Summary: A year after the worst time of his life, Adam Cartwright sees his old nemesis. No one else does.
Rated: K+ WC 28,000
He never considered going to town a chore. Yes, it was a long way to go just to pick up the mail, but someone had to do it, and the two who didn’t stayed behind to do the menial chores; muck the stalls, fix a wagon wheel, check the herd, ride the fences, and make the occasional repair to the house or the barn. The ride could be considered boring once you’d done it for the thousandth time, but a book was guaranteed to bring just the right amount of interest to make it enjoyable. It didn’t hurt to have a horse that knew the way.
When he rode into town, he marveled at the newest things: a new building, a new girl. He stopped in front of the building, sizing it up, imagining the façade, then moved on, tipping his hat and bestowing his most charming smile upon the girl. Tying his horse to the hitching post in front of the Silver Dollar saloon, he stepped down just in time to see Early Tibbs fly like a bird out of the batwing doors. Unfortunately for Early, he was human rather than avian, so he picked himself up, brushed himself off, and strode back in, and in another minute, right on time, his brother Edward rolled out into the street.
“Goo’ mornin’ to ya, Adam. I hope I din’t throw dust on your fine black attire,” said Edward, stumbling into Adam.
Wrinkling his nose at the stench of stale liquor, Adam lifted him into a standing position. “Edward, it’s a bit early, isn’t it?”
“Ain’t ‘a bit’ about it. It was Early, alright,” Edward answered, tipping his hat and stumbling back into the saloon.
Adam shook his head and smiled at the predictability of the Tibbs brothers. He stepped up on the boardwalk and made his way toward the post office, greeting friends and tipping his hat along the way. His pa had sent him to town, anticipating a signed contract for cattle to arrive, and as expected, it was there along with a few other sundry letters and one package addressed to A. Cartwright.
Turning the package over, he looked for a sender’s name that wasn’t there. Whatever was in it was heavy and roundish. He ripped the parcel open and found…a rock? It was an ordinary gray rock about the size of his fist. He looked through the wrapping paper and found nothing else; no note, just a rock.
“Adam, how are you this morning?”
He knew the owner of the unmistakable voice without looking up. “Fine, Roy,” he said, still examining the rock. “You?”
“I’m doing alright. What brings you to town?”
Tossing the rock behind him into the alley, he flapped the envelopes in his hand. “Just the mail. Pa’s been anxious to get this contract.” An uneasiness suddenly washed over him. He looked up and scanned the bustling populace around him, then froze, the color draining from his face.
Roy looked in the same direction. “Adam, what is it?” He looked back at Adam, confused and concerned.
Adam’s eyes didn’t move. “Excuse me, Roy,” he said, stuffing the mail in his back pocket and trotting across the street. He had seen a familiar face, but when he made it across the street, he only saw the back of a head bobbing through the throng ahead of him. Rushing down the crowded sidewalk, he bumped into Mrs. Gables, almost sending her to the ground. “Mrs. Gables, I sorry,” he said, making sure she was alright even as he looked down the sidewalk. Without waiting for an acknowledgement, he took several steps forward, searching. He stepped off the boardwalk into the street and ran to the corner of the next alley, turning, examining every detail of the scene around him.
His quarry had vanished.
Roy stood back and watched as Adam rushed through and around the people and wares spread out on the boardwalk. By the time Roy caught up to him, the hairs on the back of his neck were bristling at the unusual behavior displayed by a man he knew to be unflappable. “Now, don’t try and tell me it’s nothing, son. Who were you after just now?”
Scratching the back of his neck, Adam took a deep breath that turned into a chuckle. “I thought I recognized someone, Roy, but he got away from me. It was probably just someone who favored him.”
“Care to tell me who you thought it was?”
Adam looked around one more time. “No,” he said, putting a hand on Roy’s shoulder. “It really doesn’t matter. It couldn’t have been who I thought.” He looked back at Roy. “I’m going to head on home. Pa’ll be waiting for this,” he said, pulling the mail with the contract out of his pocket.
“Give your pa my regards.”
“I’ll do that.” Adam walked back over to Sport, mounted and rode out of town. On the way home, the book remained in his saddlebag. He spent the entire ride trying to convince himself that the man he saw in town could not have been Peter Kane.