Summary: Adam has found a new past-time. Will there be consequences for his actions?
Rating: K+ (8,500 words)
Fade to Black
Adam thought he had come of age. He was nineteen after all. He now owned his own handgun, rendered a perfect, first kiss and found a new pastime -– poker.
Quiet and methodical as a child, Adam spent most of his time buried in a book but of late had grown into somewhat of a scamp. His father prayed Adam’s mischievousness would run its course, that it was only a phase. Ben decided to exercise his famous patience with his first-born. He recalled going through something like it himself as he approached adulthood.
Now out of school and working full-time on the ranch, Adam was suddenly a man physically. But despite the way he looked –- chiseled of face, six-foot and powerful in stature -– he still had a ways to go before his true maturity kicked in. Ben assumed Adam’s reckless behavior had surfaced because Adam had been forced to mature so quickly after the death of both his mother and stepmothers, Elizabeth, Inger and Marie. Adam adapted but was forever scarred by their loss. He had been tied down by the burden of helping to rear his two little brothers. Maybe that was why he had changed so abruptly, but more notably -– so roguishly.
Things turned for the worse when Adam teamed up with three other boys his age. Brad Sinclair, a miner’s son, was much like Adam. He was smart and handsome and thought himself a charmer. Unlike Adam, Brad had a tinge of meanness to him, taking pleasure in other people’s woes. He had a propensity to spend Adam’s money as well. But Adam chose to ignore Brad’s nasty side, choosing instead to focus on that fact that Brad was clever and amusing.
Brother’s Rick and Jeff Bonner were a bit older than Adam and Brad. They were the ringleaders and tough cookies to boot. They donned more muscle than necessary and had little more intelligence than that of their horses. They too enjoyed the art of provocation. It was their favorite pastime -– a sport.
Brad, Rick, Jeff and Adam were an odd foursome but found common ground when it came to sowing their oats. Ben tried to discourage Adam from getting involved with the trio but his father’s disapproval only fueled Adam’s interest in sticking with his newfound friends. “Oh Pa…” he would scoff. “We’re just having a little fun. We’re harmless.”
Harmless…hardly, Ben would retort to his son’s flippant attitude with irritation, outlining the incidents that had caused so much ado. They included such escapades as a reckless rodeo where betting was rampant and several people were injured, the vandalism of the town livery and countless bar room brawls, just to name a few.
Ben simply didn’t understand Adam’s attraction to the devilish threesome and was disappointed that Adam had allowed himself to be led. Adam had always been such a levelheaded and confident boy. Plus, Ben surmised, Adam didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Beneath the false façade Adam had displayed lately laid a compassionate, loving person. But, alas, Ben would have to wait out the foolishness and hope no one got hurt in the process, especially his number one son.
Adam held a black hand. All black. It was the best he’d ever been dealt in his short but rather illustrious career as a small-town poker player. The series of cards was so good, they made his heart pound and he feared the sound was loud enough to give away his elation. He took a few covert breaths and took another look at them to be sure. Yes, there they were; he wasn’t mistaken. He actually held a straight flush -– nine, ten, jack, queen and king –- all clubs. Adam tried to steady his nerves before he began to bet.
Across from him sat a middle-aged Englishman. He was obviously down on his luck before he even sat down to play, which had now dwindled to just he and Adam. Rick and Jeff, who had lured him into the game in the first place, had retired hours ago. Brad remained, though, hovering in the background, ready to pounce on Adam’s winnings. He had no issue with spending other people’s money, especially the earnings of his best friend.
The Englishman wore a gray suit and a silk paisley vest of green and gold. His tie, now loosened and dangling from his neck like chewed string, was quality but had faded from its original black to the color of ash. A satin headband that resembled brushed pewter embellished his stylish but slightly battered hat. His clothing, though at one time posh, was more than tired. The cuffs and hems were frayed, and his white shirt had dulled to a putrid yellow. His ankle-high boots were covered with a grimy pair of spats. At least they disguised how old and scuffed the boots were. His ensemble had certainly seen better days as it displayed the recognizable signs of everyday use. The only outstanding thing about the man was what lay passively at his feet — a rather young black Labrador Retriever whose coat glistened like polished onyx.
Adam had been winning all night. His chips, perfectly stacked in front of him, were plentiful; there had to be at least five hundred dollars –- his largest take ever. For a lad as youthful as Adam, it was quite a haul for one evening’s work.
Adam made stoic eye contact with his one remaining adversary, and then turned his attention to his pile of winnings.
“Fifty,” Adam said calmly as he threw his chips into the pot.
“Call,” the Englishman replied.
“Raise you one hundred,” Adam returned with quick confidence.
The man perused what was left of his stockpile. He was very far behind but had faith in his hand of two pair. On the other side, Adam knew this would be the end of the man for the night and probably for some time to come. Adam was going in for the kill. He’d raise the Brit until he had nothing left. He couldn’t go wrong considering the hand he held tightly to his leather-vested chest.
“Call,” the man said as he threw everything he had into the middle of the table. The tokens clinked brightly.
“Raise you another hundred,” Adam responded with a lifted chin.
He knew it was over. The Englishman was now cleaned out.
“Well, young man. It’s seems I’ve come up short,” the Brit answered with a thick accent. “But I do have something of value I can wager.”
“Oh?” Adam said curiously. “And, that would be?”
Adam leaned to the side to view the animal. He had noticed him when the man first walked in. The dog was extremely majestic, handsome and well behaved. He was blacker than a December midnight and had the grand head and disposition of a champion. He definitely had a regal air and there was no doubt he had lineage.
“I can’t take your dog, mister,” Adam sniffed with absurdity. “Let’s just finish this hand and we can call it even.”
“Well, the thing is old chap,” the man tittered with embarrassment, “I fear I can no longer take care of him. As you can see, he is a well-bred boy and deserves more than I can provide. I can assure you he is worth more than the pot in front of you. I don’t want to give him up, but it is the best thing for him, you see.”
“Ahhh… I’m not sure I want a dog. I do like dogs, I like them very much,” Adam reasoned, “But I have little use for one.”
“His use is his beauty,” the Englishman stated. “If I lose this hand, you’ll not be sorry. His physical attributes are only outmatched by his intelligence. He’ll make a fine gun dog. His father was British Bird Dog Champion three years in a row. He could sire a profitable litter some day.”
“Hmmm,” Adam murmured. He looked over at Brad who nodded approval.
“What’s his name?” Adam asked.
“His name is Abel,” the Englishman said, getting a response from the dog.
“Well, this is quite a coincidence because, well…my name is Adam.”
“Adam you say? Maybe you and he were meant to be then, my boy. Abel -– son of Adam. That is quite fateful!”
“Alright then,” Adam concluded with a wink. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The Englishman laid his cards on the table and looked up at Adam with trepidation. He waited for the verdict as Adam took his time lowering his. The series of clubs hit the man almost as hard as the real thing, and he immediately deflated. He’d not expected to be beaten so handily especially by someone who had so recently entered manhood.
“I’m sorry, mister,” Adam said with sincerity. “But, that was the best hand I’ve ever had.”
“It certainly is a good one. One surely cannot do much better.”
“Well, there is one hand better, but I’ve never seen one and probably never will.”
Adam pulled the pot toward him. He couldn’t help but grin. He didn’t want to gloat as he’d wiped this poor man of everything, including his dog. Adam wasn’t a vindictive person, but he was a competitive sort. As Adam counted his chips, the man reached down to toss the dog’s ears affectionately.
“Well, I suppose that’s it then, Abel. Seems this is where we must part ways,” the man said staidly. “I’ll miss you, boy. I truly will. But I think you will be better off in this boy’s company than in my own.”
The Englishman unceremoniously rose from the table in quiet defeat and began to walk out of the saloon. The dog instinctively followed but was told to stay. He did but seemed puzzled as his owner disappeared into the Nevada night. It was a sad sight.
The dog’s tongue — the color of smoked salmon — hung out of the side of his mouth as he looked over his shoulder at Adam. He sensed his ownership had changed hands.
“Abel?” Adam called softly, leaning over and holding out his hand. “Come here, boy.”
The Lab took one last look through the still swinging doors of the saloon to make sure the Englishman would not return. After several moments, the dog decided the man was gone for good and then shuffled submissively toward Adam.
“It’s okay, boy. I’ll take good care of you. You don’t have to worry about a thing. We’ll make a good team, you and I. I won’t even make you sleep in the barn. You’re too fine a dog for that, aren’t you.”
Abel reached up to lick Adam’s chin and seemingly smiled. He took to Adam right away and Adam to him. In that short moment of first contact, they clicked. It was kismet. Abel held up his paw for shaking. Adam took it and gave his new friend a gentle pat on the head.
“Now all I have to do is explain this to Pa. Come on boy. Let’s go home.”
Brad and Adam, with Abel at his side, left the saloon just as the sun was rising. The streets had yet to fill with townsfolk tending to their daily routines, and the place had an atypical aura of serenity. Virginia City, a rough-and-tumble mining settlement, was quite pretty this time of day. Its few buildings were awash with soft hues of mauve and peach. They were contrasted with the Sierra Nevada mountains that were painted with shades of vibrant plum and splashes of emerald. The spring, dawn air was cool and fresh, and Adam took in a chest-full then exhaled slowly. His breath fogged as it hit the mountain air.
“Nice game, Cartwright,” Brad commented, followed with a sharp slap on Adam’s shoulder blade. “We’ll make short work of that cash you won.”
“Not this time, Brad. I have plans for this money,” Adam defended as he folded the wad and tucked it into his vest pocket.
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“What I do with MY money is none of your affair.”
“None of my affair, old chap?” Brad teased with a mock British accent.
“I’m tired,” Adam chided. “I’m taking my new dog and going home. Earn your own money, Brad. It’s about time you did.”
“I don’t think I’ll have to, Cartwright. Just leave it to me in your will. Cuz your old man’s gonna kill you when you get home.”
Adam tried to ignore Brad’s taunt as he walked away from him toward his horse. But, Brad was right. Adam knew there would be hell to pay. The fact that he had not returned the night before would not bode well with his father. Not to mention the fact that he’d been gambling, something of which his father did not approve.
With a combination of excitement over his winnings, his new dog and apprehension for what lay in store, Adam mounted up and set out for the Ponderosa. Without provocation, Abel happily followed.
Taking his time, as arriving home would surely mean a severe dressing down, Adam stopped by a creek to water his horse. The scene was Eden-like but Adam couldn’t enjoy his surroundings. He was stewing about Brad’s assumption that Adam’s money was somehow his money too. He was tired of Brad feeding off of him. Enough was enough.
Adam took a seat on a nearby log and angrily threw a stick into the water. Abel bolted after it, diving into the brook with gusto. To Adam’s delight, the dog returned, dropping the branch at his new master’s feet for another go. Adam’s mood immediately brightened as the game continued. Finally, Abel called it quits and sat beside Adam, leaning his entire body against Adam’s leg. The Lab was soaked to the skin but Adam didn’t mind. He flung his arm over the animal’s muscled shoulders and realized a rich friendship was developing, one that mattered.
It was then that Adam was struck with an epiphany. The revelation hit him so hard and so suddenly, it hurt. Brad, Rick and Jeff were not really friends at all. They spent his money, and had gotten him into so much trouble with both his father and Sheriff Coffee. It was Abel’s unconditional friendship that made him see. All the recklessness of the past several months seemed silly now and Adam felt ashamed. If he never saw Brad, Rick and Jeff again, it wouldn’t be too soon. He also knew that breaking up their little gang would surely invoke retribution from the lads, as their funding would abruptly end.
Nevertheless, that very moment, Adam vowed to part ways with them and concentrate on things that were truly important, like helping his father build up the ranch and spending time with his brothers.
As he pondered, Adam stroked Abel’s coat and then stood. “Well. You’ve opened my eyes, Abel. What have I been doing all these months, huh? Too bad you didn’t come along sooner –- you could have saved me a lot of money and grief,” Adam said and then sighed. “I suppose we’ve procrastinated long enough. We better go home and face the music, eh boy?”
Abel paid close attention to Adam’s words, trying to understand them by cocking his head alertly from side-to-side. It sure made the pup look sharp. Adam’s smooth, baritone voice sounded so kind, and Abel heeled nicely and then waited for Adam to mount up. The twosome turned westward and then up the road to the Ponderosa and a more responsible way of life.
Sheepishly, Adam opened the front door and peered into the house. Below him, Abel did the same. The coast was clear -– so far. Maybe Adam could make it up to his bedroom before his father and brothers awoke.
He creaked the door open a bit more and then bravely walked inside. Abel followed gingerly, his claws clicking against the broad-beamed floor. Adam glanced around the wall to the dining room to see if his family had come down to breakfast yet. They hadn’t, but he could hear Hop Sing in the kitchen as the delicious scent of frying bacon filled his nostrils. It wouldn’t be long before the stampede to the breakfast table would begin. With a sigh of relief, Adam tiptoed toward the stairs. It was then boy and dog were stopped in their tracks.
“JUST – ONE – MOMENT!” Ben roared from behind his office desk.
Busted. Adam scrunched his face and shrugged his shoulders as if preparing for a punch.
“WHERE have you been?”
“Oh… ah, hi, Pa. I didn’t see you there,” Adam replied as he straightened up from his crept position. He threw his father an insipid grin.
“Get your tail over here!” Ben demanded. “I asked you to do one small errand for me yesterday,” Ben raged. “Go into town and get the mail. That’s all I asked of you. And now you arrive home the NEXT DAY with a DOG?”
“I got the mail, Pa. It’s in my saddle bags. There’s a letter from Uncle John,” Adam replied as he stood squarely in front of his father now.
“And what, Pa?”
“AND WHAT?” Ben shouted impatiently and then stared down at the dog.
Abel sat bravely beside Adam but his ears were slightly flattened. He was fearful of the man with the booming voice. It was obvious he felt he’d been bad. But he had no idea what he’d done. Maybe his new home wouldn’t be as welcoming as he thought.
“Well, here’s the thing,” Adam began as he casually rested his tush on the edge of the desk. He wasn’t about to lie. Adam was a lot of things but a liar he wasn’t. He was willing to take his lumps. “Rick and Jeff said there was a poker game over at the Bucket of Blood and said I should join in, you know, so…”
“You were gambling?”
“Yes. I was. But, I won, Pa.” Adam smiled brightly to try and lighten the mood. “I won over five hundred dollars. Not to mention this beautiful dog here.”
“Adam,” Ben said with forced calmness. “First of all, stand up straight when I’m talking to you.”
“Oh. Sorry, Pa.” Adam obeyed as Ben waited for his son to show some respect.
When Adam was humbly stood in front, Ben continued with an aggravated sigh. “You know how I feel about gambling. It’s the devil’s work win or lose. Now, I know you’re young and want to experience new things, but I’ve asked you not to gamble. Is it too much to ask? I was worried about you. Virginia City is a dangerous place. I’ve been up all night waiting for you. I was just about to send out a posse.”
“I guess I just lost track of time. I won’t gamble anymore. I have enough now.”
“Enough? Enough for what?”
“Adam, I told you, we’d get the money for your school. I told you we’d manage.”
“Yes, I know, Pa. But it will take a great deal of money. I just wanted to, well, I just thought…”
“No – more – gambling,” Ben interjected forcefully. “AND, what about those hooligan friends of yours? I’ll not have a child of mine gallivanting around the territory like a wild animal.”
“Wild animal? Pa, I’ll admit to us being a bit rambunctious, but I hardly think we act like animals.” Adam gave his father a droll glance with a slightly tilted head. “Besides, I’ve had a revelation of sorts.”
“Oh? What’s that?” Ben replied gruffly but sounded more controlled.
“Well, I think I’ve had just about enough of likes of Brad, Rick and Jeff. They aren’t really my friends. I realize that now. They don’t really care about me. And, I’m a little ashamed of my behavior and, well… I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Welllll. I’m glad you’ve finally come to your senses, son. And, I’m proud of you. But what’s brought on this sudden turn in attitude?”
“Him,” Adam said pointing to his side.
Ben seemed more placid now. Adam could always smooth-talk his way out of just about anything. His father swore his eldest boy would be a diplomat or senator some day, maybe even President. He turned his attention to Abel.
“This dog?” Ben finally questioned as he moved out from behind the desk and walked over to Abel. He stood over the Lab with his hands on his hips, reinforcing the dog’s fear.
“He became part of the pot when the man I won him from had nothing left to bet.”
“You took a man’s dog? Adammmm.” Ben groaned at the thought.
“He really couldn’t take care of him anymore, Pa. The man didn’t even have enough to feed himself, let alone his dog.”
“Well, he sure is a handsome one isn’t he,” Ben said crouching down to pat the dog. “What’s his name?”
“Abel?” Ben replied with surprise. “Well, I suppose this little partnership was meant to be then, wasn’t it.”
“I think so, Pa. We’ve struck up quite a friendship already. A real friendship.”
Ben stood and threw his arm around his son’s shoulder and steered him toward the breakfast table. All was forgiven. Abel followed and lay by Adam’s chair, already loyal. Once Ben and Adam had taken their seats, a ruckus from the upper hall echoed down into the living room.
“The boys are up,” Ben warned. “Brace yourself.”
Hoss, aged thirteen, and Little Joe, aged eight, came barreling down the stairs in a race to the table. It was a daily ritual, one their father put a stop to on every occasion. But today was different; as the two boys were stalled in their tracks when they caught sight of Abel. Hoss ploughed into Joe on the lower landing, knocking him the rest of the way down the stairs. But, Joe didn’t seem scathed by the body-check and was quickly on his feet. Joe was swift at doing everything except his chores. He scampered over to Abel.
“GOSH! A DOG!” Joe beamed with awe. “Where did he come from?”
“Ah. He’s mine, Little Joe,” Adam said pompously.
By this time Hoss had joined the group and begun his fawning, Abel wagged his tail and panted with delight in meeting the two other members of his new family. He rolled onto his back so they could scratch his belly.
“He sure is purdy,” Hoss praised.
“Of course,” Adam answered smugly. “I wouldn’t own a dog that wasn’t, would I, younger brother? He’s not like the mangy strays you bring home.”
“Suppose not, Adam. Where’d you git ‘im? I ain’t never seen a dog like him before. He’s blacker than boot polish. Not a speck of white on ‘im anywhere.”
“Of course there’s no white on him. Don’t you know anything? He’s a pure-bred dog. He’s worth a lot of money, and some day his pups will bring a pretty penny too.” Adam turned his attention to young Joe. “And if you must know, I won him in a poker game last night.”
“Poker game? You were gambling?” Joe scolded. “You’re not supposed to be playing poker, Adam. Pa said.”
“I know, Little Joe. I know.” Adam winked at his father.
“Can we take him to Carson City with us, Pa?” Joe asked impishly.
“I don’t think so, Joe,” Ben answered. “Buying cattle is serious business. It’s no place for a dog. Besides he’s Adam’s dog.”
“Aw.” Joe sounded deflated.
“Come on, son,” Ben instructed with slight amusement. “Leave Abel alone now and eat you’re breakfast or you’ll be late for school…again.”
“Abel?” Hoss questioned. “Did you name ’im that Adam?”
“No. That was his name when I got him.”
“Seems kinda funny, don’t it. Abel was the son of Adam, wasn’t he? In the Bible, I mean?”
“That’s right, Hoss,” Ben said pleasantly. “And all this time I thought you weren’t paying attention.”
“Of course I was, Pa. Ain’t nothin’ else to do in church ‘cept listen.”
Man and dog bonded quickly. Abel followed Adam everywhere he went, much to Hoss and Little Joe’s disappointment. They wanted to romp with the pup, but Abel was completely loyal to his savior.
The Lab now had two tasty meals a day, an owner that played with him, and a warm mat to sleep on right between Adam’s bed and the fireplace. The pair even went hunting, yielding three ducks, one goose and two grouse in a single afternoon. Hop Sing, who begrudged having a dog in the house, was now delighted.
For Abel, life couldn’t get any better. To him, the Ponderosa was paradise. Adam, too, had become extremely fond of the dog. He’d never felt like this about an animal before. He and Abel were soul mates -– comrades to the end. It was a pure and simple relationship that could never be broken. Adam just knew it.
Ben, Hoss and Little Joe also became very fond of the black Lab, and called him the family dog. But there was no doubt he belonged solely to Adam. One was never seen without the other. They were a team, no matter where they were.
At home, Abel would settle where ever Adam did -– on the rug beside the bed, at Adam’s feet when he read or sitting handsomely by Adam’s side when greeting someone at the door. Hoss and Joe tried their best to lure Abel away from Adam. They wanted to play and run with him, and often Abel would oblige. But all it took was a sharp whistle from Adam and the dog would come running, leaving the younger brothers disappointed.
Abel would follow Adam to town too. He’d wait patiently outside the saloon or mercantile. Passers-by would pat him on the head and Abel would raise his paw in appreciation. He was a much-loved pup in Virginia City. Even Roy Coffee would save leftovers for him and sneak them to him when Adam wasn’t looking. It was common for Abel to come home with a nice soup bone clenched between his teeth, then spend hours on the front porch chewing it. He had settled into a comfortable and contented life.
But, despite the joy of having his newfound pal, Adam feared how his old friends would take to his new straight-and-narrow outlook. He decided to stay on the ranch as long as possible and avoid Brad, Jeff and Rick all together. Maybe they’d just forget about him. But Adam knew that the time would come when he’d come face-to-face with them and that made him nervous. The threesome knew he had at least five hundred dollars. That alone was cause for concern.
After a month of Adam’s self-imposed exile, Ben couldn’t help but take notice. Adam’s lack of interest in anything but work tweaked Ben’s curiosity. It was time to have a chat with his eldest boy.
Adam was digging a posthole for the new corral with Abel stoically looking on when Ben sidled up with his morning coffee. He had an extra cup for Adam. Abel acknowledged the elder Cartwright with a lazy wag of his tail than turned his attention back to Adam.
Ben leaned against the fence and watched for a moment before beginning his inquisition. “Been staying close to home lately, haven’t you, son?” he stated gently.
“Lots to do around here, Pa.” Adam panted as he continued to remove piles of dirt.
“Yes, yes…it never ends. But you know what they say about all work and no play, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. But I like to work.”
“Well, you’ve proven that over that last few weeks. Is there a reason why you haven’t ventured past the boundaries of the ranch? Is there something the matter?” Ben asked as he held out the mug of coffee for his son to take.
“Like I said…just busy I suppose.”
“We’re not THAT busy. We have years to finish the work. No need to do it all at once!” Ben chuckled.
“Well, if you must know,” Adam sighed as he took the coffee and nodded a thank you, “I’m a little leery of Brad, Jeff and Rick.”
“Once they find out I’m no longer interested in their exploits, I’m afraid they may turn on me.”
“Turn on you?”
“You were right, Pa,” Adam said as he rested his elbow on the shovel handle. He took a sip of the java. “They are a nasty bunch. I don’t know how I ever got mixed up with them.”
“I see.” Ben scowled with slight apprehension. “Do you think they might do you harm?”
“They might. But, to tell you the truth, it’s my tuition savings I’m most worried about. Brad especially took great pleasure in spending my money. I never told you, but they used me to fund their fun. I was so stupid. I could kick myself now.”
“We all make mistakes, Adam. We can all make poor judgments when it comes to whom we spend time with. That’s just part of growing up. It takes a while to realize who your real friends are.”
Ben crouched to pat Abel on the head. The dog responded by raising his chin just in case Ben decided to continue to rub.
Adam looked on and smiled. “He’s really changed me, Pa. I don’t know what it is about him. I’ve never loved an animal as much as I love him. It feels sort of strange.”
“I had a dog when I was a boy. Did I ever tell you that?”
“No. You didn’t,” Adam replied, slightly puzzled as he thought he knew everything there was to know about his father.
“She was the love of my life,” Ben reminisced with a grin. “She was a beagle. The sweetest thing you’d ever set eyes on. Big, brown, soulful eyes. Smart. Good hunter too. She loved me like Abel loves you. I understand the bond and how you’re feeling. There’s nothing else like it, really -– man and dog. It’s a different kind of love. It’s very special.”
“Yes, it is,” Adam said as he smiled at his canine comrade. He paused before setting his cup atop an already erect post and then folded his arms before returning to the matter at hand. “So, what do you think I should do, Pa?”
“Well, before the boys and I go to Carson City, we’ll find a safe place for the cash. Once that is taken care of, I guess the rest is up to you. You have to live your life, Adam. As much as I like you getting all this work done, I have to realize that you’re a man now and have to experience life both inside AND outside the Ponderosa. That’s why I’m taking Joe and Hoss to the auction. It’s time they expanded their horizons too. You can’t stay here forever.”
“It may be, but there is no use in delaying the inevitable. Trust yourself. I do. And, if you ever run into trouble, I’ll be there for you.”
Abel sat and barked playfully at Adam.
“Sounds like we’re all in agreement then.” Adam chortled, then puffed his chest. “Well, procrastination has never been one of my strong suits. I’ll go into town tomorrow and pick up some supplies for Hop Sing. I know we’re low on a few things.”
“He’ll appreciate that.” Ben grinned, then became serious again. “Be careful, Adam, but most of all, don’t let anyone dictate how you choose to live your life.”
“I won’t, Pa. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Thanks, Mister Griffin,” Adam said cheerfully as he hoisted a 20 lb. sack of flour onto his shoulder. “I’ll tell Hop Sing you’re expecting fresh cherries next week. Nothing better than his cherry pie.”
“Alright then, Adam. Say hello to your Pa for me,” the storekeeper replied then turned his attention to his next customer.
Adam had been in town all morning, and had not seen hide nor hair of Brad, Jeff or Rick. That was fine with him. He planned to quit while he was ahead and get back to the ranch pronto. Hopefully, he’d escape without bumping into his ex-friends. He was happy to save his run-in with them for another day.
Adam carried the flour out to the wagon and tossed it on top of the other bits and bobs he’d bought. Abel, who had waited patiently outside the store, popped to his feet in anticipation of Adam’s next instruction.
“Up you go, boy” Adam said as he ushered Abel up the back of the wagon and onto the bench. The dog loved riding in the buckboard, especially in the seat next to Adam. He looked so majestic sitting up there for all to see. The dog scanned the town to make sure all eyes were on him. But his arrogant roost was interrupted as three young men approached. Abel rumbled an ominous growl.
“Hey, Cartwright,” Brad welcomed as he flung his arm around Adam’s neck. “Where you been?”
“Oh, aaaah, hi there, Brad. Jeff. Rick.”
“You been sick or something?”
“No. No. Just busy working,” Adam explained confidently.
“Well, when will you be back in town? There’s a high stake poker game starting tomorrow night. Lots of men in town to win money from.”
“I don’t think so, Brad,” Adam replied cautiously. “My father has me pretty tied up with building corrals and fences. You know how it is.”
“No. Not really.” Jeff snickered.
“Well, I better get going then,” Adam said as he pulled away from Brad’s grasp.
“Wait a moment. What’s your hurry?”
Abel barked down at the three young men who now surrounded his master.
“Easy, boy,” Adam urged. “It’s okay.”
“You better put a muzzle on that dog, Cartwright, or I’ll skin him alive,” Rick warned.
“You touch one hair on that dog and I’ll kill you.”
“Simmer down, Adam,” Brad said. “Rick’s only joshin’. What’s gotten into you? We’ve missed you around here, that’s all.”
“I don’t think it’s me you’ve missed.”
“What do you mean?” Jeff asked as the three closed in on Adam, forcing his back up against the side of the buckboard.
“What I mean is.” Adam replied boldly. “you haven’t missed me. You’ve missed my money.”
“Come to think of it, we have been short of funds lately, haven’t we, boys.”
“Sure have,” Rick sneered.
“Listen, fellas,” Adam stated, “I don’t want to fight you. Let’s just part ways and you three can be done with me. I’m no fun. You go ahead without me. I can’t be a part of it anymore.”
“Why not?” Brad asked with a mock pout, as the three moved in even closer, pinning Adam to the wagon.
“I’m just not interested in that kind of stuff anymore. Besides, I have better things to do.”
“Is that so?”
Jeff and Rick grabbed Adam and held him so Brad could begin the pummeling. But before Brad could raise his fist, Abel sprang from his perch like a flying squirrel and knocked Brad onto his rump. The dog snarled and chomped on Jeff’s pant leg, ripping it all the way up to the knee.
The three men immediately unhanded Adam and pulled back as Abel squared in front of them in full protection stance. His curled lips and foaming tongue were enough to convince them to step back. Way back.
The fracas had attracted a crowd, which in turn attracted the Sheriff. Roy Coffee pushed his way through to the center of the mob to regain order. “Call your dog off, Adam,” he advised as he helped Brad from the ground.
Adam grabbed Abel by the scruff of the neck and ordered him back up onto the buckboard bench. The dog obeyed but remained on guard.
“Now what’s going on here?” Roy asked all four.
“Nothing, Sheriff,” Brad answered charmingly. “We were just helping Adam with his supplies.”
“Zat so? And ‘your help’…is what got his dog all riled up?” Roy asked suspiciously.
“It’s okay, Roy,” Adam said. “We’ll be on our way. Everything is fine.”
“You boys have given me nothing but trouble and I don’t want to see any more of it,” the sheriff grumbled. “Now, all of you git on home or I’ll throw you in a cell for the night.”
“We’re on our way, Roy,” Adam said as he climbed up onto the wagon beside his dog. He gave the horses a slight whip of the reins and a cluck of the cheek then, with the utmost control, drove out of town. He never looked back. The crowd dispersed. Once Roy was satisfied that calm had been restored, he returned to his office, shaking his head all the way.
Brad, Jeff and Rick drifted away from the scene but had full intentions of regrouping out-of-sight. They now had a mission. With Adam no longer willing to finance their operation, the boys had no choice but to plan drastic action.
Supper that night consisted of beef stew and crusty bread. It was Adam’s favorite but he did little more than push the stuff around his plate instead of indulging.
Hoss was already on his third helping when Ben noticed Adam had yet to dive into his first. “Are you feeling alright, son?” he asked.
“Yes sir. I’m fine.”
“Well, I know Hop Sing’s Irish Stew is your favorite, but you’ve hardly touched a bite.”
“Hey!” Hoss interrupted. “How come a man from China can make such tasty Irish Stew? Go figure that.”
The rest of the family stopped to ponder Hoss’ sudden revelation but said nothing.
Adam simply ignored it but did answer his father’s original question. “I guess I’m just not hungry, Pa.”
“Would your trip into town today have anything to do with your loss of appetite? Did you run into your, ah…friends?” Ben had to force his final word.
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“And I suppose they reacted as you suspected.”
“Yes sir. I’m afraid they did.”
The conversation began to interest both Hoss and Little Joe now. Their focus changed from playfully elbowing each other to their father and brother’s exchange.
“They didn’t hurt you, did they?” Ben queried with slight concern.
“Well, they tried to. But, Abel stepped in to protect me,” Adam said with raised eyebrows.
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“Yeah,” Hoss piped up, ignoring Joe’s pestering. “What do you mean, Adam?”
“Well, they pinned me up against the wagon and were about to let loose when Abel leaped from the top bench of the buckboard and attacked all of them. You should have seen him, Pa. He was pretty mad,” Adam explained as he reached down to where Abel lay at his feet and tossed the dog’s ears in gratitude.
“Seems you have your own bodyguard, eh?” Ben chuckled.
“That’s for sure.”
“So then… If you have Abel to protect you, what are you worried about?”
“Nothing, I guess,” Adam reckoned. “I don’t suppose I should be worried about anything with Abel around.”
“No. You shouldn’t,” Ben assured, then changed gears. “Now I can go on that cattle buying trip with peace-of-mind.”
“Cattle buying trip?”
“Yes, Adam. I don’t know how you could forget; it’s all Little Joe has talked about for the last two weeks. He’s never been on a stagecoach before.” Ben smiled down at the tiny boy. He affectionately placed his massive hand atop Joe’s curl-bound head. “I’m taking the boys to the Carson City Auction, remember?”
“That’s right, Adam,” Joe voiced with excitement. “Pa said I can even pick some of the stock myself.”
“Aaah, that’s great, Joe. Can’t wait to see what you come back with,” Adam teased. “I suppose it just slipped my mind.”
“Well, we are off day after tomorrow, so you and Abel will have to hold down the fort. Now eat your supper please. We mustn’t waste food. And, there is a nice apple cake waiting for dessert.”
Adam smiled at his father and took a hearty fork-full of stew. He was right. With his new dog to protect him and the homestead, there was no reason for Adam to be nervous. But, he couldn’t help it. He was. Adam knew it was just a matter of time before he and his ex-friends would meet again. He put on a brave face for his family, but deep down, Adam’s fear festered.
“Up you go, Little Joe,” Ben said as he helped raise his youngest son onto the Virginia City stagecoach. “Now be a good boy and sit quietly until we are ready to go, alright, son?”
“I’ll try, Pa,” Joe replied, trying quite unsuccessfully, to stifle his excitement.
Hoss climbed in after his brother, taking the seat across from him. Before boarding, Ben helped the driver stow the luggage, mailbags and odd packages to be delivered to Carson City. On this day, only the three Cartwrights would be traveling on the tiny coach. Ben was glad because he knew Joe was an impishly active child and might disturb other passengers. Now Ben could relax and enjoy the ride. He looked forward to sharing this time with his two youngest boys, and especially watching Little Joe’s reaction to all the new things he was about to experience.
As the three Cartwrights were preparing to hit the road, Brad Sinclair watched with great interest. He covertly peered over the doors of the saloon.
“Hey Rick!” Brad called over to his buddy.
“Yeah? What is it?” Rick replied from his roost at the bar.
“Looky.” Brad pointed out of the saloon with his chin.
Rick sauntered to where Brad was standing and glanced in the direction in which Brad had indicated.
“Adam’s not going with them,” Brad announced quietly.
“Do you think he’ll be home alone?”
“He’ll be home alone alright. Well, except for that dog.” Brad shrugged dismissively.
“Dog or no dog, this is our chance to get what’s coming to us.” Rick sounded sinister. “There’s gonna be no moon tonight. He’ll never see us comin’.”
“Get, Jeff,” Brad ordered abruptly. “We’ll head out there and wait till dark.”
“How much do you think he’ll give us?”
“Adam Cartwright ain’t givin’ nothin’ to nobody,” Brad scoffed. “Whatever we get, we’ll have to take.”
“Sounds like fun.” Rick smirked wickedly.
Adam read quietly. He’d made himself a supper of cold roast beef between two slices of day-old bread. There was a little soup left from yesterday’s lunch, so he finished that off too. He’d just stoked the fire to raging and Abel had taken his place on the rug beneath the hearth.
Between pages, Adam took the time to admire his dog. Abel slept soundly, lying on his side, his belly soaking up the heat of the flames. The fire flickered its light onto his coat, making it glow like burning coal.
Adam enjoyed evenings like this. The peace was welcome as the house was usually filled with activity. Hoss and Joe were always up to something and Ben was always after them to behave. It was chaotic at times. So tonight was a real treat. Adam returned to his book.
Several chapters on, Adam was distracted by an owl’s screeched. Its eerie call echoed into the great room of the Ponderosa. Abel spooked, abruptly awakened by the noise, and flipped onto his stomach, immediately on guard.
“It’s okay, boy,” Adam assured. “It’s just an owl. Nothing to worry about. Go back to sleep.”
But instead of heeding his master, Abel appeared agitated. His ears perked as his attention riveted to the front door. The dog stood and boofed. There was a creak followed by a snap. Abel growled and then barked aggressively.
“What is it, boy? Is somebody there?” Adam said as he stood to investigate. He walked to the door with Abel at his side. The Lab continued to grumble warily, his hackles up and his lips curled. The dog’s disposition made Adam’s heart pounded.
Just as Adam reached for the door handle, it exploded open as Brad, Rick and Jeff blasted into the house. It took both Adam and Abel by surprise, giving Jeff time to tackle the dog and covering him with a large blanket. He smothered Abel with it, wrapping it tightly around the animal. Abel struggled to break free of the trap but Jeff put the dog out of commission by hog-tying him. Brad and Rick held Adam back so Jeff could do his work.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Adam cried. “DON’T HURT HIM!”
“Don’t worry, Cartwright. We’re not going to hurt him.”
“You better not or, so help me, I’ll kill you with my bare hands,” Adam warned lividly.
“All you have to do is hand over that five hundred dollars you won,” Brad said calmly.
“You really are pathetic, Brad. What makes you think that I owe you anything? I won that money. It’s mine and I’m going to use it to go to university. I can’t believe you’d stoop this low.”
“Adam, I thought you knew me better than that. I’ll stoop as low as I have to, to get what I want.”
“But, we were friends,” Adam implored. “How can you steal from a friend?”
“You gave us no choice. What did you expect us to do?”
“Actually, Brad, I suppose I expected nothing less from you.”
Adam’s comment drew a forceful slug to the gut. It was hard enough to make Adam fold over and gasp for breath.
“Now hand it over, or there will be worse to pay.”
“I don’t have it,” Adam panted, trying desperately to refill his lungs. “It’s not here.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s in my father’s safety deposit box…in town.”
“I don’t lie, Brad. It appears YOU don’t know ME very well.”
Brad threw another punch, to Adam’s face this time. It split his lip and blood began to flow. “You’re making me mad Cartwright. There must be some money in this dump. Now hand it over,” Brad ordered.
But, his interrogation was cut short. Abel had managed to free himself and sprang up on Brad, going straight for his throat. Rick and Jeff pushed Adam to the floor and tried to pull the dog off of Brad. But Abel turned on them too, tearing and biting at their arms and legs. Brad crawled away from the noisy tussle and yelled at Adam to control his dog. Adam tried but Abel was blinded by rage. He had to protect Adam. He continued to rip at the flesh of the intruders. As Adam struggled to break up the fracas, he saw Brad pull a gun.
“NOOO!” Adam screamed. “DON’T SHOOT!”
The sound of the single shot rang through the rafters. It was followed by deafening silence.
Adam found a beautiful spot to bury Abel. It was under a majestic tree right by the creek where man and dog first bonded. Wrapped in the mat Abel slept on, Adam laid his best friend in the ground. Only after covering the grave with rocks did Adam allow himself to break down. He took a seat on the very log where he’d pitched sticks for Abel to fetch. It was there that he cried like he never had before. He stayed there for hours not wanting to leave Abel behind. By mid-afternoon, the tears finally subsided. Adam took a deep breath and raised his head to scan the water and meadow beyond. It was still like Eden and it gave him comfort knowing Abel would spend eternity here.
“Adam?” Joe yelled from the bench of the buckboard as he, Hoss and Ben entered the Ponderosa courtyard. “Adam? We’re home!”
Little Joe jumped down before Ben could bring the rig to a standstill. He couldn’t wait to tell his older brother about his trip. He ran toward the house, fully expecting Abel to bound out to greet him but, it was only Adam that emerged from the house. He wore an ensemble of black from head to toe. His hands were shoved into his pants pockets and his head hung low.
“You should see the bull we bought, Adam,” Joe rambled oblivious of Adam’s strife and Abel’s absence. “I picked him out myself. He’s bigger than the barn.”
It was then that Joe realized that there was no dog. He stopped short and looked around for Abel. He called for him too, but to no avail. Ben and Hoss caught up to Joe and faced Adam slightly puzzled. Ben gave his son the once over. He couldn’t help but notice his somber, new clothes. There was also what was left of a fat lip and black eye. Ben’s mood went from anticipation to concern in a matter of seconds. “What happened to you? Where’s Abel?”
Adam could hardly bring himself to say it, but he had to. “He’s… Abel’s dead, Pa.”
“DEAD?” Ben replied with shock.
Both Hoss and Joe’s head’s sank and Joe began to cry.
“Why… how?” asked Ben
“He was trying to protect me,” Adam began to explain. “Brad, Rick and Jeff paid me a visit a few nights ago. They wanted that money I won. They tried to get Abel out of the way by tying him up in a blanket but he got loose. He attacked them all and Brad shot him.”
“Oh no,” Ben whispered and then placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder in consolation. “I’m so sorry, son.”
“I buried Abel by the creek. I truly can’t believe he’s gone.” Adam fought back tears.
“Are you alright?”
“I will be,” Adam replied stoically.
“I’m gonna kill them fellers,” Hoss said from under his breath. “Ain’t nobody gettin’ away with killin’ a dog, ‘specially our dog.”
“You’ll have to find them first,” Adam said as he pulled his two brothers toward him, one under each arm. “They’re gone. Those cowards are gone.”
“We’ll just have to go after them then, Adam,” Joe said between gulps.
“No,” Ben said with a sigh. “Revenge is never the answer, Joe. What goes around comes around and those boys will have to deal with their maker some day. They have set their fate. Rest assured, they will be taken care of in due course.”
“As much as I want to seek retribution, I know you’re right, Pa,” Adam agreed with resignation. “They will pay for what they’ve done, but I’m afraid there is nothing we can do about it.”
The foursome all turned at once to go inside when Ben had one more query. “I see you have bought yourself some new clothes.”
“That’s right Pa.”
“Are you wearing black for Abel?”
“Yes. It’s for him. And, I intend to wear black for the rest of my life, so I won’t forget.”
“We’ll not forget that beautiful dog, Adam. He was a true friend.”
“He certainly was, Pa. I’ll miss him.”
“We all will, son. We all will.”