, he liked young, pretty ladies, and there were occasions when he allowed himself to be led astray. Friday and Saturday nights, when he was in town with his brothers, were times when he was particularly vulnerable.

For some reason he saw Ellen Weldon differently. She was young and pretty all right. She was light skinned, fair haired and blue eyed; it was Joeís favourite combination. He had been visiting the Weldonís place on a regular basis since before last winterís snows, and there had been dances, and socials, and picnics. He had found out that Ellen Weldon had a sweet mouth and a soft body, but had never pushed his luck any further than a stolen kiss. She had a happy, sunny nature and liked to dance, and to gossip with friends, and to go for long buggy rides.

She also had a serious side that Joe found oddly attractive. Sometimes her delicate face would become thoughtful, almost pensive, and at those times she would like Joe to drive her up to the lake where she could gaze at the majesty of the mountains, or just to sit in the moonlight and hold hands. She liked books, particularly poetry, and Joe had learned some verses from his brotherís books just to impress her. Exactly what Joeís feelings for Ellen were, he wasnít certain. He knew he liked her company, and, until he found out, he was willing to keep coming over.

Ellenís mother, Margaret Weldon, welcomed Joe into her kitchen with a big smile, a cup of coffee and a huge bacon-and-cornbread sandwich. Joe wasnít hungry, having eaten at home, but he sat at the kitchen table and devoured it anyway, for politenessí sake. While he ate, Ellen finished helping her mother with the kitchen chores. She threw him a little glance from time to time, and flushed when he caught her doing it.

Mary Weldon refilled Joeís cup, "Howís your Ma keeping, Joseph? And howís the little baby?"

"Jennyís back on her feet again now, Mrs. Weldon," Joe swallowed down the last of the cornbread. "Aní the babyís - sort of noisy."

Mrs. Weldon laughed. "Thatís the way it is with babies, Iím afraid. And what are you young people planning to do with yourselves today?" Margaret Weldon also entertained thoughts of Joe Cartwright as husband material for her daughter.

Joe glanced at Ellen who blushed pink. "I have to drive into Virginia City with some errands for my Pa. I thought that afterwards, Ellen might like to drive out to Cockscomb Flats. The trees are realí pretty out there at this time of year."

"Oh, Iíd like that fine, Joe!" The water meadows at Cockscomb Flats were one of Ellenís favourite picnic spots, and with the autumn coming on apace, it was one of the last chances of the year to go there. "Please may I go, Ma?"

"Well," Margaret Weldon looked at the two of them a moment with her head on one side. Then she laughed, "All right then. But donít you be late back, Ellen. Itís startiní to get real cold, these evenings. Shall I put you together a picnic basket?"

Joe shook his head, "Donít you go to the trouble, Mrs. Weldon. Weíll pick something up in town." He stood up, gathered his hat and escorted Ellen to the door. "We wonít be back late."

John Weldon had already driven off in his wagon by the time Joe and Ellen stepped out into the sunlit front yard. Joe walked Ellen to the buckboard and helped her up onto the board seat. He couldnít help but think that she looked as pretty as a picture sitting up there with a little shawl round her shoulders, and the sunlight turning her fair hair all to gold. Joe climbed up beside her and unwound the reins. The two horses obediently turned in a tight circle, and Ellen waved to her mother. Margaret Weldon, waved back and stood watching from the doorway as they drove off towards town.

 

Two

The road that led southwest to Virginia City took a final turn through the rocky hills, before curving down onto the plain, and running as straight as could be towards the town. The heavy-duty freight wagon was making good time. Hauled by a team of four sturdy mules, it had kept up a steady pace through the first heat of the day. Behind it, the plume of dust that marked its passage hung in the air for a long time, before slowly settling back to the earth.

The wagon was heavily laden. The boxes and bales of goods were all covered up with stout canvas sheeting and roped down to cleats on the side of the wagon bed. Sitting up high on the driving seat, old Clem Thompson slapped the broad leather reins against the rumps of the wheelers, and whistled and shouted encouragement to the team. He had been on the road since before first light and he wanted to reach Virginia City in time for a late breakfast. He touched the brake lightly as the wagon came off the last curve, and it straightened up nicely for the last long run home.

Sitting on the seat beside Clem was a smaller, slighter figure. He was rather more than a boy, but not yet, quite, a grown man. Today, Joe Drury was taking his first step on a great adventure. This morning, when it was still pitch dark, he had said goodbye to his Ma. Then he had been a boy. When he stepped down from the wagon in Virginia City, he would be a man, and all set to make his way in the world. He had with him, tied up in a bundle, everything he possessed: two clean shirts and a spare pair of pants. In his pocket he had two dollars and a little, white, embossed card. The little card was his entry ticket to his new life.

Joseph Drury was stick-thin in the body and his arms and legs seemed to have grown long in proportion. Ben Cartwright, who knew most of what there was to know about boys, would have said that he had the makings of a fine, big man. The long arms and legs meant that he was going to be tall; his shoulders would grow broad, and his chest, deep. He had freckles on his face that had yet to be burned out by the sun and tallow coloured hair that stuck out at all angles from beneath the hard, round topped hat that he wore, square dead-centre of his head. He looked just like half a hundred other boys, quite unremarkable, except for one feature. His eyes were captivating, hazel in colour and flecked with deep green and bright, bright gold.

Right now, those eyes were wide and shining, missing nothing, as his head turned this way and that. The barren expanse of semi desert that lay north and east of Virginia City had a monotonous sameness about it. It was all low, rolling hills of pale coloured soil, littered with rounded rocks of much the same shade. Here and there were patches of grey-green sagebrush and the darker, denser green of scrub oak, soon to turn brown with the onset of autumn. To Joe Drury, who had never before left the crowded, noisy, often overheated, streets of Silver City, it was a wonderland.

Old Clem was a taciturn individual. He had spoken more words to the mules than he had to the boy. There was not much of the poet in his soul. He hadnít thought to tell the boy to watch the way the sun came up over the desert, turning the sky from black, to blue, to grey, and, finally, to gold. He hadnít told him to look how the little wisps of cloud burned away so quickly in the warming, morning air. He hadnít mentioned that the desert at night was cold, but that it warmed quickly, and that by the time the sun was fully up over the hills, it would pull the sweat right out of his skin. They were things that Joe had noticed for himself.

Clem did think to tell him, on the one occasion upon which they stopped to rest the team, to look out for snakes. Joe hadnít seen any snakes, but he had seen red-bellied crows hopping in amongst the sagebrush looking for bugs, and long-eared desert jackrabbits. Heíd watched in fascination as a little group of large-eyed mule deer ran off with their white tails bobbing as the wagon thundered by. Heíd craned his neck to see kites, drifting lazily with wide spread wings on the morning thermals.

Now, his journey towards manhood reached its final stage. His attention centred front and forward as the buildings of Virginia City came into view.

The town had grown slowly, from a collection of tents and shanties, into a small settlement in the early days of the frontier, providing a trading centre and meeting place for the first, far-flung, settler families. It was only recently, when gold, and then silver, had been found in the Comstock valley, that the little town with the pretentious name had started to boom in earnest. Now it spread across the dry plain like a desert flower opening its petals after rain. Every week saw new buildings, new streets, entire new blocks added to the north and southwest sides. The streets were broad, of necessity, to allow the passage of the wide freight vehicles that had to pass each other in either direction, but they were just dirt, of the type that would turn rapidly into a quagmire in the deluging rains of spring and autumn. The buildings were all of a timber-frame and clapboard construction. Many of them, particularly those that lined the premier streets, had grand false fronts and wide covered boardwalks outside, which would stand high up above the mud. All the roofs were steeply slanted to throw off the heavy snowfall that came, inevitably, with each Nevadan winter. In the centre of the town several large cottonwood trees had been left to stand, to provide shade, and to alleviate the harsh, straight lines of the buildings. Further out, where the new building was taking place, there had been no such consideration, and all had been cut down.

Old Clem drove the mule team right in through the burgeoning suburbs where homes stood cheek by jowl with bawdy houses and drinking dens, and into the centre of town. Here the structures were certainly more extravagant. There was a grand hotel on a prime corner plot, with white painted railings, and steps leading up to the panelled front doors. Across the street, stood an imposing building that proclaimed itself a Bank, and two doors down, the Land Office. Further along the street was the Sheriffís Office and gaol and from where he stood, Joe could see three saloons already open for business. There were thriving shops and businesses in both directions, and from the number of wagons and horses that were already filling the two, right-angled main streets, customers were going to be in no short supply.

Clem pulled the mule team up across the street from the Freight Office and looked slantwise at the boy.

"End oí the line," he said, with his usual, sardonic, monotone delivery. "Kingdom Jones says ta bring ya as fer as Virginia City, and this is it." He set the brake and wrapped the heavy reins around the lever. "Guess ifín you ask around youíll soon find someone who knows who you lookiní fer."

Joe said his thanks for the ride, and stepped down into a whole new life.

*************************************

Sheriff Roy Coffee lounged against the upright outside Mary Pattersonís cafť with two good helpings of ham, and eggs, and hot corn bread tucked safely away behind his belt buckle, three cups of hot strong coffee on top, and a tooth pick working in the gaps between his teeth. His colourless, sun-creased eyes slowly scanned the length of main-street. The pale gaze appeared casual - even lazy. That impression was deceptive. As his scrutiny travelled methodically up one side and back down the other, Roy missed nothing.

As a lawman, Roy didnít hold any great reputation, nor did he crave one. He wasnít an especially fast man with a gun. Although heíd use a weapon when he had to, normally he kept the peace simply by being in the right place at the right time, and nipping trouble in the bud before it got properly started. That depended on always knowing who was in town, what they were doing and whether or not they were likely to raise hell and look for a block to slip under it.

Despite the early hour, another fine day in Virginia City was already well under way. The stagecoach, with its high slung carriage and its four dark coloured horses, was already rigged up outside the Wells Fargo Company Office and ready to go. The driver and his shotgun guard were up on the roof tying down the baggage. Roy didnít envy any of the folks who were travelling today. There was no glass in the stagecoach windows, but even so, a day spent being jounced and jostled over rough roads in that airless little box was not Royís idea of having a good time. The dust alone would be enough to choke a man to death.

Further along the street there were no fewer than four heavy freight wagons, each with a four- mule team, waiting in line outside the Freight Office to be allocated loads. Even as Roy watched, yet another wagon came rolling into town, loaded high with goods. Olí Clem Thompson hauled the team to a stop and jumped down.

Roy chewed on the toothpick and a slight frown touched his face as his interest quickened. For once, olí Clem hadnít made the run alone. There was someone else getting down, rather less certainly, and looking around. He was a stranger in town. A small man - no, a boy. Roy settled back comfortably against his post. One more boy was unlikely to pose any threat to law and order around town. Returning his attention to the freight wagons, Roy reflected that Kingdom Jones, now that he had Ben Cartwright as a partner and the backing of Cartwright money, had the haulage business in western Nevada securely by the tail.

There was an assortment of other rigs, up and down the street. A couple of wagons already loaded with the staple dietary requirements of flour, bacon and coffee stood outside the General Store. Another waited outside Nathan Goodwinís Hardware Emporium loaded with wire and kegs of nails. There was a buckboard outside the bank that Roy knew well. Ben Cartwrightís Ponderosa Pine brand was burned into the sideboard. Ten yards on, the buggy belonging to the Widow Cotton was parked outside the little shop that she ran alone, now that old Will was dead.

Here and there, up and down the street there were saddle horses tied at the rails. Alexander Gordonís fancy Appaloosa gelding stood hip-shot outside the Land Office, and a couple of nondescript bays that Roy knew belonged to the Tyler brothers, Michael and John, and Josh Benskinís white kneed chestnut mare. Roy knew the town would fill up more as the sun rose higher and the day got hotter.

For all his nonchalant, even lazy appearance, Roy Coffee didnít miss much. Certainly he didnít miss the horseman galloping hard into town out of the west.

Almost imperceptibly, Royís interest sharpened again. His pale eyes narrowed. As Roy knew well, all that lay out to the west was the sprawling vastness of the Ponderosa. Sure enough, as the rider got closer, he recognised the breadth of the shoulders and the fluid way the man sat the saddle. It was Ben Cartwrightís eldest son, riding hell for leather on that big, rangy, chestnut gelding he favoured.

The slight frown returned to cloud Royís face. The Cartwrights, generally speaking, were Friday night visitors. It was unusual to have two of the clan in town this early in the week.

Adam Cartwrightís horse had run hard for a long time. He was well lathered up and his bright coat was splotched with sweat stains. There was white froth on his neck where the rub of the reins had lashed the sweat into foam. It was unusual for a Cartwright to get a horse worked into that state for nothing. It meant one of two things, either it was trouble - or it was trouble.

Adam Cartwright ran his horse right on past the Doctorís Office and pulled up outside the saloon. Roy let go the breath heíd been holding. This time, the Cartwrights didn't need the doctor, and that meant that, for once, none of them had fallen off his horse and cracked his fool head open.

Cartwright swung down out of the saddle. He still looked a little stiff, following a near fatal run-in with a bushwhackerís bullet, but Roy was glad to see that a lot of the old panther like grace was back. The last time heíd ridden into town on a lathered up horse, heíd all but fallen out of the saddle. Royís lips quirked at the memory.

Adam tossed the geldingís reins over the rail and ducked under. He crossed the boardwalk in two long strides and slammed through the swinging half doors of the saloon.

Roy sighed and chewed on the toothpick some more. He could tell just from the set of Cartwrightís shoulders that he was riding on the back of a mad. He wondered how long it would be before he found out what it was all about.

Adam stepped up to the bar of the Silver Dollar and threw a coin down on the counterĖtop. It spun for a moment on its edge and then settled, ringing.

"Give me a whisky, Sam," he called, "And leave the bottle."

Sam duly delivered the bottle and a shot glass. He could tell from the thunderous look on Adamís face that he wasnít in the mood for small talk, and he moved back to the far end of the bar. Adam poured himself a drink and tossed it down his throat. It burned its way down to his stomach and lay there, seething. Adam poured another.

A small-fingered hand brushed the sleeve of his black shirt. A womanís voice asked, lightly, "Itís a little early for you, isnít it?"

Adam looked Ďround, and down. The voice belonged to Mirri Chaplain, a saloon girl heíd known for a while now. They were friends. Sometimes, on a Friday night, they were very good friends. She was blond, and blue eyed, and pretty, but not with the brazen, painted-on saloon girl prettiness that was the norm in her profession. Her face was young, and fresh, and this morning it was free of powder and paint. In place of her brightly coloured working gown she wore a blue and white day-dress and carried a pair of white gloves. She looked for all the world like a preacherís daughter on a Sunday morning. Adam made an effort to clear the scowl of anger from his face and greeted her civilly enough.

"Miss Mirri." He touched the brim of his hat.

She drew back and looked at him, her head just a little on one side. "Oh! So, itís Miss, now, is it?"

Mirri had come to know Adam Cartwright quite well. He was a clever, educated, complicated man, and he was a man of moods. A lot of them she was only just beginning to understand. Right now, she could tell, he was as mad as a hen in a rainstorm. The dark shadows of anger were lurking in the depths of his eyes and his inviting, sensuous lips were compressed into a hard line.

If asked, Mirri would have had to confess, she found this tall, broad, darkly handsome man irresistibly attractive. His tanned, regular features were finely chiselled and perfectly proportioned, with a neat chin and cheeks that dimpled when he smiled. He wasnít smiling now. Mirri put her hand back on his arm. She could feel the tension in his work hardened muscles. She remembered, with a little shiver, that his face was not all that was perfectly proportioned.

He drew a long breath and she saw the effort he made to relax. "I didnít expect to see you about this early." he said.

Mirri gave him a wry smile. She knew that he was referring obliquely to her all-night profession.

"Even a working girl has to eat," she said, with a little laugh.

Adam turned the whiskey glass round in his fingers, watching the liquid swirl.

Mirri noted that he hadnít drunk the second glassful yet. She could see him debating the proprieties with himself. He was the son of about the wealthiest, most influential family in the State. For him, Friday night with a saloon girl was one thing. Walking out with one in the cold light of a Tuesday morning was another entirely.

As it happened, that was not what Adam was thinking about at all. He gave her a smile that did not reach his eyes, "Iíll buy you breakfast."

"No, thank you." She flashed him a real smile in exchange. "Iíve already had mine down at the Corner House."

She squeezed his arm again and moved closer, well aware that her light perfume would drift into his face and of the effect that it would have on him. He drew a long breath and she saw the pupils of his eyes dilate. His chest rose as he filled his lungs with the scent of her. She knew well the power of the body beneath the black clothes. The power - and the endurance. That was another thing that made him attractive. Taking advantage of her familiarity, she reached up and undid another button of his shirt. It revealed some more of his chest, all furred in little black curls.

A strong, but sensitive, sun-browned hand closed over hers, firmly putting a stop to her explorations. She looked up into his eyes and saw something new, but familiar, smouldering there. Her eyes sparkled, "If youíre not busy...?"

Adamís lips twitched into a smile. It was not what he had come into town for, but right now, Mirriís suggestion seemed like a good idea. Lifting the glass, he swallowed down the mouthful of raw liquor. Then he offered her his arm, and they went up the sweeping staircase that led to the upstairs rooms.

**************************************

Hoss looked round the barn, and the frown that had been clouding his broad features ever since the early morning confrontation with his brother, finally cleared. It was replaced by a wide smile that revealed white, if uneven teeth, and threatened to slit his face in two. The six little black and white kitties were all of five weeks old now. Their eyes were wide open, a sort of tawny green colour, and their mamma was letting them out of their box to explore the barn floor. She was sitting, a-washing of her face, up on the high hay racking at the back of the barn and keeping a close eye on her adventurous little family.

As Hoss watched, one of the kittens ventured just a little too close to the open barn door for the mamma catís comfort. As quick as all-get-out, she was down off that hayrack and had the little one up by the scruff of his neck. Holding her head way up high, she hauled his little balled-up body all the way back to the security of the old ammunition box that Hoss had given her to nest in.

Ben came into the barn and found his big son beaming all over his face. It made a change, he thought, from the dark scowl of the last several hours. Then he saw the kittens and started to frown himself.

"Youíll have to start thinking about finding homes for all these cats," he boomed, "We canít possibly keep them all."

Hossís face fell, "Aw, Pa, theyíre too little yet to take away from their Ma."

"Never-the-less, homes will have to be found." Ben stepped over one little black and white fur ball and came further into the barn, angling towards the stall where his horse stood, already saddled and waiting for him. "Have you any idea how difficult it's going to be to find places for this number of cats?"

"I donít have ta find homes for all of Ďem, Pa," Hoss objected. "You already said as I could keep two oí them."

Ben, backing his horse out of the stall, gave him a dark look. "As I remember the conversation, it was one kitten I said you could keep."

"Iím real sure you said two, Pa. Aní Little Joe already tolí me that he wants one for his own."

"Did he, indeed?" Ben sighed. He could see at this rate, there would be no homes found for any of the kittens. He half turned and looked down. Another small, black-and-white bundle of adventure was using his tiny claws to climb up the back of Benís trouser leg. Ben bent down and gently disengaged him. Without a word, he handed him over to Hoss.

"Iím riding out now to the east range. I want to see how Charlie and the crew are getting on with that broken fence line. I expect to be back before supper."

"Yes, sir." Hoss held the little kitty close against his huge chest as his father led his buckskin gelding out of the barn and mounted up. A moment later, he heard the rattle of the horseís hooves as Ben rode out of the yard. He set the little cat down on the floor. He smiled. With just a little more perseverance, heíd get to keep all of the little kitties.

Then he turned, with a fresh frown, to the red roan mare that stood in the stall behind him. Her right forefoot was so sore she couldn't bear to put it down on the ground. She stood with her knee bent and her foot resting on the toe of her hoof. Hoss didnít know why her foot kept swelling up like that, but he knew there was one sure way of easing some of the pain for her. He took out his sharp pointed knife and lifted the mareís foot up onto his knee.

Three

The sign, painted in ornately curlicue lettering up above the double doors read ĎEli Huxtonís Hardware and General Storeí. Joe Drury, standing outside, wasnít able to read it, but he could tell from the array of goods displayed in the windows the nature of the business conducted inside. He tucked his bundle more securely under his arm and opened one of the doors with the other hand.

Inside, the store was dim, and cool after the gathering heat of the morning. The air was heavy and unmoving, a little dusty, and filled with the smells of coffee, and bacon, leather, and metal tools. Joe stood blinking for a moment, staring Ďround, while his eyes adjusted to the more subdued light of the interior. The place was stuffed so full of goods there was hardly room to move. Sacks of flour, and coffee, sugar, and maize leaned one against the other to the right side of the door. To the left, there was a counter with tins of peaches piled up on one side and a basket of eggs on the other. Alongside the counter stood several kegs of salted butter and tubs of molasses and honey, and on the shelves behind were round cheeses and packs of shortening. Slabs of bacon and sides of salt pork hung, wrapped in muslin cloth, from hooks in the wall. In front, at just a height where small people could peer in, was a box that contained strings of sugar candy, aniseed suckers and chunks of stick-jaw toffee.

Further in, where the light didnít penetrate so well, there were racks of harness, and coils of rope and wire, and barrels of nails. Spades, and hoes and long-handled billhooks leaned at drunken angles against one wall. There were racks of hats and menís checked shirts and folded up pairs of pants. He saw candles, and lanterns, and flat pans for panning gold from the mountain streams, and over in the corner was a glass cabinet displaying a whole range of revolvers and pistols.

At the back of the store was another long counter where Eli Huxton himself presided. At that precise moment, he was unrolling bolt of gingham cloth for the critical examination of two lady customers in bonnets, and shawls and ankle length skirts. He cast a critical gaze in Joeís direction. He was not a tall man, wiry in stature, and had a narrow, anxious face beneath thinning hair.

Joe moved forward to stand in the narrow space behind the two ladies, waiting for them to conclude their discussion on the cloth. It seemed to him strange that there could be so much to say about the merits of the pink compared to the green.

Mister Huxton looked the boy over again. He had thought that he knew all the boys in town, at least by sight. This was a new one and Huxton didnít much like his thin freckled face, or the round topped hat he wore, or the disordered way in which his pale hair stuck out from underneath it. Mister Huxton was not overly fond of boys.

The two ladies decided, finally, on the pink cloth, and Mister Huxton started to measure it off against the edge of the counter. Joe fidgeted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. In his hand was the little embossed card with writing on it. He rubbed his thumb nervously over the raised lettering. Behind him, the door of the shop opened again. Through it three or four boys, all younger than Joe, pushed and shoved one-another into the shop and filled it with high voices and excited chatter.

Mister Huxton looked up anxiously. He was trying to see what mischief the children were about at the front of the shop, but Joe was standing in his way. He couldnít leave the ladies. His wife, who usually looked after the grocery side of the business, was out for the morning. Mister Huxton became increasingly concerned about what the boys were doing.

The ladies decided that they would like some trimmings to go with the pink gingham. Mister Huxton put the box up on the counter so that they could choose. He glared at Joe.

At the front of the shop the four boys had stopped shouting. They seemed to be having some sort of whispered discussion with their heads close together. Without turning, Joe got the feeling that either he, or Huxton, was the subject of several furtive glances.

A match for the gingham finally decided upon, Mister Huxton started to bundle the ladies purchases into a neat, brown paper package.

There was some sort of commotion at the front of the shop as scuffling broke out between two of the children. Joe turned to see what was going on, and Mister Huxton looked up sharply. The four boys made a sudden bolt for the door. The box of sweetenings was knocked to the floor and the candies spilled out.

Mister Huxton let out a roar. The ladies, alarmed, jumped back, and got in his way as he dived round the counter to give chase. He did a sort of back and forth waltz with them as they all tried desperately to get out of each otherís way.

Mister Huxton got round them and dived after the last of the children, a black haired urchin clutching a twist of pink candy in his hand. This time it was Joe that got in Mister Huxtonís way. They sidled this way, and that, while the little shopkeeper became more and more furious. Finally, he pushed Joe out of the way and made it to the door. By then the boys were gone.

Eli Huxton stood on the boardwalk outside the store and yelled after the four boys at the top of his voice, which, in truth, was reedy rather than loud. "You come back here, you young varmints! Goddamn! You come back here!" His thin face reddened and worked furiously. He shook both fists after the rapidly disappearing children.

It was unlikely that any of the boys heard him. They were already half a block away, their boots pounding on the boards. They spun round a corner and vanished down an alleyway, one after the other, like rabbits down a hole.

Huxton was beside himself with rage. He jiggled about on the boardwalk out of fury and sheer frustration. It was not the first time he had been targeted by little groups of thieving children. In fact, the little hellions seemed to single him out more than any of the other storekeepers. He would have liked, dearly, to chase after them. He would have liked to catch them. He would have been delighted to deliver them the punishment they justly deserved, either at the hands of their fathers, or of the law. But these days, his knees were just not up to it, and besides, he couldnít leave the shop and his customers. His stringy face was still flushed and twisted with anger as he turned towards his shop door.

Joe Drury had witnessed the incident in its entirety, and knew, first-hand the propensity of storekeepers to jump, sometimes, to unwarranted conclusions. He had decided that it would, perhaps, be better to make his enquiries concerning the white card elsewhere. He was exiting the shop, with perhaps a little nervous haste, as Eli Huxton entered it.

Mister Huxton saw a boy. It was the same boy who had been in his shop when he had been robbed, the same boy who had blocked his view of what the children were doing, and the same boy who had hindered his pursuit of the children. There was no doubt in Mister Huxtonís mind that this boy was in collusion with the thieves. He grabbed Joe Drury by the scruff of the neck and by one ear.

"Oh no, you donít young man!" Huxton pinched Joeís ear hard enough to make him yell. "I know youíre in league with those young thieves! The only place youíre going is to the Sheriffís Office!"

Joe wriggled and squirmed. He had a lot of experience in escaping from pinched ears.

Eli Huxton, however, had a firm grip, and he wasnít about to let this miscreant go. He hauled Joe out onto the boardwalk and looked up and down the street, searching for the sheriff.

Roy Coffee had witnessed the little disturbance from his vantage point outside Mary Pattersonís. He had stretched himself, and spat out his toothpick and wandered on over to see what it was all about. He arrived at just about the same time that Joe managed, finally, to wriggle out of Mister Huxton's grasp, at the cost of a torn shirt, and grabbed the boy by the arm. He looked from the boyís pink, freckled face, to the shopkeeperís red, irate one. "Whatís this all about then?" he enquired, of either one.

"Let go aí me!" Joe wriggled some more, but Roy Coffee had a firmer grip, and more experience, when it came to handling men, or boys, than Huxton did. He wasnít about to let go. Joe was starting panic now. This was not the way his new life as an adult was supposed to begin - in exactly the way his life as a boy had ended. Unwisely, he tried to kick the sheriff in the legs. Roy was alert to that one was well. Deftly, he turned the young man round so that he could hold him by both arms, from behind. He looked enquiringly at Huxton, "Eli?"

Eli Huxton puffed himself up like a rooster. "That boy was stealiní from my store, Roy! I want you ta lock him up in the Gaol House and call out his Pa."

Joe stopped his struggling long enough to glare at him. "I didnít steal nothing from you, Mister! I didnít steal nothiní!"

Roy sighed. This was just the sort of thing he didnít want on the top of a good breakfast. "Whatíd he steal, Eli?"

"Same as always," Mister Huxtonís voice was still hard and shrill. "They went fer the candies."

Roy turned Joe round again and held him at an armís length, bending down so that he could get a good look at his face. He didnít know this particular boy, which was strange because Roy knew every boy in town. Then he remembered. This was the boy that had ridden in on Kingdom Jonesís wagon not an hour gone by. The one that wasnít likely to cause any trouble. Roy put on his best scowl. The one specifically designed to frighten boys. "You heard what Mister Huxton says, boy. Díyou deny you bin stealiní candies out aí his store?"

Joe was indignant and defiant. "Yeah! I deny it. I ainít stole nothiní. I ainít got no candies. You cín search my pockets if you want!"

"We might just come to that later." Roy looked at Huxton over Joeís head. "He says, he ainít got no candies, Eli."

"He ainít got no candies," Mister Huxton agreed, readily enough."He was in my store, gettiní in my way, aní stoppiní me from seeiní what them other kids was doiní. He was just a much a part of the stealiní as they was!"

Royís pale gaze switched back to Joe, "Is that what you was doiní, boy?"

Joe, in his brand-new role as a grown-up man, was trying hard not to start snivelling. "No, Sir. I ainít never seen them kids Ďafore. I only just got inta this town."

Satisfied that the boy wasnít going to make a bolt for it, Roy let him go and straightened up. He chewed at his lip, "Guess heís right about that, Eli. I jist saw him come inta town my own self."

"Thatís as maybe, Roy," Eli Huxton was still angry, and he was determined to have his ire out of this boyís hide. "But you wasnít there in my store. I saw what he did, Ďní I want him locked up Ďtill his Pa cín git here Ďní pay fer them candies!"

Joe saw the sheriff turning the problem over in his mind. It was his word against the storekeeperís, and he had a fair idea whose word the elderly lawman was likely to listen to. He also knew that he didnít relish being locked up in the Gaol House while the sheriff wired Silver City for his Pa. Joe didnít have a Pa that he knew anything about, and he certainly didnít want his Ma getting all upset by finding out he was in the gaol. While Roy chewed his lip and made up his mind, Joe took the opportunity to follow his street-honed instincts, and made a dash for it.

Roy grabbed for him as he dashed past and missed. Eli Huxton set up a howl of rage. Joe ducked and dodged between several of the interested spectators, and hared off along the boardwalk. Roy gathered his wits and followed in hot pursuit, and Eli Huxton laboured along behind.

************************************

Adam Cartwright closed the door of the cramped little cubicle behind him and made his way down the stairs. He was still angry with his family, and, right now, he was not feeling especially pleased with himself either. He had treated the woman with less consideration than usual. He had driven both their bodies to a release that had satisfied neither of them, and solved nothing.

He jammed his hat onto his head and stepped out onto the boardwalk.

Joe Drury, in full flight from the law, careened squarely into Adam Cartwright.

It was something like hitting the side of a barn, head-on. Despite his recent brush with death, Adam was a powerful man. He had a solidly built frame, and his muscles were dense and iron hard. He staggered, just a little, from the unexpected impact, but that was all. Joe rebounded off him and landed flat on his back on the boardwalk.

Concerned, and momentarily distracted from his other problems, Adam leaned down and took the boy by the arm, easily lifting him up onto his feet.

"Are you all right, boy?"

Joe was winded, and for a moment, a little stunned. He swayed, and Adam held onto him to steady him. Joe blinked at him. The eyes that regarded him so steadily from beneath the finely drawn, black brows were a strangely dark-shade of hazel, interested and intelligent. That was all he had time to notice

"Hey, Adam!" Royís shout made Adam look up. "You hold on ta that boy!"

Adam held on, not hard, but firmly enough, as Roy pounded up. He looked at the sheriff curiously and with some amusement. "Whatís up, Roy? Takiní your exercise a little early, arenít you?"

Roy stood and panted, catching his breath. "Believe me," he gasped, "Chasiní boys so soon after breakfast sure ainít my idea of fun!"

Adam looked at Joe, a small smile still playing around his mouth. "Whatís the boy supposed to have done?"

"Heís been stealiní candies out aí Eli Huxtonís store."

Joe struggled in Adamís grasp, but to no avail. "I ainít stole no candies!"

Adam looked at Roy, "He says he didnít steal any candies, Roy."

"I heard him. Aní I heard what Eli Huxton said. " Roy looked round as Huxton joined the little group, purple faced and breathless. "Eli says this boy was helpiní out his friends while they was thieviní."

Mister Huxton nodded furious agreement. "Thatís right, Adam. He was in my store right enough, trippiní me up while them others was stealiní them candies clean out from under me."

Adam looked at Joe. "Is that right what Mister Huxton says?"

"No, it ainít right!" Joe tried to twist out of Adamís grip, without success. "I ainít stole nothiní!"

Adam glanced at Huxton, and at Roy, and then looked back at Joe. Still keeping a tight hold on the boyís arm, he crouched slightly so that the could look him straight in the eye. "Why donít you tell me," he suggested, reasonably, "just what you were doing in Mister Huxtonís store?"

Joe stared back at him, his mouth tight and his gold and green eyes hard. He didnít quite know what to make of this darkly good-looking man with the educated voice. He had never seen him before in his life, but somehow, his manner was familiar. He felt, almost, as if he could trust him. Adam held the hard stare and waited. Joe relented, "I was only waitiní ta ask after someone," he said, sulkily.

Roy and Eli Huxton exchanged looks. "Who is it you were askiní after, boy?" Roy inquired, doubtfully.

In answer, Joe produced the now dog-eared, and decidedly grubby, little card from his pants pocket and handed it up to the sheriff. Roy read it and passed it on to Eli Huxton. "Looks like this oneís gonna be your problem, Adam," Roy said. "Thatís your País card."

Adam straightened up as the card was passed back to Roy, who handed on to him. Adam looked at it. It said, simply ĎBenjamin Cartwright, The Ponderosa Ranch, in Nevadaí. Adam had designed the cards and had them printed himself. He looked at Joe again. He remembered his father mentioning the strange coloured eyes when he had explained, a month earlier, about the boy heíd met in Silver City.

"Whatís your name, son?" he asked quietly, already guessing the answer.

Joe looked at his boots. "Joe Drury," he mumbled into his chest.

It confirmed what Adam had thought.

Adam let go, finally, of Joeís arm and nodded to Roy. "ĎGuess youíre right there. This looks like the boy Pa was expecting."

Roy was glad to shift the whole, petty business squarely onto someone elseís shoulders. He was already starting to think about lunch. "I guess that settles it then, if you speak up for the boy, Adam."

Adam looked dubious. His father had described in detail his meeting with Joe Drury, and told his family all about the offers he had made to the boy and to his mother. Unproven as he was, Ben had agreed to take the boy on as a ranch hand.

Adam, with wisdom born of experience, had, so far, kept his several misgivings to himself. On the Ponderosa, what Ben said was law. "I guess Iíll speak for him, Roy." The reluctance was evident in his voice.

Roy leaned back on his heels. "Thatís it then, Eli. Adam, here, speaks fer the boy."

Eli Huxton looked from one man to the other, entirely ignoring Joe. He could see himself coming out the loser in this. "Thatís all very well!" he said, shortly. "Whoís gonna pay for all them candies I lost?"

Adam sighed and put a firm, brown hand on Joeís shoulder. "Just put them on my account, Eli,"

Compensated, but unsatisfied, Eli Huxton set off back to his business and his customers. Adam and Roy eyed each other.

"I guess youíll be takiní this boy out to the ranch then," Roy said. It was more than a suggestion.

"I guess so." Adamís gaze travelled over Joeís un-prepossessing build. The boy was all arms and legs, and appeared to be hollow-chested. Adam wondered just how much of a cowhand he was going to make. "Have you got a horse with you, boy?"

Joe shook his head. "I ainít got no horse."

Adam looked sour. He didnít much fancy riding double all the way home. Roy knew what he was thinking.

"Your País buckboardís over there outside the bank, Adam. íGuess this boy could ride home in that."

Adam looked towards the bank, and his expression lightened considerably. He asked Joe, "Have you got any baggage?"

"Only what I dropped over by the store when I run off."

"Letís go and get it then."

The two of them started along the boardwalk back towards Huxtonís store. Joe Drury looked up at the big manís dark profile, trying to spot some resemblance to his benefactor. "Are you really Ben Cartwrightís son, Mister?"

Adam nodded, a small smile touching his lips and lightening his brooding expression. "Iím one of them," he said.

*******************************

Joe Cartwright paced the floor of the small, stuffy waiting room that smelled of polish and paper. It was a quiet room, in the manner of rooms in banks. The furnishings might have been comfortable, with a deep pile carpet and over-stuffed furniture, but the pictures on the wall were dull and the reading material out of date and of interest, probably, only to financiers. The view from the window was uninspiring, merely the blank wall of the building opposite and a stretch of the alleyway in between. Joe had studied it in detail. His fatherís business with the bank had already taken far longer than he had anticipated. He had been waiting almost two hours for the documents to be processed.

Joe paced and fretted. It was one of the last, beautiful days of summer, and he wanted to be outside in the sunlight and fresh air, preferably on his way to Cockscomb Flats with Ellen Weldon at his side.

He had already carried messages to the Freight Office - from his father to Kingdom Jones, and to the Telegraph Office - instructions for Benís lawyers in San Francisco. He had been to the Post Office and collected the familyís mail, and he had ordered a picnic basket from the Corner House. All he needed to do now was to conclude this wretched business...

A step in the passage beyond the door caught him in mid-stride in the centre of the room. He turned, feeling awkward, as the door opened to admit Austin Damier, the bank manager and a long-time friend of Ben Cartwrightís.

Damier smiled, "So sorry to keep you waiting, Joseph." He closed the door and came into the room. Damier limped heavily, favouring his left leg. He had been shot in the hip during a raid on his bank almost eighteen months before. It had been Joeís eldest brother, Adam, who had saved his life by shooting the robber out of his saddle. He spread the papers out on the table and started to explain the details to Joe.

Joe barely listened. He was intent only on getting out of the bank as quickly as possible and going to collect Ellen. At last, Damier produced a pen, "If you would just sign here, on your fatherís behalf?"

Joe said something inane, took the pen and signed with something he hoped was a flourish.

Damier smiled again, and took back the pen, and insisted on shaking Joe by the hand. He said something about it always being such a pleasure to do business with the Cartwright family.

He walked Joe to the front door of the bank, his limp slowing their pace. Joe manfully resisted the urge to race ahead. Damier shook his hand again. "Now you be sure and carry my regards to your Pa," he instructed.

Joe retrieved his hand, "Iíll do that, Mister Damier." He pasted a smile onto his face and edged round the bank manager to the, oh, so invitingly open, door. "And say Hello to Mrs. Damier for me." Finally, he made good his escape.

The day was warming up nicely. It was a perfect morning for a ride out into the country and a picnic in the water meadows. Joe settled his hat on his head and stepped down off the boardwalk into the street. He was heading for where heíd parked the buckboard, right outside the bankís front window. He had the bundle of his familyís mail in his hand and Ellen Weldon still very much on his mind. He just hoped she hadnít gotten too bored looking at the fancy new hat shop that had opened just down the street. But then, he thought, women never got tired of looking at hats, did they? He tucked the several letters inside his shirt.

Someone was sitting up on the driving seat of the family buckboard. Joe slowed down and took a good, hard look. It certainly wasnít Ellen. It looked like a boy, a rather skinny, lanky boy in a tattered, checked shirt. Standing there beside him was Joeís big brother, Adam. Joe was nonplussed. When heíd left home that morning, early, Adam hadnít yet come down to breakfast. He walked over.

"Hi, Adam. Whoís this?"

Adam gave Joe a black look that puzzled him. "This is Joe Drury. País been expecting him."

"Yeah. I know." Joe Cartwright looked Joe Drury over. He thought he looked a little thin, but then, he wasnít that big a man himself. He thought the boy might well have some growing still to do. He nodded to him.

"He doesnít have a horse, so he can ride home with you," Adam added.

Joe did a double take on that and yelped in protest. "Hey! I ainít goiní back home!"

Adam, having delivered the boy into his brotherís keeping was already walking away, his mind on business of his own. He turned back, "What do you mean, you ainít going home?"

"Just what I danged well said! I ainít going home!" Joe was getting mad at his brotherís imposition. "Iím just gonna pick up Ellen Weldon aní weíre drivin on down ta Cockscomb Flats!"

"Is that so?" The tone of Adamís voice dropped, dangerously. "So thatís another dayís work youíre wriggling out of?"

Joe bristled, "I ainít wriggliní out oí nothiní! I already done the errands Pa gave me!"

"And thatís your idea of a full dayís work, is it? Delivering a few messages?"

Adamís voice, still controlled and precise, was getting louder. "And while the rest of us are sweating our guts out on the east fence-line, you plan to be sparking with Ellen Weldon?"

Joe took half a step forward and put his hands on his hips. His face was darkening with anger, "What I do in my own time is my own damn business!"

"In your time?" Adam was furious now. "And when was the last time you put in a full dayís work out at the ranch?"

A little crowd of interested onlookers had, by now, gathered on the boardwalk. Two of the Cartwright clan having a stand up, all out shouting-match in the middle of the street was an event not to be missed. With luck, in the opinion of some, it might even come to blows. Certainly it looked as if it could, with the two of them standing toe-to-toe glaring at each other. Joe Drury, sitting up high on the buckboard seat rather wished he could melt away into the woodwork. He had a feeling that he might have been the cause of all this. The two angry brothers had completely forgotten his existence.

"I do as much Goddamned work as you do!" Joe Cartwright yelled into his taller, broader brotherís face. "Anyway, It ainít your place ta tell me what ta do!"

"Iíll tell you any damn thing I please!" Adamís retort was hell-fire hot. His hands were on his hips as well now, and his knuckles were showing white.

Joe was equally enraged. "Who in hell do you think you are?"

"I know who the hell I am!"

"Boys! Boys! Boys!" Roy Coffee, to the disappointment of the spectators, who were hoping, at least, for some pushing and shoving, stepped in between the two feuding Cartwrights. "Letís just cool this down a little, shall we?"

Joe was on the boil." Heís sayiní I donít pull my weight!"

"Thatís just what Iím saying!" Adam pulled himself up to his full six feet-two and a fraction, which made him a lot taller than either Roy, or his brother. He drew a breath to continue but Roy forestalled him.

"Then I think youíd better go say it someplace else, Adam," he said, "Someplace quite a ways out oí town."

Adam made a gallant attempt to simmer himself down. "Iíve got business in town, Roy."

"You cín come on in aní do your business another day," Roy was implacable. "That goes fer you to, Joe."

"What?" Joeís voice went up half an octave. "Iíve gotta pick up Ellen Weldon down the street!"

"So you can get out of another dayís work," Adam said scathingly.

Joe snarled, "I ainít gettiní out aí nothiní!"

"Youíre damn right you ainít!"

Roy, caught in the narrowing space between the two angry men, put one restraining hand against each manís chest. "Now, you two jist quieten down aní listen ta me," He looked from one furious face to the other. "I donít want no more aí this. Iím a runniní you both out aí town, right now. ĎYou hear me?"

"But, Roy..." Adam started.

"No buts!" Roy held up his hands. "Itís either that, or Iíll lock the both oí you up in the Gaol House fer disturbiní the peace, aní Iíll keep ya there Ďtil your Pa comes taí bail you out."

Joe spread his arms wide in supplication, "But Roy..."

"Iíll tell Ellen Weldon you got called home urgent, like," Roy told him. "Now git up on that buckboard aní start driviní." Joe made a helpless gesture.

Roy turned to Adam, "Aní you git your horse aní ride on out. Right now!"

Adam let go a pent up breath and looked away. "Roy," he began, in a reasonably toned, but very tight, voice, "Canít we talk about this?"

"Nope." his mind made up, Roy wasnít about to enter into any fancy conversation with Adam Cartwright. The man was all together too glib with those college-educated words of his. "Youíve already done all the talkiní youíre gonna do in this town fer a while. I donít want ta see neither one oí you fer at least a week. Now git on out aí town, the pair oí you, Ďfore I really do lock you up!"

He looked from one to the other. They could see in his pale eyes that he meant exactly what he said.

"What are we gonna tell our Pa?" Joe asked, plaintively.

Roy put his hands on his hips, elbows wide. By now he had a burning indigestion, and he knew just who to blame for it. "You can tell your Pa anything you damn well please, Little Joe. Or, if you like, Iíll ride on out aní tell him myself!"

"That wonít be necessary, Roy." Adam put a hand briefly on the sheriffís shoulder, taking it away quickly when Roy glared at him. He could well imagine what his father would have to say about two of his grown-up sons having a verbal brawl in a public street. "Weíll, er, weíll explain it to Pa."

He caught Joeís eye and gave him a nod. "Come on, Joe. Letís go home."

Joe, reluctantly, let the last of his anger fade. He too, knew when he was beaten. He turned to the buckboard and climbed up next to Joe Drury.

Adam thought about trying, just once more, to talk some sense into Roy, but then, seeing the thundercloud expression still on the sheriffís face, thought better of it. The shadow of the Gaol House still loomed large. Adam walked back across the street to get his horse.

Joe Cartwright unwound the reins and geeíd up the team. His brother, remembering to touch his hat to Roy Coffee, fell in behind, and they headed west, out of town.

Four

Ben Cartwright sat on his big buckskin horse at the top of the hill, and allowed his eyes to trace the line of the new fence. Two rows of shiny new wire, tight-stretched between new posts that stood as upright as sentries, it followed faithfully the undulations of the land. It curved down out of the north, marking out the familiar boundary of his property, separating his lush grazing land from the unclaimed scrublands that lay beyond. Ben felt a pride of possession and of achievement. For as far as he could see, all that was good, and worthwhile, was his.

Below him, in the valley, a work crew laboured at extending the fence. He could hear the steady hammering of iron on wood as wire was strung to yet another post in the long, long row. It was hard, hot work. First the virgin soil had to be broken and the posthole dug deep into the hard ground. Then the post, eight inches across, had to be set in it, straight and true, and the dirt packed down hard all around it. The fence had to stand firm against the rigours of the Nevadan weather and the onslaughts of the cattle, who delighted, from time to time, in rubbing their hides up against the woodwork. Then the wire was strung, and stretched, and nailed into place. Good men could string a mile a day, and Benís men were some of the best.

That was why, even though he was pleased enough with the fence-line, he was less than happy with the progress it had made. He had expected to find the wagon and crew at least five miles further along the valley. He nudged the buckskin with his heels and cantered down into the valley.

Old Charlie, Benís foreman and friend for more years than either of them cared to count, was pouring himself a well-deserved cup of coffee. Seeing his employer approaching, he poured out a second cup.

Ben stepped down from the saddle and looped his reins round the wheel of the wagon. He walked over and hunkered down by the little fire, accepting the offered cup from Charlie with an appreciative grin. The hot, black, trail-brew scorched his mouth and burned its way down to his stomach.

"Howís it going, Charlie?"

Charlie considered. He knew that they were short handed, and behind schedule, and falling further behind every day, and he knew that Ben knew it as well. He turned his head to one side and spat an amber stream of tobacco juice. "Itís goiní," he said, stoically.

Ben looked towards the three men working on the latest post. Two of them were hammering with a steady rhythm while the third man made sure the timber stayed straight. "Youíve just got the one team working?" The remark was more comment than criticism, and Charlie knew it.

"All the men I got."

Ben was doing a swift mental review to see where on the ranch he could poach a man or two to help with the fencing job. Nothing sprang readily to mind. Corners were already being cut elsewhere, as well.

"Díyou think weíll have it finished before the season turns?" Stringing fencing once the autumn storms started chasing down out of the Sierras was an impossible task.

Charlie squinted up at the brass coloured sky as if he might find an answer written there. With all of his experience, perhaps he did. "ĎDonít reckon." He said, at last. He tucked his wad of tobacco into his cheek so that he could speak a sentence of more than four syllables. "Need three, maybe four, teams oí men postiní aní another stringiní wire if weíre to make the Triangle before fall."

He and Ben had discussed, earlier in the summer, the need to fence the boundary at least as far as the distinctive patch of woodland, before winter set in. At the present rate of progress they were going to fall a long way short.

Ben took another swallow of coffee, and then gestured towards the wagon with the hand that held the coffee cup. "You look as if youíre runniní a little low on supplies."

Charlie gazed at the seriously depleted cargo of wire and trimmed posts that remained in the wagon bed. "Reckon so," he said.

Ben waited. He had known Charlie a very long time. He knew that behind the old cowboyís weathered, deadpan features was a mind as sharp as a skinning knife. He also knew, from long experience, that Charlie had something to say. It just took him a while to get round to saying it. The men finished hammering on the post and started stringing the wire to it.

"Was kinda hopiní," Charlie said at last, "that one oí them boys oí yours would drive on out with some wire aní stuff."

Ben breathed out carefully. "Iím sure that could be arranged. Iíll get one of them to pick up some gear and get it on out here."

"ĎKinda thought, beiní as we was short handed, a couple oí Ďem might Ďaí helped out wií the wire."

Ben put his coffee cup down and straightened up. Charlie stood up with him, watching his face. Ben had understood what he was saying, and Charlie knew it.

"Iíll talk to them about it Charlie. See what I can do." Ben watched the three men move on to the next posthole. He found the next words with difficulty. "I wanted to talk to you about Adam."

Charlie watched him, waiting. Ben had an idea that he knew what was coming, but Charlie wasnít one to answer a question before it was asked.

"Heís driving himself hard, and I think heís driving the men hard as well. Have things been said in the bunkhouse?"

Charlie spat again, giving himself time to compose a reply. "Ainít nothiní bin said that adds up to a can oí beans. That boy of yours grew up into a fine man, Ben. ĎReal shame he got hiíself shot up like he did. Takes a man a long time ta git over a belly wound like that. ĎReckon heís still hurtiní some."

That was something Ben hadnít seriously considered. In the last few weeks, Adam had made giant strides towards recovery. He had taken on again almost all of the jobs he had done before he was hurt, and he hadnít made any complaint. Ben realised that he had put to the back of his mind the fact that his son was still, officially, convalescent. Thinking back, he recalled the look on Paul Martinís face the last time he spoken to him. Paul had said Adam was healed, but he hadnít looked particularly happy about it. Now Ben was wondering what had been left unsaid.

With a troubled frown on his face he walked towards his horse and unlooped the reins. He turned to Charlie again before he reached for the stirrup. "I thank you for that, Charlie," he said, "If Adam starts driving too hard..."

Charlie put his hands on his hips and his pale eyes took on a look of determination Ben knew well. "Then Iíll tell Ďim about it," he said.

Ben laughed and mounted his horse. Charlie might be only half Adamís size, but the little foreman was quite capable of giving Benís grown son a dressing down he would remember for a long time. What made Ben smile again, was the fact that, big as he was, if he considered the reprimand deserved, Adam would stand and take it. He raised a hand to Charlie in farewell and kicked his horse into a canter.

******************************

At bay, Ben Cartwright stood with his back to the log fire that burned brightly in the stone build fireplace. He had nowhere to retreat. Not that retreat, at that exact moment, was foremost in his mind. He had his hands on his hips and his huge barrel chest thrust forward. It was a stance familiar to those who knew him well, and one known to bode ill to the subject of his anger.

For more than twenty years he had been the master of this land, the absolute ruler of all he surveyed. He had always been the sole power and authority in his own house. What he said was final. He considered himself answerable to only one, higher authority, and he would tackle that on Judgement Day. He found it quite unbelievable that he was being defied, and, predictably, the expression on his face was thunderous.

"Heís a hired hand!" he said, in a voice loud enough to make the prisms in the chandelier shiver. "He sleeps with the hired hands!"

His adversary, his diminutive, dark-haired, green-eyed wife, mirrored him exactly in attitude, in expression and in the fury of her temper. "Heís a little boy!" Jenny Cartwright yelled back at him. "And he sleeps in the house!"

Ben filled his formidable chest, "I didnít ask him here to be a house guest!"

"And he didnít come here to learn to drink, and to swear, and to smoke and chew tobacco!"

"Thatís all a part of growing up!" Temporarily, Ben found it convenient to forget his own, strict, house rules about drinking, swearing and tobacco. None of those present thought it prudent to remind him.

Jenny threw back her head and her sea-green eyes flared. "Heíll grow up soon enough! What do you think his mother would say?"

"I spoke to his mother!"

"And obviously you didnít listen!"

Joe Drury, the subject of this, somewhat heated, discussion between the senior members of the Cartwright family, sidled towards the door. His ears were flaming scarlet and he rather wished the floor would swallow him up. The biggest of Ben Cartwrightís sons, a veritable giant of a man whom, apparently, went by the name of Horse, caught him by the arm. Ever so slightly, the big man shook his head. "Stay put," the gesture said. "Do nothing, say nothing, lest the wrath fall upon you!"

"Heíll sleep in the bunkhouse!" Ben roared.

He had an uncomfortable feeling that, somehow, he was losing this one. What made it worse, was the fact that this argument was about as public as it could get.

Three of Benís sons were present, each one of them trying desperately to pretend that he were somewhere else. Their gazes were all carefully affixed to the pattern in the carpet and they were all hoping to hell that they, personally, were not about to become embroiled. They knew, from hard won experience, the towering heights that their sireís rage could reach.

Joe Drury stood between Joe and Hoss. His face was suffused purple with embarrassment. Of all the Cartwright household, only Hop Sing had affected an escape. He had suddenly become deaf to all languages but his own and slammed his way into the kitchen.

Jennyís eyes blazed across the room at her husband. "Heíll sleep in the house! And stop bellowing, Ben! Youíll wake the baby!"

"Iím not bellowing!" Ben bellowed.

In an upstairs room, Daniel Cartwright, the most recent addition to Benís family started to cry. The plaintive wail drifted down the staircase to the ears of all those present below.

Joe Cartwright, chancing a glance at his fatherís face, did his best to swallow a grin.

"You woke up the baby, Pa."

Ben favoured him with his blackest glare and Joe lowered his gaze again - fast!

"If he lives in the house, itíll set him apart from the rest of the men!" Ben said, pitching his voice to a reasonable roar.

"And a good thing to!" his wife retorted. "Heís just a boy!"

"Heíll have to do a manís work!"

"He can do that, and sleep in the house!"

Ben drew a breath to reply, and the realised that he was trapped. There were four grown men in the house already, all of them, supposedly, doing a manís work. He looked at his wifeís triumphant face and sighed, "Very well. He can sleep in the house. But only until heís fifteen! Then he moves in with the rest of the men! And he learns to pull his own weight, or Iíll know the reason why. No molly-coddling him!"

Jenny was nodding and smiling. She was well aware that sheíd won, and she was prepared to let her husband save his face if he could.

Ben glared round at his grown sons, studying each of their faces in turn. Joe, it seemed, had found something quite fascinating on the toe of his boot. Hoss was picking, in a totally absorbed fashion, at a hangnail, while Adam was taking an inordinate interest in the cover of a book he must have seen, at least, five hundred times before. All of them had incipient grins on their faces.

"Donít you three have any chores to do?" Ben inquired, ominously.

Joe Drury was almost knocked down in the stampede for the door.

"Joseph!" Joe Cartwright had been slightly slower than his brothers, and Ben had caught him by the arm. "Why donít you take Joe here out to the barn and show him what a horse looks like?"

Joe dropped his hat onto his head at a jaunty angle. "Yes, sir!" He winked at Joe, put his hand on his shoulder and steered him firmly towards the door.

Ben looked at his smiling wife across the suddenly empty living room and sighed. Upstairs, the baby was still wailing and Ben supposed, that as it was his shouting that had awakened it; it was his turn to go.

******************************

For all its vast reaches of forest and grassland, The Ponderosa was a practical, working ranch, and, of necessity, most meal times in the Cartwright household tended to be informal and flexible affairs. The one exception was dinner. Ben expected everyone who was at home, and who was not, in some way, indisposed, to attend. Furthermore, he insisted that certain social proprieties were observed. In a civilized world, and Ben considered himself nothing if not civilized, a gentleman dressed for dinner. He did so himself, and he required no less of his sons. The men wore dress shirts, and jackets, and a string or ribbon tie. His wife always dressed beautifully in a formal gown, tonight a creation in green silk that matched her eyes to perfection.

Glancing round at the people seated at his table, Ben could see that at least that basic requirement had been met. One of his sons, probably Joseph, had loaned Joe Drury a tie so that even he fitted the convention. Looking at the faces that went with the clothes, Ben suspected that it was only outwardly that all was serene.

Hoss, seated, as always, to his fatherís right, wore an exceedingly glum expression. His blue eyes, normally alive with a merry twinkle, were grey with shadows. His mouth was tight, and the jovial smile, missing from his big face. Absent also, was the seemingly endless steam of trivia and small talk, concerning the ranchís doings, which often formed the mainstay of table conversation.

Next to Hoss, sat Joe Drury. Ben hadnít expected the boy to arrive unannounced in the way that he had. But upon reflection, he supposed, considering that neither the boy, nor his mother, could read or write, it could hardly have happened any other way. In any event, Ben was determined to make good his promise. The boy looked pale, and anxious beneath his freckles. Ben thought that understandable. The young man was spending his first night away from home and in the midst of a strange family. He would take time to find his feet.

At the far end of the table, facing Ben along its length, Adam was in his own accustomed place. Ben paused in his survey to study his first-born. Recent days, spent in the sun and the wind, had given Adam back some of his healthy tan. Underneath it, his skin has lost that sallow, almost jaundiced colour that heíd had for so long. This evening, he looked a little tired around the eyes, but then, he often did at the end of a day. Paul Martin had warned that that would happen until Adam had rebuilt his reserves of strength. Ben recalled Charlieís comment and wondered if Adam could really still be suffering. Then Adam looked directly at him, alert and inquiring. The eyes themselves, a warm brown, slightly hooded and deeply set in the undeniably handsome face, were bright and clear. There was no sign of any lingering pain.

Adam exuded a nervous tension that Ben could feel even from where he sat. Normally, Adamís sharp tongue and wicked wit were on open display at the dinner table, Tonight, even he seemed guarded.

Moving on, Benís gaze settled on Joseph, now no longer his youngest son. Joe was the most volatile of Benís brood. His face, which had retained its boyish good looks into manhood, was usually the easiest to read. At the moment, his expression was distinctly downcast. Ben didnít need too much paternal intuition to guess that his sonís dejection was closely associated with Ellen Weldon. He found himself hoping that nothing too traumatic had happened to that, particular, relationship. Ellen had done a great deal towards stabilizing Joeís youthful waywardness.

Finally, Ben looked at his lovely wife, and smiled. A young woman to brighten his later years, Jennyís eternally sunny nature and lively spirit brought extra brightness into his life. Her steadfast love never ceased to amaze him. Daily, he wondered at his amazing good fortune in finding her, in wooing her and in winning her. Jenny looked up and saw his smile, and her face lit up with love.

Ben cleared his throat for attention and clasped his hands before him. Around the table, the heads lowered. Ben called down the blessing of his God upon the meal, and on all those gathered together to share in it.

If conviviality at the table was somewhat lacking, then the quality of the food was not. Hop Sing had produced an amazing dinner of fried chicken, crisply coated on the outside, soft and succulent inside. To go with it were pale mounds of mashed potatoes, golden maize running with melted butter and chunks of fresh bread to mop up the juices.

Joe Drury had never seen anything like it in his entire life. He was overwhelmed by it all, by the size and the grandeur of the house, by the assertive, confident personalities of the people, even by the magnificence of the dinner table. The expanse of snow-white linen with its silver cutlery and crystal glassware left him a little bewildered. He even had a napkin. He watched the others carefully to find out what to do with it. When the dishes were passed around and he was urged to help himself, he found more food piled in front of him than he had ever seen on one plate in his entire life. He was still wondering where to begin when he realised that he had been spoken to.

He looked up to find everyone watching him. His face flamed furiously.

"I was asking after you mother," Ben said, carefully keeping the stern edge out of his voice. He was used to people paying attention when he spoke.

"Maís just fine, thank you, sir." Joe managed to say, trying hard to remember all the manners his Ma had been coaching him in. Then he found that his knife and fork were waving out of control. He put them down quickly, on the tablecloth.

Ben frowned. The place for dirty cutlery was on the plate.

Leaning forward slightly, Jenny smiled at Joe across the table. "Iíve put you in the room just across the hall from Joseph," she said, kindly. "I thought you might be comfortable there, as youíre closest in age."

"Thatís right kind of you, maíam." Joe was fighting another battle with the knife. It was bigger and heavier than he was used to. "Iím sure Iíll be just fine."

Jennyís green eyes glowed with encouragement. "Youíll need a few more clothes, as you werenít able to carry a lot with you. Perhaps Joseph might have a few things that you could use."

Joe Cartwright looked up brightly. At least, Ben thought, some of his family was trying to be friendly. "I guess Iíve got a few things you could have."

It was at this point that Ben, who knew the pattern of these conversations well, would have expected a biting interjection from his eldest.

On cue, Adam offered, "Joe sheds clothes like a snake sheds skins."

While not up to his usual standard of repartee, it showed, at least, that he was paying attention.

His brother glanced at him, mildly irritated. Joe looked at Joe Drury, "I could give you those shirts I got from the store at Cooperís Crossing. They always were a bit tight on me. Theyíd fit you just fine."

"If you donít mind the frill and the flounces." Adam added.

Joe glared at him. "I donít wear frills and flounces."

Adam, warming to the subject, turned in his seat. "That shirt you wore to the Warnerís dinner-and-dance last month had more fripperies on it than a girlís blouse."

Joeís ears glowed an interesting pink. "They werenít fripperies! It was just a little embroidery on the front!"

Adamís expression spoke volumes of what he thought about embroidery on a manís shirt, but before he could put the thoughts into words, Ben stepped in.

"I think thatís enough, gentlemen."

Joe appealed to the higher authority. "Pa, them shirts are the latest thing in New Orleans!"

"I said thatís enough!"

"New Orleans is a long way from here, little brother. And it should be Ďthoseí shirts." Adam said, smugly.

"Enough!" Ben roared.

He saw Adam and Joe exchange venomous glances but neither of them was prepared to defy him further. Around the table, gazes returned to plates, and attention, to eating.

Ben chewed on a mouthful of chicken without realising how good it was. He noticed that at the far end of the table, Adam was merely toying with his food. He had eaten almost nothing. Paul had said to give it time, but still, Ben worried. Come to that, he thought, tonight, neither Joe, nor Hoss, were doing a great deal better. They were both picking at the meals on their plates. The only one really doing the food justice, was Joe Drury.

Ben looked down the table. "I was out at the east fence, today," he said to Adam, but including everyone. "Charlie needs a whole lot of supplies picked up and taken out there, first thing in the morning. Perhaps you could do that, Adam?"

Adam hesitated for just one moment. "I was planning on working on that timber contract, tomorrow, Pa. We really should get the figures worked out. Perhaps Hoss can pick up the supplies for Charlie?"

Ben was a bit bemused. "Hoss?"

The big man looked up from only his second helping of chicken. He shrugged. "I donít mind goiní into town for the supplies, Pa. If Adam donít want ta do the work." He and Adam exchanged dark glances along the table.

Ben knew this was part of their on-going argument about the workload.

"Very well." For the moment he was content to let them sort it out between themselves. "Hoss will fetch the supplies."

The flicker of relief that crossed Adamís face puzzled him. "Charlieís falling behind schedule with that fence-line. Heís short handed out there. He could do with some help." He looked expectantly at Joe and Adam but neither seemed prepared to volunteer.

Adam met his fatherís eyes levelly. "Charlieís getting old, Pa. Perhaps heís just not pushing hard enough."

It was unlike Adam to make quite such ungenerous remarks, but Ben was already too irritated to pick up on the incongruity. He bristled. "And perhaps he just not getting the support he needs from this family! Tomorrow I want you, and Joseph, out there working with the fencing crew. You can take Joe here with you. ĎStart showing him how itís done."

Joe looked mildly alarmed, but resigned. "Yes, Pa."

The expression that appeared, for one fleeting second, on Adamís face, was something akin to panic. Again, Ben didnít register it.

"Pa," Adam began, carefully, "You donít think...?"

"No, I donít think!" Ben glared. "The timber contract can wait a few days. I want the three of you out there first thing in the morning. I want that fence-line back on schedule if you have to work at it all night!"

Adam sighed. "Just as you say, Pa." He put down his fork and pushed his plate away. For him, the meal was over. Unfortunately, another of Benís rules was that he had to sit there until everyone else had finished.

Hop Sing bustled in to start clearing the first course. He was not pleased to see the amount of food left on the plates . He took it as a personal affront if anything but scraps remained. The torrent of Chinese became voluble. Graciously, Jenny excused herself from the table and went to the kitchen to try to placate the cook. As Jenny spoke no Chinese, and Hop Sing became suddenly deaf to English, the argument, though long and loud, was ultimately fruitless.

As the voices rose in the kitchen, Ben sought for a subject to fill the embarrassing silence. He addressed his youngest son, "Joseph, did you remember to collect the mail, this morning?"

"Yeah, Pa. Iíll fetch it." Joe started out of his seat.

Normally, Ben would not have countenanced reading the mail at the dinner table. Tonight, however, was not turning out to be a normal night. Joe returned with the envelopes and Ben sorted through them. Trying not to listen to the continuing altercation, he selected one and set the others aside.

Ben scanned swiftly down the two pages of his correspondence. His face broke into a smile.

Hossís curiosity finally got the better of him. "What is it, Pa?"

"Toby Addington is coming to stay. Youíll remember that I invited him?"

"You said, he was a travelling man these days, Pa." Joe reminded him.

Ben waved the letter, still smiling. "He says he can visit for a few days before he leaves on a trip to Europe. You remember Toby Addington. Adam?"

"I remember him, Pa." Adamís expression indicated that he was rather less pleased than his father at the prospect of Addingtonís visit.

"He arrives on the stage the day after tomorrow," Ben went on, oblivious to Adamís black humour. "Iíd like you to take the buggy in to Virginia City and pick him up for me."

Adam stared at him down the table, his agile mind trying desperately to think of another excuse not to go into town. Somehow, he didnít think his father would be too pleased to hear the truth. Adam realised his mouth had come open, and closed it. "Uh - I - er - Iíll be helping Charlie out with the fence-line, Pa."

"Me to, Pa," Joe agreed, just a little too quickly and in a voice pitched just a little too high. Ben looked from on to the other. He knew something was going on.

"How come, all of a sudden, you donít want to go to town?" he asked Adam, pointedly.

"It ainít that, Pa."

But Ben was working it out. "First, you get Hoss to collect the supplies for Charlie. Now, youíre too busy with the fencing that you didnít want to do, five minutes ago." He looked from Adamís face to Joeís and back. He knew both of them well enough to recognise guilt when he saw it. Neither man was willing to meet his eyes. "What, exactly, went on in town today?"

Adam and Joe exchanged a look of mutual sympathy that didnít go un-noticed at the far end of the table.

"Joseph?" Ben said, sternly.

Joe swallowed hard. He shot another frantic glance at his eldest brother and then looked at his father. That was a mistake. Ben pinned him with his dark stare and Joe was caught like a mesmerised rabbit. "I - that is, we Ėuh," Joe stuttered.

With a tremendous effort he tore his eyes from his fatherís demanding and increasingly angry stare. He looked at Adam in helpless appeal.

"Adam?" Ben asked.

Adam made a valiant attempt to look his sire in the face. "It was nothing, really, Pa." He ventured.

Ben switched his gaze briefly to Hoss. "What do you know about this?"

Hoss was mystified. "Me? Not a thing, Pa."

Ben glanced briefly at Joe Drury, who, right then, was wishing that he was a long way from the Ponderosa, and looked it. The dark gaze returned to Adam.

"Why donít you explain this Ďnothing reallyí to me?"

Adam sighed and met his fatherís eyes squarely. He knew from past experience that there was, now, no way out of telling the truth. "Joe and I had a disagreement in town, this morning, Pa. Roy ordered us out of town and said he didnít want to see us back for a week."

Ben stared at him, mouth open. He rose half out of his seat, and then sat back in it, heavily. His hands spread out flat on the table.

Jenny, having finally succeeded in placating Hop Sing, returned from the kitchen to find her husband slowly turning purple with rage.

Are you telling me," Ben asked in a low, level voice, "That my sons have been run out off town by the law?"

Joe looked at Adam, who watched his fatherís face with a dreadful fascination. He was wondering just how much angrier the man could get. Joe managed to nod, just once.

"I guess that about sums it up, Pa."

Ben remembered, at last, to breathe. "I never thought I would see the day."

Jenny moved behind him and put her hands on his shoulders. She could feel him trembling with rage and feared for his health. "Itís all right, Ben . Calm down."

"Calm down!" Ben bellowed, "Youíre telling me to calm down!"

Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen, a big smile back on his wrinkled, Oriental face and a huge pie-dish in his hands. He looked from face to face. "You eat desert now," he said. "Cherry pie. You eat all up. Make Hop Sing happy."

Six faces turned towards him and six pairs of eyes regarded the pie dubiously. From the expressions, the Chinese cook had a sinking feeling that no one was very hungry.

**********************************

Sitting before the oval mirror of her dresser, Jenny unpinned and slowly brushed out her long dark hair. She had taken off her elegant green gown, and sat in just her shift, with a shabby but very comfortable robe of pink and mud-coloured cotton draped about her shoulders. It had been a long day, and a hectic one. It had culminated in a second, even more furious, row with Hop Sing, because absolutely nobody had wanted cherry pie.

Now, at last, the occupants of the big, log ranch house were starting to settle down. Hop Sing had been persuaded to take off his hat and coat and return his carpetbag to its place under his bed. Hoss had retreated, probably in self-defence, to his room. Jenny had settled Joe Drury into the strange bed and given him and glass of milk, and she had fed the eternally fretful Daniel. Ben had exhausted himself bawling out Adam and Joe in the study. Now, presumably suitably contrite, they had retired to their bedrooms, and Ben, to his.

He had taken off his jacket and now sat in his shirtsleeves on the edge of their massive, four-poster bed. She could see him now, in her looking glass. His wrists were resting on his knees and his head hung down in an attitude of dejection. Looking at him, Jenny experienced a strange emotion, and one she didnít much care for. She felt suddenly sorry for him. He looked so weary, and, well, she had to admit it, old.

Jenny lay down her hairbrush and, rising, went over to the bed. She climbed up on to it and knelt behind Ben. With her fingers and thumbs, and the heels of her hands, she kneaded the tense muscles of his shoulders and neck. After a moment, he let out a long, pent up breath and allowed himself to relax against her. His troubled eyes, the pupils such a deep brown that they appeared black, closed.

"You shouldnít let yourself get so upset, my love," she soothed, "It isnít good for you."

"At my age?" he suggested.

"I didnít say that." She continued with her ministrations, working hard at the cords in his back. "I know how much you hate to be angry with them."

Ben moved his silvered head against her body, making himself more comfortable. "Sometimes. I just donít understand them at all."

"Thatís because theyíre not little boys, any more. Theyíre grown up people. They have to live their lives in their own way."

Ben smiled. The tension was starting to ease out of him. "And they have to make their own mistakes?"

"Something like that." Jenny could feel him relaxing. She softened her grip, allowing the massage to become a caress. Her hands traced the contours of his powerful shoulders, shaped and hardened by a lifetime of hard work. She allowed her fingers to drift down his arms, feeling through the fine fabric of his shirt, the muscles that had chiselled an empire from a harsh land. She kissed him lightly on the forehead.

Ben opened his eyes and looked at her. His face was still troubled.

"Theyíre all fine men, Ben," she said, gently. "You worry too much about them. You shouldnít."

"Itís not good for me," he laughed, "At my age."

Jenny smiled. "Right now, Iím not thinking about your age." She pulled undone the silken bow of his tie and started to unbutton the front of his shirt.

Ben looked at her with a slightly bemused expression. "What about Daniel?"

"Danielís settled for the night." Jenny lay back on the counterpane and allowed the robe to fall open. There was an invitation in her eyes. "In fact, all the children are asleep."

Ben smiled at the thought, and joined her.

Five

With an almighty clashing of hot iron on iron, and a hellish hissing of steam, the huge, black locomotive came finally to a halt at the railhead in Reno City, Nevada. At once, here was a flurry of furious activity, as fifty people disembarked from the wood panelled carriages.

For a few minutes, the platform, built up high against the side of a train was a crowded and busy place. They were the usual mixture of cowboys and miners, bankers and businessmen, with a light leavening of soldiers, and peddlers, and gambling men and women with children clinging to their skirts.

It was only when the platform had cleared, and the bustle of people, with their baggage, and their babble of excited conversation, had moved off toward the station buildings, that a door in the middle carriage opened, and a final passenger emerged. He threw a faded carpetbag onto the platform and climbed down to stand beside it.

He was a man of about fifty years: tall, wide shouldered and broad-chested, with narrow hips, and long legs, and strong, capable hands. He had a long, clean-shaven, totally humourless face, with a straight thin mouth and high cheekbones. He wore his grey hair long, and tied into a pigtail in the nap of his neck. His eyes, set in among a forest of squint-wrinkles, were as cold and grey as a winterís morning.

On his head, he wore a wide brimmed, black hat. He wore smartly tailored black pants and a full skirted, black, dress-coat, a white shirt, and a black, shoestring tie. On his feet were shiny, black boots, and silvered spurs that rang softly with every step. Over his shoulder he carried brown-leather saddlebags, and at the left side of his waist, a large, black handled Navy Colt jutted well forward in a high, cross-draw holster.

In an almost self-conscious gesture, he pulled he front of the coat over the gun. He picked up the bag, which, together with the saddlebag, contained all his worldly possessions, and walked, unhurriedly, to the end of the platform. He stood next to the clicking, ticking, cooling locomotive and looked out over the town.

Reno, until very recently, had been a lazy, somewhat sleepy, little settlement on the Truckee River, bearing the unpromising name of Lakeís Crossing. Now, with the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad, the town was booming. To the right, on the far side of the railroad tracks, were warehouses, and freight businesses and a bewildering interlocking complex of cattle pens. Some of them contained lowing, frightened steers. To the left, was the town itself.

There were already several principal thoroughfares. Behind them, a maze of side streets provided a warren of human habitation. The buildings were of typical, western construction - timber frame and board. Some of them had elaborate, false frontages. All of them had the essential, steeply sloped roofs designed specifically to throw off the snow of the Nevadan winter Here and there, more impressive structures of brick indicated the more prosperous businesses of the community.

The tall man drew a long, deep breath in through his nostrils, scenting the air. Close at hand were the oppressive industrial smells of the locomotive, hot metal, and oil, and wood smoke. Beyond them, he could sense quite clearly the emanations of the town: the stink of people crowded together with their fear, and their greed, and their ambition, and the cleaner, more honest odours of horses and cattle. From the river came the stench of fish and the reek of the tannery. On the wind from beyond the town, he could detect the essence of the mountains and the sweet, resinous perfume of pine trees. And further away still, at the very limit of his range, was the faintest hint of a cold, clear, mountain lake.

The grey eyes gradually regained their focus. The tall man turned abruptly on his heel and walked towards the station building. Handing in his ticket, he stepped into the town.

The brand-new day was just getting started. The boardwalks, roofed over and built high above the ground, were gradually filling up with people. The local populace was making its way to work. In the street, dry, and dusty after a long summer, carts and wagons trundled back and forth in an unhurried, assertive manner. There were even some horseback riders, up early and already on their way.

The tall man crossed over the street at an angle. His keen eyes studied all the painted signs above the various doorways. He noted the Station House, side-by-side with a whorehouse and conveniently close to the station. He marked in his mind the offices of the Stage Company, the Land Agency, and the local Law Officer. He paused and read the notices outside the offices of the Reno Observer. Putting a small coin in the box he took a copy of the latest edition and tucked it into the pocket of his coat.

He walked on unhurriedly through the commercial heart of the town. He strolled past the whole range of storefronts, stopping, occasionally, to study the displays in the windows. He walked past the Banks and the Post Office, saloons and houses of dubious repute.

Ignoring the premier hotels with frontages on the main street, he sought out a smaller, but still respectable establishment in a side street. His eyes flicked swiftly Ďround the entrance lobby. They absorbed at a glance, the good quality, but worn, curtains and carpet, the aspidistra in a fluted pot on a stand beside the newel-post, the scarred front of the lovingly polished reception desk.

He walked to the desk and dumped his bag on top. The desk clerk shuffled out of the back room before he could ring the little brass bell. The man blinked myopically at the stranger, despite his spectacles.

The tall man put a silver dollar down on the desktop. "I want a room," he said in a gruff draw. "ĎFront of the house, faciní the street."

The clerk didnít need to check the row of brass keys behind him to know which rooms were available. He already knew. He pushed the leather-bound ledger across the desk. "Certainly, sir. Please sign the register."

The tall man dipped the pen into the ink and carefully wrote his name in the book. The clerk read it upside-down. Abediah Harbinger. He picked up the dollar and reached for a key.

"How long do you plan on staying, Mister Harbinger?"

The cool eyes regarded him without expression. "Not long. A couple of days may be."

The clerk passed over the key. "Number four, sir. ĎTop of the stairs on the right."

Harbinger picked up his bag and moved towards the staircase, his spurs ringing softly. His foot on the first step, he turned back. He asked, "Have you heard of a man named Cartwright?"

With both beefy forearms folded comfortably on the top rail of the corral fence, Hoss watched his younger brother initiate Joe Drury into the intricacies of attaching harness to a horse. Hoss was not entirely sure that the horse his brother had selected was entirely suitable for a beginner. To be sure, the boy and the horse were matched well enough. The bay gelding was long in the legs, which gave him a rangy look. He was also just a bit short of weight behind the saddle, which made him less than ideal as a cow pony. With half a ton of angry steer on the end of a rope, a horse sometimes needed a little weight.

What this particular animal lacked in substance, however, he made up for in brain. He was quick on his feet and clever enough to out-think any steer in the herd. With intelligence came temperament. The bay tended to be strong-willed and spirited, and it was that spirit that concerned Hoss.

Born to the saddle themselves, none of the Cartwrights had any experience with a cowboy who couldnít ride a horse. Hoss guessed Joe was doing the best he could. Looking at Joe Drury, Hoss wondered what had made his father think, for a moment, that he would ever make a cowhand. He was all long arms and legs with a stick thin body that had an awful lot of filling out to do.

The sun was rising up behind Hossís right shoulder. It was warm on his back. By raising his head, he could see the sunlight just touching the slopes of the distant mountains. It was already autumn in the high country. Soon it would be snowing hard. The passes would be blocked and the reserved section would be cut off until late spring.

Hoss would have dearly liked to take a trip south. His father had promised him that the steep, forested terrain could be set aside from the cattle and timber production that was the ranchís principal business. Hoss wanted to keep the land virgin - a special place for the wild, free things that he loved, the plants and animals, the water and the wind. With his big brother having taken so long to recover from a near mortal bullet wound, Hoss had been forced to put his plans on hold. Not that Hoss was resentful. He just wished Adam wasnít so darned Ďornery, these days.

"Hey, Hoss!" Joe Cartwright called to his brother for the second time and the look of brooding melancholy faded from the big manís face. "Open up the gate, will ya?"

Joe had got Joe Drury up into the saddle on the bayís back and walked his round the corral a few times. Even considering that it was almost impossible to fall out of the sturdily built, western saddle, the boy seemed to have got the hang of it.

Hoss opened the gate and Joe led the bay out with Joe Drury sitting up, perhaps just a little too straight, on his back. Hoss grinned up at him. "How ya doiní cowboy?"

Joe Drury looked back with misery in his green and gold eyes. "I think I want to be sick."

Joe grinned and winked at his brother. "Thatís what we figured. Thatís why we thought weíd do this bright and early. ĎWouldnít want to waste a good breakfast."

"Sure wouldnít." Hoss agreed, and the brothers laughed.

The bay gelding had been trained as a cutting horse, and so responded, willingly enough, to being neck-reined left, and right, and stepped backwards when asked. Hoss and Joe showed Joe Drury how to do it and then stood back for a while and watched while he practised in the yard.

"Joe," Hoss said thoughtfully, "If you aní Adam ainít allowed ta go in ta town fer a week, how you gonna go ta the barn-dance Saturday night?"

Joe kicked up some dust with the toe of his boot. "I guess youíll be goiní on your own, brother."

"But that ainít gonna be no fun at all." Hoss frowned. He was under no illusions. He knew that his handsome, charismatic brothers had a magnetic appeal for every attractive and eligible woman in the county. Bashful and retiring, ever aware of his size and his broad homely features, Hoss enjoyed basking in their reflected glory.

Joe slapped him on the back. "Hey, youíll have all the ladies to yourself for a change."

Hoss forced a grin. "But whatíll you do, Little Joe? Here on your own on a Saturday night?"

"Iíve got a feeliní País gonna find us plenty to do." Joe laughed.

"But Joe," Hoss had another thought, "Werenít you supposed to be taking that little Ellen Weldon ta the dance?"

"I was." Joe looked glum. "I shall just have to ask Pa if I can ride over tonight and make my excuses. After missing out on the picnic yesterday, Ellen sure isnít going ta like it."

Joe Drury was just starting to enjoy himself. He had watched with admiration the lithe, unconscious grace with which Adam Cartwright had ridden his horse, yesterday. It had never occurred to him that he would have the chance to develop similar skills himself. He was learning to turn the horse with his hands, and with his heels, and was starting to feel something of an affinity with the animal. His motion sickness was subsiding. He grinned across at the two men leaning against the corral fence and even took one hand off the reins to wave.

Hoss straightened up. "Well, little brother, my bellyís telliní me itís about time ta go-see if Hop Singís simmered down enough to cook breakfast."

"ĎReckon youíre right. Hey!"

The Cartwright brothers had surely forgotten that their young charge was brand-new to the art of horseback riding. It was exactly at that moment, that Hop Singís black cockerel came round the corner of the barn, in hot and amorous pursuit of a particularly attractive young hen. The poultry shot out, right under the hooves of the leggy bay gelding, at the precise moment that Joe Drury was holding on with only one hand.

The well-trained cow pony didnít rear, or Joe Drury would have come off and cracked his skull. Instead, he shied and bolted.

Joe Cartwright made a leap for the reins and missed. He and Hoss were left standing in the yard looking after the horse as he went galloping down the road with reins and stirrups flying and the boy clinging onto saddle and mane with a frantic grip.

Joe swore. "Hell, Hoss! We gotta get him back before Pa finds out!"

"Golídarn it, Little Joe," Hoss cursed, "I guess that means we ainít gonna get no breakfast after all." The two men mounted their own horses and started out after the runaway.

*****************************

Joe Cartwright found Charlie and the fencing crew about a mile further along the valley from where his father had seen them, the day before. He kneed his piebald mare down the hillside into the valley. Joe Drury, riding at his side on the bay gelding, still sat stiffly in his saddle. After less than an hourís riding, not counting that morningís escapade, he was already starting to feel saddle sore.

Charlie, chewing steadily, watched them ride up. He nodded an acknowledgement to his employerís son, "Joe."

"Morning, Charlie," Joe swung down from the mare and looped his reins around the wagon wheel. "Pa sent us ta give you a hand with the fenciní."

"Glad ta hear it." Charlie looked quizzically at the boy still on the horse.

"This hereís Joe Drury." Joe said, by way of introduction. "Heís a new hand País hired on. ĎWants him ta start learniní the job." Joe unbuckled his gunbelt and hung it from his saddle horn.

Charlie spat juice. "Well, he sure ainít gonna learn much sittiní up there on that horse."

Joe Cartwright laughed. "Címon down, Joe, and shake hands with Charlie."

Flushing, Joe Drury climbed painfully down from the bay, and held on for a moment, just while he got his legs back under him. His knees had turned to jelly.

He held out a hand to Charlie. "Good morning, sir," he said, remembering his motherís lessons.

"I ainít no Ďsirí," Charlie said, "Iím just Charlie." He looked the boy over critically. T o be sure, there wasnít a lot of him. He was all arms and legs, and skin, and bones. But, like Ben before him, Charlie, with his vast experience, saw the shadow of the man to come. What was wrong with Joe Drury was nothing that good food, hard work, and a few years wouldn't cure. "Donít reckon as we cín have two ĎJoesí on the payroll," Charlie mused with the wisdom of his years. "Reckon as youíll have to be Jody, from here on in."

Joe Drury didnít get time to consider his new name until later. Charlie steered him over to the two-man fencing crew, who were delighted to introduce him to the post-hammer.

Joe Cartwright pulled on his heavy work gloves. "Iíll handle the wire, Charlie."

Charlie eyed the almost empty wagon bed. "Ifín we don't get some supplies out here pretty darn soon, we ainít gonna have no wire ta handle."

"Pa sent Hoss into town this morniní for wire aní nails," Joe turned as another horseman rode over the brow of the hill, "And here comes Brother Adam."

Adam cantered his horse up to the wagon and stepped down.

"Charlie." Adam nodded to his fatherís foreman and looked at his brother, "Where did you get to at breakfast? Pa was asking for you."

Joe gave him a grin. "Hoss and I were off on a wild horse chase."

Adam gave him a very curious look, but didnít pursue the matter. He hung his hat and gun from his saddle.

"You come ta stretch wire aní all?" Charlie asked, pointedly.

Adam looked along the long line of shining wire, and then along the valley, contemplating the length of fence still to be built. He knew that it was going to be damned hard work. He was not much relishing the prospect. Unconsciously, he pressed his knuckles hard into the side of his belly and walked slowly over to the fence. To old Charlie, watching him, he looked like a man in a lot of pain.

Joe Drury was hammering furiously at the fill of the fence hole, trying to ram it tight enough to hold the post as firm as needed. The work was hard, and hot, and he was already suffering. The muscles of his arms and back, not yet fully developed and unaccustomed to manual labour, were burning with fatigue. That, and the fact that he didnít have the weight to use the post-hammer effectively, was not helping.

Joe was anxious to be accepted as quickly as possible as one of the work-crew. He was a very young man, feeling insecure and a long way from home. He was determined to do his best. Unfortunately, the results of his efforts were not entirely satisfactory. The post was going into the stony ground very slowly, and at a distinct angle. Try as he might, Joe was unable to straighten it.

"What in hell do you think youíre doing?" The voice was Adam Cartwrightís. The tone was low pitched and irritated.

Joe stepped back and Adam got a good look at the post. He wasnít pleased. He stood in that curious hip-shot attitude of his and looked from the post to Joe with considerable annoyance.

"Didnít anyone tell you that those posts are supposed to go in straight?"

There was an edge to his voice that rubbed Joe Druryís fragile feelings raw. His face, under the freckles, started to turn cherry-red. "I was tryiní ta get it straight."

Unfortunately, his self-conscious, muttered response had an undertone of belligerence to which Adam reacted instantly. "It doesnít look as if you were making much headway."

Joe's ears burned. He was well aware that this tall, powerfully built man, all in black clothing, was his brand-new employer's son. He was also a forceful personality in his own right. From Joe Druryís point of view, he was setting himself up as an adversary.

Joe, raised in the rough, and sometimes violent, back streets of Silver City, had learned, early on in life, to confront aggression with aggression. None-the-less, he struggled manfully to contain his temper. "Iím doing the best I can."

Adam looked at him, coolly. At present, his own mood was not exactly equitable. Joe Druryís voice had started to rise in pitch. Adamís just got louder.

"From the look of that post, your best isnít anything like good enough." From Adam's point of view, the boy was being sulky and recalcitrant, unwilling to take the criticism of his more experienced elders.

Joe hadnít anything like the mental agility needed to cross verbal swords with Adam Cartwright. Instead, he resorted to the old, tried and tested pugnaciousness.

"Then why donít you just show me how itís done!"

In a display of frustrated temper, he threw the post-hammer down on the ground. The heavy, iron shoe landed with a thud, rolled, and ended up perilously close to Adam's foot. Adam looked down at it, and then back at Joe.

What Joe Cartwright expected to happen next was for Adam to give a sudden bark of depreciating laughter and a deliver a suitably scathing remark. Either that, or for him to pick up the post-hammer and show the boy how to use it to straighten up the post. Instead, his essentially decent, reasonable and level-headed older brother just got angry.

Joe could see the rage boiling up in him long before it reached the surface, and it puzzled him. He decided that it was time to take a hand. Pulling off his gloves, he walked over. "Hey, Adam, the kidís just started the job. Give him a break."

Adam found his brother a more satisfactory target for his displeasure than the boy.

"Why donít you keep out of this, Joe? It isnít any of your business."

Joe bristled automatically at Adamís tone and stepped up close. "Maybe I'm making it my business."

Charlie left his own work and strolled over with studied casualness. The last thing he needed right now was open warfare between siblings. "Now why don't you two jist simmer down?"

The Cartwright brothers were glaring at one another. "Whatís got into you, Adam?" Joe demanded, "Youíre like a bear with a sore butt. You donít usually pick on kids!"

"Iím not picking on anyone!"

Charlie, whose head came just to Joeís shoulder and only up to Adamís chest, stepped in between them. "There ainít no call fer you two ta git all excited." He looked up at the bigger man, "Adam, youíre pushiní."

"Damn right Iím pushing! Pa wants this fence-line finished before winter."

"Well, you sure ainít gonna get it done standiní here rowiní wií each other." Charlie looked sharply at Adam, "You ainít got no call ta jump on the boy the way ya done."

"Someoneís got to get this crew moving!"

Slowly and deliberately, Charlie turned his head away and spat amber juice. Then he looked back at Adam with a jaundiced eye. He knew the man was suffering, but he wasnít going to let him undermine his authority in front of the men. Old Charlie had been a part of the ranch for almost as long as there had been a ranch. Heíd watched the Cartwright boys grow up, and he wasnít about to be bested by one now. He said, "Your Pa put me in charge oí this crew, Adam, aní thatís right where Iím staying. In charge! Until your Pa says else-wise."

Adam drew a breath to argue, but then, as his reasonableness reasserted itself, he realised that Charlie was right. With an exasperated sigh he turned away. Abruptly, he became aware that the hired help was paying embarrassingly close attention to the argument.

Charlie kept his eye on him. "Little Joe," He suggested, "Why donít you go back ta stringiní wire? ĎNí you, Adam, ifín you donít want ta help wií these here posts, you cín ride on out."

Adam stared at him long and hard, and Charlie met his gaze levelly. It was Adam that gave way first. With ruffled dignity, he walked to his horse, put on his gunbelt and hat, and mounted up. He didnít look at anyone as he kicked his gelding into a gallop and rode away. Joe Cartwright and Charlie stood side by side and watched him go.

Joe felt concern and a certain sadness. The man disappearing over the hill was a stranger. Joe would have given anything to have back his much loved and respected big brother. Old Charlie knew just what he was thinking. He put a hand on his shoulder.

"Donít you worry none Ďbout Adam, Little Joe. Heíll find a way."

"I sure hope youíre right, Charlie," Joe said miserably. He took a last look at the now empty hillside and turned back to the fence.

Charlie spat juice, and went to show Jody how to straighten a fence post.

******************************

In the seclusion of his hotel room, Abediah Harbinger lay on the bed with his back and shoulders propped against the headboard, and he read his newspaper. He had taken off his hat and spurs, but otherwise he was still fully clothed, right down to his frock coat and his gunbelt. He was a man who felt naked without both. His booted feet were on the counterpane. He read the paper carefully, from the front cover right through to the back.

His keen eyes scanned just a few lines of each article, just enough to glean its subject, before slipping on to the next. He did not find what he was looking for.

Harbinger refolded the paper carefully and placed it on the bed beside him. He got up, and stretched, and moved to the window. The basic, but comfortable, room was on the front corner of the building, and afforded a good view of the street in both directions. The morning was well advanced. The thoroughfare, though not a main street, was busy. There was a goodly mix of ox and mule-drawn wagons, horse-drawn carts, and horseback traffic passing in both directions. The noise of the traffic filtered into the room. Harbinger could hear a dog barking a long way off, and, closer, a street vendor called his wares; roasted nuts and hot toffeeíd apples. Immediately across the street from the hotel, a two-storey building housed a solicitorís offices on the left, with fancy gold lettering on all the windows. On the right was a meeting hall proudly proclaiming itself the property of the American Temperance League. A young woman in a severe black costume stood on the boardwalk outside. She tapped a tambourine and exhorted the passer-by to Ďstep inside and sign the Pledgeí. No one took any notice of her.

Harbinger let the curtain drop back into place and put a hand to his jaw. A dayís growth of grey stubble shadowed his face. It was time, he decided, for a shave, and a late breakfast and, perhaps, a little information gathering. He buckled on his spurs, put on his hat and reached for the knob of the bedroom door.

**********************************

The last of the fifty-pound kegs of nails thudded into the bed of the high-sided Ponderosa wagon. Hoss leaned against it and pulled out a huge, blue, white spotted bandanna, and mopped the sweat from his face. He took off his tall hat and fanned himself with the brim. He contemplated strolling over to the Silver Dollar saloon and getting himself a long, cool beer. Looking at the coils of wire and barrels of nails loaded into the back of the wagon, he figured he deserved one. There were enough supplies in there to keep olí Charlie and the fencing crew going for more than a week. All he had to do now was to deliver it out to the growing end of the fence-line. And then, this afternoon, he figured he would have to haul out several loads of ready-trimmed, pine posts. They would have to be stacked ready for use along the route of the fence-line, all the way to the Triangle. Hoss reckoned he was really going to earn that beer.

For this late in the year, it was turning into a very hot day. The streets of Virginia City were noisy and crowded, with wagons, and mules and horses kicking up the dust and making the hot day hotter. Overhead, the sky was brassy, without any trace of blue and not a cloud to be seen. There was not a breath of wind to stir the air.

Most of the traffic was freight. The mule teams hauled wagons in and out of town all day long. There were several buckboards and wagons that Hoss recognised by sight, and one or two that he didn't. Outside the harness store stood a huge, canvas-covered ox cart with a pair of great, black-and-white bovines yoked up in front. They were proving a source of wonder for several small children. It seemed that the children were taking a day off of school. A gang of young scamps came running down the street towards him, shouting, and playing some sort of tag-game in and out of the wheels of the parked wagons. More than a dozen horses stood at the hitching rails up and down the street. The three saloons in sight were already doing a roaring trade. Under the old cottonwood tree that stood in the dead centre of town, a three-piece band was playing for coppers.

The boardwalks on either side of the street were thronged with people. The men mostly sat in wicker chairs outside the saloons and the coffee shop, legs spread in front of them, and dozed, or chatted, or read the daily broadsheet. Or they lounged against the posts that supported the roofs of the boardwalks and watched the world go by. The women-folk, in bright bonnets and day-dresses, conducted the business of the day.

Hoss mopped his face again. He had just about made up his mind on that beer. He stuffed the bandanna back into his pants pocket and started for the saloon.

"Morniní, Hoss," Roy Coffee appeared at his side. Hoss hadnít heard him coming. "Didnít Ďspect ta see you in town tíday."

Hoss beamed a greeting, "Howdy, Roy. ĎWasnít expectiní ta come. Iím just picking up fenciní supplies for Charlie." The big man gestured to the load in the wagon. "I was headiní fer the saloon ta get me a beer before I head on back to the ranch."

It was an idea that Roy approved. "Sure is hot. I think I might just join you."

Companionably, the two men started to cross the street. "Leastwise," Roy said with a chuckle, "I donít reckon that youíre gonna cause me the trouble those brothers of yours stirred up, yesterday."

"Heck, Roy. Whoíd I pick a fight with?"

"Donít suppose your Pa was any too pleased ta hear Ďbout it."

"Pa was madder than a cat in a rain barrel." Hoss grinned at the memory.

A sudden commotion further down the street caught both menís attention. A freight wagon, together with its four-mule team, was skewed at an acute angle across the thoroughfare. A smaller wagon, drawn by a pair of bay workhorses, was wedged in tight against it. The wheels of the two vehicles were locked together.

The driver of the freight wagon, a burly, florid faced drover in a checked shirt was on his feet. He was standing up in the driving seat remonstrating loudly with the other driver. A traffic jam of wagons and carts was forming rapidly in both directions, and a crowd of interested onlookers was gathering.

Roy Coffee forgot all about the beer and turned his steps in that direction. Curious, Hoss trailed after him.

When they arrived, the big drover was still on his feet, shouting loud and colourful abuse. The young woman in the driving seat of the other wagon looked confused and very flustered. She held the reins of the bay team in one hand and a long driving whip in the other. She didnít seem very sure of what to do with either. Her face was a flaming scarlet beneath the torrent of insults.

Roy Coffee pushed his way through the gathering crowd of onlookers.

"Hey, Brendon! You just hush up yore mouth when yore talkiní ta a lady!"

"Lady?" Brendon the Drover waved his arms about in the air. "Roy, will you take a look at this! You jist wonít believe what sheís done here!" His gestures encompassed the interlocked wheels, the misaligned mule team, and the ever-growing confusion in the street around them. He launched into another ground-scorching assault on the ladyís driving abilities.

His hat in his hand, Hoss stepped up beside the smaller wagon and looked up at the woman.

"Are you hurt, Maíam?"

The woman looked down at him from the high seat of the wagon . She was a very small woman, and, silhouetted against the sky, her face was the face of an angel.

It was an oval face, regularly featured and fine-skinned. High cheekbones and a soft jaw line framed a level mouth, straight nose and vivid cornflower-blue eyes.

Her hair was soft, and fine, and very fair. She wore it wound into a French-style pleat at the back of her head. Perched on top was a little straw hat dotted with blue flowers that matched perfectly the shade of her skirt. Gazing up at her, Hoss Cartwright thought he had died and gone to heaven.

Right at that moment, her face was all flushed with the high colour of her embarrassment.

She managed a small smile. "Iím not hurt. Thank you for asking." She looked Ďround at the surrounding havoc. "Iím afraid Iím not very good at handling a team. Iíve made rather a mess."

Hoss looked at the confusion in the street. The team harnessed to the front of the wagon were a pair of big, dark coloured work horses and looked all too powerful for such a delicate pair of hands. The broad straps of reins looked huge in such delicate fingers.

Hoss fingered the brim of his hat self-consciously and gave her his famous gap-toothed smile. "Donít you worry, maíam," For some reason it was very easy to smile at her. "Weíll soon get this all sorted out for ya." Hoss continued to gaze up at her enchanted. The womanís cheeks, if it were possible, a little more flushed than before..

Roy Coffee had finally gotten Brendon to stop cursing and sit down, though the drover still glared furiously across the narrow gap between the two wagons. The sheriff went round and looked at the interlocked wheels. They were wedged solidly, the rim of one tight behind the rim of the other. Roy took off his hat and scratched his head. It was going to take some strong men to get them apart, or at least, one strong man. Roy looked up, "Hey, Hoss!"

Hoss Cartwright was gazing up at the woman in the wagon with an expression on his face that resembled that of a moonstruck calf. Roy gave his grey head a shake and yelled louder, "Hoss!"

Hoss glanced at him without really seeing him and looked quickly back at the woman. "If youíll excuse me, Maíam."

She smiled at him again, a softer, gentler smile that lit her eyes. Hoss bobbed his head a final time and went round to look at the wagon wheels with Roy. He plonked his tall hat back on his head, but he still wore a silly grin on his face. Roy had seen that look before, on other menís faces. Hoss was smitten.

"Reckon you cín do anything about this, here?" Roy asked.

Hoss hunkered down and studied the problem. His grin was gradually replaced by a frown. It wasnít going to be easy. Then he looked Ďround and found the young woman watching him, hopefully. The grin returned. "ĎReckon as I can."

He turned to the woman in the driving seat, taking his hat off again. "Iím gonna try aní git these wheels unlocked for you, maíam. Iím gonna need you ta back that team up, real hard, when I give you the nod."

"I understand." Some of the flame was fading from the womanís cheeks. She looked even prettier than before. Hoss gazed and grinned.

"Hoss." Roy prompted.

Hossís cheeks flushed pink. He turned back to the heart of the problem. He rolled back his shirtsleeves. The muscles of his forearms were truly impressive. He flexed his fingers.

Roy Coffee, now assisted by three or four of his deputies, cleared the man some room to work. Hoss stretched his shoulders and wrapped his big hands around the spokes of the smaller wagonís wheels. He spread his massive legs, bracing himself. "Right Maíam, back Ďem up!"

Looking anxious again, the fair-haired woman pulled hard on the reins and called to the bay horses to step back. Hoss felt the wagon shifting and added his weight, pulling on the wheel at the same time. The horses leaned back in the harness. Hoss heaved until his mighty muscles cracked. The wagon wheels began to turn, the steel rims grinding together. Sparks flew, and Hoss managed to extract his fingers just before they were crushed.

The two wagons separated. With more black looks, Brendon started to straighten up his mule team. Roy Coffee and his deputies began to sort the chaos that filled Main Street, and the woman drove her wagon over to the side of the road.

Sweating from his effort and just a little breathless, Hoss followed. He was feeling rather pleased with himself. He gave the wheel a brief inspection as he passed.

Holding his hat in his hand and wiping his neck with his bandanna, he raised his face to look at her. "Donít reckon thereís no damage ta your wheel maíam."

More relaxed now that the small emergency was over, the tiny woman smiled down at him. "I really canít thank you enough, Mister?"

"Cartwright, maíam. Hoss Cartwright." With the womanís bright, blue eyes on him, Hoss both looked, and felt, bashful. He could see now that she was about his own age, with an attractive figure under the blue dress. He couldnít help thinking once again, that she was a very pretty lady.

"Hoss?" She looked at him with curiosity in her smile. "Iíve never heard that name before."

"Heck, that ainít my real name, maíam." Hossís cheeks coloured. "Thatís just what folks call me on account oí Iím so big aní ugly lookiní."

"I donít think youíre ugly looking. But you really are strong." The woman blushed furiously at her own boldness. "Iím Mary Fletcher. My Ma and Pa just took over the old Boxer farm, south of town."

For a second Hossís smile faltered. The Boxer farm had unfortunate connections as far has he was concerned. It had been Nathan Boxer, or one of his sons, who had shot, and very nearly killed, his brother Adam. Then the grin returned, full force. After all, this lady and her family had nothing whatever to do with the Boxers. "Itís mighty nice ta meet you maíam."

Mary Fletcher gathered her reins. Her hands looked very small and fragile clasped around the broad leather straps. Hoss found himself wanting to take them from her . She smiled at him. "I have to be getting on home, Mister Cartwright." Even as she said it, she seemed reluctant to leave.

"Please call me, Hoss, Miss Mary."

"Goodbye, Hoss."

Hoss stepped back, "Goodbye, Miss Mary."

With a last glimmer of a smile, Mary slapped the reins against the broad rumps of the horses and, with something of a jolt, the wagon started into motion. Hoss stood and gazed after her as she steered a somewhat erratic course down Main Street.

Roy appeared at Hossís elbow. "She sure ainít no good at handliní that team," he observed, dryly.

Hoss sighed. "Roy, ainít that jist the prettiest little lady you ever did see?"

Roy followed Hossís entranced stare and then looked at the big manís rapt face. For sure, Cartwright had got it bad. He stuck a bony elbow hard into his ribs. "Cím Hoss. Letís go Ďní git us that beer."

"Yeah. Right." Hoss finally managed to tear his gaze away from the now distant, wagon, with its little blue figure sitting high up on the seat. He put his hat back on his head and followed Roy towards the Silver Dollar. It was quite some time before he stopped smiling.

******************************

The balding Bank Manager looked down his imperious nose and shook his head. The over-all effect made him appeared cross-eyed.

"Sir, Iím afraid that unless you choose to disclose the nature of your business..."

"I told you," Harbinger said, evenly, "I need to find the man."

"Then Iím very sorry," The Manager was adamant, "I really cannot disclose the private addresses of our customers."

Harbinger thought on that for a moment, then touched the brim of his hat. "Then I thank you for your time, sir."

He stepped out onto the boardwalk. No dismay showed on his face. He had already received equally unhelpful answers at the Barberís shop and at the Cafť where heíd eaten. No one had been able, or willing, to tell him the whereabouts of the man he was looking for. But Harbinger was a patient man - a very patient man. He squinted up at the sky. He figured it was about noon. Checking with his pocket watch, he found that his guess was within a few minutes of being right; time to continue his search along the other side of the street. Heading for the General Store, he stepped down from the boardwalk.

************************************

The full moon hung high over the land like a pale-faced Goddess in the sky. Joe and his pinto mare made cast faint shadows against the ground as he rode into the front yard of the Weldonís ranch.

The house was brightly lit from within. Several lamps burned in the main room, and their light spilled out through the unshuttered windows. A single lantern burned under the porch roof and cast a yellow pool onto the step.

Joe stepped down from the saddle and looped his reins around the fence post. He was not a very happy man. His fatherís annoyance and frustration at the unfortunate affair in Virginia City had boiled over into yet another, heated argument. After supper Joe had put on his gun and his coat and headed for the door. Immediately, Ben had demanded to know where he was going, and why. Joe considered himself quite old enough to go out of an evening without having to ask permission first. Ben thought otherwise. The resulting shouting match had only concluded when Joeís stepmother intervened. Jenny had explained to her enraged, bright faced husband that it was only right and proper that Joe should excuse himself properly from Saturdayís engagement, and not simply leave the young lady high and dry. The prospect of the interview with Ellen was not one that Joe was relishing.

John Weldon, comfortable in his carpet slippers and pulling steadily on a briar pipe, answered Joeís knock on the door. He was surprised, and not especially pleased, to find the young man on his doorstep at that time of night. Never-the-less, he put a pleasant expression on his face.

"Evening, Joe."

"Mister Weldon." Joe stood awkwardly on the front stoop. "I was kinda hoping that I could see Ellen."

"Itís sorta late for that, Joe," Weldon hesitated, then opened the door wider. "But I guess itís all right."

Joe fidgeted. "I wonít come in, if you donít mind, sir. I just need to see Ellen for a few minutes."

John Weldon gave him a speculate look. He was none too pleased that his daughter had been left stranded in town on the day of the intended picnic. He puffed on his pipe. "Iíll tell her youíre here."

He went back inside and Joe stood cooling his heels on the path for several minutes. It was starting to get cold out in the yard. Those stars not obliterated by the brightness of the moon were hard and bright. Joe thought that there might be a frost by morning; the first of the autumn.

Eventually, Ellen came out of the house. She wore a plain, straight dress that looked grey in the moonlight, and a crotchet shawl over her shoulders. Her perfume wafted to him on the night air.

"Hello, Joe." Her face, pale and pretty, was guarded. Her voice was low. "I didnít expect to see you tonight."

"I figured I ought to come and apologize for not taking you to the picnic, yesterday."

"Itís all right, Joe." Ellen gave him a small smile and stepped past him, walking slowly down the path that led from the front door. Joe fell into step beside her. "I heard about what happened in town."

Joe looked shamefaced. "It was just a stupid argument. Sometimes Adam - well, he gets up on his high horse, and I..."

"You donít have to explain," Ellen raised her face to him and her eyes were bright. "We can have that picnic another day." She liked Joe Cartwright, and he looked so young and handsome with his brown curls shining in the pale light; somehow vulnerable.

Joe scuffed his feet in the dirt of the yard. Miserably, he guessed it was about time to do what he had come here to do. "Ellen, Iím awfulí sorry, but Iím not going to be able to take you to the dance, Saturday night, like I promised."

Oh, Joe!" A range of emotions crossed Ellenís face - surprise, disappointment, concern and annoyance. "I was so looking forward..."

"I know you were." Joe swallowed hard and then added, "I was looking forward to taking you. But Pied Piperís Barn is inside City Limits. If the sheriff sees me there, then Iím gonna end up in gaol."

Ellen drew her shawl more closely about her shoulders, partly against the chill of the night air, but partly also as a gesture of withdrawal. She had been looking forward to the grandly named Autumn Ball, and more than that, she had been looking forward to going with Joe Cartwright as her escort. "I... understand, Joe." She put on a brave face and lifted her chin, "It really doesnít matter."

In the moonlight Joe could see her very clearly. Her expression was sad.

"It does matter, Ellen." All of a sudden, Joe Cartwright was starting to realize how important the dance, and Ellen Weldon, were to him. He wanted to put his arms round her and draw her to him, to kiss away the disappointment. Somehow, though, this didnít seem to be the occasion for it. "If your Ma and Pa are going, you could go with them," he suggested. He found himself hoping that she would refuse.

She gave him a wan smile. "I might do that." She touched his arm lightly with her fingertips. "Itís a long ride back in the cold. Come on in and have some coffee."

"No, Maíam. Thank you." Joe shook his head unhappily. "I canít do that. Iíve got to get on home."

"Joe?"

Joe sighed, wondering how on earth a grown man could be curfewed by his father.

Ben had said, ĎBack before midnightí, and Joe knew that before midnight it had to be. "Iím really sorry, Ellen, but Iíve got to go." He turned towards the pinto mare and unwound the reins.

Crestfallen, Ellen watched him mount. She stepped up to the horseís side. "When will I see you again, Joe?"

Joe looked down at her. "I donít know, Ellen." Joe wasnít at all sure when Ben would countenance his absence, but he had an uncomfortable feeling that it wouldnít be soon. His breath puffed in front of his face as he sighed. "I guess Iíll be seeing you." He stepped the mare back a pace and turned her for home.

"Goodnight, Ellen. And Iím realí sorry."

Ellen stood in the yard and watched him ride away. She felt drained, empty inside. It was not only the disappointment of not going to the dance. Her whole relationship with Joe Cartwright seemed suddenly in the balance. She felt sure that it was more than the argument with his brother that had upset their plans. She found herself wondering if he had found someone else to interest him.

Six

Jenny Cartwright wrapped her arms around the stout bedpost in the time-honoured manner.

"Youíll just have to pull harder, Ben.."

Ben scowled. "Jen, I donít think youíre ever going to get back into this thing."

"Oh, yes I will." Jenny was determined. It had been just over a month since the birth of her son. She prided herself that she had done rather well in getting back her trim figure. She would not be satisfied, however, until she could fit back inside the smart clothes that were her pride and joy - and that meant getting back into her corset. "Now pull!"

Ben shook his head and sighed in resignation. He wrapped the laces twice around his big hands. "Hold on tight, then."

Jenny sucked in her belly and held her breath as Ben pulled as hard as he dared. The edges of the corset moved a fraction closer together. Jenny was delighted. She put her hands on her hips and panted, being careful to keep her breaths shallow.

Ben regarded her with bewilderment. "I donít know how you women can wear those things. Look at you. You canít breathe - you certainly canít eat!"

"I donít need to eat." Jenny wrapped a tape measure round her waist and looked at the result critically. "I think, just once more will do it." She resumed her position at the bedpost and Ben took hold of the laces again.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Iím sure. Iím tired - of looking like - a sack of grain!" The edges of the corset came snugly together, and Ben tied the laces into a double knot before all his work could unravel. Not letting his wife escape he trapped her up against the bed, putting his powerful arms round both her, and the bedpost.

"Youíre the prettiest little sack of grain I ever did see," he murmured, and nuzzled her neck.

Jenny giggled with delight and turned in his arms to face him. He released the bedpost and his strong hands traced the contours of her back - or, rather, of the corset. She put her arms round his neck and drew his face down to hers.

The kiss lasted a while.

"You do much more of this, Mrs. Cartwright," he said, huskily, "and we never will get to Virginia City."

Jenny smiled at him fondly and kissed him once more, lightly, on the lips. "Then youíd better let me go, Mister Cartwright."

Ben smiled and stepped back, watching with appreciative eyes as his lovely, dark-haired wife moved to the looking-glass . Clad only in corset and full length, be-ribboned drawers, Jenny looked at herself critically. Not bad, she supposed, for a woman so recently delivered. Her bosom was still somewhat fuller than was strictly fashionable, but as she was still feeding her son, that was something that, for the time being, had to be tolerated. She put her hands on her waist and found that her fingers and thumbs almost met. That pleased her, and the fact that she couldnít eat and could scarcely breathe didnít matter a jot.

Ben shook his head and went back to dressing himself.

"You were going to tell me about Toby Addington." Jenny reminded him.

"Thereís so much to tell," Ben laughed as he slipped his legs into the pants of his best, silver grey suit. "Toby and I go back to when we werenít much more than boys. We both went to sea, but we served on different ships and lost touch for a while." A white linen shirt tucked into the pants and Ben tied a silk ribbon around his throat. "Years later, we went into business together - several times over." He chuckled at the memory.

"And what happened to these businesses?"

Ben shrugged his massive shoulders into the grey broadcloth jacket. "Letís just say that they were not all entirely successful."

In her mirror, Jenny smiled at him. "Youíre not going to tell me that Ben Cartwright ever failed at something he turned his hand to?"

"Iím not going to tell you that." Ben agreed. "I wouldnít want you to lose confidence in the man that you married, now would I?"

Jenny persisted, "So what happened?"

"We made some money, here and there."

"And lost it again?"

Ben came over and kissed her on the nap of the neck. "And lost it again. I remember there was a saloon once, in a little town called Dayton Wells...." His voice faded, and he sighed. "But, by then, I had Adam to care for. I decided to come west, to make a new life for both of us. Toby stayed in the east."

Dryly, Jenny said, "From the sound of it, thatís just as well."

"Weíve seen each other a few times. Just in passing, like ships, as they say."

Jenny fastened the skirt and pulled on the bolero jacket of her red-velvet suit. It did up with a single button at the waist and it fitted the corset perfectly. "And now, heís retired, you say?"

"Semi-retired, at least. I think he still dabbles in this and that, but these days, he travels a lot. In a few weeks time heíll be off on another tour of Europe."

"Europe." Jenny paused in the coiling up of her hair and met her own sea-green eyes in the looking glass. "London, Paris, Rome, Athens." Even to her own ears, her voice sounded wistful.

Ben looked at her. "Would you like to go there?"

"Maybe. One day." Jenny resumed sticking silver-headed pins into her coiffure. "There. How do I look?" She stood up and twirled round for him. She was a vision of loveliness in the long flared skirt and the tight little jacket over a blouse of fine white silk.

Smiling, Ben went over. His big hands spanned her waist easily. He appreciated at last the purpose of the corset. He gazed at her with undiluted love in his eyes. He drank in her lustrous dark hair, her green eyes, her face. Perhaps her cheekbones were just a little too wide for true perfection, her chin just a little too pointed. To him, she was lovely beyond compare. "You are absolutely, astounding beautiful," he murmured, drawing her close.

Jenny saw desire kindling in the depths of his eyes. She reached up and kissed him tartly on the end of the nose. "If weíre going to Virginia City, we have to leave now," she said.

She added a jaunty little hat to complete her ensemble and Ben, laughing, followed her out of the door.

Hoss stood in the in the yard with his hands spread on his hips, and watched until the fringed surrey, with his Pa and his stepmother sitting grandly up front, disappeared among the trees. Then he pulled his hat more firmly down onto his head and headed for the barn.

Joe Drury was already in there, hunkered down by the carefully padded wooden box where the mama cat lived. He was scratching the inner lining of her ears for her, and, always appreciative of attention, she was purring loudly.

Hoss looked round the barn. It looked as if all the chores had been taken care of. The remaining horses, including his own, black, cutting horse, and Joe Druryís bay, were munching contentedly at their feed. The other stalls had been cleaned out and spread with a little fresh straw, and the hay nets had been filled. The big barn smelled warmly of horses and hay. Hoss picked up a straying kitten and carried it back to the box.

"Howdy there, Jody. Howís it goiní?"

Joe sighed. "I guess itís goiní, Hoss," he said, in a noticeably small voice.

Hoss tried again, "It sure is goiní ta be a nice day."

Joe made no response but continued to scratch the ecstatic cat under her chin.

Hoss lowered himself down to sit on the floor beside him. He looked into the boyís face. Joe was pale under his mass of freckles and his lips compressed into a tight line. "Feeliní a little homesick, are you ?" Hoss suggested.

Joe thought about the sway-backed, one-room hovel he had shared, until very recently, with his mother in the poorest quarter of Silver City. He didnít miss that at all. "I ainít homesick." he answered, truthfully, "I miss my Ma."

The big man nodded sympathetically, "I reckon as thatís only natural."

Joe shot him a swift glance. "Díyou miss your Ma. Hoss?"

"Reckon as I do." Hossís face folded up as he thought about it. "Course I donít remember nothiní Ďbout her. She was killed when I was just little. País told me all sorts aí things about her, but it ainít really the same."

Joe squirmed round so that he was sitting next to Hoss, with his back against the box. He dumped a kitten into his lap. "Is that right that you, aní Joe aní Adam all had a different Ma?"

"ĎSright. Kinda reckon Joe remembers his Ma some. She was a real lovely lady. Adamís Ma died when he was born."

Joe concentrated on stroking the kitten. He had something he needed to say, but wasnít sure how to get it out. Finally, he blurted, "I donít think your brother likes me too much."

"Who? Adam? You donít want ta pay no never-mind ta olí Adam. He just takes a time ta get ta know you, is all."

Joe sighed and looked more miserable than before. Hossís face contorted with the effort of putting what he wanted to say into words. "Adamís somethiní like a big olí river. He runs deep aní slow. Thereís one hellíve a lot more goiní on under the surface than youíd think, just ta look at him. But you believe me, Jody, once Adam calls you friend, youíve got a friend fer life. And a goddamned good one." For Hoss, it was a big speech, and it came right from the heart.

Joe Drury looked up at him, his curiously coloured eyes brimming with sincerity, "Iíd sure like fer him ta be my friend."

Hoss put a huge hand on his shoulder, engulfing it. "Like I said, you jist give it time. Now, Jody, how would you like one of these little kitties all of your own?"

"You mean it?" Joeís face lit up. "Iíd like that just fine, Hoss!"

Hoss beamed. That was four kittens heíd found homes, and there were only two more to go.

************************************

Ben pulled back on the reins and the chestnut pair slowed from a canter to a walk, and then came to a halt outside the International House. He set the brake and stepped down, walking round the rear of the vehicle to hand down his wife. Jenny shook out her skirt and brushed a few specks of trail dust from her jacket. She smiled at her husband.

"Iím just going inside to freshen up. Will you join me?"

"Later, perhaps." Ben saw her up the steps to the door and removing his hat, held it open for her. "Weíll have lunch together before the stage gets in."

"Do you have business?"

A slight frown crossed his face, "Not exactly," he hesitated, then. "Just a little matter I want to talk to Roy about."

Jenny eyes sparkled with implicit understanding. She knew her husband very well. She went into the hotel and Ben stepped back into the street.

It was a glorious autumn morning - dry, and bright, and warm, but without the blistering heat of high summer. There was just a hint of freshness in the air that spoke of cooler days and cold nights to come. The leaves of the old cottonwood were tinted with the first touch of gold. Ben crossed over the street and headed for the Sheriff's Office.

Roy was, for once, behind his desk. He had a cup of thick, black brew on the desktop in front of him and a pencil in his hand. He was chewing on his lip and studying the scatter of paperwork that littered the desk. He looked up as Ben came through the door and his expression lightened.

"Come on in, Ben. Pour yore-self some coffee aní set."

Ben did as he was bidden, pouring a measure of the hot liquid from the pot on Royís stove into a thick china mug. He pulled up a chair beside the desk.

"Itís unusual to find you inside on a fine day like today." he remarked.

"Aní donít I jist know it?" Roy pulled a sour face. "Itís all these dad-blamed forms I gotta fill out. Circuit Judge is cominí round next week aní I gotta have all this done afore he gets here."

Ben chuckled, "I thought you looked kinda busy."

"You jist come in here ta make fun oí a man?"

"Roy," Benís smile spread still further. "Would I do that?"

"ĎReckon you would." Roy was in a mood to have his feathers ruffled. Then a thought occurred to him, "You ainít got no trouble, have you, Ben?"

Ben shook his head. "Nothiní I need a sheriff for."

"Well, thatís all right then." Roy licked the end of his pencil and put a careful mark on the paper. "Just so long as youíre just socializiní"

"There was one thing I wanted to talk to you about," Ben took a sip of his coffee. "Adam and Joe."

Roy shot him a glance. "You donít want to pay that no never-mind, Ben. They was just blowiní off hot air at one another."

"I know it. And Iíve let them know I wasnít pleased by it."

Roy could well imagine the tongue lashing that had been handed out. "Thought you might."

"Thing is, Roy, the boys were kinda looking forward to the dance on Saturday night."

The sheriff put down his pencil and made a steeple out of his fingers. He looked at his old friend quizzically. "What is it youíre askiní me, Ben?"

Ben played along, pretending to have been caught out. "The dance is being held at the Pied Piper Barn this year, and thatís inside City limits, officially speaking."

"Well, thatís right. I guess thatís where it is, all right."

"And youíve ordered the boys to stay out of town until the middle of next week."

Roy was prepared to agree with that as well. "Thatís what I did, sure enough." He knew what Ben wanted, and he was darned well going to make him ask for it.

"I know you make the rules and stick to them, Roy, but I was wondering if, on this occasion..." Ben hesitated. Roy waited. "Do you think you could make an exception? Just for Saturday night?"

Roy chewed the thought over. "Ben, thatíd be kinda hard ta do. Folks get ta hear Ďbout it, theyíll be sayiní itís one law fer them aní a different one if your name happens ta be Cartwright."

Ben tried another tack. "The Pied Piper Barn is only just inside the boundary line."

"Reckon it is at that," Roy mulled it over some more. "Course, if your boys were ta sneak over the line ta the dance, then I wouldnít be likely ta know nothiní Ďbout it, now would I?" He gave Ben a jaundiced look. "Always assuminí there wasnít no trouble."

Ben smiled his understanding. Roy Coffee shook his head, and sighed and picked up his pencil.

Ben joined Jenny for lunch at the International House. They agreed on coddled eggs on a bed of lightly steamed spinach. While Ben ate and enjoyed his, Jenny barely picked at her meal. She was feeling the pinch of her corset. Ben told her the gist of his conversation with Roy, but swore her to secrecy.

"I think Iíll let the pair of them sweat it out a while longer," he said, "just to make sure they learn the lesson."

Jenny shook her head at him. "Theyíre grown men, Ben. Sometimes you treat them too much like children."

Outside in the street, that hint of freshness that Ben had noticed earlier was gone, burned away by the mid-day heat. They crossed over to the shady side and strolled arm in arm, toward the Stage Line Office. They exchanged pleasantries with a few friends, and spent some time gazing into the store windows as they went.

The stagecoach was late, but only by a few minutes. It was about ten past three when the four sweating horses pulled the box-like coach on its high, red-painted wheels into Main Street. The driver hauled the team to a halt and the Stage Line clerk ran out with a set of wooden box steps to help the passengers alight. There were four people in the coach, and they had been crowded together in the hot, dark little box for quite some time. First to emerge was a tall man in a loose, wrinkled suit and a stovepipe hat. He handed down the two ladies, one old and one quite young. From the similarity of their faces, Jenny guessed they were close relatives, perhaps grandmother and granddaughter. Last to emerge, blinking into the light of day, came Toby Addington.

Benís old friend held his hat in his hand and looked around at the busy little town. He was a short man, coming barely up to Benís shoulder, and he was wide. Dressed in a smart, black dress coat and tan pants, he measured almost as far around as he did off the ground. His face was round, and pink, and sparkled with merriment. His hair, a mass of tiny, short, pure white curls, positively gleamed in the sunlight. He saw Ben at once and came towards him across the street. Ben went to meet him and their faces broke into the broadest possible grins. The two men clasped hands warmly.

"Ben, itís good to see you!" Toby beamed up into Benís face.

"And Iím glad you could come!"

The two men stood in the street and feasted their eyes on each otherís faces. Finally, Ben gathered himself, and turned to introduce Jenny.

"Toby, this is my dear wife, Jenny."

His bright, blue gaze fixed on her face and his eyes twinkling, Toby Addington took Jennyís offered hand in his and carried it to his lips. The brush of his mouth was soft and dry, flattering. "My dear Jenny," he said. He stood back, still holding her hand, and admired her.

"Ben," he said softly to his old friend, "You always did have a knack for picking the most remarkably beautiful woman." He sighed and shook his head with something like bewilderment. "This time you have truly excelled yourself."

Ben beamed and Jenny flushed prettily at the lavish complement.

"You fellas want this stuff?" The stage driver called. He dropped a bag and two boxes down from the roof of the coach, and Toby went to claim his luggage.

******************************

The old man led the horse out of the Livery Stable on a long, loose, lead rope. It was an unprepossessing animal - a dark, rather shaggy bay, not very tall, with short back and white anklets on both back feet.

Abediah Harbinger looked the animal over critically. He might be short, and shaggy, and un-presumptive, and he might not be built for speed, but he had the look of a good, hard working trail horse. He was the sort of beast that would go on almost forever at a steady pace and not make any fuss if it was hot and dry, or if it rained and the wind blew. He had good strong legs and a sturdy broad back that, on a long journey, would be comfortable under the saddle.

Harbinger looked quizzically at the old man. In his low drawl, he asked, "How much?"

"Twenty-five dollars." The old man said without hesitation.

"Too much," Harbinger said, his look switching back to the horse. "Iíll give you twenty."

The old man considered. "You got your own gear?"

The tall, dress coated man with the tied-back, grey hair shook his head. "I ainít got no gear."

"Tell ya what I'll do." The old manís head bobbed on the end of his turkey-wattle neck. "You pay me sixty dollars, aní Iíll throw in a saddle Ďní a bridle."

Harbinger thought on that. "Make it fifty dollars."

"Nope." The old man was adamant. "This hereís a darn good horse. With a saddle aní a bridle, heís worth every cent of sixty dollars."

Shrewdly, Harbinger assessed the horse again. "All right. Sixty dollars." From an inside pocket, he pulled out a battered wallet and started to count out the notes.

"Iím leaviní town first thing in the morning. Iíll pick him up at sunrise."

The old man rubbed the - now sold - horse on the nose with an arthritic hand. "Iíll have him all ready for ya. Where ya headed?"

For a moment there was a faint spark in the grey eyes. Harbinger answered abruptly, "South oí here. ĎPlace called Virginia City."

"Heard of it," the old manís gaze was bright and direct. "ĎNice little silver town, right down in the mouth of the Comstock Valley. ĎYou got business there?"

Harbinger gave his new horse a pat. "I got business."

**************************************

Benís survey of the faces at his dinning table that evening included that of his oldest friend.

Hop Sing had dropped an extra leaf into the table so that everyone had room to sit and eat in comfort. Toby had been seated immediately to Benís right, with Jenny right across the table from him. Hoss and Joe Drury had moved down and sat apposite Benís youngest, and Adam retained his accustomed seat.

The Chinese cook had truly risen to the occasion. His magical kitchen had produced a huge roll of home produced roast beef, dark and crunchy on the outside, moist and running with pink juices within. With it were mountains of white potatoes, fresh green beans, and crisp, salty biscuits.

Ben had brought two bottles of deep red wine to the table and between Ben, Jenny and Toby the talk flowed freely back and forth across the table. Benís sons mostly listened, although Joe and Hoss interjected the occasional remark or question. Joe Drury sat further along the table with huge, wide eyes. He paid close attention to his elders, minded his manners and concentrated on his food. Ben was beginning to be amazed by the amount that young man could eat.

Adam, Ben noticed, had been very quiet all evening. He had greeted Toby cordially enough, with a handshake and a pleasant expression, but there had been a certain lack of warmth in his welcome, if not of sincerity. It was something that had made his father frown. But then the moment had passed, and his pleasure at having his friend in his house had reasserted itself.

Toby regaled the table with amusing tales of his travels to London and Paris and the cultural centres of southern Europe. He talked entertainingly of his visit to Egypt and the infidel cities of North Africa. Joe and Jenny Cartwright in particular, listened spellbound to the stories of far away India and China. An hour and more passed swiftly and pleasantly while they sat at table and listened to the softly modulated voice that still held a faint hint of Scottish burr.

It was only when Hop Sing came to clear away the dishes, prior to presenting his renown, rich chocolate pudding that Ben noticed that Adam hadnít eaten. He had sat quietly, almost silently, in fact throughout the meal. His usual wit and repartee were noticeably absent from the dinnertime conversation. Instead he was watchful, almost withdrawn. The food on his plate was untouched and gone cold.

Concerned, Ben looked at his eldest son closely. Adam looked tired, but then, these days, Adam always looked tired. There was tightness about his mouth and a renewed pallor underlying his tan. Ben found himself wondering abruptly if his hitherto robust and athletically healthy son was sickening for something. It was surely not the wound? Paul had said that the wound was healed; had said it was just a matter of his son regaining his strength.

The deep paternal instinct born of years of caring was starting to stir in Benís soul. His intuition whispered a warning - but the whisper was abruptly drowned out by Jennyís pealing laughter as Toby started to tell stories of his sea-faring days.

The meal finally over and coffee, and Benís finest brandy served, Toby sat back in his chair with the wide brandy glass in his hand, and looked round the table,

"Thereís no doubt about it, Ben. Youíve got yourself a fine family, here. And this ranch of yours - how big did you say it was?"

"Just a little more than a thousand square miles," Ben said with a smile.

Toby smiled, and his pleasure was genuine, "So you finally made a fortune, Ben. You certainly deserve it."

Ben sipped his brandy, relishing all the good things about his life. "I think we both deserve it. The Lord knows, we worked hard enough for it, in the early days."

"Do you remember the sawmill," Toby said, leaning forward again, "That we bought that winter, once..."

"I remember," Ben chuckled. "I donít remember ever cutting a yard of wood in that mill."

"Is that the sawmill where the stream had been diverted and there was no water to turn the wheel?" Adam inquired from his end of the table. He hadnít spoken for such a long time that his cultured, beautifully modulated voice came as something of a surprise.

There was a silence around the table. Then Toby said, with a smile, "Why, thatís right Adam. I wouldnít have thought you would have remembered anything about that. You were what, eight - nine?"

"I was eleven. And it seems to me that I remember a great deal," Adam said in a quiet and precise voice. In fact, he remembered a lot more about Toby Addington and his business dealings than either Toby, or Ben, gave him credit for. While not in the least dishonest, neither was Toby entirely straightforward with those he did business with, nor with his sometime partners. He had made a great deal of money, but not all his investments had been sound, and he had a habit of leaving others to pick up the pieces. Adam, although young at the time, had already been astute enough to understand what had been going on.

"I recall," he continued, "That there was a tannery that you persuaded my father to take a part interest in. A tannery in Louisiana? In the heart of cotton country?"

The smile on Tobyís face faded, just a little. "I think that was just a mistake." He said, a little guardedly.

"Oh, it was a mistake all right." Adam went on in that same, clipped tone. His expressive face was carefully controlled, but never-the-less, held a faint, but unmistakable look of contempt. "And one that cost my father his entire savings at the time."

Wondering what the devil his eldest son was about, Ben glared down the length of the table. "Adam!" he said sharply, "I think thatís enough!"

Adamís gaze, hard and bright, flicked briefly to his fatherís face and then back to Tobyís. His eyes burned with a fierce intelligence, but his voice was carefully regulated with just the slightest edge. "And wasnít there something about a cane crushing plant?"

A slow flush was spreading up Toby Addingtonís neck. He looked down into the brandy remaining in his snifter. "The, eh, cane crushing plant was just a miscalculation..."

"Certainly it was on my fatherís part," Adam retorted, swiftly.

"Adam," Ben said in a low, warning voice that all his sons had learned to heed a long time ago, "I said, that is enough!"

Adam drew a long breath. He knew he was on thin ice. He knew the sort of businessman Toby Addington was. The sort that made money all right, but often at the expense of other, perhaps less-devious, people. And he knew that his father would never see the truth of it. He could feel the tension around the table and see it in the faces of his family. He knew his father was getting very, very angry. He also knew that this was his one opportunity to make his point. He didnít look at his father again.

"I also remember a venture into coastal shipping. Was it three ships, or four?" Adam bit the words of with his sharp, white teeth. "None of which stayed afloat more than a month."

Ben was furious. He was literally trembling with rage. At his side, his friend was flushed scarlet with embarrassment. None of the other people at the table knew where to look. Ben drew a long breath. The irises of his eyes were black with rage and his face dark with blood. He looked at his son, who was awaiting his fate with calm expectation.

"Adam, you are excused from the table," He said carefully.

All of the family knew that to be dismissed from the meal table was the worst sanction Ben would publicly impose.

Adam stood up and nodded respectfully to his stepmother. Without another word, he left the table and disappeared up the staircase in the direction of his room. His departure left an uneasy silence in the dining room.

Ben stared at the empty seat at the far end of the table. He was sure that he didnít know what had gotten into Adam lately. For some reason, he was going out of his way to be disagreeable and argumentative with everyone who brushed against his prickly exterior.

And now there was an unpleasant interview to be undertaken. Abruptly, the fine meal had gone sour in Benís stomach.

Jenny picked up the conversation, asking Toby to describe the fashions of Paris and Rome the last time he had been there. It gave her husband time to compose himself.

Soon afterwards they left the table and retired to the easy chairs in the living area. The men took the brandy with them and Jenny, attired this evening in a floor-length gown of blue-green watered silk, asked Hop Sing for another cup of coffee. Joe and Hoss, still uneasy after their brotherís unseemly display, soon excused themselves, saying they had stock to care for, and took a relieved Joe Drury with them. Gradually, Ben relaxed and was able to pay attention to the conversation again.

Toby launched into a well-practised and highly entertaining series of anecdotes concerning the racier aspects of life in the Middle and Far East. They laughed a lot. Jenny found herself blushing and even Ben learned a thing or two heíd not known before. Hop Sing brought a jug of creamy hot chocolate as a night-cap just before he retired for the night himself. Then, Toby declared himself tired after his long, hot trip in the uncomfortable stagecoach. He thanked his host and hostess most sincerely for their hospitality and said again how pleasant it was to be a guest under their roof. Then he took himself off to bed.

Ben debated having a pipe of tobacco before going upstairs, and decided against it. Instead, he stood for a while staring into the embers of the log fire. The hardness of anger had returned to his eyes and his face was clouded by a frown. Jenny watched him as he lifted his face to look towards the staircase. She knew exactly what was going through his mind. She knew that any attempt on Benís part to talk to Adam would end up in another, very loud and very long argument. With the two men in their present moods, she didnít like to think what the consequences might be. Normally, she refrained from intervening in Benís relationships with his elder sons unless asked. Tonight she felt it best for both of them that she did.

"Leave it for tonight, Ben," she said gently.

Ben turned his dark glare on her. "Leave it? He insulted my friend, in my house, sitting at my table - and you say leave it?"

Jenny met his eyes steadily. "And are you saying that he was wrong? From what youíve told me, what Adam implied was closer to the truth than you care to admit."

"Thatís not the point!"

"No. Itís not the point. But itís something you should think about before you confront him. What he did was wrong, but it may be that he has your best interests at heart."

The muscles of Benís face worked furiously. Angry as he was, he had to admit that it was totally unlike Adam to be openly vicious and vindictive. "Iíll bear in mind what youíve said," he growled. He went up the stairs and along the passage to Adamís room. His hand was already on the doorknob when he noticed that there was no light showing beneath the door. He was surprised. Adamís habit was to read late into the night; often, long into the early hours of the morning. For him to have turned out his lamp before eleven oíclock was almost unheard of. It indicated to Ben that his son was not inviting their inevitable conversation that night. He recalled what Jenny had said and withdrew his hand. Perhaps in the morning, with the clear light of day, and a calmer head on both of them, it would be a better time to tackle the problem.

Seven

After a night that had lasted, it seemed, for half of eternity, the first faint light of morning came seeping under the curtains of Adamís window. It brushed the polished wood of desk and dresser with a silver-sheen. It lingered on the backs of the well-handled book on the shelves. It touched palely the damp, rumpled sheets on the disordered bed.

Adam had tossed and turned sleeplessly throughout the night. The confrontation with Toby Addington across the dinner table had done nothing to quieten his mind, and he knew that he would have to answer for it to his father, but it was not the principle reason for his wakefulness. Now, he sat up on the edge of his bed, naked in the room warmed by the wall of the chimney. His body wore a sheen of perspiration. He was doubled over with pain. His arms were wrapped around himself, and he rocked gently to-and-fro in the manner, he had found, that would eventually ease the agony away. This morning the pain was particularly severe. It was a horrid griping, low down. It went on and on, and would grant him no peace.

He had thought that as the scar tissue, left to him by the near fatal bullet wound to the belly, hardened, and thickened, the pains would fade. It was not so. Daily, the spasms became more frequent and the terrible cramping worse. There were times, and this morning was one of them, when it was so bad that he could scarcely draw the breath into his lungs. He sat on the bed, literally gasping with pain. His arms and hands were numb and coloured lights flickered at the edges of his vision.

Even when the pain wasnít so severe, he was plagued by a continual dull ache that persisted, day and night. It gave him no respite. He almost never got a whole hourís sleep. As much as possible, he avoided the necessity of eating. Mealtimes had become waking nightmares. He had learned that even the smallest amount of food resulted, some hours later, in the most terrible, crippling colic. More and more frequently he was folded up with it. So far none of his family had found him like that, but Adam knew that it was only a matter of time before one of them did.

And for Adam, the physical pain was not the worst of it.

This morning, as every morning, he was glad to see the dawn light come creeping in through the window. It meant that another night, alone in his room with the pain, was over; it was time to get another pain-filled day underway.

Walking stiffly, braced against the pain, he went first to the window, pulling back the curtains, and then to his dresser. He regarded himself in the mirror. The eyes that looked back at him were haunted, the face lean, almost gaunt. He shaved himself carefully and brushed back his raven-black hair. Those two acts at least made him feel, and look, more human. He reached for clean drawers and pants, socks and his boots, a comfortably soft tan-coloured shirt and his black leather vest. Being dressed improved his morale still more, and the clothes covered the hideous, still angry-looking scar.

The light from the window was growing stronger. It was going to be another fine, bright autumn day. Adam stood for a few moments, looking out of his window, as he mastered the pain. Every morning he brought it savagely under his iron control. He pulled back his shoulders and sucked in his gut so that he stood straight. He composed his face and carefully filled his lungs to capacity. He was determined that no one would see how much he was suffering. It was a problem he was going to deal with by himself for as long as he could. He would not invite sympathy, or worst of all, pity. His pride would not allow it. The only concession he would permit himself, almost unconsciously, was to press the knuckles of his right fist hard into the scar of the wound. It helped - just a little.

Leaving his room, he made his way along the passage and down the stairs, making his best speed for the front door. He wasnít quick enough. Hop Sing was already up and about, setting out the table for the familyís breakfast. The Chinese cook showed a remarkable turn of foot and intercepted him as he passed the dining room.

"Missa Adam, you eat breakfast now?" The little Chinaman gazed anxiously into his face. It had not escaped Hop Singís notice that Adam was eating less and less of his meals.

Adam shook his head. "Not this morning, Hop Sing. Iím not hungry." He moved to step around the cook but Hop Sing grabbed him by the arm and held on.

"What the matter that you no eat no more? You not like Hop Singís cooking?"

"Itís not that, Hop Sing."

Standing back, the Oriental looked critically up into Adamís face. He had known this man for fifteen years. He had seen him in all his moods, in anger and joy, and grief, and pain. He was in pain now. With an insight born of age and, perhaps, of a different culture, he could sense the suffering in his big frame. Looking closely he could see the tiny, tight muscles around his mouth, and the shadows in his eyes. From the way he stood, favouring his right side Hop Sing deduced the source of the problem. His wise old face crinkled up with concern.

"You hurt in belly," he said, flatly. "You come sit down. Hop Sing fix something soft. Something good. Something that not hurt."

Gently, but firmly, Adam disengaged his arm. "No thank you, Hop Sing. I really donít want anything."

"You not eat, you never get better."

Adam shook his head in absolute refusal. "No, Hop Sing."

Hop Sing watched him walk to the door with a gait that was not quite a limp. When it was obvious that the eldest Cartwright son was not coming back to be fed, the cook threw up his hands in despair, and with a torrent of incomprehensible Chinese, went back to his work.

Adam buckled on his gunbelt and shrugged into his heavy woollen coat. Outside, despite the brightness of the sun, the morning would be cold. He took his hat from the peg and let himself out. Heading for the barn, he was glad to have avoided his family. At least, once he was on the back of a horse, he could function more like a man.

********************************

Ben was down to breakfast later than was his usual habit. Jenny, and the undeniable pleasures of married life, had detained him in the bedroom. If Daniel had not chosen an inopportune moment to awaken and demand to be fed, Ben would have been later still. As he came down the stairs, he still wore the traces of a smile about his mouth.

His eyes scanned the dining table. Hoss and Joe were there, eating their way steadily through plates of ham and eggs. Joe Drury was serving himself second portions. It occurred to Ben that the boy was consuming as much, or more, food than Hoss! As he sat down at the head of the table, Ben realized that Adamís chair was empty. His smile faded and was replaced by a darker expression as he recalled the talk that he needed to have with his eldest.

"Whereís your brother?" he asked, glancing from Joe to Hoss.

Joe wiped a trace of butter from his lips with his napkin. "Hop Sing said he went out early."

"Leastwise, we think thatís what Hop Sing said." Hoss added with a chuckle, "Kinda hard ta tell."

"He was sure kinda excited this morning," Joe agreed. "You want I should go find Adam, Pa?"

"No." Ben helped himself to ham, and eggs, and fresh baked bread. "Iím showing Toby Ďround the ranch today. Iíll have to speak to your brother later." He knew that interview with Adam was likely to be long and heated, and he didnít want his pleasant ambience shattered just yet.

Joe got to his feet. "Come on then, Jody. Weíve got some horses to break." He headed for the door and Joe Drury, tucking a last chunk of bread into his mouth, followed.

Hoss, finished with his meal, lay down his knife and napkin. "Iíll go hitch up the buggy for you, Pa."

His mouth full of food, Ben nodded his appreciation. Hoss stood up and took a step away from the table. Then he turned back. His thumbs were hooked in his belt in a familiar mannerism and his shoulders were hunched. It was an attitude Ben recognised. Usually it meant that the big man had a problem chewing at him.

Hoss said, frowning, "Sir, later on today, when you get time, Iíd kinda like ta have a talk with you."

It was unusual for the easygoing, normally relaxed Hoss to request a private interview. His broad face was stern, almost grave. Alarm bells started to ring in Benís head.

"Of course, son. Weíll talk this afternoon."

Still frowning, Hoss nodded once, curtly, and walked away.

Frowning himself, worrying at the problem Ben sipped at his hot, black coffee. What on Earth could be worrying his big, good-natured easy-going son that much? He guessed he would just have to wait until the afternoon to find out. He became aware of Hop Sing hovering close to his elbow. That was unusual as well. Usually, the Chinese cook came and went from the dining room so unobtrusively that Ben scarcely noticed him. It seemed that this morning, Hop Sing had something to say. Ben put his coffee cup down and turned in his seat. He took the frown off his face and replaced it with an open and inviting expression.

"Good morning, Hop Sing. What can I do for you?"

Hop Sing was clearly agitated. His hands were clasped in front of him and his head was bobbing. "Missa Adam, he go out real early. He not eat any breakfast!"

Ben sighed inwardly. Apparently they were back to the wasted food issue. "Thatís not really unusual these days. Adam doesnít seem in the mood to eat much of anything."

The Chinamanís face creased as he struggled to express himself in what was still, even after all the years, a foreign language. "Missa Adam feel real bad this morning."

Ben snorted. "After last night, I dare say that he did," he said, dryly. His mind was back on the incident at the dining table, and he was planning just what he was going to say to his eldest as soon as he got the chance. "Donít you worry yourself, Hop Sing. Iíll see Adam just as soon as he gets home."

Hop Sing stood there a few moments longer. Although they had been friends for a very long time, because of the language difficulty - Hop Singís English was halting at best, and Ben spoke no Chinese whatever - it was sometimes difficult to communicate. That was especially so when Ben was preoccupied. Hop Sing was not at all sure that he had got his message across.

Now though, Ben was again concentrating on his breakfast. Shaking his head, Hop Sing went back to the kitchen.

***************************************

The Ponderosa was a lady, and it was as if, in these first fine days of autumn, she had put on her most beautiful gown. The road Ben had chosen curved away from the house in an arc that provided a panoramic view of the ranch buildings. Set idyllically among trees and paddocks, and with the foothills of the Sierra Mountains as a backdrop, they made a perfect picture. Then the road dipped down through the home pastures that lay directly behind the house. The grass on either side was still lush and green, well watered by the deep stream that flowed through and by the run-off from the higher ground. Jennyís spotted, cream-and-brown Jacobís sheep were scattered through the meadows, knee-deep in the grass and busily eating their heads off.

Further afield, grazed the mares belonging to Joeís horse breeding project; each had a well-grown foal at her side. They were Monarchís first crop and although none of them had the coal-black coat of their sire, all were dark and bore his distinctive Morgan stamp.

Mature trees dotted the fenced fields, sweet chestnut and beech, cottonwood and hazel. A mile off, in isolated majesty, stood an ancient, lightening-blasted oak. The broadleafs had been touched by the first frosts of the season and the green of their canopies was tinged with gold and saffron, amber and topaz, a promise of all the richer, deeper shades to come. Willows lined the river on either bank, still a vibrant, bright green, trailing the weeping tendrils of their branches in the deep, dark water.

A simple bridge spanned the stream, and the brown mareís hoofs rang hollowly on the boards as she trotted over. Ben and Toby, sitting behind her, side by side in the high-wheeled buggy, feasted their eyes. Vista after glorious vista opened up before them. Even Ben, who had seen it all a thousand times before, was amazed and moved by the beauty of it.

The pasture on the far side of the river was dedicated to a personal, pet project of Benís own. He slowed the mare to a walk so that they could get a good look. A small herd of Aberdeen Angus cows and calves grazed placidly in the long grass. They were big, blocky animals with heavy, low-slung heads and short, curved horns. Their coats, burgundy red and white, contrasted strikingly with the green of the pasture. They chewed, placidly, and watched from big, bovine eyes as the buggy drove by.

From the water meadows, the road climbed upwards to the higher grasslands. Here, the winds blew harder and the summer sun shone hotter. The tussocky grass still grew thickly, but now it was a sere brown. The cattle herds, composed mostly of robust, Texas longhorn types and assorted crossbreeds, were already being gathered by Benís hired help. Driven to these home ranges from the far-flung corners of the ranch, they would be easier to care for when the harsh winter weather arrived. They grazed in groups on the lush herbage and paid scant attention as the two men drove by.

Ben slapped the reins against the mareís back and raised her pace to a canter. They passed swiftly over the range and started to climb into the wooded hills. Here the processes of autumn were further advanced. More vibrant colours were in evidence. Although some trees still wore the deep green foliage of late summer, others were decked with crimson, and bronze, and copper and flame. Shy deer ran from the buggy with white tails bobbing. High above the woodland clearing, a hawk soared with wings widespread on a rising thermal, hunting.

Ben drove higher still, right up into the silent majesty of the pine forest. Here the mighty trees, evenly spaced across the hillsides by the hand of God, stood sentinel over the land. These were the mighty Ponderosa Pine, for which Ben had named his domain.

Richly clothed now in darkest green, soon, with the coming of the cold, the needles would turn black. Laden with more snow than they could bear, the mighty branches would creak, and lower themselves almost to the ground.

Finally, Ben drove to the lake. He pulled on the reins, and the mare slowed to a walk and finally stopped on a grass clad headland. There was no real need for Ben to say anything. The glorious panorama eloquently spoke volumes of its own. The clear blue sky was reflected perfectly in the mirror-like surface of the water. Where a vagrant, shore-wards breeze touched the interface of liquid and air, little rough patches of dancing wavelets marred the smoothness. The steep, pine clad hills rose straight up out of their exact, looking-glass reflections with only a minimal margin of white beach. They climbed halfway to the sky.

There was very little sound and the peace of the place was pervasive. Ben was content just to sit and let it seep into his soul. The air smelled richly of pine and water. It drifted gently. The breeze moved off the lake. It brushed soft, unsubstantial tendrils against his face. For him, it was a magical, mystical place, just one step short of heaven itself.

Sitting beside him on the seat of the buggy, Toby Addington breathed deeply, filling his barrel chest with the fresh, pine scented air.

"I can certainly see why you love it all so much, Ben," His face was still turned away towards the lake and the hills beyond. "It has the sort of wild grandeur that always did appeal to you."

Ben chuckled softly, self-consciously. "I fell in love with it the moment I first saw it. Itís one of the reasons I settled here."

"I can understand that. Itís a beautiful place, and you have the most lovely home." Toby turned his head to look at Ben. "But is it really all you want out of life?"

Ben stared at him, wondering, at first, if heís heard right. It was obvious from Tobyís expression that while he was impressed by all that he had seen, and in particular, by the spectacular wild beauty of the lake, he was far from enchanted by it. But then, Ben supposed, making allowances, Toby wasnít a Cartwright.

"What more could I possibly want?"

"Ah, Ben," Toby laughed gently at his friendís naivety, "You always were a romantic at heart, dropping everything and coming way out west with just a few dollars and that little lad in tow." He looked again towards the lake. "All this is beautiful beyond belief. But it's not the only lovely place in the world."

"I know that, Toby. But this is my place."

"What about all the work you have to do, just to keep this place running? Have you ever counted the number of hours you spend on the back of a horse or sitting behind that desk?"

Ben said, simply, "Itís my life."

"But it doesnít have to be!" The earnestness in Tobyís voice matched that in his face. "Youíve made a fortune, Ben: cattle, timber, silver, freight and all this besides. Itís high time that you relaxed and enjoyed some of it."

Ben gazed at the lake and the trees and the distant mountains beyond. "I donít think I could give this up."

Toby smiled, and his blue eyes twinkled, "Thatís the best of it. You donít have to give anything up. You donít even have to put a manager in. Those three grown up boys of yours are already broken in and trained to run this place. Hand it over to them. Take some time off to see some of the other beautiful places in the world."

A frown had clouded Ben's face. "The boyís could cope, of course. But..."

"There you are then! You could take Jenny and the baby east - to Europe, even. Iím sure sheíd like to go. And all this," Toby gestured widely, "would still be right here, waiting for you, any time you wanted to come back."

"Youíre telling me to retire." Benís voice became harsh at the thought.

Toby shrugged. "Semi-retirement, if you like. Take life easy. Travel. Enjoy some culture instead of mouldering away here in the back woods. Get your backside out of a saddle and spend the winters somewhere where it's warm! You can still keep an interest in your business for as long as you want to."

"Like you?" Ben suggested, and Toby laughed.

"Like me. And why not?"

Ben gazed out across the glorious lake. The furthest hills were shrouded in mist, and the sunlight was turning the water into a silver mirror. He had never considered that he might retire. Always, he had assumed that he would work this land until his Lord called him home. After all, what greater purpose could a man have in life but to carve out an empire and raise fine sons?

But now, listening to the reasonableness in Tobyís voice and the logic of his argument, other possibilities presented themselves. For a moment, he pictured his lovely wife, gorgeously gowned and bejewelled, in the grand concert halls and opera houses of Europe. He remembered the trace of wistfulness in her voice as she had sat at her looking glass and named the great cities.

"Itís something I shall have to think about," he said. For Ben, the peace and tranquillity of his favourite place had been shattered, its beauty occluded. The breeze off the water was suddenly and unaccountably cold. He gathered up the reins and slapped them against the mareís back, starting her for home.

********************************

The mustang stood three-legged and blindfolded as Joe Cartwright stepped into the stirrup and lifted himself onto its back. He swung his free leg over and lowered himself carefully into the saddle. He could feel the trembling in the animalís muscles, the tension coiled in its body. Joe eased his butt into the leather seat and let his weight settle. The horse stiffened under him.

Joe felt for, and found the loose stirrup and locked his thighs firmly around the barrel of the horseís ribs. He took a tight grip on the reins and the end of the halter rope in his left hand. He wiped the sweating palm of his right on his pants leg. It didnít matter how many horses a man broke, this was the part that always made him nervous. He figured that when the day came that he wasnít afraid anymore, that would be the day to quit. The mustang was frightened more than he was angry, but he was still a dangerous animal, and a wise man would always treat him with respect.

This particular horse, a recently gelded sorrel and about four years old, was typical of his kind. He was short bodied and sturdy with small feet and a large head. He was going to make a good cow pony - once Joe had done his job. He drew a deep breath and nodded to Hank, standing at the horseís right shoulder. Hank untied the rope that held the sorrelís knee flexed and its hoof up tight against its body, giving the animal all four legs to stand on.

Joe felt the horseís weight shift. His own lithe body moved in response, compensating perfectly. Adrenaline flooded through his body, replacing the fear with excitement. He moistened his lips with his tongue, adjusted his grip fractionally on the reins and looked up at the wrangler at the horseís head.

"Let him go, Pedro."

The slim horse-handler pulled away the cloth that wrapped the sorrelís eyes and let go of the bridle. He got out of the way, fast, ducking between the corral rails before the beast realized that it was free.

It took the horse about three seconds. Then its head went down, and its back came up. Joe, already braced, was prepared as it started to buckjump in a tight circle. The saddle fell away from under Joeís backside, and then came up again and hit him hard between the legs. The blow drove the air out of his lungs. He scarcely had time to draw another breath before the blow from below was repeated. He held on tightly with his legs and with the one hand. His other arm was flung out far behind him in an effort to balance himself against the seesaw bucking of the bronc.

His concentration focussed solely on the antics of the horse, Joe was scarcely aware of the encouragement yelled by his brother. Hoss was sitting perched up on the top rail of the corral fence, shouting his head off,

"Címon, Little Joe! Stay with Ďim! Ride Ďim cowboy! Yeeha!"

Whether the shouting had any effect on either Joe, or the horse, was a debatable point.

Joe Drury watched through a gap in the fence rails. His mouth was open in amazement. He found it beyond belief that a man could stay on top of the sweating, struggling animal for a single second. But Joe Cartwright stayed. His fluid body swayed in counterpoint to ever move the sorrel made. His face was flushed with excitement. His jaws were locked together to prevent his teeth being either knocked out, or biting through his tongue.

The horse widened his circle, changing the short, sharp, bone jarring buckjumps to longer, four-footed hops. It made for a faster, smoother, but barely more comfortable ride. He was tiring now. Joe, in the saddle, could feel his rib cage heaving as his lungs laboured for air.

Joe Drury was aware of someone else taking up a leaning position at the corral fence beside him. He knew who it was before he turned his head to look. Adam Cartwright had a commanding, brooding presence all his own.

Adam rested his forearms on the top rail of the corral fence. They were browned by the sun and corded with hard muscle. His eyes, in the sunlight, were a lighter shade of brown with a tiny fleck of green lurking somewhere in their depths. He watched with faintly amused interest as his brother brought the mustang under control.

The horse finally stopped jumping about. His head came up and Joe rode him round the corral a time or two, neck reining him this way and that, getting him used to the weight of a man on his back.

Pedro stepped forward to take the bridle and Joe slithered off over the horseís shoulder. He gave the animal a friendly slap on the sweating red hide and walked over to the fence.

Hoss jumped down, grinning broadly, and shook him by the hand.

"Well done, Joe. That was shore one hell of a ride!" He clapped Joe on the shoulder and very nearly floored him.

Joe grinned at Joe Drury. "Thatís all there is to it, Jody. Soon weíll have you up there bustiní broncs with the rest of us."

Jody shook his head. "How in heck díyou stay on there?"

"Youíll soon get the hang of it," Joe laughed. "Youíll find that stayiní on is less painful than falliní off. Ainít that right, big-brother?" He turned his grin on Adam.

Adamís own lips quirked in response. "I guess thatís right, Joe."

Joe knocked the dust out of the seat of his pants with his hands. The next horse was being led into the corral and Hoss went over to help tie up the foreleg. Joe said, with a smile,

"Hey, Adam, you havenít been up on a bronc in a good long time. You feel like shakiní the rust off?"

Adamís amenable expression shifted became shuttered. He drew back from the fence. "I donít think so, Joe. Not today."

"But heís just your colour!" Joe gestured to the horse that now stood hobbled and blindfolded in the corral, just waiting to be ridden. The animalís hide, glossy with sweat, was ebony-black.

Adamís mouth went dry. He looked at Joe with an expression that his younger brother had seen before on his face, but never directed at him. If Joe hadnít known Adam - if Adam hadnít been his brother, who loved him unconditionally as a brother should - and was loved in return - Joe would have sworn that expression was one of pure hatred.

"I said, no!" Adam snorted.

Joe was aghast. "But Adam...!"

Adam glared at him a second longer, then turned on his heel and stalked away. His head was high and his back was rigidly straight, but he walked with just the faintest suggestion of a limp. Hoss came over and stood beside Joe. He pushed his tall hat to the back of his head, and then put his hands on his hips. His face was bemused.

"Hey, Joe, what was that all about?"

Joe shook his head. "Danged if I know." He ran his hand through his sweaty curls and sighed a small, exasperated sigh, "Danged if I know." With a helpless gesture, he turned to the black horse and went back to work.

*********************************

Ben looked up from the monumental stack of paperwork that covered the tooled leather top of his desk. There was a frown pinching the flesh between his eyes. He had spent the past two hours puzzling over the complexities of that timber contract and was wishing that he had let Adam do it after all.

Hoss was standing, somewhat hesitantly, just outside what was generally considered to be the Ďoffice areaí of the ranch houseís main room. Ben remembered with a jolt of guilt his sonís request for a private conversation. He had lost all track of the time! He wiped the frown from his face and - gladly - laid the timber contract aside.

"Come on in, son. Draw up a chair."

Still looking diffident, Hoss came into the office and pulled a chair alongside the desk. He settled into it, but he looked far from comfortable; he hesitated as if he expected the seat to collapse under him at any moment. His ice-blue eyes, normally alive with affable good-humour, were unaccountably grave. Ben, with his years of experience, sensed trouble.

He sat back in his chair. "What would you like to talk about?"

Hoss drew a breath and launched into the speech he had been preparing carefully for some time. "Itís sorta like this, Pa. I was kinda figuring that Iíd like ta take a trip, if you can see your way clear ta spariní me."

Several things occurred to Ben in rapid succession: that it was unusual for his big son to broach such a subject in such a hesitant manner, that it was very late in the season to propose any sort of a trip, that the ranch was short handed and struggling to get the yearís work completed before the winter weather set in, and that he had to handle this request very carefully indeed.

"You mean a ride up into the Reserved Section?" Ben was hoping the problem wasnít as bad as he feared. "I guess we can manage for a week or so, if you really want to go. Itís getting a little late in the year for a longer trip. You wouldnít want to get caught up in a snowfall."

Hoss was chewing at the inside of his mouth. He was having a problem looking his father in the face. "It, ah, it wasnít the Reserved Section I had in mind, Pa." He picked at the seam of his pants leg.

Benís expression sobered. "Then where?"

"Well, I donít rightly know fer sure." The blue eyes flashed to Benís face and away again, quickly. I ainít never bin no-place. I kinda thought I might go east fer a bit. Take a look at some Ďa them places I heard you talk about. ĎMight even take a trip to Europe, like that Mister Addington."

The frown was now well and truly back on Benís face. This was the first time his big home-loving son had ever expressed a desire to travel. Somehow, it just didnít ring right. The glow of enthusiasm was missing from his broad-featured face. Ben answered carefully,

"If you want to go, son, then of course you shall. A trip like that will take some planning. When were you thinking of leaving?"

Hoss looked even more uncomfortable. "I thought I might go real soon." Hoss stared in fascination at the toe of his boots. "In the next couple of weeks."

"The next couple of weeks!" Benís voice rose, more from surprise than annoyance. "But that..." He was about to say impossible, and then realized that it wasnít. "That would be very difficult," he said, in a quieter tone.

"I know it. But itís what I want, Pa." Hossís low voice had an edge of determination. He still wouldnít look at his father.

Ben sat forward and clasped his hands together on the desktop. "Why not leave it Ďtil the spring? Youíll have time to make your travel arrangements, and I can hire some more men and the roads will be better..."

"I donít ta wait Ďtil spring. I want ta go now!" Hoss sounded as stubborn as Ben had ever heard him.

It occurred to the elder Cartwright that he was not seeing the entire picture. Hossís strangely furtive glances, his attitude, slumped forward in the chair, the tone of his voice, all spoke of subterfuge, if not of deception. This whole proposal was so much out of character, Ben hardly believed it was happening.

"Eric," he said, gently, "why wonít it wait until the spring?"

"I canít live all through the winter in this house, Pa!" The statement started as a shout and ended in a sob. Hoss looked Ben full in the face at last and there were tears in his eyes. "I canít spend all that time cooped up in here with Adam!"

"Adam?" Ben was taken aback. His expression darkened. "What on earth has Adam to do with all this?"

Hoss lowered his gaze again and shook his head. "It ainít Adamís fault. Itís me. I just canít seem ta get on with him no more."

Ben let out a long breath. "I know heís been kinda ornery, lately. I didnít know it was getting you down so badly."

Hoss shifted in the chair. He looked near to tears. "We donít see eye to eye, Pa. We argue all the time. Sometimes, I could..." Hoss looked down at his big, open hands. From earliest childhood, he had been bigger, and stronger, than anyone else his age. As a grown man, he had learned to control, and channel, that strength. Slow to anger as he was, Hoss, never-the-less, had a temper, and a ferocious one. He was desperately afraid of unleashing that temper within his family. His face slowly filled with blood.

Ben knew exactly what his son was thinking.

"I could hurt him, Pa," Hoss said, so softly it was almost a sigh. "I donít want ta do that. Heís my brother Ďní I love him. I donít want ta do him no harm." The big hands flexed. "Thatís why I want ta go away. So I donít do my brother no harm."

Ben got up and walked slowly round the desk. He put his hand on Hossís shoulder. He could feel the tension in the powerful muscles. There was no doubt in his mind that his son meant what he said. It was also beyond question that should the brothers ever come to blows in earnest, neither of them would emerge unscathed.

"I think," Ben said, "that your brother has problems that heís not prepared to talk about, and that need sorting out."

"Adam has been looking kinda peaky lately," Hoss said, completely misunderstanding what Ben meant, "Sorta fragile lookiní."

Ben was taken aback. He had never thought of his eldest son as Ďfragileí before.

"Will you give me some time, Hoss, before you make up your mind about this trip? Will you think about it some more?"

Hoss nodded and got to his feet. "Iíll sure do that, sir." He held out his hand and Ben shook it warmly.

When Hoss had gone, Ben sat down again behind his desk. The timber contract was entirely forgotten. Ben Cartwright had a great deal else to think about.

*********************************

With a sigh that came straight from the heart, Ben sat down heavily on the side of his bed. Just for a moment, he put his head in his hands. Jenny, always perceptive, saw the gesture in her mirror. She put down her hairbrush and went over to him. She climbed up on the bed behind him and started to work at the knotted muscles in his back.

"What is it?" she asked, "Adam?"

Ben sighed again and nodded. "Adam. And Hoss."

"Hoss?" Jenny was surprised. Her husbandís second son was the most placid of men and the least likely to cause his father concern. Her hands hesitated, then continued her ministrations.

She waited. She knew that Ben would talk when he was ready.

"Theyíre not getting on," he said at last. "Hoss says that he wants to go on a long trip. He doesnít trust himself to avoid a fight with his brother. Heís afraid of doing him some harm."

Jenny finished with his back and started on his shoulders. "I donít think it would ever come to that," she said, after due consideration. "They love each other too much."

Ben put up his hand and covered hers stilling it. "I hope youíre right, my love. I certainly hope youíre right."

Jenny kissed him on the top of his head. "What Hoss needs," she suggested, "is the love of a good woman."

Ben smiled at last. "Maybe youíre right. I just wish I could figure out what it is Adam needs."

Eight

Joe Drury ran, helter-skelter, ran as fast as his legs would carry him. He simply had to get to the horse barn, down at the edge of the pasture, in time!

The sun was already bright, although the hour was early and the air still chilly with frost. Joeís shadow fled before him as he ran. He pounded across the yard at the back of the house, scattering Hop Sings prized layers as he went. He chased headlong, downhill, along the wide track between the corral fences and past the wagon house. He sped at break-neck speed by the storage barns and the equipment shed, his feet slapping on the hard packed dirt. By the time the horse-barn came into sight, his lungs were aching and his breath coming in short hard gasps.

The double doors of the barn stood half-open to admit the morning air and a shaft of sunlight. Joe took a moment to compose himself, and then slipped into the barn.

The chestnut mare was already down on the floor. Her hind quarters were hunched up in a curious sort of crouch. Adam was at her head, hunkered down on his haunches with his hand on her halter. Joe Cartwright was at her other end, sponging her down with cool water. From the growth of beard on their faces and the tiredness in their eyes, it was apparent that both men had been up all night long with the horse. Joe Drury wished he had known. He would have liked to help.

The mare was sweating and her distended sides heaved with effort.

Joe Cartwright beckoned him closer, and he approached almost on tiptoe, afraid of startling the mare. His freckled face was rapt with wonder and his eyes were bright.

The mare snorted and made a wet snuffling noise. Adam crooned to her softly and raised his eyes to look questioningly at his brother.

Joe gave him a grin. "Itís not gonna be long. Hey, Jody, come on round here so that you can see."

Jody edged round so that he could squat down beside his namesake. "What happens now?"

"You wait and see." Joe ran an experienced hand over the mareís swollen belly. The milk veins running to her nipples were outlined clear and full across its girth.

"Any minute now."

Sure enough within a short time, a shudder ran through the mareís body. A groaning sound came from somewhere deep inside her. She thrashed with her legs, and for a moment appeared to be trying to get on her feet.

"Easy now, girl," Adam soothed her. "Easy."

The mare groaned again. Joe lifted her tail out of the way as another tremor ran through her. Moments later, Monarchís newest foal was born. Joe Cartwright broke open the caulk with his hands and freed the head. Within seconds, the foal was fully emerged and lying on the straw. It was a colt, and his coat was as coal black as his sireís.

The mare lurched and lunged and a few minutes later, she was up on her feet.

Adam turned her so that she could find the foal and she started to lick him dry.

After an hour, the foal was up on his long legs and drinking his motherís milk. Joe Drury felt himself overwhelmed by a rush of emotion. He wanted to laugh and cry, both at the same time. Joe Cartwright beamed, and for the first time since heíd met him, Jody saw Adam crack a smile. It transformed his face, put dimples into his cheeks and made his eyes sparkle.

**********************************

Sitting comfortably in his armchair with a fine lunch under his belt, a brand-new colt in the horse-barn, and the prospect of the afternoon off, Ben was feeling benign. In the other chair, directly across the hearth, Jenny sat with her needlework in her lap. His son, Daniel, downstairs for the first time, was in a bassinet at her side. He had recently been fed and, for once, he was asleep. Toby Addington sat on the sofa reading week old newspapers. Ben had a feeling that his friend was finding life on the ranch a little isolated for his taste.

Ben looked Ďround for his other sons. Joseph, now shaven and dressed in a fresh shirt, was setting up the checkers board. It looked as if he and Hoss were planning a long session. Adam sat at the dining table with several books spread out in front of him. He was helping Joe Drury with his figures. Ben caught Jennyís eye and winked. She smiled and lowered her eyes to her stitching.

He got up and turned his back to the fire, letting the flames warm his backside. He put a severe expression on his face. In a voice loud enough to encompass his entire family, he said, "I suppose all the chores outside are done?"

The four young men looked at him with varying degrees of anxiety, Jody the most, Adam the least.

"Sure, Pa." Joe glanced at Hoss who nodded vigorously. "Weíve done everything."

"Hm," Ben looked from one to the other of them. "That being the case, Iím surprised youíre not getting ready for the dance tonight."

Joe looked abashed. Hoss was embarrassed,

"Heck, Pa, I donít reckon as I want ta go ta no barn-dance on my own. I figured Iíd just stay here Ďní play checkers with Joe instead."

"Is that what you figured?" Ben inquired, frowning. "Well, it just so happens that I had a talk to Roy Coffee when I was in town. He said that heíd be willing to turn a blind-eye if you boys crossed over the city line tonight. Just as far as the Pied Piper barn."

As heíd been speaking, Ben had watched the broad smiles of delight spread across Joe and Hossís faces. The two of them beamed at him, and then at each other. He felt compelled to add, sternly, "As long as you keep out of trouble, that is."

"Hey! We can sure keep out of trouble, Pa!" Joe grinned at Hoss. "That means we can all go to the dance together!"

Happily, Hoss agreed. "Sure does, little-brother."

The checkers forgotten, Joe slapped Hoss in the chest with the back of his hand. "Whatíre we waiting for, brother? Letís go get ready for the dance! Címon Jody! Letís go find some duds for you to wear!"

Joe and Hoss started for the stair and Joe Drury promptly joined the stampede.

Jennyís smile widened and Ben chuckled. And then he noticed that Adam had taken no part in the celebration. In fact, he didnít seem overly impressed by his fatherís announcement.

He was still sitting at the table, closing the books and stacking them into a neat pile. Unable to watch the boy grow up in the painful ignorance of illiteracy, Adam had undertaken to teach him to read and figure. He was endlessly patient in this task with the youngster, never unleashing the anger he showed at other times no matter how dumb Jodyís questions were. The boy had noticed that Adam often sat slightly hunched with his free arm clamped across his gaunt belly, and there were moments when he seemed far away.

Ben went over to his eldest. "Arenít you going to get ready for the dance?"

Adam didnít look up at him. He said, a trifle shortly Ben thought, "I donít think Iíll be going to the dance tonight, Pa."

"Roy said it would be all right for you to go."

Adam added the last book to the pile. "It doesnít have anything to do with what Roy said, or didnít say!"

Ben was both bewildered and concerned by his sonís almost angry reaction. "Adam?"

Adam came up out of the chair and confronted his father. "Letís just say I donít feel like dancing tonight!" His voice was tight, low and barely controlled. Ben was shocked to see that his son's hands were clenched into white knuckled fists. Before he could recover himself, Adam was gone. His boots clattered on the stairs and his angry footfalls receded along the upstairs passage. Seconds later, his door slammed.

They found Jody a white dress-shirt with a fancy frilled front and a pair of black pants that fitted. Joe gave him a dark-green jacket that suited him well enough, but was a bit too wide across the back. It had the effect of making his shoulders appear broader than they really were. Jody was extremely pleased with that. Joe wore the new dress-suit he had just had tailored. He especially liked the long, full-skirted coat and wore it with a white silk shirt and a shoestring tie. He looked like a gambler, and that made his father scowl.

Hoss lent Jody a wide black satin ribbon to wear at his throat and showed him how to tie it into a generous bow. Across his own massive shoulders the big man shrugged a tailored, tan-coloured jacket that contrasted smartly with his own black pants. The Cartwright boys were dressed to kill and all set for a night on the town.

Ben, and Jenny, and Toby Addington stood on the stoop of the house and watched the young men mount up. The horses milled for a moment and then, with much whooping and hollering, the boys headed for Virginia City at a gallop.

Laughing, Ben gave Jenny a hug.

"Letís go inside and see if Hop Singís got some tea."

*********************************

It was dark outside when Adam emerged from his room. He came down the stairs and looked neither right, nor left, as he made his way straight to the front door.

"Adam?" Ben got up and went after him. "Youíre going out?" He noted that Adam was wearing his everyday clothes - one of his threadbare black shirts and his old, turned up pants. He definitely wasnít headed for the dance.

Adam slung his gunbelt around his narrow hips and did up the buckle. "Yes, Pa. Iím going out." His voice still held that edge of suppressed anger.

Ben bristled. "Where is it youíre going?"

"Iím all grown up now, Pa." Adam looked his father straight in the face. "I donít have to tell you where Iím going."

He took his coat from the hook on the wall and in another moment was gone through the door. Ben followed him, angry and alarmed.

"Adam! Come back here!"

Adam stepped up into the saddle of his horse. His back was to his father, and Ben didnít see what the effort cost him.

"I want to talk to you, son."

Ben put his hand on the saddle leathers, but Adam let his horse dance away.

"Right now, Pa, I donít want to talk!" Adam spun the horse Ďround and kicked hard.

Benís powerful voice rang through the night, "Adam!"

Adam heard him, but he kept on riding. Once again, Ben found himself staring at his sonís retreating back. He found he was getting rather tired of it.

*********************************

The Pied Piper barn was at the centre of a complex of corrals and marshalling pens out to the North of Virginia City. This evening, the road that led there was thronged with traffic, all moving in the same direction. Wagons, buckboards and carriages arrived in a steady stream, delivering families with excited children and ladies in their bright party-dresses. The single men mostly arrived on horseback. The corrals were filled with horses and vehicles.

The barn itself was a long, low, single-storey building with a hayloft above and a sharply pointed roof. The walls were constructed of heavy boards on a sturdy timber frame, white painted. The roof was black. It was all strung with lamps and coloured lanterns and glowed in the night like a beacon. Outside the people milled and mixed, greeting friends and neighbours and generating a celebratory atmosphere before they even entered the building. In the cold, the steam of their communal breath hung over them as a white blanket of mist.

Inside, the barn was decked out with more strings of Chinese lanterns, in pink, blue and yellow, and gay, red, white and blue bunting. The whole of the floor space had been swept clean. Along either side, long tables had been set up and covered with snow-white linen. The women of the township, and of the surrounding ranches, had excelled themselves in the production of all manner of foodstuffs for what was one of the biggest, annual parties of the year. They had been busy in the barn for the entire day. The tables groaned under a load of pies and pastries and sweet cakes. At one end, were more tables laden with drink for the event: beer, fruit cup, and a rather potent brandy punch. Sacks stuffed with straw and covered with blankets had been provided for people to sit on, while the whole central area had been left clear for a dance floor.

By the time Joe, and Jody, and Hoss arrived, the barn was well filled with people. The place was loud with the buzz of conversation and the chink of glasses was already in evidence. Down at the far end, the fiddle-band was tuning up and the dancing was about to get underway.

Joe stood just inside and drew a deep breath, filling his lungs with the warmer air and drawing into himself the general feeling of friendliness and merriment. Hoss slapped Jody on the back.

"Címon, Joe! Letís go get ourselves some oí that punch!"

The drink-table was already doing a busy trade. The crowd cleared a little when the fiddles played several chords, and launched into the first, spirited dance of the evening. Hoss used his bulk to work his way forward and secured two cups of punch. He passed one to Jody.

"Now you drink that, but you drink it slow," the big man warned. "Thatís as like as heck ta go right ta your head."

Joe Drury did as he was bidden, and sipped. The punch was dark, and sweet with fruit juices. The rich, underlying flavour of the brandy left a pleasant taste in his mouth and, fairly soon, warmth in his belly.

Jody became separated from the Cartwrights, as the two older men met their own friends and went their own ways. He didnít mind. There was a lot to see, and lots of talk to listen to, and there was a great deal of food. He particularly liked the pecan pie and ate several slices, washed down with a refill of brandy punch. Then he found himself a seat on the stuffed sacks, not too far from the punch bowl, and watched with fascination the frantic swirl of dancers on the floor.

Joe Cartwright circulated with his friends for a while, drinking beer and chatting. He danced a jig with a young lady of his acquaintance, nibbled on a savoury pastry and drank a second beer. He made sure he didnít stray far from the door and kept careful watch on the comings and goings. He was on the lookout for one special lady. She was late arriving, and he began to wonder anxiously if she was going to come at all.

It was past nine oíclock, and the families with younger children were already starting to say their farewells, when Ellen Weldon arrived at the door with her Ma and Pa. The niggling frown of worry on Joeís face was replaced by a broad beaming smile that lit up his boyishly handsome features. He pushed his way through the press of people at the edge of the dance floor and made his way towards her.

Ellen was a picture of loveliness in a dress of bronze-coloured taffeta that she had sewn herself. The frilled sleeves and demure neckline were trimmed with antique lace handed down to her by her grandmother. A light shawl lay on her shoulders. Her pale hair was elaborately coiled and tumbled in a coil of artful ringlets. When Joe approached and said Ďhelloí, she was startled, and surprised as much as pleased.

"Joe. After what you said, I didnít think youíd be here tonight."

Joe grinned disarmingly. "My Pa fixed it with the sheriff." He shook hands with John Weldon and flashed his winning smile at Ellenís Ma. "I didnít find out until it was too late to let you know." Joe moved closer to her, thinking how very attractive she looked with the light from the coloured lanterns shining softly on her skin. He lowered his voice, "Iím sure glad to see you, Ellen. I thought for a moment, that you werenít going to come."

Ellen flushed a pretty pink. "Thatís nice of you to say so, Joe. I wondered..."

Joeís smile faded a little. "What did you wonder? Whatís the matter?"

Ellen wasnít about to tell him that, for a moment, sheíd wondered if, perhaps, he had come to the dance with someone else. "It doesnít matter. I'm pleased to see you, too."

John Weldon smiled benevolently at the pair. "Ma and I are going to get us some of that punch. You two young folks enjoy yourselves." He took his wife by the arm and steered her towards the punch bowl. Joe and Ellen gazed at on another, both of them a trace shy.

"Would you like to dance?" Joe asked.

Ellen smiled. "I would." Joe put his arms around her and swung her out onto the floor.

The party was in full swing, now. The atmosphere in the barn, fuelled by the music, and the energy expended on the dance floor, and the frequently replenished punch, was heating up. Most of the men were is their shirtsleeves, having shed their jackets along with their hardware, over by the door. The fiddlers fiddled harder, and the young people danced, taking full advantage of this last chance to enjoy themselves before the rigours of winter set in. The older, wiser folk ate, and drank, and chatted and watched them do it.

Hoss wasnít a hard drinking man. He sipped his punch slowly and worked his way Ďround the room. He stopped often to talk to the people he knew, and sometimes just to watch the dancers as they spun past him.

He was standing, watching the dancing with a benign look on his face when he felt a light touch on his arm.

"Hoss Cartwright?"

Hoss looked Ďround and down. He beheld the fair face of Mary Fletcher. Standing, her blue eyes came just level with his shoulder. Her perfect mouth was smiling and her face was alight with the pleasure of seeing him. "I thought it was you!" She looked over the smart shirt and pants appraisingly; so different from the sweaty, dusty work-clothes she had seen him in last. "You look real fine, Hoss."

Hoss flushed furiously. "Miss Mary." He bobbed his head. Without knowing it himself, he had secretly been hoping that she would be at the dance this evening, and his eyes had been searching for her face among all the others. She was as pretty as a spring morning in a long, dark-blue gown. "Itís mighty nice ta meet you again, Maíam."

Mary Fletcher took Hoss over to meet her parents. Hugh Fletcher was a brown-bearded man even taller and further around than Hoss. It was not often that Hoss Cartwright found himself looking up to another man in any physical sense. Anne Fletcher, Maryís mother, was an older version of her daughter. Her hair was fading to grey and there were care-lines in her face, but her eyes were as bright and as blue as Maryís, her smile as genuine.

"Mary told us how you helped her out with the wagon, Mister Cartwright. We are grateful."

Hugh Fletcherís white teeth showed through his beard in a friendly smile. "ĎFraid our Mary ainít so good with a team." He looked at his daughter fondly. "We owe you a debt of gratitude."

"Aw, it werenít nothiní." Reddening again, Hoss was suitably bashful, "I was real glad ta help out. Itíd please me real fine if you folkíd call me Hoss."

"Hoss it is!" Hugh Fletcher stuck out a vast, work-worn hand. The two huge men found an instant liking for one-another. Anne Fletcher exchanged delighted smiles with her daughter, who flushed again.

"You must come over and share supper with us one evening, Hoss."

Hoss could think of nothing heíd like better. "Iíll sure do that, Maíam, aní gladly!"

Mary sidled up to him. "Díyou dance, Hoss?"

"Heck, no, Maíam. I guess I ainít much of a dancer."

"Then Iíll teach you!" Mary took his big hand in her small white one, pulling him towards the dance floor. Hoss nodded a smile to Mister and Mrs. Fletcher and went with her.

Mary positioned his big hand on her tiny waist and showed him how to put his feet, so, and so. For the first time Hoss found he was able to relax and enjoy the lesson. There was a big, big smile on his face. For all his great size, Hoss had rhythm and a natural grace on the dance floor. Within minutes they were joining in the throng of dancers and swinging round the room in time to the sawing fiddles.

Joe Drury went and helped himself to another cup of punch. It was his forth, or it might have been his fifth. Despite several lessons with one and another of the Cartwrights, his figuring was still not so good. The brandy-punch was making him sleepy, and the swirl of people on the dance floor made him feel giddy. Thinking he might just take a little nap, he settled down on a sack in a quieter corner.

After three dances, Joe Cartwright found Ellen a spot to sit down. She was pink-faced and breathless. Laughing, she said she would like a drink. It was when he returned from a trip to the punch bowl, with punch for her, and beer for himself, that he found the tall figure of a cowboy that he knew by name, and by sight bending over her. Ellen looked ill at ease at his proximity, and Joe was far from happy.

"Hey, Mercer, stand back and give the lady some room, eh?"

Steve Mercer straightened up and half turned. He was taller than Joe by nearly a head and had long arms and long legs. He had black curly hair and a sneer on his sunburned face.

"What is it to you, Cartwright?" The sneer was evident in his voice as well.

Joe put the glasses down on one of the makeshift tables and stepped up to him. "Youíre crowding the lady, Mercer. You can see she doesnít like it."

"Aní I asked what it was ta you?" Mercer drew himself up to his full height and looked down at Joe. "I was just talking ta the lady some. Man can ifín he likes."

"The lady happens to be with me."

"I didnít notice as she came in wií you. Ď Seems ta me the lady was on her own."

"Now, boys!" John Weldon, arriving belatedly to protect his daughter, came between the two angry young men. "Thereís no call for all this!"

They both heard him, but neither was prepared to listen. "You just stay away from Miss Ellen, Mercer!" Joeís voice was rising as his volatile temper came to the fore.

Mercer thrust his face into Joeís, "Says who?"

"Says me!" Joe retorted, leaning past John Weldon.

Mercer wouldnít retreat. His breath was rank in Joeís face. Disgusted, Joe pushed him away. Mercer pushed back, harder. Joe swung the first punch, roundhouse. Mercer brought his fist up in an uppercut designed to take Joeís head off. It connected, quite solidly, with Joeís face and lifted him off his feet. Joe staggered for his balance. The skin over Joeís cheekbone had split and in a moment there was blood on his face and on his shirtfront. Joe was enraged. He regained his feet and lunged for Mercer. People scattered out of the way as the two men started to trade blows. Joe took another heavy punch on the mouth that split both his lip and Mercerís knuckles. He landed a solid blow himself that sent Mercer sprawling backwards into a table of food. The table collapsed and the pies and pastries, the fruits of the ladiesí labours, slid onto the floor around him.

John Weldon stepped forward and grabbed Joe by the arm. Someone else caught hold of Mercer as he got up, rubbing his jaw . Firm hands held the two young men apart.

"Thatís enough!" John Weldon said.

The red rage cleared slowly from in front of Joe's eyes. He saw that Ellen was in her motherís arms and appeared to be crying; that Steve Mercer had a bruised and bloody face, and that there was blood on the white silk of his own shirtfront. His own face hurt like the very devil. The music had stopped playing and everyone was looking at them with varying degrees of horror and amazement.

Joe stopped struggling to get at Mercer. "Itís okay," he mumbled through his swelling lips, "Itís okay." He straightened up, and John Weldon, seeing a measure of sanity return to his face, let go of his arm. Joe shrugged the other restraining hands away.

From somewhere out of the crowd, Hoss arrived, a scowl of concern on his face. "You all right, Joe?"

"Yeah. Reckon so." Joe scrubbed the back of his hand across his face and wiped away some of the blood.

Handing his brother a large, white handkerchief, Hoss glared over at Mercer, wondering if he needed to get involved in this. After all, Joe was his brother. "What went on here?"

Joe wiped away the rest of the blood and held the cloth against the cut on his cheek. "It werenít nothiní," he mumbled, a bit shame-faced. He shot Mercer an angry look, but the tall cowhand had sobered up remarkably quickly and seemed disinclined to continue the fight. Somewhere behind Joe, someone was getting the dancing organized again. Several other folk were cleaning up the mess from the shattered table.

John Weldon, having spoken earnestly for several minutes with his wife and daughter, came over. His face was stern. "Weíre taking Ellen home now," he said, looking at Joe. "Sheís very upset. I think, Joseph, youíd better stay away from her for a while. Until all this blows over a bit." Without waiting for a response he turned and walked away, shepherding his womenfolk towards the door. His straight back brooked no argument, and Joe gazed after him miserably.

Hoss clapped his younger brother on the back - but not too hard. "I think we better get on home as well, Joe. You get our coats."

Joe didnít argue. He nodded mutely and started for the door. The grand evening was ruined. The high hopes heíd built up regarding Ellen had all shattered into disarray about his ears. Now, he wasnít even allowed to see her.

Hoss found Mary among the crowd. She looked concerned and anxious. "Hoss, what happened?"

Shrugging his ignorance, Hoss found himself reluctant to say goodnight. "That thereís my little brother, Maíam. Heís got himself inta some tussle or other. I guess Iíd better see him on home."

"Of course. I understand." Maryís smile was sympathetic. "You be sure and remember your promise, now."

"Promise, Maíam?" All thought of it had gone out of Hossís head.

"You promised to come to supper."

The smile returned to Hossís face. "I sure wonít forget that, Maíam!"

On the way out of the door, Hoss remembered something else. Sending Joe for the horses, he went back inside. After some looking, he found Joe Drury asleep on a sack of straw. Hoss shook him awake.

"Címon now, Jody. ĎS time ta go home.!

The strangely coloured eyes blinked at him owlishly.

"Whadya say, Hoss?"

"I said, itís time ta get on home." Hoss lifted the boy onto his feet and then looked at him in some alarm. Jodyís face was flushed and his gold-and-green eyes were very bright. He smelled strongly of brandy punch and was distinctly unsteady on his feet. Hoss paused to wonder just how much of that brew he had consumed.

Hoss loaded his two wobbly charges onto their horses and shook his head at the sorry state of them. When he got home, he was going to have a lot of explaining to do.

********************************

Toby Addington smoked his last cigar of the evening down to the stub, and then threw it into the fire. He stood up and carefully, without any unmannerly overt display, stretched his back. It had been a pleasant, if uneventful evening spent in comfort beside the warm log fire, with friends. Jenny had sat quietly with her sewing, listening to the flow of conversation between the two men. She was sewing the lining into a jacket she had made for Adam from the wool of her Jacobís sheep.

Ben and Toby had smoked, and sipped Benís brandy, and they had talked. Ben had told him familiar anecdotes of the ranch, and of the joys and difficulties of bringing up three sons in the wilderness. Then, together, they had recalled the old days, the places they had been and the people they had known.

Hop Sing had brought in the chocolate-pot and three tiny china cups, bobbing and bowing and wishing the family goodnight before retiring to his own room. Now, the hot, dark chocolate was gone and the fire was burning low. It was time, Toby felt, to leave his host and hostess in peace and privacy, and emulate him.

"Well, Ben, I think Iím for my bed."

Ben stood up and offered his hand. "Goodnight, Toby. Sleep well."

Toby bowed to brush his lips against the backs of Jenny's fingers and wished her a good night. He stifled a yawn as he went up the stairs and headed in the direction of the guestroom.

With a deep sigh, Ben settled back into his chair. Jenny, ever aware of his moods, looked up at him. She sensed a tension in him, if she hadn't known better, she might have called it unrest. "Why so pensive, my love?"

Ben sucked in smoke through the stem of his pipe. "Just thinking about the old days," he said, after a moment. "Toby and I had a lot of good times."

"Did you?" Jenny paused in her stitching to glance quizzically at him. "Were they really such good times?"

"Maybe not," he chuckled. "Not all of them, anyway. There were occasions when it was hard to find enough for Adam to eat."

"Perhaps thatís what he remembers," she said, with insight. "The struggle you went through, all the things he had to go without."

"He never complained."

"Do you think that he would?"

Ben frowned. "And you think he might blame Toby?"

"Perhaps with reason. Adam has depths of understanding that not even you know about."

They sat in silence for a minute, while Ben thought about that, and Jenny sewed.

"Anyway," she said, "thatís not all youíre brooding about?"

"Brooding?"

"Yes, Brooding. Youíve been doing it since yesterday."

"Have I?" Ben considered. Certainly, in quiet moments, Tobyís words had come back to him. Trust Jenny to have the perception to notice. He sighed. There was no hiding anything from this woman. He made a throwaway gesture with the pipe-stem. Casually, he said, "Toby thinks I should retire."

That was not what Jenny had been expecting. Surprised, she put her sewing down in her lap. "Retire? You, Ben?"

"Toby says I should hand the ranch over to the boys, spend some time travelling, see the world."

Jenny shook her head, momentarily nonplussed by what she heard. "Leave the ranch? But surely...?"

"Wouldnít you like to go places, Jen?" he interrupted. "Wouldnít you like to see Europe, Egypt, India?"

A small smile softened Jennyís mouth. "The thoughtís a fine thing."

"We could do it, if you wanted to."

"I know." The smile reached her eyes. She knew that he loved her, and that he would give up, willingly, everything that he had created, if she just asked him. She loved him enough to never ask it. Besides, it was not what she wanted out of life. "Do you think," she asked, "that I would ever want to leave this place?" She cast her gaze around, and it encompassed the great room of the ranch house with its warm, polished wood and comfortable, lived-in furnishings, but also the land beyond: the pastures, the trees and the mountains, the lake and the sky. "The Ponderosa is my home, Ben. I love it as much as you or any of the boys do. Iím going to raise our son here, and heíll grow to love it to."

Ben regarded her from across the hearth, wondering at this intuitive, mysterious, wonderful woman he had wed. Her face was serene, earnest, loving.

"Perhaps," he said, voicing another thought, "the boys think itís their due. Theyíre grown men now, as you keep reminding me. Perhaps theyíre just waiting to take over."

Jenny laughed. Then, with the same smile, "Indeed they are, grown men. And quite capable of taking what they want from life. They stay here because they choose to stay here, because they love you, and because they love this land - and because their name is Cartwright."

Ben sucked on his pipe, frowning, partly because it had gone out. "I shall have to give it some thought."

Wise in the way of women, Jenny nodded. "You think on it, my love."

From upstairs, as if on cue, a loud wail signalled the youngest Cartwrightís decision that it was suppertime. Jenny folded her sewing and tucked her needle safely inside. She got up and came and kissed his silvered head. "Iím sure youíll decide on the right thing."

He looked up at her with love in his eyes, and then laughed as Daniel yelled again, louder. "You go up, my dear. I think Iíll sit up and wait for the boys to come home."

When she was gone, Ben refilled his pipe and lit it from an ember of the fire. He threw another log into the hearth and settled back in his chair.

When Adam rode at a full gallop out of the front yard of his fatherís house, he had no clear idea of where he was going. He was only aware of the need to get away, to be on his own for a while, to be free of the loving, cloying atmosphere of the family home. He rode hard for a long time, putting mile after mile of range behind him. He punished the horse, and he punished himself more, with the pain. It was an hour before the cold night air, blasting into his face with the speed of his ride, brought him to something like his senses. He pulled the heaving, sweating animal to a standstill, and let him blow.

He felt guilt for treating a horse in such a thoughtless and irresponsible manner. He knew better. There had been many times, recently, when he found himself consumed with hatred for himself, and this was another of them. He wiped his hand across his face. The wind had driven salty tears from his eyes. He was aware that he was distressing, even hurting, those that he loved, and sometimes, that he was doing it deliberately. His sharp, intellectual mind couldnít figure out why he was acting the way that he was. The truth of it was, Adam Cartwright was frightened, and because he was frightened, he was angry.

Once the legs of the horse stopped trembling, he rode on at a steadier pace. At least, now, he had a destination in mind. He followed little used but familiar trails to climb up through the woodlands and the forest. Eventually, unknown to him, he came to the same, jutting headland overlooking the lake to which his father had so recently driven. Climbing out of the saddle, he left the horse ground-tied, knowing that he wouldnít wander. He walked to the edge.

The surface of the lake, in the moonlight, was a hard, bright silver. The steep hillsides were darkly clad, silhouetted against the brighter sky. The breeze blew from behind him, towards the water. It was cold and carried the scent of pine. For Adam, that smell of pine and of cold water would always be the very essence of home.

Adam hadnít been born in this land, as Joe and Daniel had, nor had he spent his earliest years here, like Hoss. When he had come here with his father, he had already been maturing into a young man. None-the-less he had put down his roots here, and those roots ran all the way down to the bedrock of the mountains themselves.

He had been away, to school in the east, on long trips on his fatherís business, but always the call was strong, drawing him back. His name was Cartwright, and the magic of this place: the lake, the mountains, the tall, strong trees, had worked its enchantment on his soul a long time ago.

He stood, hunched, because it was more comfortable than sitting. He drank in the beauty of the silvered lake, and the dark hills, and the star-spangled sky with the pale moon glowing in majesty over all. He opened himself to the peace of the place and started at last, to find acceptance.

The pain, which had been easier for a while, was gnawing at him again. Permanent incapacity was not a prospect Adam relished. He had always taken a quiet pride in his athletic body, keeping himself at the very peak of physical perfection. Since achieving adulthood, he had been able to match any man on the ranch, stride for stride, blow for blow. His capability for sheer hard work had always been phenomenal. He could wield an axe as well as Hoss; he could ride a wild horse as well as Joe; he could work alongside his father all day long and still dance the night away. Now, so it seemed, all that was to be denied him.

Adam watched as a cold front crossed the lake, tracking slowly, diagonally, from one side to the other. It was like a veil being drawn across the face of a lady. For the first time, he allowed himself to contemplate the future as an invalid, in constant, crippling pain.

Worst of all was going to be facing his family. He had seen in their faces some of what he could expect -- the concern and the sympathy. Once they knew, he would have to face up to the dreaded pity. Adam felt sorry for himself, but he felt sorrier for those who would have to care for him. Most of all he worried for his father. Ben had suffered so much grief in his life already. He had buried three women that he had loved more than life itself. Now, just as it seemed he had found happiness again, another devastating blow was about to fall on him. And he, Adam, was to be the cause of it.

He listened to the wind, sighing softly through the pine trees. The wind was growing colder, and he shivered. Light-headed, almost faint, from lack of sustenance, his mind seemed to float free from his pain racked body. He gazed at the lake, seeing it through clear, tearless eyes. He wondered, for a fleeting instant, if it might not be a kinder thing for all of them if he were to let the waters that he loved so much close over his head, and give him peace. He raised his face into the moonlight and prayed to God for deliverance.

******************************************

Hoss put all three horses away in the barn himself while Joe and Jody washed their faces in the water trough. Both young men had the miseries and looked distinctly the worse for wear. Joeís face was badly battered. He had a great lump over his cheekbone surmounted by an ugly gash. His lips were puffy and one of them was split. If he looked bad, he felt worse. The full import of John Weldonís parting words had come home to him. He was missing Ellen already.

Joe Drury was suffering from the after-effects of his over indulgence in the brandy punch. Hoss and Joe had stopped several times on the way home and waited while Jody climbed laboriously out of the saddle and heaved into the underbrush at the side of the trail. He had long since parted company with all the brandy punch, and with the pecan pie. All that was left to him now was hard, dry heaving.

The two of them took it in turns to pump up fresh, icy water for the other to douse his head. When Hoss returned from the barn, they looked wet, but otherwise, little better. He sighed, and looked towards the house. The all-night lantern burned beside the front door, turned down low. Otherwise, the place was in darkness. No lights showed at any of the windows. It occurred to Hoss that if he could, somehow, get these two unhappy young men upstairs to their rooms without rousing the household, then he might delay the inevitable bawling out until tomorrow.

Beside him, Jody slumped over the water trough and groaned. He was not feeling at all well. The house, the yard and the barn, were all spinning in a stately progression around him. He felt sick again. Hoss saw the look on his face and grabbed him by the arm.

"Hey, donít you go throwiní up in the trough. Someoneíll have ta clean it out in the morniní." Jody groaned again, louder. Hoss shook him, rather roughly. "Hush up! Youíre like ta roust everíone out oí their beds!" He looked to his brother far assistance, "Címon, Joe. Give me a hand ta git him inside."

Joe was not a great deal of assistance. He had started to react to the effects of the fight and his own legs were none too steady. Hoss found himself guiding the footsteps of both of them towards the porch. At the door, he had to wait while Joe Drury, overcome by another bout of dry retching, clung weakly to the wall of the house and heaved. Hoss figured that it was a good thing that the boyís belly was already empty, or someone would have had one hell of a cleaning up job, come morning.

Hoss opened the front door. "Now you two keep real quiet now." he whispered, loudly. With one beefy hand wrapped around each young manís upper arm, he steered them inside. He closed the door as quietly as he could with his foot. So far, the plan was working well.

The great room was not quite in darkness. A log was still burning brightly in the hearth, and the green-shaded lamp on the low table before the fire was alight. Almost on tiptoe, Hoss started across the room with his two charges still firmly in hand.

A tall, bulky figure unfolded itself from the armchair beside the hearth.

"Good evening, boys. Did you have a good time at the dance?"

Hoss, caught in the middle of the room with a sick young man on either side of him, could only gape at his father. "I - er..."

"I asked if you had a good time at the party?" Ben repeated, somewhat testily.

Hoss suddenly though about Mary and a beatific smile came to his face. "Yes, sir! I had a real good time!"

Ben Cartwright peered at the three through the gloom. He didnít doubt what Hoss said for a moment. His sonís voice had the sincere ring of truth to it. The other two, however, were strangely quiet. Something was not quite right. After a moment he reached out and turned up the lamp. He looked again. "What the...?"

Joeís face was bruised, and swollen, and still bore traces of the blood that liberally spattered his white shirtfront. Ben stated the obvious. "Joseph! Youíve been fighting!"

Joe touched his broken lip with his fingertip and winced. "Yes, sir," he admitted, unhappily.

Benís black gaze shifted. Joe Drury was sheet-white and swaying. "And youíre drunk!" Benís eyes centred on Hoss, who was contriving to look both sheepish and guilty at the same time. "I told you to keep out of trouble!"

"Yes, sir." Hoss sighed, "But it werenít all my fault, Pa!"

Ben drew a long, deep breath, and caught hold of his temper. "Weíll talk about it later. Right now, get the iodine for your brother." His gazed switched quickly back to Jodyís face, "And Hoss, youíd better bring a bucket."

*************************************

It was the early hours of the morning before Adam walked wearily from the barn to the house. He let himself in quietly and hung up his coat and gunbelt beside the door. Crossing the great room to the staircase, he already had his foot on the bottom step when his father spoke.

Ben said, softly, "Adam."

He was sitting in his armchair beside the glowing embers of the fire. The lamp, close by his elbow and turned very low, cast shadows across his face.

Not expecting to hear his fatherís voice, Adam hesitated, his hand on the newel post.

"We need to talk, son."

Adam gave no answer. His face worked as if he were deeply involved in some inner conflict, struggling with himself. For one moment, Ben thought he was going to go on, up the stairs, but if it was in Adamís mind to do that, he thought better of it. He took his foot off the step and came closer, to stand beside the staircase.

"Pa?"

He was facing the light, and Ben could see his strong, handsome features. His expression was heavily guarded, almost furtive. His eyes were feral. His breathing, Ben noticed, was a bit too shallow, a bit too quick, as if he had recently exerted himself and was trying to conceal the fact.

"Come and sit down." Ben gestured towards the other chair.

Adam heard the edge in his fatherís voice, but he stayed where he was. He kept one hand firmly on the post, using it as an aide to keep himself erect. Ben noted it. The anger he had been nursing all evening faded away.

"Whatís the matter, Adam?" He kept his voice low, carefully restrained. "Whatís eating at you?" He watched his sonís reaction closely. He saw a muscle jerk in his cheek, saw shadows shift in his eyes, saw his knuckles tighten on the newel post.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Adam drew breath carefully. For a second he was tempted - so very tempted - to tell his father exactly what the problem was - and what it was that he feared. The words trembled on his lips. He wanted to be a small child again. He wanted the strong arms of his father wrapped around him, soothing away the hurt. The man in him knew that could never happen. He looked into his fatherís face and saw the familiar expression of bewildered concern and irritation. Ben was as enduring as the land itself, as strong as the roots of the world. This was the man whom Adam trusted above all others, the man he could confide in, the man who loved him, the man whom he loved in return. He sighed. To tell him what was wrong - and he knew that he must soon tell him - would be to change both their lives forever. Adam wasnít quite ready for that yet.

"Thereís nothing you can do," he said, so quietly Ben scarcely heard him. Then, a little louder, a little stronger, "Just leave me be, will you Pa? Just leave me be!" He turned and started up the stairs again.

"Adam!" Ben called.

Adam didnít look at him, but he stopped in mid-step, waiting for his fatherís words.

"When you want to talk to me, son, Iíll be right here."

He saw Adam draw a breath, and then he went on up the stairs. A few seconds later Ben heard the door of his room close.

Nine

Breakfast, at the Cartwright family table that Sunday morning, was an affair of curiously mixed emotions. Adam Cartwright successfully avoided any confrontation by the simple expedient of not appearing for the meal at all. His empty seat at the far end of the table bothered Ben like a pointed finger of accusation.

Ben had laid awake for most of the night, reliving the conversation with his son. In his mind he had gone over and over all the things he might have said, indeed, should have said. The taste of unfinished business was sour in his mouth. Twice in the night he had started along the passage towards Adamís room, and then recalled the anguished words, "Leave me be, Pa!" They were words that repeated over and over inside his head, words that hurt! Despite them, Adam, strong, independent and self-reliant, was crying out for help in the best way he could. Ben didnít know how to answer him. He had the bitter feeling that somehow, he had failed his son.

Joseph, sitting next to Adamís vacant place, was merely picking at the eggs on his plate. He was finding it difficult to eat. His face was lop-sided with swellings, blue and purple with bruises, and he hurt in the most surprising places. But the physical discomfort resulting from the fracas of the night before was the least of his problems. He still had his father's wrath to face. He kept shooting anxious, furtive glances in the direction of the head of the table. Any moment now, he was expecting the roof of the world to fall in on him. In a way, he was wishing that it would - at least then it would be over with. Causing him greater distress, even than the prospect of his fatherís displeasure, was the pain of being separated from Ellen.

Directly across the table, Joe Drury had miseries of his own. For the first time since his arrival, he was having problems tackling the food in front of him. He was sick to his stomach and his head was pounding. The taste of vomit was still in his mouth.

Hoss ate his way steadily through his first plateful of ham, eggs and fried potatoes. His feelings that morning were, to put it at its mildest, mixed. As the eldest of the three partygoers, he had been nominally responsible for the other two. Accordingly, he was expecting to bear the brunt of his fatherís anger. He was starting to find out how his elder brother felt when things went wrong. On the other hand, the memory of Mary Fletcherís sweet face would bring an unbidden smile to his broad face. There was a fullness in his heart, that had he tried, he would have found impossible to explain.

None of the three young men could understand why the full fury of the elder Cartwright had not yet descended upon their heads. For the moment, at least, Ben seemed preoccupied, and disinclined to discuss their indiscretions.

Jenny and Toby Addington completed the breakfast party. They maintained a lively, if essentially hollow, conversation that effectively covered the comparative silence of the others.

Ben himself ate ham and eggs methodically. The food, as always, was excellent, but it tasted like sawdust in his mouth. Hop Sing poured him coffee, and he drank it. Hop Sing took away half-filled plates, complaining volubly at the amount of wasted food. Hop Sing brought a platter of freshly made biscuits, still hot from the oven, with yellow butter and honey for spreading. They were a special Sunday treat. Hoss ate several, but most were returned, cold, to the kitchen. The Chinese cook was not pleased.

Adam timed his appearance with absolute perfection. He came down the stairs at the exact moment that his father rose from the table. Doing so, he avoided the meal entirely, and also evaded Benís inevitable annoyance if he should have been late. His face, although pale and lean, was composed, his expression carefully guarded. He acknowledged his father with a respectful nod. "Pa."

"Adam." Ben looked him over. It was immediately obvious that Adam was going to make no reference to their conversation of the night before. He was shaved, and impeccably groomed in black broadcloth and white linen, with a thin, string tie at his throat. Only the lingering pallor of his skin and the haunted look in his eyes gave an indication that there was anything wrong at all.

En-masse, the Cartwright family removed itself to the yard where their horses were already waiting. Ben climbed into the surrey, with Jenny beside him, and Toby Addington sitting in the back. Jenny wore a demure, grey-green dress, with a fur-trimmed cloak about her shoulders for warmth. Daniel, in his basket, fitted in neatly at her feet. Benís grown-up sons and Joe Drury, all dressed in their sober, go-to-meeting Sunday suits, rode horseback. It was a sedate little procession that made its way along the road to Virginia City.

For one of the few times he could remember, Ben did not enjoy the service. In spite of the freshness and the brightness of the autumn morning, the interior of the timber-built church, when filled with townsfolk, was hot and airless. The sermon was based on one of his least favourite texts, and the preacherís voice droned on for an inordinate length of time. Even Benís devout patience was tried. Most of all, he missed hearing Adamís fine baritone voice raised in praise. Adam stood, uncomfortable and silent, while others sang. Ben found his unease developing rapidly into deep foreboding . Because of it, for him, the spirituality of the act-of-worship was missing.

Once the service was over and the preacherís hand properly shaken, Ben stood in the sunshine and looked about for his family. Jenny was surrounded by several of the ladies of the town, evidently showing off the baby with boundless pride. It looked as if it might be some time before she was ready to leave. Hoss, hat in hand, was chatting happily and animatedly with the family that had just taken over the old Boxer farm. Ben searched his memory for the name. Fletcher, that was it! Ben paused to look them over. Two tiny women, a mother and daughter by the look of it, and a brown-bearded man who outdid even Hoss for sheer size. Benís second son looked relaxed in their company, even if his ears did flush scarlet with alarming regularity. That, at least, was something to feel good about.

Toby Addington was off to one side, talking earnestly to the banker, and Joe was introducing Joe Drury to a group of friends - the sons of other families. Joe, his face still showing the signs of last night's fight, was casting calf-eyes at Ellen Weldon. He was obeying John Weldonís wishes and staying well away from her, but with difficulty. Ben sobered and sighed. He could see that there were some bridges there that he would have to build.

Turning, he looked for his eldest son, and found him, at last, down by the horses. Ben noted that when he thought he was unobserved, Adam had resumed that strangely hunched, hip-shot attitude. Ben frowned. Nodding a greeting to a friend or two, he took off his hat and went back into the church. He felt the need of a quiet, and private, word with his God.

Ben spent the hour before lunch sitting at his desk. He read the timber contract through yet again. He began to feel he could recite it word-for-word. Even so, the more he read it, the less sense it made. He just couldnít get his mind Ďround all the complex stipulations, and his thoughts kept drifting away. He was glad of the distraction when Toby Addington came and settled himself into the chair beside the desk.

Tobyís few days on the Ponderosa had done him good. He looked rested and well. His eyes twinkled.

"Have you a few moments to spare, Ben?"

"I donít see why not." With considerable relief, Ben laid the contract papers aside. "How are you enjoying your stay, Toby?"

"Very much. Itís a lovely spot youíve got for yourself here. Very quiet, and peaceful. A real rest-cure."

"Rest-cure?" Ben laughed. Visions of the ranch in her less-than-peaceable aspects flashed through his mind. He thought about range-fire and flash flood and blinding snowstorm; the struggle to feed the stock in winter and to water them in time of drought.

"I confess, Iíve never thought of the Ponderosa as that before."

Toby Addington grinned. "Stuck out here in the hinterland with this nice little family of yours, Ben, youíve forgotten what the cut and thrust of the business world is like."

"I wouldnít exactly say that." Ben gestured at the stacks of paperwork that adorned both ends of the desk.

Toby dismissed it all with a laugh and a wave of the hand, "Youíre just playing at it." Something about his attitude got under Benís skin, just a little bit.

"One moment youíre telling me to retire, and the next youíre saying I donít work hard enough. Which is it?"

"You have to learn to appreciate the difference between working your guts out building a timber-flume, or trail-driving a thousand-head of cattle to market, and signing a few papers and letting your money work for you."

"Is that your idea of semi-retirement?" Ben asked, intrigued.

"Now youíre getting the idea. And Iíve got just the deal for you."

"Iím not at all sure that I want a deal, Toby."

"Nonsense! Itís just the sort of thing that will appeal to you. Just like the old days!"

"The old days? Hm." Doubtful but intrigued despite himself, Ben sat forward in his seat. "I saw you talking to Austin Damier, outside the church. Looked like a rather intense discussion."

"Just arranging a little finance."

If Ben was shocked at the thought of doing business on the Lordís day, he hid it well. "So just what is this deal you mentioned?"

Toby leaned towards him and lowered his voice in a mannerism Ben remembered well. "Theyíre opening up some of the old gold workings up in Oregon. Place called Myrtle Creek. I can get you in on it, if youíre interested, Ben."

"Arenít all those old Oregon mines worked out?"

"New extraction methods. They can actually extract gold from the spoil heaps the old miners left."

A little ruefully, Ben shook his head. "I donít think gold mining is quite my forte. A little silver, perhaps..."

"You donít have to go and do the digging yourself, Ben," Toby explained with exaggerated patience. "You donít have to go anywhere near the place. You put up some money. Someone else does the work. You sit back and enjoy the fruits."

Ben smiled, reflecting that it was not always quite as simple as it sounded. "Iíll give it some thought, Toby."

"You do that. But donít think about it too long." Toby grinned at Benís frown.

"You know that I have to leave on Fridayís stage to make my connections for Europe. I need to sign the papers in town before I go."

"And Austin has agreed to advance you money on this deal?"

"Iíd rather have my old partner in on it than any Goddamned bank!" Toby got up out of the chair. "If you let me have a bank draft, or cash, Iíll see to it that you get a share."

When Toby was gone, Ben sat back in his chair with a sigh. He certainly had a great deal to think about.

***********************************

Hop Sing was still decidedly miffed about the apparent rejection of breakfast. He made his displeasure know by refusing to speak anything but his own specific dialect of Chinese. He spoke that at a rate that even Joe Cartwright, who had known the cook all his life and had some smattering of the language, couldnít understand a word he said. Never-the-less, the Sunday-lunch that he presented was sensational. There was a roasted haunch of pork, soft melting meat and crisp, crunchy crackling. It was served with golden roast potatoes and a mixture of mashed root vegetables.

As was customary at Benís table, once the thanks were given, the dishes were passed round hand-to-hand and everyone served themselves. It didnít escape Benís notice that Adam, although present at the table, put no food on his own plate. He began to wonder just what was keeping the man alive. Shortly after the meal had begun, Hop Sing, despite his miff, slipped quietly into the room and delivered a steaming mug to Adamís place. Ben didnít know what it was but it smelled both Oriental and medicinal. Adam sipped it slowly throughout the meal while the others ate.

Afterwards, he declared himself tired and went off to his room to lie down for a while. Concerned, Ben was about to go up after him when Hoss came in from the yard.

"Pa, cín you Ďní Joe come on out ta the barn aní take a look at that roan mareís foot for me?"

The big manís face was all creased up and his eyes were anguished. Benís mind switched tracks.

"Of course, son. Joe?"

The three of them walked together from the house to the barn. Hossís angst communicated itself to his father and brother. By the time they stepped into the warm, hay-scented horse-barn, all three were grave faced. Hoss led the way to the stall where the roan mare was tethered.

"

was just checkiní up on the stock, Pa. Sheís been walkiní sore on that foot again since yesterday. Now itís all swollen up again."

Ben could see that the mare was standing on three legs. She held her foreleg off the ground as if it were just too tender to put down. He hunkered down beside Joe while he made an examination. It was immediately obvious that the foot was hot, and hard, and painful.

Joe looked up, "That abscess has come up again, Pa."

"What can you do about it?"

Joeís light hazel eyes flicked from his fatherís face, to his brotherís, and back. "Not a whole lot. Itís on the bone, right under the hoof."

"Canít you cut it again?"

Joe considered the horseís foot again. His expression was unhappy. "I can cut it, but I donít reckon itíll do any good. A few days, and itíll just fill up again."

Joe stood up, dusting of his hands, and Ben straightened with him. Their faces were grave. Both of them concentrated on the horse. Neither of them looked at Hoss.

Hoss chewed at his lip. "Sheís gonna get better, ainít she, Joe?"

Joe put out his hand and touched the horseís speckled shoulder. "I donít reckon as she is, Hoss. That abscess is going to eat right into the bone. I donít see any way of stopping it."

"Sheís always gonna be lame then?" Hoss was grasping at straw and they all knew it.

Ben turned to his gentle giant of a son, "You know better than that. Itís not just that sheís lame. Sheís in a lot of pain. Sheís suffering, son."

Hossís face screwed up. After a moment, he said, "Aní you say she ainít gonna get no better?"

Ben shook his head sadly. "No Hoss, sheís not."

Hoss drew a long breath and carefully unclenched his white knuckled fists. "Then I guess olí Adam was right after all," he said, in a low tone. "He done, told me right at the outset..." He squeezed his eyes tight shut.

Ben and Joe exchanged looks. Joe said,

"Hoss, Iíll do it for you, if you think..."

"Nope!" Hoss shook his head. "I guess Iím man enough to shoot my own horse."

He reached past Joe and untied the mareís halter rope from the stall rail. He gave her a pat in the neck and turned her. Ben and Joe stood back out of the way as he led the limping animal slowly out of the barn.

***************************************

Ben had a headache. He had studied the small print until it swam in front of his eyes. He was as pleased as could be to see his first-born son coming from the kitchen. Adam looked - almost - normal. He was wearing comfortable, casual clothes and he walked without any trace of a limp. He was even carrying a cup and saucer.

"Adam." Ben called him over.

Sipping from his cup, Adam walked over. Ben wrinkled his nose. Apparently the cup contained more of Hop Singís medicine. It smelled awful. Still, if Adam fancied that it helped whatever ailed him, Ben was prepared to put up with it.

"I could do with your help on this timber contract, son."

Adam looked across the desk at the spread of paperwork. He spoke words that were music to Benís ears, "Donít you worry about it, Pa. Iíll take care of it tomorrow."

Ben sighed, and sat back and relaxed. "Thatís good."

Adam freed a hand by putting his saucer down on the edge of the desk. He picked up the contract and scanned it quickly as he sipped at his drink. He grimaced as if he didnít much like the taste of it.

"I donít see too much trouble with this. If we can have a third of it cut, and off the mountain, by the first day of spring, we can meet the quota easily enough."

"Iím glad to hear it." Ben took the contract back and tucked it safely into the desk draw. "There is something else you can do for me." Out of the same draw, Ben took a bundle of cotton bound papers. "I want to sell these shares."

Adam put his cup down in the saucer and took the bundle from Benís hand. A frown came to his face as he recognised the share certificates. "Are you sure you want to do this, Pa? When we bought these shares, we agreed that they were a long-term investment. Weíre not going to make anything on them if we sell them now."

"Thatís as may be," Ben made a dismissive gesture that made Adam even more concerned. "I need to liquidate some funds rather quickly. So if youíd take those to the bank and get a bank draft for the full amount?"

Adam, weighing the bundled papers in his hand, was still frowning. He looked quizzically at his father. "May I ask why?"

For a good many years now, Ben had been accustomed to confiding in Adam. He shared and discussed all his business activities with him. That fancy eastern education that Ben often lightly derided frequently proved useful. Adam had a keen intelligence and a sharp wit when it came to dealing with other businessmen. This time, for some reason he couldnít have explained, he hesitated, but only for a moment.

"Iím buying into a little business up in Oregon."

"Oregon?" Adamís mind made a leap of logic. "Youíre not buying in to another one of Toby Addingtonís crooked land deals?"

Adam would have liked to have chewed and swallowed the word Ďcrookedí the moment it passed his lips.

Ben, of course, picked up on it at once, "Crooked?" His face began to darken. "Iíll have you know itís a perfectly legitimate gold extraction operation at Myrtle Creek!"

"Myrtle Creek!" Adam exploded. "Pa, you know all the gold played out of Myrtle Creek ten years ago! Thereís no more than a few flakes left in the whole Goddamned place!"

Ben rose to his feet, his face furious. "Tobyís spoken about finance with the bank already. Are you telling me you know better than Austin Damier?"

Adam stood up to his father, bristling. "I know Toby Addington! Iíve seen him lose enough money on enough bad deals. And a lot of it has been yours!"

"I know you donít like Toby!"

"Itís not a matter of liking him! Itís a matter of knowing just what sort of business man he is!"

"Adam! Thatís enough!"

Adam threw the share certificates down on the desk. "Before you do anything, Pa, I suggest you check with Austin Damier if he really agreed to lend money on this deal, or if he refused!"

Ben remembered the conversation he had witnessed outside the church and the expressions that had been on the two menís faces. He hesitated.

Adam turned on his heel, seeming to stagger just a bit as he did so. His hip caught on the edge of the desk. The cup and saucer fell and shattered on the floor. Adam ignored it and kept on walking. He strode to the door and stormed out of the house. For Ben, it was one retreating back too many. He came out from behind the desk and went after him.

Adam got just as far as the barn. He walked swiftly to his horseís stall and grabbed for his saddle where it rested on the wall of the stall. Forgetting himself, still angry, he twisted with it, swinging it up to the horseís back. Pain drove up through his body like the blade of a hot knife. He dropped the saddle and held onto the stall, gasping for breath and fighting back an engulfing cloak of blackness.

Ben stopped in the doorway, his eyes adjusting to the light of the single storm lantern that lit the barn. Adam was standing with his back to the door, leaning with one arm Ďround the post of his horseís stall. His saddle was all tumbled about his feet as if heíd tried to lift it and dropped it. He was doubled over and his other hand was clasped tightly to the side of his belly, right where that bullet wound was. A low keening sound came from somewhere deep inside him.

All of Benís righteous anger was swept away in an instant as he realized his strong, brave, much-beloved son was crying.

"Adam?" He stepped into the barn. Adam fell silent, stiffening. He kept his back turned, his face turned away. "Adam. Youíre in pain."

Adam drew a long breath that shuddered into his lungs. His voice, as he answered, was low and tight, shaking, barely controlled, "Iím in pain, Pa. Iím always in pain!"

Ben took a long step towards him, his hands, his arms reaching out for his son.

Adamís whole attitude was one of rigid rejection. Ben stopped and let his arms fall. He took in Adamís awkward posture, perhaps really seeing it for the first time. "Itís that belly wound, isnít it?" Adam didnít deny it. Ben drew a careful breath. "Have you spoken to Paul about it?" Adam nodded mutely. "And what does he say?"

Adam straightened up slightly as the spasm began to pass. He breathed carefully, shallowly. "Paul says that something hasnít healed up right, inside."

Ben unwound his fists, a ball of dread forming in his own belly. "And what does he propose doing about it?"

"Thereís nothing he can do about it! Itís just going to get worse as the scar gets harder!" Adam panted for his breath, "Iím no damned good anymore, Pa. Iím just no damned good!"

"Adam." Ben ached to reach out to him.

"I canít sleep! I canít eat! I canít work!" Adam raised his head, and for the first time Ben saw his face, streaked with tears and etched with pain. "Goddamn you, Nathan Boxer!" Adam cried aloud, "Goddamn you to hell! Heís killed me after all, Pa! Heís condemned me to die in torment!"

It was the first time Ben had heard his son blame the man who had shot him. It was somehow shocking.

He put out his hands and rested them on Adams shoulders. He felt the iron-hard knots of tension in the muscles. A shiver ran through Adamís body. For one moment the man surrendered and a small, frightened boy beseeched his father.

"What am I gonna do, Pa?"

Ben turned him, very gently, and wrapped his arms Ďround him. He held his dark head close.

"I donít know, son. But weíll think of something."

 

Ten

Adam came down the stairs and headed straight for the front door. He didnít acknowledge his family; he didnít look towards where they sat together at the breakfast table. He knew what he would see in their eyes and he feared it more than he feared the pain itself.

He was aware that his father broke one of his own cardinal rules and left his place at the table to come to him. Adam gritted his teeth and concentrated on watching his own, strong, capable hands fasten his gunbelt around his lean hips Ė anything to avoid looking into his fatherís face.

Ben couldnít keep the concern out of his voice. "Where are you going, son?"

Adam spared him the briefest glance as the tied the holster thong Ďround his thigh. The look was there, just as heíd dreaded. Adam kept his own face tight. He allowed none of the previous nightís emotion to seep into his expression. "Iím going to work, Pa."

"I donít think you should," Benís voice held that restrained, consoling tone that Adam found intolerable. Why couldnít he treat him like a normal human being instead of a cripple already in a bath chair? He preferred his father when he was yelling! "Why donít you take it easy for a few days?"

Benís suggestion was meant kindly and Adam knew it. Right now, kindness was not what he wanted. He ground his teeth together. "Because it wonít do any good, Pa. I donít want to take it easy. I donít want help. I donít want sympathy. I just want to go to work."

Ben leaned back and looked at him, frowning. "You can work here."

"Behind the desk? No, thanks."

"Thereís plenty of paperwork. I could do with your help."

Adam pulled a deep breath, "Iíll do the timber contract tonight. Right now, thereís a whole bunch of calves that need cutting, up on the north range. Thatís where Iím going."

"But your brothers..."

Adam straightened up and looked his father full in the face. There was a familiar anger in his eyes, but Ben understood, now, that the anger was Adamís defence against the pain. He needed to be angry. "Let me work, Pa," Adamís pride was at stake. Evenly, he added, "For as long as I can." He took his hat and coat from the hook and stepped past his father to the door.

Hoss and Joe came up beside Ben, one on either side. Hoss touched his arm lightly.

"Donít you worry none about Adam, Pa. Me Ďní Joeíll look out for him real good."

Joe nodded his unhappy agreement. "Weíll take care of him Pa."

Both the young menís eyes betrayed the agony they felt for their brother. If either one of them could have taken his place, they would have done just that.

Ben sighed. "I know you will, boys."

The brothers took down their own hardware and followed Adam out into the yard. A subdued Joe Drury trailed along behind them, and Ben went to watch them ride out.

Adam was already in the saddle waiting. He was impatient to be gone. Even before his brothers were mounted he turned his geldingís head towards the north and kicked it into a gallop.

Ben was emotionally drained and ridden with guilt. He had known all along with that gut instinct that had developed so strongly over the years, that something had been seriously amiss. He had seen it every day for the past five weeks. He had done, and said, absolutely nothing. He felt he had failed, both as a parent, and as a man. He didnít know if he could ever come to terms with that failure.

His thoughts dwelled on the events of the previous evening. It had taken a while to calm Adam and to get him from the barn to the house. Once heíd had him settled on the sofa with a small glass of brandy in his hand, he had gradually extracted the truth of the matter. Adam, his usual eloquence for once missing, had explained in short, monosyllabic sentences. He had been in constant and increasing pain for weeks. Paul could offer him no respite except mind numbing, opium-based drugs that Adam rejected out of hand. There was no prospect of the condition improving.

A gentle brush against Benís sleeve and a whiff of perfume made him turn and look down. Jennyís sea-green eyes were grey with concern. "Ben? Come inside."

He covered her hand with his. "What are we going to do, Jenny?"

"For Adam?" Jenny looked after the boys, gazing along the trail on which the dust had already settled. Her chin rose. "Why, weíll care for him, Ben."

"But what happens if he gets stuck in a chair? If heís bedridden? If heís in such pain that Paul has to drug him into oblivion? Whatís going to happen to his mind?"

Jenny took a firmer grip of his arm. "Weíll care for him," she said again, "no matter what."

Ben gazed at her in wonder. She never ceased to amaze him, this diminutive, resilient woman who had become such a bright light in his life. Here she was, in the face of incipient disaster, proving to be more resilient than any of them. She linked her arm in his and they stood on the porch together gazing up the trail and wondering what the future would bring.

***********************************

Life was full of choices, little ones and big ones alike. So Roy Coffee thought as he leaned against the upright outside Eli Huxtonís General Mercantile. Right now it was a momentous decision that was exercising his mind Ė lunch.

Posted on the menu-board outside The International House was a fancy little card announcing that the first fresh river-trout of the season were to be served that same day, broiled, with a lemon sauce. Roy always found the early trout especially toothsome, and he was sorely tempted to indulge himself. But then, a sheriffís wages would only stretch so far, and the premier hotelís prices were always just a little beyond his reach. Alternatively, on Mondays, the cook at the Cornerhouse produced a superlative meat pie which she served with boiled cabbage and Ďtaters, and thick gravy. The Cornerhouse could always be relied upon for a good, substantial meal at a price that even a lowly sheriff could afford to pay. It was there, more often than not, that Roy ate his lunch.

On the third hand, his always alert nose had informed him as he had strolled by on his rounds that morning, that in Mary-Louís Eatery down on Second Street, they were frying up a mess of pork and onions. Now, Mary-Lou was a nice enough lady, but when it came to running an eating-house some of her standards left - something - to be desired. But then, fried pork and onions were Royís all time favourites. It was in his mind to risk a dose of hot-footedness, just for the pleasure of a plateful. He was thinking hard about it when he noticed the stranger riding into town.

Roy had been an upholder of the law, in one guise or another, for more years than he chose to think about. All his senses were fine-tuned to the job and that included his sixth, seventh and eighth senses. They were the vital instincts that had enabled him to reach a ripe age in a perilous profession. At the first sight of the stranger Roy's eighth sense began to itch in a place where he couldn't scratch.

His attention became needle-sharp and he pulled himself more erect against the post. His faded eyes narrowed and all thoughts of filling his belly were banished from his mind.

The man he saw was broad-shouldered and deep-chested, narrow-hipped and tall. He looked altogether too big in the body and too long in the legs for the rather ragged, dark bay pony that he rode. Both man and horse were coated with several days deposits of trail dust.

Abediah Harbinger stepped down from the saddle outside the Silver Dollar saloon. He knocked some of the heavy dust from his clothes, and then lifted the saddle leathers to ease the cinch. Over the back of the horse, he took some time to look the town over.

Virginia City was typical of developing frontier townships throughout the mid-west. Harbinger had seen a dozen of them. A thriving little community, it conducted its everyday business boisterously and noisily in the autumn sunlight. The townsfolk were blissfully unaware that a dark shadow had fallen in their midst. Except, perhaps, for one man. Harbingerís cold, grey eyes paused in their sweep of the street. His gaze settled on the deceptively spare, moustached man across the street, the man with the silver star pinned to his vest.

Harbinger tugged the front of his dress-coat over the butt of the Colt at his belt. It was an unconscious, habitual gesture. It didn't conceal the gun from the sheriffís keen eye, but then, it hadnít been intended to. Across the width of the street, the two men appraised each other with experienced eyes. With the fingertips of his right hand, Harbinger touched the brim of his hat to the lawman and turned away. His spurs rang as he crossed the boardwalk and pushed his way through the door of the saloon.

Roy Coffee discovered that his appetite had quite suddenly disappeared.

********************************

Roping cows, even little ones, was a much more difficult trick than it looked. Joe Cartwright spent a patient hour showing Jody how to form a loop with the noose end of his saddle rope; how to turn it with his wrist a time or two to keep it open, and how to send it snaking out to settle over a calf's head and around the base of its neck. It looked so very easy when he did it, even from the back of a running horse. His perfectly trained, black and white mare would lean back on the rope. A couple of cowboys would dash forward and secure the bawling calfís legs with two deft turns of rope. Doing the same thing from the saddle of the bay, even at a slow pace, was an art that Joe Drury found eluded him.

Three times out of every four he missed the calf completely. The forth time, his loop would close and bounce uselessly off the calf's shoulder. On the only occasion he managed to get the noose over the animalís head, he was so excited that he gave the wrong signal to the horse. Instead of leaning against the rope and bringing the calf to a controlled halt, the bay started to step backwards, dragging the bellowing beast after it on the end of the rope.

Quite unexpectedly, it was Adam Cartwright who came to Jodyís rescue.

At mid morning the men had stopped for a break. The Cartwrights, and Jody, had gathered about the fire to drink a thick, black brew from the coffee pot that simmered in the embers. Joe and Hoss amused themselves with mild mockery at Jodyís lack of prowess with the rope. Jodyís face flushed scarlet, which made them chuckle all the more. Finally, Hoss threw the last bitter dregs from his cup into the fire. He looked over towards the milling groups of cattle.

"Hey, Adam, ifín youíre ready, Iíll start moviní the next bunch up ta ya."

Adam swilled out his mouth with the last of his coffee and spat it onto the ground. "Any time youíre ready, brother."

After a frosty start, the morning air was warming rapidly. It was filled with the sharp, acid odour of cattle and their dung. The dust was starting to rise over the distant herd, and the calls and whistles of the cowboys could be heard clearly over the low toned lowing of the cows and their calves.

Adam looked relaxed, almost happy. He worked with his shirtsleeves rolled high and the front of his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. His skin was lightly sheened with the sweat of his exertions. He moved smoothly and well, like an oiled machine. It was easy to forget the burden of pain he was carrying. After a while, all of them had.

Jody was making his way, rather reluctantly, to his horse when Adamís hand fell on his shoulder.

"Why donít you give the roping a break for a while? Stay here and give me a hand."

Jody was still a bit uncertain of this solidly built, good-looking man. He gave him a slantwise, almost shy grin. "Okay. What do you want me to do?"

Adam showed him quickly enough. Once a calf had been separated from the herd, roped, thrown and tied, Jody was to move in and sit on the thick park of the animalís neck. He had to lean across its body and hold it down while Adam did what he needed to do. Adam would step back, and Jody would free the animalís legs with a jerk on the tie rope. Although he didnít have a great deal of weight to lend to the job, Jody found that it was something he could do. He also found that working alongside Adam Cartwright was a pleasure. Every move the man made was economical and efficient. Once, he even flashed Jody his rare, sudden smile.

Jody and Adam worked well together as a team. Hoss and a small group of cowboys drove the cattle steadily uphill, away from the main herd. They delivered them in small bunches to Joe and his crew who roped and tied them and left them for Jody and Adam.

Joe separated the last calf from the bunch as he swung his loop in a lazy arc over its head. His horse leaned back, and in moments the calf, a particularly well-grown animal with a glossy, entirely black coat, lay on its side on the ground. Its forefeet were roped securely together. Joe Drury applied all his weight to the yearling's shoulder and Adam came up on the other side.

The elder Cartwright brother was experienced and very quick with the razor sharp blade. The little black bull was a steer before he knew it. Adam applied a thick paste of grease and pine tar to the wound to seal it. The bullock bellowed. Adam stepped away.

Jody pulled on the end of the tie rope. The yearling twisted out from under him, upending him on the ground. It came up harder and faster that either of them had expected. With all its weight it drove its blunt, rock-hard head full into Adam Cartwrightís belly.

Adam went down backwards onto his butt in the dirt. He clutched himself. The breath driven out of him, for a moment he couldnít even cry out. His face blanched.

To Joe and Hoss, sitting their horses some distance away, it looked as if their big brother had merely caught one a long way below the belt. They whooped with laughter. It was only when Adam curled over onto his side with his arms still wrapped around himself that they began to realize that something more serious had occurred. Both of them sobered and stepped down from their saddles, hurrying to their brotherís side. Joe Drury got there first.

Adam was conscious. His eyes were open and shone a light hazel brown colour in the sunlight. They were filled with unbelievable pain. He couldnít speak. His face was bloodless and his breath came in short heaving grunts.

Hoss dropped to one knee in the dust and tried to turn his brother face up.

"Hey now, Adam. Címon. Letís look at you, now."

Adam resisted his effort, forcefully maintaining his tight, curled position.

"Adam! Adam!" Joe hurled himself down at his brotherís side. "Can you hear me? What is it?"

Adam could hear him all right, but couldnít answer. He couldnít do more than moan. His eyes spoke endless volumes of agony. Hoss looked across his brotherís body at Joe . His big face was creased with concern and his blue eyes bleak.

"This is a whole lot more than a butt in the balls, Little Joe. Youíd better go get the wagon up here fast so that we cín get Adam on home."

Joe hesitated for just a moment while he stared at Hoss in horror as what his brother said sank in. His mouth worked. Then he was gone, off down the hill just as fast as he could run to where the wagon, and the team waited. Hoss straightened up, standing over his elder brother, and raised his face to look at the silent assemblage of cowhands that had gathered Ďround to watch.

"Whatís the matter wií all you fellas?" he demanded. "Ainít you never seen a man downed by a steer aífor? You all git on back ta work aní move these cows on out oí here." The men, twenty or more of them, hovered uncertainly. Hossís face darkened. With Adam out of it, he, as next eldest, was very much in charge. "You-all heard what I said!" Hoss yelled. "Git yore butts back ta work!"

The big manís distressed anger was quite enough to break up the crowd. There were generalized shuffles and mutterings as the men began to disperse. Hossís blue eyes switched to Joe Drury. The boy was stiff, and his golden eyes were wide with fright. "Get the horses, Jody. You aní Joe are gonna have ta ride in the back oí the wagon with Adam. Youíre gonna have ta keep him just as still as you can."

Jodyís face was almost as white as Adamís and he was starting to tremble. "I didnít mean to do it, Hoss. I didnít mean to hurt him!"

"Course you didnít." Hoss dismissed the very idea with an impatient gesture of the hand. "Now, you just get them horses."

Crouching, Hoss, very gently, started to gather his brother into his arms.

***********************************

Ben was crossing from the barn to the house with the prospect of his mid-day meal at the forefront of his mind. He heard the wagon coming a moment before it rolled into the yard. He stood, hands on hips, wondering whom it might be. He was surprised to see Hoss on the bench seat. He was not expecting the boys home for lunch. Surprise turned to concern when he saw the expression on the big manís face. Then he saw Joeís white and anguished features as he gestured frantically from the back of wagon and concern turned into alarm. Ben stirred himself to a run.

The sight that met his eyes in the back of the wagon filled him with dread. Adam had unwound himself from that tight, foetal position. Now he was writhing with pain on a makeshift bed of blankets and horse rugs. He was awake, and aware, and he was in agony. Dirt, sweat, and tears were smeared together on his face. He was breathing hard and fast, using only the top part of his chest. Joe and Jody cleared the wagon bed to let Ben clamber up beside him.

Ben brushed the black hair back from Adamís face. "Adam, what is it, son? Where does it hurt?" He eased free the strip of soft wood Joe had placed in his brotherís mouth when he began to bite through his lower lip. His strong, white teeth had sunk deeply into it.

"Belly, Pa!" he said, in a gasp. "Feels like - I busted open!" Adam ground his teeth together.

Hoss came round to the back of the wagon. That long, slow drive down from the north range had been nothing short of a waking nightmare, and the big man was still living it. His muscles were trembling with suppressed tension. He had kept the team to a slow, steady walk when every fibre of his being wanted to urge them into a headlong gallop. Even so, every rut and rock in the road had brought a fresh grunt of pain from his brotherís lips.

Ben turned his frantic, black gaze on him. "What the devil happened?"

Hoss licked his lips. He was feeling guilty himself, convinced that he was responsible for Adamís accident. He was certain that his father was going to think the same way. It showed on his face. "ĎSteer came up too quick, Pa. Rammed olí Adam right in the gut. Hit him real hard."

Ben absorbed the implications in about half a second flat. He turned his head, searching.

"Joseph! Get your horse! Ride for the doctor, just as fast as you can!"

Joe was already swinging onto the pintoís back. In another moment he was galloping hard out of the yard. Ben climbed out of the wagon.

"Hoss, carry your brother up to his room." Hossís face creased up as he reached into the wagon bed. Ben touched his arm, "Go easy, son. Go easy." He turned to Joe Drury. "Jody, would you put these horses away for me?"

Jody nodded mutely and watched as Hoss lovingly carried his brother inside the house.

******************************

Ben stood with his back to the fire that burned in the great stone hearth. He stood quite still with his thumbs hooked onto the edge of his belt, staring without seeing at the pattern in the woven rug. Ben was all paced out. Without doubt, it had been one of the longest afternoons of his life.

Once Hoss had carried Adam to his bed, the two of them had carefully undressed him, stripping him of boots and his dirty, sweaty clothes. Jenny had brought warm water and they had bathed him and gotten him into a nightshirt. There was no sign on the outside of his body of whatever damage had been done inside. The scar on his belly was purple and puckered, but there was no bruising or bleeding around it.

Adam had remained doggedly conscious throughout. When he had begged for water, Ben had merely moistened his lips, not daring to let him drink.

After that, there had been nothing they could do but cool him, try to calm him and watch him as he twisted and gasped against the sheets. It seemed as if eternity passed by while they waited for the sound of the doctorís buggy in the yard.

Now, the afternoon had turned into evening. Toby Addington had taken himself off into the yard to supervise the evening chores. It was not strictly necessary, but it freed the family of any responsibility and of the necessity of entertaining their guest. He had taken Joe Drury with him. Hoss and Joe fidgeted Ė Joe in the armchair and Hoss on the sofa. Both young men were tight faced. Both of them were blaming themselves.

The doctor had been upstairs for almost an hour. He had turned them all out of the bedroom and allowed only Jenny to remain. Once they had heard a door open in the upper reaches of the house, and close again. Other than that, everything was very quiet. For Ben a nightmare that he had thought was over, had returned in full force.

Hop Sing padded silently into the room and lit the lamps. The great room filled with soft radiance. He closed the wooden shutters over the tall window in the dining room, shutting out the night. In the hearth a log fell into its own ashes in a shower of sparks. The tall, French clock quietly chimed the hour.

The doctorís footstep on the stair brought Hoss and Joe expectantly to their feet. Ben raised his dark eyes to look into Paul Martinís face. He found it carefully and professionally shuttered. Paul dumped his black bag on the tabletop. "Sit down, Ben," he said, settling himself into the other armchair.

Ben stared at him, trying to read something - anything - from his old friendís expression. "Paul..." He began, warily, fearing - he didnít dare let himself think what it was he feared.

"Ben, will you sit down?"

Ben subsided into the armchair and Joe moved round to sit beside Hoss. They all watched Paul Martinís face.

Ben voice rasped in the quiet of the big room, "Is he dead, Paul?"

"No. Heís not dead. At least, not yet."

The cold knot of dread that had been in the pit of Benís stomach all afternoon unravelled itself and rose into his throat to choke him. His hand and arms were numb with the shock and there was a buzzing sound in his head. He asked, in a low level voice, "What do you mean, not yet? Do you imply that he is dying?"

"To be perfectly honest with you, Ben. I donít know." Paul sighed a small sigh.

"He was in such - pain, Paul."

"Heís not in pain any more," Paul hastened to reassure his friend of that. "Iíve given him enough laudanum to fell an ox. Heís out of it."

Ben forced himself to relax, to unclench his fists and to draw a deep breath. At least for the moment, his son was at peace.

Hop Sing came in with a tray laden with a coffee pot and the Cartwrightís pink and white china cups. Paul looked up with appreciation and accepted a cup. Ben waited, not at all sure that he wanted to take part in this conversation at all. Perhaps if he didnít listen, perhaps, if Paul didnít utter the terrible words at all, then this awful thing wouldnít be happening.

But the hand of the Lord moved in strange ways. His will was not to be denied, and Ben was the servant of the Lord.

Ben counted his breaths, in and out, waiting until Paul had sipped his coffee. Then he said, with extreme care, "I think youíd better tell me, just what is the matter with Adam? Itís that gunshot wound to the belly, isnít it?"

Paul nodded. "Itís the belly wound. I thought that heíd been lucky. Just about the luckiest man I ever did see. It looks like I was wrong. There arenít many that walk away from a wound like that."

"The wound was healed."

"On the outside, yes. As far as I could tell, everything was fine. He was picking up nicely." Paul shifted uneasily in his seat. He was very much aware of the three, no make that four people, hanging on his every word. Hop Sing had remained in the room and was hovering in the background, listening. "He was even starting to put back a little weight. But he didnít heal right inside, Ben. I was afraid right from the start that he wouldnít."

"Heís been in pain a long time," Ben scowled. "He told me that last night."

"I told him to tell you sooner. He wouldnít hear of it. He was afraid you try to force him to stop working, make him take it easy, stop him living his life."

Ben realized with a jolt that heíd tried to do exactly that. "So what, exactly, is the matter with him - inside?"

Paul put the cup down carefully on the tray, taking time to consider how best to put complex medical matters into terms that these men would understand.

"When Adamís wound healed up, some parts of his insides sort of stuck together. As the scars have hardened and tightened, those are the parts that have been giving him the pain, the cramps, the colic."

"And being banged in the belly by a steer?"

Paul shrugged. "If it hadnít been that it would have been something else, eventually. Or he would have become more and more disabled." He looked from one intent face to another. "What I think has happened, is that the blow to his belly has broken loose whatever was stuck."

Ben asked the weighty question, "Thatíll kill him?"

"Only if heís torn inside. I donít think he is. He doesnít seem to be bleeding."

"Then what? Tell me all of it Paul. Tell me now."

Paul met his eyes levelly. It always amazed him just how much punishment this grave-faced, dark-eyed, ageing man could take. Here he was, asking for more. "Iíve been afraid, for a while, that Adam had an abscess under that wound, deep down, where I canít get at it. They can linger for months, even years. They may never come to the surface. They drain a manís strength, make him sick, make a cripple of him."

Ben was watching his face. "If Adam has an abscess...?" he prompted, when Paul hesitated.

"If he has an abscess, and the blow to his belly has burst it, then heíll die. Thereís nothing we can do to stop it." Paul didnít feel the need to add that Adam would die in unbelievable agony as the poisons burned through his gut and soured his blood. If it came to it, Ben would find that out for himself all too soon.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing at all, Ben. Perhaps in a hundred years..." Paul let the sentence trail off.

Unable to sit any longer, Ben stood up and thrust his hands into his pants pockets. "How long before we know which-way itís going to go, Paul? Tell me true."

Paulís gaze held steady. "Youíll know by morning, one way or the other."

Joe and Hoss saw the doctor out to his buggy. Ben went up the stairs to Adamís room.

Just as it had for so many long weeks following Adamís wounding, his bedroom stank of laudanum. The heavy, camphor stink of the opium-based drug hung cloyingly in the air and made it thick, hard to breathe. Nothing could have reminded Ben more strongly of how close he had come to losing his son just a few months before, or of how long and painful Adamís fight to regain his health had been. Now it looked as if he was right back where he had begun. It was the smell of sickness and of pain. Ben wanted to throw open the window and flush it out of the room. He dared not for fear that Adam would take a chill.

Jenny was stooping over the bed, dabbing Adamís face with a soft, dampened cloth. She straightened and looked at Ben with a tired smile. Reaching up, she adjusted the lamp to burn a little brighter. The light filled the familiar, comfortable space that Adam had made so intrinsically his. His personality was right there in the room, plain to see, the desk with his drawing tools laid to hand, the books on the shelf, his guitar, his pictures on the wall. Ben swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat.

Jenny came round the bed and touched him gently on the arm.

"Heís sleeping, Ben. Paul says heíll sleep Ďtil morning."

ĎTil morning. Possibly for the rest of his life.

Ben covered her hand with his. Quietly he said, "Iíll sit with him. You go and get some supper. Look after the baby."

She nodded and slipped out of the room, closing the door softly behind her. Ben stood for a long moment, just looking at the still figure in the bed. Already he had become accustomed to the smell of camphor and no longer noticed it.

He moved closer. Adamís face was as white as the pillow he lay against, but it was peaceful. The deep, drugged sleep had stolen away all traces of the pain. The awful writhing was quieted. He lay still, with barely a rise of his chest to show that he still lived at all. He had stretched out in slumber and lay the full length of the bed. There was a sheet across his chest and a blanket covered his legs. Ben saw how lean he had become, how much bulk his fine body had lost, and cursed himself again for not seeing it before. How blind he had been!

Settling into the chair beside the bed, he said a prayer and prepared himself for the vigil.

 

 

Eleven

It was Hop Singís prize cockerel, crowing loudly from rooftop immediately outside the window that jolted Ben awake. The sun was well risen, the light beyond the curtains bright. He had slept much longer than he had meant to. In fact, he hadnít really intended to sleep at all, just closing his heavy eyelids for a moment somewhere among the early hours of the morning.

He sat up with a start and the first thing he did was groan aloud. Every muscle, tendon and joint in his body was stiff and sore and complaining loudly at his mistreatment. He came to the conclusion that he was getting far too old to be doing stupid things like sitting up all night. And then he remembered where he was and why it was that he had spent all night in a chair.

The room - Adamís room - was very dim and very quiet. Ben listened carefully to the sounds that created the silence. First of all he heard the tick of the ebony cased clock that sat at the very top of Adamís dresser, slow and steady, like the beat of a manís heart. That clock had belonged, he recalled, to Adamís grandfather. It had stood on the Stoddardís family mantle for all the years that Ben had known his beloved, departed Elizabeth, Adamís mother.

Elsewhere in the house, he could hear the wail of a baby. A young life. Daniel, demanding breakfast. Downstairs, Hop Sing was rattling pans in the kitchen. Elsewhere, a door closed

Beyond the stout walls of the house and the glass of the window, he heard the bellow of the milk cows, anxious to be relieved, and someone, one of the cowhands, raising his voice in a song to greet the morning. And then the voices of other men resounded, shouting to one another, saddling horses, moving cattle Ė all the sounds of the ranch starting another day. Ben tried to hold the moment. Tried to prolong the not-knowing into eternity. He didnít think he could face the writing of his sonís name onto the flyleaf of the Book, or the digging of another lonely grave on the hillside by the lake. It was just too much for one man to bear.

And then the cockerel crowed again, and the precious moment slipped away.

Ben leaned forward in the chair. He said, softly, "Adam?"

There was no answer but he heard the sigh of his sonís breath.

Out of the chair, Ben strode to the window, throwing back the drapes. The room flooded with sunlight.

Adam was still sleeping. Not the deep, death-like coma imparted by the opiate drug, but a lighter, more natural slumber. The rise and fall of his chest was slower and more pronounced. His face, now darkly stubbled, was still pale but not the ashen-white of yesterday. Even as Ben watched, he stirred and stretched himself in the bed. A natural, easy movement, but it hurt. He saw his sonís face wince, and then relax again as the spasm passed and he slipped back into sleep.

Ben felt the knot of dread begin to fade. Adam sighed in his sleep and turned onto his side, taking his bedding with him in a bundle and shielding his eyes against the light. Ben allowed the smallest spark of hope to light in his soul.

********************************

Joe Cartwright paused in the open doorway of the barn and peered in. He had looked all over, and this was just about the last place there was left. The barn had been cooking under the morning sun for some time and it was warm inside, redolent as always, of hay and horses.

At first, it was difficult to see anything after the brightness of the yard outside. As his eyes adjusted, Joe made out the bulky bodies of the horses, stamping and flicking their tails against the morning onslaught of the flies. Then, turning his head, he made out a smaller form, sitting on the floor amongst the straw. Joe came into the barn.

"Hey Jody, what ya doiní in here? I missed you at breakfast."

Joe Drury was sitting in the empty stall with his back up against the stall-wall. His knees were drawn up, and as Joe got closer he could see the black and white kitten in his lap. He looked about as miserable as anyone Joe had ever seen. His face was pale and he scrubbed his sleeve across his face to wipe away the streaks of secretly shed tears.

Looking round again, Joe could see now that all the stalls had been cleaned, manure removed and fresh straw put down. The horses were munching contentedly and each had a pail of water. There really wasnít anything left to be done.

"I see youíve done all the barn chores."

Jody didnít answer. He kept his eyes downcast while his fingers endlessly caressed and recaptured the restless kitten.

Joe sat down next to him on the floor and settled his back comfortably against the end post of the stall. The ever-inquisitive kittens came sniffing Ďround and Joe automatically lifted the nearest on onto his lap.

"I guess you just werenít hungry, eh?" he suggested, continuing the previous, one-sided conversation.

Jody shook his head wordlessly. Fondling his kitten, Joe looked at him.

"You worrying about what happened to Adam?"

Jody heaved a great sigh and nodded.

Joeís own face clouded. "It wasnít you fault. Adamís been real sick for a long time. He just figured he didnít want anyone to know about it."

"It was my fault," Jody said with another sigh. "I let that Goddamned steer come up too fast. Adam didnít have time ta get away."

Joe had to chuckle despite himself. "Adam can be mighty quick on his feet when he has ta be. Must just have caught him with his head turned. Anyhow, youíd better not let my Pa hear you cuss like that. He gets real mad when folks start cussiní Ďround here.

Jody screwed up his face. Right then he would have welcomed a bawling out. It might have made him feel better. "Whatís gonna happen ta Adam?" he asked in a small voice.

Concentrating hard on the kitten, Joe found it hard to answer. He felt that if anyone were responsible for what had happened to his beloved brother, it was himself. He had been right there, working within yards of Adam. He hadnít been able to prevent the accident, even though heíd given his word. He wiped a surreptitious hand quickly across his eyes. Two totally different personalities, but in some ways so very similar, Joe and Adam had frequent, heated arguments. But Joe adored his elder brother. He couldnít imagine what life would be like if he just wasn't around anymore, and he didnít really want to try.

His own throat was all choked up. He said, thickly, "Whatever happens, Adam wouldnít blame you."

His mind was replaying what Paul Martin had said, "One way or the other, youíll know by morning." Already, it was morning. Joe was afraid to find out what was going on over in the house.

"You hungry?" he asked, gruffly.

Joe Drury nodded.

"Címon then." Joe dumped the kitten onto the floor and got to his feet. He dusted off his butt with his hands. "Letís go see what Hop Singís got left in the kitchen." He offered Jody his hand and pulled him to his feet. Side by side, the two young men headed for the house.

Right at that moment, Hop Sing had his hands full with yet another Cartwright. Hoss was suffering from his own recriminations in respect to his big brotherís accident, and he had chosen Hop Singís kitchen to do it in. The big man sat hunched up at the kitchen table with an untouched mug of coffee clasped between his big hands. His face was crumpled and there was certain amount of moisture around his eyes. Whether the tears were shed of remorse, or if they could be attributed to the pile of onions Hop Sing was chopping in preparation for lunch was uncertain.

Hoss was conscience-stricken. He had promised that he would look after his brother, and he had fully intended to keep that pledge. But the work had been going so smoothly, and Adam had been coping so well that it had completely slipped Hossís mind that his he was sick at all. He had seen his brother go down, and even then hadnít realized for far too long that he was seriously hurt. He had sat in his saddle and haw-hawed until it finally dawned on him that Adam wasnít going to get up. Now, all they could do was sit around and wait for the doctors return visit.

"What we gonna do, Hop Sing, ifín Adamís laid up fer a - long time?" Even now, Hoss couldnít bring himself to think Ďforever.í

Hop Sing looked at him, the broad-bladed knife poised in one hand, his wise old head on one side. "You worry too much, Missa Hoss." he said finally. "Missa Adam be just fine."

Hoss raised mournful eyes to look at him. "Aw, Hop Sing, you canít know that."

Hop Sing made a decisive and rather hazardous gesture with the knife. "Hop Sing know!" he declared. "You mark Hop Singís word!"

Hop Sing threw up his arms and let rip with a torrent of Chinese. It was so hard to make these obdurate, Caucasian, Christian Cartwrights understand that there were ways of simply knowing these things.

From long experience, Hop Sing knew that the way to this particular Cartwrightís heart was most definitely through his stomach. Still muttering, he carved off a great slab of cake, put it on a plate and set it under Hossís nose.

Hoss drew back with a frown. "Heck, Hop Sing, I ainít hungry! How cín a man eat when Adamís sick like he is."

Hop Sing added butter to the table, and preserve for spreading, and left him to get on with it. Hoss had to confess that he was hungry. Heíd been up the whole of the night with a heartache, and he hadnít eaten much at breakfast. He picked at a crumb. The cake was one of Hop Singís best, moist with raisins and cherries, dark, sweet and coated with crunchy sugar. Hoss broke off a corner and spread it with butter and jam. Hop Sing smiled a secret smile.

The kitchen door opened and Ben Cartwright came through it. He found his son sitting at the table, eating cake.

"Ah. I thought I might find you in here." Ben frowned at the smear of preserve on Hossís cheek.

Caught with sticky hands, Hoss sucked at his fingers. He looked anxiously up at his father. "Pa, howís Adam?"

"Well, heís awake, and he wants to see you." Ben surveyed the remains of the cake on the plate, "If you think you can spare him the time."

Hoss flushed pink. "Heck, Pa, what would olí Adam want ta see me for?" He heaved a gargantuan sigh. "Iím the one what let him down. If Iíd oí looked out fer him like I said Iíd do..."

Ben leaned back on his heels and put his hands on his hips. "Thatís something youíll have to take up with your brother. As I said, heís asking for you."

Still reluctant, Hoss pushed the plate away. "Do I have to Pa?"

"You have to." Ben was firm and stern faced.

"You take this up to Missa Adam." Hop Sing bustled up with a blue and white china feeding cup on its saucer. Steam rose from the spout and Hoss wrinkled his nose at the smell of it.

"Hop Sing, what is this stuff?"

"It real good for Missa Adam. Make belly warm, comfoítable." Hop Sing pushed the cup at Hoss.

Ben agreed. "Good idea. You take it on up to him."

"Well, If you say so." Hoss climbed to his feet and reluctantly accepted the cup.

"You tell Missa Adam be careful. It real hot!"

Hoss took a last glance at his father and went out of the room. Ben gave the Chinese cook a wink and the little Oriental broke into a broad grin.

Carefully, Hoss carried the cup up the stairs and along the passage to the door of his brotherís room. He was glad of the saucer; Hop Sing had been right, the cup certainly was hot. He could feel the heat radiating right through the china. He sniffed again at the steam, identifying the contents of the cup as boiled milk, curdled with brandy and spiced with cinnamon. He opened the door.

The room was bright with sunlight and the window had been opened just an inch to dispel the lingering smell of laudanum. Adam was lying flat in the bed. His sheets had been smoothed around him and his pillows plumped. He rolled his head to look at his brother. His face had been shaved. His eyes were still heavy lidded with the effects of opium. He smiled a slow smile.

"Hello, brother. You got something there for me?"

Hoss found his own face splitting open in an answering smile. He could see that his brother was better. The pallor was gone from his face, replaced by a healthier colour. The shadows of pain no longer shifted in his eyes. Hoss carried the posset over to the bed.

"I brung you this up from the kitchen. You need some help with it?"

Adamís smile widened. "I guess I can manage if youíll just help me to sit up, here."

Hoss put the cup and saucer down and put his big arms round his brother. Lifting, he felt bone where there should have been hard flesh. Adam gasped and winced as Hoss sat him up and arranged the cushions behind his back. Hoss looked alarmed. "You still hurtiní Adam?"

Adam lay back into the pillows. He was breathing hard. "Not like I was," he said, the grin returning. "Iím just as sore as hell."

Hoss sat down on the side of the bed, his eyes drinking in his brotherís face. It was apology time. "Adam, Iím real sorry you got hurt the way you done. It wouldnít aí happened ifín Iíd looked after you the way I promised."

Adam chuckled, holding his belly with both hands as if laughing hurt him as well.

"Hoss, if it hadnít been for that bullet-headed steer, I might have been a cripple the rest of my life."

"You mean, you reckon youíre gonna get well?" Hoss felt a sudden, dawning joy.

"I know Iím gonna get well. And now, if you wouldnít mind..." Adam looked hopefully at the cup.

"You be careful now," Hoss lifted the cup off its saucer and handed it to him. "This is real hot."

Adamís stomach rumbled loudly with expectancy, and both the brothers laughed.

**************************************

When Paul Martin came down the staircase from visiting Adam in his room, he was shaking his head, but there was a smile on his face.

"I do declare, Ben, I still think that boy of yours has to be the luckiest man alive."

Jenny Cartwright linked her arm with her husbandís and the two of them exchanged beaming smiles with each other and with the doctor.

"Heíll be all right, Paul?" Ben asked, just to be sure.

"I think heís going to make a full recovery. Heís already in a lot less pain and heís moving more easily than he has in a long time." Paul put down his bag and shrugged into his coat. "Donít try to hold him down, Ben. Let him take it at his own pace. Heís enough sense not to over-do it." He stepped toward the door.

Ben went to see him outside to his buggy. "I really donít know how to thank you for all youíve done."

Paul laughed and gathered up his reins. "Iíll send you my bill, Ben, as always. Tell Adam to come in and see me when heís up to travelling into town. Iíd like to check him over one more time."

"Iíll tell him, Paul." Ben raised his hand in farewell as the doctor geeíd up his gelding and drove out of the yard. Jenny came up beside him and Ben put his arm round her shoulders. The brightness of their smiles matched the afternoon sunlight.

***********************************

There could be no denying that the Fletchers had worked long and hard to bring the derelict Boxer farm to hand. Hoss Cartwright drew rein at the brand-new, white-painted gate and looked the place over.

The broken fences had all been mended and the fields planted afresh. The new crop, winter-kale by the look of it, was just breaking through the soil. Hugh Fletcher had filled the potholes and levelled the worst of the ruts in the road. The Fletcher family was still living in the old sway-backed cabin, but further up the hill the timber frame of a brand-new house was taking shape. There were brown chickens scratching in the yard together with a couple of long-necked geese. Three horses stood in one corral, and a pair of milk-cows with heavy udders in the other. The cows were bellowing.

Hoss touched his heels to the sides of his huge black horse and rode along the track. It was the very end of the afternoon. Long shadows were merging together into deep twilight. Inside the cabin, someone had lighted a lamp. The door opened just as Hoss pulled up at the rail, and Mary Fletcherís slight form was outlined against the rectangle of light. She was carrying a milk pail in either hand, and she was headed towards the corral.

"Hoss!" She smiled with genuine pleasure, "Itís real nice to see you. Wonít you step on down?"

Hoss touched the brim of his hat. "Evening, Miss Mary. Thatís mighty kind of you." He swung out of the saddle and wound his reins Ďround the hitching rail.

"I was going to milk the cows. You can hear them hollering. Walk with me, Hoss?"

"My pleasure, Maíam." Hoss fell into step beside her and the two of them walked together through the gathering shades of evening. Mary opened the corral gate and went in and Hoss closed it behind them. She snapped a lead rope on a placidly chewing cow and tied her to the top rail of the fence. Fetching a stout three-legged stool from a corner of the pasture, she put a pail down under the cow and started to milk.

Hoss picked up the other bucket. "Reckon Iíll do the otherín."

"Díyou milk, Hoss?"

Hoss laughed. "Itís sure been a while, but I donít reckon as I forget how." He tied off the other cow and squatted beside her. With the pail under her udder, he started to pull. For while there was only the sound of milk hissing into the buckets.

"Maís got enough stew on the stove for you to stay to supper, if youíd like to," Mary suggested. She liked Hoss Cartwright with his big bluff manners and his open face, liked him a lot. She hoped that he would stay.

Hoss sighed. "Heck, no, Miss Mary. I canít stop tonight." Hoss walked her back to the cabin door. Each of them carried a pail of milk. "My big brotherís bin taken poorly over at the ranch. I gotta get on home aní help with the chores."

Mary stopped at the steps. "I wish you could stay."

"So do I Maíam." Hoss coloured. "But I just stopped by to ask you ifín youíd like ta go on a picnic tomorrow. If the weather holds, we could drive on out ta Cockscomb Flats. Itís real pretty out there, what with the trees changiní colour aní all."

"Iíd like that, Hoss." Mary smiled. "Iíd like that a lot."

Hossís face became serious. "There is something you could do for me, Miss Mary if you would." He bent his head and told her, in a low tone, what he wanted her to do.

Her face broke into a big smile. "Why Hoss! What a splendid idea! Iíd be glad to do that!"

The two of them grinned at each other, pleased with their conspiracy.

"Guess Iíd better get goiní Maíam." Hoss turned towards his horse, and then remembered something. "I darned nearly forgot. I brung you a present." He unbuttoned his shirt and reached inside. He lifted out something small, and warm, and black and white. He put it into her cupped hands. "Reckon heís just about big enough to leave his Ma, now."

Mary was delighted. "Oh Hoss! Heís adorable! Thank you so much!" She held the kitten to her cheek. "I really love him!"

"Well, he sure likes you." Hoss grinned, as pleased as punch with the kitten, Mary, himself and the world in general. He swung up unto the saddle and touched his hat again. "You be sure aní tell your Pa, Iíll be out at the end oí the week ta give him a hand with that new house, there. Ifín we work together, I reckon we cín git a roof on it aífore the snow comes."

"Thatís real kind of you, Hoss." Mary fondled her kitten and smiled at him in the darkness. "Tell your brother, I hope he gets well right soon."

Hoss turned the black horse and kicked it into a canter. He might have been travelling over the earth, but his heart was soaring towards the stars.

**************************************

Ben lifted the Book down from its place on the shelf. He carried it with him to his armchair beside the fire and settled himself down. The weighty tome rested on his knees.

Jenny had eventually driven him from the bedroom, delivering as she did so, strict instructions to relax, to relieve himself and to get himself outside some food and some coffee. Adam was sleeping again, this time without any help from the black-glass bottle. Every time he woke the pain was less severe, and he still showed no sign of bleeding. Jenny was sitting with him, watching him.

Ben filled himself a pipe and lit it with a spill from the fire. He allowed his fingers to trace lightly over the well-handled, tooled-leather binding. All his life he had believed with the utmost sincerity that all of the answers were between the covers of this book. Last night he had allowed himself, just for one moment, to doubt. He wondered if his Lord would forgive him.

A movement in the room caught his attention. Joe Drury, still looking subdued and unhappy, was sidling towards the stairs. Ben realized that he had forgotten all about that particular young man. He beckoned to him. "Jody, come on over here." He indicated a place on the corner of the sofa beside him. He put an amiable look on his face. "Tell me how your lessons are coming along."

Jodyís face coloured as he settled into the seat. "I can write my name, sir. Aní Adamís bin teachiní me my numbers."

"Thatís good. Thatís good." For an instant Benís eyes darkened at the mention of his hurt sonís name. "And your reading?"

"I can read some, sir."

Ben opened the book on his lap to the first page. "Read this to me."

Joe Drury wriggled round so that he could see the page and started, haltingly, to sound out the words,

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light: and there was light."*

When Jody had gone to his bed and, except for the slow tick of the clock, the great room was silent, Ben turned the pages of the Book. Finding the passage he wanted, he read aloud, himself,

"For the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering and very pitiful, and forgiving of sins, and saveth in time of affliction.** We will fall into the hands of the Lord and not into the hands of men: for as His majesty is, so is His mercy."***

The peace of Benís God settled into his soul. He lowered his head and offered a prayer of thanks for his sonís life.

 

 

Twelve

Long before the first light of dawn brushed the eastern skyline, Ben Cartwright crossed from the house to the barn. He saddled his big, raw-boned, buckskin horse and rode out of the yard, heading west.

It was a bitterly cold morning. Ben wore a heavy coat and a muffler made from the wool of Jacobís sheep. Before heíd gone far, he was wishing that he had worn his gloves as well. The breath huffed as white steam from his mouth and out of the horseís nostrils . Overhead, the stars were bright and sharp, and that promised a frost before dawn.

He travelled easily across the home range, but with purpose, holding the gelding to a steady ground-covering canter. As always, Ben rode, with eyes and ears alert. Here and there he sensed, rather than saw, the bulk of cattle, moving ponderously out of his way. The boys had done a good job of bringing the mass of the herds close into the house well before the winter storms. He watched for the wildlife that shared the pasture lands with the cattle: the hare and the rabbit and the occasional the bob-tailed deer. He listened to the night sounds, satisfying himself that all was well with his world.

Then the trail he followed started to climb. Both man and horse knew this path very well, and he allowed the gelding to pick its own way. The grasslands became bush-covered slopes and then, as they went still higher, the forest closed in. The monumental trunks of the pines, spaced with precision across the hillside, towered into the sky - pillars of ageless timber holding up the vault of heaven. Tipping his head back to look towards their tufted tops made a man dizzy.

Ben thought back to the first time he had made this ride. Then, it had been a dazzling, early spring morning, and he had been a young man in the springtime of his life. The pine forests had been brooding and silent then, as they were tonight, and chill, but they had been bright with slanting sunlight. He remembered, one by one, all the times since. Journeys made in times of trouble, and in times of rejoicing. Journeys made in joy and in grief.

The horse snorted, his sides starting to labour with the steepness of the hill, but Ben knew that they were almost at the place he wanted to be. One more effort from the horse, and they emerged onto a headland overlooking the lake.

They were on a higher, steeper jut than the one where he had sat in the buggy alongside Toby Addington. The view was even more magnificent. The lake was a sheet of pure silver, seemingly solid under the clear, cold sky. The moon had set, and the hillsides were utterly black so that the mirror of water was framed in darkness. Ben followed its contours with his eyes. He knew every bay and inlet, every promontory, every beach. Their cherished outlines were etched in his heart and engraved into his soul.

He recalled the lake the way it had been on that first morning, so long ago. The water had been blue then, reflecting the cloudless sky, and the breeze had blown from the land, lightly rippling the surface. The pine had been green that day, freshly clad by God in their bright spring raiment. The sunlight had danced, fire-bright, on the water. There had been deer in the woods and an old bull elk drinking at the waterís edge, his legs splayed wide. There had been ducks on the lake, and geese and trout jumping Ďway out in the water as they feasted on the midges and the damson fly. Over all, the wind had sighed softly through the tops of the tall trees. He had thought then that the wind had been singing to him, singing the age-old song of an ancient land welcoming home a lost son. The wind had sung many songs since then, and all of them had whispered words into Benís heart.

There had been a strange magic at work that day. It had moved on the face of the water, danced with the sunlight, sloughed with the wind through the pine-branches. It had been in the call of the wild things and the wild places. It had cast an enchantment over him that had lasted twenty years. An empire had risen, built with his own hands and fed by his blood, fuelled by his love of this land. He had raised a family, and watched them grow tall and strong - like the trees for which he had named the land. He had spent the summer of his life here.

Now it was autumn Ė a time of mellowness and fullness. A time of completion, when the pine needles darkened with the first touch of frost and a manís hair turned to grey.

Ben stepped down from his saddle and looped the buckskinís reins on a handy bush. He walked to the very end of the land where it fell away into air and space and he might have been unsupported, suspended by the Lordís hand alone above the glory of His creation. His timing was perfect. Even as he drew his first, long breath of the air that rose up from the water so far below, the sun started to come up.

The first touch of light was on the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, still a long way to the west. As the earth turned and the sun moved up the sky, the sunlight swept down the pine clad hillsides, filling the valleys with morning and firing the lake with gold.

Ben watched the daybreak and thought hard about this land that he loved. Winning it had been hard, with a small son to care for and one very young man to work alongside him. Holding it had been harder. Years spent in the saddle through the long, hot summers and in the bitter cold of winter, had taken their toll. He had fought the long battles against fire and flood, against drought and blizzard, against disease that had threatened to wipe out all he had worked for and against men who had tried to take it from him. Perhaps, now, it really was time to stand back, to let others take up the flame: Adam, and Hoss and Joe, and later, young Daniel.

As the light strengthened the wind began to rise. It blew down from the mountains and across the water. As if in accord with Benís pensive mood it was cold and it moaned through the tops of the trees. He shivered and pulled his coat more closely about him.

Certainly, the ever-growing, cosmopolitan cities of the east and the great cultural hubs of Europe had their attraction, especially to a man hip-deep in mud and cow dung. They tempted a man with siren songs of great art, and literature, and music; they held out the benefits of science and medicine and - Benís lips quirked - Adamís latest enthusiasm, sanitation. Benefits which Ben didnít see appearing on the western frontier in his lifetime. Perhaps he owed it to his young family to remove them east, to the centres of civilized living.

Now, there were clouds moving down from the mountains, tall column-shaped clouds that stood high over the land. Their grey heads shone yellow in the sunlight; their flat, brown bottoms were heavy with the certain promise of rain. The early sunlight slanted down between them, touching the surface of the water. Against the sky, a flight of geese headed south in a perfect Ďví formation. Their honking calls came quite clearly to Benís ears. They were leaving for the winter. But the seasons turned, and in spring, he knew, they would return.

The magic of the lake moved again, as it had such a long time ago. It skipped lightly on the water in the sunlight; it sighed through the trees with the wind. It was in the call of the geese, in the cold bite of the frosty morning air and in the smell of the pine. A smile came to Benís face. How could he ever deny his young son this? To take a Cartwright from this land would be to tear out his very soul. Ben knew then, that whatever happened, he could never leave.

Ben walked back to where his horse waited and mounted. He looked once more at the ever changing, always glorious, magical face of the lake. Far off, the rain was falling in a silver curtain. Very carefully and still smiling, he rode back down the hill. He felt rejuvenated. In his heart it was still springtime. As soon as he reached the level ground he touched heels to the horse's sides, urging it to a gallop. Whooping like a young man, he rode for home.

*********************************

Ben was a little late for breakfast. His face was still flushed with the exhilaration of his ride as he took his place at the head of the table. Jenny smiled at him. With a womanís wisdom she knew, or at least guessed, where he had been. Joe and Hoss, used to their fatherís occasional early morning rides, merely exchanged polite Ďgood morningsí. Ben was glad to see that the bruising on Joe's face was finally changing from purple to yellow. Another day, he thought, and the young man would look presentable again. Joe Drury, unsurprisingly, was too engrossed in his food to do much more than nod. Toby Addington was clearly puzzled by his friendís early excursion into the hinterlands, but before he could make any remark on it another late arrival took all their attention.

Adam came down the stairs in a gingerly manner, holding to the rail. He was shaved and dressed and looking more like himself than he had for a long time.

Ben, tempted to order him instantly back up the stairs to bed, remembered what Paul Martin had said. "Let him take it at his own pace." Ben choked the words back. Instead he said, "Good morning, son. Iím glad to see that you feel like joining us."

Adam smiled, and that smile alone was enough to do Benís heart good. He crossed the room carefully and took his accustomed place at the foot of the table. He said his good mornings and looked at the food in the serving dishes. Adam was hungry, but he didnít feel quite up to tackling thickly sliced, well-fried ham and sunny-side-up eggs. Fortunately, he didnít have to. With that curious sixth sense he possessed, Hop Sing had foreseen his problem. Smiling hugely, the Chinese cook brought from the kitchen a dish of lightly scrambled eggs sprinkled with fresh, fragrant herbs straight out of the garden.

The family watched in silent amazement as Adam proceeded, unabashed, to eat every scrap. He finished off with the soft centre from a hunk of bread. The warm food filled his underused, shrunken stomach to capacity. He sat back with a satisfied smile on his face.

"Well, Pa," he said, meeting his fatherís gaze with his own, slightly amused eyes, "I guess now would be a good time to get that timber contract sorted out."

**********************************

It was late morning and it was quiet. Ben and Toby Addington were driving somewhere on the range, and Joe Drury was out with Charlie and the fencing-crew, making one last push to get the job finished before the rain arrived. Jenny was inside somewhere tending the baby, while big brother Adam, more tired after a morning in the office than he had expected, had been persuaded to take a nap before lunch.

Carefully, Hoss packed the two picnic baskets that Hop Sing had prepared for him into the back of the buckboard. He tucked them up under the seat where they were, more or less, out of sight, and threw a couple of bright, zigzag-striped Indian blankets on top. Climbing up onto the seat, Hoss slapped the broad leather reins against the rumps of the horses and drove at a steady pace down the hill.

Joe Cartwright had just finished a hard morningís work riding the rest of the unbroken horses to a standstill, when he saw his brother drive up.

"Hey, Hoss, you goiní someplace?"

Hoss pulled up the team and set the brake.

"Just takin' a little drive, Little Joe. ĎFigured you might like ta come with me now you done finished bustiní all them broncs."

Wiping the sweat and some of the grime from his face onto the sleeve of his shirt, Joe walked over and stood by the wheel. He cast his eye over the polished hides of the buckboard team and his brotherís smarter-than-usual clothes.

"But youíre all dressed up like youíre goiní someplace real fancy. Just look at you!"

"I brung ya some clothes." Hoss reached under the seat and pulled out a bundle of clean, neatly folded clothing. He tossed it down to his brother. "You just get yore-self washed off aní dressed. I'll sit aní wait for ya."

"Okay." Joe shrugged and a grin split his face. If he were honest, and Joe mostly was, he would be glad to get away from the ranch for a bit. He had seen enough of mean broncs with smelly, sweaty hides, whose main aim in life was to introduce him forcefully to the dirt of the corral, to last him some considerable time.

"Anything you say, big-brother!" Pulling his filthy shirt off over his head he doused himself thoroughly in the cold water of the horse-trough. He scrubbed his torso with his hands, and under his arms, and rinsed the gritty dust out of his hair. He dried himself roughly on his dirty shirt and pulled the clean, cream linen garment that Hoss had brought on over his shoulders. Unashamedly, he changed his pants right there in the yard and buckled his gunbelt around his lean hips. He brushed off his boots with his dirty pants, tied a smart black Ďkerchief around his neck and set his black hat at a jaunty angle atop his curls.

"How do I look?"

Hoss still sitting upon the seat of the buckboard, looked his brother over critically. The transformation was remarkable. From a dusty, perspiring cowboy, Joe had changed in a matter of minutes into a well groomed and undeniably handsome, young drake.

"I guess youíll do," he said gruffly. "Címon up."

Joe clambered up onto the plank seat beside him, and Hoss slapped the reins. Joe grinned at him, "Where we goiní Hoss?"

Hoss kept his eyes front and centre and concentrated on his driving. "ĎGuess youíll find out when we git there."

"Hey, Okay," Joe laughed. Being kidnapped by his brother was an amusing diversion and he was determined to make the most of it. He sat back in the seat and, as the buckboard bounced along at a steady pace, took a keen interest in the countryside.

The uncut grassland, saved for winter fodder, was brown and dry, dusty after a long summer in the sun. The desiccated grass formed humped tussocks that protected the roots and young shoots that would turn the rangeland to bright, new green at the first shower of rain. The land rolled gently towards the west. The hills were shrouded in a dust haze. They stood ranked, one behind the other, each one rising a little higher, each a little greyer as they climbed towards the mountains. It was all Cartwright land. To the east, broken only by an occasional stand of shade trees, the grazing continued as far as Joe could see.

The road curved and dipped into the shaded woodland. It was much cooler here, the waning warmth of the sun prevented from penetrating by the still dense foliage. Before they could become chilled, the two young men had emerged from the trees and the road ran straight and true. The horses, stretching out, raced towards the boundary of the ranch. Joe could see now, that they were heading towards Virginia City.

Hoss didn't turn that way, however. When they reached the fork in the trail, he turned the heads of the horses the other way and pulled back on the reins, slowing them from a canter to a sedate walk. He seemed to Joe to be looking, or listening for something. Joe looked at him questioningly but Hoss merely shook his head, saying nothing. As they rounded the bend in the trail, Joe saw that there was a wagon pulled up ahead, waiting at the side of the road.

The wagon was Mary Fletcherís. She sat up on the driving seat all dressed up in a lilac coloured dress and cape. Hossís face split into a wide grin just at the sight of her. She held the reins of the team in her small hands. Sitting next to her, decked out in strawberry-pink and grey, was Ellen Weldon.

Joeís face broke into a happy grin as Hoss pulled the Ponderosa team to a stop behind the Fletcher wagon. Hoss wound the reins around the brake, and the two men got down and walked forward to greet the ladies.

Hoss was beaming now. His little scheme had performed to perfection, and his brother was reunited, for the afternoon at least, with Ellen. He doffed his tall hat to Mary. "Real glad you could make it, Maíam. Youín Miss Ellen."

Mary glowed with pleasure. "Iím real pleased you asked me, Hoss."

On the other side of the wagon, Ellen smiled down at Joe. "Weíre finally going to have that picnic you promised me," she said.

Joe's smile answered hers, but he was a little worried. "What will your Pa say when he finds out?" Joe didnít want to ruin his chances with Ellen completely by incurring her fatherís rage.

Ellen laughed. "I think Pa was kinda sorry he said what he said, after he cooled down some. Leastwise, he didnít make any objection when I told him we were going out."

Holding out his hand to her, Joe steadied her as she stepped down from the wagon. Arm in arm, they walked back to the Cartwrightís buckboard. Hoss climbed up beside Mary who moved over to make room for him and handed him the reins. One behind the other, the two, happy young couples set off towards the picnic grounds at Cockscomb Flats.

************************************

Ben pulled the buggy to a halt in the road, and he and Toby Addington climbed out. Together they walked the few steps to the top of the hill. The two men were disparate. Ben stood head and shoulders above the white curls of his friend. Ben was tall, big chested and lean hipped. Toby was as round as a barrel.

Spread out in front of them was a broad, crescent-shaped sweep of rangeland, sere-brown and gold. The trees that dotted it here and there were scrub oaks, now in their darkest green, late-summer leaf, and chestnut, shading into tawny red. The range was covered in grazing cattle. Mostly they were the red-brown and white, Hereford and longhorn crossbreed type that Ben had found thrived in this high, dry country. Interspersed among them were animals of a bigger, black coated breed. The constant, contented lowing of the grazing herd carried clearly up to the hilltop.

Benís chest swelled with pride as he overlooked his herd.

"Prime, two-year-old steers, Toby. Weíll keep them on this range over winter and fatten them up on the spring grass. With these and our two other herds, weíll have around fifteen hundred head to drive to the railhead next year."

Toby shot his old friend a sideways glance. "Youíve decided to stay on here, then?"

Ben breathed deeply of the air. It was still tinged with the last of summerís dusty heat, but it carried a promise of autumnís cool tang. It smelled of pine, and grass, and cattle, and of a distant, magical lake.

"Look at it, Toby," he said. His gaze encompassed the herd and the hills and the mountains beyond. "How can I leave it? Itís my bones and my blood!"

"I seem to remember you saying something similar about the sea, once," Toby reminded him gently.

A smile tugged at Benís lips. "Besides, Joeís just getting his horse breeding project off the ground, and Hoss has lots to do up in the Reserved Section. And itís going to take Adam quite a while to get his full strength back."

"So, you think those boys of yours need you, do you Ben?"

Benís smile widened. "I think, Toby, itís more a case of me, needing them."

Toby Addington chuckled. "I think I can understand that. Theyíre all fine men. You have every reason to be proud of them"

"I am very proud of them."

"And our little proposed venture in Myrtle Creek?"

Ben hesitated. "I donít think so Toby. I think Iíve gotten my hands just about full, right here."

"Fair enough." Toby shrugged and laughed. He made a wide, sweeping gesture. "Looking at all this, I think you might be right."

The two prosperous, successful gentlemen exchanged smiles and warm handshakes, right there on the hilltop. Their friendship secure, they strolled back down to the road and their waiting carriage.

**********************************

Cockscomb Flats, as its name suggested, was a level area of meadowland amid light, mixed woodland. In spring it was bright with sunshine and noisy with birdsong. In summer it was redolent with the scent of wildflowers and alive with the fluttering wings of butterflies. Bounded on one side by a willow fringed river, running slow and deep, and on the other by stands of hazel and sweet chestnuts, beech and slender silver birch, it was a favourite picnic spot.

This midweek, autumn day was just a little too late in the year, just a little too cool, for the families, and the hoards of children, and the groups of ladies that most often frequented the place. The two young couples were delighted to find that they had the meadow entirely to themselves. Joe and Hoss pulled their respective teams to a halt side by side and helped their respective ladies to alight. Chattering happily, they spread the blankets on the ground close to the riverbank. From there they could watch the flow of the dark water as they ate and delight in the occasional jump of a trout.

To the delight of the others, Hoss Cartwright produced the baskets Hop Sing had provided and the girls spread out the food. Hoss sat at one side of the blanket with Mary, and Joe at the other alongside Ellen Weldon. They ate and enjoyed a meal of cold fried chicken and corn cakes, tiny potatoes in a sweet herb sauce, and a tart, mixed-berry pie.

When they had finished, Joe lay back, replete and happy, and rested his head in Ellenís lap. They had been stepping out together for a long time, and they were more than comfortable in each otherís company. This was the moment when their relationship deepened into something more. It was obvious in their faces as Ellen ran her fingers through Joeís curls and they exchanged smiles. Hoss decided that perhaps it was time to leave his brother and his lady to themselves for a while. Colouring slightly, he turned to Mary,

"Thereís an awful pretty little weir downstream from here, Maíam, if'n youíd care ta see it."

"I would like to see that, Hoss." Mary offered her hand and Hoss gallantly helped her to her feet.

The two of them strolled, side-by-side, along the riverbank. They followed a little

twisting path that meandered around the willow trees but always returned to the waterís edge. It afforded pretty views of the placid water and of the autumn touched trees on the far bank. Mary slid her hand around Hossís forearm as they walked and watched his face intently. Hoss talked, at first, about the ranch and his work there, and about his family. Then, under her gentle prompting, he started to speak about the Reserved Section. Halting, but with increasing confidence and fluency, he described the ways in which he wanted to maintain and preserve the high, wild country.

"Ifín I donít do something, Miss Mary, their ainít gonna be no place left fer the deer aní the elk aní all the other critters. Thereís just too many goldarned people moviní inta this territory! Theyíre choppiní down all the trees and digginí great holes in the ground, aní muddyiní up all the rivers. Soon there wont be a single place left where a man can go, just ta see how things ought ta be! Ta see how the good Lord made Ďem!"

Mary saw the sincerity on his rapt face and felt a deep fondness for this big, unhandsome, soft-hearted man. "I understand what youíre saying, Hoss, and I admire and respect you for what youíre trying to do."

He smiled down at her from his much greater height. "Thatís realí nice of you, Miss Mary." The smile lit his broad face and made his blue eyes sparkle. Mary found herself attracted by his pure white, rather uneven teeth.

Several tree trunks had been thrown across the river to quieten some rapids. The water flowed over them musically, in a series of cascades. A late summer bee droned among the grass-heads. Somewhere in the woods a ring-necked wood-pigeon cooíd. Hoss put his booted foot up on one of the logs.

"Miss Mary," Hoss gazed at the water, at the trailing tips of the willow branches, at the fronds of weed waving gently in the riverís current, at the toe of his boot, anywhere but at Mary Fletcher. Hoss had a tender heart, and Hoss had been hurt before. "Maíam, I think youíre awful sweet." Blushing scarlet, Hoss continued doggedly, "I was kinda wantiní ta ask ifín youíd like ta step out with me - kinda be my gal?"

"Oh Hoss," Mary touched his huge hand with her fingers. "I would surely like to step out with you."

The beaming smile returned to Hossís face . He turned and tentatively put his hands on Maryís waist.

"On one condition," she added, firmly.

"Maíam?"

She moved against him, into the circle of his arms. "That you call me, Mary," she murmured. She raised her face, and very gently, Hoss kissed her.

***********************************

The night was becoming bitterly cold - the coldest of the season so far. Ben had stepped out of the house for a breath of air and to take a last, long look Ďround before retiring. He shivered and rather wished he had stopped to slip into his coat. His breath turned to a white mist in the instant it left his mouth. If he had been a gambling man he would have staked money on a sheet of ice on the water trough by morning. He looked at the stars, hard, bright points of light in the pitch-black dome of the sky. There was a circle of light around the waning moon, a sure sign of a hard frost by morning.

He listened to the night sounds. There was a steady throb of crickets in the long grass, an owl calling far away in the woods, a shifting of cattle and horses in the corrals, the ever-present sigh of the wind in the tops of the pine. The peace of the land was undisturbed and Benís warm, marital bed beckoned. Hands thrust into pants pockets, he had already turned towards his front door when he heard the soft drum of an approaching horseís hooves. Turning again, Ben scowled. It was almost midnight, and whoever was riding out to the ranch at this hour of the night had to be on a mission of importance.

In a moment, horse and rider came round the corner of the barn and into the yard. Ben recognized the short barrelled, slightly shaggy horse and the erect, stiff-legged posture of the rider. He stepped forward to greet the man in the saddle,

"Roy?"

"Ben." Roy Coffee stepped down and wound his reins around the rail. He had known Ben Cartwright a very long time and no longer felt the need of an invitation.

Mystified by the lawmanís late visit but ever mindful of his manners, Ben invited him in. "Itís going to freeze hard by morning." He closed the door against the frosty night. "Go on over by the fire and warm yourself."

Roy shed hat and coat and did as he was bidden, leaning into the fireplace to warm his hands over the flames.

"Can I get you some coffee?"

"No, Ben, thanks." Roy turned and proceeded to warm his backside.

Ben was frowning, "Roy, if you've ridden out here about that fight Joe got into on Saturday night...."

"Nah!" Roy made a swift dismissive gesture. "It ainít nothiní ta do with that scuffle at the barn-dance, Ben. Iím realí sorry ta come out botheriní you at this time oí night, but I reckon as Iím on the devilís business."

Ben sat down. There was an edge in Royís voice that bothered him. "Then youíd better tell me about it."

"Well," Roy huffed, "had a fell ride inta town a couple oí days back. Name he signed in the hotel register was Abediah Harbinger." The sheriff paused, his alert grey eyes fixed on Benís face as he looked for a flicker of recognition. There was none. Ben had never heard the name before. Roy went on,

"Fella looks kinda like a gambler, the way he dresses Ďní all. ĎCarries hardware like a gunslinger, Ben. ĎGot a great big iron tucked under his coat, up high in a cross-draw holster."

"Sounds like trouble for someone." Ben made a steeple out of his fingers. "Canít you run him out of town before he starts something?"

Warmed back and front, Roy moved away from the fire and sat down in the other armchair. "As yet, he ainít done nothiní fer me ta rightly run him out oí town, for." Roy chewed at his lower lip. "All heís bin doiní is askiní a whole passel oí questions."

Ben had a strange sense of foreboding. "What sort of questions?"

"Well, mainly heís bin askiní all around town fer a man named Cartwright."

Benís breathing stilled. He leaned forward in the chair gazing at Roy with expectancy and dread.

"From the description heís giving out," Roy went on, "the man heís looking for is Adam."

"Adam?" Ben drew a long slow breath. It was as bad as he feared. "Why would a gunslinger be looking for Adam?"

"I didnít say he was a gunslinger," Roy hedged. "But he sure is tooled up like one. Iíve been through all my old wanted posters. Canít find one that looks nothiní like him."

"Has this - Harbinger? said why he wants to find Adam?"

"Heís keepiní that close against his chest. But I got an itchy feeliní he ainít handiní out no prizes."

Ben did some hard, fast thinking and came up empty. "Adamís been around," he said at last. "I suppose he might have made some enemies."

"Reckon every manís got enemies, Ben." Roy sighed. "ĎThing is, just about everyone in town knows Adam. Iíd bet my eye-teeth that by now, Abediah Harbinger knows just who Adam is and where he is. I thought you might like ta keep Adam out here at the ranch fer a while." Roy got to his feet and Ben rose with him. "Leastwise, until I cín figure out whatís goiní on."

Roy gathered up his hat and coat and started for the door.

Worried, Ben saw him out. "I appreciate your riding all the way out here and telling me this. Iíll have a talk with Adam."

"Sure wouldnít want that boy of yours ta step in the way of another bullet, Ben. That Colt Harbingerís carryiní Ďd make one hellíve a hole in a man."

The two of them walked outside to Royís horse, both of them thinking his own thoughts. Roy collected his reins and swung up. "Course," he said, chewing his lip again, "I canít stop this fella takiní a ride out here ta the ranch, ifín he takes a mind to."

Ben stared at him, speechless. That was a thought that hadnít yet occurred to him.

Roy touched his hat brim. "You take care, Ben."

For a long time after the sound of hoof-beats had died away, Ben stood in the yard and stared into the night. His fists were clenched at his sides. Could it really be that he had snatched his much-loved son back from the jaws of death, and then from fearful disability, only to lose him to some deranged gunfighter? When, eventually, Ben turned and walked slowly back into the house, not only was he chilled to the bone, but that hard knot of dread had re-established itself firmly in the pit of his belly.

Thirteen

Joe swore as he pulled on his boots and headed for the bedroom door. Not only had he lost that last, late night checkers game to Hoss and as a consequence, incurred his brotherís share of the twice-weekly mail runs to town for the next month, but he had over-slept as well. By now, with first light already showing above the eastern hills, he should have been well on his was to Virginia City. Still sleepy and somewhat dishevelled, he was tiptoeing along the passage towards the stairs in the hope of slipping out on his errand unnoticed when Adamís door opened in front of him.

Adam was shaved and brushed and fully dressed in his habitual black. He looked rested and healthier than he had for a long time. Adam looked his brother over,

"I thought youíd be long gone by now, Joe."

Joe put a finger to his lips and shushed him, looking anxiously towards his fatherís bedroom.

Adam said a silent "Ah!" of understanding. He took Joe by the upper arm and, smiling walked him to the top of the stairs. Joe, delighted to have his brother back complete with his sometimes weird sense of humour, had difficulty suppressing his giggles.

Still casting glances at their parents closed bedroom-door, the two brothers went quietly down the stairs. They installed themselves at the table in the kitchen and Hop Sing delighted in serving them breakfast. He gave them hot oatmeal with milk and warm honey for sweetening, and eggs, fried both sides for Joe because that was the way he liked them best, and lightly steamed for Adam.

Well filled, they strolled out to the barn in the strengthening light and chatted while Joe saddled his horse. Adam moved easily, with his habitual grace and his typically rolling, horsemanís gait. He felt well again. The colic, and the cramps, and the sharp, stabbing pain that had plagued him were gone. He had been left with a lingering soreness, and even that was fading, hour by hour.

Joe led the mare into the yard and mounted. He touched his hat to his brother.

"Guess Iíll be a couple of hours, Adam."

Adam grinned, "Thatís about as long as it takes!" He raised his hand in farewell as Joe rode away into the frosty haze of the morning.

Reluctant, for the moment, to return to the house and the inevitable cushioning of his family, Adam went back into the barn. He knew that they all cared for him deeply and only meant him well, but he was tired of being an invalid. He wanted some time by himself to relish his return to health and to start thinking about a future without pain and disability.

An hour later, he was still in the barn, sitting on an upturned box and scratching the mother cat under her chin. She had her nose pointed to the roof of the barn and her eyes closed in ecstasy. They were holding a conversation of nonsense noises and loud purring that Adam would have been embarrassed to have anyone overhear.

A large shadow fell across the doorway. Adam looked up. It was his brother, Hoss. Hoss was both pleased and relieved to find his brother apparently happy and well.

"Hey. Adam. ĎBin lookiní all over for ya. ĎMissed ya at breakfast."

"I ate early, with Joe."

Absently, Hoss picked up a kitten. "Pa was askiní for ya. He looked kinda worried."

Adam sighed. It seemed to him that lately, his Pa had mostly looked worried, and he had to confess that he had caused most of the concern himself. Right now, he didnít think he could face up to any more of it. "I expect he wants to go over the details of that contract again. I donít think he understood it when I explained it yesterday. Iíll talk to him later."

"Guess youíre right." Hoss sat down on another box, engrossed in the kitten.

"Say, Adam, ainít these kittens cute little critters?"

"They sure are. But I only count five. You lost one someplace?"

"Heck, no," Hoss coloured. "I gave one ta Mary."

Adam smiled a slow smile. He knew how much his brother cared for the little cats. To have presented one to a friend was surely a gift of love.

"I found homes fer all of Ďem now," Hoss said. "ĎCepting this one." He gave his brother a sly, sideways glance, assessing his mood. "Say Adam, howíd you like ta have this lilí gal fer your own self?"

Adamís pleasant expression broadened into a wide smile that brought dimples to his cheeks and made his eyes sparkle. He held out his hands for the kitten. "Hoss, I thought you were never going to ask me!"

Knowing that the chores had to be done, the brothers worked together methodically in the barn. Sensible of his brotherís sore belly, Hoss did the heavy work, shovelling out the muck and hauling the straw. Adam performed the lighter tasks, careful not to over-tax himself. Joe, with impeccable timing, arrived home just as the work was finished. He led his mare into the barn, with Joe Drury trailing along behind.

Joe turned his mare, still saddled, into her stall and pulled the bundled mail from his inside pocket.

"These are mostly for Pa, but thereíre a couple for you, Adam. Looks like a letter from Only Harken, aní another list of titles from that fancy bookshop in Silver City." He handed over the envelopes. "Aní thereís one for you, Jody."

Joe Drury took the white packet as if here afraid that it might singe his fingers. "I ainít never had no letter before."

Joe grinned at him. "Go on, open it up."

Jody broke the seal with clumsy fingers and unfolded the single sheet of paper. "I guess itís from my Ma. Thereís a fella in the next street Ďwrites letters fer ten cents a page." He frowned at the handwriting. "This ainít like the printing in the books, Adam. I canít read none of it."

"Iíll read it to you, if you like." Adam put down his kitten and took the letter. "It is from your Ma. Itís got her mark right here on the bottom." He scanned the page swiftly. "She says she hopes that you got here safe, and that youíre working hard and learning your lessons. And she wishes you a happy Birthday!"

Hoss and Joe broke into wide smiles. Hoss slapped Jody on the back and made him stagger. "Hey, you didnít tell us it was your Birthday!"

Jody blushed bright red. Joe Cartwright put an arm across his shoulders.

"I reckon, that calls for a celebration. What do you say, Adam?"

Speculatively, Adam looked the young man over. "How old are you Jody?"

"Reckon as Iím fifteen."

"Well, thatís a man grown." Adam folded the letter and handed it back. "I say that calls for a trip to town. My treat. How about it, boys?"

Hoss and Joe exchanged looks. Joe said, "You sure youíre up to ridiní all that way?"

Adam looked at him with calm eyes. "Iím up to it."

"I guess I canít make it." Hoss looked both embarrassed and pleased at the same time. "I promised Iíd drive Mary up to the lake this afternoon."

Joe and Adam looked at each other with knowing smiles as Hoss began to turn red from the collar of his shirt up. They both knew the significance of introducing a lady to the lake.

"Just the three of us, then," Adam said.

"But Pa...." Joe began.

Adam stood up and dusted off his butt. He was sick and tired of having folks fussing over him. "We wonít tell Pa . Heíll only worry about me. Hoss could you bring our horses Ďround to the side of the house? In about twenty minutes?"

Hoss was still doubtful, "Sure, Adam. Ifín youíre sure...."

"Iím sure." Adam was feeling the excitement of what, after all, was a very small adventure. It had been a long time since he had felt so well. A trip to town and a little recreation was just what he needed. He looked at the two younger men.

"Letís see if we can sneak past Pa and get into some fancy clothes."

A half-hour later the three of them, resplendent in their dress suits, crept quietly down the stairs. Ben was nowhere in sight. Outside, Hoss was waiting with the horses. His big hand was on the chestnutís muzzle, quietening him. Adam, wearing his long, full-skirted, silk-lined coat over a white linen shirt and ribbon tie, and tight-fitting striped pants, climbed aboard. He gathered up the reins and grinned at his brother.

Hoss put his misgivings aside . His brother was well again. It was plain to see from his face and from the way he sat in the saddle. The dreadful, hunched attitude was gone. Adam rode tall and straight with his hips well forward and his shoulders back. "You boys have a realí good time."

"You to, Hoss." Joe nodded, and he and Joe Drury rode quietly away from the house.

Adam, still smiling, lifted his hand in farewell and pulled his horse round. He touched his heels to the chestnutís sides and cantered after the other two.

******************************************

After the bright and relatively chill sunlight of the street outside, Eli Huxtonís General Store was dim. It smelled of tallow and lavender, hemp and leather. Dust motes danced in the sunbeams. Adam ushered the two younger men inside.

Huxton, always alert for customers, hustled forward when he heard the door open. Keenly, he looked the three men over. The youngest - not much more than a boy - with the tow coloured hair and the strange green and gold eyes he recalled, vaguely, and the memory worried him. The other two he knew well. They were Ben Cartwrightís sons, dressed up like gentlemen, and potentially very good customers indeed. Adam Cartwright, coming through the door behind the other two, nodded to him.

"Eli."

"Adam." Huxton bobbed his head and manfully refrained from rubbing his hands together. "Itís realí good to see you in town again."

Adam smiled a wry smile. Eli knew, and Adam knew that he knew, the ignominious conclusion to his last trip to town.

Huxtonís eyes slid away uneasily to where Joe and Jody were investigating the clothing on the shelves. He remembered the boy now. He was the one in league with the ragamuffins who had robbed his shop a week ago. Huxton was still feeling resentful.

Wandering up and down the shelves, Joe finally found what he was looking for. Calling Jody over, he took the round, hard-topped hat off his head and with great finality, dumped it on a shelf. He proceeded to try a succession of soft crowned, felt hats until he found one that both fit, and suited. It was a greenish-brown colour that went well with the eyes. Joe stood back and admired his choice. The hat had transformed Jodyís appearance from a gangling boy to that of a tall, lean young man.

"There you go, Jody," Joe said. "Happy Birthday!"

Adam had walked all the way through the store and stood beside the gun cabinet at the back. He beckoned to Huxton. "Hey, Eli, come and unlock this for me."

"Sure thing, Adam." Huxton hurried over with the key.

Adam picked up several of the guns, carefully weighing each one in his hand. Joe watched, hands on hips. Jody, knowing in his gut what was coming, felt his mouth go dry.

Adam finally selected a gun and laid it down on the counter-top. He looked up at Jody and there was a strange expression in his dark-hazel eyes. Adam hated the necessity of a man having to live with a gun on his hip, but here, in the west, that was the way it had to be. Ever a practical man, Adam acknowledged that, for his lifetime at least, the gun was a tool of the cowboyís trade.

"Pick that up, Jody, and see how it feels."

With a knot of unaccountable apprehension in his belly, Joe Drury picked up the gun. It felt uncomfortably large in his hand, and it was a lot heavier than he had expected. He licked his lips and looked at Adam.

The elder Cartwright seemed satisfied. "Iíll take the Colt, Eli. And a belt and holster to fit Jody, here."

Glad of the sale, Huxton hastened to supply the required goods. Joe looked more doubtful.

"You know what youíre doing, Adam?"

Adam raised a dark eyebrow at him. "How old were you when Pa bought you your first handgun, Joe?"

"You were right there, Adam. I was just fifteen."

"Me, to." Adam gave him a lopsided grin that was without any humour at all.

"Jody hasnít got a Pa, so I guess Iím elected." He switched his gaze to the storekeeper. "Put the gun on my account, Eli."

The Cartwrights showed Jody how to adjust the gunbelt so that it rode easily on his hips, and the handgun, in its holster, hung low on his thigh. The smooth, black-handled grip settled within comfortable reach of his hand. The holster tied down just above his knee. Unaccustomed to the weight on his hip, Jody walked awkwardly, stiffed legged. Before long, the weight would become comfortable, and comforting.

Adam leaned back, a big, powerful man, and looked him full in the face. "Starting tomorrow," he said sternly, "Iíll show you how to use it. Starting right now, you remember, you never draw a gun on a man unless youíre prepared to kill him."

They were the same words that his father had spoken to him, half a lifetime ago.

In just a very short time, Jody had fallen into the cowboyís habit of never walking when he could ride. The three young men swung into their saddles and walked their horses along the street to the Bucket of Blood saloon.

Adam led the way to the bar.

"Make that three beers, Josh."

Jody looked at the light brown fluid with its thin, white head as if uncertain of what to do with it. He had never tasted beer. Joe and Adam each swallowed half of their first glass in a single draught. They appeared to enjoy it. Jody took a mouthful and gagged as he choked it down. When he came up for air, he found the Cartwright brothers laughing at him. Resolutely, he wiped the rime of foam from his mouth and took another, more cautious sip.

Adam bought them all a substantial, late lunch of bread, cheese and pickled onions, which they ate at a table over by the window, and several more beers as they whiled the afternoon away. Jody found that he developed a taste for the stuff. He soon had a full bladder and a not-unpleasant buzzing in his head.

Outside in the street, it was growing dark when Adam stretched himself in his chair and suggested just one more beer. Jody, full of confidence - and beer, offered to fetch them. During the course of the afternoon the saloon had gradually filled with patrons. By now, men were standing hip to hip along the entire length of the bar. Jody had to push his way through.

He handed over the coin Adam had given him and picked up the three glasses. Carrying them carefully, he started to back out of the line. Someone shoved him hard in the back. The beer slopped in the glasses and spilled down the front of a burly, bearded miner.

The miner yelled and stepped back, shoving into several other men who objected loudly. He looked down at his wet pants and shirtfront. Then he glared at Jody.

"Why donít you look where youíre damned well goiní, kid? Look what youí done!"

Flushing scarlet, Jody looked. The miner was as tall and as broad as Hoss Cartwright, with a big belly and massive legs. He wore high boots with the legs of his pants tucked inside and a broad leather belt. A handgun was tucked behind the buckle of the belt. He was very damp and very angry. Jody tried to back away but the press of men prevented him.

"Iím sorry, Mister." Suddenly, he was starting to feel rather sick.

The miner, who also had a belly full of beer, was not about to be mollified. He looked Jody over, taking in the wiry frame, the youthful looks, and the business-like, strapped-down gun. He thrust his face into Jodyís and belched beer fumes. "Iíve a good mind to make you really goddamned sorry, kid!"

There was a general scuffling and shuffling as men cleared a space around them.

"Reckon," the miner sneered, "itís time someone gave you a hidiní, taught you some Goddamned manners!"

Jody, his hands still full of beer glasses, didnít know which way to turn.

From behind, a lean, brown hand came over the minerís shoulder and grabbed him by the shirt, turning him.

"If youíve got something to teach," Adam Cartwright said, "why donít you try teaching it to me?"

The miner stood back while his beer fuddled brain assessed this new, and very real, threat. His big hands flexed.

Adamís right hand moved, his fingertips lightly brushing back the skirts of his coat and revealing the black butt of the Colt on his hip. His eyes, now a darker shade of brown, were fixed on the miners face. He settled into a slight crouch. His face was very intent and very earnest. The miner licked his lips. He knew deadly peril when he met it face-on.

"I ainít got no quarrel wií you, Mister," he said warily, watching Adamís face.

Adam was angry, but not angry enough to get careless. He straightened, relaxing. "Then back off the boy."

"Okay! Okay!" The miner spread his hands wide. Anxious to save face, he leered round at his companions, "If heís a special friend of yours...."

Adam lunged at him.

Several pairs of strong hands grabbed Adam by the arms and hauled him off, but not before he had buried his fist in the minerís face, and felt cartilage crumple.

The miner looked down at the blood that dripped steadily from his face and mingled with the beer on his shirtfront. Back in control of his temper, Adam shrugged off the restraining hands and straightened his coat. "In future," he said tightly, "pick your fights with a man your own size."

Adam drew a deep breath. As the adrenaline surge in his blood subsided, he quickly regained his good humour. He put his arms through the arms of his young companions and guided them towards the bat-wing doors. "And now, gentlemen," he said with a grin, we come to the highlight of the evening."

On the way out, he brushed hips with a big man in a rusty-black dress suit.

A few steps inside the saloon, Abediah Harbinger stopped and stood still, frowning, thinking hard. He walked back to the swing doors and looked out. The description he had been given fitted one of those young men very well indeed. Still frowning, he watched them mount their horses and ride away.

It was dark in the streets of Virginia City as Adam Cartwright led his brother and Jody across town. When Joe asked where they were headed he merely shook his head. A small smile played around his mouth.

He stopped his horse outside an impressive, three-storey building on a prominent corner lot.

He stepped down and added his horse to the small remuda already tied to the hitching rail. Joining his brother on the ground, Joe pushed his hat to the back of his head and looked up at the building with a growing feeling of excitement.

"Hey, Adam, this hereís Miss Lucyís!"

Adamís incipient smile widened. "You got it in one, Joe. If weíre gonna make a man out oí the boy, we might as well do it in style."

Joe whooped and clapped Jody on the shoulder. A gleeful grin split his face. "This hereís the fanciest whorehouse east of Sacramento!"

Jody gaped.

"Come on, boys. This is my treat." Adam started for the door.

Fancy it certainly was. The building was white painted clapboard on a stout wooden frame. There were dark-blue shutters at every window and pots of fragrant flowers on the sidewalk. Lamps spilled golden light out into the night, and music could be heard from inside.

Adam led the way up the steps and pulled the bell-pull. In the red light of the porch lantern he watched the faces of the younger men with amusement. A moment later the polished door was opened by a dusky skinned maid in a stark black dress and a white apron. There was a frill of white lace in her hair. She bobbed a curtsy and opened the door wider. Adam removed his hat and led the way inside.

Joe wasnít entirely a stranger to Miss Lucyís establishment, but never in his wildest fancies had he ever imagined spending an evening there as a guest of his oldest brother. Oh, he had slipped in quietly a time or two when he was flush with poker winnings. He was always careful to leave his distinctive horse at the stables and to step in and out quickly when the street was empty. Visions of Adam taking him by the ear and dragging him home should he be discovered had always hovered in the background. Damn, he thought, no matter how good you think you got olí Adam figured, he could always surprise you. Still, he had no intention of confessing his familiarity with the house.

The short hallway was Spartan and unadorned, but the room that the maid showed them to was as elaborate as a fine ladyís parlour. Which, in fact, it was. The walls were covered with pale, rose sprigged silk and hung with square, gilt-framed mirrors. Each mirror had cost a fortune to ship around the Cape and haul over the mountains in a wagon. Between the mirrors were wall-mounted candle sconces, bright with tall wax candles. A central chandelier hung from the ceiling. There were pale rugs on the floor and bowls of flowers on the sideboards. The room was furnished with overstuffed sofas, little gilded chairs with padded seats and highly polished, bow-legged tables. An elegant, mahogany bar filled one corner.

The dark-skinned maid took their hats and bobbed another curtsy. After offering drinks, she slipped away, softly closing the door behind her. Perfectly at ease, Adam sat down on a sofa, spreading himself wide. The smile was still dimpling his cheeks. He was enjoying himself. The obvious discomfort of the younger men amused him, and he was looking forward to a very pleasant evening. Joe prowled uneasily and Jody was having difficulty keeping his mouth closed; his jaw had developed an unnerving tendency to drop. He had a notion of what was expected of him but no idea whatever of how he would cope.

They were not left to cool their heels for long - just long enough to sharpen their anticipation. The tall double doors at the far end of the room opened, and a woman swept in. She was tall, almost as tall as Adam. She had a classically beautiful face that was no longer young, but perfectly preserved and beautifully made-up. Her elaborately coiled hair was golden and studded with jade-headed pins. Her form was tightly corseted and she wore a gown of black and gold in the latest, elegant style. Her smile touched each of the men in turn, but when her eyes lit on Adam, her face glowed with pleasure. She came swiftly towards him, her hands outstretched.

"Adam! How lovely to see you!"

Adam, rising to his feet at her entrance, advanced towards her, and took her hands in his.

"Miss Lucy. How charming you look this evening."

They exchanged kisses on either cheek. They already knew each other very well.

Joe found himself emulating Jody and closed his mouth.

Still holding Adam by the hands, Miss Lucy stood back and looked at him critically. "Weíve missed seeing you, Adam. I heard that you were ill."

"Iím well again, now." Adam turned to introduce the younger men. "This is my brother, Joe, and Jody, a friend. Jodyís just turned fifteen today. I thought you might find something special for him." He gave her a broad, but secret, wink.

Miss Lucy laughed lightly. If Adam didnít know that his brother Joe had been here before, she was far to discrete to reveal that information. "Iím sure I can find entertainment for all of you!" She linked her arm in Adamís, but her smile included them all. "Come on through, boys."

Beyond the tall door was a salon in the French style. It was filled with the golden light of a dozen crystal chandeliers, reflected and re-reflected from walls lined with mirrors. The furnishings were green and gold. There were huge, stuffed sofas of broadly striped brocade, where the ladies of the house reclined in their elegant gowns. There was some statuary in the classical, Grecian style. The subjects were men and women together, and the detail so sexually explicit that it brought heat to even Joe Cartwrightís cheeks. A wide staircase, carpeted in green, curved in shallow steps up to the ladyís rooms above.

There were, perhaps, thirty women in the large room, and half that number of male guests. Throughout, there was a murmur of conversation and the chink of glasses. At the far end of the room, on a low platform, a white-coated Negro servant played the pianoforte.

Still holding to Adamís arm, Miss Lucy looked round the room. "Hanna is still here, Adam. You remember Hanna?"

Adam chuckled gleefully, "How could I forget?"

Miss Lucy caught the eye of one of the ladies and nodded. "And thereís Beth. Beth is new. I think youíll come to enjoy her company."

Gracefully, Miss Lucy relinquished her grip on Adamís arm to a younger, dark-eyed woman with a white smile and raven-black ringlets. Adam didnít mind a bit.

Miss Lucy smiled and turned her attention to the younger men. Stepping between them, she slid her arms through theirs and walked them further into the salon. She was not unaware of the stunned expressions on their faces. "Let me see," her sparkling eyes darted Ďround the room. "You Joseph, I think would enjoy an evening spent with Amy."

A slim girl with silver-grey eyes slid a hand through Joeís arm on the other side and led him away. There was not the slightest doubt in Joeís mind that it would be a banner evening. Miss Lucy glanced sideways at Jody. "And for you, young man, perhaps Faith...."

Neither Joe, nor Jody noticed when Adam, an attractive woman on either arm, steered his way up the staircase.

Fourteen

For a week past, breakfast, in the Cartwright household, had not been the most placid of meals. This particular morning had been no exception. The atmosphere between the menfolk had been stiff with tension. Adam, Joe and Jody, after an absence of a full day and a night, had appeared, with apparent nonchalance at the table, and offered no immediate explanation. They came quickly to understand that Ben was furious.

Having eventually extracted the truth of the wandererís whereabouts from a reluctant Hoss, the oldest Cartwrightís anxiety had turned abruptly into outright rage. With a guest at his table, and in the presence of a lady, he had been unable to vent his feelings in the manner that he preferred. However, the looks of black fury that he had dispensed throughout the meal had effectively destroyed everyoneís appetite. The pile of wasted food had induced yet another explosion of indignation from the Chinese cook. Even now, Jenny was in the kitchen attempting, loudly, to dissuade him from taking a prolonged holiday with relatives on the coast. Toby had retreated, upstairs to make last minute preparations for his journey. Ben had gathered the four objects of his wrath into the living area and was giving them, at length, the benefit of his opinion. The word Ďirresponsibleí had already crossed his lips several times.

"So, you thought you would spend the day in town?" he demanded of the four lowered heads. "It never occurred to any one of you to tell me where you were going?"

"We didnít want to worry you, Pa." Joe, always the reckless one, dared a quick glance at his fatherís face. The expression was as thunderous as he had feared.

"You didnít want to worry me?"

Collectively, the Cartwright brothers winced. It was always a bad sign when Ben started to repeat what they said.

"None of you thought that not knowing where you were, might worry me?" The volume had begun to rise. Benís angry glare darted from one face to another. Jody and Joe sat side by side on the sofa, twin studies in misery. Their chins were on their chests and their eyes downcast. Hoss perched on the edge of the round table picking at the seam of his pants with studious concentration. Adam was in the red armchair wearing an expression, which, while not exactly contrite, indicated that he at least regretted getting caught.

Benís attention centred on Hoss first, merely as a warming up exercise for the others. "You, young man, were very late in last night."

Hoss looked suitably sheepish. "Aw, Pa! I already done told ya where I was. I drove Mary up ta the lake, aní then I stayed fer supper over at the Fletcherís farm. I was tellin, Maryís Pa how Iíd go over there tíday Ďní help him raise up the sides oí his new house."

"Did you indeed?" Ben glowered. This was a detail his son had not imparted under questioning the evening before. "Donít you think we have enough work for you around here? What about the fencing? And the calf-cutting that hasnít been finished yet? And how about that new timber contract that has to be met?"

Hoss concentrated very hard on the seam in his pants. "I done promised, Pa."

Ben heaved a heavy sigh. "You promised," he repeated. The words were loaded with exactly what he thought of the pledge, but he wouldnít ask his son to break it. Once given, a Cartwrightís word was binding. His angry gaze switched to the two younger men.

"And where were you two until the early hours of the morning?"

The rapid exchange of glances between the two did not go unnoticed.

Jody had not yet learned the wisdom of, whenever possible, remaining silent when Ben Cartwright got mad. "We was in Virginia City, sir," he offered, uneasily. It only added fuel to the already brightly burning flames.

"I know you were in Virginia City." Benís voice dropped dangerously, in prelude to a full-throated roar. His sons knew what was coming and braced themselves.

"Where, exactly, in Virginia City were you, that you didnít get back here until almost five oíclock this morning?"

Jody, awe-struck by the sheer volume of the big manís voice, opened his mouth, but no sound came out of it. Joe Cartwright gulped. He knew there was no help for it. Ben would get it out of one of them in the end, and then matters would be worse.

Quietly, he admitted, "We was in Miss Lucyís place, Pa."

"Where?" Ben didnít hear right - or thought he didnít hear right.

Joe said again, just a little louder, "We were in Miss Lucyís."

This time, Ben was sure he heard it right. He leaned back and stared at his son. He knew all about Miss Lucyís, by reputation if not from first hand experience. The woman had arrived in town on the stage two years ago, with a big trunk and a carpetbag full of money. She had then proceeded to set up what was, from all reports, the grandest and most comprehensive brothel in the western states.

"Youíre telling me that you two - boys - were in Miss Lucyís?"

Joe shrugged. His voice rose an octave, to something approaching a squeak. "Itís okay, Pa. We were with Adam."

Benís face froze. Incredulous, he repeated, "You were with Adam?" He turned ponderously to confront his eldest. All the wealth of words he had been saving to bestow on him died unuttered.

"And what," he demanded, "were you doing in Miss Lucyís?"

Adam raised his eyes to meet his fatherís black gaze with a level stare of his own.

"Heck, Pa, what the hell do you think I was doing?"

It was, perhaps, fortunate that Toby Addington chose that exact moment to make his appearance at the top of the stairs. He saved Ben the necessity of formulating a reply, and Adam, that of elucidating further. He came down the steps with his travelling bag in his hand and his usual, cheerful grin on his face. His bright blue eyes were a-sparkle.

"Well, Ben, Iíve said my farewells to Jenny and the little lad. If one of your boys would kindly drive me into town, Iíll catch the stage and be on my way."

Ben strode across the room to shake his friend by the hand.

"Toby, itís been a real pleasure to have you stay here."

All Tobyís bags and boxes were piled ready beside the door. It was the work of only a few minutes for Hoss to load them all into the buckboard. The family started to move into the front yard to say goodbye to their guest. In the doorway, Ben paused, looking back. Adam was loitering at the back, as always. Ben caught his eye, and barely refrained from wagging a finger. "You stay right here in the house."

"Pa!" Adamís eyes flared with resentment. How dare his father treat him as if he were six?

Now, Ben did wag his finger. "Right here! I need to talk to you!"

Adam spread his hands in a typical ĎI give upí gesture that he knew infuriated his father, and retreated back into the living room.

Ben walked side by side with Toby to the buckboard. "Josephís going to drive you in to town. Youíll be in plenty of time to catch the stage."

Toby fingered the brim of his hat, looking up into his friendís face. "Itís been good to visit with you, Ben." They shook hands one final time, and Toby climbed up alongside Joe.

"You be sure and stop by next time youíre passing," Ben said.

Toby raised his hand and Joe geeíd up the team. Ben stood in the yard until the sound of the buckboardís wheels had faded away. Hoss led his black horse out of the barn.

"Guess Iíll be goiní over ta the Fletcherís place now, Pa."

Ben looked him over and gave a small, exasperated sigh, "Yes, son. I guess you will."

Hoss stood and fiddled with his reins, evidently debating something with himself.

Ben waited.

"Pa, about what we was talkiní about - me leaviní aní all."

"I remember, son." Ben braced himself for more problems. "I remember I asked you to think it over."

"Ií sure bin thinkiní, Pa." The ice blue eyes darted swiftly to his fatherís face, and then away again, towards the mountains. "I bin thinkiní as how I got all my folks here: you ní Jenny, aní Daniel, aní Joe aní Adam. Aní I got the Reserved Section aní all the work right here on the ranch. Aní now I got me Mary." Hoss coloured. "Sheís a right fine lady, Pa."

Ben smiled. "Iím sure she is, son."

Hoss looked at his feet. "Well, sir, I donít reckon as I got nothiní ta leave for. Everythiní I want out aí lifeís right here. So if itís all right with you, Iíd kinda like ta stay."

Benís face had broken into a beaming smile. "It sure is fine by me, Hoss!"

The big, gentle man grinned and swung up into his saddle. He raised his hand to his father, and with a whoop and a holler, he galloped out of the yard.

Laughing, Ben started to turn. He caught sight of Jody, "And you, young man, can take care of the chores in the barn."

Ben went back into the house. Adam was still in the living room, as instructed, smouldering.

Indicating that he should follow, Ben walked over to the office area and sat down in his chair. Trying not to look - or feel - too much like a recalcitrant child, Adam sauntered over. He hooked a black clad thigh over the corner of the desk. Ben looked into his face,

"Adam, I need to talk to you about a serious matter."

"If you mean buying Jody a handgun...."

Ben waved that issue aside. "If you hadnít done it, I would. Time the boy turned into a man."

"Then, if you want me to explain about Miss Lucyís...."

"I donít need you to explain that, either. What do you know about a man who calls himself Abediah Harbinger?"

Adamís eyes flickered as he changed mental tracks. "Iíve never heard the name, Pa."

"He appears to know yours very well. I had Roy out here, evening before last. He says this Harbinger has been asking all over town for you.

"For me?" Adam shrugged. "Iíll get my horse and ride into town, find out what he wants." Slipping of the edge of the desk, he had already started for the door.

"Adam!" The stern edge to Benís voice stopped him in his tracks. "Roy doesnít like the look of this man. He says heís tooled up like a gunslinger."

Adamís face registered the shock he felt. "A gunslinger? Asking for me?" He walked slowly back to the desk. "Is he saying why?"

"No. But Roy thinks you should stay out at here at the ranch until he finds out what itís all about."

"Surely, the easiest way is for me to go and ask him?"

It might have seemed a logical course to Adam, but the thought of his son confronting this faceless stranger filled Ben with dread.

"I donít want you to go to town, Adam."

"But Pa...."

Ben was insistent. "I want you to promise me that youíll stay on the Ponderosa until we hear from Roy."

Adam was both concerned and frustrated. His instinct was to sort the matter out at once, but hearing the edge in his fatherís voice, he acquiesced. "Just as you say, Pa. If thatís what you want."

Ben sat back in his chair and allowed himself to relax, just a little. "Itís what I want."

Adam started for the door again, reaching for his hat and his gunbelt. Ben got up and went after him. "Where are you going now?"

Adam fastened the gunbelt. "Iím going out behind the barn, Pa. I promised Jody Iíd teach him how to shoot. He put his hat on his head, "And," he added, "I guess Iíd better put in a little practice myself."

Deeply troubled, Ben stood in the doorway and watched his tall son walk across the yard to the barn.

***********************************

Joe tossed the last of Toby Addingtonís boxes up to the man on the roof of the stagecoach.

"I guess thatís the last of it, Toby." He dusted off his hands and held out his right for a handshake. "Itís been good having you around. Youíve got some great stories."

Addingtonís blue eyes twinkled. "Iíll stop by someday and tell you a few more, Little Joe." He climbed up into the coach and slammed the door. He leaned out of the window. "You take care of that nice little family of yours."

Joe touched the brim of his hat. "I will, Toby."

From the high seat at the front of the coach, the driver whipped up the team and the coach pulled away. Joe stood watching, hands on hips, until it was out of sight. It was, he decided with a lopsided grin, about time for a man to buy himself a beer.

The interior of the Silver Dollar was comfortable and familiar. Joe pushed his hat far back on his head, hooked his boot onto the bar-rail and ordered that beer. At this midmorning hour the saloon was starting to fill up with customers. A quartet of old-timers had laid claim to their customary corner table, and were dealing out the first hand of their perpetual, low-stake, daylong poker game. A dozen or so cowboys populated the other tables and several more stood shoulder to shoulder with Joe at the bar.

Joe relished the beer, and the time alone to drink it. Much as he revered his family, it was occasionally pleasant to have an hour to himself.

The man beside him drank up and moved away. Joe spread himself a little wider and ordered another beer. Looking up, he caught sight of himself in the long, behind-the-bar mirror. Once again his brown curls had grown to the point of unruliness. He knew that it would please his father if he got them trimmed, unbidden, before he rode home. Contemplating an encounter with the barberís chair, he raised the second beer to his lips.

Someone jostled roughly into his elbow.

"Hey!" Joe spluttered and narrowly avoided soaking his shirt. Turning to confront his assailant, he found his gaze travelling upwards.

The man who had nudged his arm stood unrepentant, head and shoulders above him. Dressed from head to foot in rusty black, he had lean hips and a deep chest. Long, grey hair was tied back with a ribbon beneath a black hat. The beardless face was long and made to look longer by the vertical creases that lined it. The grey eyes that regarded Joe were icy cold.

Joe shook off the immediate sense of intimidation. "You spilled my beer, Mister!"

The grey-eyed stranger gazed at him. "Iím told you go by the name of Cartwright."

Increasingly uneasy, Joe took a step backwards. "Thatís my name."

The gaze swept over him from crown to toes. The slight build, the youthful face, the brown curls and the low-slung, left-handed gun were all carefully noted.

"You got a brother? Bigger Ďn you? Older? Darker?"

Joe bristled. "Who wants to know?"

A flicker of amusement flared, and died, in the eyes. "The nameís Abediah Harbinger. You remember it, boy. Ií got business with your brother."

Joe responded in level tones, "I ainít no boy, Mister. ĎYou got business with a Cartwright, Ďyou tell me what it is."

Harbinger took a long step forward, crowding Joe into the men behind him. Joe swallowed. Something hard was balling up in the pit of his belly, and he had an uncomfortable feeling that it might be fear. "Why donít you just tell me what your business with my brother is?"

With the spread fingers of his right hand, Harbinger pushed Joe solidly in the chest and sent him stumbling back. His left hand brushed back the edge of his coat to reveal the grip of the huge Colt high up on his belt, butt forward. Joeís eyes widened. Behind him, the bar was suddenly vacated.

Harbinger thrust his face forward. Joe could smell his breath. The remote grey stare chilled him to the very core. It struck terror into his heart.

Reading his face, or, perhaps, his mind, Harbingerís lips twitched. "Donít be afraid, boy. I always throw the little ones back. You just tell your brother, eleven oíclock, tomorrow morning. Iím calliní him out. You hear me?"

Joe was trembling and his body was wet with sweat. He could smell his own fear. Not trusting himself to speak, he nodded.

Harbinger regarded him a moment longer with a look less caring than contempt. Then, he turned on his heel. The spurs on his boots rang into the intense silence of the room as he crossed the floor and pushed through the doors into the street.

********************************

Ben and Adam were standing together on the porch discussing, of all things, the possibility of a change in the weather when Joe drove the buckboard, at top speed, into the yard and dragged the team to a sliding stop. The horseís hides were stained with sweat and their sides were heaving. As his father and brother stepped out into the yard, Joe all but fell from the driving seat. His face was bed-sheet white and he was shaking. Ben caught hold of him and steadied him while he struggled for control.

"Easy, son. Easy." Ben was trying to get a look at him. "Are you hurt?"

Joeís tremor became trembling. He looked at his father with frightened eyes and then at his brother. He managed a shake of the head.

"I ainít hurt, Pa. Pa, thereís a fella in town. He.... Adam, he sent me to tell you, heís calling you out for a gunfight. Tomorrow!"

Ben looked at Adam over Joeís head and saw his own concern mirrored in his eldest sonís eyes. They both knew whom Joe meant. Ben breathed the name. "Harbinger!"

Adamís fists clenched and his face paled. Ben saw his lips set into a hard, straight line as he turned away and stalked into the house. The expression frightened him. Still supporting Joe, he went after him.

"Adam. Adam!"

Adam, his foot already on the bottom stair, stood still. Ben could see the knotted muscles at the hinge of his jaw. He deposited Joe on the sofa and gave Adam his full attention.

"You canít meet this man."

Adam turned to look at him. Ben saw on his face the bleakness that had been lurking in his eyes all day. "It doesnít look like heís giving me a whole lot of choice."

"Roy says he had the look of a professional gunfighter." Ben was abruptly very afraid as a worst nightmare started to come to life.

"What would you have me do, Pa?" Adamís voice was tight. "Run away?"

Ben thought fast. "You could take a trip. I have business in San Francisco, St. Louis, New Orleans."

"And what would I have to come back to?" Adam gazed at him levelly. "If I donít meet him, heíll come looking for me. If Iím not here, heíll get to me through my family." His hazel eyes shifted. "Look what heís done to Joe, just by talking to him. Suppose he gets at Jenny? Or at the baby? Danielís my brother as well, or had you forgotten?"

Upstairs, awakened by the raised voices, the baby began to wail. Both men glanced upwards.

Adam asked again, "What would you have me do, Pa?"

And Ben, for once, had no answer.

That night, the shouting done with, the entire family sat in silence and watched as Adam cleaned his Colt .44.

His face set into hard lines of stubborn determination, he sat at the round table and disassembled the gun. He wiped each part carefully with a soft cloth smeared with light machine oil, and set it aside. Ben decided to make one more try at talking to him.

"Adam...."

"Itís no use, Pa." Adam didnít look up at him. His lean, brown hands continued unfalteringly with their work. Each chamber of the gun was carefully loaded with a levelled measure of black powder and a paper wrapped ball. Adam tamped each load home and packed it down with grease. He loaded all six chambers.

Ben drew a long breath and said what had to be said. "Adam, if you go up against this man, frankly, Iím afraid of what might happen.

"So am I, Pa," Adam shot his father the briefest of glances. "But Iím not a coward."

"No one could think that of you, Adam."

Adam slid the chamber back into the reassembled gun and turned it, checking that the mechanism worked smoothly.

"Perhaps," Ben suggested, " If I rode in to see this man - talked to him...."

Adam looked at him directly. "I want you to keep out of it, Pa! Itís my affair! Just stand clear!"

"All right, son." Ben held up his hands. "Iíll stand away!"

Adam relaxed, just a little. "What I want to know, is why."

Now, Ben could see through the windows of his eyes and into his soul. He saw the fear, and the love of family, and the determination, but above all he saw confusion. Adam didnít understand why this was happening to him, any more than Ben did himself.

"This man Harbinger doesnít know me, Pa, and Iíve never heard of him. Someoneís paid him to come after me. Paid him to kill me. I want to know who, and why!"

Ben let out a long breath. "I guess the only way to find out, is to ask him."

Adam slid the gun into its holster. "I intend to," he said. "I intend to do just that."

Fifteen

Ben had been up all night, pacing the floor. Nothing Jenny had said, or done, had persuaded him to go to his bed, or even to sit in a chair. In torment, he had marched back and forth through all the small hours of the morning. He had wanted to go to Adam, to be with him, but Adam had firmly withdrawn himself, retiring to his room at midnight and not emerging since. He had wanted to ride into town to deal with this man Harbinger himself, if he could, but he had given his word. Now Joe had joined him, pacing one way as Ben went the other. It was only by good fortune that they avoided a collision.

Hoss heaved a great sigh. "Adamís realí quick with a gun, Pa. Maybe he cín beat this Harbinger ta the draw."

Ben turned on him. "Your brotherís fast," he said. "Heís about the fastest man with a gun that Iíve ever seen. But heís no gunfighter."

Joe stopped pacing. "There has to be something we can do to stop him."

Ben gazed at him with bleak, deeply troubled eyes. "If there is, Iím damned if I can think of it!" He didnít even notice the mild blasphemy.

Somewhere above stairs, a door closed. A moment later Adam came down the steps. He had shaved, carefully, and had put on a white shirt, open at the neck, and black pants. This morning, his eyes were very dark.

Ben stepped up to him. "I wish youíd reconsider this."

"Weíve discussed it, Pa. Iíve made up my mind. Iíve told you my reasons." His voice was flat, the tension inside him under iron control. He walked past his father to the door and strapped on his gun. Ben exchanged looks with Joe and Hoss and went after him. Already wearing his gunbelt, he reached for his hat. Adam looked at him.

"Iím going alone, Pa."

"No. Youíre not."

The two men met each otherís eyes in a ferocious battle of wills. It was Adam that looked away. "All right, Pa. But this is my fight. You have to keep out of it."

Ben sighed and gave his word. "Iíll keep out of it, son."

Shrugging into their coats, they went out into the yard. Their horses were already saddled and waiting. Adam shook hands with his brothers and kissed Jenny on the cheek. There didnít seem to be any words left to say. Father and son, they mounted up and rode for Virginia City.

*****************************

Word of the impending gunfight had spread through the town like wildfire. The main street was all but devoid of life by the time Adam and Ben rode in. Aware of furtive sidling and secretive looks, they drew rein and sat studying the faces of the buildings. All the familiar places were blank faced and impersonal. Ben, aware of the tension Adam was feeling, directed him to the doctorís office.

"You go and wait with Paul. Iíll meet you there in a few minutes." He was glad that, for once, Adam was disinclined to argue. Ben touched his heels to the buckskin and rode directly down Main Street to the Sheriffís Office.

Roy Coffee was expecting him. He looked up wearily as his old friend came in through the door.

"I know why youíre here, Ben."

Ben put his hands flat on the desk and glared across it at the man in the chair. "And just what are you going to do about it?"

"Do? There ainít nothiní I can do. This here fellaís called Adam out, but he ainít broke no law."

"Heís going to kill my son!"

Roy chewed on his lip. "If he does that, then I can arrest him. Afterwards. For murder. But if itís a fair fight, there ainít no jury thatíll convict him. You know the way it works, Ben."

Benís shoulders slumped. "I know the way it works." He straightened up. "But Adamís not a gunfighter, Roy. Against this Harbinger, he doesnít stand a chance."

"I know that, Goddamn it!" Roy brought his fist down on the table. "There just ainít nothiní I cín do about it!"

Ben turned away. He didnít know what to do next. Roy glanced at the clock. Standing, he reached for his hat. "Guess Iíll walk along with you. ĎSee that thereís fair play."

Ben left his horse behind and, grey faced, walked beside the sheriff back towards the Doctorís Office. They crossed over the intersections of Second and First Streets. Virginia City might have been a ghost town. The only horse was Adamís chestnut, tied at the rail.

Roy stopped of at his favourite vantage point, and Ben continued on across the street. He had reached the boardwalk when the sound of approaching horses made him turn. Joe and Hoss pulled up and sat, looking down at him.

"You didnít think we wouldnít come, did you Pa?" Joe asked.

"No, son." Ben shook his head. "I didnít think that for a minute. Come on down. Your brotherís inside."

The brothers dismounted, and the three of them went into Paulís office.

Adam was talking earnestly to the doctor. He had taken off his hat. His face was pale and tense. He was not surprised to see his brothers. Giving the doctor a meaningful look, he cut their conversation short. He had been assuring himself of his familyís immediate welfare if he didnít survive his encounter with Harbinger.

He took off his coat. "I guess itís about time, Pa."

Ben stood between his son and the door. "Adam...."

Adam held out a hand. "Donít say it, Pa." He heaved in a great breath. "Just donít say it!"

Benís words of pleading, of frustration, of love, went unspoken. He knew that Adam had already heard them in his heart. He moved aside, and Adam stepped past him into the street.

He looked at the hard, bright sky. The autumn sunlight was as bright as any Adam could ever remember seeing. It glanced off the roofs of the building and reflected from the glass windowpanes that lined the street. It shone through the leaves of the great cottonwood tree that stood in the center of town, turning then to translucent gold. It shone brilliantly on the dirt of the street, dazzling him with its whiteness. A cool waft of air touched his cheek, the first vagrant breeze of the season. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs. He could taste the dust in his throat and feel on his skin the freshness of autumn after summerís heat. A long way away, a dog barked, and then fell silent.

Adam was willing - had always been willing - to lay down his life to protect his family. He had never expected it to be like this - in a silent, sun drenched street with the hidden eyes of the town watching him die. Adam was in little doubt that he would die. He was good with a gun, fast and accurate. The gun was a tool that he used in his work and to protect himself and all that was his. He had practiced with it assiduously throughout his adult life - but he was no gunfighter; killing was not his business.

He was afraid. Not of dying; he had faced down death before in a number of different guises. He was afraid, having just regained all the promise of his life, of losing it to no purpose. Could it be that the fates were so unkind as to hand him back his future, only to snatch it away again before he had realized any of it. He had spent the long hours of the night searching his memory and his heart. He was not a man without enemies. Many men had uttered threats against him in the heat of conflict. He could think of no-one living who might hate him enough to want him dead. He was filled suddenly with a cold and consuming anger that burned at his soul. He needed to know who was doing this to him, and why! His handsome face set into an expression of fierce determination and his eyes hardened. He was damned if he was going to let this stranger steal away his hopes and dreams. If he had to fight for his life then that was exactly what he would do! His lean, brown hand flexed.

With his heightened perceptions he saw the flicker of shadow as a bird flew across the face of the sun. He smelled the tang of fresh horse manure from a side-street stable. He felt the crunch of the earth beneath his boots and heard the soft sigh of the breath in his lungs. Ahead of him, Harbinger stepped out into the street.

The men walked steadily towards each other.

Adam saw a gunfighter cast in the archetypal mould, wide shouldered and lean hipped, dressed all in dusty black with a bright, white shirtfront.

They stopped just twelve feet apart; too close for either man to miss.

Harbinger looked Cartwright over. The man wore pristine white, a common choice in the circumstance though the gunman failed to understand why. He carried himself well, but he was no gunfighter. He stood too straight, too tense, and he sweated too much. Harbinger saw courage in the manís face and fear in his eyes. He allowed himself no satisfaction at the thought that this was going to be all too easy. He brushed the skirt of his coat away from the butt of the gun.

Adam breathed in, carefully. There was a buzzing in his head and his legs felt numb, as if they belonged to someone else. The great chunk of fear in his belly threatened to rise up and choke him. He forced it back down. He asked the questions that he needed the answers to,

"Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

Harbinger gazed at him. "ĎCause I bin paid to," he said, after a moment.

"Who paid you? I need to know who sent you!" Adamís voice was harsh with the anger he was feeling.

"I ainít bin paid ta talk, Cartwright. I bin paid ta do . ĎYou gonna draw that gun?"

Time, on the sunlit street, stood still.

The two men moved together, so fast that, to the onlooker, their hands blurred.

Blued steel flashed in the sunlight. Two guns fired.

Harbinger was fast - unbelievably, dazzlingly fast. His eyes never flickered, never left Adamís face. He snatched the big, Navy Colt across his body in one smooth, impossible-to-follow, precision movement, and fired.

Adam acted by instinct. The butt of the .44 leapt into his hand as if of its own volition, and he fired straight from the hip.

Harbingerís bullet ploughed into the dirt at Adamís feet.

The gunfighterís eyes widened with surprise. His left hand clasped at the center of his chest. His right hand opened and the big Colt toppled out. It fell into the dirt at his feet. A red flower blossomed under his splayed fingers, marring the whiteness of his shirt. With his back still rigidly straight, he dropped to his knees. Shockingly red, the blood began to flow between his fingers and over his hand, dripping down onto the ground. His mouth worked. Twisting, he fell forward.

Adamís gun was still in his hand, steady, leveled. A tendril of smoke drifted lazily from the barrel. He was coming to terms with the fact that he was, somehow, still alive. He drew a long breath and walked forward to where Harbinger lay. The gunfighter was on his side, half curled. One arm was pinned underneath him. The other hand had fallen away from the wound. It was covered with blood. The front of his shirt was entirely crimson. His blood was draining away into the hard earth.

Adamís anger faded away. He holstered his gun and crouched down. Reaching out a hand he took hold of the gunmanís shoulder, lifting him, turning him, rolling his head in the dirt. "Tell me who sent you!"

Harbingerís chest heaved. The muscles of his face went into a spasm. His eyes moved, seeking Adamís face but not finding it. His lips mouthed senseless, soundless words. Adam leaned close but he couldnít hear. He shouted, "Tell me who sent you!" It was something he had to know.

Harbingerís mouth moved again. Blood from his lips splattered Adamís face. The last breath bubbled in his throat. His eyes fixed and glazed. Desperate, Adam shook him again, but he was alone in the street with a dead man. Already, there was the buzz of a fly. Harbingerís reputation now belonged to Adam alone.

"Tell me! Tell me!" There were tears running down Adamís face.

Ben knelt in the dirt at his sonís side. "Itís no good, Adam," he said, quietly. "Heís dead."

Adam looked up at his father, and beyond him, at his brothers, uncomprehending.

"He didnít tell me, Pa," he said, at last. "He didnít tell me!"

Roy Coffee looked down at the dead gunman and at the distraught man at his side.

"Harbinger called your boy out, Ben. It was clear case of self-defense. I ainít got no call ta do nothiní. You better take Adam back out ta the ranch."

Unable to bear the anguish on his sonís face, Ben moved round behind him. He put his arm around his shoulders. "Come on, son," he said gently. "Letís go home."

* Genesis Ch 1, v1

** Ecclesiasticus Ch 2, v11

*** Ecclesiasticus Ch 2, v18

Potters Bar 2000

 

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