THE MEASURE OF THE MAN

 

 



For Kathy

Who gives so much

And makes this possible

The Measure of the Man

By

Jenny Guttridge

A tale of rites of passage.

Authors note: Acknowledgement and sincere thanks to Gwynne G. Logan for her magnificent poker sequences Ė and for all her other help.

One

It was raining again. To the inhabitants of the of northern Nevada, situated as it was on the western edge of the Great Plains, it seemed as if it had been raining, without respite, for the best part of forever. Following a deceptively short but severe winter, the thaw had come early to the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was turning out to be a long, cold, and dismal spring. Rain had fallen, unfailingly, every day for the past five weeks. When the wind blew out of the mountains it brought a driving rain that beat diagonally into a manís face, stung his eyes, and soaked through his clothes until he was drenched to the skin and chilled right to the marrow of his bones. When the wind failed to blow the rain fell straight down out a leaden sky. The result was much the same.

Ben Cartwright rode into Virginia City at about midmorning. His big, buckskin horse was coated in mud all the way to his shoulders; the goop hung down from his belly like the exudation of some dread disease. Benís legs were plastered as well, all the way up to his knees.

Keeping close to the edge of the boardwalk where the mud was little more than hock-deep, he allowed the horse to pick his own way. Out in the centre of the street, where the mule teams and the heavy-duty freight wagons ploughed back and forth, the mire was a good deal deeper. ĎCí Street, inevitably, had turned into a quagmire. Yellow mud, grey mud, black mud, it was all much the same: wet, sticky, clinging, and most of it stank.

Roy Coffee, venerable, kindly and authoritative upholder of the law, leaned on the upright post of the veranda outside his office and watched the rain slant down into the street. He was quietly digesting breakfast and contemplating lunch. Seeing his long-time friend approaching, his weather-beaten face broke into a grin, and he raised a hand in greeting,

"Howdy, Ben. Come on down fer a spell."

Ben drew rein at the rail. He touched a gloved hand to the dripping brim of his hat.

"Roy, I donít mind if I do." He stepped out of the saddle into the pale mud of the street.

The expression on his dark-eyed, not unhandsome face spoke entire volumes of what he thought of the morning, the weather and, in particular, the mud. Any invitation to get out of it, even for a brief while, was very welcome. Climbing the steps to the boardwalk he took off his hat and ran a hand through his silver-grey hair. A big man in every respect, he stood half a head taller than the sheriff though Roy, at six feet tall and broad with it, was no lightweight milksop himself.

Roy made a beckoning gesture with his head and led the way into his office, "Sit you down, Ben."

The coffeepot that sat perpetually on top of the pot-bellied stove contained a strong, black brew. Roy poured generous measures into chipped china mugs. He carried them back to the equally battered - and paper strewn - desk.

Ben had shed his coat and gloves, despaired of removing any of the mud from the legs of his pants, and settled into a chair. For a few moments the two men sipped hot coffee and shared that companionable silence that only old friends enjoy.

Roy set his cup down. His professional responsibilities nudged him firmly. "I hope youíre not here on official business." He couldnít help a trace of anxiety seeping into his voice, "No rustlers? No squatters? No horse thieves?"

"No, no. Nothing like that." Ben shook his head with a wry smile, "I think that this year, itís too darned wet for the whole passel of them."

Roy put on an expression of mock ferocity, "Well, Iím realí glad ta hear it!" He had been hoping that Ben would answer in the negative. Roy had no desire whatever to go riding the range in the rain. Strolling to the cafť for breakfast and to the Cornerhouse for lunch were about the longest excursions he cared to make. Then another thought occurred, "You ainít got no one sick out there at the Ponderosa, have you? No one with bright pink spots?"

"Spots? No." Ben looked at him in surprise.

"I sure hope you donít want doc Martin fer nothiní Heís got his hands full with a typhoid outbreak over on the eastside of town. Itís all this dang rain. It just ainít healthy."

Ben frowned, "Typhoid? Thatís bad, Roy."

"It sure ainít good."

"The only sick man Iíve got out at the ranch is Sam Haynes. He smashed his arm coming off of a bronc. Wonít be good for much before the autumn."

"You just be careful you donít take the fever home to Jenny and the boys."

Roy got up and offered a refill. Ben declined. Pleasant though it was to sit in Royís untidy, warm and, above all, dry office and chew over the fat, he had business in town. "Iíll be careful. I have to call over at the Freight Office with some messages for Kingdom Jones, and then to the Draperís Store. Jennyís given me a list for the boys to pick up next time theyíre in town."

"More fripperies for the baby, eh?" Roy chuckled.

"We have to keep them happy."

Roy hooked a thigh over the edge of the desk, "And how are things out at the ranch?"

"Fine, fine." Ben hid his scowl behind the rim of the mug. If he told the truth, things at the ranch were not fine at all. Most of the immediate problems could be put down to the weather. The Cartwrights, father and sons, had met their commitment to that yearís timber contract by the skin of their teeth. Hauling the massive pine logs out of the forests in the torrential rains and through rivers of mud had been an experience to be revisited only in nightmare. In the end, they had been scrambling for the deadline, working every daylight hour the good Lord provided and well into the night as well, their muscle-cracking efforts lit by storm lanterns and torches when the rain relented enough to let them burn.

The prolonged bout of logging had put them a long way behind with the spring round up. The unrelenting rain was slowing that still more. The rivers were swollen to, and beyond, bursting point; the ranges were sodden and the cattle, recalcitrant. Several horses had come down with an attack of thrush, a fungus that rotted the soft tissue of the foot, and more had picked up red-worm from the perpetually wet ground. Ben, as always, was short handed, and the hired men he had were wet, frustrated, and morose. He and his sons were putting in long, hard hours in the attempt to catch up. Sometimes he wondered how long they could keep up the pace.

He set the mug on the desk in the only available spot and standing, reached for his sodden coat. Roy walked with him to the door. Outside in the street the rain was still falling with relentless determination. The two men gazed at it with resignation. Ben knew that if it kept on going the way it was, the floods would be out in the lowland pastures again, and that would mean more work, moving cows and calves to higher ground.

"I almost fergot ta tell ya," Roy said as a laconic afterthought, "Thereís a bunch Ďo fellas over at the Silver Dollar threatening ta ride on out ta your place aní sign on the pay roll. Just as soon as the rain lets up enough ta let Ďem."

Ben raised his eyes and looked at the sullen sky. The solid grey overcast showed no signs of breaking any time soon. He muttered something profound about Ďnot holding his breathí. Aloud, he said, "I sure could use some extra hands right now. Iíll call in there and talk to them about it before I head for home. Thanks for the coffee, Roy."

"Anytime."

Roy resumed his station at the veranda post and watched his friend climb back aboard his horse. Ben rode across the muddy street to the Freight Office and then along to the Draperís Store with his wifeís amazingly long list. Then he went to the bank and the General Store with the grocery order. His errands completed, he headed for the Silver Dollar.

Pushing through the bat-wing doors he found himself hoping that the men Roy had mentioned could at least rope and ride. The fact was, he was so desperate for hired help he would have employed anyone that could sit on a horse.

Despite the weather, or more probably because of it, the saloon was proving to be a very popular place. The men who couldnít - or wouldnít - work outside in the rain had gravitated to the townís most popular drinking hall. All the tables were filled and there was a press of men at the bar. The atmosphere was warm and dank with the steam from menís clothing and breath from their mouths. The large barroom was loud with the grumble of conversation, the harsh bark of masculine laughter, and the occasional shouted expletive. It smelled of sweat, beer, cigar smoke and, of course, the ubiquitous mud.

Peeling off his gloves again, Ben bellied up to the bar.

"Make that a beer, Josh."

"Sure thing, Mister Cartwright."

"Mister Cartwright?"

Ben turned at the mention of his name. The soft, Midwestern drawl had been familiar. The smiling, gap toothed face that went with it was more so.

Ben's face broke into an answering smile and he stuck out a hand, "Auron Prior!"

The cowboy hadnít changed at all in the year since he and his brothers had ridden for Ben. He was still tall and spare to the point of thinness. His misty blue-grey eyes sparkled constantly with incipient amusement. His face was pleasantly amiable and he had overly long, wavy hair.

The two men shook hands, slowly and sincerely.

Prior was a man Ben was truly delighted to see, "Auron Prior, youíre a sight for sore eyes. What are you doing in Virginia City?"

Prior pushed his hat to the back of his head and hooked his thumbs behind the buckle of his belt. It was a stance Ben remembered well. The smile remained, "You said to stop by anytime we were passiní by aní needed a job. I sure hope you meant it!"

Ben laughed, "I meant it all right! And right now I can use every man I can get. With this weather and all, weíre way behind with the round-up." The smile faded a fraction, "You donít mind working in the rain?"

Auron Prior threw back his head and laughed, "After all this time in Arizona, Mister Cartwright, working in the rain will be pure delight!"

Ben didnít believe his ears, or his luck! "By any chance, would your brothers happen to be with you?"

If it were possible the gap-toothed grin widened still more, "They surely are. Címon over aní join us."

Ben retrieved his beer from the bar and followed the lean cowboy through the press of damp people to one of the larger tables. He claimed himself a seat, looking around and putting names to the circle of faces.

They were, in fact, several variants of the same face. Benís own sons, each born of a different, and strikingly beautiful woman, had faces as individual and distinctive as their characters. The sons of Abel and Mary Prior had all inherited the same, regular, rather rounded features, and all of them had the same blue-grey eyes and the same ready-to-wave sable-brown hair.

Auron Prior, at thirty-three years old, was the eldest, and acted as spokesman for the family group. Astley Prior, the next in order of age, was a man of similar size and build to his brother, long-legged and lean. Quieter by nature and generally content to let Auron do his talking for him, he usually wore a pleasant, sometimes, sleepy expression. He had so far avoided any such encounter as the one with the mean steer that had cost his brother his front teeth. The sleepiness, Ben had learned, was an illusion.

Ashley Prior, while sharing the common family features, was an altogether shorter, stockier man, quick eyed and alert; his movements were the sharpest and fastest of all. He carried a Colt .44, the same gun favoured by Ben's eldest son, and again like Adam, he wore it tied very low down on his thigh. Arthur Prior was taciturn and huge; he was a man of carefully controlled power - as all big men must be. He was as strong and as far around as Hoss Cartwright, if half a head shorter. Both were the men to be avoided in a fistfight.

The youngest Prior was Asia. Of all of them he had changed the most. A year ago, when Ben had seen him last, he had been soft skinned and boyish. He was fast maturing into a tall, fine looking young man. He wore the family hair long and tied back behind his head, neatly plaited. Like Joe Cartwright, he wore his gun left-handed.

Sitting at the table with the Priors were the two friends who had ridden with them before. Peter Nash, his dark hair now receding apace, was a gambling man. Wryly, Ben recalled that after sitting in a game with him few of the trail crew had retained anything but empty pockets. Peter Barnes was the smallest man of the group. An expert trail cook, he produced the best bacon, beans and biscuits Ben had ever eaten. He would be as valuable on the trail drive as any of the others.

Each and every one could ride and rope, tie and brand as well as any man Ben had known. Both the belated spring gather and the drive to the railhead were likely to be a lot smoother with them on the payroll. He bought another round of beers while they negotiated terms.

Auron Prior retained his amiable nature and pleasant smile, but he was a tough talker. Ben had to agree to pay top rates and a bonus at the railhead if the herd was on time. In the end, he was glad to do it.

And to lighten his mood still further, when they stepped out of the saloon they found that the sky was a paler shade of grey. The rain had slackened from downpour to steady, persistent drizzle. Ben had hopes that by afternoon it might even stop for a while. The Prior brothers and the two Peters fetched their saddle horses and the string of sturdy pack animals that carried their belongings, and the whole party set out with a will for the Ponderosa.

********

Despite the wet and soggy start to the season, in spring the ranch was a beautiful place. The wide, open ranges that rolled unbroken from horizon to horizon were green with grass sprung fresh from the tussocky roots of the old. The shoots were sweet and tender, tempting and full of nutrition for the winter-hungry stock. The broad-leaves that clothed the hillside and stood as solitary shade trees, sentinel across the land, were unfurling new leaves in all their different shapes and shades. On the rare occasion when the rain stopped and the cloud lifted, the forested hills appeared through the mists. Each hill was a little greyer, a little less distinct, as they rose, rank on rank, towards the mountain peaks. In the high hills and on the broad shoulders of the Sierras, the snow still lay deep and undisturbed. There the majestic, slow-to-stir Ponderosa pine reigned supreme and winter lingered on.

The vales and spinneys were noisy with birdsong and alive with bob-tailed deer. All the wild things had eaten well of the lush spring growth and reproduced in rare abundance. There were more squirrels and rabbits and lop-eared hares than anyone could ever remember.

If the wildlife had done well, then the domestic stock had thrived, Jenny Cartwrightís Jacobís sheep had multiplied to the point where Ben had become alarmed at their fecundity. Jenny had laughed and explained to her scowling husband that now they could turn the wool and the meat into a cash crop for the ranch instead of using them for home consumption only.

Following a slow beginning, Joe Cartwrightís plans for raising purpose-bred horses were showing promise. Monarch, his coal-black three-quarters bred Morgan stallion was proving to be an effective sire. His first crop of yearling foals, separated from their dams, frolicked belly-deep in grass in the water meadows below the big house.

And of course, the cattle, mainstay of the ranching empire that Ben Cartwright had built, had proliferated. The short, sharp winter and early spring had meant minimal losses to the cold, the cougar, and the single marauding wolf pack that had come down from the mountains. ĎMost every cow had a calf at her side, and the yearling steers had grown fat on the spring fodder. The two-year old stock, destined for this yearís market, were well-grown, muscular animals that were more flesh than fat. The trick was in gathering them up and delivering them to the buyers without working all the weight off them.

It had all the promise of being a good year - if only it would stop raining!

As if in response to a heartfelt prayer the rains eased, and then slowed to a fine drizzle.

A wet wind blew across the range and into the faces of the horsemen. Shortly, a watery sun glimmered through the clouds. Ben reined the buckskin to a halt at the top of the rise. His newly hired help, homogenous in yellow oilskins, fell into line on either side.

"The boys were gathering steers from this section to add to the main muster."

They looked down into a wide, shallow valley. There was a small herd of cattle gathered in the bottom. A watercourse, glutted with rainfall and running full spate, flowed through. The creek twisted its way between banks that rose and fell with the landscape. A wagon and horses stood next to the usual watering hole, together with several saddle horses. Ben touched his heels to the buckskinís sides and led the men down to the waterside.

Despite the cold wind, Joe Cartwright was sweating with the sheer effort of hard work. As soon as the rain stopped, he shrugged out of the heavy, waxed-wool overcoat and dumped it in the back of the wagon. He wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his forehead. Seeing the approaching horsemen, he walked to the back of the wagon and waited, squinting against the weak sunlight. He recognized his fatherís big buckskin gelding at once, but a frown clouded his face as he wondered who the other men might be.

Even when the faces were close enough to be seen it took a long moment before recognition struck home. Joe let out a wild whoop and a holler.

"Hey, Hoss! Look who it is!"

Joeís older brother, caught in the act of collecting a coil of rope from the wagon bed, joined him. An uneven, but sparkling-white grin split his amiable, broad-featured face.

The horsemen pulled up and stepped down, and within moments the Cartwright boys and the Priors were exchanging handshakes and mutual greetings. Joe was especially pleased to renew his acquaintance with Asia Prior. The two were of a similar age and a year ago had formed an enduring friendship.

Ben looked towards the gathered cattle. A frown gathered over his brow. "I thought you boys would have moved those steers half way along the valley by now."

Hoss harrumphed, trying not to exchange glances with Joe who was looking just too innocent. "Weíre workiní on it, Pa. We was moving Ďem along just fine when we found three - four critters stuck in the creek here."

"We was hauliní Ďem out when you rode over the hill," Joe grinned.

Ben looked around with an air of puzzlement. "Whereís your brother?"

As if on cue, a somewhat irate, baritone voice carried from over the bank, "Hoss, are you cominí back here with that rope?"

Joe and Hoss looked at one another and said, with one voice, "Adam."

Everyone climbed to the top of the bank.

Sure enough, there were three steers still deeply mired in the bend of the creek. In there with them was Adam Cartwright. Benís eldest son, in open shirt and pants and little else, was hip deep in mud and river water. He had a rope around his chest that ran up over the bank and was tied to the wagon wheel. It secured him against the tug of the current. He was cold, soaking wet, and plastered from head to foot in black, clinging mud. He was also considerably put out at his brotherís abandonment. He gazed up at the row of faces above him.

Following Adamís close brush with death from a bushwhackerís bullet, Ben was still fiercely protective of him - a fact he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide. He frowned at Hoss, "Why is Adam in the creek?"

"I guess he volunteered, Pa."

Joeís grin widened, "Adam kinda drew the short straw, Pa." The two brothers exchanged looks and secret smiles. They were far more prepared than their father to take at face value their brotherís claim that he was completely well again. Neither one of them was going to explain to their father exactly how they had maneuvered Adam into the creek. Ben looked from one to the other, well aware that they had been up to something. Their faces were totally without guile. Looking at the sorry state of his eldest, he couldnít keep the glimmer of amusement out of his own eyes. He leaned forward against his knee.

"Just how did these two manage to get you into the creek?"

Adam wasnít about to explain the trick that had been played on him or to confess that he had walked right into it with his eyes wide open. Instead, he planted both hands theatrically on his waist. He heaved a mighty sigh and raised a hand in a gesture of high drama, "How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Ďtil seven times? I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but Until seventy times seven"*

As if in critical acclaim of his rendition, thunder rolled low across the land. The sky opened, and the rain deluged onto his head in an unwanted and unwelcome blessing.

Amid the general laughter, Adamís expression changed from pained to resigned. He ran a muddy hand through his wet hair. Through clenched, white teeth he said to Hoss, "And now, brother dear, will you please throw me down the rope?"

Hoss laughed and tossed down the coil of rope. While Adam secured it around the horns of the nearest steer, Arthur Prior cheerfully stripped to shirt and pants and waded in to help push.

Two

Far away to the south, the rainstorms that swept the ranges of the Ponderosa had also fallen upon a motley collection of shacks that bore no official name, nor were they marked on any map. Locally, and to those who frequented it, the spot where the wagon track ended on a river bank, was know as ĎMa Hofferísí, or, more simply, as ĎMaísí. The buildings, weathered to drabness and in a sorry state of repair, had slumped into the background of trees and underbrush until they were almost indistinguishable from the landscape itself. They comprised a combined store and drinking house, where basic commodities and raw liquor were available for purchase, and a barn, in somewhat better condition than the main building, together with its associated corrals. Further along the riverbank were a number of tumbledown shanties inhabited by ladies of dubious pedigree. They were places where certain personal services were always available to gentleman travellers and local inhabitants alike. The only acceptable currencies were gold and silver, in coin, bullion or dust. Credit was not available. It was the last stopping place between civilization and the Wilderness Mountains, otherwise know as Godís Back Doorstep.

At this early hour, in the first, filtered, grey light of the morning, two men were working in the yellowish mud of the yard. Both were big men, made to look bigger still by their bulky waterproof coats. Both wore their hair long and had been unshaven for many days. The beginnings of beards were sprouting from their faces, one as midnight-black as a ravenís wing, the other mousy brown and sprinkled liberally with grey. They worked methodically, tightening straps and securing loads on to the backs of a dozen sturdy mules. They were glad that for an hour or so at least, the rain had stopped.

The youngest and tallest of the two, he with the black hair and the deep set, brooding brown eyes, leaned his forearms on the broad back of a mule. He gazed across the river towards the forest and the foothills that were emerging, as the mists cleared, one behind the other against the distant backdrop of the mountains. The tops of the Sierras, standing high above the panoramic vista of hills and forest, were already bathed in sunlight.

"You think," he said to his companion across the animalís back, "Thereís really any money to be made trapping in these hills?" His tone was harsh and abrasive; his nasal accent placed his origins somewhere in the eastern states, perhaps Pennsylvania or New York.

The older man also stopped and turned. Pushing his soft felt hat to the back of his head he raised his face to look in the same direction. His eyes, a faded brown in a heavily tanned, leather-skinned face, squinted almost closed against the dazzling sun-brightness of the peaks. His expression was thoughtful, speculative. It was his habit to consider carefully everything that he said. "I think perhaps, so," His voice was heavily accented with the French of the far northeast. "They havenít been so heavily hunted as the eastern hills."

The younger manís mouth twisted sourly. "I still say, we should have gone north."

"íBel, you are an impatient man," The Canadianís laugh was short and humourless. "You are in a hurry to make a fortune, eh?"

"Iím in a hurry to make my fortune, yes!" Corbel Lighterman returned to harnessing the mules with unnecessary vigour. His eyes remained fixed, for the most part, on the bright peaks. His expression was one of intense dislike and bitter determination. "I hear the rivers up there are thick with beaver. So thick a man doesnít have to move more than five miles in a season, and he ends up with more pelts than he can carry out."

"That may have been true once." The Canadian went on smiling as he worked, but his face held a certain regret, "Not so now. Unless you go far, far to the north. And for that the season is already too late."

"Too late?" Lightermanís dark eyes were hard, angry; always, his eyes were angry, "What do you mean, too late?"

A shrug, a smile, "It is spring now. By the time we have ridden half way across the country, it will be mid-winter. Too late to reach the northern forests before they are cut off by the snow."

"The best time to take beaver is in the coldest part of the winter, when the pelts are thickest!"

"What you say may be true. But the winter is not the best time to be trekking north. By the time the first snow falls, a man wants to be safely installed in a log cabin, with all his trap lines set and a good log fire burning."

Lighterman jerked a strap tight with unnecessary savagery, "You make it sound almost cozy!"

"Cozy it is not. But it is - was once Ė a good life for a man." Jules Perriot, sometime trapper, logger, woodsman and guide, finished with the last mule and rubbed the stoic, dark brown animal on the muzzle.

"So what are we gonna take out oí these hills?" Lighterman threw another hostile glance towards the forests.

Perriot shrugged, "We will take anything we can get. A few beaver perhaps but not many: wolf, fox, bear. Bojun is a hunter. I have worked with him before. He is Ė efficient?" He shrugged eloquently, "Whatever he finds, he kills. One long sweep through these hills and there wonít be very much left alive."

"Just so long as these mules are loaded down with pelts when we ride down outa there."

Perriot smiled at the younger manís angry enthusiasm, "Why are you so very eager to make money so quickly?"

"You bet your butt Iím eager!" Lighterman slapped his hand down hard on the rump of a mule. The dust flew and the animalís hide flinched, "Eight Goddamn years Iíve been west of the Ohio, tryiní ta get a Goddamn stake!" The angry eyes flared, "Iíve done everything there is for a man to do! Logginí, gold-panniní, silver mininí, gambliní. Even tried raisiní steers, one time. Until Goddamn rustlers burned me out. Nothiní ever works out fer me!"

Perriot pursed his lips. It was his opinion that the younger man was not the type to apply himself for long to anything that resembled hard work. Upon consideration, he decided to keep his thoughts to himself. Instead, he said, "I hope youíre not going to be disappointed. The English no longer prefer to wear the beaver hats when they ride out in their carriages. The price of skins is not so good as it used to be."

Scowling darkly, Lighterman finished by tying the lead rope of one mule to the packsaddle of the next. Side by side the two men slogged their way through the mud to Ma Hofferís store.

Herricule Bojun was the third member of the little party. He was a man whose name had once been well known throughout the western states, although many now believed him to be dead. He had gloried in a reputation for single-minded determination bordering on the ruthless, and a total disregard for all living things. He stepped now from the dark interior of Maís store into the brighter light of the morning. He stood for a moment on the veranda while his eyes adjusted. Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, he surveyed the scene in the yard. The mules with their canvas-covered pack saddles stood waiting patiently, hock deep in the mud. Three saddle horses, tough, rugged, dark-coloured and longhaired, selected to cope with rough terrain, were ready at the rail. He lifted his eyes, an intense blue, to the vista beyond. Bojun saw none of the beauty. He saw only possibilities.

Bojun tipped the jug he carried over his elbow and turned his head to take a long hard drink. He needed a good drink first thing in the morning. It didnít numb all of the pain, but it sure as hell helped. The jug was empty. He pitched it far out into the mud. In two, long, limping strides he crossed the veranda. His right leg, almost useless, dragged behind him. A falling horse rolling over him years before had smashed his knee beyond any hope of repair. Now, the leg didnít bend at all and it hurt constantly. It did nothing whatever for his affability. Without stepping down from the veranda, Bojun reached for his stirrup and swung his stiff leg over the horseís back. Mounted, he looked, and functioned, much like any other man. Bojun conducted the bulk of his life from the back of a horse.

A large man, deep chested and lean-hipped, he rode with his bad leg in a long stirrup. With a full-lipped mouth that looked constantly moist amid a silvered, grey beard and thinning grey streaked hair that had once been thick and dark red, his face had the hard, weathered appearance of an old leather mask. After a lifetime in the wide outdoors, trapping, hunting, killing, he was about as hard and as tough as a man could get. Like the others, he was bundled into a heavy coat and wore high boots and thick weatherproof pants. A black-handled Navy Colt revolver rode in a holster on the horn of his saddle and a long-nosed saddle gun under his knee. He settled himself into the saddle and gathered his reins.

A mountain man of the old fashioned sort, he squinted at the sky, sniffed the wind, sampled the flavour of the air. He looked down at Perriot and Lighterman. "Reckon itís gonna rain agíin Ďafore midday," he said, in a flat, monotone drawl. He rubbed at his stiffened knee in an unconscious, habitual gesture, trying to ease the pain out of it. "You git yore-selves mounted up, aní weíll git some miles aíhind us aífore we gits wet."

Perriot moved stoically to his horse while Lighterman hesitated. His hands clenched and unclenched. It was as if he were still undecided whether to make the trip or not, even now. Finally, he snatched the reins from the rail and swung aboard. Both men were glad to get their feet out of the mud.

Bojun led the way down to the riverbank and urged his horse forward. The water, flowing straight from the mountains, was icy cold, and his horse was reluctant. It fought the bit. Bojun forced its head round and kicked hard. The animal splashed in. The current ran fast and deep and the water came up to the horseís shoulder - almost to the top of Bojunís boot. Angling across to the far bank, it waded across the river in a series of lunges and emerged, dripping on the other side. Lighterman, sitting tense and erect in the saddle followed. His dark eyes were alert; his glance darted everywhere. Perriot, more relaxed, more patient, brought up the rear. He led the first of the mules on a long line. With Bojun leading the way and the others following in Indian file, they started to wend their way northwards into the hills.

********

Ben Cartwright called down the blessing of his God upon his household and felt it descend like a mantle of peace about his shoulders. He offered up thanks for the food that graced his table and said a silent prayer for those assembled to eat it. As the meal began, he took his customary moment to consider each of the familiar faces.

The only woman at the breakfast table, seated immediately to Benís left, was Jenny Cartwright; his much loved fourth wife, mother of his infant son, and light of his life. She had striking, sea green eyes in a lively, animated face that followed the ebb and flow of the conversation around the table. This morning she wore her lustrous, dark hair in a cascade of tight ringlets, tied back with a ribbon and tumbling about her shoulders. Her skin was flawless, and if her high cheekbones were just a fraction too wide for conventional beauty, and her chin a little to pointed, that didnít matter to Ben one little bit. To him, she was the loveliest woman alive.

Jenny was picking, birdlike, at the food on her plate. Ben had a suspicion that her lack of appetite had more to do with the corsetry that she laced herself into each morning than with any natural disinclination to eat. Ever careful of her needs, he offered her bread before it all disappeared from the plate. Jenny declined with a bright smile and a "Thank you."

Right across the table from Jenny was an appetite of an entirely different order.

Slow to anger, swift to forgive, Benís second-born son was a small mountain of a man. Hoss was cheerfully munching his way through the first of two, or possibly three, helpings of breakfast: hot corn bread, ham, eggs and fried potatoes, followed by fresh biscuits spread with butter and black-strap molasses. At the same time he was carrying on an animated conversation with his brothers. The subject, of all things, was the jumping prowess of bullfrogs. Hoss had broad, open features and the ice-blue eyes and fine fair hair of his beautiful Swedish mother. Ben noticed, not for the first time, that the hair was noticeably thinning.

At Hossís elbow sat Joe Drury. Not a family member, he was a young man Ben had brought from the streets of Silver City to learn the trade of a cowboy. In the few months he had lived and worked with the Cartwrights and eaten at their table, Jody had grown like a weed in a garden patch. Now he stood taller than Joe and showed every sign of broadening into a big, powerful man. He was the only man Ben knew who could challenge Hoss in a straight eating contest and stand any chance of winning. He had an unruly mop of pale hair and the most startling eyes; they were a bright hazel-brown flecked with emerald green and gold.

Opposite Jody, and taking an enthusiastic part in the discussion, was Joe Ė still known affectionately upon occasion as ĎLittle Joeí, although his position as the baby of the family had been usurped. Joseph was slight of build and light boned in a world where big men ruled. He had retained his boyish good looks into manhood, and relied upon his charm, his ready wit, and, just occasionally, his fast, left-handed gun to keep him out of trouble. Joeís youthful, expressive face contained a pair of lively, hazel eyes and a wide mouth that was always ready with a smile and a not always carefully considered reply. His hair, brown and wavy with a distinct tendency to curl in the nap of his neck, needed cutting yet again.

Finally, almost with reluctance, Benís dark gaze settled on his eldest son. It still made his innards creep to think how close he had come to losing him. In his accustomed place at the far end of the table, Adam was slowly but surely demolishing a meal of scrambled eggs and bread, and, Ben was pleased to observe, a reasonably sized portion of ham. It gave him immense satisfaction to see his oldest son eat. A tall, broad shouldered man with a big, physical frame, his injury and the long period of recovery that had followed, had left him gaunt, wasted. Paul Martin, the family physician, had warned that he might never fully recover his robust appetite, or indeed, his full health. Watching him now, Ben was, at last, prepared to dismiss that prognosis. Throughout the winter, Hop Singís careful feeding regime and the ceaseless encouragement of his family had reconstructed Adamís superb physique, rebuilt his sculptured muscles, and even filled the hollows of his cheeks.

With the coming of spring, Ben was beginning to accept that Adam had truly recovered. The knot of fear that had been resident in his gut for so long was starting to unwind and the worry lines that appeared every time he looked Adamís way were fading. His undeniably handsome, black haired son moved fluidly with his old, panther-like grace; his skin glowed with regained health, and his deep-set, hooded eyes had gotten back their sparkle. Adam had also recovered his sharp and sometimes cynical humour.

"The next time I find myself in the creek," he was telling his brother in precise, clipped tones, "I shall make a point of introducing you to my friends, the bullfrogs, personally!"

Joe grinned at him, "You and what army?"

Adam drew a breath and there was a dangerous glitter in his eyes. His voice was developing an edge, "I donít need an army to give you a dunking, little brother." He gave the word Ďlittleí just enough emphasis to make it an insult. Visibly, Joe bristled.

"Thatís enough," Ben said firmly. "Unless itís absolutely necessary, I donít want to find either of you back in the creek." He knew these two well enough to step in before banter became battle. "If thereís not enough work around here to use up your surplus energies, Iím sure I can soon find you some more."

The brothers exchanged glances that hinted of un-concluded business and duly subsided. Both knew better than to continue, at the table, an argument that their father had forbidden.

Ben favoured both of them with an extra glare for good measure. With a more pleasant expression, he addressed his wife,

"Is everything prepared for your trip, my dear?"

"Indeed," Jenny smiled at him and her green eyes sparkled with excitement, "Our boxes are all packed, and I have a ticket for Fridayís stage to Reno."

A little frown of concern flickered across Benís face as he considered the journey his wife and his small son were about to undertake, "Are you sure itís a wise thing? Itís a long and difficult journey, even in the best of weather."

"Oh, Ben," Jenny sighed, "Weíve been all through this at least a dozen times. The road through the mountains is perfectly safe. Once we get to Sacramento we can take the paddle-boat down the river all the way to San Francisco."

Ben was unconvinced, "You make it sound a great deal easier than it is. With all the rain thatís fallen in the hills, the rivers will be swollen. The roadsÖ"

"The stage has been getting through without any difficulty at all. Thereís no reason to suppose that will change, simply because Daniel and I are aboard."

"Couldnít you put it off for a month or two?"

Jennyís lovely face took on a fiercely stubborn look that could only have been learned from a born Cartwright, "I will not put it off!" she said, hotly. Unlike Benís sons, Jenny had no compunction about arguing with him, at the table or anywhere else. "You know very well that Iíve been planning this trip for the whole of the winter!"

"I know you haveÖ"

"And youíre not about to talk me out of it now!"

"Iím not trying to talk you out of anything!" Without his realizing it, Benís voice was rising in volume, "Iím merely suggestingÖ"

"Danielís already eleven months old, and my sister hasnít set eyes on him yet!"

Momentarily thrown by the abrupt change in the direction of the argument, Ben floundered.

"Perhaps I should come with you."

Jenny was incredulous, "Come with me? Just listen to yourself! Can you see yourself sitting in my sisterís parlour sipping tea when you have trees to fell here? And calves to brand? And a herd to drive to the railhead?"

Ben was aware of a suppressed snigger from somewhere around the table but didnít have time to track it down, "I could send one of the boys."

"Daniel and I are going on Fridayís stage." Jenny stood up with an air of finality, "Weíll be gone for about six weeks. And, thank you, but we wonít be requiring any company!" Without giving any of the men time to do more than start from their seats, she flounced up the stairs in a flurry of cream and gold skirts.

The boys settled back into their chairs, and Ben, aware that he had been bested by his diminutive wife although not quite sure how, glowered Ďround at them. He found a variety of expressions on their faces. Hoss was plainly embarrassed beyond belief, fiddling with the last buttered biscuit on his plate and only the thinning top of his head to be seen. Jody was flushed to his ears and wishing furiously that he was somewhere else Ė anywhere else! Joseph was frantically trying to conceal his amusement. Ben suspected that the snigger had been his. The look on Adamís face, as he met his fatherís eyes squarely across the rim of his habitual, extra cup of coffee, was, frankly, speculative. It was an expression Ben had seen a number of times in recent weeks - it made him uncomfortable.

"Donít you men have any work to do?" he growled.

There was a general pushing back of chairs and the three younger men headed for the door. Adam, as was his habit, remained at the table sipping his last cup of coffee. He was looking into his cup now, rather than at his father, but the look on his face was the same. Ben felt another wave of unease. He hesitated.

"Adam."

Adamís hazel-brown eyes lifted. His expression was one of inquiry, tempered with Ė no, Ben was sure he hadnít mistaken it Ė just the faintest tinge of defiance.

In the months that had passed since his wounding, and especially in the last half of his long, slow convalescence, Adamís feelings towards his family, and in particular towards his father, had undergone a sea change. Unquestionably, he still loved them without reservation. But his self-image had been severely tested by his long period of incapacity and his emotions battered. It had been a trial by fire that had led him to make that final, if considerably delayed, leap into adulthood. Of course, he still looked upon his father as a man to be respected - a man whose opinions and advice were always there should he wish to avail himself of them. Nonetheless, Adam saw him now, more than ever before, as a man - sometimes fallible, sometimes weak and sometimes wrong. He was no longer a demi-god to be obeyed without question or a paragon before whose anger he quailed. For Adam, Benís word was no longer absolute law. Adam had, at last, come to understand that his lifelong idol had feet, not of clay, but of flesh. The principle dilemma he faced now was how to assert himself without a catastrophic confrontation.

"Pa?"

Still, Ben hesitated. For some reason he couldnít account for he felt almost as if he were talking to a stranger. This dark, brooding man sometimes bore little resemblance to the son he knew, and now was one of those times. It was as if Adam were watching him through hostile eyes, waiting for him to trip up. Ben scarcely knew how to address him any more. "Iíd like you to check the final tally with Charlie before we move the herd out."

Adam gave that some swift thought, "Youíve always trusted Charlieís count before."

"Thatís as may be," Ben walked round the table, his thumbs hooked into his belt in a familiar attitude, "This is the largest herd weíve ever driven off the Ponderosa. If you remember, we estimated about fourteen hundred head."

"Weíve got more than enough men to handle them."

"Hmm. Yes. Thatís not what Iím worried about. I want to talk to you, Adam."

A frown on his face, Ben walked across to his desk. Adam followed him with his eyes that same look of speculation on his face. He was well aware that his father was trying to say something to him; he wasnít at all sure he was going to like it. After a moment, he put down the cup, scraped back the chair and followed his father across the room.

"What is it that youíre worried about?"

Ben turned, looking up at him from under lowered eyebrows, "Adam, I might not be taking you with me on the drive this year."

Adam opened his mouth with an instant, angry retort, and then closed it again as he considered a more measured response. He wondered just what bee his father had in his bonnet this time. Was he still fretting over the gunshot wound that was now no more than an ugly scar on Adamís belly and a memory of pain? It was an episode in a past that Adam wanted very badly to put behind him. Above all, he was sick and tired of being treated like and invalid, or, worse, a child not yet out of soiling- rags.

"Iím quite capable of riding herd. Pa," he said, more testily than he had intended. His hands were on his hips and his eyes were angry.

Ben was surprised by the snap in his voice. "I know you are. But, as you said yourself, having the Prior brothers on the payroll gives us a surplus of men for the drive. Thereís something else I want you to do for me."

Watching his sonís face closely, Ben saw the play of emotions: surprise, irritation, curiosity, and again, that fleeting glimpse of resentment, swiftly masked. There was something going on in Adamís mind that he didnít understand. He worried at it.

Adam was considering the possibilities. While he was determined not to be manipulated, he had no wish to offer the outright refusal of a petulant child. He decided to hear his father out.

Deliberately relaxing his aggressive stance, he asked, "What do you have in mind?"

Ben settled back into his chair, "Itís your brother."

"Joe?"

Ben smiled wryly as Adam jumped to the inevitable conclusion. "Your brother, Hoss." he elaborated.

"Hoss." Adam couldnít help the edge of exasperation. Why the heck couldnít his father come to the point he was trying to make instead of following this tortured, circuitous route, "I thought Hoss was doing just fine, sparkiní with that Mary Fletcher."

"Thatís right." Ben allowed himself a small chuckle. "They make a fine couple. Iíve hopes that they might even make a match of it before too long."

Adam let go of his anger and smiled, "Thatíd be realí swell, Pa."

Ben enjoyed the rare moment of companionship. He leaned forward onto the desk. "Hoss has been promising himself a trip into the Reserved Section for a good long time now. Every time he makes plans, something seems to come up to get in his way. I thought now might be a good time for him to go - and that you might like to go with him."

Adam thought about it. Certainly the idea had its attractions, and the way his father had put it, as if he would be doing his brother a favour, made it hard to refuse.

And, abruptly, he didnít want to refuse. A trip into the high hills in springtime was a pleasant prospect; it would be nicer by far than following steerís backsides all the way to the railhead, and Hoss would be amiable company. He would value his brotherís advice on the management of the land. And besides, the fresh air blowing straight down out of the mountains just might serve to clear his thinking, enable him to get a few things straight with himself, and perhaps come to some decisions.

"All right, Pa. If Hoss wants to go, Iíll be happy to ride along with him."

"Thatís good." Pleased, Ben sat back.

Adam had another thought, "Why donít we take Jody with us? Half grown, he wouldnít be a whole lot of use on the drive."

Ben made a gesture of agreement. "I can spare him, if youíd like to take him along."

"Then Iíll go find them and tell them."

Adam headed for the door, and Ben sat and watched him go. His breath sighed softly out. Wise in the ways of the world, Ben Cartwright reckoned he knew now what his sonís trouble was. He was well aware that in order to keep the things he loved the most, a man sometimes had to be willing to let them go. Adam wanted his freedom at last, and Ben wasnít about to risk driving him away by clinging too tightly. He found himself hoping that this trip into the hills might help his son decide exactly what form he wanted his freedom to take.

********

The sorrel mare shifted restlessly and flicked her ears back and forth. She was a finely bred, high-spirited animal, and she had little time for the manís painstaking examination. Asia Prior made a soft, soothing sound with his tongue, and, for a moment, she quieted. He took his own good time, moving his hands slowly, almost sensuously, over the polished red hide. Beneath his palms he felt the smooth, flat firmness of her neck, the harder, bunched muscles of her powerful shoulder, the taut tendons in her long forelegs. He moved back over her withers, along the lightly ribbed barrel of her body. He ran his hands across her loins and over the broad expanse of her rump, looked under her tail, and worked his way back along her other side. The mare snorted and stamped her foot with impatience. There was fire in her eye. Asia laughed and rubbed his hand up and down her nose. He looked up, and the smile on his youthful, wolfishly handsome face was wide. Like all the Priors, with the exception of Auron, he had a full set of large, startlingly white teeth.

"Sheís a beautiful animal, Joe. A little too high and mighty for ranch work Iíd have thought."

Joe Cartwright, perched on the wall of the stall with his knees wide apart and his feet dangling, grinned,

"Sheís surely no rope aní tie cow-pony! I bought her from a friend of Adamís. The fella breeds some mighty fine horses on a big spread east of Sacramento." His pride in the animal was obvious.

"What do you plan on doing with her?"

"Next time she comes onto heat, I puttiní her up to Monarch. We should get some nice, light boned stock out of her."

Asia Prior stepped back and took in the mareís general appearance. "She looks like sheís got a turn of speed in her. Have you tried her out yet?"

"Not yet." Joe slid off the woodwork and walked over to give the mare a pat. "Adam tells me she comes from some pretty fast stock."

A speculative look came to Asia Priorís face. "Letís give her a run, then. Your mare against my gelding. The loser pays for a night on the town."

It was an idea that appealed instantly to the competitive side of Joeís nature. "Hey, youíre on!"

Joe swung a saddle onto the mareís back and reached underneath for the cinch.

Asia Priorís black gelding stood half a hand shorter than the mare. He had a shorter, altogether stockier build and massively powerful quarters - the ideal cutting and roping horse. Asia swung easily into the saddle and settled himself, waiting for Joe to mount.

Joe brought the mare into line. She was sweating and throwing her head about, "Weíll race to the lone oak in the water meadow."

Asia flashed him another wide, white smile, "Get ready to put your hand in your pocket!" He dug in his heels and let out a yell. The black gelding took of in a flying gallop.

Left standing, Joe cried out to the mare and kicked hard. She leapt in pursuit.

The two horses, with their excited young riders bending low over their necks, galloped flat out along the road that ran beside the corrals. Then they veered sharply right, running downhill through the trees and across the wide, shallow place in the stream. At first the black horse led, maintaining his flying start - even improving on it as they splashed through the water. Joe felt the power of the mareís shoulders surging beneath him, felt the thrust of her quarters. She carried her head high as she ran which made it difficult for him to see where they were going and harder still to keep from losing his teeth. She didnít flatten out in the same way as Asiaís gelding. But she knew what was required of her, and she didnít like to be beaten. Pulling away from the river, she drew level with the black. They raced neck and neck into the water meadow.

The pounding of the horseís hooves jarred through the young menís bodies, even though the grass muffled the sound. The sigh of their blood was loud in their ears and the taste of excitement sharp in their throats. The wind of their passage whipped tears from their eyes. Each of them got their open mouths and their eyes full of coarse, ropy mane.

Asia let out another wild, whooping yell, calling on the gelding for yet another huge effort. He responded with a will, laying back his ears and stretching his neck. He surged ahead again. Joe leaned close against the sorrel mareís neck, urging her on with hands and heels, driving hard. The mare extended her long legs, reaching for a longer stride. Her belly lowered into the grass. She drew level, then pulled ahead as they sped past the ancient, solitary oak that graced the meadow.

Joe and Asia shortened their reins and pulled their mounts to a shuddering stop. They sat laughing, breathlessly, while their horses heaved and caught their second wind. Once the animals had recovered, they rode off through the grasslands at a much more leisurely pace. Their friendship was firmly re-established, and they were content in each otherís company.

********

With the rapid onset of maturity, Joe Druryís speaking voice was breaking into a pleasant, light baritone. This morning, as he raced excitedly at top speed through the yard, shouting at the top of his lungs, to revert to a high alto.

"A mud fight! A mud fight! Down at the duck pond!" Scattering squawking chickens before him, he vanished around the side of the barn without pausing to elaborate.

Adam and Ben, pausing in mid-conversation to observe his headlong flight, gazed after him, slack jawed.

"Did he say, a mud fight?" Ben asked his son, not quite believing his own ears.

Adamís look of bemusement mirrored his own, "Iím almost certain thatís exactly what he said. At the duck pond."

Ben drew a long breath. "This, Iíve got to see." With a long stride, he set off in Jodyís wake. Adam, equally curious, quickly fell into step beside him.

There was a crowd already gathered around the pond when they arrived. In fact, every man not on a horse on the range was there - even Hop Sing, smiling broadly. There was an air of excitement, and money was changing hands as the hired help weighed up the comparative physical virtues of two big men. Ben and Adam had to push their way through to find out what was going on.

Hoss Cartwright and Arthur Prior, stripped right down to their long drawers, had already waded out knee deep into the water. Both were massive men: Hoss a little taller than Arthur - Arthur a little broader in the beam. Both had wide shoulders and vast barrel chests - Hossís very lightly furred, Arthurís covered with a darker, denser mat of hair that disappeared below the waistband of his undergarment. They had huge hands and their bare arms bulged with muscle. Warily, they were circling one another, stirring up the rich, fragrant silt with their feet. The ducks and the geese, the usual inhabitants of the pond, had gathered up their feathered families and fled.

Ben looked at Adam, who arched a wry eyebrow and shrugged. He had no idea what had brought this on either.

The two giants slapped the surface of the water, splashing it into each otherís faces, each trying to break the otherís concentration. Their expressions, while grimly determined, were not overtly hostile. This was not a grudge match. Ben relaxed, folding his arms and settling back to watch. Adam, standing hip-shot on the bank with his lean, brown hand resting on the butt of his gun in a familiar, casual attitude was already smiling.

The men in the water made several small feints, attempting to catch each other off guard. From the banks came yells of encouragement, helpful suggestions and a number of ribald comments as the hired help entered into the spirit of the thing. Adam joined in with enthusiasm, and Ben was content to let the contest run its course. He remembered with amusement the last time there had been a wrestling match in the duck pond; that time, Hoss and Adam had been the protagonists. Inevitably - Ben grinned at the thought - it had been Hoss who had won.

Hoss and Arthur came to grips, clasping each other first by the forearms and then, closing with each other, above the elbow. Below the water, as they circled, they reached with their feet, each trying to hook the otherís legs out from under him. They pushed and pulled, trying to topple one another into the water.

Hoss, the taller, leaned back and tucked his heel behind Arthurís knee. Arthur wasnít about to go down alone. He shoved himself forward, twisting. Hoss went over backwards. Locked together, the two of them went down into the water with an explosive splash. Adam, leaning close enough to shout advice to his brother, was caught in the deluge and got almost as wet as they did. Ben laughed aloud at the sight of him and at the disgusted look on his face.

Hoss and Arthur rolled over in the water, floundering, smothered in mud. Each was grappling for the upper hand. Hoss got his feet under him and stood up, spitting out foul water and clawing mud from his eyes. Arthur Prior grabbed him from behind by the waist of his drawers and pulled him down. To the applause of the onlookers both men splashed back into the water.

The rain, which had been falling lightly and almost unnoticed from the lowering clouds, turned abruptly into a downpour. Suddenly, everyone was getting wet. The spectators headed for shelter, arguing loudly over which man had the moral victory and settling their bets. Hoss and Arthur, when they came up, spluttering, for air, found that their audience had disappeared.

********

It was the sound that attracted Joe Drury first of all. It was a curious little noise to be breaking the sleepy afternoon silence. It resembled the sudden rattle of raindrops on a shingle roof, or the rifling of the pages of a book. It came from somewhere right at the back of the horse barn. Ever curious, the young man went to investigate.

Peter Nash sat, wide kneed on a nail keg in an empty stall. He was shuffling a pack of playing cards in his aesthetic, thin-fingered hands. Nash was a man built on a deceptive scale: tall and very wide in the shoulders, lean in the hips and long legged. He was a man who, with his propensity for card playing, would have looked, and undoubtedly felt, more comfortable on a riverboat in a full skirted frock coat, than in leather vest and chaps on a ranch. A man in his middle years, it was impossible to say where his wide forehead ended and the smooth, evenly tanned skin of his scalp began. All that remained of a once superb head of black hair were the ravenís wings behind his ears. As a young man he had possessed the devilish good looks that can turn womenís heads; still he had a finely chiseled, pleasantly featured face. He looked up with a keen sharpness as Jody entered the stall, and then, when he saw that it was only the boy, he relaxed. His warm, brown eyes became amused at the look of rapt attention on the young manís face. A friendly smile touched his lips.

"Come on in, kid."

Jody slid into the stall. His expression of intense fascination remained. His green and gold flecked eyes glowed.

Nash nodded towards an upturned box. "Sit yourself down."

Slowly, Jody sat. The movement of the cards transfixed him. They danced between Nashís lean, brown fingers, back and forth in an intricate and seemingly endless series of patterns. So skilful were Nashís hands that the cards might have been living things, trained to obey his commands.

Nash hardly glanced at what his hands were doing; he watched Jodyís face. The smile still played about his mouth. He was a skilful man and handling cards was the love of his life. He practiced it purely because it gave him pleasure. Finally, when he had been through his entire repertoire of tricks, he straightened the pack and handed it over. "Here, you try."

The tip of Jodyís tongue touched his lip. He took the cards into his hands. The thin pasteboards were cool and hard to the touch; their texture was velvet smooth. Red and black on creamy-white, their designs bewitched him: clubs and hearts, diamonds and spades. The queens, each clutching a flower, smiled at him with sad, sweet smiles. The kings glowered in regal majesty. But it was the knaves that whispered their wiles into his soul.

Jody bent and compressed the pack, as Nash had done Ė but clumsily. The cards leapt from between his fingers and scattered on the floor. Embarrassed, he scrambled to pick them up.

Nash laughed gently and helped him gather them. He faced them around, his fingers swift and sure, and automatically shuffled the pack. Jody watched the cards dance.

"Díyou play, kid?"

Jody shook his head. He had stood behind menís shoulders in the bunk house and watched them play all evening for a few dollars. He had seen a monthís pay change hands in a few hours in the saloon in town. Twice, he had asked Joe to explain the rudiments of the game to him, but Joe had been reluctant, wary of what his father would say when he found out. There wasnít much Ben Cartwright didnít find out, one way or another. Jody hadnít dared to ask Adam. "No, sir. I donít."

"Would you like to?" Nash smiled his warm smile and made the cards leap in his hands.

Jody leaned forward, "Yes, sir. I surely would."

Nash brushed the straw from an old packing crate and dealt out cards face up.

"Do you like to watch people?" Nash asked. "Try to get inside their heads and figure out what makes Ďem tick?"

Jody hesitated. "Well, sir, I guess I do watch folks. Iím tryiní to learn most anything I can. Sometimes I can kinda guess what theyíre gonna say or do."

The rangy hand had finished his dealing. A line of twenty-five cards lay between them on the crate. "Thatís a good start, kid," Nash said with a grin. "You might not think it, but if you want to do more than throw away wages for the fun of a game, you got to be patient, and you got to understand folks."

"Patient?" Jody questioned. "Game seems to go pretty fast to me."

Nash leaned back and stretched his shoulders passing a long-fingered hand across his almost bald head. "Odds, itís all about odds, and they are dead against you getting more than one or two good hands in any hour of play. You got to be able to set quiet and pitch in hand after hand until the cards come your way. Then you got to play Ďem smart Ďn that means you got to know the men youíre up against, or theyíll get the drop on you every time."

"Reckon we ought to start with some basics first though. Now you take these twenty-five cards Iíve just spread down here. Iffení I canít make five pat hands outta any twenty-five card nine times out of ten, I jest ainít half tryiní." His hands flew over the spread.

"Three Queens and a pair of tens Ė a full house is worth playing in damn near any game. You do know not to open unless you have a pair of Jacks or better, donít you boy?"

"Yes, sir. I figured that out from watching."

He next selected a simple straight: the five, six, seven, eight and nine of mixed suits. "Nothing flashy here youíd think, but it beats two pair and three of a kind. If you been watching what the other players got showiní and how they been playiní, it can win you a nice pot. Iffen you draw any four of those cards on the deal and both ends are open like in this here hand, you got one chance in five of improving it on the last card. Now an Ace at either end of them four straight card and you only got one chance in eleven of improving your hand."

Jodyís eyes widened in amazement, "Gosh, Mr. Nash, Adamís been teaching me my numbers, but how in tarnation can you know all them things?"

"A good playerís got to know the odds agin him, boy." Nash nodded up and down several times agreeing heartily with himself. "You serious about larniní how to be a good poker player?" Nashís piercing brown eyes bored into Jody.

Jody took a deep breath. "Yes, sir, reckon I am at that." He looked back and didnít drop his gaze.

"All right then, Iíll scratch you out a chart of the hands and the odds on Ďem. You got to study it until itís stuck in your head so hard it donít never come out. Can you do that?"

Jody nodded. "Yes, sir."

"You find me tomorrow, Ďn Iíll have it for you. Now, look at the cards left here. What can you make of Ďem?"

Jody studied the fifteen cards remaining. He carefully picked out an Ace of Hearts and four other small hearts not in sequence and held them up for Nash to see. "I think Iíve heard the men call this an ĎAce high flush,í" he said tentatively.

"Thatís exactly right Ďn a respectable hand in any manís game. If they were in sequence, youíd have a straight flush and likely a fistful of other folks money."

Nash made the remaining cards into a hand with two pair and another into one pair with an Ace kicker and discussed them both.

"Thereís a lot more to learn, but reckon we ought to talk a little about bettiní," Nash mused. "The boys here mostly play draw poker, so weíll start there. Before any cards are dealt the dealer will most generally call for an ante Ė donít have to ante, but most games do. Can be anywhere from a penny to a thousand dollars depending on whose playing. Here on the Ponderosa most games start with a dime. You keep an eye on the dealer. He should keep his sleeves clear of the cards, shuffle them pasteboards good and pass Ďem to the fellow on his right for a cut. If you donít see that happeniní, just get on out of the game and go about your business. You wonít want to be around when the shootiní starts." Nash rubbed his hands together and made the motions of a deal.

ďAfter the dealer gives everybody five cards, you pick yours up and look at Ďem real calm like. Donít make no faces, or twitch and fidget. Good player can learn to read you real quick thata way. Fellow to the dealerís left goes first. If heís got an opening hand, he bets what itís worth to him. Then each man-jack at that table has gotta meet that first bet, raise it or fold his hand and drop out of the deal. The bettiní ends when all the fellows left in the game has put up the same amount of money. Now, you got to watch who checks and who raises real close, Ďcause itís your first clue as to what they hold.

"Next thing, the dealer starts on his left and, one by one, asks everybody still playing how many cards they want. They throw down their discards, most likely one or two cards, face down in the middle of the table, and the dealer replaces them. Nobody should see any of them cards! No indeedy. If one turns up the dealer should call a misdeal and start fresh.

"Well, sir, you take up your new cards and ask yourself, Ďdid I do myself any good here, or is this hand still a piece of crap?í Dependiní on what your answer is and what the other folks in the game did you get another chance to bet, raise or fold. When every player has met the last raise or folded, them oleí boys still hanginí on show their hands, and the one with the top hand takes the pot."

Jody nodded solemnly.

"Sound easy does it, boy? Not by a long shot! After the draw is when the real poker playiní starts. For instance, if a man draws one card, he may be holding four to a straight or flush. But there is always the possibility that he has three of a kind and is holding a high kicker hoping for a full house. He might have two pair, sure enough, but he also could have four of a kind. Only what you know about the fellow youíre going up against and them odds Iím gonna give you, can help you thru this pass without losing your scalp.

"Iffen a manís a fool and a plunger, chances are heís drawiní to an inside straight or flush." Nash broke off and shook his head in sorrow. "Donít never do that foolishness, kid. Donít never! Just fold your hand and wait for another deal.

A high-pitched voice calling, "Jody, Jody," broke their concentration.

"Cookieís hollariní for you, kid. Better get a move on," Nash laughed. "You come stand behind me when we play tonight, and if you promise to keep your face real still, Iíll learn you some more about poker. One last thing though: donít never play with somebody who canít afford to lose and donít play yourself if you canít spare the cash. No game was ever worth losing your ranch, your horse, nor your wife over."

Hop Sing called again, and Jody spun around. "Thanks Mr. Nash," he shouted on his way out of the stall. "Iíll be there tonight." He disappeared through the door into the spangled sunlight of the yard.

********

Adam was slogging his way doggedly uphill through the mud, heading for the house, some well-earned coffee, and a bath! He was cursing himself for all sorts of a fool for not having the foresight to have taken a horse - if he had, he would have at least saved himself this unpleasant walk. Like most cowboys, he disliked walking when he could ride. It was a disagreeable end to what had been a disagreeable afternoon.

He had started it off by spending an hour treating the soft and decaying hooves of several horses that had picked up an unpleasant parasitic infection from the constantly wet ground. The sweet smell of the rot still lingered on his hands despite the scrubbing he had given them. Then he had drawn the job of sewing up an ugly gore wound in the shoulder of a frightened and foul-tempered cow. She had given him a hard time and had crowned it all off by standing on his foot. Adam knew he was going to have several, beautifully blue toes.

The afternoon had ended, in the pouring rain, at the pigpen where he had overseen what had, as it turned out, been a particularly messy slaughter. There were days, he reflected with sour philosophy, when nothing went right. He was spattered with a variety of colourful substances, none of them savoury, and he was well aware that he smelled of rather more than his own sweat.

A shadow fell across his path. Adam looked up. Four horsemen sat in front of him, barring his way. Adam felt a momentary unease, knowing that he had left his gun behind as well as his horse, and feeling naked because of it. The sun was setting behind a thin cloud layer and the sky was bright. Adam squinted against it, screwing up his face. He made out the forms and the faces of the Prior brothers. Only Asia Prior was missing. Adam didnít doubt that he was off somewhere with Joe, either talking horses, or chasing women. They were the two things that they had in common.

The Priors were all dressed up in their best suits, with white shirts and silk string ties, and they were riding their Friday-night go-to-town horses. Gazing up at them, Adam wiped a none too clean forearm across his face, then he planted both hands on his hips.

"Something I can do to help you boys?"

Auron Prior leaned out of his saddle. His distinctive, gap-toothed grin split his face. "Itís more a case of what we can do for you."

"Oh?" Adam looked from one face to the other. "Howís that?"

"Weíre heading inta town. Gonna pay a visit ta that fancy cat-house we heard all about." Big smiles spread across the other three Prior faces.

"Miss Lucyís?"

"Thatís the place." Auron Prior sat comfortably back, "Figured you might like ta ride along with us."

To a man accustomed to playing as hard as he worked, the prospect of spending an evening in the most sumptuous whore-house in the west had an instant appeal. Adam thought about it, but not for long. After the afternoon he had just worked through he reckoned he deserved a little rest and relaxation. Getting off the ranch for a while would be a pure delight, and he was man enough not to turn down an opportunity when it flew in his face. The close company of a perfumed, and undeniably pretty young woman was exactly what he needed. He felt a pleasant and familiar tightening in his body at the mere thought of it. A slow smile spread over his face.

"You boys give me ten minutes to clean up, aní Iíll be right with you."

It took Adam rather longer to get clean than he estimated. It was some twelve minutes later when, washed down and smelling a good deal sweeter, dressed in a dark, long-coated dress-suit, silk shirt and tie, he came out of the house. He swung aboard the best horse in his string. By now he was really looking forward to an evening in town Ė hell, he might even spend the whole night at Miss Lucyís, in one of her extra special rooms with a hot tub and all the trimmings - and a couple of lovely ladies to share it with him! He exchanged anticipatory grins with the waiting Prior brothers, and the whole bunch of them rode out for Virginia City.

Three

Herricule Bojum stood stiffly erect beside the small breakfast fire. He took a long, slow sip from the battered tin cup in his hand - a last mouthful. It was trail coffee, black, and strong, and bitter, heavily laced with liquor. He swilled it Ďround in his mouth while, with faded eyes, he gazed calculatingly at the surrounding hills. Then, swallowing the mouthful, he turned and regarded the mule train, already standing harnessed and waiting. Only two of the packsaddles were loaded with assorted pelts, dried and salted and tightly rolled. Bojunís face, bearded and weathered to the texture of old, brown leather darkened with a scowl. By now, he would have expected half the saddles to be full. The hunting in these forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadaís had been poor. The weather had been against them: wet as well as cold, with sudden storms blasting down at them out of the mountains. Game had proved elusive. Even the normally dependable trap lines, set along well used animal trails and beside watering places, had failed to produce their usual rich harvest. These woods, like others Bojun had hunted in recent years, were all but played out. If nothing else, Bojun was a realist. He was prepared to admit, phlegmatically, that, in this part of the world at least, the day of the fur trapper was done. What he was not prepared to do was to ride out of these hills empty handed.

Lighterman led his horse over to him on a long, slack rein. Bojun emptied the dregs from his cup into the embers of the fire. He thrust the cup into Lightermanís hand and took the rein. He took one, long, awkward stride and stepped up to the saddle, swinging his straight leg over. He sat for a moment, rubbing the pain out of his thigh while Perriot brought up the mules. Lighterman kicked apart the remains of the fire.

"So," Lighterman said with an edge of impatience, "What happens now?" His visions of making money had started to fade away right at the outset. Time and again he had seen the trap lines come up empty. Of those pelts they had taken many were small and of poor quality. Once again his hopes had turned to ashes in his mouth. Always a vexed man, his anger had turned into scarcely masked, simmering resentment. It was only the awe in which he held Bojunís reputation that kept his explosive temper in check. With Bojunís ongoing failure to produce promised results, Lightermanís awe was fading.

Bojunís eyes swept over him, mildly contemptuous. In his sixty years the old hunter had encountered Lightermanís kind before: impetuous, impatient and prepared to work - but not too hard and not for too long. Basically, Lighterman was a loser. Bojun raised his face to survey the hills again, turning in the saddle until the morning sun shone on his left cheek. They had come to the end of their trip, as originally proposed. They should be turning back, riding in a wide arc through the hills they had already hunted, clearing the last of their trap lines as they went. None of them were under the illusion that the snares would be anything but empty. In front of them were the higher ranges where the trees grew tall and the snows of winter still lay on the ground. "Reckon weíll take a good long sweep through those hills," he said, indicating the way ahead with a nod.

Lighterman followed his gaze and didnít much like what he saw. He turned back with an angry expression. "What makes you think weíll find more up in them hills than we have down here?"

Bojun chose, for the time being, to ignore the irritation in the younger manís tone. "I reckon we might just find somethiní ta make it worth our while takiní a ride up there."

Lighterman was unhappy and impatient. "I think weíre wastiní our time!"

Regarding him thoughtfully from the saddle, Bojun said, "You want out, you cín walk away right now. Itís a down hill ride all the way back."

"Aní what about my gear? Some oí them hides we got Ďre mine!"

Bojunís lips compressed into a thin sneer. Both men were developing a healthy dislike for each other. "You ride out, you go empty handed," he said. He lifted his reins, and, with the heel of his left foot only, he kicked his horse into motion.

Lighterman stared at his back with glittering resentment bright in his eyes. His big hands knotted into fists at his sides. Then he jammed his hat onto his head and climbed onto his own horse. Glaring for a moment at Perriot as if daring him to comment, he urged the animal after Bojunís. Keeping his own council and leading the pack-mules, Perriot fell into line. The three of them let the horses pick their own pace, heading steadily north.

********

Ben drove Jenny and Daniel into Virginia City in the buckboard. The morning sun was shining weakly through thin cloud. It hadnít rained at all in two whole days. It was warmer. It felt as if spring might just be getting under way at last. The mud of Main Street had lost its liquid consistency and had become thick and extremely sticky. It clung to the wagon wheels and to the legs and the bellies of the horses.

Someone, of necessity, had thrown some boards down outside the Wells Fargo Office. They were intended to keep clean and dry the feet of the passengers that boarded, and alighted from, the stagecoach. Ben pulled the buckboard up alongside and, stepping past Jenny, jumped down. He reached up to lift his wife to the boardwalk and steadied her, his hands on her narrow waist, while she regained her balance. She gave him an impish grin.

Jenny shook out the long skirts of her dark-red velvet traveling dress while Ben lifted out the baby. Ben handed the child to his wife. At Benís bidding, several men set about transferring Jennyís boxes from the buckboard to the stage, loading them up on top. Side by side, Ben and Jenny walked along the boardwalk to the door of the coach.

"Have you everything you need for the journey?"

Jenny looked at the pile of luggage being lashed to the roof of the stage and a smile danced in her eyes. "Oh, I think so."

"And you have the letters I gave you for our lawyers?"

"I have them, Ben."

"And the bank draft I gave you Ė you have it safely put away?"

"Indeed." Jenny smiled openly, thinking of the slip of paper tucked securely away inside her corset. Ben saw the glow in her face and sighed inwardly. The draft was for a substantial amount of money, and he had an uncanny feeling that most of it would end up in the hands of the various dressmakers of San Francisco.

The door of the coach stood open, and several other passengers were already aboard. Jenny handed Daniel to Ben to hold while she climbed inside. Having said their more intimate goodbyes in the privacy of their bedroom, they parted with a chaste touch of lips to cheek. Ben looked at his youngest son. A well-grown little boy, Daniel Cartwright was more robust that either Adam or Joe had been at the same age, if not as sturdy as Hoss. His small head was covered in a shock of raven black hair reminiscent of Benís eldest sonís, or of Benís own as it had been in his youth. He had Benís own grave, dark eyes. At that exact moment he was earnestly engaged in trying to consume his own fist. Ben guessed that by the time he saw Daniel again, the baby would have several more brand-new teeth.

Ben whispered a blessing on him and brushed his lips against the babyís head. He passed the child up into his motherís waiting arms.

"You carry my affection to your sister, now," he admonished his wife.

Jenny gave a deep throaty chuckle. "Oh, Ben! You know full well how much you dislike my sister!"

Caught out, Ben reddened. "I do not dislike your sister. I merely thinkÖ"

Jennyís chuckle became open laughter at his discomfiture. "Fie! Listen to yourself, fickle man!"

Ben bristled and blustered. To be truthful, he was not overly fond of Jennyís sister. He was grateful when the coachman climbed up to the box. It saved him having to think of an answer. He slammed the door shut and stepped back, touching his hat to his wife. "Take care, my dear."

Jenny smiled and lifted her hand in farewell. The driver yelled to the horses and slapped the broad leather reins against their backs. As the coach pulled away, Ben wished his little family Godspeed and watched until it vanished from sight.

The sun was coming out in earnest now, warm and bright with the promise of so many better days to come. It warmed the town and all the people in it. The steeply canted roofs began to steam. For the first time, Ben noticed that the street smelled rank. The mud was liberally mixed with the droppings of horses and oxen. They were odors Ben was well used out at the ranch, a part of everyday life that he thought nothing about. Here in town, they merged with other, less wholesome aromas to create a more dubious miasma. It brought a frown to his face. It just didnít strike him as healthy.

He climbed back aboard the buckboard and drove at a leisurely pace along Main Street to Eli Huxtonís General Store. There were a number of last minute but essential items that he needed to purchase for the cattle drive, and this was his final chance to do it. Winding the reins around the brake lever, he climbed down into the street. His boots sank a good way into the sticky surface. Ben pulled a face and set his hat firmly on his head. He was certainly looking forward to the longer, hotter days of summer when a man could walk on top of the ground instead of having to wade through it. Resolutely, he made his way though the mud to the steps and climbed onto the boardwalk.

Ben pushed open the door of the store. Immediately, a snarling, animated bundle of flying fists collided squarely with his midriff. Benís breath oofíed out of him, and he staggered back a long step. The bundle resolved itself into a pair of very grubby young men, aged about eight. They were clearly brothers, if not twins. They were of a height, dark haired and dark eyed. Both of them were too intent on venting their frustrations on each other to notice Ben Cartwright.

"Come on now, young fellas," Ben extricated the boys from the region of his belt buckle and held them at arms length by the ears. "Whatís all this about then?"

Both boys twisted and squirmed, but Ben wasnít about to let go. Heíd had a wealth of experience when it came to bickering boys. He looked them over, first one and then the other. They were not a savoury sight, although there was nothing wrong with them that a large quantity of hot water and some soap wouldnít cure. And some new clothes, he added as a qualifier to the thought. The ones they had were dirty in the extreme, smeared with mud from the street outside and what looked like the remains of several meals. "What are you two fighting about?"

The boys looked shame faced and sullen. Neither was prepared to answer him. Satisfied that the battle, for the moment, was over, Ben let go of the ears. He put his hands on his hips and assumed the severe expression that he had found made a suitable impression on very young men.

"Sir? I am so sorry if my boys have inconvenienced you." The voice was low - a womanís. It effectively defused the lecture Ben was about to deliver.

Ben looked up, his scowl fading. At about thirty, the woman had a face that had been pretty, once, and was now harassed and care-worn. Her formerly dark hair was streaked with grey. In addition to the two boys there were two more small children clinging to her skirts and, unless Ben missed his guess, another baby well on itís way.

"Maíam." He touched the brim of his hat and stepped aside to let her pass.

The woman thanked him and shepherded her brood out onto the walkway.

Ben handed his list over to Eli and took a moment to look round. The interior of the store was cool and vaguely damp. If Ben had been a gambling man, he would have laid odds that, right now, the whole of Nevada was damp. It smelled of leather boots and iron hoes, of lamp oil and soap. As a man concerned, in a very practical way, with firearms, he was interested to see the latest Springfield rifle in the gun-case on the wall.

As he was looking at it, the door opened, and Paul Martin came in. For once the doctor did not look his usually dapper self. His immaculate suit was a trifle rumpled. He appeared tired and pale, and there was a trace of stubble on his chin. Ben was concerned.

"Paul?"

"Ben." Paul held out his hand in greeting. There were shadows haunting his eyes, but his smile was genuine enough, if a little weary.

Paul and Ben had been friends for a very long time. Ben felt entitled to speak frankly. "You look as if youíre having a hard day."

"Hard day, hard month!" Paul shook his head, and a wry grin twisted his mouth. "Weíve got a typhoid epidemic running wildfire all over the east-side of town, and itís headed this way.

"So Roy was telling me." Ben was alarmed to see the state of his old friend.

Paul pinched the bridge of his nose; it was a brief submission to weariness that he would not usually confess to. How could he explain to his prosperous and wealthy friend the horrors he was subjected to, daily, in the poorest quarters of the town? Could he even begin to describe the extent of the human disaster that was taking place? Could he talk about the sick children who died? About the children whose sick parents had died? About the parents who had lost all their children? While Ben was something of a philanthropist, he lived in a world apart from poverty and squalor. Although he had suffered himself and could understand tragedy at an individual and personal level, could he begin to comprehend the catastrophe that was taking place right on his doorstep? Would it be fair to tell him about it? At that moment, Paul looked more tired than Ben had ever seen him. "Is Jenny all right?" he asked, "And the baby? No fever? No spots?"

"Theyíre just fine. I just put Jenny and Daniel onto the stage for Reno. Theyíre going to spend a few weeks with Jennyís sister in San Francisco."

"Well, thatís two I wonít have to worry about. The safest place to be right now is west of the mountains." Paul sighed. Ben felt he would have run a hand through his already disordered hair if it were a gesture he was given to. Paul looked at his friend critically. One thing he didnít want was the epidemic spreading beyond the limits of the town. "And yourself, Ben? And the boys?"

Ben smiled reassurance. "Joe and I are trailing the herd out tomorrow. Adam and Hoss are heading for the high country."

"Iím glad to hear it. Here in town the feverís reaching plague proportions. The further you are from people, the less likely you are to catch it."

"And what about you, Paul?"

For the first time in a long time, Paul laughed aloud. "Ben, Iím a doctor! I donít have time to get sick!"

Eli Huxton came back at that moment to tell Ben that his buckboard was loaded up and ready to go. Ben and Paul shook hands and wished each other well. While Paul went to make his purchases, Ben decided on a bite of lunch before heading back to the ranch.

Outside in the street, the woman was still trying to bring her unruly brood under control. The two boys were tussling again, down in the mud, and totally ignoring their motherís admonishments. Ben shook his head. She certainly had her hands full. And thinking of hands rather made him wish heíd had the chance to wash his own before eating Ė the ears of those boys had been none too clean. But that wasnít to be. Unconsciously wiping his palms against his pants, he headed for the Silver Dollar.

********

The herd was the largest that the Cartwrights had ever assembled. It represented a huge investment of time and labour, and when delivered to the cattle pens at the railhead, would increase the family fortunes by a considerable amount. Most of the steers were the brown and white Hereford cross that thrived on the high, dry ranges. Interspersed among them were typical Texas longhorns, and animals of a hugely muscular type with black, slightly curly coats. They all wore the distinctive brand of the Ponderosa pine. They filled to capacity the wide, shallow basin in the land that God might have created specially for the purpose of gathering them together.

The cattle were all on their feet and the hired hands had them milling slowly in a great, animated cartwheel. Their restless lowing carried clearly to the rim of the basin where the Cartwrights, father and three sons, sat on their horses, looking down. It was an immensely satisfying sight for all of them - the culmination of three yearís grinding and sometimes grim, hard work.

The four Cartwright men sat in a row along the rim of the basin, sharing, just for a moment, the pride of achievement and of ownership. Every one of them had worked his guts out to produce this herd.

From below, a lone horseman started up the hill. Charlie rode up and pulled his dark, slightly shaggy cow pony to a snorting stop. He touched his hat to Ben and nodded to the younger Cartwrights. "Morniní, Ben. Boys."

Smiling, Ben returned his nod. "Charlie. Howís it going?"

"Itís goiní," Charlie turned his head and spat amber coloured tobacco juice all the way to the ground. "Them steers has eaten jist about every blade oí grass in that valley. ĎTime ta move Ďem out, boss, Ďafore they starve."

Ben drew a long breath of satisfaction. He looked again at the restless, slowly turning herd. Beyond the cattle, on the far rim of the valley, the small horse herd that would provide remounts for the drovers was already on the move. Along with them went two covered wagons drawn by two-horse teams. One was the cook wagon driven by Pete Barnes, the other, containing the menís belongings, by a boy named Rolo that Ben had hired from town.

"Best get them started then, Charlie."

Charlie nodded again, turned his horse and set off back down the hill. Joe Cartwright grinned a final farewell at his brothers and kicked his pinto into motion, following the ranch foreman to work.

Ben turned in his saddle to look at his other sons. There was Adam, sitting hard by his stirrup on his favourite trail horse, and beyond him, Hoss astride his big, black gelding. Wearing their warm woollen coats and with gloves on their hands, they were all set to leave for the hills. The pair of packhorses that waited patiently alongside them carried all the gear they would need for the projected, month-long trip.

Hossís always-expressive face betrayed the excitement that he felt inside. Had he been asked, he would have confessed to being a happy man. For a good bit longer than a year he had been promising himself this adventure. Every time he had made plans something more urgent had come up to prevent him going. His brother had been shot and had taken a long time to heal. That had meant extra work for everyone, and especially for the family. All of them had been forced to stretch themselves thinly to cover the gaping hole Adamís incapacity had left in the workforce.

The Ponderosa was a working ranch, and, as the seasons rolled on, one essential job followed hot on the heels of another: the gathering, branding and castrating of cattle, the felling and transportation of timber and the replanting of small trees to replenish the forests. Then there was the maintenance of fence lines that stretched for a hundred miles and more, the breaking of horses and the clearing of scrub land for new pasture. They were all jobs that required the supervision of a Cartwright at some stage, if not his actual participation.

And then there were the incidental problems. The silver mine in which Ben had a substantial stake had inexplicably flooded; it had taken weeks to pump it dry, and no one was sure it wouldnít happen again. Kingdom Jones, Benís partner in the freight business, had been hit by a series of robberies in which no one had been hurt, but which had cost the business a lot of money. He had asked for help, and Ben had been glad to provide it, in the shape of Hoss, even if it had made things more difficult at home. The heavy rains had washed out a long stretch of road, which had to be repaired before the timber contract could be completed.

Work had started, and had continued intermittently, on the fancy new bathhouse Adam had designed and seemed to have set his heart on having. They had been required to provide two men to ride on a sheriffís posse, and on Christmas Eve, Jennyís Jacobís sheep had broken out of their pasture and his Pa had had apoplexy until they were all rounded up again. Hossís lips jerked into a little smile at the memory. He had even been required to take a trip to San Francisco to negotiate with the buying agents and to sign the contracts for next yearís timber and beef. It was a job Adam had always undertaken. Good experience, his father had said. Now, having done it himself, Hoss understood the quick wits and iron-hard nerves that it required. He had an even greater appreciation of his brotherís agile mind.

Looking across at Adam, Hoss was very glad to have him fit and well again. Adam sat tall and straight in the saddle. There was no trace of the terrible, hunched attitude that had characterized the early days of his recovery. His handsome features wore a slight frown of concentration as he studied the cattle, but otherwise, they were serene.

Hoss was glad to have him along on this trip. The Reserved Section was, by the common consent of the family, Hossís domain. He looked forward to asking the advice of his much admired and respected brother concerning the management of the land and of the wildlife that inhabited it. A trained and accredited engineer, Adam had poetry in his soul, and he would appreciate the way Hoss felt about all the wild places. And more, even, than that, Hoss was going to relish, pure and simple, the pleasure of his beloved brotherís company. Hoss knew for sure that he was really going to enjoy this trip. And when he got back, well - Hoss smiled a small and secret smile - when he got back, Hoss had very specific, personal plans.

Adam caught his eye and smiled - a sudden rare expression that lit his face like sunlight and dimpled his cheeks. He was looking forward to this trip as well, and for some of the same reasons. Hoss beamed back at him, and Ben smiled benevolently on them both.

Below them, under the careful control of the drovers, the cattle were starting to move in a slow stream towards the mouth of the valley. The menís whistles and shouts of encouragement mingled with the bellowing of the steers.

Adam clasped his hands together on his saddle-horn and sat way back in the saddle, stretching out his arms. "Ainít that the sweetest little herd oí doggies you ever did see?"

"Take a good long look, boys," Ben said, chuckling, "Itís the last youíll see of them."

The entire herd was moving now, an undulating tide of brown and black backs, stringing out across the range. Behind them they left the denuded pastures to regenerate and re-grow to feed next yearís steers. For the Cartwrights the time had come for more farewells.

Leaning well forward, Ben reached out and shook hands with Hoss across the withers of Adamís horse. "Have a good trip, son."

"I shore will, Pa." Hoss beamed a gap-toothed smile. Turning in his saddle, he spoke to the younger man beside him, "Címon, Jody, letís make some tracks for the high hills."

Together, the two men turned their horses and set off at a steady walk, the pack animals trailing along behind them.

Adam and his father regarded each other. Instinctively, both of them knew that this was an ending - possibly a parting of the ways. Adam had some very serious thinking to do. By the time they met again, he would be a different man with a whole new set of dreams and aspirations. Both of them hoped that they would find it possible to like each other. They tried to hold the moment, but, as moments will, it slipped away.

"Adam." Ben held out his big hand, iron hard, roughened and scarred by a lifetime of hard work.

Adam took it in his own: strong, lean, browned by the sun and the wind, pink palmed and pink padded. "Pa."

The handshake lasted for an extended time. The two men gazed into each otherís eyes. Benís were as deep a brown as a manís eyes could be, solemn, intense, deeply caring. Adamís eyes, with the sun in his face, were a light, bright hazel. Ben had a feeling that they were already fixed on the future. Each man etched the otherís features indelibly in memory.

A smile touched Adamís face. It moved his mouth and lifted his cheeks and put sparkle into his eyes. He backed his horse several steps, and then, with a last nod of respect, he turned the animal and rode to where his brother and Jody waited for him on a rise in the ground.

Ben sat his buckskin horse on the rim of the world and watched the last of the cattle move out. He felt hollowed out inside. There was a dull ache of loss in his heart. Already, he was missing his son with his lively, razor sharp intelligence, his insight and his intuition, his ready wit and sometimes acutely cynical humour, his rare, welcome laughter. He could only hope that, while today had indeed been an ending, it might also herald a new beginning.

********

Adam took the lead, following familiar trails that climbed through the higher pastures into wooded hills. He rode with an erect, alert posture, his head up and his fine shoulders well back; his lean, horsemanís hips were pushed well forward in the saddle. He set a steady pace, moving easily and with an unconscious grace to the horseís long stride.

Hoss was content to follow his brother. The big man wore a smile that, in recent days, had become permanently embedded in his face. He had selected his favourite, sturdily built, black trail horse and he quickly adjusted to the loping, ground covering pace that Adam had chosen. Born to the saddle, he rode well for such a heavily built man, swaying with the animalís gait. He trailed one of the packhorses on a long lead rope.

Leading the other packhorse, Joe Drury brought up the rear on a stocky bay that Adam and Hoss had picked out for him. It was an animal well suited to the steep hills and rough terrain of the hill country.

Jody had been surprised when the Cartwright brothers had asked him to ride with them. He had expected to go as a trail hand with the herd. Jody enjoyed the company of Hoss Cartwright. The big man had a sunny, easy-going disposition, and if he was a little slow with words, he had a deep insight into the natures of men and beasts alike. Jodyís relationship with Adam Cartwright was altogether a more complicated affair. Adam was a very complex man and hard to know. Intelligent and educated, articulate and artistic, Adam sometimes seemed out of place on a cattle ranch. There were moments when he was aloof from, even contemptuous of, the life that he and his brothers led. Nonetheless, he was friendly in his own, reserved manner, and he had put himself out, even when very ill, to give Jody the learning that he lacked. Jody regarded the big-built, darkly good-looking man with some awe and a shy liking. He was hoping that during this trip, he would get to know the elder Cartwright better.

By silent, common consent, Adam led the way, first, to the shores of the greater lake. On that particular morning, the vast expanse of fresh water, whose name meant ĎBig Waterí in the native tongue of the Washoe, was placid, disturbed only by dancing cats-paws and the inevitable flocks of waterfowl. It was an intense blue. With its surface more than six thousand feet above sea level, most of its twenty-two mile eastern shoreline constituted the western boundary of the Ponderosa. Although they regarded it with a proprietary interest, the Cartwrights lay no claim to the lake itself. The water that lapped the stony shore was clear and cold, and it belonged to no one.

As was their habit the brothers, Jody along with them, sat their horses and feasted their eyes upon the familiar but always changing panorama. Fed by numerous small streams and drained in the north by the Truckee River, the lake lay in a cleft in the hills. Its surface reflected perfectly the azure sky and the surrounding hillsides.

With very little shoreline to mark the boundary of water and land, the hills rose steeply. Widely spaced and sentinel, the trees that clothed them were the omnipotent Ponderosa pine. In all, it was a prospect of unbelievable beauty. It possessed a mysterious serenity that had the power to work magic in a manís soul Ė especially if the manís name happened to be Cartwright. Even Jody, who was not a Cartwright, felt it softly stirring.

Adam rode on a way, keeping close to the waterís edge. He allowed his horse to pick its own way among the stones and the huge white boulders that littered the shore. Hoss and Jody followed, the big man pointing out the details of the landscape as the sculpted hills revealed themselves, one behind the other.

At about midday they turned away from the water and shortly afterwards, Adam brought down a small mule deer with his saddle gun. He selected a young male animal that would yield tender meat and leave no dependent young to starve. They made short work of cleaning and skinning it, bundling the waste up in the hide and burying it in the ground. Wrapped in thick canvas, the muscle meat and internal organs would provide all the fresh meat the men needed for several days to come.

Now, Hoss took the lead. Eagerly he turned the head of his horse towards the higher hills. They followed less well-known paths and, sometimes, no path at all, urging the horses straight up the sheer hillsides. Hoss had been here before on other, shorter trips, and he knew the way he wanted to go. Adam was prepared to sit back in the saddle and let his brother cut the trail. This was, after all, Hossís trip.

Hoss guided the little party over the shoulder of a hill and into a small densely wooded valley. A crystal stream tumbled musically over a ledge of exposed rock and into a sheltered pool. Several ancient, half-decayed logs partially jammed the outlet Ė the remnants of an old beaver dam. Behind them, the water was dark and deep - a secret pool hidden away in the cusp of the hillside.

Hoss stopped his horse and looked back with a big grin. He waited while Adam and Jody rode up alongside,

"Hey, Adam, ainít that the prettiest little spot you ever did see?"

Adam leaned forward in the saddle to ease his butt and pushed back his hat. He looked around with narrowed eyes and an expression of amusement. Knowing Hoss as well as he did, he had a very good idea what his brother was thinking.

Sunlight danced on the shifting surface of the water. Trees jostled each other right up to the waterís edge - tough broad-leaves surviving against the odds in this secluded spot. The grass beneath the horseís hoofs had been nibbled to green velvet by the teeth of visiting deer. Adam returned his brotherís smile, "It surely is."

Hoss looked at the water and mischief sparkled in his eyes. "Are you thinkiní what Iím a thinkiní?"

"Could be that Iím way ahead of you." Adamís smile widened.

As one man, the two of them swung out of their saddles and started to strip off their clothes. Jody watched in open-mouthed amazement as two fully adult men raced with each other to see who could get out of his clothing the quickest. Hat, coats, boots, shirts and pants all came off in hurry; most of it hung, with the gunbelts, from the saddle horns. Unashamedly naked, they were a pair of huge, powerfully built men with bodies made hard and muscular by the lives that they led. Hoss was decidedly the larger: taller, broader in the shoulders and wider in the girth. His pale skin was finely furred in light coloured hair.

Adam was of a more compact build and altogether darker. His superb body was deeply bronzed above the belt line, less so below. His body hair was thicker and darker, a mat of tight black curls that covered his chest, narrowed over his lean belly and then widened again. It was easy to see why the ladies took such delight in his company. Even relaxed, Adam was a magnificently built man.

To the right of his navel, the scar on his belly was puckered and still purpled where the skin was thin. A slight frown touched Hossís wide face at the sight of it. It was a sharp reminder of how very close he had come to losing a much-loved brother. It still made him shiver deep inside.

Adam was unaware of Hossís discomfort. Hands on hips in a typical attitude, he looked up at Jody, "You just gonna sit there Ďní watch, boy, or are you cominí in ta cool yourself off?"

Jody wasnít feeling particularly warm. In fact, he was wondering if both men had entirely taken leave of their senses. Uncertainly, he dismounted and started to take off his clothes. He didnít want to be though unmanly. Besides which, the mood they were in, he didnít put it past the Cartwright brothers to dump him in the water fully clothed.

The two big men chased each other into the pool, shouting and laughing and splashing the water into each otherís faces. Jody, tentatively, followed.

They made a trail camp not far from the pool, still within the shelter of the trees. The water, runoff from the snows that still whitened the hilltops, was icy cold. Although noisy, energetic and refreshing, the swim had been necessarily short. All the men felt the need of a fire to warm them through.

Adam displayed his talents as a trail cook, slicing and frying the liver of the deer, together with onions and potatoes Hop Sing had provided. They finished the meal with coffee and a slab of sweet, dark fruitcake from the Chinese cookís kitchen.

As soon as the sun set behind the western mountains, the darkness, and the profound silence of the woods settled around them. They built up the fire to drive back the shadows and the chill of the night. The swim had relaxed them into a holiday mood. Replete and warm, Hoss and Adam related trail stories and tales of the lake to Jody until the wood burned down and the silver faced moon had climbed high into the sky. Jody yawned and rubbed a fist across his face in a gesture retained from childhood.

Hoss looked at his brother, "Adam, why donít you sing somethiní for us?"

Adam laughed and sat up straighter. He threw back his head and his fine baritone voice soared to the tops of the pine and beyond, into the night sky.

"The water is wide. I cannot get over.

And neither haveÖ I wings to fly.

Give me a boat, that will carry two.

And both shall row, my love and I"

When all the verses were finished Jody, content, wrapped himself in his blankets and lay back in his upturned saddle to sleep. The ground was hard, but not as uncomfortable as he had expected it to be. Gradually, he grew warm and the murmur of the menís voices lulled him towards sleep. He began his regular, nightly routine. He recited in his mind, and pictured as he went, all the combinations of cards that Nash had written down for him. He no longer needed the three, now dog-eared sheets of spidery writing. The hands and the pattern of play were embedded in his mind. As he drifted into slumber, his dreams were filled with Kings and Queens and Jacks and deuces.

The brothers sat and shared the deep companionship that only the best of friends experience.

Adam threw a few sticks on the fire and looked at Hoss across the renewed blaze. The expression he wore was a strange one. It was open and amenable enough, but his eyes were hooded, as if they concealed secret thoughts. "So, you finally made it the high country."

"Yup." Hoss grinned and gazed round at the surrounding, darkling trees. They loomed into the firelight. "Reckon as I did."

"What are your plans, now that youíre here?"

Unused to expressing himself fluently, Hoss fumbled for the words. "I was plannin ta ride south all the way ta the boundary line an then take a sweep through the high hills. I figure we should be back ta the house Ďbout the same time as Pa. Aní thenÖ" Hoss flushed scarlet. He guessed he had to get it said sometime. He drew a big breath and let it all out in a rush. "Aní then I plan on askiní Mary Fletcher ta marry me, Adam."

A slow smile spread across Adamís face. It was a natural, happy smile. Hossís words only served to confirm what he and his father had suspected for some time. He was as pleased for his brother as he could possibly be. Hoss was a good man with a kind and generous heart. He needed, and deserved, the love of a good woman. Little Mary Fletcher, practical and sweet natured, was ideally suited. "Sheíll make you a mighty fine wife, Hoss."

"I reckon as she will." Still blushing furiously, Hoss grinned at the thought. Then he sobered abruptly, "Say, Adam, donít you go telliní Pa nothiní Ďbout this. You know how he takes on. Heíll push me on up ta that altar quicker Ďn you can say rabbit pie! Iíll tell Ďim my own self jist as soon as Iím ready."

"I wouldnít dream of telling him a word." Adam wasnít about to reveal that their father already had wedding plans in mind.

For a while, they sat in silence, each of them thinking his own thoughts. Adamís face was brooding, shuttered, while the play of emotion across Hossís features was plain to see. He poked about in the embers of the fire with a stick. Finally, he looked up.

"Adam, what you gonna do?"

Adam raised a quizzical eyebrow, "Do?"

"Now that you got over that gunshot wound, what you gonna do with yourself? You gonna stay here on the ranch with us? Or you gonna go off aní see all them fancy places you always talkiní Ďbout?"

Adam gazed into the flames. Hoss always managed to amaze him. Obviously the big man had been thinking deep, quiet thoughts for a long time. He might have known that his reticent, slow-speaking brother would have the insight to ask aloud the very questions that he was putting to himself. Right now, he was uncertain of the answers.

Against all the odds, he had survived what should have been a lethal bullet wound. The fates had given him back his life and his future. Now that he had recovered his health, he was uncertain of the direction he wanted his life to take. He loved his family dearly, and he loved this land. His roots ran deep. But there was a restlessness in him, an un-quietness of spirit. He yearned to see other places and other peoples. It was a conflict he didnít know how to resolve.

He answered honestly; Hoss deserved that much.

"I donít know, Hoss. I havenít made up my mind."

Hoss drew up his knees and wrapped his arms round them the way he had as a child when he needed comfort. Adam recognized the gesture and it made his conscience ache.

Awkwardly, Hoss said, "Weíre gonna miss ya, Adam, iffen you decide ta go. Iím gonna miss you."

Adam pulled a long breath. He knew that whatever he decided, there were going to be a lot of moments like this. He framed his reply with the utmost care. "I know you will, Hoss. And Iíll miss you. Whatever happens, remember that Iíll be thinking of you, and that one day, Iíll be coming back."

Even as he said it, he knew that it was true. The land itself was his home, and he was tied to it by his blood.

Still troubled, but somewhat mollified, Hoss sat a while longer and then turned in. It was a while before he slept. Adam threw some more wood on the fire to make the shadows dance. He sat for a long time, staring into the flames and considering his options.

Four

Adam put his finger against his lips in the age-old gesture that commanded silence. Looking faintly ridiculous in high-heeled riding boots, the big, black-clad man tiptoed forward to the edge of the stream. Before he reached it, he lowered himself down and lay flat on his belly on the bank. He took off his hat and rolled the sleeves of his shirt up above the elbow. Following his example, Jody crept up beside him. Adam gave him a grin and a wink and slid his hand, fingers first, into the water.

Out in the center of the stream the water ran swiftly, but here under the bank there were deep holes where the flow was slower and less turbulent. The water was dark, crystal clear and icily cold.

Keeping their heads low, the two men peered over the edge of the bank. Without disturbing the surface, Adam slipped his arm in as far as his elbow and just a little bit further. Ignoring the cold, he reached right down into the depths of the pool. Remaining absolutely motionless, he shot Jody a warning glance. Keep still. Keep quiet. Holding his breath, Jody gazed into the water.

Very soon, he saw a dark, streamlined shape slide into the pool. He could see the rows of pale spots along the fishís back, the filmy fins fanning the water, the cold, dark eye. The fish hovered, suspended, weightless. Slowly, Adam moved his hand. He brought it up under the fishís belly. His long, strong fingers gently stroked the smoothly scaled sides. Un-alarmed, the fish settled a little, into the palm of Adamís hand.

Adamís face was a study of concentration. Lips parted, he pressed the tip of his tongue hard against the inside of his teeth. His eyes were intent. He drew a long, careful breath.

In one convulsive move, he grabbed the fish by the tail and flipped it out of the water and on to the bank. It flopped until Adam knocked it firmly on the head with his gun butt. He grinned at Jody and, without a word, slipped his hand back into the water.

Ten minutes later they had three, fat, brown, river trout lying on the bank. Enough to make a regal breakfast for all of them. Adam cleaned the fish swiftly, and they carried them back in triumph to where Hoss already had the fire burning brightly.

********

A long way from the boundary of the Ponderosa, the trail herd moved out of a narrow-necked, funnel-shaped valley onto a wider plain. It was drier here, a region of semi-desert with little free water and nothing for the animals to eat. In a different season the feet of the cattle would have kicked up a great cloud of dust to hang like a yellow pall over the herd. It was essential to keep them moving here, and with shouts and whistles and the pressure of the horses the drovers kept up a steady pace.

Ben sat on his horse and watched the river of steers flow by him. At that moment, his mind was not on the herd or even on the drive itself. His gaze kept drifting back the way they had come, toward the familiar, and now, far distant peaks of the mountains.

Charlie rode up on a leggy roan gelding and pulled in beside him. Chewing stoically, he looked his boss over.

"íYou still frettiní Ďbout that growed-up boy oí yours?"

"I guess I am, Charlie." Ben laughed gently at his own folly.

Charlie considered. He had known Ben Cartwright for a very long time: in good times, in bad times and in some terrible times. He had watched him raise those boys of his, and he knew just how much they meant to him. Charlie also knew the boys. He had watched two of them grow from childhood, and he had seen Adam turn into a man. He was surely different that first-born Cartwright son. He had a good brain on him, and Ben had seen to it that he had a fine and fancy education. Charlie hoped that wasnít a mistake that was about to come home to roost. But then, he figured, with an inward sigh, Ben, being Ben, couldnít have done it any different. And Adam, being Adam, had needed that book learning like another man might need bread.

He leaned over the horseís shoulder and spat. Straightening, he said, "You donít want ta worry none about Adam, Ben."

Ben bit down hard on the bullet. "Heís restless, Charlie. Iím afraid he might leave us."

"Reckon he might." Charlie switched his wad from one cheek to the other and chewed on for a bit. "Reckon he might want ta take a look at some oí them fancy places in them books he looks at."

Shaking his head, Ben chuckled. Charlie could neither read nor write. He could only know of the places that Adam read about if Adam himself had told him. "Some of those places are a very long way from here."

"Thatís as may be. A man has ta git that sort oí thing plumb out oí his system aífore he cín settle down."

Ben remembered his own restlessness as a young man - his years at sea and his wanderings since. It had taken him a lot of years to find his place and put down the roots that bound him to this land. Had he been foolish to hope that what had been right for him would also be right for his son?

"íYou gotta remember," Charlie was saying, "Roads run both ways - goiní aní cominí." He looked at Ben quizzically, "Course, it could be that he donít want ta go no place at all."

The abrupt change in direction caught Ben unaware. "Charlie?"

"íCould be you just need ta give Ďim a little more line. Donít rein him in so hard. Adamís a full-grown man now, Ben, aní heís got his head screwed on realí straight. Man his age should have his hands on the reins already. The good Lord knows, thereís enough work on the ranch fer all of us. With that fancy education oí his and everything weíve managed ta git in ta his thick skull, might just be he can out figure the pair oí us. Give Ďim his head. He might just decide that he likes it right where he is."

Ben narrowed his eyes and looked again towards the distant peaks. He was about to say that Adam was no more than a boy when he realized that wasnít true at all. It hadnít been true for a very long time. He shook his head ruefully. Looking back, he could see that he had been squandering his very best asset Ė using his highly intelligent, educated, motivated son as, often, little more than an errand boy. Heíd had him digging holes for fence posts when he could have been arranging the cattle drives and lining up buyers for the herds. Heíd had him hauling on a strap saw when he should have been using his quick wits to negotiate contracts for selling and shipping the timber. He spent his time standing behind his fatherís shoulder watching when he might have been utilizing his remarkable engineering skills to design equipment and organize systems to get the work done. He was financially astute. He had a sound business head and a razor sharp mind. There was no doubt that Adam was quite capable of running each and every aspect of the family business with no trouble at all. Perhaps Charlie was right. It was time to let him get on and do it.

He resolved to have a long talk with Adam just as soon as he got home from the hills; he would find out what he wanted to do and make it possible for him to do it right where he was. It could be that he could make the boy Ė the man Ė an offer he wouldnít want to refuse. He felt a calmness enter his soul. Hopefully, Adam would stay. If he decided to go Ė well, he would always have a place to come back to. Ben had to believe that whatever Adam decided to do it would be the right thing for him. He could only hope that one day the magical spirit of the lake would draw him home and keep him there. "I think youíre right, Charlie."

Charlie nodded and drew himself up straight. "Well, you think on it some," he said. "Reckon his roots go deep here. Wouldnít do him no good at all ta tear Ďem out." Touching his heels to the roanís sides, he lifted the gelding to a canter and rode away after the herd.

Ben sat a while longer, contemplating. Then he made a conscious effort to dispel the melancholia. He had a herd to deliver to market. He gathered up his reins and kicked his horse into a canter.

********

Adam was content to ride second in line behind his brother and pull the packhorse. Hossís enthusiasm for this land was infectious. The big man simply couldnít keep the beaming smile off his face, and every time he saw it, Adam felt his own lip quirking in quick response.

It was a magnificent country, and now that he had come to terms with his own confusion, he was able to sit back and enjoy it. Following a nightís anguished soul-searching, Adam had still not arrived at a reasoned and reasonable decision. He was torn two ways. He could take a year, or may be two, to see the wonders that the world had to offer. He could visit the great cities of Europe: London, Rome and Athens. He could travel to Egypt - even as far as India. Perhaps that would finally quell the wanderlust in his soul, sate the need he had to see new people and learn new things. Perhaps then he would be content to come home.

Another part of his mind, a part he hardly dared to acknowledge, wanted to plough right in and help his father manage the vast, and ever expanding, business-empire that the ranch was becoming. With interests in cattle, timber, mining, freight and shipping and the new petroleum extraction in the north, the family needed his acumen and expertise. And with the coming of the railroad and the advent of a new and modern world, it was essential for someone with a grasp of up to date business methods to have some say in the running of things. Somehow, he doubted that his father would see matters in quite the same light, but in his heart that was what Adam felt that he wanted to do.

When he got home he was going to have a long, hard talk with his Pa. Adam anticipated some interesting conversations.

Adam was totally unaware of how closely his deliberations mirrored those of his father. If he had known, he might not have been surprised.

Hossís horse stopped abruptly in the path in front of him, and Adamís gelding pulled up sharply. Adam was jolted out of his reverie. Hoss was swinging down out of his saddle, a frown eclipsing the sunny expression on his face. Something on the ground had attracted the big manís attention, and now he hunkered down beside it, trailing his horseís reins from his hand.

"Hey, Adam, címon down aní look at this."

Adam climbed down and dropped the ends of his reins on the ground. He had no fear that his horse would wander. He joined his brother, crouching on the forest trail.

"Lookee here." Hoss moved a twig and a leaf, and then Adam could see what his sharp-eyed brother had spotted from the saddle. Something large and heavy had walked over this trail and not too long ago. There was a broad depression on the surface litter, and, very close, another. Hoss pointed and Adam followed with his eyes. He could see were a huge creature had crossed the trail diagonally from right to left.

"Thatís a big olí grizzly bear walked through there, Adam," Hoss said.

"I didnít know there were any grizzlies still left in these hills."

"There ainít many and thatís fer sure. They was all but hunted out oí here ten - fifteen years ago."

"I remember Pa having trouble with bear when we first ran cattle here. They used to take the young stock regular. Havenít seen sign oí one for years now."

"What there is left usually stays up in the high country." Hoss nodded towards the bulk of the mountain range. "Itís realí unusual ta find one down in these hills. ĎSpecially at this time oí year." He moved along, still bending, studying the marks on the ground.

Jody joined Adam and looked at the big, soft paw-print in wonder. Adam showed him the way the pads had spread to take the animalís weight, and the little scrape marks made by the long, straight, razor-sharp claws.

"Adam!" Hoss made an urgent, beckoning gesture, calling his brother over. He had found another paw-print, and it was worrying him. Leaving the horses, Adam and Jody joined him. "This here bearís got a hind foot thatís all crippled up." Hoss pointed out the details in the track. "íDonít look like he cín hardly put no weight on it at all. Heís limpiní real bad."

Adam studied the sign in the dirt and then straightened. "That would explain why heís come all the way down into these hills. With a bad foot, heíll be finding food hard to come by."

A scowl darkening his face Hoss stood beside him. The two of them gazed towards the thicker trees that clustered away to the left Ė the way the grizzly had gone. Jody could feel a sudden and, to the young man, unaccountable, tension emanating from them. Their relaxed attitude had dissipated abruptly. The wind blew cold across the hillside and made him shiver inside his coat.

Hoss said, "Weíre gonna have ta go after him, Adam."

Adam planted his hands firmly on his hips. "I know how you feel about animals in pain, Hoss, but chasing after an injured grizzly through this sort of country isnít a good idea."

"Heck, I know that. It ainít just that heís sufferiní. Iffen that critter keeps on moviní the way heís goiní, heíll get in among the yearling herd in the south section. We could lose one hell of a lot of stock."

Adam thought about it. "I guess youíre right. But I donít like it."

"Canít say as Iím so keen on it myself, big brother, but I donít see as we got any choice."

Adam sighed. "Címon, Jody. Letís get the horses aní get after him before he gets too far ahead of us."

They started back towards where they had left the ground-tied animals. Jody shot Adam an anxious look. "What Ďre you gonna do when you catch him, Adam?"

"Weíre gonna shoot him, Jody."

"Shoot him?"

Adam laughed without humour. "An adult grizzly stands twelve feet tall and weighs the best part of a thousand pounds. In a good mood, heís mean. Wounded, and hungry, heíll tear your head off, any chance he gets." He put his foot in the stirrup and lifted himself into the saddle. He looked at Jody. There was concern in his face and grey shadows shifting in his eyes. "You keep close now. A grizzlyís quick and heís clever. He can run faster than a horse, and when he figures out that weíre huntiní him, he could lay in wait for us, up ahead, or even circle around to get behind us."

Seeing the look on Adamís face and hearing the tone of his voice, Jody found his mouth had suddenly gone dry. What had started as a pleasant little holiday jaunt into the hills had turned unexpectedly into an affair with much more serious overtones.

Adam looked at him a moment longer, trying to ascertain if the young man had understood his warning and was fully aware of the very real danger they were riding into. An enraged, adult grizzly bear was not a creature to be trifled with. He turned in the saddle and nodded to Hoss. The big man was the expert tracker in the family. "You lead the way."

Still scowling, Hoss nodded curtly, "He ainít that far ahead oí us. You keep your eyes peeled realí good."

Kicking his horse into motion, Hoss rode off the path to follow the trail of paw prints that angled into the trees. Jody noticed that as he moved off after him, Adam loosened his saddle gun in the sheath beneath his knee.

********

Although they had heard of the vast, sprawling spread that lay somewhere to the north, at exactly what point the trio of trappers had crossed the boundary line and rode onto the Ponderosa, they neither knew, nor cared. The Southern border of the ranch was unfenced and marked only on the maps in the land registry and on the documents that the Cartwrights held. The trappers knew only that, as they had travelled north, the hunting had become better and the prey animals more prolific. It was as if they had been undisturbed for a long time. Secluded valleys and small, protected pockets of woodland had provided rich pickings. Half the mules were now laden with furs.

As they rode, they spent just a few days in each spot to set and clear traps and to preserve the skins they took. When they moved on, they left long lines of snares behind them in a host of likely places, and many savage-jawed traps for the larger animals. Their intention was to ride back over the same path and collect any hides that were worth salvaging on the way back.

Here, they were high above the snow line. White drifts lay thick in all the shady places, and where the weak sun shone, there were dirty patches of slush. Many of the hillsides were bare of trees and denuded of other plant-life. The tall pine alone survived here, widely and evenly spaced. They provided little shelter from the wind that blew steadily out of the mountains and sighed through their branches.

Huddled in his oilskin coat against the bitter chill, Bojun sat stiff legged in his saddle. He sipped slowly at a jug of liquor while he watched Lighterman deal with the last capture from last nightís traps. It was only a minuteís work with a broad-bladed knife to strip the fox of its precious black, silver-tipped fur and to clean the scraps of flesh and fat from the inside of the pelt. Lighterman applied a good handful of saltpeter to the raw side of the skin and rolled it tightly. That night when they camped it would have to be stretched on a wooden frame and set to dry.

Perriot straightened up from examining the forefoot of a mule. The animal had been walking lame for some time and despite being excused the duties of carrying a load, it showed no signs of improvement. Perriotís bearded face was grim. "This one ainít gonna walk no further."

Lighterman glared. "Weíre gonna need all the Goddamn mules ta carry these hides out Ďo here! We ainít pulled it all this way ta git no work outa it!"

Perriot gazed at him bleakly. "There ainít no cause fer you ta git all fired up, íBel. The mules we got left cín carry all the pelts weíre gonna git."

In furious appeal, Lighterman turned to Bojun, "íN what if we pick up more skins than we cín carry?"

Bojun eyed him, "It werenít more Ďní a few days past Ďyou was whininí that we werenít gonna get no hides. Reckon you change your tune mighty fast."

"That ainít the point! That Goddamned mule cín carry a load out Ďo here, lame or not!"

Perriot shook his head. "There ainít no point in it. ĎSides, I donít like ta see nothiní suffer fer nothiní"

Lighterman spluttered furiously, spittle wetting his black beard, "You just gonna let Ďhim shoot it?"

Bojun hung the liquor jug from his saddle horn by the cord around its neck. He rubbed his hand up and down his aching thigh and gazed calmly a Lightermanís angry face. His expression spoke volumes. By now he had only cold contempt for this young hothead, and he didnít care to conceal the fact. The critteríll only slow us down," he said "Could do with some fresh meat in the pot, anyways." Bojun looked over Lightermanís head at Perriot. "You do what you gotta do."

Perriot pulled out his gun and turned towards the mule. Lighterman spun Ďround, rage blazing in his dark eyes. He could foresee yet another cut in the potential profits from this expedition and in his own share. His face worked and his hands clenched spasmodically. It was in his mind to do something decisive and permanent to stop Perriot killing the mule.

Then he became aware of Bojun shifting in his saddle. Sitting behind and above him on the back of his horse, the grizzled trapper was ideally placed to forestall any move Lighterman might make. If Lighterman had touched his gun there would have been more than one man lying dead on the hillside. These two wouldnít be the first Bojun had left behind him. Lighterman turned. Sure enough, Bojun was watching him narrowly and with an almost eager expectancy. Lighterman unwound the tension in his body and made himself relax. His snarl turned into a sneer. Abruptly, he turned and walked away towards his horse.

Perriot sent a sour look of scorn after him. Then he shot the mule and pulled out his skinning knife.

********

Joe Drury dismounted and took a few long steps off the trail to relieve the pressure in his bowel. After a bright, if chilly morning, it had degenerated into a grey, damp, and unpleasant afternoon. The rain had been falling for hours - a dismal, cold drizzle blown into the menís faces by the wind. The light undergrowth at the trailís edge was wet around Jodyís ankles, and water dripped steadily from the branches that hung over his head. He was heartily glad of his thick, oiled wool coat and of the hat that kept the cold rivulets of water from running down his neck.

Since the discovery of the grizzly bearís paw print, the Cartwright brothers had become taciturn and watchful. They had done little more than exchange monosyllabic sentences for the past hour. Their eyes, hard and alert, searched the gloomy, grey-green woodlands as they rode through them. Hoss still led the way, following the tracks of the lame bear along what seemed to be an old animal path. Often, he stopped and leaned a long way out of the saddle, scanning the ground; sometimes he got down from his horse to examine the paw prints at close quarters. When he remounted his expression was always grim. Jody noted that Adam had drawn his saddle gun and, for the last hour, had ridden with the butt of it resting on the edge of his saddle. The two men, still mounted, waited for him on the trail.

Finished with his personal business, Jody stood up and reached down for his pants.

Over on the trail, one of the packhorses threw up its head and squealed, a startlingly loud sound in the dark, dripping forest. Jodyís saddle horse and the other packhorse, roped to Adamís saddle, started to dance in the path. Their nostrils flared wide, and their rolling eyes showed white.

Hoss and Adam twisted in their saddles. Their faces registered alarm as they cast about for the cause of the disturbance. All the horses were panicking now, prancing about and tossing their heads as they scented something frightening in the wind. Adamís packhorse reared. Adam freed the lead rope and cast the animal loose.

Behind Jody, in the denser, darker bushes, something stirred. There was a crashing, and a thrashing, and a crack of breaking branches. A huge, formless shape loomed out of the shadows. Turning, Jody glimpsed a towering grey-brown beast. He saw enormous paws and claws and gaping jaws lined with discoloured, dagger-like teeth. He caught the reek of foul breath full in the face. Adam Cartwright yelled a warning.

Jodyís saddle horse took to his heels and bolted. The pack animals took off after it; one of them slipped in the trail and tumbled head over heels. It rolled on its side and it didnít get up. Adam fought for the control of his own horse. He struggled to bring the long gun to bear on the target.

With a strangled shout of terror, Jody took a long step backwards, his pants still hanging somewhere about his knees. With his legs tangled, he tripped and yelped as he went down hard on his butt.

Enraged, the grizzly came after him. Balanced on its huge hind legs, it stood a good twelve feet tall, and it walked erect, just like a man. A hoarse, hissing roar came from deep in its chest, and Jody was engulfed in another gust of rancid, animal breath.

Adam screamed something incomprehensible at him as his terrified horse buck jumped and tried to rid itself of him. Hossís mount had swung around, and the big man found himself facing the wrong way. He sawed furiously on the reins.

The bear lunged at Jody, dropping to all fours. Jody, on his back amid the wet bushes, scrambled away. The bear swiped at him with a mighty forepaw. Jody threw up a hand to protect his face. He felt the snag of vicious claws in his sleeve and sudden, sharp pain in his arm. The bear reared up again, its full-throated roar deafening in the young manís ears. It readied itself for a final attack.


Adam, still battling with his struggling horse, finally got off a shot.

Either he was an extremely skilful marksman, or he was just plain lucky. At much closer range than he liked, Jody saw the great ursine head erupt and gout with blood as the heavy ball smashed through the roof of its mouth and exited through the back of its skull - carrying a goodly portion of brain material with it. Dead in an instant, the mountainous creature stood poised, teetering on the pillars of its hind legs. Then it crashed to the ground at Jodyís side.

Witless with fear, Jody squawked, crabbed sideways, turned on his hands and knees and fled.

Adam, off his horse now, grabbed him by the arm. The elder Cartwrightís eyes were wild, and he was breathing hard. With all his physical strength he yanked Jody out of there. Jody clung to him and, staggering, they beat a hasty retreat.

Hoss had a grim expression and the business end of his saddle gun aimed at the fallen bulk of the bear, but the creature did not move again. The three men crouched together on the path, drawing comfort from each other while they got their breath back and gathered their scattered wits. Trying not to snivel, Jody struggled, one-handed, to get his pants back in place.

Adam pulled a long breath and wiped a hand across his face. Recovering himself, he looked at Jody, and his face took on an expression of concern.

"Youíd best let me take a look at that arm."

Jody looked down at himself and found that the sleeve of his coat was ragged and soaked in blood. The sight of it made him feel sick all over again. His arm was starting to burn with pain.

Adam knelt in the mud of the trail and helped the young man ease his arm out of his sleeve. His shirtsleeve was in tatters and there were three long gouges in his forearm. Two of them were shallow and just oozing blood. The central one was deep and bleeding steadily. Adam had seen worse. He looked at Jodyís pale face and knew that the boy was feeling faint at the sight of his own blood. He gave him a reassuring grin.

"Youíre lucky you had your coat on. A swipe like that should have taken your arm off at the shoulder."

For some reason what was intended as friendly reassurance didnít help. If anything Jodyís skin became paler. Adam showed him how to hold the edges of the wound together while he bound it firmly with strips of cloth.

Hoss walked down the trail and looked at the stricken packhorse. The animal was still alive but he had broken both forelegs in the fall. Hoss shot him on the spot. His face screwed up in anguish, the big man went over to look at the bear.

As he had guessed, it was a gigantic male animal. Adamís ball hadnít left much of the head intact. The body was solidly muscled. The forepaws were twice the size of Hossís big hands. As he looked the carcass over, Hossís frown deepened into a scowl. His lips compressed into a thin line of anger and his jaw set.

"Hey, Adam, Ďreckon you better come on over aní look at this."

Adam helped Jody to his feet and draped the young manís coat around his damaged arm. "You stay here with the horses."

Adam went over and hunkered down beside his brother. Jody hesitated, then followed. He felt the need to know what was going on. Both the Cartwrights eyed him a little strangely, but neither of them said anything. Stern faced, Hoss pointed out what he had found.

"Lookee here at this critterís foot, Adam. Heís had it caught in one oí them snap-jaw traps. ĎChewed half his danged leg off ta git free."

Sucking at his teeth, Adam took a good look. The bearís back leg was badly mangled, and from the smell of it, it had happened about a week back. It was no wonder it had been lame and limping. Adam sat back on his haunches and squinted round at the surrounding trees as if trying to extract their secrets from them. He stated the obvious. "No oneís been trapping in these hills for years."

Hossís face was all scrunched up. He ran his hand through the grizzly bearís coarse, silver tipped coat. "Someoneís sure trappiní Ďem now, Adam." It was as if the big man felt the pain the bear had endured. Agony emanated from him.

Standing, Adam let go the long breath he had been holding. "He could have travelled a long way, Hoss. Even with a foot like that."

Hoss straightened up beside him. "I donít like the idea oí no one trappiní in these here hills."

"I know you donít. Right now I donít see that thereís a whole lot we can do about it."

Two chips of blue ice, Hossís angry eyes glittered. Adam saw the big fists clench tight.

"If someoneís trappiní on our land, I cín sure as heck do somethiní Ďbout it."

Adam shook his head. Ever practical, he said, "Not this trip. Tomorrow weíll have to head back. Jodyíll need a doctor to look at that arm."

"Hey, no!" Jody leapt up. "We donít have taí go back Ďcause oí me!"

The look that Adam gave him was more than a little jaundiced. "And what will your Ma say if you get an infection. Or soured blood? Or gangrene? More to the point," Adam smiled wryly at the thought, "What would our Pa say?"

Jody blanched and clutched his injured arm against him. He hadnít thought about any of those things and didnít know which of them he feared most: illness, his motherís distress, or Ben Cartwrightís wrath. Adam knew what he was thinking and cocked him a grin. "Címon, letís light a fire and get that arm cleaned up."

They made a night camp a bit further up the trail where there was water bubbling out over a rock and a break in the trees. Both Adam and Hoss were regaining some of their former good spirits. Although Hoss continued to fret about the possibility of trappers on the ranch, for the Cartwrights, the immediate problem of the bear was over and the danger dealt with. Jody found it harder to put the matter behind him. Every time he closed his eyes, and sometimes when he didnít, he saw the monstrous beast looming over him and smelled the rank stench of its breath.

He ground his teeth together and blinked the bright tears from his eyes as Adam Cartwright carefully sewed together the edges of the deeper gash. Adam packed the wounds with a yellow ointment that he had in his gear and bound them up with clean cloths.

That evening they ate a supper of stewed deer meat and crisp biscuits. The food made everyone feel better, but the rain was still falling. They had to rig up a canvas shelter before nightfall to sleep under and to keep the fire burning. Adam and Hoss sat beside the fire, quietly discussing the likelihood of poachers while Jody, suddenly and unaccountably weary, lay down in his blankets to rest. He lay awake a long time, listening to the soft tones of the menís voices. His arm burned and throbbed by turns, and it was a long time before he slept.

********

So far, the steers had travelled well. Moving at a slow but steady pace, they had covered a good many miles since they had left the home range. At sundown, the drovers bedded them down in a shallow valley. Still in desert country, there was no water for them or any grass for them to eat. Ben was not concerned. He had ridden this trail many times before and he knew that tomorrow they would come to a watering place close by a little town called Maryville. If he remembered rightly, it wasnít all that much of a town, but the grazing would give the cattle a much-needed chance to rest and feed. And doubtless the men would take the opportunity to unwind in one of the townís three Ė at the last count Ė saloons.

Riding side-by-side, Ben and Charlie made a last, leisurely circuit of the herd as it settled for the night. Neither of them cared much for the way the thunderheads kept building up over the distant hills. Mostly though, the storms dissipated long before they drifted out over the flat lands. Charlie chewed, spat and said phlegmatically that he hoped their luck held. Ben offered up a heartfelt agreement to that. Tonight, at least, the sky was clear, and the fair faced moon rode high overhead, just a fraction past full. It touched the backs of the cattle with silver light and illuminated the way ahead for the horsemen.

Pete Barnes had produced a standard trail meal of beef stew and soda bread. By the time they had settled the cattle and climbed down from their horses, all the men were ready for it. As it turned out, there was nothing standard about the meal itself. The stew was thick with grains and root vegetables, the gravy was rich, and the bread was soft and spongy. Everyone, including Ben, wanted second helpings, and there was enough in the pot to provide them.

After eating, Charlie rode off to set the night watch on the herd. Ben, replete with food and tired after a long day in the saddle, settled himself down beside the fire with a cup of coffee in his hands and a pot sitting in the embers to provide refills. He noticed that there was some activity over by the baggage wagon. With a storm lantern overhead and boxes to act as table and chairs, Peter Nash was setting up a game of cards.

Ben was a man who played infrequently himself, and then only with friends, but he knew there were a number of gamblers among the trail crew, and most of the men enjoyed an occasional game. Three of the keenest were the first to sit down with Nash and the others gathered round. Ben noticed that the Prior brothers, who rode with Nash, were interested spectators only; none of them was prepared to draw a hand. He was rather less amused to see his younger son in close attendance. The game was rapidly becoming a spectator sport, and shortly, Ben got up and wandered over to take a look for himself.

With a pack of cards in his hands, Nash was a man of exceptional skill. His long, agile fingers cut, shuffled, and dealt across the makeshift table with speed and accuracy. Tonight, looking curiously out of place in a trail camp, he wore his black dress coat and a black hat pulled well down. Only the gleam of his eyes showed below the brim; his handsome face was alert and friendly, but, essentially, it gave nothing away.

Joe Cartwright liked to play poker. He was good at it and often won. He liked to think that he was very good at it. He stood in the forefront of the small crowd and watched the fall of the cards with an avid interest. The money, mostly low stakes of a dollar or two, ebbed and flowed around the table. But generally it seemed to gravitate towards Nash. The man played quickly and well and with a cheerful efficiency. One by one, as the cowhands found their pockets empty, they vacated their seat and another man sat himself down. Joe had a few dollars in his pocket, and they were starting to burn a hole. Joe touched the tip on his tongue to his lower lip.

Right next to him, a seat became vacant as a cowboy lost his last dollar. Without any conscious decision, Joe slipped into the empty place. Carefully not looking in the direction of his fatherís dark eyes, Joe grinned across at Nash.

Just for a moment, Pete Nash hesitated, his diamond bright eyes fixed on Joeís face. Joe knew the reason for it; he was the bossís son. Joe wasnít about to let an accident of birth get in his way. He had his eyes on the pile of coin and paper money that had accumulated in front of Nash, and it was in his mind to take some of it away from him. He pulled out his wallet and extracted a thin sheaf of notes. "Címon, Pete. Deal the cards will ya?"

Nash relaxed and smiled his friendly smile. "Table stakes only, Joe. Weíre playing five-card draw, Jacks or better to open. Okay with you?" He liked to have the rules clear before he took a manís money. "Sure," Joe muttered. Draw was really more Adamís game with lots of mulliní the hand over and tryiní to out fox the other players. He really preferred stud. It was faster and more wide open, but what the hell, he could play either one.

Nashís lean fingers danced, and he started to deal out the cards. With the inward thrill of anticipation that was the thing he enjoyed the most, Joe picked up his hand. He held a five of diamonds, a Queen of clubs, a four of diamonds, a Queen of diamonds and a Queen of hearts. Three Queens! Three big ladies on the first deal Ė a damn fine hand in any manís game! Actually he had three diamonds on a flush as well, but he wasnít crazy enough to throw away a pair of Queens in the hope of drawing two more diamonds.

"Youíre under the gun, Joe," Nash told him. "Can you open?" Seated to the dealerís immediate left, it was up to Joe to make the first bid or pass. They had all anted a quarter into the pot before the deal, so there was already a dollar on the table. Joe didnít want to scare off the other players by opening with a big bet. He pretended to think it over and finally said with mock reluctance, "Guess Iíll risk another quarter."

T.J., the remuda wrangler, was sitting across the table from Nash. The deal had delivered him nothing more than a pair of sevens. ĎA smart man would fold,í he thought to himself as he plunked down his quarter and grudgingly said, "See you."

"I ainít playiní this mess," complained Huey Worth and pitched in his hand face down. His seat was on Nashís right. Nash studied his hand. He had a pair of Aces and three small cards of little use. "Reckon Iíll see one round," he said and pushed out a quarter. "Itís up to you, Joe; you raising?"

Joe shook his head. "Not me." T.J. nodded his agreement. Nash hadnít learned much on that round except that T.J. wasnít happy with what he was holding. Open-faced and friendly, the young puncher wasnít much of a bluffer.

Nash picked up the deck. "Whatíll you gents have?" he asked. "Iíll take one." Joe hesitated just a second and then placed his four of diamonds face down on the table. Nash dealt him one replacement card face down. T.J. tossed away two cards and received two fresh ones. "Dealer takes three." Nash set down the deck, discarded the three worthless cards from his hand, picked up the deck again and dealt himself three more cards. Pete Nash didnít cheat at poker, and he was careful never to give the impression that he did.

Joe slid his new card into his hand, schooled his face to show nothing and glanced casually down. A thrill shot through him like a jolt of lightening. He was holding a five of spades. He had a full house! It was all he could do to keep from whooping and hollering aloud. T.J. looked at his cards and sighed. Nashís face remained an agreeable mask as he added his new cards to his hand. He now had three Aces. "Itís up to you, Joe," he grinned. "You opened."

Joe ran a thoughtful hand through his curls. "Well," he said at last. "I see a dab of improvement here. Guess Iíll risk a dollar." T.J. groaned aloud and folded his hand. "Ainít no dang use sending good money to chase after bad," he remarked to the crowd in general. Nash pushed out two well-worn bills. "Iíll see your buck and up it one more."

Joe thought it over. Nash would have to be holding four of a kind or better to beat his full house. The odds were heavily against it. Still, if he bet too high, heíd scare his opponent out of the game with only a small pot to be won. "Iíll see your raise and kick in another two." He stacked three more dollars on the pile. Nash tugged on an earlobe and winked at Joe. "Expect Iím just paying to see your hand, amigo, but Iíll call." He added another two dollars to the pot.

Joe spread his cards. "Queens full; read Ďem and weep! Yes, sir, some folks are purely born lucky."

"That shore beats me," Nash said pleasantly as Joe raked in the $10.00 pot.

The deal moved left to Joe for the next hand. He ended up with two pair: tens and sixes. T.J. couldnít improve his sorry hand and folded fast muttering forlornly, "This ainít no hand; itís a foot." Huey opened and bid a couple of rounds on a pair of Aces, but folded when the bid went up from a quarter to fifty cents. The draw saw Nash supplement his two Kings with a pair of Jacks for footmen. Joe lost six of the ten dollars he had just made on that round.

The game continued for some time with small ups and downs for all the players. Watchers began to drop away and crawl into their soogans. They would be turning out before daylight. Joe was about $12.00 ahead when the deciding hand was dealt. The deal had returned to Pete Nash. Huey had dropped out two hands earlier and been replaced by Stubby Longbough, a tough little puncher and long-time Ponderosa hand.

Everybody put their quarter in the ante, and Nash flipped out the cards in a blur of pasteboard. Joe picked up his hand and studied it. He held a Queen, Jack, ten, nine and a three of mixed suits, four cards on a straight with both ends open. He knew the odds were five to one against making it. Adam had forced him to memorize the odds when he first began playing for money, but his luck had been fair all night. He couldnít open, but if someone else did he would go for it.

T.J. opened for another quarter. He had a pair of Aces and three indifferent cards. Stubby was disappointed to find he held an ice-cold hand. He had three clubs led by a King and not much else. Because he wanted to play, he decided to see the bet around once and hope they went straight to the draw. Nash was pleased to see his hand held four small hearts: a three, a four, a seven and an eight along with a Jack of spades. He calmly added his two bits to the pile as did Joe in his turn.

"Cards, fellows?" Nash asked and picked up the deck. Joe took one. T.J. took the full three, and Stubby called for two. Nash dealt himself one card. Joe drew a deep breath and looked at his cards. He had swapped his useless three for a King. He had a King high straight. T.J.ís draw hadnít improved his two Aces one bit. As opener it was up to him to bid first. He checked. Stubby hadnít filled his club flush and ended up with only a pair of fours. He checked as well.

Nash had discarded his Jack of spades and drawn a two of hearts. He now held a low-end flush. Apparently neither T.J. nor Stubby had much of a hand, but he was unsure about Joe Cartwright. It was hard to tell in the flickering lamplight, but the kidís cheeks looked a little brighter. He wanted a better feel for a hand he thought might prove productive. He checked.

"Looks like itís up to you Joe," he said. Joe felt luck flowing to him, but he bet with cool indifference. "Iíll take a chance on fifty cents." He tossed out two quarters. T.J. saw his fifty cents, but didnít raise. Stubby wisely folded his hand. Nash appeared to think deeply then said, "Iíll see your fifty cents and raise you a dollar."

Nash didnít seem all that sure, and Joeís blood ran high. Maybe he could lure the gambler into sweetening the pot. "Dollar to me, huh? Probably foolhardy, but Iíll see it and bump you up another dollar." T.J. was curious about the game Joe and Nash were playing. If they were both bluffing, he might win a decent pot. He saw the $2.00. Nash paused, sighed deeply, scratched an eyebrow. "You tryiní to bluff this olí boy out, Joe? Reckon as how I got to keep you honest. Iíll see your raise and raise you $5.00."

ĎDamn,í Joe thought. ĎIs he trying to buy the pot? Iím not lettiní that happen!í "Your five and five more." T.J. wasted no time throwing in his cards. "This here gameís too rich for a poor waddy like me," he said and stood up.

Nash studied his hand. He seemed very hesitant. "Five to me, eh? You shore fancy that hand. Think Iím gonna have to ask you to prove how much Ė your $5.00 and $10.00 more. Joe considered; he wasnít ready to quit, and after all, Nash had checked on that first round after the draw. If it were such a great hand, he would have bet it. "Your $10.00 and $10.00 more," Joe said.

Nashís response was quick. "Raise you $20.00." That was a shock. Joe glanced at his money. They were playing table stakes; he couldnít get up and try to borrow more from Charlie or one of the Priors. He had about $27.00 left before him. He shoved it all into the pot. "Your $20.00ís covered and $7.00 more. Itís all Iíve got."

Nash could have raised again and forced Joe to fold, but he didnít think it was smart to make an enemy of the bossís son. "Iíll just call then," he said good-naturedly and added $7.00 to the pile. There was now better than $120.00 on the table. $60.00 of it was Joeís. Joe spread his hand. "A King high straight." He reached for the pot.

"Hold on a minute there!" Nash fanned out his hand. Joe saw only a jumble of small, red cards. "Why, you donít have a damn thing," he said.

"Look again, son. That thereís a heart flush, and it still beats a straight." Joe looked closely and saw that Nash was right. His heart dropped. Suddenly he flashed back to the start of the game. "You sandbagged, Nash! You could have bet that flush, and you checked instead!" Nash grinned showing sharp, white teeth. "Werenít nothing said about it at the start of the game, Joe. T.J. opened and then checked. Nothing illegal about lying low for a bit."

Peter Nash scooped the pot towards him, and Joeís elation collapsed. The man was right. The players had to agree not to allow sandbagging at the start of a game, and they hadnít done that. He didnít quite believe what had happened. One moment he had been holding what he had been certain was a winning hand. Now he had lost, and he was stone cold broke.

Nash looked across at him with his usual, agreeable expression, but there was something flinty about the look in his eyes. "Thatís the way it goes, Joe."

"Sure it is." Well aware of the smirks and the surreptitious rib-digs of the watching drovers, Joe gathered what dignity he could. With a shrug and a wry grin, he stood up and thrust his hands into the depths of his now empty pockets. The onlookers started to disperse. The excitement of seeing a Cartwright fleeced was over, and the men had an early start in the morning. Joe joined them in walking away.

Asia Prior gave him a sympathetic but amused grin and a slap on the back and fell into step beside him. "Guess I should oí warned you about that, Joe."

Joe returned the grin ruefully. "Wouldnít oí made any difference. I never can resist a game oí cards."

In a business like manner, Nash tucked his money away in the inside pocket of his coat and gathered up the scattered cards. He was well aware of Ben Cartwrightís scrutiny, but if it made him at all uncomfortable he gave no sign of it. Standing he turned to face him, "Mister Cartwright."

"Nash." Ben was still standing with his back to the wagon. His arms were folded and his expression was polite. He hadnít enjoyed seeing his son beaten, but he wasnít about to say anything about that, now - or ever. The steady light from the storm lantern threw sharp shadows from the angles of his face. "You play a good game."

Nash nodded a pleasant faced, if wary acknowledgement. It was unspoken between them that the game had been entirely honest and above board.

"Iím surprised you donít play professionally. Thereís a great deal of money to be made for a man with your undoubted skill. This is hardly the sort of job I would have expected you to be doing." Benís brief gesture encompassed the encampment and the lowing herd of cattle in the darkness beyond. He knew he was using his age and his privileged position as employer to violate one of the most cherished tenets of the west Ė that of a manís privacy. His curiosity had been piqued.

Pete Nash considered his words carefully. He didnít want to offend his boss, but on the other handÖ "Money isnít everything, and there are times when I prefer the company of cows to that of people. Their attitude to life is a whole lot more straight forward."

Ben kept his face carefully neutral. "I wasnít implying any intrusion." He knew he had been told, carefully and politely, to mind his own business.

Nashís lips quirked, but the pseudo-smile came nowhere near his eyes. His expression said clearly that his affairs were his own and that he intended to keep them that way. He touched the brim of his hat in respect. "Mister Cartwright."

Ben watched the broad-shouldered, lean-hipped figure in black walk away. In the half-light Nashís frame and his long, rolling gait were achingly familiar. He heaved a sigh and went to find out if there was any fresh coffee in the pot.

Five

Hands on hips Hoss Cartwright stood toe-to-toe and chest-to-chest with his elder brother. He had the advantage of several inches in height and he used it to look down with an expression that approached belligerence. Adam was not intimidated by his brotherís height or by his equally impressive breadth. A solidly built, immensely powerful man himself, it had been Adam that had taught Hoss, as a youth, how to use his strength and how to control it. Not only had he no fear of the big man's sledgehammer fists, he had no reason to fear them.

Essentially, the two men were not arguing. They held opposing views, and both had inherited from their father a full measure of the Cartwright mule-headedness that had tamed a wilderness. Neither was prepared to back down, and their discussion had become just a little heated.

"I donít see as we need ta go back home right now," Hoss said. "Jody just donít look that sick ta me." He was becoming more and more unhappy as he saw his dream trip about to come to an abrupt and unwelcome end. As a grown man he was trying to keep the petulance out of his voice.

Adam wasnít any more pleased about the situation than his brother. As the eldest, he was shouldering the responsibility and making the necessary decision. "We donít have any choice in the matter, Hoss. The boyís arm looks like itís infected, and heís starting to run a fever. Weíve got to get him down out of these hills so that Doc. Martin can take a look at those scratches."

Both of them looked at Jody. The unhappy subject of their discussion was standing with his arm in a makeshift sling, shuffling the toe of his boot through the smouldering remains of the fire.

Hoss heaved a great sigh, reluctantly surrendering to Adamís inescapable logic. He knew that he couldnít bear to be responsible if anything bad happened to the young man. It didnít make him any more sanguine about the matter. "Well, iffen you say heís gotta go back, then I guess heís gotta"

"Right." Adam eyed his brother uncertainly. Glad that his brother was finally seeing sense, he was still wary of the sudden capitulation. He knew that Hoss was working around to something. He could see it in the way the broad face was creasing up. It was just a matter of time.

Sure enough, Hoss got there in the end. "Iffen Jody has ta go on back down ta the house, why donít you go ride along with him, aní Iíll take a look see further up into these hills."

Adam drew a long breath and looked into Hossís face; he was momentarily wrong footed by his brotherís deviousness. His mind ran swiftly over the implications of the suggestion. "You canít go off roaming through these hills on your own."

Hoss started to look stubborn. "Who says so, that I canít?"

Adam cursed himself. He knew well the way his brotherís mind worked, and he should have seen this coming. His hands came up onto his own hips. "Right now, Iím saying so!"

"íNí who put you in charge oí this trip?"

The conversation wasnít going the way Adam wanted it to. "I guess Iím putting me in charge."

"Just Ďcause youíre the oldest?"

"Because Iím the eldest, and because, just at the moment, Iím the one thatís thinking straight." Adamís voice was taking on the tutored tones heíd learned back east. It was a sure sign that his patience was wearing a little thin. "Suppose those poachers are still riding loose in these hills? And supposing you just happen to run across them?"

Hoss thought about the grizzly bear and the way it had suffered, and his eyes hardened. He stuck out his lower lip. "Píraps thatíd suit me just fine."

Adam shook his head. "Youíre not thinking too well, Hoss. What if there are more of them than you can handle? These days, those sorts of men usually hunt in packs like animals. What happens if they get the drop on you?"

"Heck, I ainít gonna let Ďem do that, Adam."

Irritated at his brotherís dismissive attitude, Adam poked a finger into Hossís chest. "Theyíre not going to get the chance to do that. Youíre riding with us!"

Hoss looked at the finger and then into his brotherís face. It was obvious that Adam wasnít about to be persuaded. The big man changed tack again. "Well, iffen you say so. But there ainít no point in us jist ridiní over the same ground as we covered cominí in. We go up a ways, we cĎn pick up another trail aní ride out a different way."

Adam, to whom Hossís thinking was usually transparent, hesitated, and in that moment knew that the argument was lost. "How much longer would it take us to get home?" he asked, still reluctant to concede.

Hoss swallowed his triumphant grin before it got a chance to show on his face. "No more Ďn half a day."

Adam glanced again at Jody as if trying to make out just how ill he was from the colour of his face. He sighed, "All right. But if the boy starts to get realí sick, weíre gonna have to do some mighty hard riding."

"Sure thing, Adam!" Despite his efforts Hossís grin broke through.

Seeing it, Adam sighed again and threw up his hands. Shaking his head he strode off towards the picketed horses.

Still grinning, Hoss strolled over to Jody. Without seeming to, he looked the boy over. He was a bit pale, perhaps, but it was a job to tell for sure under all those freckles, and after the fright heíd had, it was only to be expected. His curiously coloured, green and gold speckled eyes were bright, but then, they were always bright. He wasnít sweating. To be sure, Hoss asked him outright, "Howíd you feel, Jody?"

Jody shrugged and rubbed his bandaged arm. It was sore and the pain made him chew at his lip. "Iím okay, Hoss. Adam says Iíve got an elevated respiration rate. Whatís that mean?"

"Heck, I donít know. I told you afore, Jody, you donít want ta take no account oí Adam. He talks a whole lot oí fancy stuff what he learned at that college he went ta. It donít necessarily mean nothiní"

Jody looked miserable. "I donít want ta go home yet, Hoss." He glanced towards Adam who was strapping harness onto horses. "Canít we persuade Adam ta go on a bit further?"

"I donít reckon." Hoss scowled and carried on stuffing the last of their camping gear into a canvas bag. "Adamís got a bee in his bonnet. It happens from time ta time. You leave him be aní heíll simmer down some. "Sides, heís most probably right. Adam most usually is." The admission was honest, if reluctant.

"I wanted ta ride right up inta the high hills."

"I know. I did too." Hoss kicked apart the last remnants of the fire. Even though the woodland was soaking wet, he made sure every last spark was out. Cheering up, he said, "Donít you worry none. The way weíre gonna go, thereís some right pretty country. Itíll sure take some lookiní at."

Slowly, Jodyís face started to return the big manís smile. Hoss hefted up the bag and the two of them walked towards the horses.

Hoss had caught up with Jodyís mount and the runaway packhorse, and the men had redistributed their belongings among the remaining animals. In meant that each horse had to carry more. Being careful of the young manís injured arm, Adam boosted Jody into the saddle, and the two men mounted their own horses. Adam looked meaningfully at his brother. He said, with a tight smile, "Would you care to lead the way?"

Hoss returned the look uncertainly and sighed. Sometimes there was just no understanding olí Adamís moods. He kicked his horse into motion and turned its head uphill. Jody fell into line behind him, and Adam, leading the packhorse, brought up the rear.

********

Riding drag at the back of the trail herd was, perhaps, not the most auspicious position that the son of a wealthy and influential rancher could aspire to. Upon this occasion, Joseph Cartwright had chosen it for himself. The rear end of a whole bunch of steers was one that suited his mood perfectly. The humiliation of last nightís poker game was not yet entirely behind him. Already that morning he had endured some gentle joshing from the hands and been the subject of some not so kindly jibes. Morosely, he reflected that he wouldnít be likely to hear the last of it until the next newsworthy event came along.

Joe came out of his reverie as a rider fell in beside him. He recognized the short-bodied, chestnut gelding that Asia Prior had drawn from the remount string that morning. Like Joe, Asia had his hat pulled well down over his eyes and his face mostly covered by a bandanna to fend off the debris thrown up by the herd. The two of them looked like a pair of highway robbers. They allowed their horses to slow and drop back from the herd so that they could talk.

Asia pulled the handkerchief away from his mouth and looked at Joe with his typically cheerful, somewhat lopsided grin.

"Cheer up, Joe. This afternoon we get to Maryville. We cín ride in ta town tonight and raise us a little hell." His blue-grey eyes sparkled with incipient mischief.

Joe glanced across at him with mock irritation. "Just how much hell díyou reckon a man cín raise on one dollar and seventeen cents?"

Laughing aloud at the memory of Joeís ignominy, Asia slapped a hand against his thigh. "Hey, wonít your Pa give you an advance?"

In the privacy of his own mind, Joe went over the possible conversation with his father. It would not be an interview to be relished. It wasnít that Ben disapproved of gambling. Hell, Joeís big-brother Adam played poker from time to time, and their father had never said a word about it. Ben had even been known to draw an occasional hand himself, along with the sheriff and some of their cronies in Virginia City. It was only when his younger son was involved that he got all tight-lipped and hot under the collar. Joe didn't understand it, but he supposed that it had something to do with him being the youngest for such a long time before Daniel came along. Joeís mouth quirked at the thought of his baby brother. The little tyke was sure going to have a lot to contend with when he started to grow up.

In any event, Joe didn't think much of his chances of getting any advance on his wages, and the fruitless discussion with his Pa was likely to be long, heated, and publicly humiliating. He dismissed the idea out of hand.

"Nope. I wouldnít even ask him."

The ever-cheerful Asia Prior accepted that. Still chuckling, he said, "Well, Iíve got around three dollars. ĎReckon between us, we got enough ta have us a good time, even iffen we donít git ta see the devil himself."

Joe laughed despite himself. He remembered the last time that he and Asia had been out on the town together. He didnít doubt that, one way or another, they would find a way to raise a riot. All of a sudden, he started to feel a great deal happier. He flashed Asia a grin and covered his face up again. He urged his horse into a canter to catch up with the herd.

********

It was about mid-morning, when the rain that had been falling steadily for hours finally stopped. A weak and watery sunlight broke through the clouds and filtered down to the forest floor. There was no heat in it, but it brightened the woodlands. Adam called for a halt, and they stopped at a pleasant enough spot where a stream ran swiftly between deep-cut, moss-covered banks. Scrub pine and foxtails grew close to the waterís edge with majestic Ponderosas standing further back, towering over all. The water was cold and clear and danced musically over the rocks that littered the streambed. All the men were relieved to get out of the saddle. There wasnít one of them who wasnít sick and tired of sitting on wet leather and having cold water tipped on his head.

Lunch was uninspiring. It consisted of bread and cold beans, eaten standing up and washed down with cold water scooped from the stream. Afterwards, Hoss and Adam stood shoulder to shoulder and discussed their route home. Their mood had changed yet again. With their decision to curtail the trip they had become sombre, business like and efficient. Hoss pointed out the trail that he proposed taking. "If we turn downhill here, we can follow the bottomland all the way home."

Adam screwed up his face and followed the lie of the land with his eyes. He had a feeling in his gut that he was being manoeuvred, but he couldnít quite put his finger on how. "Itís a steep path," he said finally, "Weíll have to zigzag some to get the horses down safely."

"I reckon we cín make up the time we lose. The ridiní Ďll be a whole lot easier down in the valley."

While Adam wondered if his brother was right about that, he wasnít prepared to dispute the matter. He swilled his mouth out with water and spat it onto the ground. "Iíll check the horses over again before we start down. Now weíre an animal short, we canít afford to have one go lame on us."

Adam turned to the horses, and Hoss and Jody took a stroll along the bank of the stream. The pinewoods were quiet. There was an air of brooding about them, almost a foreboding. The massive trunks, further around than three men could span with their arms, were widely spaced. High above, darkening the sky, horizontal branches swayed majestically in the strengthening wind. Far off, on the slopes of the distant mountain, a rumble of thunder promised the approach of yet another storm.

"Hey, Jody, come look at this." Hoss hunkered down close to the waterís edge. "Thereís a big old mama elk come down here ta drink. You cín see how sheís spread her legs wide open ta reach the water." He pointed out the splayed hoof marks in the soft soil. "íN hereís the marks oí here liíle one right along side oí her."

Crouching down at the big manís side, Jody put out his free hand and touched the imprints with his fingertips. He looked up at Hoss and a smile lit up his face like sudden sunlight. The rising wind stirred the strands of his overly long, rough-cut, tallow pale hair. "Hey, Hoss, what kinda tracks are those?" His bright eyes had lit upon something further along the bank.

Hoss studied the marks in the ground. "I reckon this is three, may be four, oí them liíle prong horned deer. ĎLooks like they use that there game track regular." He pointed out the path through the sparse undergrowth. "Iffen you was ta sit here realí quiet like, theyíd come right down beside you, so close you could almost touch Ďem."

"Iíd sure like ta do that, sometime." Jodyís eyes were glowing. "Iíd sure like it if youíd teach me some oí the things you know about the wild critters."

Both embarrassed and pleased by the young manís interest, Hoss straightened up. He lifted his head as he heard, or thought that he heard, something out of place among the trees. The melodic sounds of running water merged with the sighing of the wind in the trees and the monotonous drip of water. The thunder rumbled again, louder and closer. Dark cloud drifted across the face of the sun, and the world grew dim. The branches creaked and groaned with the strain of the rising wind. The odd sound did not come again.

Finished with the horses, Adam dusted off his hands. "Címon over here, Jody. I want to take a look at that arm before we start out."

"Sure thing, Adam." Jody started towards him.

Overhead the boughs tossed against the stormy sky. The wind sighed through the treetops, and the mighty pines thrummed in response.

Scowling, Hoss looked about him. A man very much in tune with nature and the ways of the wild, he was uneasy. As was usual in these hills, the storm, sweeping out of the mountains, was rising fast. It looked like being a bad one. Over the increasing noise, Hoss yelled at his brother. "Iím aí thinkiní you ought ta hurry it up, Adam. We want ta git off aí this hillside aífore this storm breaks." He took a step away from the riverbank.

Directly above him the thunder roared. The branches, all in motion now, tossed in a sudden gust. Sharper and closer than the thunder, something cracked.

Branch tip to branch tip with its cousins the pine tree had stood, straight and strong, on the hillside for more than eight hundred years. It had witnessed the coming of man - both the white man and the red man. It had known long times of drought when there was not enough rainfall to swell the seeds in the pinecones. It had known winters when the weight of snow was so great that it bent the huge branches right down to the ground. It had stood firm through devastating tempests far worse than the one that assaulted it now. It knew, in the way of trees, that an occasional sacrifice was unavoidable. The branch had been flawed for a long time. It had been split by the winter freezing of sap. It had been further weakened by the spring storms. The wind blew strongly, and with a sound that sounded like a pistol shot, the branch broke.

Hoss looked up at the sudden crack, his round face raised to the sky.

Adam spun round at the sound, straightening from his examination of Jodyís arm. He looked up and up again, into the treetops. He saw the branch falling. A wordless yell of warning sprang from his open mouth.

Hoss saw the branch coming. It hurtled towards him, huge and black. It made a rushing, crashing noise as it smashed its way through the tops of the lower trees, tearing off branches and foliage as it went. The sight of it and the sound of it for a moment froze Hoss to the spot. Then he stepped back, stumbling as the falling timber crashed into him. He threw out his arms to regain his balance. His foot slipped in the mud. He gave a shout of denial as he went down on his back. A side branch, as thick as a manís body, landed across him and crushed him into the earth.

Yelling his brotherís name, Adam hurled himself towards him, arriving before the noise of falling had stopped. Heedless of the razor edged pine needles that slashed his hands, he searched frantically through the shattered foliage. "Hoss!" Thigh deep, waist deep in the entangled leafage, he ignored the rain of debris that continued to fall on his head and the sharp pine needles that scraped and scratched at him even through his clothes.

Twisting and turning, he sought desperately for his brother. He knew he was here. He had heard his desperate cry, and he had seen him go down, borne to the earth by the weight of the branch. "Hoss!" Thunder rolled again and drowned out his voice. Big, fat raindrops started to fall from the brown clouds that blotted out the sun - great angel tears of anguish to match the tears on Adamís cheeks. They pattered onto the ground with a noise like that of lead shot hitting water. "Hoss!"

Adam found his brother. It was fortunate that the main branch had caught him only a glancing blow across the chest as he had stumbled backwards. Hoss was flat on his back, pinned to the earth by the weight of a lesser, side-branch across his lower chest. He was conscious, but barely so. His flesh was grey beneath the sun-bronzed skin. His pale blue eyes were open, unfocused, seeking for Adamís face when he heard his voice. His hands were pushing futilely against the rough bark of the branch. For all his great strength, he had no hope of moving it. The rain was falling into his face.

Carefully, Adam eased himself down into the small space beside him. "Hoss." Hossís head turned towards him, his eyes still unseeing, blindly seeking.

"Adam? ĎYou there, Adam?" His voice was a breathy whisper, full of pain.

"Iím here. Hoss." Adam put his hand on the bulging biceps of his brotherís arm in a gesture of reassurance. He was gazing around, searching desperately for a way out of a nightmare situation.

It was fortunate that the branch was laying low down on Hossís chest, across his lower ribs; otherwise he would be a dead man already. As it was, the tremendous weight held him pinned firmly to the ground and was slowly crushing the life out of him. Adam feared for Hossís lungs, and for his stomach, liver and spleen. Hoss gasped and his breath hissed, "You gotta get me outa this Adam. You just gotta. I canít move. I canít breathe." Hoss coughed. Anxiously, Adam searched for traces of blood on his brotherís lips. He found none.

"Iím gonna get you out, Hoss. Just take it easy." It was a promise, although, at the moment that he gave it, Adam had no idea how he might deliver it. The pine log that had felled his brother and now held him pinned was a lot heavier than any human strength could lift.

The tempo of the rain increased and thunder growled across the land as the storm drew rapidly nearer. Hossís eyes closed, and he panted for breath. Adam straightened up, still looking urgently about him for some means of getting the pressure off his brother's chest. At his sides, his hands clenched and unclenched in a frenzy of frustration. He lifted his face into the rain. Far above, the tops of the trees lashed in the fury of the storm. The lowest branch was four times his own height above his head, far higher than any man could reach, even with the best throw in the world. There had to be another way. As a man trained to understand forces and angles, he knew he couldnít raise that log; that with the equipment he had available it was physically impossible. His only hope was to roll it, just a little, just enough to rotate the side-branch off Hossís rib cage.

He sought and found Jody, not far away. The boyís young face was anguished, and he was transfixed into immobility by the unfolding disaster. Adam yelled at him above the din of the storm. "Get the ropes from the horses! Get all of them!"

The frantic urgency in Adamís voice jolted the young man out of his shock. He raced to the horses and returned quickly with the ropes from the saddles and the extra yardage that the packhorse carried. He tossed them across to Adam.

Adamís hands were numb and shaking. They felt slow and clumsy, as if they belonged to another person entirely. His mind was disorientated, operating on a different level, racing ahead faster than his body could operate. He had only one thought - Hoss was lying at his feet dying - would very soon be dead - unless he could do something, anything, to prevent it.

Adam searched around desperately. He tossed the ends of the ropes around a tree. If he could get the angles right he could use it as a lever. Hunkering down beside his brother, he started to work the loose ends under the log.

Hossís breath was coming to him in short gasps. He was losing ground against the crushing weight on his chest. A lesser man would already be dead. He was clinging to consciousness with a grim determination, desperately afraid to let it slip away in case the darkness was forever. Rolling his head towards Adam, he opened his eyes. Pain and fear made them bright.

"Adam?" He was finding it hard to focus on his brotherís face.

"Youíre gonna be all right," Adam told him, wishing that the telling would make it so. "Just hang on in there."

"Canít breathe, Adam! Canít breath!"

It was true. Each time his chest fell he was finding it harder to lift it again - more difficult to fill his tortured lungs with the most basic requirement of life.

Adam double hitched the ropes. Looking up, he could see that Jody had been thinking ahead. He had already secured the other ends of the ropes to the saddles of their two strongest horses, Adamís mount and Hossís own black. The ropes ran from the log, around the trunk to the horses. It was Adamís hope that the strength of the horses would be enough to roll the big branch, to lift the smaller limb off of Hossís body. He hoped that the ropes would hold and that luck would be on his side. He was unaware that he was weeping again. The rain washed away his tears. He wiped his sleeve ineffectually across his face. He called to Jody, "Walk Ďem out! Take it slowly!"

Jody backed up, leading the horses by the bridle. The ropes pulled tight at once, jerking against the saddles at an odd angle. The knots held firm. Both the horses balked, throwing up their heads and skewing sideways. Jody held onto their heads while Adam resisted the urge to yell instructions. Regaining control, Jody spoke to the horses calmly, quietening them. In a moment he had them pulling together, taking the strain and leaning against the ropes. Despite the urgency of the moment, Adam was impressed by the younger manís composure.

With his eyes, Adam followed the line of the light ropes. They shivered and shed water. The fibrous, red bark of the tree was offering fierce resistance. Adam wished he could have greased the rope - wished that he had a pulley and the means to attach it, wished that he had more time!

Hoss groaned. His breath was bubbling on his lips. Adam couched down. "Just a minute, Hoss! Just hang on one more minute!"

At Jodyís desperate urging, the horses lunged. The ropes jerked several inches around the trunk. They tore off a shower of broken bark that was whipped away by the wind. Adamís knots tightened but the log did not move. Adam leaned on the broken branch, adding his strength to the efforts of the horses. As best he could, he sheltered Hossís body from the weather with his own. The rain ran down his face and into his open mouth.

The horses strained again at the ropes, steam rising from their haunches. The wet ropes creaked. The branch stirred and shifted, just a fraction. Adam yelled at Jody, a wordless shout of encouragement, and gestured wildly - pull harder! Pull harder!

The sweating animals heaved and the shattered limb lifted - just an inch, not enough! Then it moved again as the branch rolled, rising a miraculous three inches. Lightening flickered, dancing among the clouds and immediately, the thunder rolled. The storm was passing directly overhead. One of the horses, Adamís, squealed. Adam seized his bigger, heavier brother under the armpits and pulled. Hoss bellowed with pain. There was nothing Adam could do to make it easier for him. He had to do what heíd set out to do.

Hossís weight was all but immovable, as if he were already a part of the earth itself. He was quite unable to help himself. Adam dug in his heels and heaved. He felt the strain of the effort in his gut. From the corner of his eye he saw Jodyís frightened face, a pale oval turned towards him. He knew that the horses couldnít hold this weight for long. It was up to him alone to get Hoss out from under. He redoubled his efforts, dragging Hoss inch by inch through the mud. His muscles cracked with the effort.

Gradually, the big man was pulled clear Ė chest, belly and all the length of his legs. Only when his booted feet were out from under the branch did Adam drop, breathless, speechless, gasping, to his knees.

Jody left the horses and hurried to join Adam at Hossís side. They knelt together in the rain - two stunned and frightened men, each, in the privacy of his own mind, praying, while the storm continued to rage around them.

*******

Maryville, as Ben Cartwright had correctly remembered, was not really that much of a town. Principally, it was the centre of a farming community - a collection of wood frame and clapboard buildings huddled together as if for mutual support and reassurance at the edge of the desert. It was comprised of one, wide, main street, running directly from east to west, with clusters of shanties and outhouses behind. The street was faced by the high, weather beaten false fronts typical of small, pretentious towns anywhere west of the Missouri River.

Behind the elaborate frontages, again as was customary, the buildings themselves were much more modest. All the essential elements of an embryonic township were in place, although, as yet, there was no bank, hotel or resident doctor. There was a livery stable and blacksmithís shop, wheelwrights and a cooperís, a barberís, a bathhouse and a brothel. A community hall served as both church and dancehall as the occasion required. The sheriffís office was equipped with two sturdy cells and presided over by a lean and lanky elected representative of the law. A range of stores provided the local populace with the basic commodities of life and, again, as Ben recalled, three lively and flourishing saloons.

At the western end of the street clustered more elaborate houses where lived the well to do. To the south was an expanse of coarse pastureland watered by a by a small, slow river that ran out of the hills and soon disappeared into a sinkhole. Officially the place was called Waterís End, but universally it was known as ĎThe Devilís Potí.

The herd arrived in the early afternoon, and the drovers allowed the thirsty cattle down to the water in small bunches. Ben paid a small levy per head to the town council for the use of the water and the grass. It was a valuable source of income for a community.

After a weekís hard work in the saddle, all the men were looking forward to relaxing and letting their hair down in town. Evening saw the trail camp in a frenzy of preparation. Men shaved for the first time in a long time, put on their spare shirts and brushed the worst of the trail dust off their pants.

Ben and Charlie stood beside the brightly burning cook fire sipping well-boiled trail coffee from tin mugs. They watched the men ride out.

"I guess itíll be midnight before we see any of them back," Ben said with a smile. He had no objection to the men enjoying themselves once the work was done and couldnít have stopped them if he had.

Charlie swallowed the last of the bitter coffee, chewed a fresh mouthful of tobacco off the block he kept in his pocket and gazed after the men, his jaws working slowly as he thought. "Donít reckon as weíll miss Ďem fer a while. The herdís got grass Ďní water Ďní there ainít no storm cominí. They ainít gonna wander far."

"Itís the men that are more likely to wander," Ben replied, chuckling.

As always, Charlie took his foremanís duties seriously. "Iíll ride on in later on tonight and make sure they all git back here in time fer work in the morniní."

"Good idea, Charlie." Still smiling to himself Ben poured himself a refill.

Joe Cartwright and Asia Prior were in the vanguard of the horsemen who rode, at sundown, into town at a gallop. Despite the paucity of their pooled funds they were both looking forward to having a beer or two in the saloon. After all, if a man was real careful and sipped slow, he could make a pint of beer last one hell of a long time.

Joe had done his best to smarten himself up. He had polished his boots, brushed the tangles out of his hair and tied his good, black-silk scarf around his throat. Riding his favourite pinto horse, he was filled with a sense of anticipation. Asia Prior, astride his black gelding, returned Joeís grin. He had braided his long hair into two pigtails and bound them with black satin ribbon. His eyes sparkled. They were both glad to be out from behind the herd and on their way for a night on the town.

At the sight of The First - and Last - Chance saloon, the cowhands spurred their horses forward and rode, whooping and hollering, for the rail. Joe and Asia held their horses back, taking in the look of the town. With the sun already hidden by the western mountains, the main street was filled with shadow; the alleyways between the buildings were already dark. Here and there lanterns were being lit at the edges of the boardwalks, and up and down the street many of the windows showed pale light within.

At this early hour of the evening Maryville was a busy little town. Heavy farm-wagons stood outside most of the stores already loaded with essential supplies for the scattered, outlying farmsteads. One burly, bearded farmer, half again the size of Hoss, was loading seed potatoes two sacks at a time, as the young men rode by. He looked up at them with a scowl. While the local residents might be well used to the visitation of passing drovers and profit from their custom, not all of them liked it.

Further on, another man was loading his family of what seemed like a dozen children into the back of his wagon. His wife, in shawl and deep, frilled bonnet, sat up on the front seat with yet another baby in her arms. Out of respect, Joe and Asia touched their hats to her as they rode by. The shirt-sleeved, balding owner of the hardware store was busy sweeping out after the dayís business. He leaned on his brush and wished the boys a cordial good evening. Not everyone resented the cowboys coming to town.

As the farmers and the families loaded up and headed for home, the younger men were coming into town for an eveningís relaxation and entertainment. Saddle horses were already lining the rails outside the saloons, and more riders were coming into town all the time. In no particular hurry to spend their meagre dollars, Joe and Asia walked their horses slowly along the street and absorbed the sights and the sounds.

Two young women stepped together out of the lamp-lit draperís store into the shadowy gloom of the covered boardwalk. Each of them held several paper-wrapped parcels in their arms, and they were giggling, their heads close together. It was the sound of their light laughter that attracted the men's attention. For a moment the light of a lantern fell across their faces and their figures.

Asia winked meaningfully at Joe and they pulled their horses over to the rail, climbing down and stepping up onto the boardwalk. The girls looked at them with surprise and mock alarm. They clutched their packages tight against them, as if for protection. Their mothers would surely not approve of young men, however handsome, accosting them in the street. It was deliciously frightening.

The men touched their hats, and Joe said, "íEvening, ladies."

For a moment he thought the women would bolt back into the safety of the drapery, but they were made of sterner stuff than that. Matilda OíToole was a young woman of direct Irish descent, and she prided herself on not being afraid of anything, certainly not of a man, and least of all of a slightly built cowhand with a youthful face and a bright, boyish grin. Her own smile lit her light green eyes. "Aní a good evening to you."

Joe looked her over. She was just his own height, neat and trim in a full skirted, chocolate-brown dress trimmed with cream-coloured lace. Her face was heart shaped with a pert nose and pointed chin, her complexion, peaches and cream pink. Dark curls framed the smiling, colleen-green eyes, and on them she wore a little brown hat with two feathers in it, pink and cream. Mischief played in the dimples around her mouth.

Joe remembered his manners and tried not to leer. "Iím Joe Cartwright, Maíam, aní this is my friend, Asia Prior. We just rode into town aní we was wondering if you could recommend us a good place to eat?" Very much aware of Asia hovering behind his shoulder he slid him a sideways look. Asiaís attention was entirely taken by the other young woman. With hair a lighter shade than her friends and brown eyes, she was blushing prettily under his scrutiny.

"Iím ĎTilda OíToole," ĎTilda said, a trifle tartly. She didnít like a manís eyes to wander. "Aní this is my cousin whoís stayiní with us a while. Miss Alinda Gessop."

The introductions made, the two men touched their hats again. "Iím quite sure," ĎTilda said, "That Mrs. Neally will still be serving afternoon tea. Across the street and two blocks down."

Joe smiled lopsidedly. Afternoon tea was not what he had in mind. He fidgeted. ĎTilda contrived to drop a package of newly purchased cambric fabric onto the boardwalk. Joe hastened to pick it up. The girlís hands were still full of packages. She looked at him coyly. Joe was man enough to take the hint. "Hey, Maíam, why donít you let me carry those for you?"

ĎTilda smiled happily, and before they knew it, Joe and Asia had their arms loaded with parcels of fabric and trimmings and needles and thread.

Joe walked alongside ĎTilda, and Asia with Alinda, through deepening twilight. The young people quickly found that getting to know one another without benefit or hindrance of a chaperone was easy and fun. By the time they reached the front stoop of the impressive, white painted edifice that ĎTilda called home, they were on first name terms. Joe had learned that she was daughter to a merchant and councilor, a prominent member of the community, a big fish in a very small pool. She had made it clear that she was unattached, despite anxious parents and a number of admirers, that she had a hearty contempt for the local hick farmers, and that she was bored beyond belief with a hum-drum existence in a small, rural township. He had also discovered that she was opinionated, headstrong and flirtatious.

In turn, ĎTilda had satisfied herself that Joe was eligible, well connected and just a little gullible.

At the steps of the house she turned to reclaim her belongings. "That was very kind of you, Joe." There was a sweet smile on her lips and a coy look in her eyes.

"It was my pleasure." Joe took off his hat and held it in his hands. His fingers fiddled with the brim. His eyes returned her smile. "Itís a real shame that I wonít get to see you again."

ĎTilda wasnít about to let him slip away so easily. "We donít have to say goodbye right now." She told him boldly. "We could take a walk after supper tonight." Her expression changed into one of open invitation. She had a good deal more than walking in mind. "If you wanted to, that is."

Joeís smile turned into a broad grin. Just at that moment there was little else on his mind. 'Though still a young man and unwed, Joe, like all well to do gentlemen of his time, was a man of wide experience. As soon as he had turned fifteen, his big brother had seen to it that he got a proper education in women and in the ways of the world. They had been thorough and practical lessons that their father, though he knew of them, chose not to acknowledge. Joe had continued with his studies assiduously and had become proficient. While physically, he was not a big man, he was devilishly handsome with a rakish southern-influenced charm and an eternally cheerful, sunny disposition. He was never short of a lady or two on his arm, and he knew how to treat the fair sex kindly. And in certain situations manners had their own reward. It looked as if he was going to have a good time tonight after all.

"Iíd like that realí fine, ĎTilda."

ĎTilda OíToole gazed at him from beneath modestly lowered eyelids, just to make sure that there was no misunderstanding and that he was properly captivated. "íLinda aní Iíll step out ta take the air Ďbout nine oíclock. If you Ďní your friend was here ta meet us we could take a stroll aní see all the sighs oí Maryville."

From what Joe had seen of Maryville, the best sight of all would probably be the one looking over his shoulder as he rode away, but he wasnít about to say so right now. As a means to an end, he was happy to play any game the girl liked. He grinned his most impish grin. "I reckon as we might be passing by just about that time."

ĎTildaís eyes glowed with understanding. Alinda, having made a very similar arrangement with Asia, joined her cousin on the steps. With a few last words, a couple of winning, flirtatious smiles and a flurry of skirts, they disappeared inside.

Joe and Asia exchanged grins and set their hats at appropriately dashing angles. Feeling ridiculously pleased with themselves, they strolled back through the town towards the Last Chance saloon.

For the most part, the trail crew consisted of seasoned and experienced hands. They could trail a herd through dust storm and blizzard, through rain and hail and wind, across rivers and over mountains. It was said, in the more inebriated moments, that they could drive a bunch of steers through hell itself and bring them out the other side with their hides barely scorched. They knew how to work hard, day and night for weeks on end, for as long as it took. They also knew how to play hard. All three saloons were doing a roaring trade. Light and noise spilled out of the windows and over the half-high doors into the - now dark - street.

Inside, they were bright with colour and movement and loud with menís voices: shouting, laughing, and swearing. The tables in the Last Chance saloon were crowded, and men stood three deep at the bar. Hot and humid, the air stank of their breath and their bodies, of the smoke of cigars and the smell of beer. A man in a round-topped hat and a green-checked shirt hammered out a tune on a battered and beer-stained upright piano. The men shouted the louder to be heard over the music. The noise level spiraled around and around.

Farmers and drovers made up most of the clientele, and mostly the two groups rubbed along together affably enough. The resentment and suspicion that had always existed between men in two diametrically opposed walks of life simmered below the surface. It rarely resulted in more than a little pushing and shoving

Just to be sure the lid stayed firmly on, the long, lean sheriff showed his face every hour or so. He wore a low slung six-gun and carried a shotgun tucked under his arm. A man of middle years, he had picked on Maryville as the place he wanted to settle down in. No one was going to raise hell in his town and get away with it.

Joe and Asia bought themselves a pie and a beer at the bar and found themselves a place at a table where they could sit down and eat. Looking Ďround, they saw any number of faces that they knew. Asiaís brothers were standing in a group with T.J. and Stubby and several other cowboys, beer glasses in their hands, holding a ribald conversation that elicited a lot of laughter in sudden, loud outbursts. Peter Nash, resplendent in his black dress coat and string tie and wearing his broad brimmed hat, was engaged in a poker game with the locals. Already, he looked as if he were winning.

The time passed easily and pleasantly enough. Joe exchanged some mild ribbing with hands from the Ponderosa and bought another couple of beers. Both he and Asia were relaxed and experiencing a warm glow of anticipation. Sooner than seemed possible, it was time to leave the Last Chance and ride slowly back towards the residential end of town.

The fine, white house glowed in the dark. A pale, misty moon, now past full, rode over the mountains, its light reflected by the whitewashed boards. Upstairs and down, every window spilled the yellow light of oil lamps. Joe and Asia tethered their horses and walked casually past. Then they strolled back. They loitered in the shadows and kicked their heels. The girls were obviously content to keep them waiting.

The two young women were well practiced in the tantalizing of men. It was half past nine before the front door of the house opened and they slipped out. They were in no doubt at all that Joe and Asia would still be there and that their wait would have done nothing but sharpen their appetites. Each of the girls had left their hat behind in the house and slipped a warm shawl about her shoulders. The evening was turning cold, and a shawl had many uses.

ĎTilda slipped her small hand through the crook of Joeís elbow. "Címon, Joe, letís walk."

"You promised to show me all the sights of Maryville," Joe reminded her with a smile. "Iíve been looking forward to a guided tour."

Laughing lightly, ĎTilda squeezed his arm. "Then youíll have to let me lead the way."

"I leave myself entirely in your hands," Joe said, appropriating a phrase he had heard his father use. A little smile settled on ĎTildaís lips. That was exactly what she had in mind. It was just possible that Joe Cartwright was her ticket out of this one horse town.

Matilda OíToole took a firm grasp of Joeís arm and guided him away from the bright, white house. It turned out that Maryville had a lot more interesting places than Joe Cartwright could ever have imagined, and ĎTilda OíToole knew them all. There were sheds and stables and comfortable corners that were a lot warmer than one would imagine. Having quickly lost track of the other young couple, Joe and ĎTilda made good use of them all, and Joe quickly found that having no funds in no way prevented him from having a good time.

None of the trail hands had wandered far from the Last Chance saloon. The noise from inside had topped out at a level that made the wealthier residents of Maryville glad that it was situated a long way out of earshot.

At almost ten oíclock, the liberal flow of beer and cheap whisky had led to an atmosphere of frenetic celebration - a rowdy boisterousness that ebbed and flowed though the crowd. Most of the drovers, and the farmers as well, were more than a little drunk. No one noticed the burly farmer who pushed through the half doors and stood looking Ďround the room. It was the same farmer who had looked at Joe and Asia with such belligerence in the late afternoon light. He now felt that he had good reason for his instinctive dislike and mistrust.

Head and shoulders taller than everybody else, he searched through the sea of faces. Not finding the one he was looking for, he grabbed the nearest cowboy by the shirtfront. The cloth bunched in the huge, ham-like fist, and the manís boots came up off the floor. At close range, the farmer scowled into the cowboyís face.

"Iím a lookiní fer a man," he snarled, "Fella that rides a fancy pinto horse. Rides wií a man wií ribbons in his hair."

His unfortunate victim struggled, hands clawing frantically at the huge fist. He was quite unable to answer, and his face was turning a strange shade of puce.

Arthur Prior, tall, broad, barrel-chested and bull-necked, pushed his way through the crowd. His face was flushed with drink and dark with anger. A huge and immensely powerful man himself, Ďthough not nearly as big as the farmer, he was not used to being faced down. His hands clenched into balls of flesh and bone - white knuckled and iron hard. "Mister," he said, in a low rumble, "That thereís my brother youíre choking the life outa. I kinda think as youíd better put him back down on the floor."

The farmerís glare refocused itself on Arthur. Seeing an adversary on something approaching his own scale, the dark brown brush of his beard split open to reveal bright-white, tombstone-square teeth. He opened his hand and dropped Astley Prior onto the floor. The barroom, which had been becoming progressively quieter as menís attention turned to the confrontation, fell silent.

"I want the man who rides the pinto horse." The farmer said again. "Heís bin seen wií Miss ĎTilda, aní Miss ĎTilda is síposed ta be walkiní out wií me."

Huey Worth looked at T.J. but the wrangler ignored him. He was carefully watching the by-play by the door. All the Ponderosa hands were playing close attention.

Ever the spokesman, Auron Prior stepped forward. He pushed the still gasping Astley towards Arthur, effectively keeping them both busy. He smiled his familiar gap toothed grin, but, on this occasion, it came nowhere near his eyes. His brother Ashley came up beside him, his eyes narrowed, his right hand hovering somewhere near his gun butt. Auron held up a restraining hand. This was neither the time nor the place for gunplay.

"Now, Mister, you cín see fer your own self, there ainít no ladies here.

The farmer sneered. Did this long cowpoke take him for a fool? "I reckon as you might jist know where them folks is at."

Auron Prior gave an elaborate shrug. He was aware of his brothers gathering around him, and behind them, the hands from the Ponderosa. "Then, I reckon as youíre mistaken, friend."

"I ainít your friend!" The big farmer gave Auron a shove in the chest that sent his stumbling back into the men behind. Arthur Prior set Astley aside and went to help Auron, interposing his bulk between his brother and the farmer.

The farmer swung a massive, knotted fist at Arthurís head, roundhouse. Arthur ducked and the punch swung harmlessly over his head.

Arthur launched his own assault on the farmerís rock-hard gut. The punches bounced off without any noticeable effect. The farmerís leer widened. He roared with joyous rage and launched himself at Arthur Prior. Within moments the room had erupted into violence as the barely contained resentment between cowman and sod-breaker flared into open warfare.

The half dozen young women who graced the saloon made rapid exits. Peter Nash gathered up his winnings and stuffed the money into his side pocket as his poker-playing partners disappeared into the melee. He let himself thoughtfully and gracefully out of the back door. The piano player abandoned his instrument and ran for cover. The two bartenders carefully lifted down the precious behind-the-bar mirror, before ducking into the sheltered space behind the bar. Furniture sailed over their heads and shards of shattered glassware fell all around them. The room resounded to the smack of fist on flesh and the crash of breaking furniture. Bodies flew and tables and chairs disintegrated into matchwood. In just a few seconds the room, and everything in it, was reduced to a shambles.

Farmers and cowboys alike threw their punches and took their own punishment in a grim-lipped silence. From them, there was only the grunt of effort, the hiss of expelled breath and an occasional exclamation of pain.

The uproar was brief and brought to an abrupt end. The sound of gunshots, resoundingly loud in the enclosed space, put a stop to all the fighting. Men froze with fists drawn back, punches undelivered. All heads turned towards the swing doors. The sudden quiet was broken by the sound of debris falling from the ceiling. Two new, neat holes punctured the planking. The lean sheriff blew the smoke from the muzzle of his pistol and slipped it back into his holster. He hefted the shotgun Ďround, front and centre where everyone could see it. His eyes, as grey and as hard and as sharp as flint moved slowly, surveying the ruin of the room.

Under his cool scrutiny, the men gradually unwound from their various postures of violence. Somewhat sheepishly, they started to brush themselves off. There wasnít much left of the furnishings to straighten.

"You-all hold it right there," the sheriff said, unnecessarily. His slow drawl betrayed his deep-south origin. He swung the double muzzle of the shotgun in a long arc that threatened every man in the room. "This here scatter-gunís a-loaded up wií bird-shot. Any more outa any oí you aní youíll all be a-pickin' pellets outa your hides fer a month." The barrels made a second, slow sweep. "Now, you-all Ďre goiní ta walk over ta the gaol-house, nice aní orderly, like."

Auron Prior finished extracting himself from the remains of two chairs and a table. Straightening, he brushed off a few splinters and wiped a smear of blood from a rapidly swelling lip. Finding his midriff threatened by the twin maws of the shotgun, he spread his hands and smiled disarmingly.

"Hey, sheriff, it werenít nothiní! We didnít set out ta cause no trouble."

The sheriff eyed the devastation again. "Fer fellas that didnít want ta cause no trouble, you-all did pretty Goddamned well."

Auron looked around him. He shrugged. The flint-eyed sheriff was not amused. He was aware that there was a great deal of money to be made from the trail herds, mule trains, and occasional groups of settlers heading west. He was not going to stand by and let the rowdier elements break up his town.

Auron estimated the number of men in the room. "You canít be aiminí ta lock us all up," he suggested, amiably.

The grey eyes narrowed. "Thatís exactly what Iím aiminí ta do. Each aní every man-jack oí you. ĎTill someone turns up ta pay fer the damage ta this here saloon." He gestured with the shotgun. "Now, if youíll step this way, gentlemen, the gaol-house is right across the street."

It was moving on towards midnight, and there was a damp chill in the air when Ben and Charlie rode, stirrup to stirrup, into Maryville. The moon had set behind the mountains, and the main street was dark and entirely deserted. There were no horses standing waiting at the rails, and no noise, or even light, spilled from the saloons. Ben and Charlie traded worried looks. They had passed none of the trail hands on the road, and now there was no sign of them here in town either.

The two men walked their horses slowly along the centre of main-street to the Last Chance saloon. Stepping down from their saddles they mounted the steps and took the couple of strides to the bat-wing doors. There was no need to go inside. Even in the dark they could make out the scene of devastation within Ė a dťcor of broken furniture and shattered glass. It wasnít necessary for either of them to say anything. Leading their horses, they crossed the street to where a single lantern burned like a beacon outside the door of the sheriffís office.

The lanky sheriff had, at least, been even handed. He had locked everyone up, drovers and farmers alike. One group was confined to one cell and one to the other. As the cells were none too large, there was standing room only. The sheriff took his feet off the desk and stood up as Ben opened the door and came in.

Ben took in the scene at a glance: a haphazard pile of guns and gunbelts in the corner, a collection of hats on a table, the battered, bruised and somewhat disconsolate faces of the men behind bars. He favoured them all with a thunderous glare and centered his attention on the lawman.

"Good evening, sheriff. My nameís Ben Cartwright. I own the trail-herd watering south of town. This is my foreman, Charlie."

The sheriffís grey eyes flickered between the two men assessing them: Cartwright, past middle age, grey, big built and still powerful, tired looking, the man called Charlie: older, smaller, capable. They exchanged nods. "Evening, Mister Cartwright. Kinda figured youíd be along sometime afore morniní."

"You appear," Ben said, stating the obvious, "to have almost my entire trail crew in you gaol." The only face missing was that of Pete Nash.

The sheriff smiled a slow smile. This Cartwright had a dry sense of humour that he could appreciate. He looked forward to some verbal sparring. "íReckon as I do," he drawled. "Reckon as thatís where-as theyíre gonna stay, lessen you-all Ďre gonna bail Ďem out."

Benís expression became blacker still. He was sorely tempted to leave the errant cowhands right where they were for a while, in gaol. "I see," he said heavily. "And how much is that going to cost me?"

The sheriff looked towards the cell. Twenty or so pairs of suddenly oh-so-sober eyes gazed back at him. Scratching his lean, stubbly jaw, he made some fairly basic calculations. "Reckon as five dollars a head should do it."

Ben gaped. "Five dollars a head? Thatís preposterous!"

The sheriff was well used to the bluster of passing trail bosses. "You cín leave Ďem there ta cool their heels fer a week, iffen you like," he said laconically. "íCourse, it ainít gonna be too comfortable Ė or smell too sweet - after a bit."

They all turned their heads to look again at the overcrowded cell. Ben sighed. "Five dollars a head then." It was the price of a good steer at the railhead.

"Aní then thereí all that damage they done ta the saloon," the sheriff went on, gazing at Ben through narrowed, speculative eyes. "Reckon seventy-five dollars should about cover it."

"Seventy-five dollars!" Benís face went red, then purple. He looked at Charlie, who shrugged. They both knew that they had to move the herd and that they had to have the men out of gaol to do it. Fret and fume as he might, Ben had no choice but to look big and pay up. "All right. Seventy-five dollars for the saloon." He reached inside his coat for his wallet.

The sheriff eyed the rancher up, and down. He noted the tailored cut of the manís clothes, the elaborately tooled gunbelt, the general air of authority that, in his experience, went right along with prosperity. There was some more money to be made here yet.

He waited until Ben had counted out a pile of notes onto the desktop. "Aní then thereís the bill down at the livery stable."

Benís eyes lifted, dark with anger. "The livery stable?"

With a shrug of his high shoulders, the sheriff smiled a droll smile. "íDidnít know how long itíd be afore you-all got here. Couldnít leave all them horses a-standing around in the street all night long, now could we? Shall we say a dollar a head fer feed aní rubbiní down?"

Ben brushed a hand across his eyes. All this was giving him a headache. He pulled out another twenty dollars and added it to the money already on the desk. He knew he was being skinned alive but didnít see what he could do about it. Charlie was carefully looking elsewhere and trying not to be amused.

Content, the sheriff gathered up the notes, tapped then into a neat pile and slipped them into the drawer of his desk. Collecting the keys to the cell from the prominent nail in the wall, he jingled them loudly as he unlocked the door and threw it wide. Shamefaced, the cowhands filed out. There was momentary confusion as they sorted out whose hardware was whose and more muddle as they shuffled through the hats, and then they all broke for the door. None of them cared to meet Benís dark and angry eyes. Charlie nodded a goodnight to the sheriff and followed the last man out.

Ben put his wallet away. It was now a good deal thinner than it had been. "What about them?" he inquired, indicating the farming folk crammed into the other cell.

"Donít you worry yore-self none about them, Mister Cartwright." The sheriff gave him an easy smile. "I cín take care oí them jist fine."

Ben harrumphed ineffectually and glared. He could just imagine how leniently the local men were likely to be treated, and it did nothing to improve the way he was feeling. Not only did he have a headache, but now he was feeling a distinct pinch in the pocket as well. He wished the sheriff goodnight cordially enough and went out to his horse. It had been a long, hard day and he ached in every bone and muscle. He grunted with effort as he climbed into the saddle. The chill in the night air made him shiver, and he drew his coat more tightly about him.

He had ridden halfway back to the trail camp before it occurred to him that his son, Joseph, hadnít been among the errant cowpokes and was still missing.

********

The fire was small but burning brightly, a beacon of warmth and comfort in the moonless darkness of the early morning hours. Adam sat close, feeling the welcome heat seeping into his face and his hands. The rest of his body was icy cold. His clothing was still wet. His leather boots were soaked right through. He fed the flames slowly and sparingly, keeping the fire burning but not wasting a single stick of their steadily decreasing supply of dry wood.Nearby was a stack of giant Ponderosa pinecones, gradually drying out in the heat. When their wood was gone, they would burn the pinecones.

Adam was numb, both in body and in mind. His thought processes had turned in on themselves. It was impossible to plan, impossible to concentrate on any details of the past - only the immediacy of the present had any relevance. He knew that it was an inevitable effect of shock and that his inertia would soon wear off.

In the hours immediately following Hossís accident he had acted, and reacted, purely by instinct. Not knowing the extent of his brotherís injuries, he hadnít dared to move him far. He had rigged up what shelter he could. Although it was little more than a canvas awning on a framework of broken branches, it kept off the rain and enabled him to keep the little fire alight. Occasionally, the wind blew in under the open sides and brought with it a light spray of rain that made the flames hiss. The darkness pressed in on the small oasis of light. Adam had prepared a basic meal, and both he and Jody had forced the food down. If they were to help Hoss, they had to keep up their strength. The food had tasted like ashes and now lay in an indigestible lump in Adamís stomach.

After dark, the two of them sat beside the fire and drank coffee and listened to the steady drumming of the rain on their makeshift roof. A rumble of distant thunder attested to another storm drifting along an adjacent valley. It was too distant for the lightening to light up the sky. They hadnít talked much. There hadnít seemed a great deal to say, and each man had been engrossed with his own, sober thoughts. Jody hadnít yet asked what they were going to do next, or how they were going to get Hoss off the mountain; a fact for which Adam was grateful. At that moment, he had no clear answers to either question.

Now Jody lay wrapped in his blankets beside the fire. Adam couldnít see his face or whether his eyes were open or closed. From time to time he stirred restlessly as if his sleep, if indeed he were sleeping, was troubled.

Adam had done everything within his power to make his brother comfortable. Carefully, he had stripped the sodden clothing from the big manís body and wrapped him Ďround in the driest of their blankets. Hoss drifted in and out of awareness, never fully losing consciousness, never becoming completely lucid. He spoke Adamís name frequently, but didnít seem to hear when he responded. There was massive bruising all across his body, particularly over the area of his lower ribs. Adam was sure that several of them were broken. He had bound Hossís chest with strips torn from their spare clothing, supporting the crushed chest as best he could with the materials to hand. Now, Hoss lay on the other side of the fire to Jody, wound in the blankets and propped into a semi-sitting position against a saddle.

Adam fed another piece of wood to the fire and listened to the rasp of his brotherís breathing. Not for the first time he found himself counting the breaths, first in tens, then in hundreds, listening always for the next one. A small part of him was constantly afraid that each breath might falter and that the next one might be the last. Adam was under no illusions. He knew that his brother was very seriously injured indeed.

Hoss groaned and made a feeble movement with a blanket wrapped hand. Adam abandoned his stewardship of the fire and went to him at once.

"Hoss?"

"Adam? ĎThat you?" In the flickering firelight, Hoss still wasnít seeing too well.

"Itís me." Adam put his hand on his brotherís shoulder, offering reassurance, trying to avoid all the bruised and battered places.

Hoss moved his head against the saddle as he struggled to focus his eyes on Adamís face. All he could make out was a vague shifting of light and shade, as if firelight danced in darkness, as if his brother were already a part of a different world. He couldnít make out how it had gotten to be nighttime so quickly.

"Adam? What happened there? I donít remember?"

Adam moved closer. Hoss made out his features in the unsteady firelight. The concern he saw there scared him. Becoming agitated, he asked again, "What happened, Adam?"

"Take it easy." In a way it was a relief that Hoss had no memory of what had happened to him. Adam mouthed a few platitudes to calm him. "You had an accident. Itís gonna be fine, but you have to lie still." With both hands against his brotherís shoulders, Adam held him firmly against the saddle until he subsided.

Hoss was confused. He could remember nothing after showing Jody the tracks of the elk in the soft soil beside the stream. That had been broad daylight with a storm brewing. Now it was full dark, and the storm, if indeed it were the same storm, was far away. It was hard to breathe, and his chest burned with pain. He just couldnít make sense of it. He licked his dry lips. "Awful dry, Adam."

Adam reached for the canteen and poured a measure of water into a cup. He lifted his brotherís head and steadied it, holding the cup to his lips. Hoss sipped slowly. He didnít dare cough. He didnít think he could stand the pain. When he had drunk enough he subsided against the saddle. He was still puzzled.

"You gotta tell me, Adam. What sorta accident did I have? I feel kinda like Ė my chest is all stove in." He didnít see the shadow of fear that crossed Adamís face.

"Donít you worry about it now.Try and get some rest."

Adam watched the pale eyes close and listened to the ragged breathing. Except for the tortured heaving of the chest, the big man lay quite still. Adam thought, for a moment, that he was sleeping. Then the eyes opened again, opened wide with alarm. Hoss struggled to get free of the blankets; clutched at his brotherís arm.

"Adam!"

"Iím right here, Hoss." Adam found himself trying to hold the larger man down. Even now, that was no easy task.

Hoss was frightened Ė very frightened. He had been struck with the deep primordial terror that had afflicted man since his earliest awareness: the fear of the unknown, and of death. Hoss expressed his feelings in the only way he knew how. "Heís a-cominí fer me, Adam! I know heís a-cominí fer me!"

"Thereís no one here, Hoss. No one but me and Jody." Adam couldnít make out what was causing Hoss so much alarm, but the distress was genuine, and he gave what reassurance he could.

Hoss refused to be placated. Despite the pain and his brotherís restraining arms, he continued to struggle. "Itís the varmint, Adam! Itís the varmint! I cín feel him! I cín smell him!"

Perplexed, Adam looked around. All he could see were the flickering outlines of the makeshift campsite, rimed in the firelight with the darkness of the night beyond. All he could sense was the storm, far-off now and moving away, the still falling rain and the unseen, looming presence of the pines. He sucked air through his teeth. "I wonít let him come, Hoss. Iíll keep him away."

His huge hands locked immovably on Adamís arms, Hoss gazed into his face. He was anxious, pleading, a small boy again desperately needing the assurances of his beloved and trusted big brother. "Youíll sit up? All night? You wonít let him git me?" It was a plea Adam hadnít heard for twenty years, since Hoss had finally banished the night terrors of childhood.

He eased Hoss back against the saddle and gave the old, well-remembered promise. "Iíll sit up all night, Hoss."

Very gradually, Hoss relaxed. Adam was at last able to free his arms. He pulled the blankets up about Hossís shoulders.

Hoss was calmer now, soothed by Adamís assurance. He settled back; his eyes still searched through the darkness beyond the dripping awning. At last he heaved a great sigh, and his eyes closed. His breathing, though still noisy and laboured, slowed and steadied. Adam was sure that this time, he slept.

Adam sat beside his brother for a long time. Although he was in no way to blame for Hossís accident, he was suffering the twin agonies of self-recrimination and overpowering responsibility. Only when the fire began to die did he stir himself. In the fading light he saw the gleam of Jodyís eyes and knew that the young man kept his own, sleepless vigil. Adam hunkered down and put more wood into the flames.

Out in the pinewoods a dark and strangely different intelligence stirred. Huge, black, and sleek, vaguely feline in form, the beast snarled softly and lifted its lip in an expression of distaste as it scented the air. The varmint did not care for these damp and dismal hills. It would not have come here at all, except that the soul of one with whom it had an unaccountable affinity had summoned it. Prowling through the night on soft and silent paws, its green eyes were slitted against the rain, glowing embers banked within. It sensed that it was near Ė very near.

The varmint paused and tasted the air again. Black jaws gaped; dagger-like, razor edged teeth, black as jet, gleamed. Just ahead was a bright burning and clustered about it, no less than three of the soft man things. As always it pondered, in its un-human way, at the tenacity of the fragile creatures. They were so ill equipped for survival with their dull teeth and their blunt claws. Shaking its great head to shed the rain drops from silken whiskers and settling low to the ground, the great beast began to stalk.

At the picket line, one of the horses caught the scent of something frightening in the wind. It threw up its head with a snort. Its anxiety spread rapidly to the other animals on the line. They all began to shift uneasily.

As always, Adam had kept his promise. Although he was more comfortable now, his clothes having dried on his body to a warm, clammy dampness, and his eyes were gritty with fatigue, he had made no move to settle into his own blankets, and sleep was far from his mind. He sat beside the fire and gazed across the flames and into the night. Hearing the disturbance among the horses, he got up and moved swiftly to the edge of the awning.

It was still raining relentlessly; a fine, silver sleeting angled down through the pine branches and hissed onto the wet ground. Beyond the rain, he could make out the dark bulk of the horses, agitated and uncomfortable because of the rain and, perhaps, because of something else. Hossís concern had communicated itself to Adam. He searched the darkness with keen and discerning eyes. He listened and heard only the wind, a low and constant moaning in the tops of the trees and, not far away, the musical stream running full spat. All his senses told him that there was nothing at all out there among the trees, but instinct, intuition and imagination combined to convince him otherwise. He reached for his rifle and stepped out into the night.

Immediately, the rain soaked him again, right through to the skin. He shivered as the wind blew cold. The light from the fire did not penetrate beyond the boundary of the shelter and the moon had long since slipped from the sky. It was hard to see anything. With the rifle held ready across his body, Adam moved into the trees.

Mere yards away the varmint crouched, black on black, unseen and unseeable against the Stygian gloom of the forest floor. It watched this man-thing with wary interest. It was not the one who had called him. That one lay in the crude shelter. This one stood between. The varmint did not fear the man, or his gun, or his fire - none of them could touch his ephemeral hide. It felt the fierce determination, the anger and the anxiety, tightly contained. Now, it concluded, would not be the best time for the inevitable confrontation. It would wait Ė a little longer.

Adam felt the pressure of alien eyes upon him. He turned sharply, the breath hissing through his teeth. Sensing motion among the trunks he brought the rifle round, level and steady. He saw nothing moving as the varmint slipped silently away.

The tempo of the rain increased abruptly, and thunder growled again as a new storm moved down from the mountains. Cold water ran out of his hair and down his back. He lowered the rifle and relaxed. The horses were settling again, and there was no point in chasing phantoms through the forest. He took a long, last look around, his dark eyes still troubled. His breath sighed out, and, shouldering the rifle, he returned with long, weary strides to his place beside the fire.

Six

A first lightening in the eastern sky heralded the new day. The trail camp was already packed away into the two wagons and getting ready to move. Ben Cartwright, nursing his second serving of coffee in a battered enameled cup, turned to watch the sun come up. Even as he watched, face upraised, the arc of the sky paled and turned from blue, to grey, to a sudden, startling pink. Floating high up, somewhere between heaven and earth, were several thin, threadlike clouds emblazoned like banners of gold across the vault of Godís creation.

Then the edge of the sun appeared, turning the long, flat line of the horizon to fire. As often as he had seen it, it was a display of such unrivalled magnificence that it never failed to stir his soul.

Ben studied the sky. The day was dawning bright and clear with cool air drifting in off the desert and a promise of heat to come. There was not yet enough light to colour the world; everything was visible only in shades of grey and black. Gazing back towards the mountains, it seemed that he could see every rock and crevice, every gully and tor and scree slope. The highest peaks were already ablaze with the reflected glory of the sun - the lower slopes and the forested shoulders still shrouded in the shadows of the night. From where he stood, he could see the pass through which he had to thread the herd and trace with his eye the trail he had to take to get there.

Ben was uneasy. There was a certain something about the quality of the light that made him distrust the apparent promise of the morning. There was nothing specific amiss, nothing that he could point his finger at, but the little hairs were prickling on the back of his neck in a most disturbing manner. It was altogether too clear and too bright. Long years of living this side of the mountains made him suspect that the ancient spirits, still called upon and made offerings to by the Indians, were busily plotting mischief up there on the sunlit slopes. A frown clouded his face.

He swallowed another mouthful of bitter coffee and pulled a face. He tipped the rest of the brew into the flames of the cook-fire, effectively dousing them and creating a hissing cloud of steam. Looking up, he nodded in greeting as old Charlie rode up on his shaggy pony. Charlie stepped out of the saddle. "Reckon as weíre all set ta go, boss."

Ben looked Ďround. The teams of horses had already been harnessed to the wagons and the last of the cookware was being packed away inside. Beyond, the herd had been gathered up and was milling slowly. The air was filled with the sound of the steersí restless lowing and the calling voices of the cowhands. For the first time in a long time, Ben was aware of the acrid smell of the cattle, so thick he could feel it clogging his nose; it was so thick he could almost chew it. For a moment, his gorge started to rise. He brought himself under fierce control.

"I think itíll blow up a storm before sundown, Charlie."

Chewing steadily, Charlie squinted at the sky and, as Ben had done, looked towards the mountains. He saw the same tenuous signs of a weather change that had worried Ben and nodded his head in agreement. "Looks like itíll be a wild one."

Both of them knew that the closer they got to the mountains the less chance there was of the storm blowing itself out in the foothills before it reached them. Never the less, both of them were anxious to get some miles under the herd before the trouble, however bad it might be, finished brewing up there on the heights and started rolling down the mountainsides.

Ben turned his dark eyes on Charlie. "Any sign of the boys yet?"

"Nope." Charlie turned his head and spat. "I ainít seen hide nor hair oí either one since they rode inta town yesterday."

Ben cursed inwardly, and his frown deepened into a scowl. Joe and Asia Prior hadnít yet returned from their night on the town, and Ben was worried. "They werenít in the gaol with the rest of the hands," he said gloomily, "I guess Iíd better ride in and find them." If he were honest, Ben would have confessed that today, he didnít feel like riding any further than he absolutely had to. He had eaten breakfast, but only out of habit, and because he knew that a man had to keep up his strength. Now, the food was lying in a hard, indigestible ball in his belly, and bile kept burning up into his throat. The headache of the night before was still with him, pounding away with the persistent regularity of a steam-hammer in the recesses of his skull.

He sighed. He guessed there was no help for it. "Move the herd out, Charlie. The boys and I will catch you up when Iíve straightened out whatever mess it is theyíve gotten themselves into."

Charlie grimaced and pushed his wad into one corner of his mouth. "Donít reckon as you need bother, boss. Looks like them two young hell-raisers is riding in right now."

Sure enough, two horsemen were riding over a rise in the land. The thin, early tendrils of mist swirled about the horseís legs, and the light of the rising sun, slanting from behind their shoulders, made their faces hard to see. Their proportions, however, were familiar, and in a moment Joeís distinctive pinto and Asia Priorís black gelding became recognizable. The two young men were in no hurry at all. They cantered their horses easily down the hill and into the campsite. Each of them wore the lingering traces of a silly, self-satisfied smile across his face.

Benís expression hardened. Charlie shot him a slantwise glance, but when Ben looked at him, the foreman was carefully paying attention somewhere else. Ben drew a big breath. "Get the herd moving, Charlie. Iíll deal with this."

Charlie looked worried but he wasnít prepared to argue. He swung back into his saddle, and Ben, with a thunderous look on his face, strode over to where the young men had dismounted alongside the cook wagon wheel. Joe Cartwright, still in a state of euphoria after an enjoyable, if tiring night, missed the look on his fatherís face entirely. He made the mistake of meeting it with a typically cheeky grin.

"Hi, Pa. Thought you might have saved us some breakfast." It was not at all the right thing to say.

As superheated water flashes instantly into steam, so Benís concern, which had been increasing steadily since midnight, became rage. His hands went to his hips, and he leaned forward in the characteristically Cartwright attitude of indignation. His face jutted forward. He filled his deep chest to capacity.

"Breakfast!" He bellowed, "What in all of blazes makes you think youíre going to get breakfast?" Benís black gaze encompassed both men, but his fury was directed principally at his son. His booming voice carried as far as the out-riders on the herd and turned heads. The horses laid back their ears in some alarm.

Joe realized that he had made some miscalculation in assessing his fatherís mood. He blanched, recoiling from the older manís temper, and stumbled into his horseís shoulder. The pinto stamped her foot on his toe and made him hop.

Ben wasnít about to be distracted by any such antics. His face had darkened, and his eyes had all the softness and shine of obsidian. "Just where the devil have you been? What have you been up to?" Driven and distracted by his own discomfort, he had lost sight of the fact that Joe was well into his twenties and a man grown, not a little boy or a puppy dog to be cowed and brought to heel.

Joe couldnít make out what his Pa had gotten so all fired up mad about. It wasnít the first time heís spent the night wrapped up in blankets other than his own. In recent years an unexplained absence from the breakfast table had rarely provoked more than a raised eyebrow and a scowl. He didnít see why it should be any different away from home. After all, at his age many a man was married and already father to several children of his own. He figured he was entitled to sow a little wild oats.

Confronted by his fatherís aggressive rage, Joe was at first confused then acutely embarrassed at being humiliated in front of his friend; finally, he got angry. Facing up to his taller, altogether bigger father, his hands curled into white knuckled fists. "What you goiní on about, Pa? Iím back here in time ta do my work!"

Ben glared, standing taller. "Back in time to do your work? What about taking on the responsibilities of your position?"

"My position!" Joe reacted hotly. "I donít have a position!"

"Youíre my son!"

"And you treat me just like any other cowhand!" Joeís response was bitter. It was an old resentment that had been simmering on the back of the stove for sometime.

"While you continue to be irresponsibleÖ" Benís voice boomed.

Joe yelled right back at him. "Iím not irresponsible!"

Ben hauled back and looked his son up and down, taking in for the first time his unshaven and disheveled appearance Ė and the bit of straw clinging to the sleeve of his coat. It was fairly apparent that Joe had found a mattress for the night in somebodyís hayloft. That raised other questions in the elder Cartwrightís mind. His eyes, still angry but now anxious as well, moved back to Joeís face. "Have you been doing something I should worry about, boy?"

Already mad, Joe was furious at being asked a question traditionally asked only of a daughter. The word Ďboyí enraged him. "I ainít a kid any more, Pa! I can make my own way in the world!"

Benís rage flared. "Then perhaps youíd better go and do just that!"

"I just might!"

Old Charlie rode his cowpony in between the feuding Cartwrights, making them both step back. He was leading Benís buckskin horse on a long rein. "Hey boss," he said to Ben, without really looking at him, "Reckon as youíre needed up at the front of the herd. Somethiní Ďbout which trail you wanted ta take."

Benís angry gaze switched a few times between Charlieís face and his sonís. Charlie knew very well which trail they were taking, and Ben knew that he knew. Charlie was showing him the back door to the saloon, and Ben had enough brains to use it. With a harrumph that promised further discussion of the subject later, he took the proffered rein and swung himself into the saddle.

Charlie watched and waited until his employer had ridden away before deliberately turning his head and spitting onto the ground. He looked at Joe and Asia with a jaundiced eye. As hired help he knew it wasnít his place to come between the family; as an old retainer and trusted friend, he wasnít about to let the Cartwright clan tear itself apart. He wanted both Ben and his son to simmer down some before they encountered one another again.

"You two men catch up cookie aní git him ta give ya some bread aní beans," he said, gathering up the reins. "Then you can catch up the herd. Guess the best thing fer you ta do is ta ride drag agíin today." Charlie figured that with the length of the strung out herd was about the most space he could put between them. Any closer and they might both say things theyíd regret for one hellíve a long time.

Joe, feeling faintly ridiculous under the foremanís sharp gaze, lowered his eyes. He sighed and shrugged the tension out of his shoulders. "Okay, Charlie. Anything you say."

Sitting back in his saddle, Charlie watched as the two young men picked up their reins and went to find Pete Barnes. He hoped, almost against hope, that this storm, like the one brewing up in the mountains, might blow itself out. But then, a man had to be real careful about what he wished forÖ

********

In the high foothills far to the south, the day had also dawned bright but cold. A wind was blowing keenly down off the mountains, and the vault of the heavens held a tinge of slate-grey. Adam squinted at the sky and read the signs. He wiped a hand over his face. He could feel the stubble of a dayís growth on his chin and the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

Hoss had woken up and was lucid Ė more or less. He had managed to sip a little coffee but he hadnít wanted to eat anything, and for a man whose appetite was legendary, that was worrying. He was in less pain but his breathing was laboured, and to Adamís ear it had a rough edged rasp to it that was frightening.

There was no way he could get his brother down out of the hills. Plainly, it was impossible for Hoss to get on a horse, let alone stay upright in the saddle. Adam looked around as he tried to get his bearings. It was more than twelve years since he had last journeyed through these foothills as a young man riding in his fatherís tall shadow. He recalled that they had stayed a day or two in an old trapperís cabin; it was long abandoned but sturdily built and standing solidly against all that time and the elements could throw at it.

Adam was pinning his hopes on that cabin. Some caves high up in the mountains to the west were the only other shelter within a weekís ride of their location. The ancient ancestors of the Anasazi had once lived there. On his one and only visit, Adam had picked up a perfect spear point chipped from yellow stone. It was shaped like a leaf and as long as his hand. He still kept it among his curiosities at home. It would be impossible to take Hoss there; the journey was too hard and too long.

Adam hoped that the cabin was still standing - and that he could find his way back there.

He ducked back inside the makeshift shelter, now bedraggled and damp after the nightís rain, and checked up on his brother. Hoss was sleeping again, his chest heaving and the sound of his breathing loud. Adam touched his face. The skin was dry and warm Ė a little too warm. Adam looked up and found Jody watching him with those bright, strangely coloured eyes of his. He didnít need to say anything to the boy Ė Jody had sense enough to know that they were in trouble. Anyway, Adam guessed that his face had already said it all for him. Straightening up, he searched around and found the little hand axe among their gear. He picked up a coil of rope and looked at Jody.

"Iím going to need your help."

"Sure thing, Adam." More than willing to do whatever he could, Jody followed him outside.

Using the hand axe, Adam laboriously cut and trimmed two of the side branches from the massive limb that had felled Hoss. With Jodyís help he lashed them together in the form of a capital letter ĎAí. With cross braces and flexible branches he constructed a sturdy platform similar to the ones used by the plains Indians to haul their belongings between campsites.

Adam fastened the contraption to the saddle of his brotherís horse while Jody padded the platform with foliage and blankets.

Looking the arrangement over, Adam had serious misgivings. While he was in no doubt about the strength of the construction, it was an unsuitable mode of transport for the terrain. The hillsides were steep, and they were going to have difficulty manoeuvring it over the wet ground and between the trees. He saw no help for it. Hoss was too heavy a man to be carried. He walked over to where his brother lay and hunkered down.

"Hey, címon, big guy. Weíre gonna get you out of here."

Hoss rolled his head. His blue eyes were bright. "How you gonna do that, Adam? I canít ride no place!" Hoss had been lying there thinking, and he could see no way out of his predicament.

"You donít have to ride." Adam gave him a grin. "But youíre gonna have to walk a ways."

Hoss was dubious but willing to make the effort. With Adamís help, he got painfully up onto his knees and then to his feet. The effort left him pale faced and swaying. Adam took his arm across his shoulders and offered the taller man what support he could. They both knew it was a risk. If Hoss fell, they would both go tumbling down.

When he saw the makeshift conveyance, Hoss was even more doubtful. He pulled a pained face. "You donít Ďspect me ta ride that thing, Adam?"

"Itís either that or start walking."

Hoss thought about it and concluded that he didnít have a whole lot of choice. Just the few steps from the shelter had left him breathless - and breathing hurt like hell. Shaking his head, he lowered his big body carefully down. Adam had rigged up a web-work of ropes, which he fastened about his brotherís shoulders. It was designed to stop him falling off when the going got rough. Hoss rolled his eyes, examining the construction from a close-up vantage point. "Know somethingí Adam? Iím sure glad you got that bit oí paper what sayís youíre an engineer."

Adam chuckled dutifully at the joke and rested a hand on his brotherís shoulder. He went to help Jody finish packing up their gear. Hoss lay on his back and looked at the sky. Tentatively, he explored his chest with his fingers. His ribs ached under the tight bandaging. He sure hoped that he was going to get out of this somehow; else how was he going to ask liíle Mary Fletcher to marry him. So thinking, Hoss drifted into another light doze.

He was still sleeping when Adam came and covered him up with a blanket. Jody crouched on the other side and helped tuck the comforter securely around the big manís shoulders. He looked at Hossís face. It was still pale beneath the permanent tan, but now it wore a light sheen of sweat. Jody finally asked the first, and most obvious, of the awkward questions - the one that Adam had been dreading. "Heís gonna be all right, ainít he, Adam?"

"Sure he is." Not knowing how much his brother could hear, Adam spoke quickly and confidently. He hoped and prayed that he was right. His eyes, as he glanced quickly up at Jody, belied the surety in his tone.

Adam pointed out the path that he wanted Jody to take, picking the easiest route across the angle of the hillside. Leading three of the horses tied on long lines, one behind the other, Jody set out, walking slowly. Adam brought up the rear with the black horse that pulled the makeshift travois.

Hossís sturdy mount had been trained as a cutting horse. He didnít take to his new work kindly. He didnít like the strange device that dragged on the ground behind him, neither the noise it made nor the unaccustomed distribution of weight on his back. He laid back his ears and tossed his head and danced about in the mud. Afraid that he might kick out behind, Adam took him firmly by the reins. "Whoa, now! Whoa!"

The gelding rolled his eyes but settled down. Adam tucked some cloth into the cheek straps of the bridle to act as blinkers. Then the horse couldnít see the contraption following him. Following in Jodyís footsteps, Adam set out. Neither one of them had seen the huge, splayed out paw mark of a big cat in the soft soil beside the stream.

As Adam had anticipated, the way was neither smooth nor easy. Try as he might to avoid tree root and stones, the dragging skids of the travois found every bump and rut in the road. Each shudder and lurch of the timber work frame transmitted itself directly to Hossís body. The big man drifted somewhere between half-awake and semi-consciousness. Every jolt made him snatch at his breath and grind his teeth with pain. He refused to let any cry past his lips. He knew danged well that olí Adam was doing his darndest to get his out of this mess. He wasnít going to make it any harder for him than he could help.

Adam was driven by two devils. On the one the one hand, there was the need not to cause his brother any more discomfort than he absolutely had to; on the other he had the necessity of getting him to somewhere warm and dry as quickly as he possibly could. Leading the horse at a steady pace, he made numerous detours around the roughest ground and avoided the steepest slopes. He was following not so much a map in his mind, as a vague trace of memory. He knew what he was looking for but not how to find it. The trees, the very hills themselves, had changed in a dozen years.

They were heading in the right direction - Adam was sure of it - but the details were obscured by time. After a while he started to wonder if they were on the right path at all.

Jody called to him from up ahead, "Hey, Adam," He had been slowing up and had finally come to a halt. He was looking at something of the trail. "I think you better come on up here aní look at this."

Adam was irritated at the distraction and the delay. It showed on his face. He ground-tied the black horse and slogged forward, past the other horses on the path. He slapped rumps out of the way as he went. Coming up alongside Jody, he looked where the young man pointed.

There was a faint trail, leading away downhill; it was some sort of animal track-way. A few yards along something lay humped up beside the path. Further along, there was another, still flopping weakly. Squinting against the light, Adam saw something else. He put a warning hand on Jodyís arm. Knowing that the young man was not going to stay put, he voiced a warning, "Tread carefully. Stay behind me."

The first of the animals had been dead a day or so, caught in a wire noose designed not to damage the rich pelt. Looking further along they saw, as Adam had suspected, there were other traps pegged firmly into the ground. Jody wiped a sleeve across his face.

"You reckon these was set by them same fellas as trapped the grizzly?"

Adamís breath sighed out. "Yeah. I reckon as they were. And theyíre not more than two days ahead of us." He gestured at the hoof prints in the soft ground. "They mustíve laid traps all through these hills. There wonít be nothing left alive!"

Jody hunkered down beside him and studied the tracks the way Hoss had been teaching him. "I make it three men on horses aní about a dozen mules. Look like they went downhill."

Adam straightened up. His handsome face was tight with anger and his fists white knuckled. He felt just as strongly as his brother about trappers invading their land. He would dearly have liked to swing into his saddle and ride out after them. Getting his brother to shelter took priority. Jody read the expressions as they flowed across his face. He licked his lips.

"What you gonna do, Adam?"

Adam let go the breath heís been holding and unwound his hands. "Iíll do what I have to do," he said, "But firstÖ"

He pulled a dead stick out of the undergrowth. Making his way along the path he systematically wrecked every trap in the line. He took another moment to make sure that the second animal was out of its misery. His face was still dark with fury as he strode back to where Jody waited with the horses. He threw the stick aside with an angry gesture. "Come on. Letís get going. That way," he pointed, "Over the next hill."

It was something in the quality of the light that led Adam, at last, to the tiny hanging valley. It was almost as he remembered it. A stream tumbled down the hillside into a small pool. A steep and narrow path lead up to the shack. Constructed all of thirty years before by an early immigrant to a wild country, it was built out of whole, un-peeled pine logs. The trees and scrub brush had grown dense in the intervening years. Half buried in the ground for insulation, and for protection against the weather, it had all but disappeared into the undergrowth.

Adam felt relieved that, from a distance at least, it appeared to be intact. It still had a roof on it and a door that, Adam recalled, opened directly into the single room. In any even, it was too late to change his plans now. The sky was growing dark with the threat of rain as, yet again, the weather closed in on them.

It had become much colder. The breath of men and horses alike puffed into steam in front of their faces. Jody joined Adam and stood looking up towards the shack. He eyed it dubiously. There were signs of instability all around the valley. There had been a number of landslides at different times, one of them quite close to the path. In some spots it looked almost washed out altogether. In another place, a whole tree had uprooted and slid down the hill, ending up lying across the pool.

The drab and dreary little valley swept away Adamís memories of the mellow, sunlit days spent hunting with his father.

"We really gonna walk Hoss up there, Adam?"

Adam, his hands on his hips, was in no mood for a debate. "Thatís exactly what weíre gonna do."

As it happened, it was not such a difficult task as it at first appeared. Hoss was aware, if weak and feverish. He co-operated as best he could, and once they actually got him up on his feet he was able to walk slowly between them. The difficult part came at the place where the path narrowed down to the point where they had to walk in single file. The big man navigated the place slowly and carefully, grateful when he reached the other side and could lean again on his brotherís arm.

The last part of the path was steeper and more slippery. As they climbed it the rain started to fall - a fine, driving rain mixed with splinters of ice than stung the skin.

From the outside, the basic structure of the cabin looked to be sound. There was a piece of flattened ground at the front. Two, broad, split-log steps led up to the door, and there was a single, shuttered window. The door was stuck tight. Adam parked Hoss against the doorpost and put his boot to it.

Inside, the place was a shambles. It was dark and dank and smelled of damp decay. One corner of the roof had fallen in and the room was filled with the accumulated debris of the years. There were drifts of dead leaves and pine needles, fallen timber and turf from the roof and general dirt. Some creature had taken up residence for a while; the evidence of small, scattered bones made that clear. Whatever it might have been had moved out a long time ago. Everything was covered in a layer of amorphous filth.

Built by one man for his own, sole use, there was only a single bunk built into the wall. It was filled with the gnawed and rotted remains of an Indian blanket, its bright stripes now lost to time, and a pile of leaf litter blown in by the wind. There was a crude, home-made table that had survived intact and two chairs, one of them broken. Adam muttered a few sharp words that - adult he might be - he never used when his Pa was around. He had hoped for better.

He searched the place thoroughly for snakes and then got his brother inside. He dumped the rubbish out of the bunk while Jody started to bring up their blankets and other gear. They made up a bed, and Adam lowered Hoss carefully on to it. Exhausted by the short walk up the hill, Hoss was drifting away again, into sleep Ė or into unconsciousness. Adam stood for a long moment watching his brotherís face. There were a dozen things that he wished: that he could have gotten Hoss down out of the hills, that he could get a doctor and medicines, that they werenít so far from home and help. Wishing would never make it so.

There was no stove or fireplace in the cabin, only a hearth stone set beneath a smoke hole. Adam started a fire with the leaf litter and fed the flames with bits of the broken chair. Then, he set Jody the task of cleaning up the mess while he went outside to try to mend the roof.

********

So far, the day had exactly fulfilled its promise. The early mists had burned away to leave the morning crystal clear. As the sun climbed higher it got smaller, and hotter. The temperature climbed steadily, making it the warmest day of the year, so far. Heat devils shimmied over patches of dry earth, and the hooves of the cattle stirred up a dust cloud that hovered over the herd.

Ben Cartwright wasnít feeling any better - in fact, he felt a great deal worse. He pulled his coat more closely about him and shivered. He was sweating inside his clothes, but his body was icily cold. He figured he must be running one hell of a fever. Certainly he had the gripes low down in his belly. His tongue tasted and felt like a strap of old leather. It had to be something heíd eaten. He shifted himself around in the saddle to ease the discomfort, and, for the twentieth time since dawn, he looked towards the mountains.

They were closer now as the herd wound its way towards the pass. Again as predicted, storm clouds were gathering above the high hills. All the way along the range thunderheads were massing, black and purple, drifting, flat bottomed, on a layer of air.

As mountain storms went this was going to be a great grand pappy!

Charlie rode up alongside and hauled back on the reins. Taking off his hat, he wiped the sweat and several layers of dust off his face and onto his sleeve. He too looked up into the mountains. Being Charlie, he didnít see any need to comment on the obvious. The sky had taken on an ominous, brassy look and the clouds were lowering.

"There ainít no point in lettiní Ďem stop, boss." The sound of his foremanís voice came to Ben as if from a long way off. He made an effort to pay attention. "We might as well keep Ďem headed straight on into it."

Ben nodded agreement. "Keep them moving, Charlie. We can get another dozen miles behind us before sundown and bed them down this side of the hills tonight. Tomorrow we can take them on through the pass."

Charlie nodded and jammed his head back onto his head. He sat for a moment, watching the moving river of cattle rather than looking at Ben; his jaws working the tobacco methodically as he debated with himself. Ben was a long time friend, and Charlie could see that there was something bothering him. His face had a grey, pinched look with high colour on the cheeks and a distinctly distracted look about the eyes. There was something peculiar about the way he sat in the saddle as well. Charlie could usually tell when there was something at odds, be it with steer, horse, or man.

"You ainít still mad at those two younglings, are ya?" he said finally.

Ben scowled and sighed heavily. "No, Charlie. Iím not still mad at them."

"Well, Iím glad ta hear it." Charlie chewed on for a moment. He hoped that what his boss told him was the truth. With a storm blowing up fast, they were going to need every man they had with his mind planted firmly on the job. There was going to be no time for distractions. He still had the distinct feeling that there was something wrong, but Ben seemed disinclined to elaborate. Charlie fretted at it a while, and then, with another nod, he kicked his horse on and rode away towards the front of the herd.

Ben watched him go and then lifted himself in the saddle and clamped a hand to his belly as a particularly strong wave of pain rippled through him. Just for a moment, dark spots floated at the edge of his vision. He wrapped a hand tight around the saddle horn to stop himself swaying in the saddle.

Far ahead, the first low rumble of thunder rolled off the mountain. Ben straightened up and made a conscious effort to concentrate. He couldnít afford to be ill, not here and not now; he had a herd to deliver. He simply didnít have the time.

********

"Címon, Hoss! You gotta try aní drink some oí this!" Adam, with Hossís head propped up against his arm, was getting desperate. He was holding a mug of meat broth to his brotherís lips, but he was having no success whatever at getting any of it past them. The broth was the best thing they could make with what they had available: the last of the deer meat and the dried goods in the packs. It was rich and fragrant and thick with pearl barley. Hoss, a man of legendary appetite, didnít notice that it was there.

The painful journey on the travois had taken more out of him than he could afford. He was barely conscious, drifting in and out of awareness. From time to time, he struggled to focus his eyes on Adamís face; even tried to talk to him. The words were meaningless, little more than a mumble. His face was pale and tight, his lips and fingernails, blue. His body burned with the dry heat of fever; Adam could feel it radiating through his clothes. Only when the fever broke would the big man start to sweat. The sound of his breathing was loud in the cabinís single room, a rasp that ended in a wet bubbling as his inflamed lungs struggled to extract oxygen from the air.

Adam gave up the attempt to get his brother to eat and handed the mug over to Jody. Extracting his arm from behind Hossís back, he lowered him back onto the bedding. Hoss muttered something unintelligible and his eyes closed. Adam pulled the blankets up around his shoulders. He rubbed a hand over his own face, feeling the grime and the sweat on his skin. He was wondering what in hell he was going to do now.

Jody came and stood beside him. There was a worried look on the young manís face that almost matched Adamís own. He now stood taller than Adamís shoulder, an altogether leaner and rangier man who still had some upward growing to do. His tow-coloured hair was in its usual disarray, and his oddly coloured eyes were dark with concern. In unknowing imitation of the Cartwright mannerism, he planted his hands on his hips.

"Reckon heís gettingí realí sick, Adam."

Wiping the hand over his mouth again, Adam cleared away some of the grit. His eyes, only a few days ago serene and filled with laughter, now held the haunted stare of a trapped animal. His agile mind was still desperately seeking a way out of a dreadful predicament. There was none to be found.

"He is realí sick. Jody." He sighed, owning up to the facts. "Heís got lung fever." It was an admission he hated to make. Uttering the words aloud made it so. He felt helpless Ėuseless - in the face of a disease that could carry a man off in just a few days or, sometimes, only hours.

It was Jody who stepped forward and took charge. "I guess we better get him sat up some, so as he cín breath better. Aní then we ought taí git some water on ta boil, dampen up the air."

Adam gave himself a mental shake and got on with what had to be done. Getting Hoss into a sitting position with one of the packs propped behind his back took a lot of effort from both of them. When it was finally accomplished both of them were satisfied that it would help the fluids drain out of the big manís chest.

Clearing the air and making it easier for Hoss to breathe proved to be impossible. It was unfortunate that there was only wet wood to burn. The single room filled up with smoke that was difficult to dispel. Jody had to poke some holes in the newly patched roof to let the heat rise up and take some of the smoke out with it. They kept a pan of water boiling on the hearthstone, and, in the absence of balsam or camphor, Adam threw in a handful of fresh pine needles in the hope that the scent of their resin would help.

The long forgotten trapper had built better than he knew. The thick, pine log walls kept out the cold and retained the heat well. Now that Adam had sealed up every hole that he could find and the rain no longer found its way in, it rapidly started to get warm inside. It was also dark. The shutter on the only window was nailed shut and had been since the days Adam had inhabited the place with his father. In any event there was no glass, and the wind would blow the rain right inside if they opened it.

Jody made sure that Adam got some of the hot food inside him and ate himself before going out to tend the horses. It was still raining - big, dark drops that fell straight down out of the dark sky. Thunder rolled with monotonous regularity, although the lightening, when it flared, was a long way off. He fed the animals a small measure of grain and left them tethered securely a short way from the pool; then he lugged the last of the gear up the path to the cabin.

As the evening closed in, Jody and Adam sat close beside the fire and listened to the rain hammering on the front of the shack and to the occasional, sharper rattle of hailstones. It was a dismal sound. Inside, there was only the crackle and hiss of the wet wood in the flames and the harsh rasping of Hossís breathing.

********

Those storm clouds that had been gathering above the high hills since noon had drifted ever lower and spread out until they covered the entire sky. They showed all the intense and livid colours of a bruise: purple and black and brown, tinged here and there with yellow where the late sunlight poured through. Thunder, low and threatening, growled back and forth across the landscape. The world had lost its crystal clear clarity. Walls of mist and dust had closed in, making the details of distance indistinct.

Riding alongside the moving herd, keeping the steers in line and preventing the stragglers from falling behind, was hard, dirty work. The cattle were tired and bad tempered; the trail hands had to drive them hard to keep them moving at all.

Charlie rode up alongside Ben and looked him full in the face. "How much longer díyou want to push Ďem, boss?"

To Charlieís eyes, Ben Cartwright didnít look any better than he had several hours ago. In fact, under the accumulated layers of sweat and trail dirt, it could be that he looked a whole lot worse.

Ben looked at the sky. "I still want to get them up to that high pasture."

"I know the place." Charlie scowled, "Thatís still a good hour up ahead. That stormís sure gonna break afore we get there."

Benís face settled into that notoriously stubborn expression. The last thing he wanted right now was an argument with Charlie. "Itís a natural holding pen. From there we can run them all the way through the pass in a day, if we start early."

Chewing, Charlie considered. Everything Ben said was true, and Charlie knew it. But the boss was pushing hard - perhaps too hard. The men and the horses were as weary as the cattle. On the other hand the trees and the rocks had closed in on either side, narrowing the trail. There was no room here to turn the herd, to get it milling in the ever-tighter circle that would prevent it panicking when the storm started. Another roll of thunder interrupted his thoughts. This one was closer and louder. The steers bawled in counterpoint.

Ben shifted himself uncomfortably in the saddle. "Just keep them moving, Charlie."

Charlie hesitated as he considered, just for a moment, arguing the point further. Then he nodded curt assent and reined his horse round. After all, Ben was the boss.

Ben settled himself back into his seat and watched his foreman ride away into the haze. It had been the most miserable and inconvenient day he had experienced in a very long time. Always a robustly fit and healthy man, the sourness in his stomach and the ragging headache that persisted behind his eyes would give him no peace. He burned hot and cold with fever, and every joint ached. Just staying upright on the horse was an achievement of heroic proportions. Thunder rumbled again. The first, fat raindrops fell into Benís upturned face. They were icy cold on his fevered skin.

Charlie angled his horse across the line of march and cut skillfully through the herd. As he rode, his experienced eye took in all the warning signs: the wall-eyed look of the cattle and the way they crowded close Ė all but treading on one anotherís toes, the surfeit of fresh sweat on the horsesí hides, the tense expressions on the cowhandís faces. Even the air felt thicker, heavier. The quality of the sound: the bellowing of the cattle, the menís anxious calls and whistles as they communicated with one another, the whinny of a horse, was different, concentrated. Charlie chivvied the men along.

"Keep Ďem moving, boys! Keep Ďem moving!" As it started to rain he looked heavenward. The leading edge of the storm was passing directly over his head. Lightening danced back and forth between the clouds, and the thunder followed right behind. The pace of the herd increased.

Charlie spat out his wad and turned his gelding around. He kicked hard, thinking that he might reach the point of the herd before the trouble began. He knew already that he was way too late.

The sky spat lightening.

It cracked off a rock away to the left with a sound like a rifle shot. To the right, a tree flared suddenly into flame.

Abruptly silent, the steers started to run. The rumble of hooves turned to a thunder that echoed the fury of the storm.

The outriders urged their horses to keep up, forcing the cattle into a tight stream, not letting them spread out. The sky flared and crackled again.

"Stay with Ďem!" Charlie yelled, "Stay with Ďem!" From the corner of his eye he spotted a bunch of about thirty steers split off from the main herd and hightail it down an arroyo. He picked out the nearest two men, "Git after them breakaways!" He flung out an arm to indicate the direction.

"Sure thing, Charlie!" Joe Cartwright raised his hand in acknowledgement. He swung his pintoís head, and he and Asia Prior set out after the runaway steers at a gallop.

The rain lashed like a thousand whips across the backs of the cattle. The dust turned instantly into mud beneath their churning feet. Ben Cartwright did his best to put his personal discomfort aside. Raising his resonant voice above the racket of the storm, he shouted instructions and encouragement to the men. With hands and heels he urged the buckskin horse close in against the flanks of the running steers, trying desperately to keep them on the trail and out of the rocks where they would break their legs and their necks.

It might have been that he was operating below his usual level of competence, or it may have been the whim of an ancient and spiteful god; Benís horse stumbled at an exact and fateful moment.

Ben shortened the rein in an immediate and instinctive attempt to steady him. In the same instant a massively built, brown and white steer swung out of the herd. Finding the horse in his way, the wild-eyed bullock bellowed and tried to dodge aside. The buckskin squealed and threw up his head. Ben decided that it was a good time to get off. He kicked free of the stirrups. The steer swung his head.

Lightening lit the sky. Ben saw a sudden flowering of red on the horseís shoulder as a needle pointed horn ripped into the honey-coloured hide. Screaming, the horse tumbled onto his side and rolled.

The steer, having done his worst, disappeared back into the herd.

The horse scrambled back onto his feet, shied at his fallen rider and loped away into the storm. Ben Cartwright lay unmoving on the ground at the side of the trail, and the rain continued to fall.

The stampede was short lived. The cattle were already tired, and they had been headed uphill. Inside twenty minutes the herd was back under control and the steers were bellowing again. They were turning in a giant, slowly revolving cartwheel in the sparse, high pasture. It was raining steadily, and thunder still rolled, but the first fury of the storm, the darkling clouds and the flashes of lightening, was moving away towards the desert. The darkness now was caused by encroaching nighttime.

Charlie and Auron Prior stooped to study the shoulder of Benís buckskin horse. Auron Prior wiped some of the blood away with his hand. There was a long, shallow gouge running all the way back to the saddle girth, still oozing. The horseís hide quivered, and he stamped his foot.

"Donít reckon as thatís gonna hinder him too much," Auron said. He gave the horse a steadying pat on the neck.

Charlie concurred. "Iíll sew Ďim up in a while. Heíll be just fine." He straightened up and watched two of the hands carry a man into the lee of the cook-wagon. In the rain and the fast fading light the scene had a funerary aspect. "I gist hope I cín do somethiní o the same fer the boss."

Auron followed Charlieís gaze with his eyes. "There werenít no blood on the old man."

"That donít mean shit iffen the horse rolled on Ďim." To emphasis his feelings Charlie spat the juice of his brand-new wad out onto the ground. His expression was bleak. "He could be all smashed up inside. Ainít nothiní a man cín do about it."

Auron Prior leaned back on his heels. "Pete Barnes is as good a doctor as he is a cook, even if he ainít got no fancy papers ta prove it. If Ben Cartwright can be fixed, then Peteís the man ta do the fixin."

Charlie gave Auron Prior a long, hard look. There was shrewdness in the foremanís faded eyes, and it was as if, just for a moment, a thin veil lifted. He saw Ė or thought he saw Ė a different man entirely. Behind the easy smile and the relaxed manner was a sure confidence and an iron hard determination. Prior stood tall and returned the stare. Even standing still, he had a rangy, feline grace. The standard issue shirt, pants and vest of the cowpoke were worn like a second skin, one that could be shed and another donned at a momentís notice. The tied down Colt, worn with such studied casualness, was as much a part of the man as his fingers and thumbs. It occurred to Charlie that, perhaps, none of the Priors were exactly what they seemed.

And then Auron grinned his trademark, gap-toothed grin, and the moment was past. As the rain finally stopped, the concealing mask slipped back into place, and Charlie was left wondering.

Arthur Prior sauntered over. His big, bluff version of the Prior face was set into stern lines.

"Peteís lookiní him over now," he said. Charlie noticed with a new and sharp perception that he spoke to his brother rather than to himself. "He donít look ta have no broke bones, aní he ainít bleediní none on the outside. He just donít seem ta wake up."

Charlie looked from one to the other of them, chewing steadily. "Guess Iíd better go take a look."

Now that the herd was settling down the men were gathering around the newly lighted fire, talking, waiting for the coffee pot to boil and expecting to be fed. Beyond, up against the side of the wagon, Ben Cartwright lay cocooned in blankets. He wasnít moving. As they tramped over Pete Barnes straightened up from beside him and wiped his palms off against his butt. There was a scowl on his face.

"Donít reckon as you fellas should come a whole lot closer." His voice had an edge to it that carried as far as the campfire and stopped Charlie in his tracks. Menís heads came up and conversations stopped.

Charlie pushed his wad into his cheek. "You say what you gotta say."

Barns planted his hands on his hips. "Heís got a few bruises ta be proud of, but he ainít been stomped on none."

"Then why ainít he wakiní up?"

Barnes pulled a face. "I guess thatís Ďcause heís runnin a fever fit ta burn a barn, aní heís got a whole mess oí spots."

Charlieís eyes narrowed as everyone mentally, and some physically, took a long step back. "What sort oí spots?" he asked.

"Bright pink Ďuns. All over his chest Ďní belly." Pete Barnes pulled a long breath. "I seen Ďem afore. Iím telliní you fellas, Ben Cartwrightís got hisself as pretty a dose oí typhoid fever as I ever seen."

 

Seven

A big, wide smile spread itself, quite spontaneously, across Joe Cartwrightís face. With a prolonged sigh of satisfaction he gazed at the view spread out in front of him. It was as pleasant a prospect as a man in his situation could wish to see.

Last night, in the rain, it had seemed to the two young men that the breakaway steers would never stop running Ė and that they would never catch up with them. Stampeding down hill and with the storm in its full fury behind them, the cattle had just kept on going, hell for leather out of the hills and into the lowlands. In the dark and the rain, Joe and Asia had lost track of them entirely. They had been forced to bed down, in their sodden clothes and on the hard, wet ground, in the only shelter they could find Ė a patch of dripping foxtail pines. Without supper or more than their saddle roll blankets to wrap themselves in, it had been a long, cold and uncomfortable night.

Now though, it all seemed worth while. They had made an early start and had a stroke of good fortune in finding the trail that the cattle had taken. In daylight the tracks had been clear in the rain-dampened earth, and it had just been a matter of following along behind until they had found the runaway steers. The animals were dotted over a wide area of flat, scrubby pasture, browsing placidly, as if the night before had never happened.

Joe exchanged a grin with Asia Prior, sitting alongside him on his black gelding. "I didnít figure theyíd go on running for long, once the storm blew over."

The early sky was cloudless and a bright, sparkling blue, just starting to shade towards gold, and the sun was warm on their backs. Their clothes had been drenched through by the rain but were now almost dry. Both men were hungry, having missed both supper and breakfast; now they had the prospect of gathering up the strays and driving them back to rejoin the main herd before lunch.

Asia grinned lazily and tipped back his hat. "Itíll take us Ďbout an hour ta round Ďem up, Joe. Reckon your Paíll be real glad ta see em back."

The smile faded somewhat from Joeís face. The cattle represented a sizeable investment for the family business, and there was no doubt that his father would be pleased at their recovery. Following yesterdayís encounter, Joe was less certain of his own reception. He knew that his father was inclined to hang on to a bone of contention with all the tenacity of a bulldog. He still expected to be chewed out for his exploits in Maryville. Sighing, he gathered his reins. "Letís go get Ďem, Asia."

Asia was still smiling as the two young men kicked their horses into motion and rode down the hill. At the bottom they split up, Joe going left, and Asia taking the right hand trail as they started to gather the cattle together.

The steers were amenable enough. They moved off docilely, still chewing, as the horses approached, seemingly happy to be bunched together. The morning air was pleasant and fresh after the rain, heating through slowly as the sun rose with the promise of the first true day of spring. After a mostly sleepless night, Asia Prior was almost dozing in the saddle and letting his horse do most of the work. When the animal shied and pulled up short he was all but thrown out of the saddle. He grasped at the saddle horn, tightening his legs instinctively around the geldingís barrel.

It was easy to see what had caused the alarm. Here the ground took a dip into a hollow, and the soil at the edge was soft and spongy. The horse disliked the insubstantiality of it and had balked. Now he refused to go on and was dancing in the trail. Asia brought him under control and looked on along the path. Everything appeared normal enough, but further along there was a steer that seemed to be mired in the ground up to his haunches. As Asia watched, holding the skittish horse in check, the animal made a lunge as if to get out and then fell back. The apparently solid earth heaved around him, and he sunk in even further than he had been before.

From where he sat, Asia could see more steers similarly stricken Ė four, or may be five of them. They were stuck fast, and their struggles to escape had all but exhausted them. None of them were going to last a lot longer; one had already succumbed and was no more than a brown hump sinking slowly into the ground.

Asia knew at once what he was confronted with. Keeping the gelding on a tight rein, he drew his gun and fired two shots into the air; it was a signal to Joe to come running. Unhitching the rope from around his saddle horn he spun out a loop and dropped it over the horns of the nearest steer. The animal shook its head and bellowed the customary objection to the indignity. Asia took a turn of rope about the saddle horn and backed the gelding up. The rope tightened. Both man and horse were already hard at work when Joe rode over the rise.

Asia waved him back. "Careful, Joe! Quicksand!"

Joe saw at once what Asia had seen: the way nothing grew down in the hollow, the fine-textured, too-smooth surface of the ground, the entrapped steers. He worked his pinto mare carefully round the edge of the killing pit, uncoiling his rope as he went. Asia spared him a glance.

"I reckon we cín git most of Ďem out afore they go under iffen we git to it."

Joe was grimly determined. His family had put too much effort into the raising of these steers to lose them in some damn sinkhole! "Weíre sure as hell gonna try," he said shortly. He tossed the loop of his lariat over the horns of the same steer that Asia had roped earlier. With the combined weight of the two horses leaning against the ropes, the steer stopped sinking, and with his own efforts he began to make his way towards firmer ground.

********

Charlie stood and watched the two men ride away. Then he spat emphatically onto the ground in front of him. Auron Prior hauled his horse to a halt alongside him and stepped down. Turning, he followed Charlieís gaze, looking the way the men had gone although they were both now out of sight among the trees and the rocks. "That the last of them, Charlie?"

Charlieís expression was one of utter contempt. "Yup. That makes four this morniní, three last night." They were all the extra hands that Ben had hired to help with the herd - seven men who had ridden away without troubling to ask for their wages, just glad to be gone. Charlie was angry, and he was worried, but he couldnít bring himself to blame any of them; they didnít owe any loyalty to the Cartwrights, and they had gotten plain scared. He guessed that having typhoid in the camp was enough to frighten a whole lot of men.

So far, the men who were on the regular payroll had sat tight; although Charlie had heard mutterings and intercepted wall-eyed glances that he wasnít intended to see. He turned his faded eyes on Auron Prior; Charlie needed to know where he stood, and he figured he might as well hear the worst of it now. "And how about you men? You know I ainít got the cash ta pay ya off. What you gonna do?"

Auron met the angry look with his usual crooked smile. Hands in his back pockets, flat on his rump, he pulled a long, deep breath. "I donít reckon as we got any pressiní business anyplace else," he said easily, "Weíll just stick around a while longer."

Chewing, Charlie gazed round at the trail camp. It all looked remarkable normal, if quiet. Pete Nash, taking a break from the saddle, was sitting over by the baggage wagon dealing himself hands of cards onto an upturned box. Peter Barnes was fussing around the campfire, stirring something in a pot; he was chatting to Ashley Prior, squatting on a box cleaning his pistol. Charlie had noticed that he did a lot of that. The other two Priors, Arthur and Astley were not in sight. They were riding herd on the steers. The only thing out of place was the man who still lay wrapped in his blankets in the middle of the morning.

Ben Cartwright was still alive, which, Charlie supposed, was a good sign. He remained comatose and burning with fever. Charlie shot Auron Prior a narrow glance. "Iím glad ta hear it."

Narrow eyed, Auron reached out a hand and touched Charlieís arm. "Reckon you got more trouble, Charlie. Thereís three fellas ridiní in. Seems like I recognize a couple of Ďem."

Charlie turned and looked. Sure enough, there were three horsemen coming up the hill, riding abreast, stirrup to stirrup. One was a big-built, redheaded man in a dark suit Ė waistcoat, watch-chain and all Ė who looked ill-used to sitting on a horse. Next to him rode a burley, bearded figure on an animal that looked more suitable to pulling a plough and, next to him, the lean, lanky sheriff from Maryville. Charlie recognized the sheriff and the farmer who had started the fight in the saloon. The other man was a stranger. All of them had stern faces. Charlie guessed that they hadnít ridden all this way on any pleasure trip. The three of them drew their horses to a stop a respectful distance away.

Charlie stepped forward, looking the three of them over. "Howdy, gents. What cín I do few you-all?"

The three of them exchanged telling glances. The big man heaved himself up in the saddle. It looked like it cost him a lot of effort. He had a pale-skinned face that went with the red hair and was scorched pink by the sun. He was sweating. He took off his hat and mopped his face with a large, white handkerchief. "Iíve come to talk to a man named Cartwright Ė Ben Cartwright," he said. From his brogue he was unmistakably first-generation Irish.

Thoughtfully, Charlie chewed on his tobacco. "Donít reckon as you cín do that right now," he said, "on account oí Mister Cartwright, he ainít feeliní too well."

More glances switched back and forth amongst the three mounted men. Charlie was disinclined to invite them to step down, so he left them sitting there.

The sheriff sat up straighter, leaning back in his saddle to stretch his back. Charlie got the impression that he didnít do a whole lot of riding. "We come ta talk ta him on account oí his son, Joe CartwrightÖ" he began.

With a scowl, the Irishman interrupted him, "And the liberties heís been taking with my daughter!"

"Miss ĎTilda OíToole, the lady I intend to marry!" the farmer added hotly.

"And the other man who was ridiní with him. The fella with ribbons in his hair." The sheriff finished with a sidelong glare at the other two. It seemed that the three men hadnít got it sorted out between them who was going to be spokesman.

Charlie looked from one to the other, eventually deciding to address his remarks to the sheriff. "Reckon you-all had a long ride fer nothiní. Ainít neither one of Ďem here right now."

The Irishman, Shamus OíToole, leading light of a small community and a man well used to getting his own way, scowled darkly. The farmer glowered. The sheriff, if anything, looked faintly relieved.

"That young man has used my daughter disgracefully!" OíToole growled. His face was becoming even pinker.

"And blackened the name of my future lady wife!" The farmerís lip lifted in a snarl. It revealed the brown-tombstone teeth in the midst of his beard. Charlie thought that, compared with this man, perhaps even he could see the attraction that the younger and undeniably well favoured Joe Cartwright might have for the fairer sex.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the lithe Astley Prior and his bulkier brother, Arthur, climbing down from their horses. They ranged up alongside their brothers. They were all wary and watchful.

The sheriff shifted again in his saddle. He was finding the situation increasingly uncomfortable Ė either that or he had a bur in his pants. "Seems like Mister OíTool thereís got a point," he said, "seeiní as itís his daughter whatís suffered."

"My daughter didnít get home Ďtil daybreak," OíToole grumbled on. "Ainít right fer them to be out together all night long like that."

Charlie squinted up at him. It occurred to him that Miss Matilda OíToole might not have suffered quite so much as she made out Ė leastwise, not until Joe Cartwright rode off and left her.

"Reckon Mister OíToole is entitled to some sort of restitution," the sheriff was saying.

Charlie was aware of the Priors gathering Ďround, keeping their distance but paying close attention. They were all wearing their guns and staying carefully out of each otherís line of fire. The gambler, Nash, had put away his cards and fallen into line with the Priors; Pete Barnes had fetched a rifle from the cook wagon and was carrying in cradled in his arms. T.J. and Stubby Longbough were hovering not far away. In all, it was a formidable array of the men. To his credit, the sheriff was not intimidated. His grey eyes drifted slowly Ďround the rough semi-circle of faces and settled back on Charlieís.

Without bothering to turn his head, Charlie spat on the ground. "Seems ta me you should ride closer herd on the girl you aim ta marry," he said to the farmer. And shrewdly, to the Irishman, "Aní you want a tighter rein on your daughter, Mister."

OíTooleís face had darkened to an interesting shade of purple. The farmer growled with rage somewhere deep down in his belly. The sheriff cast them anxious looks. Election time was coming up, and in the small town of Maryville these were two powerful and influential men. That was the only reason he had gotten out from behind his desk and onto this horse and ridden all the way out here. "I reckon as we should all git down and talk this over with Mister Ben Cartwright. Seems like him aní his boy owe Mister OíToole here some sort of restitution."

Before he could kick free of his stirrup Charlie held up a hand. "Donít think you-all want ta do that. Like I already told ya, Mister Cartwright ainít any too well." He indicated the blanket wrapped man on the ground beside the wagon. "Pete there knows some doctoriní. He says as Ben Cartwrightís gotta a dose oí typhoid fever."

Abruptly, the three horsemen paled visibly. They drew back, tightening their reins. Sensing their riderís alarm, the horses began to fidget. Charlie chewed on for a few seconds.

"íCourse," he said finally, "Iffen you insist on seeiní himÖ"

The sheriff looked over his shoulder. His companions, the Irishman and the farmer, were already sitting several yards back. He turned back to Charlie. "Donít reckon as weíll be doiní that." He touched his hat politely, stepped his horse back a pace and turned him away.

Alongside Charlie, Auron Prior planted his hands squarely on his hips. Charlie sensed the tension easing out of the man. "You think theyíll be back?"

"Nah." Charlie switched his wad from one cheek to the other "They ainít gonna be back." Looking Ďround he could see that the other Priors had already dispersed. Charlie spat and went back to work.

********

 

From his vantage point high up on the main trail, Herricule Bojun could see all the way down the animal track. Just a few days ago Perriot and Lighterman had spent long hours setting the double line of wire noose traps. It had been a huge investment of time and effort. Already, it was quite clear that all their work had been for nothing.

Corbel Lighterman came striding up the hillside. A young and supremely fit man, the privations and punishments of long weeks in the wilds had taken little toll of his strength, He was still energetic and moved easily with long, loose strides. Right now every line and every angle of his powerful body betrayed the anger that was pent up inside him. In each hand he carried a small, furred corpse.

Once, twice, he stopped to peer into the bushes at the side of the path and to kick furiously at the remains of the traps. Behind him Perriot, older and perhaps wiser Ė certainly stiffer Ė followed much more slowly. He looked carefully to right and left, examining much more closely what was left of their handiwork and studying the mud of the path itself.

Lighterman tossed the carcasses down on the ground in a gesture of absolute disgust. He glared up at Bojun out of dark, furious eyes. In the time that they had been in the hills his black hair had grown long and his beard ragged. When he snarled he looked like a wild beast. He was snarling now, his face darkened with rage. "Two! Just two! And all the Goddamn traps are broken!"

Bojun gazed down at him from the saddle of his horse. His blue eyes were bleak. Equally angry, his rage was contained, simmering. His harsh voice rasped, "What do you mean, broken?"

Perriot came up behind Lighterman. "íBel means what he says. The traps have been smashed. He pulled a stick out of the bushes and made a close examination of the end of it. "I think, with this."

Lighterman snatched the stick and stared at it. Bojunís lips compressed. "Not a critter then." It was a statement.

"A two legged one, may be." Perriot gave an elegant shrug.

His rage overflowing, Lighterman hurled the stick away. Spinning Ďround he stared this way and that as if he might still catch sight of the man who had thwarted him. The anger was boiling off him as raw heat. "Which way? Which wayíd he go?"

Bojun nodded to Perriot. Grim faced, Perriot walked out past where their horses and mules had churned up the trail and hunkered down to study the marks in the earth. Lighterman was impatient. "Well, what díyou find!"

"Give the man time." Bojun eased his seat in the saddle and rubbed his leg. All this damned rain was making his old wounds ache. He wished he had a jug of liquor, but they were strapped to the back of a mule. Besides, his supply was running low; he needed what he had so that he could sleep nights and get started in the morning.

Perriot stood up and cast about him, searching for cleaner sign. "I canít say for certain. It looks like more than one man, but thereís something strange about these tracks Ė as if something heavyís been dragged through. The rain has washed most of it away. Theyíre more than a day in front of us."

Lighterman turned on Bojun, his fists clenched and his face working. "You said there werenít no folks in these Goddamn hills!"

Bojun sat up straighter. His eyes hardened. "I guess I was wrong about that. Weíre a whole lot further north than I figured ta be. Guess we might just be jumpiní up aní down on someoneís tail." Although he would avoid trouble if he could the prospect of it didnít bother him a great deal. His eyes scanned the trees speculatively.

Lightermanís anger was still white-hot. "I want ta go after them!"

Bojun regarded him with cold contempt. Perriot looked at Bojun but failed to catch his eye. With a shake of his head he walked away and climbed back onto his horse. Lighterman stood on the ground and fumed. "I said I want ta go after them!"

"I heard ya," Bojun said. "We ainít got time ta go on no manhunt. We got traps set down below that we gotta see ta; else weíll lose the pelts ta some damn predator. Now git back on your horse, aní letís git goin."

Lighterman was torn two ways Ė between the need for revenge and the money that the pelts would bring. Bojun contemplated the trees again. He rubbed his bad leg. Drawing his gun, he brought his weight down firmly on one side of the equation. Resting his forearm casually across the saddle horn he pointed the big colt in the general direction of Lightermanís belly. "You had your chance to ride out, way-back. Ya donít git another. Mount up Ė or Iíll kill ya where ya stand."

Lighterman ground his teeth in fury. Enraged, he hesitated one dangerous moment longer before snatching up the trailing reins of his horse and swinging into the saddle. Satisfied, Bojun put the gun away and drove his heel into his horseís side. He didnít see the hatred glittering in Lightermanís eyes, but as he moved off, he might have felt it burning into his back.

********

Joe Drury came rapidly but carefully down the steep hillside. Despite the several and various problems that hovered in the back of his young mind like flies at a summer picnic, this morning he was feeling good. One problem, that of his injured arm, was receding. The long, parallel scratches on his forearm that had festered for days didnít hurt any more; although he was going to be left with some dandy scars! The headache and fever that had plagued him were gone. Now, his whole arm itched intolerably Ė a sure sign, Adam told him, that it was starting to heal. His head was clear, and his gold-and-green eyes were bright.

Today the first true touch of spring had brushed its coattails across the high Sierra.

Jody expanded his chest and sucked in great breaths of fresh, clean air. The breezes wafting down from the high ground were cool, vagrant and just strong enough to ruffle his pale hair. The morning was brilliant with glancing, dancing sunbeams and redolent with the scent of growing things. If he lifted his eyes he could see the eastern slopes of the Sierras with crystal clarity; they had to be at least halfway to heaven! The high peaks were streaming long pennants of bright, white cloud across the sky. This had to be a million times better than where he had spent his young life, in the noise, dirt and confusion of Silver City. He could understand Hoss Cartwrightsí love of this wild country; indeed, he felt something of that love burgeoning in himself. Just looking around him at the tree covered hills with their streams and falling water and at the beautiful backdrop of the mountains made his heart lift. In all, it was a fine day to be alive, and Jody found it impossible to keep the smile off his face.

In one hand he carried his long saddle gun, recently purchased with his own hard earned money and presently his pride and joy. In the other he held a pair of fat-tailed pine-squirrels. They had been hard to find and harder to shoot, even though Jody, with constant and assiduous practice, was becoming something of a marksman.

This morning the hanging valley was luminous with a light that reflected and re-reflected of the surface of the ever-moving water. If he didnít study it too closely, the old trapperís shack looked almost idyllic, suspended above the pool in its cluster of dark-leafed scrub oak. Or it may have been that the idealism was only in Jodyís mind. A drift of wood smoke came from the smoke-hole, dashed away by the breeze. Jody climbed the steep, slippery path to the door and let himself in.

Adam Cartwright looked up as Jody pushed the door shut behind him and struggled briefly with it to make it fit back into its warped and twisted frame. He straightened, stretching the kinks out of his back. Adam was a big man. He dominated the single room of the cabin, not only with his physical presence but also with a dark and brooding facet of his personality. In the days, and especially in the nights since Hossís accident, he had undergone a change. The gentle man who had laughed and splashed in the water of a beaver pond and sung beside the campfire, the man whom Jody had just begun to see, had been reabsorbed. In his place was a formidable, sharp-tongued, short fused individual. His dark clothes were dirty and sweat-stained, his face unshaved and blue with stubble. He hadnít slept, and he ate little. He looked almost gaunt. The skin of his face had tightened, and his eyes had sunken back into his head. Those eyes were haunted with a natural and understandable fear for his brother and rimmed around with shadows.

Jody held up the two squirrels for inspection. Adam looked at them without comment.

There was not enough meat on the two small bodies to feed even the two of them for a single day. Soon, hunger would become a problem. In the gloom of the dark, smoky room, Adamís eyes glittered.

"There ainít nothiní else about," Jody said defensively. "Itís as if all the wild things have skiddaddled out oí these woods."

"Hunters," Adam replied with a short, sharp, expressive jerk of the head, "When they move into an area, everything else moves out, pronto. Itís a sort of sixth sense they have."

Jody took the remark as criticism and flared hotly in response, "Well, it ainít my fault!"

Adam flashed right back, "I never said that it was!" The close confinement and the pressures of the situation were getting to both of them. Somehow, the two men just rubbed each other raw.

Tight lipped, Jody switched his attention to skinning and cleaning the squirrels. His cheerful mood had changed quickly to one of resentment and anger, although he was uncertain why.

Adam turned away. His hands clenched in frustration. Irrationally, he was still blaming himself for his brotherís accident, and he was taking out his anger on the younger man. He knew that his reaction was unfair and unjustified, and that made him even angrier. He was frantically worried about Hoss.

The big man was breathing easier now; although he still drifted in and out of awareness. His fever had broken sometime in the small hours of the morning, but his face was still grey and wet with sweat. His skin now looked, somehow, loose. Adam bent over the bunk and dabbed at his brotherís face with a scrap of cloth. Hossís pale eyes opened.

For a moment, Hoss was confused. He didnít know where he was or what had happened to him. Always, on awakening, he had this same struggle to remember. He knew that he was hurt and that he had been ill. He screwed up his face and tried to focus his eyes, "Adam?"

"Iím right here, Hoss." Adam moved into his line of sight, leaning close so Hoss could see him. He could smell the sour sweat of sickness on his brotherís body and see the effort that it cost him to breathe.

Hoss lifted a hand and clamped it onto Adamís arm, gripping hard. "Adam, Iím hurtiní inside somethiní fierce!"

"I know." Adam pressed him back into the bunk. "You have to lie quiet." Hoss subsided, and his eyelids fluttered as he fought another battle with oblivion. Adam stood up, listening to the heave of his breathing. The lower part of Hossís chest was crushed for sure, beneath the blankets and the bandaging his body was black and blue with bruising. Adam didnít know how much damage he had inside.

Adamís hands curled themselves into fists. Lying here in a log cabin in the middle of the wilderness with no medicines and the food running out wasnít doing Hoss any good. It might yet be the death of him. Adam came to a decision. He reached for his gunbelt and buckled it around his hips.

Jody, at that moment dumping the scraps of squirrel meat into the pot, looked up at him, "Where you goiní?"

Adam finished with the buckle. In the light of the fire and the daylight that filtered through the chinks in the wall, his eyes had a feral glint.

"Iím goiní ta fetch us some help."

Jody straightened up slowly, a tall, lean form outlined against the fire. He wiped his hands down the legs of his pants and touched the tip of his tongue to his lips. He held his voice steady, "Youíre gonna leave us here?"

Again Adamís eyes gleamed with cold fire as he turned, grabbed his coat and set his hat on his head. His whole attitude now was one of fierce determination. "I donít have a choice. Youíll be all right. Keep the fire going. Get Hoss to drink as much as you can and try and get some food into him."

"I will." Jody ground his teeth together. He didnít like the idea of Adam going off and leaving them, but, like the man said, they didnít have any other options left. He was shaking, but he wasnít about to let Adam know it. In the dim light, Adam couldnít see how pale his face was.

Now that his mind was made up, Adam was in a hurry. He sorted quickly through his saddlebags, slung them over his shoulder and snatched up his long gun. He started for the door.

"How long will you be gone?"

Adam paused, his hand on the latch. He hated to leave his brother, and he disliked having to leave this young man with the responsibilities of caring for him. He knew that there was nothing else he could do.

"I know the fastest trail out of these hills, and Iíve got a good horse. I should be able to make it to town and get back here with the doctor and some basic supplies in six, may be seven days." He didnít add that his timing depended upon his being able to find Paul Martin quickly Ė Paul being the only man in the territory with any formal medical training Ė and on the doctorís willingness to ride out this far. Adam hesitated a moment longer, torn between going and staying. Then he opened the door and stepped out into the bright morning.

Jody followed him out. The young manís mind was already running along the lines of how he was going to hunt up enough food from the denuded country to feed Hoss and himself for a week. Then there was the necessity to get dry firewood and fresh water up to the cabin and the care of the remaining animals. He knew he was going to have his work cut out for him.

Adam started down the path towards the pool, and the tethered horses with a long and determined stride. He was already planning ahead, mapping out in his mind the best way through the hills, and the speed that his horse could make without dropping under him before he got home. Once more his face was set into hard, grim lines.

He had reached the halfway point in the path Ė the place where the supporting bank had washed away and it narrowed down to almost nothing Ė when he felt the ground slide away beneath his feet.

The slope was steep and the soil loose, unbound by the roots of trees or underbrush. It was also sodden, soaked through by the prolonged spring rainfall. Jody heard Adam yelp - more with surprise than alarm and saw him disappear over the edge.

The sensation of falling was short lived. Adam had no time at all to grasp what had happened before he landed hard on his back, still sliding, the breath knocked out of him. He heard Jodyís startled cry of warning Ė too late to do him any good Ė and saw the wheeling of the sky high above. He felt the rough soil and stones as he slid over them, cushioned by his clothes, and the cascade of debris that fell along with him. Somehow he kept hold of the rifle, his hand tightening about it convulsively. The saddlebags fell away, slithering down the hill in a little avalanche all of their own.

The fall lasted only for seconds and ended with an abrupt halt among the woody shrubs and stunted trees at the waterís edge. Adamís feet tangled in the bushes. A sharp, jarring pain shot upward through his body followed by a longer wave of more intense agony that carried him to the brink of oblivion.

Jody ran to the broken edge of the path. "Adam? Adam!"

He could see Adam Cartwright where he lay sprawled, some twenty feet below, still on his back with his legs all twisted up in the underbrush. He wasnít moving much. Carefully, fearful of starting another mudslide, Jody eased himself over the edge and climbed down, mostly slithering on his backside. He had to scramble sideways to get to Adamís side. He started to clear the loose soil and stones away from Adamís face.

"Adam, are you okay? Adam?"

Adamís eyes opened. He rolled his head in the dirt, finding Jody. There was confusion and pain on his face in equal measure. "I think Iím just winded. Iíve done something to my leg." He tried to move and gasped as pain tore through him again.

Jody started to clear the debris from around Adamís feet. "Hey! Careful, careful!" Adam winced, bracing himself. He tried to sit up and thought better of it. The slightest movement of his leg brought fresh, hot pain. It was that same, right leg that had stopped a Shoshoni arrow two summers past.

Jody looked at him anxiously. The young man was white-faced and frightened.

Adam ground his teeth together. "Itís okay," he said tightly, "Itís okay." In reality, he knew that it was far from okay. Cautiously, he twisted round and raised himself up onto one elbow to get a look at his leg. One glance was enough. His foot was turned outwards at a very strange angle. He lowered himself back to the ground. He could feel the cold damp starting to seep through his clothes. He sucked a long breath in through his teeth. "It looks like I broke my leg."

Jodyís eyes grew huge. His voice shook, "What are we gonna do?"

Adam fought back against the pain and a rising tide of terror. He struggled to think rationally. "For a start, we donít panic. HereÖ" He wriggled his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out his folding knife. He thrust it at Jody, "slit my pants leg up to the knee. Then youíre gonna have to cut my boot off."

The operation was not nearly so simple as he made it sound. By the time it was accomplished, both men were pale and sweating and had tears on their cheeks. Adam manoeuvred himself to get another look. His shin was already puffy and purple with bruising. The sight of the broken shinbone pressing against his skin from the inside brought on a wave of nausea and the black pit yawned again. He didnít dare pass out. He knew that if the end of the bone broke through the skin he was a dead man. Infection and gangrene would carry him away long before he could reach help. He drew a long breath and forced himself to think.

"Jody, youíll have to fetch some kindling from the firebox. Get strong, straight sticks. And get some rags. Tear the sleeves out of a couple of shirts. Bring them back here."

"AdamÖ" Jody chewed at his lip. Not wanting to leave Adam alone, he was inclined to argue.

Adam was barely clinging to his own senses. "For the good Lordís sake, do it, will you!"

The young man was gone for what seemed like a very long time. Adam lay on his back on the wet earth and looked up into the sky. It was a bright, clear blue, and it looked as if it went on forever. All his senses were heightened. He felt the brush of moving air against his cheek and smelt the fresh scent of new pine. A blue-backed beetle walked over the back of his hand; he felt the prickle of its sharp clawed feet on his skin. He could hear the sound of his own breathing, slowing, steadying, and the hiss of his blood. He used the time to gather his resolve. He found himself wishing that Hoss could come Ė big, strong, reliable Hoss whose vast hands could straighten the leg with no trouble at all. But Hoss was too sick to move. Sweat beaded on Adamís upper lip. He licked it away and tasted the sharp tang of salt.

When Jody came back with the wood and the rags, Adam searched about and above him for hand holds. He found them in a knot of root and the trunk of a sturdy sapling. He braced the heel of his remaining boot against the ground. By now the sweat was running freely, and he was starting to shake. He looked at Jody and spoke through clenched teeth. "Now listen good, weíre only going to get one shot at this. You know what you have to do. As like as not Iím gonna pass out. When the legís straight, splint it and wrap it round. Tie it tight but not so tight that my foot goes blue. You got that?"

White faced and tight-lipped, Jody nodded. "I got it." Heíd seen this done only once before in his life and he was none too sure of his own ability.

Adam took a long, deep breath. He flexed his hands, taking a good grip. He fixed his eyes on the deep, blue sky and prayed that this was going to work the first time.

Jody took a firm hold of Adamís leg and pulled it straight the same way he had seen Paul Martin pull out Sam Hayneís broken arm.

Adam screamed as an ocean of pain welled up and washed over him. He was consumed by it. The last thing he felt as unconsciousness claimed him was the ends of the bone grating together.

Jody flinched as Adam cried out, then watched as the lean body relaxed back against the ground. Certainly the leg looked a lot straighter and Adamís foot had rotated into a more normal position. He set to work with the makeshift splints and bandages.

********

With a good aim and a long throw, Asia Prior tossed his loop over the horns of the last stranded steer It was large red-brown animal with a foul temper, and it was particularly deeply mired. The evil quicksand came up to his shoulders and had already closed over his back, sucking him down to his death. Only his head and neck remained above the surface.

The morning had been hot and humid. The sun had climbed high up in the sky and beat down without mercy. The work that had to be done was hard. Asia and Joe Cartwright were both soaked in their own sweat; their hair and their faces were soaked with it, and their clothes hung damp on their bodies. They were dirty and tired and all their muscles ached, but they were two happy men. Working smoothly and efficiently together they had saved all the other steers. The cattle stood in an isolated little group, five or six of them in an assortment of sizes and colours.

Asia took off his hat and wiped his sleeve across his brow. He flashed Joe a grin. "Hey, Joe, what you gonna do when you git ta the rail head aní draw your pay?"

Already out of his saddle, Joe gave the pinto mare an affectionate slap on the neck. Squinting against the brightness of the sky, he grinned back. "First thing Iím gonna do is get me a hot bath aní a new suit oí clothes, aní then Iím goiní a-visiting."

Asia gave him a quizzical look. "Who you goiní visiting with?"

"I got me a list." Joe smirked and patted his shirt pocket. "My brother Adam mentioned some good, clean joyhouses. I had him jot the addresses down for me."

Leaning forward on his saddle horn Asia looked into Joeís face. His eyes were sparkling. "Your Pa let you go visiting whorehouses?"

"Sure." Joe shrugged. He was mildly embarrassed. He was older than Asia by almost a full year, and Asia didnít have to answer to anyone. "Leastwise, he will iffen he donít know nothiní about it."

Laughing aloud, Asia straightened and slapped his hand against his thigh.

Joe coloured. His father was well aware that he visited Miss Lucyís occasionally and rarely had more to say about it than a raised eyebrow. He wondered why he should be expecting a sudden change in attitude now Ė but he was. "Címon, stop haw-hawing aní letís get that steer out oí there." Allowing his face to cool, he backed up the mare and took the slack out of the rope.

Still chortling, Asia urged his gelding to add in his effort. The roped tightened, shivering in the sun. The red steer bellowed, long and loud. He didnít like the smell of the horses, and he didnít like the loops of rope wound around the wide spread of his horns. He didnít like the pressure that pulled him towards the men on the bank. He lunged, shaking his head and fighting the rope. Just for a moment, his forefeet came free of the sucking sand and then, struggling, he fell back. His eyeballs were protruding and white rimmed with terror. Asiaís gelding, sideways on to the pull of the rope, staggered. The mare snorted and threw up her head.

The steer lowed mournfully; he seemed disinclined to try again. He had sunk back into the hole as deeply as before.

Joe stood on the edge of the pit and cursed. He knew only too well the folly of going in and trying to push the beast out. He would be sucked down as well! For the time being all thoughts of smooth, white limbs and silk petticoats were driven from his mind, as was the image of his fatherís angry face.

Asia repositioned the gelding and took another hitch of rope around his saddle-horn. "Come on, Joe. Letís give it another try."

Joe was unwilling to give the big steer up. He mopped the sweat from his face and walked back to the patient mare. "Címon, Cooch, one more go."

The mare rolled her eyes at him. Her hide was slick with sweat and patchy with scum where her harness rubbed. But she was a willing animal, and under Joeís guidance she took a long step back. She leaned on the rope. The stubborn steer tossed his head from side to side, trying to escape the lasso. Like most of his kind, he didnít want to be rescued. Asia set his gelding to the task. The ropes strained.

The steer bawled again and struggled against the quicksand. Again he came halfway free. Before he could sink back again, the horses took up the slack. In a series of lunging leaps he ploughed through the quagmire. Joe whooped as he clambered out of the hole and Asia cheered. The steer stood on solid ground at last, his head lowered to somewhere near his knees and his legs trembling. His sides were heaving.

Still laughing with delight, Joe went to free the steerís horns from the rope. A dark shadow fell across him and he heard the distinctive double click of a six gun hammer being pulled back to full cock. The smile faded from his face as he looked up.

The man holding the gun sat tall in the saddle on a dark, long-legged cutting horse. Wearing dark clothes with a leather vest over his shirt and scarred, work-worn chaps on his legs, he looked a rangy, loose limbed individual. Below the brim of his hat his face was long and lean and shadowed with dark stubble. His eyes, cast into shadow, gleamed. The expression on his face was one of grim determination. He had taken advantage of the young menís preoccupation with the steer to ride up close. He was close enough that the gun aimed, apparently casually, in the general direction of Joeís midriff could not possibly miss. Nor was he alone.

Joe looked one way and Asia the other. They were surrounded on three sides with the quicksand on the other; horsemen with drawn guns were moving in on them from all directions. There were five of them, all similarly mounted and clad in the practical, comfortable clothes of the working cowboy. They all wore the same unsmiling expression and each of them held a levelled revolver.

Lean-and-Rangy made a small gesture with the muzzle of his gun. He spoke directly to Joe, "You Ė move away from the steer." His voice was low-pitched and had the texture of coarse gravel.

Joe caught the gleam of a steely eye in the shadow of the hat and decided to do exactly as he was told. Wearing a bewildered look he spread his hands wide and stepped away from the steer. He cast a glance towards Asia who was looking as bemused as Joe felt. Joe tried the cocky grin, "Hey, mister, you ainít got no reason ta throw down on us!"

Lean-and-Rangy was unimpressed - by the grin, or by anything else. His face was unyielding. "Take another long step and unbuckle the gunbelt Ė right handed," he ordered. He glanced at Asia, "You too, Ribbons."

Carefully, both young men complied. "Youíre making one hell of a mistake." Joe addressed himself to Lean-and-Rangy although he kept a wary watch on the others. Dark-Blue-Shirt-with-theĖCrooked-Grin was watching him with a particularly keen eye. Sandy-Moustache-in-the-Grey-Hat was sweating profusely and chewing at his lower lip. Joe suspected that he suffered from an itchy trigger finger.

"Reckon it might be you whatís made the mistake." Lean-and-Rangyís gravel voice grated.

Joe let his gunbelt drop onto the ground and Asiaís followed right after. Joe kicked his away, hoping it might make Sandy-Moustache a little less nervous. "I was just hauliní my País cows out oí the sink hole. Donít see why that should get you fellas all riled up."

"Is that a fact?" Lean-and-Rangy took his eyes off Joe long enough to nod to one of his companions. "Seems ta me that you got your rope on another manís steer."

Joe gulped and stared.

The indicated horseman, as dark complexioned as the first but stockier and with a cast in his left eye, holstered his gun and stepped out of his saddle. Moving around Joe with caution, he gathered up the gunbelts and also collected the saddle guns from Joeís horse and from under Asia Priorís knee. The two young men were left unarmed.

Joe looked at the steer; it was still trailing ropes from its horns to Joeís saddle and to Asiaís.

"These steers are runaways from our herd," he said, "we followed Ďem all the way down from the high country."

Lean-and-Rangy regarded him impassively. The gun didnít waver from Joeís middle. "Reckon you better look agíin."

Puzzled and worried, Joe shrugged. Still keeping his hands wide apart and in plain view, he walked over to the red steer. The brand on its hip was a reclining letter ĎPí. He looked up into Lean-and-Rangyís flinty eyes. "I guess this one ainít ours."

"Nope. It ainít." Lean-and-Rangyís voice was flat. "íAn neitherís half oí them others."

Joe turned towards the little group of rescued steers. He could see from where he stood that at least two of them wore the brand of the Lazy ĎPí. His hands were suddenly clammy and he felt the tickle of sweat running down the furrow of his backbone. "We were just hauliní cows outa the quicksand! We didnít stop ta see what brand they was carryiní!"

"Next time, píraps youíd better check on it," Lean-and-Rangy drawled, "íceptiní that there ainít goiní ta be no next time."

The smile on Blue-Shirt-and-Grinís face widened. He was having a real good time.

"In this part oí the country," Lean-and-Rangy was saying, "we call ropiní another manís steer rustliní. Aní Ďround here, we hang rustlers."

Joe was getting angry - and desperate. "We werenít stealiní your cows, mister!"

"Prescott," Lean-and-Rangy supplied amiably enough, "Seth Prescott, aní that thereís my brother, Jed." He indicated Cast-in-the-Eye with a nod of the head.

"We was hauliní them out of the quicksand!" Joe continued hotly. "If we hadnít saved Ďem theyíd oí drowned!" He looked at Asia for confirmation.

Asia agreed readily. "Thatís sure the truth!" He was watching Sandy-Moustache uneasily. Sandy had settled down some but he was still sweating and fiddling with his gun. His pale eyes shifted from Asia, to Joe, and back.

Seth Prescott favoured Asia with a hard glare. "Donít you worry none, Ribbons. Youíre gonna swing just as high as Curly, here."

That was when Joe got really mad. He took a long step towards Prescottís horse and found himself looking right down the black maw of Prescottís Colt. "You ainít about ta hang nobody, mister! Iím Joe Cartwright from the Ponderosa ranch, south oí here. We lost a bunch oí steers from our trail herd in the storm last night. They mustíve got mixed up with your cattle in the dark. We was just roundiní them up!"

Jed Prescott moved his horse up alongside his brotherís. "Reckon roundiní up another manís cattle is a hanginí offence in any manís country."

On the ground and without a gun, Joe was at a distinct disadvantage - and he knew it. His hands clenched and abruptly he felt very uncomfortable in the stomach. "You canít hang us! We ainít done nothiní!"

"Reckon as you done plenty." Seth Prescott gazed around at the surrounding countryside and considered. "Guess youíre plumb right about one thing though," he said slowly, "we sure as damn-it canít hang ya here aní now, on account oí there ainít no trees here abouts."

Blue-Shirt sniggered. No one else even smiled.

"Reckon as weíll take you aní these steers on home aní let our Pa take a look at ya," Seth Prescott went on lazily. He was in control, and he was relaxed.

"And then I reckon as weíll hang ya," his brother added, "We got plenty oí trees growiní alongside the house thatíll do right dandy."

Seth Prescott gestured at Joe with his gun, "Get on your horse, Curly. You aní Ribbons ride on ahead oí me, real slow. You try aní run off aní Iíll shoot ya down for sure."

Trading looks with Asia Prior, Joe unhitched the trailing rope from his saddle and cast the red steer loose. He picked up his trailing rein, and, under the watchful gaze of the Prescotts, he climbed into the saddle. Blue and Sandy gathered up the steers, and, picking up more strays as they went, they rode slowly south and east, towards the Lazy 'Pí ranch.

Eight

Carefully, Jody poured a measure of hot tea into a cup and carried it to where Adam lay on a bed of blankets on the floor. They had no morphine with them nor even laudanum for the pain, and the white willow from which they might have distilled something to dull the pain and reduce the fever grew only in the valley. He had concocted a brew from what they had among their supplies: horsemint and camomile. Adam was grateful for it. He struggled into a sitting position and took the cup in both hands. Although his face was still bloodless and tight with pain it was no longer the grey mask of anguish that it had been an hour before.

The long struggle up the broken path had been something to recall only in nightmare. Even with Jodyís help, Adam had accomplished most of it on his hands and one knee, easing his splinted leg behind him. He had ended up sobbing with pain and effort and frustration. It had taken him a while to regain his equilibrium. The tea, warming its way down into his belly, was very welcome.

Jody poured a cup for himself and sat down on the floor, his legs spread out in front of him. Adam swallowed another mouthful and lowered himself back gently onto one elbow. He expelled a long breath. "We still have to get help for Hoss," he said quietly.

Jody blinked at him over the rim of his cup. "You canít ride with a busted leg. Not all by yourself."

"No, I canít" Adam rubbed a hand along his thigh. The first hot agony was over but now his leg was starting to ache abominably. "Youíll have to go."

He watched the young manís face for the inevitable play of expression: uncertainty, concern, some doubt. The shift of light and dark as the firelight danced made his emotions difficult to read. Adam knew that he was loading a whole lot of responsibility onto youthful shoulders. Jody was barely turned fifteen, not much more than a boy. Then he remembered the demands that had been made of him at a similar age. At fifteen he had already been organizing and running huge segments of an embryonic empire, working alongside his father as he put the ranch together. And many men, only a couple of years older than Jody, were married with families and businesses of their own. It was the way of the west that a man was often required to grow up fast and hard. That was what Adam was asking Jody to do right now. A great deal was depending on him; certainly Hossís life and perhaps his own as well. Adam sipped his tea and watched Jodyís face and waited.

Jody stared long and hard into his tea. He owed a lot to Ben Cartwright and his sons. They had rescued him from a burgeoning life of crime and its inevitable consequences. They had provided him with a home and a job so that he could support himself and his mother. Adam here had gone out of his way to impart a basic education. There werenít many cowboys who could read and write even so much as their name. No, sir! Jody wasnít about to let the Cartwrights down; there was nothing he wanted less. He lifted his eyes to find Adam looking at him with an air of calm expectancy. It was as if Adam knew what was going through his mind and was just waiting for him to get his thoughts in order.

Jody voiced his uncertainty, "Iíll go, but I ainít so sure I can find the way."

"Itís easy enough if you stick to the low ground. Follow the valleys. Head north. Youíll come out right on the south range. From there, itís a dayís ride home."

Jody nodded. His freckled face settled into a mask of determination as his resolve hardened. "Iíll go," he said again, "when do you think I should leave?"

Almost apologetically, Adam said, "Today might be a good idea. There are a couple of things Iím gonna need your help with first, but thereís a whole lot Ďo daylight left. The sooner you get startedÖ"

It was around an hour later that Jody rode out. Adam Cartwright, supported by a makeshift crutch, stood on one leg in the doorway of the cabin and watched him go. Only when the young man was completely out of sight among the trees did he hobble inside and close the door.

********

The Lazy ĎPí ranch was a vast sprawl on unfenced territory that spread from somewhere in the low foothills of the mountains, across the lowlands and far out into the desert. The grazing was poor; in many places it amounted to little more than semi-desert scrub land. It became drier and less inviting as the miles slipped by. There were cattle dotted across the range, single cows with their calves and, here and there, small groups of yearling steers. They were not as numerous as on the rich, high grasslands of the Ponderosa; the pastures could not support so many.

Heedful of their warning, Joe Cartwright and Asia Prior kept their horses to a walk and their hands carefully in sight. They followed a trail that wound down out of the hills and into the flatter country to the east. The Prescott brothers had put their guns away, but they remained watchful, riding close behind. Neither Joe nor Asia had any doubt that they would be shot if they tried to ride away. Further back, Sandy and Blue, and their friend in the red check pants drifted the little herd along, keeping pace. The sandy ground had already dried out and the steers were kicking up a cloud of dust.

The house, together with its collection of barns, outbuildings and corrals was different in layout and design to those of home, but the form and function were familiar. They lay in a green fold of the land with cottonwoods close by the house and a creek meandering by. It was the pleasantest spot Joe had seen on the entire spread.

Afternoon shadows were creeping out across the yard as they rode in. Sandy, Blue and Red ran the steers into a corral. Seth and Jed climbed down and pulled out their guns.

Seth gestured with the muzzle of his Colt, "Címon down, cowboys. Head on over ta the house"

Joe and Asia traded looks; as one man they stepped down onto the hard-packed earth. Looping their reins about the hitching rail, they started in the indicated direction. The gun in Joeís back made his skin itch.

The Prescott house was a long, low structure. Built all on a single level it was of classic western construction; it was of thick timber boards on a stout wooden frame. What had started life as a basic one room dwelling for a man and his wife had been enlarged and extended over the years into a comfortable, many roomed home. There were two substantial wings, a wide and airy veranda and a separate cookhouse designed to provide meals for both the family and the hired help. Shingle roofed and originally painted a bright white, it had mellowed into shades of grey and settled comfortably amongst carefully planted, and now fully mature, shade trees. Joe recalled what Jed Prescott had said about the trees beside the house and eyed the cottonwoods uneasily.

The Prescotts walked their captives over to the porch steps. Sandy, Blue and Red fell in behind, interested spectators, and more hands appeared from the barn. They gathered in a group, jostling one another for position and craning their necks for a look-see as the word spread. Seth Prescott raised his voice in a yell,

"Hey, Pa! You better shift yore-self on out here! We got somethiní fer you ta see!"

Joe and Asia Prior stood uncomfortably in the centre of a small but very interested group of men. Feeling lonely and vulnerable, they were the centre of a whole lot of attention. Asia looked anxiously at Joe and shuffled his feet around. The men jostled them about a bit. Seth Prescott made them back off.

The front door of the house opened and the elder Prescott came out on to the veranda. He was a redoubtable old man, a pioneer settler of the old breed - as tough, resilient and unbending as the land itself. His hair was thin and white; his beard bristled; he had a large hooked nose and faded grey eyes. He sat bolt upright in a wicker-backed wheelchair. His fierce gaze switched from Joe and Asia, to the faces of his sons, to the unwavering guns that they held.

"Whatís this? Whatís all this then?"

It was Seth Prescott who answered, taking the precedence of age over his brother. We come across these two cowpokes a-gathering up our steers on the high range, Pa."

Prescottís face hardened. He gestured impatiently to someone standing in the shadows behind him. A young woman appeared out of the gloom and pushed the wheelchair closer to the edge, further in to the light. Her gaze brushed briefly against Joeís. Over her arm she carried a boldly checked blanket that she tucked around the old manís legs. Prescott was a man who suffered from the cold.

Joe, with an eye for a pretty face no matter what the circumstances, noticed that not only was she young Ė somewhere about his own age Ė but also attractive. She had the same dark hair and silver grey eyes as Seth and Jed. Joe reckoned that they looked a whole better on her than they did on either of them. He smiled. The young woman smiled back. Joe considered winking but decided against it. There was a time and a place for everything, and Joe already had the girlís attention.

Prescott leaned forward in his chair, so far forward that it looked for a moment as though he might topple out of it. He looked Joe and Asia over again - much more carefully. His expression darkened still more "Is that a fact?"

"Sure is, Pa." Jed Prescott seemed obligated to put in his ten centís worth and he did it with relish. "Curly aní Ribbons here, they already had their ropes on our steers when we come across Ďem."

Joe started in hotly in his own defence, "Your cows got mixed in with our strays!" Right then, he was wishing heíd left all the Goddamn creatures to drown together. "We wasnít aiming ta steal nothiní! I already told you, moreín half oí them steers are weariní my País pine tree brand! You go look!"

"Your rope was on a Lazy ĎPí steer when we come across ya," Jed said.

"Seems ta me," Prescott said grimly, "Iffen you got a rope on my steer then you already stole it."

"Hey! That ainít so!" Joe started forward, then pulled up short. The muzzle of Jed Prescottís Colt rammed hard into his belly. Jed smiled thinly and eased back the hammer. Joe looked down at the gun and then into old man Prescottís face. "We wasnít stealiní your steers, Mister."

Jed Prescott glared, "I already promised the pair of Ďem a tap dance on the end of a rope, Pa."

Prescott scowled over the hook of his nose. "That sounds fair ta me," he said flatly.

The young woman put her hands on the old manís shoulders, "Pa! You canít do that!" Her grey eyes were fixed on Joe. "You canít hang a man for stealing a cow!"

Prescott spared her the briefest glance, "We can, and we will. Thatís the law we live by."

Joe was suddenly very afraid. His face paled. He was sweating up a storm. "What about sendiní for the sheriff? What about us gettingí a fair trial?"

Jed Prescott lifted a lip in a sneer. "You just had yore-self a trial, Curly. Weíre judge aní jury aní them steers over there," he jerked a thumb towards the corral, "Themís the witnesses."

This witticism was greeted with a general snigger from the assembled cowboys. Jed leered round at his audience. He was enjoying himself. Blue Shirt was grinning again, and Sandy was rubbing his palm against the butt of his gun.

The young woman spoke up again, glaring at Jed, "Thatís not fair! Heís right. They should get a proper trial."

The old man gave her another irritated look, "You shouldnít be troubliní yore-self with all this, Lily. This is menís business."

Concern darkened Lilleth Prescottís eyes and changed them from silver-bright to pewter-grey. "You canít just hang them out of hand."

Prescott glowered beneath bushy brows. "Ainít rightly a womanís concern," he said angrily, "Git yore-self back inta the house. One oí you men go git a couple oí ropes."

"You canít do that!" Joe was desperate. He exchanged frantic looks with Asia. "Why donít you send someone up in ta the hills after our herd? My Paíll vouch for us! I tell you the brand on those steers is his!"

"Seems ta me," Prescott said, "we ainít got no call ta send a man ridiní all over them hills on account oí a couple oí no good cow thieves."

"It wouldnít hurt none ta get the sheriff out here ta look these two over," Seth Prescott said unexpectedly in his slow drawl.

The irascible old manís glare turned on him. "You goiní soft, boy?"

Jed Prescott snarled at his brother, "He cín come look at Ďem after we hanged Ďem."

"Pa!" Lilleth Prescott dug her fingers deep into the muscles of her fatherís shoulders. She stared hard at Joe "It wouldnít do any harm to wait until the sheriff rode out here, would it?"

"Sheriffís only a dayís ride away in Maryville," Seth Prescott went on, pressing the point, "We start a man out now, we could have him back here by tomorrow night aní have us a fancy hanginí the next day, bright aní early."

Prescott shrugged off his daughterís hand. He glared from one son to the other. It was a look Joe knew well; in other circumstances he might even have found it funny. "Canít you two agree on whether ta hang a man or not?"

Joe chimed in, white fisted, white faced and angry, "Heís right! You get the sheriff!" Jed Prescott jabbed him hard in the gut with his Colt. Joe ignored him, "Our herd went right by Maryville day before yesterday. The sheriff knows who we are."

Prescott glowered. The assembled cowboys shifted restlessly. A cooling evening breeze stirred the leaves of the cottonwood trees. The late sunlight glimmered. Prescott clutched at his blanket and pulled it close, shivering. An elderly man in poor health, he couldnít afford to sit out in the evening air, even for the sake of a good, old-fashioned hanging. His sharp eye picked out Sandy,

"You, git yore-self on a horse aní git yore-self over ta Maryville. Fetch that sheriff on out here. Tell him we got us a couple oí cow thieves ta hang. Tell him Ė Whatís yore name, boy?"

"Joe. Joe Cartwright of the Ponderosa ranch," Joe said, "aní I ainít no cow thief!"

"Tell him weíre gonna hang us Joe Cartwright." Prescott glared some more. "Lock these two fellas up someplace so as they donít go gittiní away. Now," he turned his hard eyes on his daughter, "You git me in outa this cold afore I catch my death."

Lilleth Prescott backed up the wheelchair and turned it towards the house. She gave Joe a last long look over her shoulder as she disappeared through the door. It might have been a trick of the light but it seemed, just for moment, that a small smile played at the corner of her mouth.

Seth Prescott gestured to Joe with the muzzle of his gun. Having won a small victory, he was determined to do just as his Pa said. He knew the old man better than to push his luck. "Címon, Curly, Ribbons. I gotta nice storage shed thatís gonna suit you realí dandy."

Deprived, for the moment at least of their entertainment, the ranch hands started to disperse. Seth and Jed Prescott marched Joe and Asia away at gunpoint.

********

Like an ancient buffalo scenting the onset of a distant storm, Herricule Bojun lifted his head and turned his bearded face into the wind. Eyes squinted almost closed against the brazen brilliance of the sky, he sniffed at the air. His expression became thoughtful.

The trappers were working deep down in a valley filled with golden afternoon light and the pleasantly musical sound of running water. Intent on their tasks, none of them had the time or the purity of spirit to appreciate the beauty of the Lordís creation that was so prominently displayed all around them. The trap lines had been set along the banks of the stream, and this time fortune had favoured the hunters. The skinning knives and the arms of the men who wielded them were red with blood.

Bojun shifted his weight in the saddle and rubbed at the pain in his leg. Looking about him he felt what might, in another man, have been a profound stirring of satisfaction and of regret. Turning to gaze back along the trail, he filled his lungs with fresh, sun-warmed mountain air. There was nothing on earth than smelled quite like it. He allowed the corner of one, thick lip to quirk. It was the closest approach his battered and weather-beaten face ever made to a smile. It had taken a long time to accomplish what he had set out to do, far longer than he had intended. By now he should have been in a comfortable saloon someplace with good whiskey in front of him and a fancy paid-for woman on his lap. But now the job was done. Strung out behind him the line of patient mules was shorter by some four or five animals Ė creatures that had fallen, one way or another, by the wayside. That was only to be expected. A man didnít travel these hills for long without losing some stock. All the mules that remained were heavily laden; the packs they carried bulged with fine furs.

If the cause of Bojunís contentment was packed on the backs of the mules, the cause of his melancholy, were he capable of recognizing it as such, was all about him. While he failed to see the glory of the pine-clad hills and the wooded valleys or the majesty of the mountains that stood beyond, he had an inbred affinity for these wild places. The crystal clear waters of the mountain stream ran cold in his blood. He had a feeling inside, deep and abiding if unacknowledged, that he would never ride through these hills again Ė nor any other hills. Despite the warmth of the sun he shivered inside his padded coat.

Corbel Lighterman stood at the shoulder of Bojunís horse and looked up at him, screwing up his face against the glare. With his wild hair and unkempt beard he looked like a savage. He had stripped off his coat and rolled up his sleeves almost to his armpits. His shirt was splattered with blood; his hands and muscular arms were all smeared with it. In one hand he held his broad bladed skinning knife and in the other a rich, dark-brown beaver pelt. For once, Lighterman had a smile on his face.

"Weíve cleared all the traps. This is the last of them." He held up the pelt as a sort of trophy; for emphasis, he kicked the bloody body into the underbrush.

Bojun eased himself again and threw off his miseries. "Then this is right where we turn ourselves around and head on back."

The smile on Lightermanís face died an instant death and was replaced by something that more closely resembled a snarl. "What díyou mean, start back? These valleys must be full oí prime pelts just askiní ta be took! We gotta go on, north aní west!"

Perriot came up close behind Lightermanís shoulder. He had heard the tail end of the conversation, the younger manís voice raised in anger. He wiped the blade of his knife clean on his shirtsleeve and tucked it into the top of his boot. "Thereís no point in going on any further, ĎBel."

Already furious, Lighterman turned on him, "I want to make some money out of this trip! Some real money! These streams are full oí beaver! We might even find us some bear!"

"The mules are already loaded," Perriot slapped a hand on the younger manís shoulder, raising the dust. "They canít carry no more. We go back now with what we have."

"But I want more!" Lighterman threw the hand off with an angry shrug, "If you hadnít shot the goddamn mules we could have carried all the pelts we could take!"

Perriot sighed and stepped away. With a shake of his head he started to tighten the cinches of his saddle. Lighterman was the type who could never understand.

Lighterman glared at Bojun, "I want ta go on!"

Bojun shook his head. He raised his eyes and focused them somewhere way off among the trees. "We ainít goin on. Weíre goiní back. The mules is getting tired, aní weíre almost out oí grub. We got jist about enough flour and whiskey ta git us back ta Maís."

Lighterman was in a fine rage, "Well, I ainít goiní back ta Maís! Thereís gotta be a town someplace north oí here. Iím takin my share aní Iím ridiní on through!"

Bojun rubbed his leg. His gaze drifted Ďround to settle back on Lightermanís face. His hand came to rest somewhere near his saddle gun but not touching it. The threat was plain enough. His eyes were as cold as a clear winterís sky. "You rode in ta these hills alongside us, aní I reckon as you ought ta ride out wií us. Either that or youíll stay right here Ė where ya drop." The old trapper wasnít prepared to leave this young hothead in the woods at his back Ė not alive, anyway.

Lighterman took a step backwards. His hand hovered close to the butt of his gun. "You haul iron on me agíin, Bojun, aní Iíll kill you fer sure!"

Relaxed, Bojun watched him narrowly. The two men eyed one another. The valley was silent except for the music of the stream. The mellowing sunlight danced on the moving water. The wind shifted, blowing down off the hillside. Distracted, Bojun lifted his head again. Perriot, back on his horse, eased up beside him, placing himself in between the antagonists. "What is it?"

"Wood smoke," Bojun said, "I smell wood smoke."

"Forest fire?" Lighterman looked around anxiously. For the moment his anger was forgotten.

It was Perriot who answered, thoughtfully, "These woods are too wet to burn."

"Reckon it might just be them fellas what sprung our traps," Bojun said, "There ainít too many other folks in these hills. Catch up yore horse ĎBel. Looks like you might git yore wish after all."

Lightermanís dark eyes glittered dangerously. He turned to his horse and swung quickly into the saddle. "What are we sittiní here for?"

Bojun neck reined his horse around and kicked him hard with the heel of his good foot, encouraging him to step down into the stream. Lighterman followed close on his heels, eagerness and savage excitement plainly evident on his handsome face. It turned it ugly. Perriot came along behind more slowly, leading the mule train. The horses kicked up a fine splashing as they picked their way along the streambed, heading upstream towards the hanging valley.

********

Charlie leaned back on his heels and hooked his thumbs onto the edge of his pants belt. There was a frown set on his weathered face, and his jaws worked slowly and methodically as he moved the wad of tobacco back and forth in his mouth. From where he stood, up against the wheel of the baggage wagon and with his back to the sun, he could observe just about everything that went on in the trail camp without doing much more than turning his head and without becoming directly involved. That included all the sudden activity over by the horse-line. The Prior brothers were busy switching their saddles onto fresh horses and tightening cinches. A long time student of human nature, Charlie was unsurprised. His eyes were bleak.

It was afternoon and the shadows were already creeping. Charlie had never learned to tell the time by a clock, but he figured it was about three or a little after. Still time for a man to put some useful miles behind him before dark if he had a mind to. It looked like that was what the Priors might be planning to do.

Aubrey Prior swung into the saddle of the leggy, dark-pointed bay he favoured and walked him over to where Charlie stood. One by one his brothers fell into line alongside him: big Arthur Prior to his right and on his left the lighter and more compact Astley. Ashley Prior joined them, and beside him, unsurprisingly, Pete Nash pulled his flashy Ė to Charlieís mind Ė black gelding into the line. Nashís countenance was, as always, pleasantly bland. The Priors were grim.

Charlie looked from face to face. He kept his voice level, "You fellas ridiní out?" The question was unnecessary but pointed. They all knew without him having to say it that, without the Priors, Charlie didnít have enough hands left to move the herd.

Aubrey tipped back his hat and clasped his hands together on his saddle horn. He gave Charlie a version of the gap-toothed grin. "It donít take a whole day for two fellas ta round up a few stray steers," he drawled. "Them younglinís should have been back by mid-day. We-all thought as weíd take a ride back down the hill and find out whatís keepiní our little brother."

Charlie could see their point of view. He pulled a face. "I guess theyíve been gone a while at that." He noticed that Aubrey Priorís trademark smile reached nowhere near his eyes. It was as if the man watched world from behind a mask Ė and the mask had slipped, just a bit. Charlie looked along the row of men again, this time seeing them from a different perspective. Lined up like that, sitting on their horses, relaxed, watchful, they looked a very formidable array of gunfighters indeed. Charlie wondered, and not for the first time, if the Cartwright family knew just what sort of cowhands it was that they hired on from time to time. "I guess," he said thoughtfully, "you fellas cín haul Ďem out oí any sort oí mess theyíve got in."

Aubrey Prior smiled a thin smile, "Anything this side oí the grave, Charlie." He raised a hand to tip his hat. "Donít you worry none. Weíll be back." At his nod, Pete Nash reined his flashy black around, and, one after the other, the Priors wheeled off to follow him. Charlie stood and watched them ride off into the mellow afternoon light.

********

The concern at the forefront of Adamís mind as he came out of the cabin door, was how to manoeuvre himself down the cut log steps on a crutch and a leg that hurt like hellfire without falling and breaking his fool neck. He needed to relieve himself against the cabin wall and the matter was becoming urgent. As it was a problem that took all of his attention, he had already accomplished half of it before he realized that he had visitors.

Leaning heavily against the crutch he took two long, very lame steps forward. He screwed his eyes half shut against the sharply angled sunlight that flooded the valley. There was a man Ė a big man Ė sitting on a horse at the bottom of the path. Beyond him, the open space beside the pool was all filled up with mules.

Adam wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He forgot all about the urgent demands of his bladder and wished desperately that he hadnít left his gun and gunbelt behind in the shack. All of a sudden his mouth as very dry. He couldnít fail to notice that there were two more horses in amongst the mules Ė horses with vacant saddles. Adam started to sweat. He had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his belly that he knew exactly where the owners of those two saddles were going to be. He turned his head to look over his shoulder.

"You hold it right there, Mister!"

Adam stood quite still. Loud in the silence he heard the distinctive double click of a revolver being cocked, twice over and from two different directions. As he had thought, both men were behind him; they were right where they ought to be, one on the left of the shack and one on the right. They had him bracketed, and they were well out of one anotherís cross fire. The man on the horse had neatly decoyed him into the open. Even if heíd had his gun and all the luck there was, he couldnít have taken more than one of them before they shot him down. He held out his left hand in a gesture of surrender.

"You got the drop on me, boys."

He heard movement behind him: the jingle of a spur, a creak of leather, men stepping carefully, closing in. They werenít sure yet that he was harmless. Not daring to turn Ďround, Adam waited. He was afraid. No sensible man wouldnít have been. He breathed deep and slow, steadying himself. Something - the muzzle of a gun Ė jabbed him hard in the back. A rough hand abused him, searching swiftly for the gun he didnít have. Adam ground his teeth and stuck it out. He knew that the other man was standing well back, keeping him covered.

Lighterman sniggered and stepped back, but not very far, "Okay, Mister, letís take a look at you." He grabbed at Adamís arm with a powerful hand and hauled him Ďround.

Adam struggled for his balance, did a neat little ballet with the crutch and managed to stay upright.

Adam Cartwright and Corbel Lighterman looked each other full in the face. Neither man much liked what he saw.

Adam found himself confronted by the countenance of a wild man. Lighterman was dirty beyond belief; his black hair and beard were long, ragged and caked with the remains of several meals. His open mouth was twisted into the parody of a smile. The teeth he displayed were brown and corroded. His clothes Ė of leather and heavy woollen cloth Ė were stained with old sweat and old blood and grease. The rancid reek of him was overpowering.

Lighterman was no more impressed. Despite his predicament the man in front of him held his gaze levelly. Adamís swarthy, sweaty, unshaven face wore an expression of defiance Ė of contempt. His whole attitude was unyielding, challenging. The light faded from Lightermanís eyes; they became dark, filled with an inherent dislike. Adamís eyes held steady. The hostility, unmistakably, was mutual. Lightermanís smile died.

The two men were exactly of a height and very much of the same, broad-shouldered build. Both were narrow hipped, born to ride, deep chested and dark; both were muscular and work-hardened. Lighterman was, perhaps, two or three years younger than Adam.

Now pointed directly at Adamís belly, the gun in Lightermanís hand wavered very slightly. Adam allowed his gaze to drift down to it and then, slowly, back up. The scorn on his face was very clear. The silent exchange had lasted only seconds. Both of them knew who had won it.

Calculating his insult carefully Adam ignored Lighterman and his gun and very pointedly switched his attention to the second man. He was a little shorter, stockier, older and greyer. His clothes might have been equally filthy, but his beard was roughly trimmed and his long, grizzled hair tied back in a bunch. He also held a large, black-mawed Colt that was pointed directly at Adam. Adam said, evenly, "Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?"

Lighterman made an incoherent rumbling sound deep down inside. He looked Adam over again, absorbing for the first time the significance of the crutch and the splints on his leg. The smile, in part, returned. He lashed out suddenly with a booted foot and kicked the crutch away. Adam went straight down. He hit the ground with an involuntary yelp and enough force to knock the wind out of him. Looking up at Lightermanís sneer, he decided to stay, for the moment, exactly where he was.

Lighterman followed him down, hunkering on his haunches. He leaned in close. His breath was sour. He pushed the gun into Adamís face. "You the son-of-a-bitch what spiked my Goddamn traps?" he inquired in a measured and conversational tone, "ícause iffen you was, Iím gonna blow your Goddamn head off!"

Adam met his eyes over the cold metal of the gun. "Are you the son-ofĖa-bitch that set them?"

Lightermanís teeth clenched, discoloured tombstones in the midst of his beard. He snarled in fury. He pushed the gun harder into Adamís cheek, making it hurt. His fingers tightened on the Colt.

Perriot came closer, standing behind Lightermanís shoulder. "Leave him be, ĎBel." He held his gun casually at his side, not pointed anywhere in particular but closer to Lighterman than it was to Adam. Lighterman glared up at him. His lip rolled.

"This is the motherless son that wrecked our traps! Iím gonna take it out oí his Goddamned hide!"

Perriot looked bleakly at Adam. Canadian, he spoke with a distinct French accent, "If thatís the truth, I might even help you do it. Itís been a long time since I used a skinning knife on a man." He shrugged. "But we have plenty of time. This is a good place to rest up, stretch some hides, repack the mules. This one will keep."

The sun had set. In the gathering gloom Lightermanís eyes gleamed with sharp anticipation. Straightening up, he eased back the hammer on his gun. "I made you a promise, Big Man," he said to Adam. "I ainít gonna forget it." His eyes flicked to Perriot. "You let him git way, aní Iím gonna kill you."

"Go help Bojun climb that path," Perriot said, "And unsaddle the horses. "Iíll see to him," He fixed Adam with a hard eye, "Heís not going anywhere with that leg."

A bulldog reluctant to be parted from his prey, Lighterman glared from one to the other. Still angry, he thrust his gun into his holster and turned on his heel.

Still estimating the odds, Adam watched him walk away. He looked at Perriot, bright eyed. "I canít say I think much of your friends."

"And you make good enemies." With the edge of his foot Perriot pushed Adamís crutch within reach. He levelled the Colt. "You have a smart mouth. Keep it shut and you might live a little longer."

Adam looked into his eyes and saw the truth of it. He reached for his crutch.

 

 

Nine

The storage shed made a perfect prison. It was small and stoutly built with a hard-packed dirt floor, stout wooden walls and a firmly fixed roof. The door had a good strong lock. Joe was sure of it. He was already intimately acquainted with the entire structure. In the last several hours he had tried and tested every inch, top to bottom, all the way around, several times over. It was windowless; except for the small seepage of daylight through the chinks between the boards, it was quite dark. It was also airless and had grown hot in the afternoon sun.

Not far beyond the door, Joe knew, there was a man with a gun. Every so often there was a low exchange of words outside as the guard was changed. He didnít give much for his chances of breaking out.

Having completed yet another circuit he slumped down beside Asia with a mighty sigh of frustration. From the feel of it, the sacks they sat on contained potatoes. They were lumpy enough. There was little else in the shed; certainly there were no tools or weapons of any kind: Seth and Jed Prescott had made very sure of that. In the gloom, Asia gave Joe a rueful, sideways look, "Reckon theyíre gonna hang us, Joe?"

"No. They ainít gonna hang us."

"Guess thisíll teach us ta check fer another manís brand, next time around."

Joe huffed angrily, sounding, unknown to him, uncommonly like his father. "Old man Prescottís just an old fool liviní in the past. They donít hang a man without a trial no more. That sheriffíll sort this mess out just as soon as he gets here." Joe picked up his hat and started to pick at the band. The nervousness of his fingers belied the confidence in his voice.

Asia chewed at his lip. "I sure hope the sheriff sees things our way."

"I just hope that sandy haired fella donít get lost someplace, like the saloon. I got a feeliní old man Prescott ainít gonna wait on him too long.

Asia put his hat over his face and lay back against the potatoes. He clasped his hands together over his belly. The younger man by several months, he had a more relaxed outlook on life. "I guess," he said, "they canít keep us locked up in here for ever."

"Thatís kinda what Iím afraid of." Joe looked at Asia. Already his chest was rising and falling in a slow, easy rhythm. Joe contemplated making yet another inspection of the walls and then decided that perhaps Asia had the best idea after all. He settled down beside him and tried to get a little sleep.

As soon as the sun had set what little light there was faded fast. It was soon utterly dark inside the shed and becoming colder Ė much too cold for sleeping. Joe and Asia took turn to pace the tiny space they had, two steps one way and two the other, in an effort to keep from freezing. They had no way of measuring the passage of time, but several hours of chill darkness had certainly passed by. The guard outside the door had changed several times, and now it was changing again.

Joe was standing up, stamping his feet, when Asia reached out to him, grabbing him by the slack of his shirt. His voice hissed in the dark. "Hey Joe, whatís that?"

"Whatís what?"

"I hear somethiní. Outside."

The two men listened. The sound came again: a soft scraping and a rustling of cloth. Pale light danced in the cracks around the door. A key turned in the lock and in another moment the door opened. Lilleth Prescott, her dark hair wrapped in a scarf and a shawl around her shoulders, slipped inside. She brought food with her: bread, cheese and a little cold meat wrapped up in a napkin. Most welcome of all, she brought an oil lamp - its faint flame closely shuttered so that only a glimmer escaped. It threw sharp shadows across her face. Closing the door, she hung the lamp from a long nail in the wall and turned up the light, just a fraction.

Joe and Asia shared the food between them. There wasnít much, and it didnít take long to eat it all. Asia voiced his appreciation through a mouthful of bread and meat. "Thank you kindly Maíam. We sure thought your men-folk were gonna let us starve to death in this here shed. That is, iffen we didnít freeze first."

Lilly Prescott quietened him quickly with a finger pressed against her lips. "Hush now! I ainít supposed ta be here. My Pa said ta let you go hungry," she spoke in a whisper, "said there was no point wastiní food on men that were gonna hang."

"Thatís realí nice oí your Pa," Joe hissed back; "then how come youíre out here?" He looked apprehensively at the lamp. Welcome as the light was he was worried about it shinning out through the cracks in the wall.

Lilly looked from one to the other. "You have to get away, both of you! Tonight! País getting all set ta hang you first thing in the morning. Just as soon as itís light enough ta see!"

"But your Pa sent for the sheriff!"

"Reckon País changed his mind about that. Jedís just about talked him into a hanginí. Says itís for the best."

Joe put a hand to his throat and swallowed the last bit of bread with difficulty. He traded hard looks with Asia. They were going to have to make a break for it.

"Anyways," Lilleth went on, "I donít think a man should hang for a steer, aní Seth, he thinks you should leastwise get a trial." Right there and then, they were both sentiments Joe and Asia agreed with wholeheartedly. "Sethís sent the guard away for a while. Nowís the only chance youíre gonna get."

Hastily, the two men gathered up their hats, "Could you kindly tell us, Maíam," said Asia politely, "where theyíre most likely to have put our horses?"

"Over in the barn, I guess, across the yard."

Asia opened the door Ė just and inch Ė and peered out. The yard in front of the house was silver lit with starlight. The moon had already set behind the mountains. There was yellow light spilling from both wings of the house and more from the windows of the bunkhouse. The squared block of the cookhouse and the other outbuildings were all in darkness, except for the barn itself. The wide door was slid halfway back and a faint glow came from inside Ė probably an oil lamp burned there for most of the night. Apart from the restless stirring of the steers in the corral and the slink of a small cat, nothing moved.

Seth Prescott, half concealed in the shadows, turned from the hips to look at him, his rifle cradled in his arms. Asia saw the glint of light in the manís eyes before he looked away again.

Asia closed the door and turned to Joe, "Itís all clear."

Joe reached up to turn down the lamp. Suddenly, impulsively, Lilleth Prescott pulled the scarf from her hair to let it fly free. It was long and lustrous and very dark. She flung her arms around Joeís neck and twisted her fingers into his hair. Dragging his head down, she clamped her mouth firmly onto his. She wanted him to stay, but she knew that he had to go. She held him close and kissed him deep. Joeís eyes widened and then half closed as he began to enjoy himself. He drew the womanís body against his and kissed her back, hard.

Asia Prior heaved a small sigh and shook his head. He reckoned he could about see the steam coming out of Joe Cartwrightís ears as his brains boiled. He cleared his throat loudly. "Hey Joe, we gotta get outta here lessen youíre planniní ta be guest of honour at that necktie party tomorrow morniní."

Joe broke away. Breathless, he gazed long and longingly into Lilly Prescottís silver eyes. With the warm curves of her body pressing firmly against him, he would kind of liked to have stayedÖ

Lilly clung to him a moment longer and then let him go. Joe jammed his hat onto his head and joined Asia at the door. Apart from the watchful Seth, the yard was still deserted. Even the cat had disappeared. Asia opened the door a little wider and the two of them slipped out into the night.

Lilleth counted slowly and carefully to ten and then gave it five seconds more for her ardour to cool. She wound her hair in the scarf, took down the lamp and made her way back to the house.

Joe and Asia got to the barn the long way round, keeping to the deepest shadows and well away from the light. They had to lie low only once when a couple of cowhands strolled across the yard, heading for the bunkhouse. Joe sidled up to the barn door and sneaked a look Ďround it. Sure enough, there was only the one lamp burning, turned down low.

Familiarly the barn smelled of hay and manure. Joe looked Ďround carefully. All the stalls were full. Joeís mare and Asiaís gelding were at the far end; someone had taken off their saddles and wiped the sweat off of their hides. Joe slipped inside and Asia followed, sliding the door almost closed behind him. They made for their mounts.

Asia grinned at Joe; Joe winked at Asia. Asia swung his saddle onto the geldingís back and reached under for the cinch. Joe buckled the mares bridle. He stepped back and trod on the catís tail. The cat screeched. Joe danced. Asia started violently; his head rammed into the geldingís belly. The gelding kicked over the feed bucket. Asia sat down hard on his backside. The cat streaked for the door. Joe turned around to see where the cat went. He came face to face with Blue Shirt and Grin. Neither of them knew who was the most surprised. Blue stuck the muzzle of his gun into Joeís belly and pulled back the hammer, "Donít know where in hell you think youíre goiní boy Ė but I reckon you made a bad mistake."

********

The smoky light of an old storm lantern caught and gleamed in Adam Cartwrightís eye; it cast sharp shadows from his cheekbones and threw golden highlights onto his skin. His face was as wary and as watchful as that of an animal at bay, darkened with beard and sheened as if with sweat.

Adam found himself confronted with a dilemma: unarmed and one-legged he couldnít fight, and he would find it awful hard to run. Even if he could get to a horse, there was nowhere to go to for help Ė and he couldnít leave his brother behind. So what he did was lean carefully against the crutch and pour coffee into a chipped, enamelled cup.

The door of the cabin slammed open, and a big man filled the space it left behind. A single sweeping glance was enough for the old trapper to see everything there was to see: the shabby shattered interior of the single room, the two men who dominated it and their few, basic possessions. The man in the bunk was no threat. He was hurt and sick and had no more strength than a kitten. The other was a different matter. His dark face held dislike and defiance and Bojun took no account at all of the busted leg. Bojun knew just how much a man could accomplish with only one leg when he had to. It could just be that this one was dangerous. He stepped inside, caught the edge of the door and shoved it halfway shut.

The cabin had the one chair and the one table. Herricule Bojun took possession of them both. With his long saddle gun in one hand and a gallon jug of pure corn liquor in the other he made the three, long, stiff-legged strides it took to get there and settled himself with a grunt of pain. Stretching the crippled leg straight out in front of him, he leaned the rifle up against the wall, pulled his big, black handled colt from his belt, laid it handy on the table, and pulled the cork from the jug with his teeth. He never allowed his gaze to shift from Adam Cartwrightís face.

Adam had sense enough to know when he was at a disadvantage. He turned his face away and set the coffeepot back on the hearth stone. Resettling the crutch under his arm, he hobbled painfully over to the bunk. He was glad that, apart from a brief and brutal search for guns, his unwelcome guests had - so far - left Hoss alone.

Hoss was breathing easier now and his eyes were clear. He was lucid for most of the time and the pain was less every day. His attention still mostly on the trapper, Adam eased an arm under his brotherís shoulders and helped him sit up; he held the cup to his lips. Hoss sipped and tasted and then drank eagerly. The coffee was hot, strong and black the way Adam always made it. It scorched its way down to his belly and lay there like a lava pool, seething.

Bojun dumped his battered hat on the table alongside the Colt. He rubbed at the old, familiar, bone-deep pain in his thigh, fingers digging in hard; he sipped at the liquor. Speculatively, he said to Adam, " I suppose you got a name?"

Adam met his gaze with a hard stare of his own, "I got one. Iím kinda particular who I share it with."

Bojun considered. "There ainít no need fer you ta be unfriendly," he said, "I ainít done you no harm." Then he shrugged. When all was said and done, a manís name was his own business after all. "You could say that you done me some."

Adamís face became even more wary. "How díyou make that out?"

"You sayiní you ainít the fella what sprung my traps? ĎBel Lighterman reckons as you are. Heís threateniní ta skin you alive."

Adam held his expression. His eyes didnít deny it. Bojunís lip quirked and he made a gesture with the hand that rubbed his leg. "I donít hold it against ya none. Oí course, I was as mad as a pig at a picnic at the time, but you didnít cost me more ín a couple oí days. I ainít gonna kill a man fer a couple oí days." He took another small sip, feeling the warmth spread. "íBel there, he donít see it in the same light. Heíll likely kill you just for the hell of it."

"They say you can tell a man by the company he keeps." Adam was belligerent, angry Ė he wasnít prepared to give an inch. He was stepping close to the edge. He was pushing, and he knew it.

The grizzled haired trapper regarded him thoughtfully. His blue eyes glittered. He had the bluest eyes Adam had ever seen on a man: cornflower-blue, the blue of an early summer morning sky. "Oí course, I ainít got no special reason ta keep you alive either."

Adam let the breath hiss out through his teeth and tried to dismiss the anger. If he and Hoss were going to live through this thing he had to play careful and clever. "Found rich pickings in these hills, have you?" Adam knew well enough that most of the pelts on the loaded mules had come from his familyís land.

"Rich enough." Bojun shrugged and rubbed at the pain some more. It was bad today, tearing at him, the shattered knee objecting to the use he had made of it over a long hard trip. A man of the wilds, he figured it would be good to get back to something resembling civilization and get some warmth into the leg, some comfort. "What happened to your friend there?"

"The best part of a tree fell on him," Adam said with dry humour. He swallowed the last mouthful of coffee himself. It had grown cold in the cup but it was still good. Getting it inside gave him a moment to think. The trappers had gathered up all the guns in the cabin, and so far Adam hadnít figured out how to get his hands on one without getting himself shot full of holes. Certainly, that big Colt on the table could blow a draft right through him before he got two strides across the room. He didnít bother with the possibility that the old trapper wouldnít use it Ė he wasnít that big a fool.

Hoss Cartwright might have been lucid, but he was still somewhat confused. Having no clear memory of anything that had happened in the last week, he was disoriented Ė it was the strangest feeling. He felt like he had gone to sleep somewhere in the middle of the woods and awakened in a bad dream. It was like he had landed plumb in the middle of one of them fairy tales that Adam used to tell him when he was still a kid. He wasnít too clear in his mind where they were but they werenít at home, and he didnít know who all these men might be. He could tell from the razor edge of his brotherís tone that they werenít welcome. He rolled his eyes to get a good look at his brotherís face. As sure as the good Lord made little silver fishes olí Adam would know what was going on.

"Hey, Adam, whatís goiní on Ďround here? Who are these fellas? What they want?"

Adam put his hand on Hossís shoulder but didnít look at him. His eyes were hooded, hidden in shadow. "Donít you worry yourself about it." Adam knew how his brother felt about indiscriminate trapping. What he didnít know was how the big man would react when he found out that these were the men doing the trapping. He was still debating with himself how much his brother ought to know about their situation when Hoss struggled into a sitting position all by himself.

While not the fastest man alive when it came to figuring things out, Hoss knew Adam, and he knew that look boded ill for somebody. He had a feeling that they were in trouble, and if Adam hadnít already done something about it, it had to be big trouble. He squinted hard at Bojun. "Who are you, Mister?"

Adam looked uncomfortable, uneasy. "Take it easy, Hoss."

The trapper took a long sip from the liquor jug and wiped his hand across his mouth, "My nameís Bojun, friend. Herricule Bojun."

Hoss frowned, working the name around in his mind. "I heard oí that name somewheres afore. Say, ainít you heard that name, Adam?"

"I heard it." Adam sat down on the edge of the bunk, glad to get the weight off his leg. "I heard Bojun was dead."

"A lot oí people heard that. A lot oí people heard wrong. Sorry I canít oblige you."

Hossís frown had deepened into a scowl. He had just about worried the problem into a solution. "Ainít you the trapper what cleaned out the Squaw Hills? Killed everí liviní thing what moved?" He felt Adamís hand on his shoulder, the fingers tightening. He ignored it. "I heard all Ďbout you when I was a liíle kid. Folk said the rivers run red by the time youíd finished butcheriní." Hoss was getting angry, a hot, futile emotion that was hard to contain. "You the fella whatís bin settiní trap lines all over this country?"

Bojun glared, "I just bin all through that with your friend here." The corn was taking effect now, numbing the pain and shortening his temper.

Hoss growled, "This hereís our land, Mister, aní you ainít got no right ta trap on it!"

The words were out before Adam could do anything to stop them. He wasnít at all sure that it was wise to let these men know who they were or their connection with the country, but it was too late now. Big, blunt, bluff Hoss had already let that particular cat out of the bag.

"Your land?" Bojun laughed disbelievingly, a deep hearty rumble that had no mirth in it, "Is that at fact?" He chuckled again, blue eyes glittering like faceted ice, "Is that a fact!"

Hoss exchanged long looks with Adam. Both of them rather wished Hoss had thought a little more about what heíd said before he said it.

The door of the cabin slammed open again and Lighterman came in followed closely by Perriot. Both of them smelled of mules and horses. Lightermanís head barely cleared the doorframe. With five big men inside, the small room was suddenly very cramped. The two newcomers headed straight for the coffeepot.

Lighterman looked at Bojun. As always, his face was angry, "What in hell Ďre you laughiní at?"

Bojunís lip quirked with dislike. "Iím a laughiní at these two fellas. They reckon they own this country here abouts aní we bin takiní all them pelts off oí their land."

Lighterman rounded on the Cartwrights, a sneer on his face, "You got somethiní agíin a man earning himself a liviní?"

Hoss couldnít keep the dislike out of his voice. "I ainít got no time fer no man what does nothiní but kill critters fer their skins."

Lighterman dropped his cup, coffee and all, and started forward, snarling. Adam came to his feet with surprising speed and grace, planting himself squarely between Lighterman and his brother. He didnít let the price of it show on his face. "My brother doesnít much like trappers," he said pointedly, diverting Lightermanís anger from Hoss onto himself.

Lighterman sneered, "And what about you, Big Man?"

"I donítí have a problem with a man taking a few pelts for his own use," Adam said carefully, "But I donít see the point in stripping the hills bare."

Stepping close, Lighterman stared into Adamís eyes. His big fists clenched. Perriot stepped between them, pushing them apart. "Is enough," he said, "no call for either one of you to kill the other. ĎBel, get some food inside you, and you," he turned furiously on Adam, his own eyes angry, "I told you before about your mouth!"

The antagonists eyed each other malevolently for long seconds more. Perriot gave both of them another shove. "I said, thatís enough!"

A moment more and the two broke apart, Lighterman turning back to the fire, his face working. Adam subsided back onto the edge of Hossís bunk; his eyes were still full of anger. Perriot looked at Bojun. Bojun pulled a sour face. It was apparent that before long one of these two was going to kill the other. It was just a matter of which Ė and when. Bojun lifted the liquor jug to his mouth and drank deep.

********

Morning in the high Sierras dawned in glory. At first it appeared the pine forests were lit from below with light the colour of ripened apricots. Under the paling sky the wooded valleys swiftly filled with mists. The hills, ranked one on one behind the other all the way to the brightening slopes of the mountains in every shade of green and gold, brightening steadily.

Jody climbed groggily out of the damp twist of blanket and went to check on his horse. It had been a cold camp without a fire. Jody was still tired and his body ached in every joint. He was also hungry and so was the horse. Last night he had ridden for as long as there was light to see, until the silver moon set behind the mountains and plunged the forest trails into absolute darkness. Then he had taken off the saddle, wrapped himself in the blanket and slept the sleep of the dead. He had been too exhausted, too bone weary to do anything else. In the cold light of the new day he was all but overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. He had had it drummed into him hard from the very first moment he had seen a horse that a man always looked after his animal before he thought about himself. Very carefully, he went over the bayís legs and feet inch by inch.

The gelding had taken some bumps and bruises Ė it was inevitable that he would - but he wasnít lame, and he didnít flinch from the saddle as Jody lifted it on to his back. Jody tightened the cinch. He regretted that he didnít have more than a few handfuls of grain to feed him; pickings for a grazing animal on these hillsides were sparse. He gave the horse a pat and a few kind words before he stepped aboard. He felt very much alone in the still dripping and almost silent woodlands; the pine and the oak seemed to brood. He was following a different trail to the one they had used riding into the hills. Adam had said to get into the valleys and to follow them north and east. He was to use the rivers and streams as highways and let them guide him home.

It wasnít nearly as easy a thing as Adam had made it sound. A whole lot of things kept getting in Jodyís way. Heíd encountered everything from landslides, to fallen trees, to rivers so over-burdened with run-off water that the horse couldnít wade through. In every case Jody had been forced to find a way around. He had a feeling that he was still too far west and was putting long days of riding onto his journey, days that neither he nor the men depending on him could afford. What made it more difficult was that none of the valleys that Jody was supposed to follow ran the way he wanted to go. To keep himself headed in the right direction he found himself scrambling up steep and stony paths, leading the horse by the bridle, and riding back down at a pace faster than was truly safe, searching for the stream that would lead the way east and home. The truth of it was, Jody was lost. He knew only vaguely where he was and had but a general idea of the way he needed to go.

Jody turned the gelding head downhill and kicked hard, driven by a devil of urgency. He rode as hard and as fast as he dared along a barely discernible trail. A fall could break the horseís legs and spell disaster for both of them.

The river ran swift and deep in the valley bottom, a dark, green-crystal torrent that tumbled and danced over the boulders that lined the riverbed. It was the same watercourse that Jody had forded Ė it seemed like half a lifetime ago Ė riding with the Cartwright brothers, pulling the packhorse. There, the river had been wider and slower; the crossing had been easy with the water coming barely to the horsesí shoulders and swirling away in slow eddies. Here it was all but impossible. The banks were higher and the river faster, the turbulence noisy beyond belief. Jody had no way of knowing how far he was from that shallow crossing point.

For a while he jogged along the bank, easing the horse and looking for a place where they could get over. He did come to a spot eventually. A huge log had washed downstream and become wedged against the bank. The riverbank had broken and washed away, leaving a low place where he might almost walk the horse right into the water. Furthermore, the flow of the water, although fast, seemed smoother, indicating perhaps that the bottom was less rocky. Jody decided to take his chance. Turning the horse he drove his heels in hard, urging it to step down the broken bank and plunge into the water.

The gelding threw up his head and shook it, resisting as if he knew far better than the man who sat on his back. Then he leapt in, all four feet together.

The green water ran deeper, colder and faster than Jody could ever have expected. The icy shock of it took him completely by surprise. He gasped and clung tightly to the saddle horn as the horse came up for air. He had lost a rein and could do nothing to assist the gallant animal except yell encouragement that was swept away and lost in the roar of the water.

The powerful current boiled and surged around them, pulling and pushing at them with primordial and irresistible force. The horse scrambled for a footing on the slick riverbed. The freezing water filled Jodyís boots; it came to his thighs, his groin, his waist. The gelding struggled and plunged. He tried to swim but the force of the water was too strong. His head went under, then came up again, wild eyed. Jody yelled again and the horse made another effort. He lunged and plunged again; now he was making some headway against the force of the water.

Jody started to feel relief and elation. They were almost across and angling back against the current. He picked a place on the far bank where the horse would be able to climb out. He had no way of knowing that a huge boulder had washed out of the riverbed and been swept downstream. The gelding foundered in the hole. Jody was thrown from the saddle as the horse went under yet again. He clung desperately to the saddle horn as the animal struggled to the bank. His hat, the green felt hat bought for him by Joe Cartwright on his birthday, spun for a moment in a little whirlpool and swirled away, forever lost. Jody was still hanging on the saddle with grim determination as the horse hauled himself out of the water. Both of them were drenched, cold right through to the bone and shaking.

An hour later and further along the trail, Jody found yet another obstacle in his path. The heavy rains of spring had caused half a hillside to slip away; it had taken several sizeable trees and the only safe path with it. Trees and path lay together in ruins at the bottom of the down-slope. Jody sat in the saddle at the top of the slope and gave the gelding a chance to blow. He wiped his sleeve across his dirty face and tried to think intelligently about how to get down.

He was still cold; his clothes were soaked through, and all his gear was drenched. More significantly, the gelding was tiring noticeably. Since the near disastrous river crossing his gait had become unsteady. Between his knees he could feel the animalís ribs heaving.

He studied the tree-covered hillside. There was no easy way down. To go around would involve going back over his own tracks for miles and putting as much as half a day on the trip. Jody gritted his teeth and put the horse to the hill, angling him across the slope. The gelding danced for a moment on the edge and then started down with small mincing steps.

They didnít get far before the ground started to slide Ė and the horse slid with it. Still wet and loose from the recent landslide, the earth slipped away from beneath the shod hooves. The gelding squealed with alarm. Jody kicked free of the stirrups, and the animal lost his footing. The two of them, man and horse, took the shortest way to the bottom, each tumbling separately in a slide of soil and stones.

The horse landed on his back, all four legs in the air, struggling. Then he wriggled and rolled and got to his feet. He snorted and kicked up his heels. Reins and stirrups flying, he cantered off into the woods.

Jody lay stunned for several minutes. He had arrived at the bottom of the hill with enough force to knock the wind clean out of him, and somewhere along the way he had taken a good clout to the head. His face was pressed well into the dirt, and soil and rocks continued to fall on him until he was half buried. Eventually, he had to come up for air. It took him a while to gather his scattered wits and to dig himself out. There was blood on his face that he traced to a long cut up near his hairline; it kept running into his eyes. He had torn skin off both his hands and had broken open the half-healed scratches on his forearms.

Somewhere in the long tumble his six-gun had fallen from his holster. Jody sought for it anxiously. Like most cowboys, he had become almost physically attached to his side arm and hated to be parted from it. He found it eventually in the soft soil and cleaned it off on the rags of his shirttail. He got to his knees and then to his feet. Holding his arm tight against him and limping on an ankle that was unexpectedly sore, he went in search of the horse.

Too tired to run far, the gelding had found a clearing with some grass to nibble and a stream running through. His flanks were well caked in mud, and a strap on his bridle had broken. Jody found a streak of blood on his shoulder but couldnít make out where it had come from. He rolled his eyes and tossed his head as Jody straightened the saddle and tightened the cinch. Jody sighed. He was as stiff and sore as the horse, and he still had a long way to ride. He picked up the reins and stepped back into the saddle.

********

Brilliant sunlight speared into Joeís eyes.

Someone had pushed open the barn door and allowed in the punishing dazzle of the brand-new day.

Despite the discomfort of his position: bound to a stout post with his hands behind him and his ankles roped together, unable to lie down or to rest his head against anything but unyielding timber, Joe had been dozing. Yesterday had been a hard day, and heíd had disturbed night. Not even the threat of an untimely death had been enough to keep him fully awake through the earliest hours.

Old man Prescott had not enjoyed being rousted out of his warm house and his even warmer bed by all the shouting and hollering that had gone on outside. He had been even less pleased when he had been wheeled out onto the porch, all swaddled in blankets and shawls, to find out what the commotion was, to have Asia and Joe hauled up in front of him again. Heíd yelled long and loud without saying anything much that they hadnít heard before. Then the old man had leaned forward in his chair. With a flash of shrewd insight he demanded, "How Ďn hell did you two git out Ďo that shed anyhow?"

The two young men were both securely tied and a little bruised and bloody, having been hustled and roughhoused on the way over from the barn. Asia had a sullen pout that might have been the result of a rapidly swelling lip, and Joe sported a beautifully bruised eye. Angry and defiant, neither one of them had been prepared to offer an explanation. Seth Prescott stood by chewing on his lip. He looked a worried man. His sister remained in the shadows of the porch, her face invisible. Neither Joe nor Asia looked at either of them.

"Well, I guess it donít matter none," old Prescott had said. "Tie Ďem up tight." And that they had done. "An set two men ta watch Ďem Ė with guns!" And they had done that too. "Donít want em gettingí away agíin."

At least the barn had been warmer.

Joe braved the glare and looked towards the door. The two men silhouetted against the sunlight with the brightness spilling over their shoulders were instantly recognizable: the lean Seth Prescott and his shorter, stockier brother. Both of them wore low-slung side arms and carried long barreled rifles. Joe lashed out with his feet, kicking Asia awake. On the straw in the stall the two cowboys who were supposed to be watching them were waking up and stretching cramped muscles. Joe wished he could do the same. Jed Prescott gave the two men and angry glare and a couple of hearty kicks to get them moving.

Remembering where he was and what was about to happen, Joe felt sick to his stomach and already short of breath. He looked up at Seth Prescott and there was real fear in his face, "You fellas canít really be planning ta do this!"

Prescottís silver eyes were filled with shadows. His face might have held the faintest traces of reluctance, of sympathy and of doubt, but for all that it was a grimly determined face. After a lengthy and loud interview with his father and a stand up shouting row with his brother he had managed, at least partially, to dispel the old mans suspicions concerning the escape. While he might not agree with the elder Prescottís tactics, he didnít consider himself in a position to cross the old man again.

"Git up on yore feet," he said gruffly, "aní walk outside."

Jed Prescott finished pulling loose the ropes that held Joe to the post and untied his feet. The cast in his eye screwed up his face into a twisted squint that belied the serious business of the day. It made him look as if he were winking. He turned to take the rope off Asia. Seth jabbed Joe with the long gun and said, grimly, "You cín die fast on the end of a rope, or you cín die slow with a bullet in the belly. Your choice."

Joe eyed the rifle warily and with the help of the post managed to get his legs under him. His bound hands picked up a whole host of splinters from the woodwork. "You canít do this. You canít hang a man just for ropiní a steer!"

"I reckon," Jed Prescott said,Ē you two cowboys are about to find out about that first hand."

"Outside," Seth Prescott said again. He both looked and sounded weary. After last nightís verbal battle and a repeat performance already this morning, he just wanted to get the unpleasant business over with. "Looks like weíre gonna have us a hanginí afore breakfast after all." Jed Prescott gave his brother a sharp look but Seth ignored him. The two sleepy eyed cowboys fell in behind them, and they all trooped out of the barn.

The morning sun filled the yard with strong light and sharp, dark shadows. The house looked brighter and whiter, the trees greener and less grey. The air was crisp and clean, still with a faint hint of moisture and aglow with a promise of heat to come. It was going to be a beautiful day Ė the first true day of early summer. Pausing in the doorway Joe wondered how much of it he would be allowed to see.

A line from one of those books Adam was always reading ran suddenly through his mind, as bright as a thread of gold, ĎThen in good faith there is no difference between your grace and I, but that I shall die today, and you tomorrow.í**†† He thought of Adam with a pang; big brother wouldnít have gotten himself into a mess like this, that was for sure.

He felt as if, for this special morning, all his senses had been enhanced. Everything was especially brilliant and crystal clear. The smell of fresh cow dung from the corral was so pungent that he could taste it on his tongue. He felt the movement of the air against his skin and heard the drone of an early, opportunistic bee all the way across the yard, buzzing among the flower tubs in front of the house. He noticed details that otherwise he would have paid no attention at all: a drift of fine cloud high up in a sky already paling to buff, a silver glint in a droplet of water as it dripped from the pump and, falling, sent ripples the length of the horse trough, the little calico cat that had been his undoing the night before sitting on the porch step cleaning her paws. It was indeed, as someone else had once said, a fine day for a hanging.

Jed Prescott jabbed the business end of his riffle into Joeís backbone. "Get walkiní, Curly. Iím a-gettiní hungry."

Something inside Joe snapped. If he was going to hang it would damn well be under his own name! He spun round, all but throwing himself off his feet, and stared Jed square in the face. "My name ainít Curly! Itís Joe Cartwright! You remember that!"

The sneer on Jedís face slipped into a snarl, "Just walk!"

Someone had pulled a wagon and team tight up against the big cottonwood tree that grew close against the house and spread gnarled branches far and wide. Two ropes, new hemp, shining white in the sunlight, were already looped over the lowest branch. The ropes ended in two oval nooses suspended some six feet above the wagon bed. Looking at them, Joe already felt the constriction about his throat.

Prescott was out on the front porch on the house, his legs wrapped in a boldly checked blanket. A man who didnít sleep well, early rising was not a problem for him. Lilleth Prescott, pretty in a pink and white dress, was pale faced and anxious, hovering at her fatherís shoulder. Joe looked at her without really seeing her. Appealing as she was, right then he had other things on his mind. The ranch hands were gathered about. Red and Blue were there in prime positions, right up beside the wagon, and there were six or seven other men from the night before. Just about every man on the Lazy ĎPí payroll had gathered to watch. Some of them met Joeís eyes levelly, boldly even; some of them would not look at him at all. They were all silent and still, a tableau, a snapshot frozen in time just like one of those photographic pictures that were coming to be all the rage these days.

Jed nudged Joe again with the riffle. It broke the spell. Joe took a step, and then another. The sound of the dirt crunching beneath his boots was loud in his own ears. Asia, looking over his shoulder at Seth, took his cue from Joe and went along with him. The younger man was white faced and starting to sweat; his previous composure and calm had completely deserted him. Once, he stumbled. Joe had some idea of how he was feeling. He was sick to his stomach himself, and his legs were leaden. His mind was partially detached. It was if he stood aside and watched another man walk wooden legged across the sunlit yard towards the improvised gallows.

He stopped short at the porch steps and let Jed Prescott walk right into him. Jed swore at him and shoved him hard in the back. Joe ignored his cussing and his pushing and looked steadily at the old man, "We werenít stealiní your steer Mister. Like I told you, we was just hauliní him out oí the mud!"

Prescott leaned towards him, his weight on the gnarled knob of a polished briar walking cane. His knuckles showed white and bloodless against the skin. "I told you afore, boy, more Ďn once, you put your rope on another manís steer, youíre gonna dance fer it."

Throwing off Jedís sticky hands, Joe struggled with the ropes that tied his hands. He was getting mad; if he could only get free he might do something to the Prescotts that would be worth hanging for.

"I got a Pa aní I got brothers! Theyíre gonna come lookiní fer me!"

"We can deal with your Pa aní your brothers," Prescott said complacently, "A manís got a legal right ta protect whatís hisín." He nodded his sons in the direction of the wagon. "Git the job done aní then we cín eat."

Jed took another good grip on Joeís arm and hauled him roughly to the gallows. Asia was struggling with Seth, but resistance wasnít getting either of them anywhere. There were too many men, too many hands willing to boost them bodily into the back of the wagon. Seth climbed up there with them and set about arranging the ropes around their necks. The faint look of reluctance was gone from his face, replaced by grim determination. Jed went Ďround to the front and climbed up onto the seat; he gathered the strap reins into his hands. The horses fidgeted in their harness.

Seth tightened the nooses. Joe felt the hardness and the rough prickle of the hemp against the skin of his neck. His mouth was painfully dry. He tried to swallow but the rope got in the way.

The cook appeared at the cookhouse door. He wore a once-white apron that came to his knees and a battered stovepipe hat. He was already puffing on his first pipe of the day. From the open doorway behind him the aromas of bacon and coffee and fresh baked biscuits drifted onto the morning air, announcing that breakfast was ready inside.

Joe saw Red Pants and Blue Shirt looking up at him. Blue wasnít grinning any more; his eyes were hard and eager. Joeís bladder was full. He realized with dismay that the last thing he would to do in life, in front of all these men, would be to disgrace himself.

Seth finished fiddling with the ropes and stepped back, finally satisfied. He chewed at his lip and rubbed his palms across his rump as if he could wipe away the feel of the hemp. Jed turned his head, "All set, Pa."

Lilly Prescott pressed her white fists hard against her mouth. Above them, her eyes were wide open with alarm. Old man Prescott rapped his stick against the boards of the porch. "Do it then!"

A low, slow voice drawled, "I think you-all better stop right there."

Aubrey Prior eased his horse around the side of the house. Reins in his left hand, he held his six-gun casually across the horn of his saddle. The muzzle covered all the Prescotts fairly effectively.

From behind the barn Pet Nash strolled out into the sunlight; the fancy black horse followed on a slack rein. He had his gun in his hand and his usual friendly smile on his face; his eyes suggested that no-one take chances with a poker-playing man. Ashley Prior was sitting his gelding over by the corral. He could watch the whole yard from there without so much as moving his head. Astley and Arthur rode out of the cottonwoods. Grinning humourlessly, Arthur swung out of the saddle and moved with a speed that belied his bulk to the heads of the two-horse team.

For half a heartbeat everyone stood still. It was as if the world held its breath.

Jed Prescott recovered first. With a resounding yell he slapped the reins against the horsesí backs. The team leapt forward. The wagon lurched into motion. Joe felt himself falling, felt the rope dragging at his neck. He danced as the wagon moved under him, trying desperately to keep his footing. The rope dragged at his neck. Lilleth Prescott stifled a scream. The cowboys started shouting and milling about. The horses lunged wildly. The cat, wisely, retired hastily to the safety of the house.

A single shot, startlingly loud, rang out in the sudden uproar.

Jed Prescott yelped in surprise and sudden pain and fell sideways in the seat. His face twisted in agony and he clutched at his newly broken upper arm. Blood flowed freely from between his fingers. Arthur Prior grabbed the bridles of the plunging horses, using his enormous strength to bring them both to a tremble-legged halt. The wagon lurched to a stop. Joeís boots teetered on the very edge of the wagon bed. He fought for his balance. He could hear the blood singing in his head. Seth Prescott, regaining his own feet in the swaying wagon, took him firmly by the elbow; he steadied him, pulling him back to safety. He had his other hand on Asiaís arm.

Across the yard Ashley Prior pulled back the hammer of his Colt for a second shot, should it be necessary. His face was impassive. Aubrey swung his gun around so that it pointed directly at Seth. Astley rode alongside the wagon; his weapon covered Seth as well.

"I suggest," Aubrey said in a conversational tone that carried just far enough, "that you take that rope off our brotherís neck aní turn him loose. Joe Cartwright as well."

Seth didnít need telling twice. He didnít spare his father so much as a glance before doing exactly as he was bidden. The look on his face indicated that he was glad to do it. He freed Asiaís hands in short order and then Joeís and helped them get their necks out of the ropes. They didnít waste any time jumping down from the wagon. They wanted to put distance between themselves and those empty nooses as quickly as they could. The assembled cowhands stepped away from them, giving them room. Under the guns of the Priors the bravado had evaporated abruptly; no one was prepared to stand in their way. In the front of the wagon Jed Prescott groaned with pain. His father was purple faced with fury. His rage was making the wheelchair shake.

"Who in hell Ďre you? What give you the right to interfere with justice?"

Aubrey Prior raised his hand, still with the gun in it and tipped back his hat; he eased himself in the saddle. His eyes were bleak. "Ainít rightly got the time ta discuss justice with ya, but I know my brother ainít done nothiní ta be hung fer."

Prescott blustered, "He was caught cow stealiní! Thatís a hanginí offence!"

"You ainít gonna hang nobody, Mister." Aubrey gave him a jaundiced look, then turned a charming, gap toothed smile on Lilleth. "If I could trouble you, Maíam, for these menís side arms?"

Lilleth vanished into the house and re-emerged moments later with guns and gunbelts. Seth Prescott walked over. His father turned on him, "You gonna let them ride out oí here?"

With a shrug and an easy smile Seth said, "I reckon thatís just what Iím gonna do, Pa."

"Aní who runs things around here?"

Seth took his time about answering. He looked at his wounded brother, now in the care of his sister. Jed was still bleeding and whimpering, not nearly the man he pretended to be. Perhaps it was that cast in his eye that had, somewhere along the line, twisted Jedís outlook on the world. He looked around at the assembled cowhands, watching and waiting to see what would happen. They were good enough men as cowhands went, though they needed a firm hand on occasion. He thought about the ranch. The Lazy ĎPí broke even, with a little extra to boot, but only just. The buildings could do with repair and renovation: a new bath house, perhaps, and another barn for the stock. A little innovation and investment could soon see the place turning a healthy profit. He lifted his gaze to the range-land, dusty green and gold, rising towards the distant hills. He had often thought that sheep would do better on this poor grazing than steers, and there was a growing demand in the market for mutton and wool. Finally, he looked at his father: infirm and often unwell, confined now to his bed and his wheelchair, commanding and demanding. Lately, the old manís judgment had not been what it was; this time he had very nearly bamboozled them all into making a very serious mistake. It was time, so Seth reckoned, for a man to finally stand up and declare himself a man. "I guess, from now on, I am, Pa," he said, cheerfully enough.

Joe tightened the cinch under the pinto mare and lifted himself into the saddle. He would glad to be away from the Prescott ranch and off Lazy ĎPí range, but there was one thing he had to do first. He reined the mare round and headed for the corral.

"Joe?" Aubrey Prior drew rein and looked after him enquiringly.

Joe glanced over his shoulder. "Iím just gonna sort through these steers," he said with determination, "half of them wear a pine tree brand, aní Iím not leaving here without them!"

 

Ten

Jody rode hell-for-leather into the front yard of the house and half slid, half fell out of he saddle. He had done his best to conserve the animal, but in the last few miles the sweep of the range had become achingly familiar, and he found that he knew every tree and bend in the trail. With the prospect of home just over the hill, he had been unable to resist kicking hard and driving the horse into a cruelly laboured gallop.

He didnít bother to tie the gelding to the rail. The animal was more dead than alive and certainly wasnít going to wander off. Jody felt a pang of guilt leaving him standing there with his head hanging down to his knees and the tongue lolling out of his mouth. He made a promise that the horse was the second thing he was going to take care off. Limping Ė he wasnít able to do much more - he headed for the door.

The front door of the ranch house was unlocked, in fact, in the hospitable and trusting way of the old frontier it had no lock on it but was held closed against the wind and the weather by a simple catch. Jody opened it and pushed his way inside. He raised his voice in a yell of, "Halloooo!"

Of course, he didnít expect any of the Cartwrights to be there. Ben and Joe wouldnít have returned yet from the cattle drive, and Mrs. Cartwright was away visiting. He thought that the cook and housekeeper, Hop Sing might be somewhere about. The Chinese factotum seemed like a good place to start when it came to getting something done.

Inside, the large living room was in perfect order. Everything was in its place and new pin bright, as if all the woodwork had been recently polished and the rugs freshly beaten. All that was missing was the tick of the tall case French clock. Unwound, it had run down to a stop. The silence in the room was uncanny. The other thing that was missing was the fire that burned, summer and winter alike, in the grey-stone fireplace. Logs and tinder were laid there ready to light but the hearthstones were cold.

Momentarily confused, Jody stopped short, his mouth open in surprise. Then he headed for the kitchen. That was Hop Singís realm and domain; if the little oriental was anywhere about, that was where he would be. The kitchen fire was out as well, and the vast, black-iron range that filled one wall was quite cold. No one had done any cooking there for quite some time, and there was no sign of the cook anywhere. Bemused, Jody slowly made his way back into the living room.

"Cín I do somethiní fer you, Mister?" The voice was sudden, startling, and it came from behind. Jody jumped violently and spun around.

Old Elias Trenchard, a white-haired old-timer who had worked for Ben Cartwright as long as Charlie, and who had lived for longer still, had seen the front door to the big house standing open and come to see who was about. Elias, too frail now to work the range or even to get on the back of a horse, was still on the Ponderosa payroll. These days he busied himself doing odd jobs and keeping a general eye on the place. With the Cartwrights and all the regular hands away from home, he took his duties seriously. A short, stocky man, buckled and bowed by fifty years of hard, grinding work in an unforgiving country, he leaned back on his heels and looked Jody over from top to toe.

The fellow he saw was young, grown tall and willowy, but not yet filled out with the muscles of manhood. He had a whole host of faded freckles in an anxious, wind-burned face and a mop of unruly, candle-coloured hair growing out every which-away. And he had the strangest eyes. The irises were large: a light hazel-brown and sprinkled with motes of green and brightest gold. The eyes had a frantic, fanatical glow to them. Old Elias knew he had seen those eyes someplace before, but for a moment he just couldnít think whereÖ

"Ainít no use you looking for Ben or his boys," he said slowly. There ainít none of Ďem here nor likely ta be fer a while."

Jody felt a surge of frustration. He made a helpless, angry gesture. "Oh hell, Elias! Adam aní Hoss are up in the hills! Theyíre both hurt aní neediní help real bad!"

Elias knew the voice as well, now completely broken from treble to pleasant tenor. Elias looked the stranger over again, this time taking in the ragged and dirty clothes, the scrapes and the scratches. His sun-faded eyes returned to the face. He was sure he knew that face. "Jody? Is that you, Jody?" Could this possibly be the scrawny, tow-haired city whelp that the Cartwrights had been wet-nursing all these months, grown all of sudden into a tall young man? He could hardly believe it was so.

"Itís me, Elias!" Jody was fresh out of patience with the old manís slow thinking, "Where the heckís Hop Sing?" It was a stronger expletive that trembled briefly on his lips, one that he had often heard the cowboys use, but this was, after all, Ben Cartwrightís house.

He gazed around as if he expected the little Chinese housekeeper to creep out of the woodwork.

Elias scratched thoughtfully at the stubble on his cheek. "Hop Sing ainít here neither," he said finally. "Heís gone off ta Placerville ta visit wií some oí those relatives oí his. Donít recall him sayiní when he was cominí back."

"I gotta get some help!" Jody pushed Elias out of the way and started for the door. The old cowhand hooked a hand around his arm,

"Just you hold on a minute, now Jody. You say agíin what you said afore Ďbout Adam aní Hoss, only say it whole lot slower."

Jody took a long breath, "Hoss had a chunk oí tree fall on him aní stove in his chest, and then he took with lung fever, and Adam fell aní busted his leg. They need a doctor, aní they need Ďim realí fast!"

He made another bolt for the door. Elias held on tight to his arm and walked along with him. They went at a much slower pace than Jody would have liked. "Aní whereabouts is them two fellas now?" Elias asked.

"Theyíre holed up in an olí trapperís cabin up in the hills beyond the lake." Out in the yard again, Jody looked anxiously for someone to help Ė anyone! It was obvious to the young man that old Elias wasnít going to be any use. It was in the forefront of his mind to get a fresh horse and ride on into town. There must be someone there able to turn out to help.

"Reckon I know the place," Elias said after a momentís thought, "thatís a three Ė four day ride from here. How long you bin in the saddle, boy?"

Jody shrugged and shook his head at the same time. "I gotta get a doctor!"

"Iíll put olí Sam Haynes up on a nag. Heís got that busted arm but he cín make it in ta town, roust out the doc. Aní the sheriff." Elias, a shrewder man than Jody gave him credit for, was thinking on his feet. He walked Jody firmly towards the bunkhouse and a perpetually hot pot of coffee. "Roy Coffeeís a good friend oí the Cartwrights. Heíll send out some men ta help them fellas home." He parked Jodyís backside in a chair and poured black coffee into a cup.

Jody was relaxing now, hearing the old man making plans; in reaction to his long ride he was starting to shake. Elias left him to relish his coffee while he went to set Sam on his way and to do what he could for the gelding.

Several hours, some sleep and a meal later, Jody was back in the yard harnessing a team to a stout wagon. Elias watched him doubtfully, "You sure you know what youíre doiní boy?

"I know." Jody tossed some bundles into the back of the wagon: bundles that contained food and blankets, spare clothing and dry firewood. He threw Elias a hard, determined look, "I seen a way I cín get this wagon a good long way in ta those hills. Then Iím gonna ride up ta that shack with some grub and these morphine tablets." He patted the pocket of his coat where the packet of little white pills resided.

Elias looked at the sorrel gelding tied to the rear of the wagon. He had to admit that Jody had picked the right animal for the job - that horse could climb like a mountain goat. He scratched his chin, "Is a day gonna make that much difference? You could rest up fer a bit; ride on up with the doctor."

"I could," Jody climbed up onto the driving seat, "but Adam aní Hoss are my friends, and right now, theyíre neediní!" He nodded to Elias, slapped the reins against the horsesí backs and with a yell, started them at a steady pace towards the hills.

Elias stood in the yard and gazed after him until the dust cleared around the bend in the trail. He shook his head and sighed before heading for the barn. He figured that who ever had finished the job of bringing that boy up had done a realí fine job.

********

Joe threw his leg over the horn of the saddle and slid out of the leather. His boots hit the ground while the horse was still at full stride and launched him into a stumbling run. He was headed for the wagon, the fire and the blanket swathed figure that lay on the ground beside it. Charlie stepped in his way. He hooked the young man under the arm and spun him round, stopping him dead in his tracks. "Whoa now, Joe! Whoa now!"

Joe shrugged himself loose, and Charlie grabbed him again, holding on tight and ducking an errant fist. "Hold on a minute Boy!"

Joe rounded on him. His eyes were frantic, and there was a trace of a tear on his cheek. "Let go oí me Charlie!"

"Joe, you canít go over there."

"They told me my País sick!"

Charlie pushed his old, weather-beaten face into Joeís young and angry one. "Aní did they tell you what your País sick with? Heís got typhoid, boy. You go over there aní as like as not youíre gonna git it too! How díyou think heíd feel about that?"

It took a moment for Joe to take in what Charlie was telling him. Then his expression changed to uncertainty and anxiety tinged with fear. He stopped struggling. "But my PaÖ"

Satisfied that the younger man was finally thinking straight, Charlie let go of him. "Pete Barnes there knows doctoriní. He got some medicines in the wagon fer the fever, aní heís lookiní after yore Pa realí good."

Joe looked from face to face: Charlie, Auron and Asia Prior, Nash, TJ and the rest of the Ponderosa hands. They were all watching him, waiting to see what he was going to do. His hands were suddenly moist. Unconsciously, he wiped his palms on his pants. He looked at Charlie again. "Is my Pa goiní to be all right?"

Charlie lifted a shoulder. "Benís as strong as an old bull.Pete says heís doiní okay. Reckon itís gonna take a while fer him ta git over it though. Longer than you got."

"What do you mean, longer than Iíve got?"

Chewing slowly, Charlie narrowed his eyes and gazed into the trees. "You think about it a bit, Joe. You got fourteen hundred head oí steers eatiní their fool heads off. There wasnít that much grass here ta start with, aní there sure ainít none left now! Lessen you move Ďem quick, them steers is gonna starve. Youíre gonna lose the whole Goddamned herd."

Joe sucked on his lip and thought about it hard. His Pa was realí sick. Joe knew that a lot of people died of typhoid. He had to be right there if his father needed him, just in case. He knew that if he rode off and his Pa died with only strangers for company there was no way he could ever explain it to Hoss, or to Adam; how would he ever even explain it to himself?

But then there was the herd. His family had three years of their lives tied up in that bunch of bone-headed steers. Three years of back breaking, gut wrenching and often soul-destroying work. If the herd were lost it would prove a devastating blow to all of them: to their personal plans and ambitions and to the future of the ranch itself. If the steers werenít delivered to the rail head by the due date on the contract there would be massive penalties to be paid Ė fines big enough to cripple the Ponderosa for years to come, if not destroy it entirely and forever. It would be almost as disastrous for the family as the untimely death of Ben Cartwright himself. Joe didnít try to fool himself; much as his Pa loved his family, without the ranch he had conquered a wilderness to create he would be little more than a shell of a man. Without the ranch Hoss wouldnít be able to marry little Mary Fletcher the way he was planning, and Adam Ė well Adam would fight long and hard to salvage what he could for his siblings and for Jenny and probably spend the rest of his life doing it. If they had to sell the land to pay off the debt, the foundations of all that they had would be swept away.

Joe found abruptly that there was a whole lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He was a man with obligations: to the ranch and to the herd, to his father and his brothers and to the men now waiting on his decision. Ultimately, he was accountable to himself. He knew that he couldnít sit on his butt and watch while those steers died.

He glanced again towards his father. He knew what Ben Cartwright would want him to do; it was up to him to go and do it. Joe bit down hard on the bullet. "How long to drive the herd through the pass, Charlie?"

Without hesitation, Charlie said, "A full day, first light Ďtil sundown. Then itís another three Ė four days to the rail head if we push Ďem hard. With the men we got, we should have Ďem corralled by the end oí the week."

A rapid calculation told Joe that he didnít have much time to spare. He pulled a deep breath, "Weíll leave Pete Barnes and Rolo here with my Pa; one of the wagons and two teams of horses. We drive the herd out before sunup tomorrow."

Charlie gave him a curt but very apparent nod of respect. He said, clearly, "Just as you say, boss." Leaving Joe standing he turned away and started shouting orders. Joe carefully unwound the tight fists his hands had become. He knew that riding away from here tomorrow morning would be the hardest thing he had ever done.

********

Exactly what it was that had started the argument none of them were quite sure. It didnít really matter. It was only the latest of several, and they had all ended up in much the same way. The two big men stood toe to toe and chest to chest in the centre of the cabin, glaring into each otherís eyes and breathing each otherís breath. At every encounter the two of them struck sparks off one another like flint off steel.

The trappers had kicked open the window shutters and allowed the bright sunlight and fresh air to flood in. The smoke and the herbal steam that had characterized the early days of Hossís illness had been dispelled; the light revealed the broken squalor of the room: the dirt and the shattered woodwork, the debris of the long years of neglect.

Lighterman had his back to the light. His dark eyes were blazing with rage, and there was spittle in the beard at the corners of his mouth. He snarled into Adamís teeth, "I told you afore ta keep out oí my Goddamned way!"

Adam, glared at him in furious defiance and spat right back at him, "And I told you to stay away from my brother!" Adam was well aware that he should be keeping his mouth shut, but these men were interlopers, invaders, enemies! He was angry, and he couldnít help himself.

Still confined to the bunk, Hoss flailed helplessly, anxious to avert the conflict, powerless to prevent it. The antagonists were too involved with each other to notice. Lighterman looked from one brother to the other, his eyes glittering. "What in Goddamn hellíre you two whisperiní about, anyhow?" he asked.

Neither man answered him. They were not about to admit to their escape plans: desperate, futile and ultimately abortive. Lighterman pulled out his Colt and jammed it into Adamís belly. The muzzle was hard up against the scar of that old bullet wound. Both of them knew that if he pulled the trigger the ball would smash Adamís spine on its way out. This time he was just about mad enough to do it.

Adam saw it in his face and had sense enough to back down. Getting himself killed by this insane hothead wasnít about to do Hoss any good at all. His eyes, hazel in the light from the window, dark flecked, faltered. Lighterman saw it and laughed. He knew that he was in control. With his free hand, he pushed Adam over. It wasnít a hard thing to do. Fearful of damaging his leg still more, Adam let himself go, catching his weight on his arms and his elbow. Lighterman stood over him, his lip lifted to reveal the discoloured teeth. He took careful aim.

"Iím gonna put an end to you right now, Big Man," he said in a low growl. "I just about had enough oí you aní your Goddamn fancy mouth!"

"Is that the best you can do?" Adam snarled, "Shoot a man when heís down and canít fight you back!" He could see Lightermanís knuckles whitening around the butt of the Colt. His voice was edged with desperation. Lighterman laughed, a short sharp bark.

"Oh no! You ainít gonna git me ta kill you that easy. I promised you a skinniní, aní thatís what youíre gonna get!" He put away the Colt and in the same movement took the broad bladed skinning knife from the sheath on his belt. The sunlight shimmered on the razor edge and danced in the central blood furrow.

On hands and elbows and the heel of his good foot Adam edged away from him. He knew that this time heíd pushed Lighterman too far and would probably end up paying for the mistake with blood. He refused to cringe, and he wouldnít beg, but there was a shadow of fear on his face. Lighterman recognized it for what it was and smiled cruelly. He put a stop to Adamís retreat by the simple expedient of placing a booted foot on the splinted leg. He leaned over, turning the blade so that it flashed sunlight into Adamís eyes.

Adamís breath hissed in through his teeth as waves of pain washed through him. Lighterman grinned wolfishly and leaned closer, putting more of his weight on to the leg. Adam screamed. His vision darkened, closing in on all sides. Lighterman laughed aloud, opening his mouth wide and letting the foul air gust out.

Hoss struggled into a sitting position in the bunk, roaring with rage. He tried to get his legs over the edge but couldnít quite make it. He reached for Lighterman with his huge hands. There was grim murder in his face. Lighterman danced out of range, still laughing. With two big, potentially dangerous men at his mercy he was enjoying himself. Momentarily distracted from Adam, he waved the knife in Hossís direction. Hoss growled at him,

"You git away from my brother, or Iíll break yore back!"

Lighterman sniggered with delight. He kicked out at Adamís leg, just to elicit a response from Hoss. Fortunately for Adam, his aim was bad. Adam had regained some of his senses; he rolled, putting as much space between them as the room would allow. Lighterman went after him, at the same time being careful to keep out of Hossís reach.

The cabin door slammed open and Perriot loomed in the doorway. He had heard all the hullabaloo and had come to find out what was going on. He looked at Adam, still down on the floor with Lighterman standing over him. The smile on ĎBelís face was already turning into a snarl at the intrusion. The other big man, Hoss, was halfway out of the bunk, holding his ribs with one hand and grabbing onto the woodwork with the other. Lighterman waved the knife in Perriotís direction.

"Stay out oí this, Old Man. This oneís mine, aní Iím gonna cut him in ta little pieces!"

Perriot looked grim. "Then do it quietly. Like I told you before, I donít like to watch things suffer."

Looking down at Adam, Lighterman sniggered. "Iím going ta take the hide off you one inch at a time!"

Perriot jerked his head towards the door. "Bojun wants you. He says now."

Lighterman jammed the knife back into its sheath and pointed a finger at Adam. "Donít you go away, Big Man. Weíre gonna have some real fun, you aní me, but me, I reckon, more ín you" Chuckling at his own joke, he stumped past Perriot and out of the door. His eyes held both threat and promise.

Perriot favoured the brothers with another angry look and followed him out. Those two were more trouble than they were worth. He couldnít make out why Bojun didnít let Lighterman finish with the pair of them and have done, but the old trapperís orders were clear: keep them alive, for the time being at least. Perriot just hoped the one with the sharp mouth had learned himself a lesson.

On his backside, Adam eased himself over and sat with his back up against Hossís bunk while he waited for his breathing to steady and the pain to subside. Hossís hand came snaking over the side to touch him on the shoulder. "You all right, Adam?"

Adam covered his brotherís hand with his own. "Iím all right, Hoss." He sighed and closed his eyes, "Iím all right."

Eleven

 

The last range of hills opened, finally, to reveal a wide, flat-bottomed valley. Beyond, the plain was folded and pleated, forming a natural funnel, a chute that delivered the cattle almost directly into the cattle pens at the railhead. A spiral of smoke arose from a locomotive, as yet no more than a black mote in the far distance. On the other side of the tracks was the ever-expanding sprawl of the city itself, a dark and untidy stain on a beautiful landscape. In the eye of Joe Cartwright, it was a jewel without price.

He sat comfortably enough in the saddle of a brown-coated cow pony. The cattle flowed by him in a seemingly endless stream of red and white bodies. A blanket of grey dust hung over the herd; Joeís clothes were thick with it, and he wore a mask of the same colour. He took off his hat and wiped a sleeve across his face. It only served to spread the dirt about.

Asia Prior cantered his borrowed grey gelding up the rise in the land and pulled in beside him. He had a big grin on his face, and it was infectious. Joe cracked a smile. At once the muscles of his face started to ache. It was the first time he had smiled in quite a while.

"Almost there." Asia eased himself in the saddle. It had been a long, hard ride for all of them. "I reckon about another hour should do it."

"About that." Joe estimated the speed of the herd. His smile faded again to be replaced by a frown of concern. Moving the steers at the rate they had must have run fifteen or twenty pounds of beef off an animal. It worried him.

Asia swept a stray strand of his hair out of his face and tucked it behind an ear. "First thing Iím gonna do when I get my pay is get me a bath, a new suit oí clothes and a square meal." Asia was entertaining visions of an elaborate, steam filled bathroom and someone soft and compliant to wash his back.

Automatically, Joe returned his friendís grin, but he had other things on his mind. Following his close encounter with a noose on the end of a rope, Asia had quickly regained his naturally cheerful equilibrium. Joe, on the other hand, was feeling the full burden of his responsibilities. Rather than anticipating his own creature comforts, he was thinking in terms of getting the cattle penned and fed and contacting the buyers agent. Having been there only once before in his life, he was trying to dredge out of memory the exact whereabouts of Mister McGrathís office.

Asia chuckled at Joeís apparent distraction and rode off, chasing errant steers back into the mainstream of the herd as he went. Still fretting at his problems, Joe lifted his hands, clucked to the cow pony and followed on behind.

********

Morning; although it was still early the sky was already bright. The mist was lifting in softly silvered layers from the hills. One by one, as the sun rose, the valleys filled with amber light. On the higher slopes the pine stood stark, black and eternal against the skyline.

Leaning heavily on his crutch Adam came out of the cabin door and hobbled carefully down the steps. He found it a relief to get out of the stuffy, stinking shack. Five men sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the tiny, enclosed space did not make for a comfortable environment. With his eyes squinted half shut against the dazzle of the new day, he pulled deep lungsful of the fresh morning air. It was lightly scented with pine and just beginning to warm. It made him feel good inside.

This was a day he had never thought would come; leastwise, he hadnít expected to live to see it. After days of steady activity: tending to the hurts of their animals, curing and sorting furs, re-packing their bundles, the trappers were about ready to leave. Down by the base of the waterfall the pack mules were loaded and already strung together, and the horses were saddled. Adam hobbled a few cautious steps to get a better look.

Bojun had already shrugged into his heavy oilskin coat and, early though it might be, had consumed half a jug of neat corn. He was at the very end of his supply and looking forward to a good many painful days in the saddle. Every step his horse took would jolt through a knee locked tight and a hip crippled by arthritis. And if the days were going to be bad, then the nights would be a hundred times worse. Without the anaesthetic qualities of the raw alcohol, the agony would gnaw at his leg and his back all through the small, dark hours until, just before dawn, he fell into a pain wracked doze of exhaustion. Unwilling to ration himself, he had known when he extended the trip that he would run out of liquor before it ended. It was not a prospect that he relished.

He took another long swig from the jug and palmed the stopper back into place. For the moment the pain was under control; the world was bathed in a pink tinged, golden glow. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and turned to look squarely at Adam.

"Nice morning for a ride, friend." There was an edge to his voice, and Adam picked it up instantly.

Carefully he said, "It looks like youíve chosen a pleasant day for it."

Bojun smiled a thin, humourless smile. "Youíre gonna be ridiní right along with us, friend Adam."

Adam breathed slowly and deliberately, out and in, while he assimilated what the trapper had said. He turned his head and saw for the first time that his own gelding was among the saddled horses. This was no spur of the moment decision on Bojunís part; it had been planned this way all along. Somehow, he wasnít surprised. The brightness of the morning took on a harsh, brittle gleam. All the moisture went out of Adamís mouth. His eyes switched back to Bojunís face.

The trapper was watching him with an air of open speculation. Beyond him, Lighterman was paying close attention. Obviously in on Bojunís plans, he wore a savage, vulpine grin.

"I bin wonderiní Ďbout you two fellas since the first moment I seen you," Bojun said, "wonderiní what you was doing up here in the hills by yore-selves, all banged up like you was."

Adam touched the tip of his tongue to his dry lip. He had an unpleasant feeling that he had been under-reckoning these men right from the outset.

"Seems ta me," Bojun went on with that same air of conjecture, "that owniní all this hereabouts, you must be big, important men in this neck oí the woods. Thereís folks gonna be cominí up here lookiní fer ya."

Adam thought fast. "My brother was off his head when he told you that. We donít own nothing." It was an outright lie for which he knew he would be forgiven.

"Nope," Bojun shook his head, "he werenít off oí his head. That was Godís own truth if ever I heard it. Aní I bin watchin you. All that whispering you bin doing, all that shifty eyed lookiní at the woods. You bin playiní games wií me, friend Adam, aní I canít say as I like it much. I reckon you sent someone fer help afore we got here, aní youíre expectiní Ďem back any time now."

There didnít seem to be much point in denying the fact; Bojun had it all figured out. Adam knew with a sudden, hot anger at himself that he must have given himself away a dozen times over with an expression, a glance, a hesitation. He gritted his teeth, edge on edge, for the worst of it.

"Yore gonna ride along with us a-ways. Keep those friends of yoreís off our necks until weíre well out oí these hills."

Adam set his jaw. "Theyíre not interested in you. Theyíre only coming to help my brother."

Bojun leaned back on his good leg. "Thatís what you say now. Youíll think different when they git here. Us takiní all these skins off oí yore land; you ainít gonna like it no more Ďn yore brother does. You ride along with us, aní yore friends ainít gonna bother us none." He swapped the corn jug into his left hand and pulled out his Colt. Lighterman, hands on hips and still grinning, came up beside him. Bojun pointed the gun at Adam. "Now you go git yore-self on that horse."

Adam backed up. "I canít ride off aní leave my brother all alone."

"Somehow I jist knew you were gonna say that," Bojun chewed at his thick lips. His eyes were as blue and as hard as sapphires, "Iím gonna make it realí easy fer you. ĎBel, git yore-self in there and kill the other Ďun."

It was the moment Corbel Lighterman had been antiicipating for a long time. Leering, he started for the cabin.

"No!" In desperation Adam moved awkwardly to put himself in the way, his own body between Lighterman and Hoss.

From behind, Perriot hit him across the head with the muzzle of his gun. Adam pitched face first into the dirt. The blow had been hard enough to knock him down but not to knock him out. Stunned, he struggled to get him legs back under him. Still standing over him, Perriot kicked the crutch out of his reach and left him floundering. Laughing, his gun already in his hand, Lighterman stepped over him to the cabin door.

Elias Trenchard had been absolutely right in his assessment of the sorrel gelding. The animal had the speed of a gazelle and the clambering ability of a wily old mule. Jody had left the wagon in the valley bottom, hobbling the team so that they could graze but not wander, and ridden the gelding as straight as the terrain would allow for the remote, hanging valley. The gelding had been fresh and willing, and he had climbed the hills as if he enjoyed the exercise.

Jody had traveled light. Apart from the clothes he stood up in and a hat loaned him by Sam Haynes, all he carried behind the saddle was a blanket to wrap himself in when it became too dark to ride, some basic foodstuffs in bulging saddlebags and the package of precious medicines. He had covered the ground in half the time it had taken to ride home.

He had been in the saddle since first light, urging the horse to the fastest pace possible, anxious to cover the last miles to bring comfort and relief to the men he considered, above all, to be his friends. He had been more than surprised to find the little valley filled to capacity with heavily laden pack mules. It had taken only a moment for him to figure out whose mules they were - they just had to belong to the fur trappers Adam and Hoss had been so all-fired mad at. If the size of the packs was anything to go by, the Ponderosa hills had provided a plentiful harvest.

Jody hastily rode the gelding out of sight among the trees and stepped out of the saddle. He left the horse tied securely; he didnít want him joining the other animals and giving his presence away. He had a powerful feeling that he ought to find out how the land lay before he barged right in.

Moving steadily through the woods, he soon found himself following the same vague path that he had used on the morning he had shot the squirrels, the morning Adam had broken his leg, the day he had ridden away. He knew that the path came out close beside the shack and that if he kept low and moved quietly the scrub growth would give him cover every inch of the way.

Jody saw Adam confronting three big, bearded men; he saw them pull their guns on him, and he saw him knocked to the ground. Lighterman headed for the cabin with his gun in his hand and murder written plainly on his face. Bojun and Perriot had Adam squarely bracketed between them.

Jody pulled him Colt out of his holster. Everything that the Cartwrights had taught him presented itself readily at the forefront of his mind: keep the gun low, lock the wrist but not the elbow, be prepared for the recoil, be ready to take a second shot but make the first one count. Clearest of all was Adamís first lesson, delivered in the dim mustiness of summer inside Eli Huxtonís General Store; never, ever draw down on a man unless you were prepared to kill him.

Jody stepped out from behind the scrub pine. He knew better than to shoot any man in the back. He pulled a deep breath and hoped that his still unreliable voice wouldnít squeak,

"All of you, hold it right there." He pulled the hammer of the Colt all the way back and the loud, double click added its own emphasis.

Bojun turned, pivoting on his good leg. Surprise, anger and determination all flashed across his face. The black Colt in his hand came around in an arc, flat and level.

Jody aimed at the big trapperís chest and squeezed the trigger. At the range, it was impossible to miss. The ball went in low, smashed its way through Bojunís lower ribsand angled upwards, tearing its way out in a gout of blood below the shoulder blade. Bojun went down hard, spread eagled on the ground. The liquor jug spun away, bouncing and rolling on the ground. The Colt flew from his hand. His last breath splattered blood over his beard.

Adam, by far the more experienced man, reacted quickly and grabbed the advantage of the moment. He kicked out hard with his good leg, catching Perriot off balance and distracted by Bojunís abrupt demise. The Canadian staggered. Adam rolled desperately, snatching up Bojunís Colt as he went. Lighterman was bolting for the cabin. Adam fired a snap shot as the gun came up. The ball splintered Lightermanís elbow, smashed his forearm and shattered the small bones of his wrist. The force of it threw him off his feet and hurled him face first against the wall of the shack. He landed with a yell and slid to the ground, whimpering. He made no attempt to get up.

Still rolling and twisting as he went, Adam cocked and fired again, using his momentum to bring the gun into line. His second ball went in under Perriotís chin and came out the back of his head. The gun in the dead manís hand fired before he fell. The ball ploughed into the ground where Adam had been one instant before.

The sound of gunfire reverberated for a moment from the surrounding hills and was then absorbed as the silence re-established itself. Smoke and the smells of gunpowder and blood drifted on the morning air. The only sound that remained was that of menís breathing: Adamís, harsh and rasping, Lightermanís, degenerating into sobs of agony and Jodyís, starting to shudder now as the reaction set in.

His Colt still in his hand, the young man stepped forward and looked down at Bojun. The trapperís mouth was open and so were his eyes. Brightest blue, the eyes stared sightlessly up at the sky they would never see again. It was a face Jody would never forget, the face of the first man he killed.

When he had looked his fill he raised his eyes. His gaze settled on Lighterman. Some primitive instinct inside of him demanded that he finish the job. Of its own volition the gun came up, steady and level despite the tremor in his body. He thumbed the hammer back to full cock.

"No! Jody!" The yell was Adamís. Adam could see what Jody intended. He knew that right now the young manís mind wasnít working too well; he had been there himself once, and he knew how it felt. Irrelevantly, he noticed that there was a fine fuzz of beard on Jodyís chin, palest gold in the sunlight. He guessed that he would have to teach the boy to use a razor before much longer. Still on the ground, Adam held out his hand, the hand without the gun in it. He was too far away to get there in time.

Jodyís finger hesitated on the trigger.

"Heís finished," Adam told him quietly, "you donít have to kill him."

Jody was confused and bewildered Ė both by what had happened and the speed at which it had happened. He looked at Adam, "But after what he done to you..?"

"That doesnít count for anything, Jody. Itís over. Let it go."

Jody swallowed hard and lowered the gun. Saliva flooded his mouth, and he felt abruptly sick. Lighterman met his eyes with a look of bitter hatred. The trapper would live Ė he would live a long time Ė but his right wing was shattered beyond any possibility of repair. That was the ongoing pain that he would have to live with, and he knew that he would sooner be dead.

 

********

Joe handed the reins of the gelding over to TJ and walked stiff legged to the water trough. In the last week he had spent every daylight hour, and a goodly bit of each night besides, astride the back of a horse. He had an aching groin, a sore backside and knees that didnít want to bend any more. He worked the handle of the pump and dunked his head under the fresh flow in an attempt to wash some of the dirt and sweat out of his hair. He came up dripping wet and somewhat refreshed, if not a great deal cleaner.

He took a deep breath of air. He had done it! He had gotten the herd safely to railhead Ė the cattle were in the pens now, milling about and protesting loudly at their constriction Ė a full twenty-four hours before the deadline ran out. The sense of achievement, of triumph, was almost overwhelming. He favoured himself that even his brother Adam couldnít have timed it any better, although his father might have claimed otherwise. At the thought of his Pa, the smile on his face faded a little; he paused to wonder how the elder Cartwright was faring and wished he had some way of finding out.

He dipped again, just for good measure, and shook a cascade of water droplets out of his hair. Grinning broadly, the ever-cheerful Asia Prior clapped him on the back,

"Hey Joe, Iím just off to cadge a beer off my big brother, you cominí?"

Joe responded ruefully. "Not much chance at the moment. I have to get over to the cattle buyerís office, tell him the herdís in and arrange to get paid for all these critters."

Asia went with him to find the hired man who looked after the cattle pens.

"McGrathís office is over on River Street," the waddy told him, when asked, "almost opposite the big olí church that sits on the corner, but I donít reckon as youíre gonna find him there."

Joe stared at him a trifle blankly, "Whyís that?"

The waddy pushed back his hat and scratched his head. "Itís all closed up; no oneís seen him fer a while. Heard a relative oí his got sick, aní he left town. Canít rightly say when heíll be cominí back."

"But weíve been doing business with McGrath for years." Joe pulled a long breath and steadied himself. It had been more years than he could rightly remember. "Heís supposed to be writing me a draft on the bank to pay for these here steers."

"Reckon as youíll be doiní your business with Mister Mullen then," the waddy said, "heís bin actiní as cattle buyer in McGrathís place fer quite a spell now."

"Is that a fact?" Joe let go the breath he was holding. He tried to shrug some of the tension out of his shoulders. Perhaps he was anticipating trouble before it was born, but he couldnít help just a little niggle of concern. The man he would be dealing with was not the man whose name appeared on the contract he held.

As he turned he found Charlie, still trailing the reins of his cow-pony, and Auron Prior standing close behind him. Charlie noted the scowl on Joeís face.

"You got troubles, Joe?"

Joe chewed at his lips and shook his head. There was no real problem that he could put his finger on, just that tickle of unease. "I donít reckon so, Charlie. País cattle buyer seems to have quit, aní now thereís a new man I have to deal with." Joe wondered again, briefly, what had happened to McGrath. He had met the dour old Scotsman only that once, but McGrath had done business with the Cartwright family for so long that Ben and Adam regarded him almost as a personal friend. They would be concerned that he was no longer in the job.

Pete Nash wandered over along with the rest of the Prior brothers. All of them wore pleasantly relaxed expressions, and there was some light-hearted pushing and shoving going on between Astley and Arthur. Inevitably, up against his bigger, younger brother, Astley was getting the worst of it. For them the drive, with all its attendant problems and privations was over. They were looking forward to clean clothes, clean beds and a whole week of living high on the town. First and foremost, though, they needed to draw their wages, and the responsibility of paying them fell to Joe. He needed to get that draft safely banked so that he could draw some cash against it and pay off the men.

"I have to catch up with a man called Mullen."

The waddy nudged his elbow. "You want ta talk ta Mullen, Mister, you ainít got far ta go. Thatís him, right there."

Heads turned and eyes followed the direction of the waddyís nod. Half a dozen men were strolling towards the cattle pens in a loose knit, well spread group. It was easy enough to tell which of them was Mullen.

Surrounded by his entourage of henchmen and cronies in leather vests and low-slung guns, Mullen was a man who simply shone in the sunlight. He was a well-built, finely proportioned man, not overly tall, and broader in the shoulder than he was in the hip. The suit he wore was fashioned of worsted, silver-grey broadcloth and cut in the very latest style. On his head he wore a new-looking hat in a paler shade of grey. Joe exchanged looks with Charlie. The cattle buyerís pristine prosperity made him very aware of the sweat and grime that stained his own clothing.

Feeling very much the country hick, Joe moved to intercept him. "Mister Mullen?"

Mullenís small, grey eyes glanced over him briefly and swept away again, back towards the cattle. Close too, Joe could see that the cattle buyerís cheek was as pink and as smooth as if he had just stepped out of a high-class barberís shop Ė which he had. A narrow, neatly tailored black moustache traced the line of his upper lip, and a fat brown cigar, recently lit, was clamped between his teeth. He spoke around the sides of the cigar. "Is this the Cartwright herd?"

"It is." Joe stuck out his hand. "Iím Joe Cartwright, Mister Mullen."

Mullen leaned back on the heels of his soft, calfskin boots and pointedly hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat. It was an elaborately patterned, silk brocade waistcoat, Joe noticed, with a gold watch-chain swagged across an embryonic bankers belly.

Mullen ignored the outstretched hand entirely; he appeared to be totally absorbed the steers in the pens although he seemed disinclined to go closer. A pall of dust hung over the restless animals, and he was reluctant to soil his immaculate clothing or, apparently, his beautifully manicured hands.

Embarrassed beyond belief by the carefully calculated insult, Joe let his hand drop. Unconsciously, he felt the need to wipe his palm off against his pants. Around them, Mullenís men had stationed themselves strategically and were paying close attention. There was a man with lank, black hair and a heavily tanned face on Mullenís left. From the look of him, he had Indian blood in him. He was watching Joe closely. Joeís unease was growing apace.

After a long, awkward pause, Mullen spoke again. "I got word youíd brought the herd in, Cartwright. How many head you got?"

"A tad over fourteen hundred." Joe couldnít keep the pride from edging his voice. Since heíd been trail boss, they hadnít lost a single head. "All prime stock."

Mullen turned and looked at him directly for the first time. He took the cigar from his mouth and almost, but not quite, blew smoke into Joeís face. The sun caught and danced in a huge diamond on his smallest finger. "Iím afraid prime isnít going to cut it. Cattle are a glut on the market this year. The price on the coast is rock bottom."

Joe exhaled slowly. His attention centered on Mullen, he was aware of a man close by his left side - Charlie Ė and of Auron Prior on his right; beyond him Pete Nash stood with his thumbs hooked into his belt and his hat pushed way back. Carefully, he said, "Iíve got a contract that guarantees me six dollars a head if the herd is delivered before twelve noon tomorrow." Joe stated the facts with all the confidence of a man who knew he was in the right.

Smiling a thin, shark-like smile, Mullen returned the cigar to his mouth, "Not signed by me, you havenít."

Joeís fists tightened; his voice started rise as he got angry. "Mister McGrath signed the contract with my Pa last fall. They agreed six dollars a head with the buyers in California."

The thin smile remained. "Well the buyers ainít here, kid, and neitherís your Pa. Like I told you thereís no market for cattle this year." Mullen worked the cigar in his mouth for a minute while Joe stood and stewed. Then, "Tell you what Iíll do, Cartwright, and for no other reason than youíve got that contract in your pocket. Iíll offer you two an a half dollars on the head for your herd."

Joe heard the breath hiss in through old Charlieís teeth, and he caught a glimpse of the stunned look on Auron Priorís face. Joe didnít believe what heíd heard himself. The whole world was taking up a slow and stately dance about him. "Two and a half dollars! It cost us more than that to raise them!"

Mullen took his cigar out again and made a gesture with it in the air. "Thatís the offer. Take it or leave it. By the time Iíve shipped Ďem west, Iíll scarce break even."

Joe didnít believe it for a minute. His mouth was dry, and the blood was singing a discordant song inside his head. "Iím not taking any measly two and half dollars for my steers, Mullen. Iíll find another buyer for the herd."

The thin smile returned. "You do that, Cartwright. Sell your beef elsewhere if you can." Mullen started to walk away. Then he half turned and looked back. He pointed the tip of his cigar at Joeís furious face. "Just to show Iím not an unreasonable man, Iíll keep that offer open for a while. Shall we say until your deadline runs out? Twelve oíclock tomorrow? After that, the price drops."

The man with the bronzed face leaned in close Ė so close that Joe could smell the sour animal fat that greased his hair. He thrust a blunt finger into Joeís chest, "To you, itís Mister Mullen!"

Looking over his shoulder Mullen called his dog off, "Rance, leave it - for now." The little group with Mullen in itís midst, ambled unhurriedly away.

Charlie spat eloquently into the dirt where Mullen had stood. "What you gonna do now, Joe?"

Joe unwound his hands and pulled a breath. He still had responsibilities.

"First thing Iím gonna do it find me the sheriff."

Sheriff Mortimer Brooker was a competent enough man in his own way, although since the railroad had come and the town had grown itself into a city, he sometimes found himself out of his depth. Brooker was pushing sixty, and he had been a law officer since he first pinned on a deputyís badge at the age of eighteen. He still managed to take most things in his stride: saloon brawls and robberies, Saturday night drunks and Tempírance meetings that got out of hand, wild street shootings and runaway kids. They were all handled with an old-time grace and a sawn off shotgun that rarely left his side. Except for the children, that was. They got a tanniní and were sent home to their Pas.

He sat at his littered desk and blew out his grey moustaches,

"I understand what youíre saying, Mister Cartwright, but I donít really see that thereís anythiní I cín do ta help you."

Joe was still sizzling with anger. "Mullenís trying to steal my herd!"

Mortimer Brooker looked distinctly doubtful. "I donít know that heís rightly stealiní em. He offered you a price, aní you cín take it or leave it."

"But Iíve got a contract!" Joe thrust the paper close enough to the sheriffís face to make him blink.

Brooker worried at the problem. In his day, when a man sold a steer he got a dollar for it, hard coin in his hand. He found all these written down paper promises nothing short of confusing. If he wasnít careful, he was going to be way out of his depth.

"If Mullen pulled a gun on you aní run off your steers, now thatíd be stealiní!"

"This is stealiní too!" Joe yelled, waving the paper again, "Heís tryiní ta buy my herd for the price of the hoofs and the hides! Theyíre worth more than twice what heís offeriní!"

Sheriff Brooker chewed on it a while longer; then his face brightened as he came up with a likely solution Ė or at least, a solution that would get this angry young man out of his office and into someone elseís. "Say, why donít you go see one oí them legal lawyer fellas. We gotta whole passel of Ďem in town. This sounds like jist the sort oí thing they like ta chaw on."

Outside on the boardwalk Joe traded a look with Asia. He slapped the folded paper into the palm of his hand then tucked it into his inside pocket. It was on the tip of his tongue to say some uncomplimentary things concerning elderly sheriffs who didnít understand the ways of the modern world, but right then he had other things on his mind and no time to waste. Asia gave his friend an uncertain look.

"You know any oí those lawyer fellas he was talkiní about, Joe?"

"My País got lawyers in town. But thereís somethiní else I gotta do first."

The telegraph office stood in Maple Street alongside the tall and impressive structure that housed the Northrop Western bank. Joe borrowed the clerkís pencil and stood for a minute at the counter, debating with himself over the wording of his wire. The telegraph was a new innovation, and he knew that they had to be worded just right if they were to make sense at the other end. He just didnít have the time for any misunderstandings. Finally, he filled in the flimsy with bold, black lettering and paid a dollar to get it sent. He knew it would take a while to get a response from the buyers in San Francisco. He just hoped that it wouldnít be too long.

Mister Charles Arnhault of Arnhault, Arnhault and Mayers recognized the Cartwright name and made a place in his busy schedule to see Joe at once. It was a special privilege that Joe was in no mood to appreciate, especially as Ďat onceí involved cooling his heels in the outer office for more than half an hour.

Arnhault spread the contract on the desk before him and read it through swiftly but carefully. Asia sat in the studded, green leather armchair and gazed all about him while Arnhault read. Asia had never seen the inside of a lawyerís office before. The walls were painted a neutral cream; there were green curtains at the windows and a brown patterned rug on the floor. The pictures that hung on the walls were brown tinted mono-prints behind sheets of glass. It was an uninspiring place for a man to spend his working life. Too fired up to sit, Joe paced back and forth across the floor.

After what seemed like an age, but was in fact only a few minutes, Arnhault took off his spectacles and sat back in his chair. "This appears to be a perfectly straight forward agreement, Mister Cartwright. The agent of the vendee contracts to pay the vendor in the sum of six dollars per live head delivered to the railhead before twelve noon on the seventeenth of the month - this month. Thatís tomorrow."

Joeís heart leapt, "Youíre saying the contractís good? Mullenís gotta pay me six dollars a head for my herd?"

Arnhault waved a hand over the document in an all-encompassing gesture. "There are a number of subsidiary clauses involved, what you might call ifs, buts and maybes." His lips quirked in a small smile at his own wit. Arnhault had been the Cartwrightís solicitor for a very long time, dealing first with the father and then with the elder son. They were both men of intelligence with cool, logical heads. They understood the workings of the law. He wasnít sure that this young man did. "Essentially thatís just what it says."

"So I go see him? Tell his heís gotta pay me?"

"You could try that if you like, but the chances are it wonít do you any good at all, and you might say something that would ultimately damage your case. If Mister Mullen refuses to relinquish paymentÖ" Arnhault finished his sentence with a shrug that was intended to convey a whole range of information, most of which went right over Joeís head.

Joe was confused. Arnhault had been his fatherís lawyer for years; his Pa and Adam trusted him implicitly. Yet here he was saying two different things in the same breath. Joe decided he just didnít understand lawyers Ė and his patience was starting to wear thin.

"So what do I have to do?"

"Ah!" At last the relevant question! Arnhault made a thoughtful steeple out of his fingers. "First of all weíll take the matter before a judge and prove that Mister Mullen has a case to answer. With this document in our possession that should be a simple enough matter; even though it was, in fact, signed by a Mister, er, McGrath." He frowned and though for a moment, as if it might not be such a simple matter after all. Then, "Once weíve achieved that we have to request a date for the hearing."

Joe was staring at him in horror. "How long is all this going to take?"

"Oh, perhaps a year," Arnhault considered, eyeing the ceiling somewhere above Joeís head. "Perhaps two Ė to prepare the paperwork for the initial hearing."

"I donít have a year! I have Ďtil noon tomorrow!" Joe was yelling again, only he didnít know it.

The manager at the bank kept Joe waiting for only eighteen minutes before having him ushered into his office. His smile was bland, his eyes sharp and his manner polite, if ultimately unhelpful. Yes, he had heard of the Ponderosa ranch in Utah; yes he knew that the Cartwrights had been customers in the past, and yes, the bank would be delighted to advance funds to cover Joeís immediate expenses. Just as soon as they got authorization from the bank in Virginia City Ė say, twenty-four hours Joe was told. Joe no longer had twenty-four hours to spare.

Afterwards, Joe was never quite certain of what he had said to the manager of the bank, but he was left with an abiding feeling that he should go back and apologize. He found himself on the boardwalk outside without remembering how he got to be there, although he suspected that Asia had quite a lot to do with it. He stood on the edge of the boardwalk and watched the flow of traffic while he cooled off and decided what to do next.

All of city life was there: mule carts and wagons drawn by oxen, a prairie schooner or two, coaches and carriages with high stepping horses, a new fangled omnibus. There were bankers and barmen, clergymen and cooks, drovers and men with a cause; there were women with children and children with dogs and dogs that were all on their own. A man on a boneshaker rattled by, one of the hounds snapping his heels. There were faces of every different colour: red and white, brown, black and yellow and voices raised in half a hundred different tongues.

A troop of bonneted women paraded past right under Joeís nose, ringing bells and singing a rousing song; the Temperance League was on the march. Joe didnít notice them at all; he was a man with things on his mind.

Inevitably, Joe ended up at Mullenís impressive offices on the corner of Main Street and Park. They were, appropriately enough, housed in a grey-faced, brick-built building, three storyís tall. The woman in the outside office was fifty and practical to a fault, testimony that not all of Mullenís business was conducted with bully and bluster. She looked over the edge of her spectacles at Joe.

"I really am sorry Mister Cartwright. I do appreciate that your business is urgent, but Mister Mullen had already left for the day."

Joe looked towards the door of the inner sanctum. It was a tall door, paneled and varnished and firmly shut. He considered, albeit briefly, busting right on in there and having it out with Mullen on the spot. Then he caught sight of the woman again, watching the angry workings of his face. Her own features were displaying the first inklings of alarm. Beyond her, on the wall, the clock face showed six-twenty; it was later than heíd thought.

With as much grace as he could muster Joe wished the woman a cordial good evening and excused himself. Heíd been willing to go in there and beg and plead. Heís have ranted and raved and shouted. He might even have smashed Mullenís smug, polished face with his fist or his gun. He knew deep down inside that it wouldnít have done him any good. He remembered Arnhaultís words and knew that an acrimonious encounter with the sheriff was the last thing he needed right now.

The Sign of the Prancing Pony saloon was a small and unpretentious establishment. It was clean, comfortable and uncluttered. Unpaid as they were, most of the drovers had gravitated there; it was the best that they could afford. It had the added advantage of being out of sight, sound and smell of the stockyards. All of them had seen enough of steers to last them for some time.

The majority of the cowboys had gathered in the barroom, trying to make a beer last an hour. Huey Worth sat in a tipped back chair with his hat pulled Ďway down over his face and his feet propped up on the table. Apparently he was asleep although no snoring issued from beneath the hat. TJ and Tony Briar were playing a desultory game of stud for matches. Outside, Charlie was lounging against the porch post with his thumbs hooked into his belt. He had been there for a while. His jaws worked slowly as he watched the two young men approach through the thickening evening murk. From the looks on their faces he could guess that the news wasnít good.

The Priors, Nash and TJ wandered out to hear all about it followed by the rest of the hands. Joe looked from one face to the other. He had come back empty handed, and they all knew it, but still it had to be said.

"Iíve spoken to every cattle buyer in town. Thereís not one of them that will touch the herd. Theyíre all stiff-scared of Mullen and Rance. Theyíve got the business in this town pretty well buttoned down." Joe sounded as depressed as he looked. The men shuffled and shifted their feet uneasily. They all knew the Cartwrights well enough to know theyíd get paid in the end, but it was no fun being in the big city with no money to blow on the high-life. Some of the hands were unhappy about having to wait. Charlie, his gaze fixed firmly on the building across the way, spat juice into the street. The silence stretched. Then the foreman took it on himself to speak for everyone.

"Well, donít you worry about it none, Joe. Ainít nobody gonna take it out oí your hide." He silenced the possible dissenters with a sharp glance.

Inwardly Joe heaved a sigh. The drovers that remained were all Ponderosa hands who had worked for the family for a while. They might not like it, but he guessed theyíd be prepared to wait for their pay Ė for a while at least. And the Priors were his friends. Joe took a deep breath; he figured they deserved to hear the rest of it.

"The fella down at the cattle pens has let me have feed for the herd and the horses on account oí my País good name but only for twenty-four hours. If I donít come up with somethiní Iím gonna have ta sell to Mullen at his price, just to pay off what I owe." He didnít have to say any more. They all knew it was that or lose the herd by default.

Charlie straightened up and stretched. Amazingly, the post stayed standing all by itself. "You look like a man who could use a beer, Joe. Come on inside aní buy the men a drink."

Joeís dejected expression dropped some more. "Wish I could, Charlie. I spent my last dollar on that wire to the San Francisco. I donít have two bits ta rub together."

Charlie thought about that for a bit. He figured that he might have just enough left in his pants pocket to stand the bossís son a round of drinks. Over Joeís shoulder he caught Auron Priorís eye. Auron had returned from business of his own in time to hear the last part of the conversation. He gave Charlie the slightest nod.

"Címon in, Joe," Charlie said, "Iíll buy you a beer."

Inside the barroom the lamps had been lit; outside it had grown quite dark. The men, for the most part, adjourned to the warmth and the light and the laughter of the pretty girls. Auron put out a restraining hand and held Nash back, waiting until the others had gone inside before he spoke up. Ashley joined the pair.

"Did you get it?" asked Auron, keeping his voice low.

In response, Ashley winked at him and patted his pocket. "Iíve got every cent the men could spare. Everyone chipped in with something."

Auron Prior looked at Nash. "Iíve found out where Mullen likes to hang out. Fancy place across town. He plays poker there every night; five card drawís his game."

Ruefully, Pete Nash shook his head. "Youíre taking a hell of a chance, my friend."

"Not in my book." Auron Prior had absolute faith. "Címon. Letís go." With Ashley tagging along they set out across town.

The Argonaut was an elegant saloon with polished hardwood floors, and a thirty-five foot mahogany bar that sported gleaming brass rails. Gilded mirrors adorned the back bar and heavily fringed, wine velvet hangings draped the windows.

Pete Nash, in his element now, donned a different persona Ė dressed in his black frock coat and a shoe string tie, he looked the place over; then he led the way to the bar. Auron parked himself at one end, foot on the rail. From there he could watch the door and the whole of the rest of room. Ashley bought a bottle and took it off to drink on his own.

The big game, it appeared, was about to begin. Nash was in no particular hurry; he knew well the way these things worked. He ordered a beer and settled into a comfortable lean to watch.

Mullen was established in his usual seat, a throne-like leather chair, at the massive, green felt covered poker table. His sycophants and cronies filled the other chairs around the playing field. There was Oscar L. Northrop, bank owner and city council member, two slick lawyers, Jon Foxx and Winston Haire, known for defending any low life with the money to pay their exorbitant fees. Walter Simmons, a popular local physician and two gray, non-descript men, co-owners of a vast hydraulic mining enterprise, joined them. The enemies of the mining menís destructive excavation methods that ripped away the earth with water driven at enormous force consistently referred to them as the Ďmud mení, and the name fit. Mullenís foreman, Rance Love, filled a seat on his bossís left.

The Argonautís dealer was a dapper little man in a colorful silk brocade vest over his poetís shirt. His flowing sleeves where held well above his wrists by flame red garters. Calm and soft-spoken ĎSilkyí Styles was known for his smooth, beautifully groomed hands and his clean, crisp way with the pasteboards. He had dealt for the best, and he was not intimidated by the money and power represented at the table. Pretty waiter girls in their brief costumes and high piled hair fluttered around the table like brightly colored butterflies bringing drinks, lighting cigars and changing large bills. When the game began they would withdraw to a discrete distance unless one of the players signaled for a girl to approach.

ĎSilkyí held up a hand for quite. The men around the table broke off their conversations and turned their eyes to the dealer. "Gentlemen," he told them. "We will be playing five-card draw poker, nothing wild, Jacks or better to open, table stakes only. Any objections?" This was Mullenís preferred game, and they all knew it. No one spoke.

"Very well, gentlemen," ĎSilkyí said. "Ante is five dollars. Please place your bets." Bills, gold and silver showered onto the table as ĎSilkyí broke open a new deck, stripped the jokers and shuffled well. Offering it for a cut, he began a smooth, swift deal, and the game was underway.

Pete Nash appeared to nurse his beer, pass an occasional remark to the busy bartender and enjoy the rich ambience of the club. In reality, he watched the play and the players like an eagle circling lazily above its intended prey. Mullen was a good player. He clearly knew the odds and had more patience than Pete would have expected. He had few Ďtellsí that signaled his intentions, but Nash twice saw him worry a large diamond ring he wore on his left ring finger. Each time he made substantial raises on what proved to be a winning hand.

Over an hour of swift play, the piles of cash before several of the weaker players diminished steadily while those before Mullen and lawyer Jon Foxx increased. Doc Simmons really didnít belong in this game. Pete quickly determined that his milieu was a friendly Saturday night game with good friends and small bets. On a foolish gamble he tried to buy a hand against the big guns opposing him and went down hard Ė cleaned to the lint in his pockets. With a shamefaced grin and a nod to Mullen, he gave up his seat and wandered forlornly toward the exit.

Pete Nash stepped swiftly forward and placed a hand on the back of the vacant chair. "May I sit in, gentlemen?" His free hand held a thick sheaf of bills and a poke heavy with gold coin. It represented his entire reserve and everything Joeís crew and friends could assemble.

Mullen scanned him with a cold eye and opened his mouth to refuse, but ĎSilkyí got in first. "Have a seat, Mister. Your money is good with the Argonaut." After all, the house took its percentage from each pot. There was little Mullen could do. He didnít own the saloon, and Caulfield Lee, who did, had money and power to burn. Mullen grunted, and his man, Rance, glared daggers at Pete and lightly fingered the butt of his .44.

Pete merely smiled genially and said, "Thank you, Mr. Styles. My nameís Nash, Pete Nash," as he settled into the chair and spread his money before him. ĎSilkyí repeated the gameís parameters, called for the ante and began to deal again.

Nash played quiet, sensible poker making no great show of himself but raking in small pots regularly. There was one false impression he needed to establish in Mullenís mind, however. He accomplished it when the deal brought him three Aces. He made a substantial raise on each round of the pre-draw betting and let a small smile lift one corner of his mouth as he discarded the two useless cards. He allowed his expression to cloud for just an instant as he picked up his two new cards; they were less help than the ones he had discarded. He quickly slid his poker face back into place, but Mullen had seen just as Pete hoped he would. Others took cards or stood pat, but when the deal reached Mullen, he took only one card. Nash saw the cattle buyerís eyes widen briefly as he picked it up. He slipped it into his hand and began to twist his ring slowly back and forth as he waited for the betting to begin. Pete suspected he had filled a straight or flush; even four of a kind was possible. They all beat his hand.

Nash began with a modest $20.00 bet. Others folded, raised or checked. It was at $40.00 to stay in the game when it reached Mullen. He doubled it to $80.00 with a $40.00 raise saying, "Time to drive the sheep out of the game." Rance folded immediately. Jon Foxx slowly counted out his $80.00, but Mr. Haire threw in his hand.

"Itís $60.00 to you, Mr. Nash," ĎSilkyí advised him. Pete pretended to debate then counted out the $60.00 saying, "Reckon Iíll have to see those raises and bump it up a mite more." He took out a $100.00 bill and added it to the pot. The players to his left dropped out at once. Mullen lifted his upper lip in a sour grin, met the $100.00 and added $50.00 more. Jon Foxx sighed and dropped out. Pete met Mullenís raise and boosted it another $50.00. Mullen thought it over carefully. He didnít know this quiet stranger. Maybe he was holding a full house or better. He saw the $50.00 and called. Pete proudly displayed his three Aces and appeared appropriately crestfallen when Mullen turned over his seven to Jack straight. Foxx cursed. Pete suspected he had folded a better hand than either of them had played. It had cost some money, but Mullen should now believe that Pete would bet heavily on a less than sure thing.

Pleased with his small triumph, Mullen leaned back expansively and signalled one of the waiting girls over. He ordered a Ďbourbon and branchí, patted her on her spangled rump and let his hard, gray eyes settle on Pete. "Care for some tonsil varnish, Nash?" he asked.

"No thanks," Pete replied pleasantly. "Iíd better concentrate a mite more on my game."

Play continued into the small hours of the morning. Rance Love, Mullenís man, got bored and asked to be dealt out. He wandered to the bar where he could keep an eye on his boss while sipping a beer and pawing one of the girls. The Ďmud mení dropped out not long after. The got into a short, fierce argument when the older of the two refused to lend the younger money to continue playing after he was cleaned out by Jon Foxx. The dead broke hydraulic engineer slammed angrily out of his chair and stomped away followed by his loudly protesting partner.

An hour later Winston Haire swore his wife was going to scalp him if he didnít get home and went away with considerably lighter pockets.

Nashís small, steady wins had gradually increased his stakes. Mullen had substantial funds before him, as did Jon Foxx, who was a smart, savvy player. Banker Northropís pile was down, but he still seemed eager to play.

Pete settled in to some serious poker. There were only a few hours left before the deadline. The cards seemed to favour him. In a rare hand he took over $1,100.00 from Foxx, beating his four fives with four nines of his own. Even ĎSilkyí stated he had never seen that particular combination before.

As dawn began to lighten the eastern sky, Pete was dealt a hand that all but made his eyes roll back in their sockets. He picked up his hand and slid the pasteboards apart one by one to reveal the ten, Jack, Queen and King of hearts and a five of clubs. Any other heart would give him a flush, a nine of hearts would give him a King-high straight flush, and the Ace would make a Royal Flush. In twenty years of playing many thousands of hands of poker, he had only gotten one Royal Flush, and that had been in seven-card stud. If he were going to be of any help to Joe, now was the time to pray to all the gods of Chance.

When Mullen looked at his hand it was all black with no face cards showing. Closer examination revealed he had the six, seven, nine and ten of spades and a three of clubs. He knew the rule that you never draw to an inside straight as well as the next player, but God it was tempting! He had done it once or twice before with fair luck. An eight of anything would give him a ten high straight; any spade would make a flush, and the eight of spades would see him sitting pretty with a straight flush. It was worth the chance if the initial round of pre-draw betting didnít go too high. If he went bust on the draw Ė as he fully expected to do Ė he would fold.

The first round of betting went quickly. Neither Nash nor Mullen had an opening hand. Foxx bet $5.00, Northrop merely checked. Pete dropped his one card, as did Mullen. Foxx called for two replacement cards and Northrop wanted three. Mullen picked up the card he was dealt with slow deliberation and slipped it into his hand before he looked. Against everything he had learned about poker, he had drawn the nine of spades. Nothing seemed impossible in that moment.

Foxx looked at his two cards coldly. He had two pair with an Ace kicker Ė a winning hand in some games, a money sink in others. Time would tell. Northrop looked at his three new cards for some time and then shrugged. Heíd had a nothing hand to begin with; it was worth even less now. Pete Nash pulled his card up close to his chest and eyed it cautiously. A shock went through him that was like touching one of the balls of blue lightening that sometimes danced on the horns of the cattle on stormy night. Only years of practice kept it from showing in his face.

Mullen started the betting modestly. He didnít want to scare the other players out of the pot. "Iíll chance $20.00." He dropped two ten-dollar gold pieces onto the green felt. Pete noticed he was twisting his ring round and round his finger. Foxx saw the $20.00 but didnít raise. Northrop threw his hand in and muttered about calling it a night. Pete saw Mullenís $20.00 and raised it $20.00 more. They made two more identical rounds. Then Mullen lost patience and raised $100.00. Foxx dropped out at once. It was butt heads poker now Ė the wealthy cattle buyer versus the trail hand. Nash chewed his lower lip and appeared to debate. He put out the covering $100.00 and slowly added $200.00 more.

Mullen glared at him. "You canít buy this hand, cowboy," he snapped. Nash merely nodded. Mullen threw out the $200.00 disdainfully and raised a thousand. Pete saw the $1,000.00 and bumped it $500.00.

A small crowd of those remaining in the saloon began to gather near the table when they heard the bets begin to climb.

"How much you got there, Nash?" Mullen demanded.

Pete had the cool, logical brain of a master mathematician. He knew to the penny what he was worth, and he had watched the cattle buyerís winnings and losses closely. "Enough to keep on bettiní for a spell yet," was all he said in response.

Mullen shuffled his money counting quickly. "Three thousand, two hundred and seventy-seven dollars here." He used both hands to push it forward. "You ainít got that kind of money."

Peteís slim stacks proved deceptive. A pile of hundredís was topped with a five dollar bill. Fiftyís were hidden under twentyís, and three five hundred dollar bills emerged from among some hundredís. He put the required $3,277.00 before him and looked at what remained. "Iíll raise you $5.00," he said calmly.

Mullen reared back in a rage. "Rance!" he shouted. "Bring me some damned cash!" Nash lifted a hand in protest, but ĎSilkyí was there first.

"Sorry, Mr. Mullen, we are playing table stakes. If you canít call Mr. Nashís bet with what you have before you, Iím afraid he wins. Unless youíll permit fresh money to come into the game?" He raised a questioning eyebrow at Pete Nash.

"No, Mr. Styles, Iím afraid I canít do that," Pete answered quietly.

"God damn you to hell!" Mullen stormed. "I own this hand. What will you take? My ring?" He tugged at the diamond.

When the bartender heard raised voices, he moseyed over with his sawn off, double-barreled shotgun held casually along one leg. If he let Mr. Leeís imported French mirrors get broken in a fight, the owner would have his head to go along with his job. Auron Prior hung back, his watchful eye on Rance.

"Got no use for a flashy ring," Pete allowed. "But since youíre so all fired set on that hand, Iíll tell you what I will take. If I win, you pay young Joe Cartwright the full San Francisco market price for his herd. If I lose, you get them for the pitiful $2.50 a head youíre offering now." There was a low gasp from some of the bystanders when they heard this miserly price stated aloud.

"So thatís it," Mullen demanded. "Youíre trying to save the kid?"

"Thatís it," Pete answered blandly. "What do you say?"

Mullen looked hard at ĎSilky.í "Has this card slick been cheatiní me?"

The little dealer bristled. "Not at all, Mr. Mullen! No one cheats at my table. I know every trick in the book, and he has been playing straight up poker all night."

Jon Foxx agreed. "Itís up to the cards, Mullen. Have you got them, and do you want to take the bet? Otherwise face your loss like a man." Jon would be taking away more than he came with however it went.

"Damn straight, I do. Iím going to get a cheap herd and a pile of money." Mullen gestured to the overflowing pot and then threw down his hand face up. "A ten-high, straight spade flush ladies and gentlemen. Read Ďem and weep." He reached to rake in the pile.

"Just a minute, partner," Pete said. Mullen froze. Pete made him wait for the space of several endless seconds before he turned over his cards one by one Ė tenÖ JackÖ QueenÖ KingÖ Ace of Hearts. "I believe a Royal Flush still beats ten-high."

Mullen staggered, reeling from the shock.

"Well, I will be hornswoggled," ĎSilkyí said in quiet amazement. "If this hasnít been the damnedest game I ever saw."

With a tight, white face Mullen stood up abruptly. He had bitten through his cigar and spat out the end in a rage. His pale hands worked. Foxx looked at him mildly, a faint glimmer of contempt in his pale eye. It was not often someone out played Mullen, and he, for one, was not sorry to see it.

"I guess youíll be going round to Northropís first thing in the morning to arrange the bank draft for Cartwrightís herd?"

"None of your damn business!" Mullenís eyes flicked venomously to his face and then back to Pete Nash. Pete hadnít moved; he was watching the infuriated cattle buyer narrowly. His long fingered hands lay motionless on the table beside the extraordinary display of pasteboards. Rance was moving, prowling on the balls of his feet, watching and waiting for a word from his boss.

At the bar, Auron Prior Ė who had been all but motionless for hours - shifted his weight, easing his gun hip forward. The Bartender gave him a glare. At his distant table, the sleepy Ashley was suddenly wide-awake and paying attention, The Prior eyes were slate grey and as cold as an arctic winter.

Softly, Silky said, "You loose, Mister Mullen. Pay up and look big."

Mullenís face purpled. He knew that if he made a fuss the very best thing that could happen was that heíd be blacklisted and banned from his favorite game. A man was required to honour his bet.

"Iíll be there!" he spat savagely and turned on his heel.

Nash watched him all the way out of the door before he moved. Then he gathered up his money and stacked it carefully together, using the time to allow the tension inside of him to unwind. He looked at the dealer, "Thank you Mister Styles, for a most enjoyable game." He peeled off two hundred-dollar bills and passed them across the table. As the tension broke, Foxx smiled broadly; he gathered his winnings and added a hundred-dollar tip of his own.

Pete Nash stood up and tucked his money into an inside pocket. It was ironic, he thought, that Lady Luck chose to smile this night of all nights, when he was playing not for himself but for another. Before he left the room he took a last long look at those cards. He knew that as long as he lived he might never own a hand like that again.

********

Joe Cartwright and Asia Prior stepped, side by side out of the Prancing Pony into the strong, bright light of the morning. Summer was starting to take hold, and it was hot and dry and dusty. The sun pulled the sweat right out of their skins. Joe didnít care. He tipped back his hat and smiled a big, broad smile. As far as he was concerned the day was about as good as a day could get. Mullen, albeit with a bad grace, had stumped up a bank draft for the full price of the herd. The buyer had made a snarled comment about Ďcard sharpsí that Joe didnít quite understand. Although he had some idea of what had gone on in the first, small hours of the day, he wasnít about to go chasing after the details.

It was enough that heís been able to draw sufficient cash against the draft to pay off his men and to add a little bonus for the wait theyíd endured. That had changed the grumbles to smiles. And heíd been able to pay off his feed bill at the cattle pens. As heíd left heíd noticed that Rance and his men were already loading the steers into cattle cars for their ride to the coast. The half-breed had given him a long and indecipherable look.

Joe took a deep breath and decided that it had been a quite a while since the air had tasted so sweet. First on his list of priorities was breakfast, a full measure of bacon, eggs and hot, fresh coffee; and then a long, relaxing soak.

Asia nudged him in the elbow. "Hey Joe, you still got that list of addresses your brother wrote down fer you?"

"Sure have." Joe gave his pocket a confident pat. "Right here." Doing the list justice was the next thing on Joeís personal agenda.

Asia, apparently, had similar ideas. "What say we see how many of Ďem we cín call on afore you have ta start fer home?"

Grinning with an anticipation that went right to the root of the matter, the two young men stepped down into the street. Asia caught at Joeís arm again, pulling him back. He was looking Ďway down the street.

"Joe, ainít that your wagon cominí along there?"

Joe looked. Sure enough, behind a pair of ambling horses the small covered wagon was achingly familiar; the man sitting up on the high seat beside Pete Barnes was more so. Ben Cartwright looked older, thinner and very tired. His face was grey as if his illness had drawn the strength and the life right out of him. It was going to take a while, but he would get better, and he was very glad to see his son.

Twelve

From the highest point of the ridge the valley lay spread before them in the mellowing light of the afternoon, a masterwork created on a good day by the hand of the Lord himself. Summer had brushed lightly across the face of the land, and there were a million shades of green to behold: from the misty jade of the distant hills, to the emerald turf of the home pastures all dotted with grazing cattle, to the aquamarine tint of the silver surfaced lake. Steep hillsides swept to the waterís edge clothed in the garments of Gods design: the eternal, omnipresent pine.

The pine had been there since the start of time; the pine would be there at timeís end. They scented the air with their fragrance; their magnificence beggared the eye. The multitude of their numbers defied the mind of man.

Ben Cartwright sat in the saddle and overlooked the land Ė his land, won by the sweat of his brow and the blood of his body, entrusted, he felt, into his keeping. In a fold of the ground the house, with its barns and outbuildings and attendant corrals looked, at the distance, like the toy of a child: small enough to be picked between thumb and forefinger and utterly perfect. A column of smoke rose straight up to heaven, carrying the promise of hearth and home.

Ben had been ill for a long time. He had spent several weeks in the city, resting and recovering his strength. Even then, the doctors had been reluctant to let him travel. ĎA man of his ageÖí theyíd said, shaking their heads. But Ben had wanted to go home. Besides, he figured it was best to get Joe out of the city; the young man had been spreading himself a little too freely for his fatherís peace of mind.

They had traveled in short, easy stages, stopping often to rest and to hunt. Even so Ben was weaker than he had thought and very tired; he was looking forward to getting home. He had been away, it felt, for such a very long time.

He looked across at the young man sitting on his horse beside him. Joe tipped back his hat and grinned in return. He had grown, not taller but in stature and confidence. He spoke slower now, and he thought more before he opened his mouth.

"We should be home by supper time," said Ben, unnecessarily. "I wonder what Hop Sing has on the table for tonight."

Joe shifted himself in the saddle. Heíd had a good time in the city, and heíd been sorry to part with his friends. But he was worn to a frazzle by the hectic round, and he would admit that it was good to be back within spitting distance of his own front door.

"If Hossís home, Iíll lay odds on roast pork and apples still in their skins."

Ben chuckled, "Iím not about to argue with a gambling man. Come on. Letís go and find out for sure." Laughing, the two men kicked on down the trail and rode into the valley just as it started to fill with twilight.

By the time they arrived in their own front yard the last of the light lay in coloured bands across the sky. The moon, an ethereal crescent, hung a fingerís breadth above the mountain peaks; soon, the stars would be coming out. The lamps had been lit in the big house, and all the windows glowed with yellow light. Ben was disconcerted to find Paul Martinís buggy pulled up, yet again, outside his front door. He stepped out the saddle in a hurry, and a tall young man with pale hair stepped forward out of the rapidly gathering gloom.

"Iíll take your horses, Mister Cartwright. Welcome home."

Distracted by the presence of the doctor in his house, Ben handed over the reins. He didnít know who the young man was - or perhaps he did. He looked again. It was the eyes that gave it away, "Jody?" Ben scarcely recognized him. He was taller, broader, fulfilling the promise he shown; he stood straight and serene, bearing Benís appraisal with a slight smile. The gangling boy that Ben had known was gone and would never return.

Jody inclined his head, "Yes, sir. Itís me. Adam and Hoss are in the house."

Reminded, Ben started anxiously for the door.

He encountered Paul Martin just inside. The doctor had already put on his coat and had thoughts in his mind of home, dinner and his own fireside. He smiled in surprise and pleasure as Ben came in. The two old friends shook hands.

"Ben, itís good to see you. We were expecting you a while back."

"I got delayed." Ben looked hard into the doctorís face. "Paul, whatís happened? Why are you here?"

Paul put a reassuring hand on his arm, "Itís nothing to be alarmed about, Ben. Hoss has had a bad time, but heís over the worst of it now. Heís resting up in his own bed. Adamís broken his leg," he indicated the fireside with a nod of his head, "heís on the mend now, but itíll take a while." The doctor hauled back and frowned as he looked Ben over, top to toe. "You donít look so good yourself. Youíve lost a lot of weight."

Worried only for his sons, Ben dismissed Paulís concern. "Iíve been sick for a while. Iím all right now. Now that Iím home, everything is going to be all right."

Paul gathered up his hat and his black leather bag, "Well, you take it easy, Ben. Get some of Hop Singís cooking inside of you. Iíll be out here again in a couple of days to see how Hoss is doing. Iíll look you over then." He set his hat on his head and shook hands with Joe. "Iíll see myself out."

Ben took two more steps into the great room. From the kitchen a small hurricane dressed in blue erupted almost into his arms,

"Mista Ben! Mista Ben, it so good that you come home! Where you bin all this time? Why you stay away so long? You not like Hop Singís cooking no more?"

Ben found himself laughing. "Itís good to be home, Hop Sing. And of course I still like your cooking," he sniffed long and loud. "From the smell of it, thatís a haunch of pork youíve got roasting, right now!"

"Loast polk! You right!" The China-man nodded with enthusiasm.

"With apples in their skins?" Joe asked, dumping his hat and gunbelt onto the sideboard. "I just knew it!"

"Lilí Joe!" Unable to contain himself any longer Hop Sing hurled himself into Joeís arms.

Later, once supper had been consumed and appreciated and the dishes cleared away, Ben settled into his armchair beside the roaring fire with his pipe and a brandy warming slowly on the table at his side. He was all but exhausted by his long ride home and yearned for the comfort of his bed. But for the moment he felt the need to sit a while with his son. He pulled out the letter that had been waiting for him with the rest of the mail on his desk; he caressed the laid, cream coloured paper of the envelope with callused fingers; he unfolded again the several sheets. The letter was from Jenny. It began, "My dearest loveÖ"

"Jenny says Danielís up on his feet and that any day now heíll take his first steps," he said, smiling as he read the words again. He supposed that now he would have to think about getting his youngest boy a horse. "She says theyíll be home by the end of the week."

Sitting across the hearth from him in the red leather armchair, propped with cushions and his leg elevated on a stool. Adam smiled back, "Thatís good, Pa. The house seems almost empty without them."

Ben puffed on his pipe and though for a while about all the years that the house had been without a woman and without children. Adam was right, yet it had seemed full at the time. Then he laughed abruptly. "Once your brother starts running about after you, you might wish it were empty again. Remember the torment you went through with Little Joe?"

"I remember it, Pa," Adam shook a rueful head. "Oh, I remember it."

He shifted his position in the chair. He was distinctly uncomfortable; he had a disturbing tendency to slip down in the seat, and his leg ached all the time. He rubbed at his thigh, working the big muscles with his fingers. Ben asked him what had happened, and Adam related the story of their trip into the hills. There were only a few things that he chose to leave out.

The telling told the two men sat for a while in companionable silence, basking in the golden glow. Only the roar of the flames as they leapt at the chimney and the tick of the long-case clock broke the stillness. Then Ben asked the question that had been plaguing him,

"Have you come to any decisions, son? Have you made up your mind what youíre going to do?"

Adam smiled. He realized that he hadnít given a thought to the glories of Europe or his plans for going there in quite some time. All his concerns had been for his family and for the place that he thought of as home. In any event, with his leg as it was, he wouldnít be going anywhere for a while. It looked as if his mind had been made up for him, and he found that he didnít regret it Ė not one little bit. The question in his mind was how he should answer his father without giving too much away. He rubbed at his knee where it pained him. The heavy box splint Doc Martin had applied held his leg rigid and made the joint ache.

"Iíve been thinking, Pa, now that the new seasonís here, we should get that scrub brush cleared away at the top of the North range. I was reading in the Stockmanís Journal Ďbout some new strains of rye grass theyíve been developing back east. Itís as tough as all-get-out. Starts growing earlier, finishes later, would increase our grazing capacity by ten percent. And then thereís that eastern strip where we edge on to the desert, as dry as a dustbowl and as hot as hell. If we could put some irrigation in thereÖ"

Ben pointed with his pipe stem. "How do you propose to pump the water?"

"Windmills," said Adam, promptly. Ben harrumphed, but quietly. So they were back to the windmills again. "And," Adamís enthusiasm was fired, ďif we build a bridge across White Water Cutting, we can drive a new logging road right through to the mill."

"A bridge?" Ben frowned. "Thatís a big undertaking."

"We can do it, Pa. Iíll design it myself." Sitting back with a smile Ben listened to him talk. Adam had plans, high falutin plans; some of them might even work. At least heíd decided to stay.

Adam went on for a while. He had plans for lighting the mines and suggestions for increasing their investment holdings in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit. He wanted new breeds of cattle with more tender meat, stocks in the railroads and pictures that were printed in colour. Finally, he ran out of steam. He dug his fingers deep into his leg; tonight it was hurting a lot. He looked across at his fatherís fine face. He respected this man above all others. Sometimes he was stubborn, sometimes cantankerous, and sometimes wrong; sometimes Adam could almost despise him Ė always he loved him.

"I hear Joe did well with the herd, Pa."

Ben nodded, "Your brother did realí well. With a little help from his friends."

"They say you can measure a man by the friends he keeps."

Ben acknowledged the point with a gesture of the pipe, "From what I hear, you did pretty well for a friend yourself."

Adam drew a long, careful breath, "He saved our lives, Pa, both Hossís and mine."

"I know, son. I was talking to Jody. Heís done a whole lot of growing up while Iíve been away. Seems like you took away a boy and brought back a full grown man."

Adam pulled himself up in the chair, carefully easing his leg. Quoth he, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Ben gazed into the dancing flames and took up the passage to its end, "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity."***

He looked across the hearth at the man opposite. Adamís eyes had closed, and as Ben watched his breathing slowed and steadied as he slipped into a deep, healing sleep.

 

 

*Matthew Ch 18 v21

**Thomas More (1478-1535)(attributed)

***1 Corinthians Ch 13 v1

 

 

Historical Note: The Chromolithograph, also known as foreshadowing, was a colour printing process in which each colour was printed with individual stones, or dyes, prepared by hand. Sometimes as many as thirty separate stones were used for a single print. The technique was pioneered in the 1830s but came into wide commercial use only in the 1860s, It was the most popular method of colour reproduction until the end of the nineteenth century when more efficient techniques rendered it obsolete. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Potter Bar 2001

 

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