Native Land (by LissaB)

Summary: Adam’s grandfather writes, leaving him with a difficult choice to make. My first Bonanza story written back in 1999.

A/N:  For those of you that are sticklers for historical accuracy, I should mention that I cheated with two of the quotes/poems I used. Both Housman’s and Henley’s pieces were probably not written until ten or twenty years after this story takes place. The rest is historically viable, or at least in keeping with Bonanza lore.

Rating: K+ (33,460 words)

 

Native Land

Chapter 1

Adam Cartwright pushed the needle through the bridle he was repairing, his gaze drifting to the book lying open on a nearby tack box.

He almost never brought books to the barn – partly because it wasn’t good for them, partly because he was generally pretty good at compartmentalizing the different parts of his life: ranch work in one slot, intellectual pursuits in another. But lately it was becoming more difficult to keep the lines from blurring, and this book had proved to be hard to put down. After a brief battle with himself he had been unable to resist the temptation to carry it along to the tack room and skim a paragraph or two while he repaired and polished and sorted the tack.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays on Transcendentalism. Of course, he had read a lot about Transcendentalism while he was in college in Boston – it was impossible to live so close to Concord and not – but the poems of Walt Whitman and some new essays by Bronson Alcott had fallen into his hands and fanned the flame of his interest. Ironically, it was his life on the ranch that had given him a new appreciation of the philosophy, and he had dug out his Emerson and Thoreau for another look.

It had proved absorbing. He wasn’t sure he bought it, but he was burning to talk it over with someone. And there was the rub.

He secured another stitch in the bridle and frowned. He shared the ranch with his father and two brothers and the chances of a good debate with them on the merits of Transcendentalism weren’t much better than they were with the cowpokes he rode the range with. Oh, they were all smart enough, but Hoss was disinclined to read anything but the Territorial Enterprise, and Joe leaned more to dime novels. His father liked a good book occasionally and was probably familiar with this modern American philosophy, but all his efforts to try him out on the subject had been met with polite distraction.

Well, he was busy, Adam understood that, and the demands of running such a huge ranch were many, leaving little time for anything else. But sometimes Adam’s need to share his love of more esoteric ideas and pursuits burned so hot and high that he didn’t know where to go with it for release, leaving him restless and distracted. He was feeling that way now.

If only his mother had lived. His father often remarked that she had been as bookish as he was, with the same passion for the aesthetic, and he was willing to bet that she would have had plenty to say on the subject of Transcendentalism.

But, then, if his mother had lived, that would mean no Hoss and no Joe, and he really couldn’t imagine his life without them. He glanced at the next paragraph, then let out a yelp as he drove the large, curved needle directly into his thumb. Swearing softly but fluently, he dropped the bridle and shook the pain away from his hand. And that was what happened when you were thinking about one thing when you should be concentrating on another, he lectured himself silently.

‘When I consider how my light is spent’,” he grumbled aloud.

“How’s that, Adam?”

Adam jumped, startled to find he wasn’t alone and embarrassed to be caught talking to himself. “Hoss,” he said, looking up to see his younger brother’s hulking silhouette in the tack room doorway. “I didn’t hear you come in. Um – nothing. Just thinking out loud.”

“How what’s spent?” Hoss persisted curiously.

“How..? Oh…no. It’s just a quote. ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ – you know, from Milton’s On His Blindness.” And then he wanted to bite his tongue, because he could be pretty certain that Hoss did NOT know and that was exactly the kind of thing that Little Joe called his “putting on airs”.

He wasn’t, really – it was more like speaking a second language – something that was so much a part of you that it was hard to remember that everybody else didn’t understand it, too. But he tried to remember, and wished that he had remembered this morning. The last thing he wanted was a fight – the one he was having with himself was bad enough.

He needn’t have worried. Hoss accepted the answer with his usual easy calm, wrinkling his forehead thoughtfully. “Well, shoot, Adam, you can’t spend light, kin ya? I mean, it ain’t like money.”

Adam grinned. “Not that kind of spend, Hoss. Like you spend time. Milton meant when I consider how my life is spent, or my time and talent. Light is just a metaphor. Of course, by that time, Milton was blind, so by light he was also referring to his eyesight, and how that loss had diminished his ability to use his talent, or spend his life as he had intended, so you see, it has a sort of a double…” he caught Hoss’s expression and came to an abrupt halt, clearing his throat. “Well, anyway. It was just a quote.”

“Huh. You don’t say.” Hoss watched him cut the thread and return the bridle to its peg. “That in that there book?” He gestured to the open book on the tack box.

Adam followed his gaze and colored slightly, doubly glad it was Hoss and not Joe. If Joe found out he’d been reading while he was supposed to be taking care of tack he’d never hear the end of it.

He pushed the book closed and picked up a martingale he’d finished polishing to return it to its hook. “No, that’s a book by a fellow called Emerson. On Transcendentalism. It’s a modern American philosophy he created, based on the teachings of Immanuel Kant.”

“Transcen – what?”

“Transcendentalism. It’s a kind of a religion that emphasizes the alignment between man and nature and the nobility of the human spirit…”

Hoss looked at him blankly.

Adam sighed inwardly. “Never mind.”

Hoss gave a low whistle. “You sure know a powerful lot a things, Adam. How’s it feel to know so much?”

Lonely, thought Adam, surprising himself with his own thoughts, biting down before he could say it out loud. But something must have shown on his face, because Hoss’s kind, mild blue eyes were fixed on him scrutinizingly.

He picked up the last bridle, which belonged to his mount, Sport, moved to his stall and began slipping it over the beautiful gelding’s head.

“Everythin’ okay, Adam?” asked Hoss, after a minute.

“Everything’s fine, Hoss.” He busily threw a saddle blanket over Sport’s back, avoiding Hoss’s gentle gaze, and reached for his saddle. “Except that if I don’t get up above the north pasture pretty soon and look for those strays, Pa’s gonna skin me.” He reached for his book and handed it to Hoss. “Do me a favor and put this back in my room for me?”

Hoss didn’t drop his gaze, but accepted the book and watched him tighten the cinch. “Sure thing, Adam.”

Adam took Sport’s reins and led him out of the barn. He was about to mount when Hoss put his hand above his on the reins, almost at Sport’s bit. Adam looked at him and knew he wasn’t getting out of this one so easily. He looked down at the ground, then back at his brother. “Look, Hoss, it’s really nothing, okay?”

Hoss continued to hold the reins, patient and immovable.

Adam sighed again, out loud this time. “Okay, it’s just that…” How could he explain to Hoss what he didn’t really understand himself? “Every once in a while, I kind of wish that somebody else liked some of the things that I like, that’s all. Can I have my reins, please?” He swung into the saddle, trying to ignore Hoss’s face, scrunched into a frown. Damn. The last thing he’d wanted was to upset his tender hearted brother.

Hoss slowly handed him his reins, wrinkling his nose at the book in his oversized paw.

Adam picked up the reins and urged Sport forward. “See ya, Hoss.”

Hoss’s face suddenly brightened tentatively. “Say, Adam?”

Adam turned.

“I like yer music a right lot.”

Adam smiled a half smile and reached down to give him a brotherly slap on the shoulder. “So you do. Thanks, Hoss. And thanks for taking care of the book for me.” He pressed his heels into Sport, and the horse shot forward.

Hoss looked after him, his forehead still crinkled in a frown, then down at the book, flipping the pages curiously. He shook his head.

What a whole lotta itty-bitty print. And no pictures.

000

Adam finally pulled Sport up after giving him his head most of the way to the north pasture. He’d figured a gallop would do them both good, but now he eased him into a restful trot, bending him this way and that through the trees. He grinned a little to himself, remembering Hoss’s face as he’d lectured him on Milton and Emerson. He really had to get himself in hand, or they’d find him giving literary symposia to Hop Sing’s chickens.

He put his hand on the breast pocket of his jacket and felt the letter crinkle there, his mind shifting to his other quandary. He felt badly that he hadn’t mentioned it to his father yet, but he wanted to wait until he knew his own mind a little better. He drew the letter out and skimmed it.

It was a habit that maddened his father – reading while riding – so he was careful never to do it when he was around. His father was sure that it was a practice that could only end in a nasty accident, but it never had – in fact, once it had actually saved his life, when a bushwhacker’s bullet had been deflected from his heart to his leg by a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He had survived, though the sonnets hadn’t. He smiled at the memory, then frowned at the letter.

His grandfather was making a plea for him to come east. He was getting old, and he wanted to spend his remaining years with his only grandchild, his only remaining kin. He pointed out that Ben, his father, had two other sons to help him, while Abel, his grandfather, had only Adam. He spoke at length about the charms of the east; the museums, the libraries, the concerts, the theatres, the lectures. He spoke even more about his own loneliness and increasing frailty. Adam sighed, and returned the letter to his pocket. He made a good case.

Of course, his father needed him too, depended on him a great deal, but his father was still healthy and vital, and had strong support in Hoss and Joe. And then, back east, many people shared his interests. You could get all kinds of good literary debates going.

He slowed Sport to a stop and leaned over his neck, admiring the view.

But he knew it wasn’t that simple for him. He often felt out of place in the west, that was true, but what he’d never told anyone was that he hadn’t really felt at home in the east, either. The crowds and the noise wore on him, he missed the wide open spaces, the clean air and endless vistas, the hard physical labor, the directness of the people. He’d missed his family, the way of life. He patted Sport affectionately on the neck. “Not to mention you, boy. What would I ever do without you?”

Not for the first time, he envied his brothers, who seemed to fit in so well, be so satisfied, so sure of where they belonged. He reached down further to scratch Sport along his jaw. “How about you? You got any thoughts on Transcendentalism you’d like to share?”

Sport tossed his head and rolled a baleful brown eye at him.

“Didn’t think so. Let’s see to those strays.”

Chapter 2

By the time Adam met his father in the bottom land, the sun was getting low in the sky. His father reined in his massive buckskin as he saw Adam approach and waited for him, erect in the saddle.

“So, son. Any luck?”

Adam shook his head. “Not much. Maybe a dozen head, but that’s all.”

“A dozen!” Ben Cartwright frowned. “We’re missing over a hundred. How carefully did you check?”

Adam tried not to look exasperated. He was never anything less than thorough, and his father knew that. He tried to keep his voice even. “Pa, I checked every rock and gorge and ledge up there. They’re just not there – no bones, no nothing. No sign of them.”

Ben reached over and patted his arm apologetically. “I know, son, I just can’t imagine where they got to. Here comes your brother, maybe he has some ideas.”

They waited while Joe’s frisky paint pulled up along side them, Curly Froman, one of the hands, not far behind.

“Don’t know, Pa, only managed to ferret out a handful,” said Joe as he pulled to a stop. “But Curly, here, has a thought.”

Curly tipped his hat politely. “Just somethin’ I heard, Mr. Cartwright. Somebody said they saw signs of some cows wandering up there in the hills.”

Adam squinted at the distant hills. “How would they get all the way up there? Doesn’t seem like a very likely place to roam.”

Curly shrugged. “Got some Bannock and a few scrub farmers and grub stake miners up there that might be borrowing to get through the winter. Don’t know if there were Ponderosa beef or not, but thought I oughta tell ya.”

Ben followed Adam’s gaze. “Well, thank you, Curly. I suppose one of us should check it out.”

Adam studied the hills thoughtfully. “I’ll go, Pa.”

Ben shook his head. “Seems to me you pulled hardship duty last time, Adam. One of your brothers should go this time.”

“Hoss’s busy with all that blacksmithing for the next few days back at the ranch,” Joe pointed out.

“Yes, he is.”

Joe met his father’s look and let out a yelp of disappointment. “Pa, that trip’ll take at least four days!”

“Probably five, Joseph, traveling uphill most of the way and saving your horse.” He eyed his youngest son meaningfully.

“But, Pa, That means I’d be gone over Saturday, and I promised Jenny Mayfield I’d take her to the Social!”

“Joseph, since when does your social life take precedence over ranch business?”

“But, Pa – ”

“Pa, why don’t I go,” Adam interrupted. Maybe a few quiet days in the saddle was just what he needed to clear his head. “I haven’t asked anyone to the Social yet – ” Actually, he’d forgotten all about it. “And I know for a fact that Hoss finally got up the nerve to ask Betsy-Sue. So, since I’m the only one that doesn’t mind, why not?” He kept his voice reasonable, so that his father wouldn’t start wondering why he was as eager to get away as Joe was to stay.

Ben looked from one son to the other, then sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Sometimes when you try too hard to be fair you just end up being unfair. Besides,” he smiled mischievously. “If I ever want to marry any of you boys off, I guess I’d better make time for socializing. Otherwise I’ll be stuck with you forever!” He and Joe laughed.

Adam tried to smile, but he felt his grandfather’s letter burning like a brand in his pocket.

“Adam, you head home and get your gear together. Joe and I will finish up here. We’ll see you at dinner.”

000

Adam whistled softly to himself as he finished preparing his gear. Bedroll, saddlebags, provisions – better bring some warm things, weather was unpredictable at that elevation. His eyes strayed to Emerson, sitting on his desk, and he turned away resolutely. Absolutely no books. He needed to clear his head – to hear himself think. The idea of being under no one’s scrutiny for a few days brought a blessed sense of relief, and he smiled as he tied his bedroll.

“Dinner, Adam.”

He glanced up to see Joe in his bedroom doorway, and returned his eyes to his bedroll. “Thanks, Joe.”

“Hey, Adam?” Adam looked up again, questioningly. “Thanks for goin’. I’d hate to cancel on Jenny.”

Adam settled his bedroll on a chair with his saddlebags and shrugged. “No problem, Joe. To tell the truth, I’m looking forward to a little quiet.”

Joe glanced at the book lying open on the desk. “What you reading?”

“You really interested, or are you just humoring me because you think I’m doing you a favor?’

Joe gave him his most engaging smile. “Humoring you.”

Adam grinned. “That’s what I thought. Let’s eat.”

They weren’t a moment too soon – Hop Sing was just beginning to serve as they sat down, and both the Chinese cook and their father hated it when they were late for dinner.

Ben passed the biscuits to Hoss on his left. “Make sure you leave some of those for your brothers,” he said automatically. “So, Adam. Are you packed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Make sure you’re prepared for snow. I know it’s early, but those mountains are unpredictable. I don’t want you spending the winter on the other side of Brinkman’s Pass.” Ben smiled, feeling a little anxious despite the smile, and a little foolish about being anxious. Adam was a grown man, but fatherhood was fatherhood and the passage of time didn’t really change it.

Adam met his smile. “I packed for snow, Pa. Anyway, if the Pass did close this early chances are it would be temporary. Be unusual not to have a thaw or two before real winter sets in.”

“True, but as I said, it’s unpredictable. Keep an eye on the weather and don’t take any chances.”

“No, sir.” Adam kept his eyes on his plate. He knew his brothers were hiding covert smiles and he was busy swallowing his own. Their father would not be amused to find them sharing a grin at his expense.

“If you find them, don’t try to bring them down by yourself. Just find a place to contain them until we can go back for them. Maybe I should send someone with you…don’t look so alarmed, Joseph, I meant one of the men, not you.”

Joe nodded sheepishly and returned to his plate.

This did not suit Adam’s plans at all. “Pa, you can barely spare me, never mind somebody else. If I find them I’ll either cut a deal with some of those settlers or the Bannock to help me bring them down, or find a way to corral them temporarily. Don’t worry.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Ben chewed meditatively. “The wildlife will be scrapping for food this time of year, too. Make sure you bring your rifle.”

That was too much for Adam. He put down his fork and met his father’s eyes directly. “You wanna check my bedroll before I go, Pa?” he asked, with carefully measured courtesy.

Ben raised his eyebrows. Joe lost his battle with himself and burst out laughing, triggering Hoss, and then Adam. “All right, all right.” Ben finally smiled reluctantly. “I know you’re not a schoolboy, and I know this is not your first trip.”

“Not my first!” Adam wiped his mouth on his napkin and shook his head. “Pa, I don’t think it’s my hundredth. What’s got you so jumpy?” He tilted his head at him, trying to read his face.

Ben felt a hand squeeze at his heart. Every once in an unexpected while Adam’s expression was so like Elizabeth, his mother’s, that he had to do a double take to remind himself that she wasn’t there. “I’m not jumpy,” he responded, gruffly, to hide what he was feeling. “I just don’t like this trip. Not at this time of year.”

Adam swirled his coffee in its cup. “Do you think it’s not necessary?”

“I do think it’s necessary. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Adam started to say something light, then stopped. He remembered that he was keeping a secret from his father, who could be uncomfortably intuitive when it came to his sons. Probably came from being both mother and father for so many years.

He studied him through his lashes, trying to see if he suspected anything. One way or another, he had a decision to make, a decision that wasn’t necessarily going to make his father happy, and he had to get his focus back. Moving cattle required attention and concentration – having his mind skitter around from cattle to philosophy was going to get himself or someone else killed.

He put down his coffee and leaned forward on his elbows. “Look, I’m gonna go straight up, look around, come straight back – four or five days if I don’t find anything, couple more if I do. How’s the blacksmithing going, Hoss? Any luck fixing that wagon?”

His father smiled at the pointed change of subject. “All right, tell me when you’re leaving and I’ll drop it.”

“First light. Wouldn’t want anyone worrying any longer than necessary.”

“I got the point, Adam. So, Hoss. How about that wagon?”

000

The morning dawned cold and misty. As the sky lightened, Ben made his way out to the porch where Adam had Sport tied to the hitching rail, fastening on the last of his gear. He didn’t look up as Ben approached, but asked, “Making sure I buttoned my coat?”

Ben frowned, trying to gauge his mood. Hoss wore his heart on his sleeve and every passing emotion showed itself on Joe’s face, but Adam was hard to read. Adam gestured with the scabbard he was attaching to his saddle. “My rifle,” he pointed out solemnly.

His face was grave, but this time Ben caught the smile lurking in depths of the dark eyes and his mouth puckered into a rueful grin. “All right. That’s enough insolence from you, young man,” he said without heat.

“Cold morning to get up so early, Pa. Something you needed to ask me?”

“Just thought I’d see you off.” Ben had been widowed three times and good byes were never casual for him.

Adam glanced at him as he finished tying on his bedroll. “You know, if I find those cattle and manage to recruit help to drive them back here it’s going to be slow going – downhill most of the way. Could take longer than we expect.”

“You’re telling me this because…?”

“So you won’t send a posse out after me if I’m a few days overdue. All joking aside, Pa, you seem worried.”

“Well, Adam, worrying about you is not just my job. It’s my sworn duty.”

Adam shook his head. “You sure take your duties seriously. I should be back within the week. Joe’ll give you enough to worry about while I’m gone.” He reached out his hand to his father.

Ben took it, then pulled him into a quick hug. “Good luck, son. Be careful.”

Adam swung lightly into the saddle. “I always am, Pa.” He touched the brim of his hat to him and pressed Sport into a canter.

000

Adam barely reached the foothills before the sun started going down. He wanted to make a little more progress before bedding down for the night, but he kept Sport at an easy walk. The climb was going to get increasingly difficult, and he didn’t want him to overheat, especially in this weather. He had expected the mist to burn off throughout the day, but it had lingered, and as the sun retreated, left the air damp and chilly, visibility diminished. He was going to have to give up soon and make camp, while he could still see.

He felt a hundred times better. The solitary ride had given him a chance to leave some of his troubles behind. Away from the loving scrutiny of his family he felt more able to lay his puzzle out before him and make some choices. He pulled Sport up near a quick flowing stream. “All right, boy. Guess we’d better call it a night. This is as good a place as any.”

He dismounted and looped Sport’s reins loosely on a branch, pulling his saddle. The mist had left a fine layer of moisture on his horse’s coat and he took a few minutes to wipe it off before opening the saddle blanket over his back to keep some of the damp off. “Brought you some oats, but mostly you’re going to have to make do with grazing – they won’t last more than a day or two,” he explained to the animal, rubbing his ears affectionately. “Why don’t you eat while I make a fire?”

There was plenty of wood lying about, and he quickly had a nice blaze going. Cooking seemed like too much trouble and he was tempted to make do with beef jerky, but he knew a warm meal was a wiser choice with the temperature dropping and reluctantly checked his provisions for beans to heat and the coffeepot. He could see the stars through breaks in the mist and paused to admire them.

There was a sight you didn’t get back east. And there were no gallops through the meadows – you were mostly confined to sedate trots.

On the other hand, he thought with a faint smile, your dinners weren’t limited to beans in the wild, either.

He started the coffeepot going with water from his canteen and set the beans to heat while he refilled the canteen from the nearby stream.

Better give Sport a good long drink there before they settled down for the night.

The hills were deeply quiet, except for the occasional cry of some nocturnal animal. Adam settled down to eat with his back against a rock and thought about his grandfather.

He had lived with him when he’d gone back east to go to college and they now enjoyed a lively correspondence. Adam loved him dearly and was painfully aware of his advancing years. If he decided not to go back, would he run the risk of never seeing him alive again? Of leaving him alone and lonely in his declining years? Elizabeth, his mother, had been Abel’s only child, and had died shortly after giving birth to Adam. Didn’t Adam owe it to him to be there for him, now that he was old?

But if there was a question of owing, then what about what he owed his father? Ben was getting older, too, and, while very vigorous, deserved the opportunity to take things a little easier. Hoss and Joe provided ample help in the barn and on the range, but neither had the patience or the interest for the books, the planning, the taxes and money matters – places where his father depended heavily on his eldest son.

This was getting him nowhere.

No matter what he decided, someone would be disappointed – someone would be let down. He hated letting people down, especially people he loved.

Adam blew out his breath in a sigh and reached for the coffeepot. His breath lingered in the frosty air and he made a mental note to keep a close eye on the weather. His eyes returned to the glimpse of stars above. He wished the right answer would just appear there. He cleaned up his dishes and tossed the remains of his coffee. Enough. After seeing to the fire, he rolled himself in his blanket and was asleep almost immediately.

000

Ben stared out the window and frowned. Nasty cold snap for so early in the year. They needed to finish moving the herd to winter pasture as soon as possible – maybe he should think about hiring some extra men. He shrugged into his vest and moved to the hallway. Right after breakfast he would take a look at the books and the payroll and see if they could comfortably manage a couple of extra hands. And Adam would be back in a few days to help as well.

As he moved past Joe’s door he noticed it was still closed and knocked briefly. “Breakfast, son,” he called, smiling at the vague mumble that answered him. Hoss’s door was open – he was probably already seated at the table, impatiently anticipating breakfast. He paused in surprise by the third door, which was ajar. It wasn’t like Adam to leave his door open when he was away – he was intensely protective of his privacy. Ben had never been able to decide whether it was part of his nature, or a natural result of having two younger brothers. Probably both. He reached out to gently pull it closed, then stopped, startled.

“Hoss!”

Hoss looked up, his expression a mixture of guilt and embarrassment. “Oh. Hey, Pa. Time for breakfast?”

Ben leaned against the doorframe, taking in the image of his middle son seated on his older brother’s bed with a book open in his hands, his lips moving painstakingly as he read. “Well, what’s all this? Missing your brother? He’s only gone for a couple of days.”

A red flush made its way upward from Hoss’s collar. “Just havin’ a look at one o’ Adam’s books, Pa,” he mumbled.

Ben bent down to glance at the book’s spine and raised his eyebrows. “Emerson! Well, that’s very – ambitious – of you Hoss. How do you like it?”

Hoss cleared his throat. “Well, I ain’t got so fer yet, but Adam was readin’ it when he went away and he made it sound real inerestin’.”

“So he was.” Now that Hoss mentioned it, Ben had some vague memory of Adam bringing Emerson up once or twice. He knew a passing stab of regret. What had been so important that he had forgone an opportunity to have a non-ranch-related conversation with his taciturn first born? No doubt Adam had been hoping for a philosophical discussion. Well, when he returned Ben would bring the subject up himself and see that he got it. “If you like that one, you ought to try…wait, I’m sure it’s here…” He moved to Adam’s bookcase and skimmed the titles. “Ah! Here – ” He pulled two other books by Emerson off the shelf, then added Thoreau’s Walden’s Pond and Civil Disobedience. “Personally, I always found Thoreau a little easier going. If Emerson gets to be too much for you.”

Hoss stared at the book in his hand, then at the small stack his father had created on top of the bookcase. “Thanks, Pa,” he said dubiously.

“No problem, son. Always like to see you boys improve your minds. See you at breakfast.”

He continued his way down the stairs, waiting until he was well out of earshot before chuckling a little at the memory of Hoss’s face when he’d added to his reading pile. He couldn’t imagine what was really going on, but he knew he’d find out eventually.

He could wait.

Chapter 3

Well into his second day Adam was ready to believe that cattle wandering the high country was just a rumor, or somebody’s idea of a bad joke. The mist had finally burned off, leaving the day clear and cold, a constant chill pervading under the blue shadows of the pines. At the higher elevation the air had thinned, too, and Sport snorted softly in protest as they continued to climb.

Adam reached down to pat his neck. “Don’t worry, boy, I’m with you – a little more and we’ll call it a wild goose chase and head back.” There was no sign of anything like cattle tracks or grazing or trampled underbrush. In fact…Adam paused, suddenly thoughtful…there wasn’t much sign of any kind of wildlife. Suspiciously little, now that he came to think about it. He stood in the stirrups a minute, looking about, then dismounted, pulling Sport after him. “Come on, boy. I have an idea.”

Now that he had an idea what he was looking for it didn’t take him very long – the absence of trail led him to a spot where a natural depression in the hillside was ringed by pines. Branches and brush were strung between the pines to form a makeshift corral. He secured Sport and moved closer, stealthily, though he didn’t really think there was a lookout of any kind. After a moment, reasonably sure no one was about, he pushed his way into the corral to get a closer look.

It held about forty head of cattle, and sure enough, the nearest one bore the Ponderosa brand. He looked at the next one – Flying G brand. He moved among them, checking systematically. Only about eight were Ponderosa head, the rest were a motley collection of his nearest neighbors’ brands – two brands he didn’t recognize at all. Well, here was a pretty mess. He moved back outside of the corral and collected Sport. There was the sound of running water off to his left and he moved toward it. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that following the stream would take him where he wanted to go.

He didn’t bother to remount – he wanted to appear as harmless and unthreatening as possible. He knew a passing discomfort about what he was about to do – true, he was friendly with the Bannock, but they tended to be unpredictable, and having his stolen cattle in their possession might make them a little more nervous than usual.

Well, no turning back now – if he was close enough to their encampment some lookout had spotted him by now anyway. As if in response to his unspoken thoughts, a figure materialized out of the trees in front of him.

He almost smiled. Someone he knew. Seemed like a friendly sign, but it also made him wonder how long they’d been watching him. “Hello, Bruno.”

The Indian nodded his greetings. “Adam Cartwright. What brings you so far from home?”

“I think we both know the answer to that, Bruno.”

Bruno’s face was impassive, but something changed in his eyes.

“Seems like some of our cattle have wandered pretty far from home, too.”

Bruno shifted his stance. “They have wandered into Bannock Territory. They are now property of the Bannock.”

“Come on, Bruno – branded cattle? You know better than that. Besides, I’m having a little trouble believing that a handful of the weakest head from half a dozen different ranches took it into their heads to drift all the way up here on their own.”

Bruno didn’t answer.

Adam suppressed a sigh. Well, this was going well.

After a minute Bruno said slowly, “They are as you say – the poorest cattle.”

Adam nodded. “No doubt about that.” He reviewed the cattle he’d seen in his mind. The trip up into the mountains had shaken off weight, the trip down would cost still more. Even with the winter to fatten them up – assuming they survived – what would their market value be? Also assuming he could get them down now himself, instead of coming back for them. Each day brought them closer to the danger of snow. How many lives was it worth risking for a handful of second rate stock? He studied Bruno thoughtfully. “Hunting and trapping not so good?”

“The white man kills what he does not need.”

So the Bannock needed the cattle to get through the winter. They were less valuable to the ranchers, still, setting a precedent of cattle raiding, even discreet cattle raiding on an as-needed basis, was dangerous as well. Adam mulled it over. “Maybe we can make a deal,” he said at last.

Bruno waited.

“Now, not all those head are Ponderosa beef and I’ll admit I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble of rounding them up and driving them home. Suppose I left them with you and compensated my neighbors for their cattle. Then, come spring, when you’re chasing down mavericks, you cut, say, four mares out of the herd and bring them to us at the Ponderosa in exchange. Good ones, Bruno – we could use some new blood in our breeding stock.”

Bruno watched him. “No stallions?”

Adam shrugged. “Bruno, I don’t think all those critters together are worth a stallion.”

“And you believe we will bring the horses come spring.”

Adam was a little surprised. “Of course. The Bannock do not lie.”

After a minute Bruno nodded and extended his hand. “It is a bargain, Adam Cartwright.”

Adam grasped his forearm in agreement. “Now I’m going to have to go and count how many head of each brand you’ve got so I can pay the ranchers I’m buying them from. Make sure your braves know not to take a shot at me, okay?”

“I will go with you.”

Adam raised his eyebrows. So they had been watching. “Okay,” he said evenly. “Oh, and Bruno – next time come to me first, okay? We’ll make a deal before the cattle take a stroll. Save me a long ride.” He winked at him.

Thistime Bruno smiled for real. “Very well, Adam Cartwright.”

The short walk back to the corral gave Adam enough time for some qualms. He wasn’t at all sure his father would approve of the agreement, never mind his neighbors, and he might have to pay more than the cattle were worth to get them to accept it gracefully. As he pushed into the corral he pulled out the tally sheet and pencil he always carried in his pocket at this time of year and pulled off his gloves to write.

Getting cold, he thought absently as the chill air bit at his fingers and he studied the nearest animal.

Flying G. Scrawny runt, too, but no doubt George Gilcrest would dicker with him as if it was prime beef.

Circle J. Johnsons hated the Bannock – he’d have to figure out a soft sell there, too.

Lazy K, Double H, Bar Lightning…it took the better part of the hour to tally all the cows, including rough sketches of the two brands he didn’t recognize and would have to find owners for somehow.

Sure know how to make trouble for yourself, Cartwright, he thought.

Well, never mind. The Bannock would have beef for the winter and he could use his own money to cover the deal if Pa objected. He glanced at the sky.

Sun’s getting low. If he started now he could make maybe an hour of progress before he’d have to stop for the night.

Bruno followed his gaze. “Late. You stay tonight. My guest.”

Adam hesitated. “Thanks, Bruno, but I don’t know…probably should make tracks while I can.”

Bruno shook his head. “Stay. Cold night. We celebrate bargain. Have fine meal. Beef.” Bruno’s eyes held a discreet twinkle.

Adam laughed. “Okay, you talked me into it. Just make sure you use one with the Ponderosa brand – I haven’t paid for the others yet.”

000

“Morning, Adam Cartwright.”

Adam jumped awake. He had been dreaming, and it had seemed important, but the images were dissolving, eluding his grasp, even as he turned over. He blinked about him, disoriented, and into the smiling eyes of Bruno’s wife.

He rubbed a hand across his eyes to clear his head. “Keenhah. Good morning.”

She smiled her good morning. “Good sleep?”

“Wonderful.”

She indicated the steaming bowl in her hands. “For your face. Meal outside, when you ready. You need something else?”

“Nothing. Thank you, Keenhah.”

Keenhah nodded again. Adam had once saved her from abuse at the hands of some traders at Wilson’s Station, and now she had a special kindness for him. “When you ready,” she repeated, and slipped back outside.

Adam sat up, rubbing his face. The bed of beaver pelts and the relative comfort of the teepee had been a nice change from the open air and hard ground, but he still had one – maybe two – more days of camping before he got back home, so he’d better not get too used to it. He rinsed his face in the bowl of hot water Keenhah had provided and wiped it on the cloth she’d left. He ran a comb through the thick black hair he kept short to discourage a tendency to curl, and reached for his shirt, feeling more alert. He picked up the bowl and made his way outside.

Keenhah took the bowl, nodding her thanks. He knew better than to throw the water away – the Bannock never threw anything away that he had seen and he was sure that Keenhah had a use in mind for it. He glanced around and noticed that no one else was eating, except for a few of the older folk.

“I’m sorry, did I keep you waiting?”

“Of course we wait. You guest,” said Keenhah gently. “Just the old ones – always eat first. Sit, Adam Cartwright.”

Adam sat, his eyes on the old ones. They reminded him of his grandfather, and the fact that he hadn’t come to any decision yet. He had to come to some kind of conclusion before he returned home, or tell his father the whole thing when he got there. He couldn’t continue on as he had been.

Keenhah handed a bowl to him, then one to Bruno, who appeared from across the camp to sit next to him.

Adam tasted it. “Keenhah, I can’t even tell you how much better your cooking is than mine. I’ll miss it this evening. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Keenhah gave him a shy, pleased smile. Bruno looked up from his bowl. “You return to ranch today?”

Adam nodded. “As far as I can. Figure I can get about halfway, if the going is smooth. A third, anyway, if it’s not.” They ate in silence, then Bruno rose and disappeared inside one of the teepees. Adam also rose and stretched, returning his bowl to Keenhah’s waiting hand. “I’d better get started.”

Bruno came out of the teepee carrying something and stood next to him. He made a small gesture with his head, and magically, a teenaged brave appeared, leading Sport. Adam took the reins from him. “Thanks.” He extended his hand to Bruno. “And thank you. It was a wonderful evening.” Bruno clasped his forearm, then held out his bundle. It was an Indian blanket, a beautiful dark blue with a pattern worked on it in red and yellow. “What’s this?”

“To seal bargain. Till spring.”

Adam shook his head. “It’s beautiful, Bruno, but not necessary. We already have a bargain.”

Bruno didn’t budge. “Is Bannock way,” he said stubbornly. “For bargain. And for tonight.”

“Tonight. What’s tonight?”

Bruno gestured skyward with his chin. “Snow.”

Adam glanced up. The sky looked like a mottled grey bowl. “You think it’s cold enough?”

“Not now. Will be.”

“Then I really have to be going.” Adam swung into the saddle, gave a final wave to Bruno and Keenhah. “You two take care. And thanks again for everything. Especially since tonight’ll probably be a whole lot less comfortable.”

The last thing he saw as he rode away was Bruno and Keenhah with their hands lifted in farewell.

000

Joe whistled piercingly as he strode from his room towards the stairs. Tonight was the night, and he was more than ready. He’d been hoping to go out with Jenny Mayfield for months, but rounding up strays and moving the herd to winter pasture had kept him on the ranch and away from town. It was going to feel good to dress up and cut loose a little with a pretty girl on his arm. He was trying out a few opening lines for Jenny in his head, trying to decide on the most sure-fire, when he did a double take and backed up a few steps. He pushed Adam’s door open and stood in the doorway.

Hoss didn’t even look up, so after a moment he said, “Adam’s gonna kill you if he finds out you been messing with his books.”

Hoss started, then glared, before returning his eyes to the page. “That ain’t so, Joe an’ you know it. Adam don’t mind you borrowin’ his books as long as you take good care of ’em, and I’m taking real good care. Haven’t even taken ’em outta this room.”

It was true – Joe had only said it because the sight of Hoss deeply involved in a book had left him at a loss for words – so now he tried again. “So whattaya readin’? Tryin’ to find some o’ that poetry to dazzle Betsy-Sue with?” Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe Jenny would go for some of that poetry stuff. Adam sure seemed to have good luck with it.

“No, I’m readin’ this here book.”

Joe stepped into the room and lifted the book to read the cover. “Huh. Any good?”

Hoss shifted. “It’s – well, it’s right inerestin’.”

“What’s it about?”

“How’s that?”

“I said, what’s it about? That’s so inerestin’?”

Hoss looked flustered. “It’s about…well, it’s about…philosophical things. Stuff like that.”

“No kiddin’.” Joe peered over his shoulder. “How’d you happen onto it?”

Hoss lowered his eyebrows at him. “Little Joe, if’n you don’t have anythin’ better to do than inerup’ me, find somethin’, cause yer ruinin’ my concentration.”

Joe pushed his lower lip out, the picture of injured innocence. “Hey, Hoss, I’m just askin’. The picture of my big brother suddenly absorbed in the shining pursuit of philosophy blinded me for a minute, that’s all. Where can I get some of this wisdom for myself?” Hoss raised the book threateningly and Joe dodged his swing. “Hey, hey, don’t do that – you’ll damage the book and Adam really will be mad.”

Hoss scowled at him, then smoothed the book tenderly and returned his eyes to the page.

Joe leaned against the footboard. “Ah, come on, Hoss – I gotta know. Why this sudden urge to read older brother’s dusty old volumes?”

Hoss raised his narrowed eyes to study Joe. “Why you need ta know?”

“Come on, what’s the big secret? You been sneakin’ in here ever since Adam left. I thought you were plannin’ some kind of a practical joke…is that it? A practical joke?”

Hoss harumphed. “Nope.”

“Then what?”

“An’ why should I tell you?”

“Cause you know full well that I’ll bug you till you do, and I can hold out a lot longer than you can. So save us both some time and just tell me. You suddenly decide to turn scholar or what?”

Hoss glared, but he knew Joe had a point, so he finally said, “If you make a joke outta this, Joe, I swear you’ll be walkin’ funny fer a month, you hear me?”

Joe nodded, a little impressed by his intensity. “I hear you.”

“Me or Adam. I mean it, Joe.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. What’s the big secret?”

Hoss cleared his throat a few times – he seemed to be having trouble getting started. Finally he said, “Well, ya see, it’s like this. Adam was reading this here book afore he left, and he was atellin’ me about it some, and seemin’ like he wanted to talk about it an all…” he trailed off.

“Well, go on. Doesn’t sound like anything new so far.”

“Well, that’s sorta my point, Joe. Adam seemed like he sorta wanted to talk about this here book, and there just weren’t nobody to talk about it to. An’ then he said somethin’ that made me think that – well – when he was back at school there was probably heaps o’ people to talk to about books and sech, and that mebbe he might miss it, so I got the idee that mebbe I’d read it and talk to him about it – sorta surprise him,” he finished in a rush. “Now, I don’t wanna hear one smart remark outta you. And don’t you go teasin’ Adam about it, neither.”

Joe blinked. The thought of his self-contained, self-sufficient eldest brother needing anything from anyone was a new one. After a minute he said, “So what does it say?”

Hoss sighed deeply. “Well…to tell the truth, Joe, I can’t make head nor tail of it. I read the same page three times and it might just as well be a ferrin’ language fer all I kin understand.”

Joe sat next to him on the bed. “Let me take a look.” Hoss handed him the book and he read the first page, skipped ahead a little, came back to the second page. He turned to the ending, flipped the pages in the middle, dropped the book and threw himself back on the bed with a sigh. “Beats me. And just think, older brother reads that stuff for fun.”

Hoss nodded glumly. “Well, I reckon I tried.”

Joe nodded sympathetically. His eyes wandered among Adam’s bookcases, crammed with volume after volume of dark, solemn-looking books. Suddenly he sat up. “Hey, Hoss! I have an idea!”

Hoss looked hopeful. “Yeah?”

“Yeah! Look – the important thing here is that you can get Adam talking about one of those books he loves, right? It doesn’t have to be that book, right?”

“No. No, I reckon not,” Hoss agreed slowly. “But whattarya…?”

“Well, this place is just filled with books, and Adam loves all of ’em. So we just have to find one that you like, too. I mean, there must be one in ALL these books that you’d like and could talk about. We just have to find it!”

Hoss’s face brightened. “Sayyy…that’s real good, Joe. Where do I start?”

Joe was already crawling across the bed to the nearest bookcase. “I’ll start with this one. You start with that one.”

Hoss looked pleased. “You gonna help me?”

“Sure, why not? Might even read somethin’ myself.” He gave him an impish smile. “Would be worth the effort just to see the look on older brother’s face.”

000

A raw, slashing rain started about mid-morning, turning the mountain trails to icy mud. Adam felt the dampness even through his slicker as Sport picked his way along. He had redirected his descent a little to the west, hoping to be close within the vicinity of some of the trappers that pocketed the area in case he needed to seek shelter, but so far he had spotted nary a one. Hopefully he’d come across one or two by nightfall. Shelter would be nice by then – especially if it did indeed snow.

He was glad he’d settled things with the Bannock, but he was still missing over eighty head and he was beginning to feel pretty sure he would not find them up here. Sport slipped some in the mud and whinnied his distress. Adam patted him soothingly and shortened the reins a little. At this rate it could take him three days to get home, especially if the weather got worse. He remembered that tonight was the night of the Social and wondered if it was raining in the lower country as well. Hopefully not enough to interfere with Joe and Hoss’s good time. He hadn’t had any real interest in going himself, but he figured that after a few more hours in the rain it would start to sound pretty good to him.

The wind picked up, coming from all directions, tearing at his slicker and driving the rain under it. It wasn’t long before he was soaked to the skin. He remembered his father’s warning about the weather and smiled ruefully. Well, I did keep an eye on it, Pa. It just outsmarted me, is all.

Within a few hours some damp snow was beginning to mix with the rain and he was starting to become uneasy. Still no sign of a trapper or a miner’s shack, even of a mine shaft, and visibility was disintegrating, too. The temperature continued a steady drop. If he was without shelter for the night he could be in trouble. He dismounted to give Sport a break and walked him for a while, his eyes searching in the half-light for some sign of civilization. He dug through his provisions for the oats and feed bag for Sport, and some beef jerky for himself. He used the oats sparingly. Sport could use a good meal in the cold and wet, but too much snow would limit the possibilities for grazing – he needed to conserve what he had. He sighed and remembered Keenhah’s dinner the night before. He could use a good meal himself. The jerky was stiff and unappetizing with the cold, but he forced it down. The light was fading with the temperature, and the snow began in earnest, blown wildly by the wind.

Sport nudged him and he patted his nose absently. “Yeah, I know, boy. I’m not having much fun either.” He closed his eyes and tried to visualize the drawing Bruno had made of the local settlements. Seemed like he should be coming up on one of them, anyway. He remounted, keeping Sport at an easy walk.

He was uncomfortably aware that if he didn’t spot one soon he was in danger of missing them all together – the encroaching darkness and the blowing snow were making it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. The snow grew heavier – a white blanket against the sky – and he felt his chest tighten in alarm. If he built a shelter with his slicker he might be able to get a fire going, but the odds of keeping it going throughout the night in this wind were poor. Sleeping in the cold and snow without a fire left a real good chance of never waking up. Better to stay in the saddle and keep moving – at least that would provide some warmth. The frigid air stiffened and froze his wet clothing and he shivered steadily.

It was truly dark by now, the snow dense and blinding. Sport’s breathing sounded labored and tired in the cold air, but he didn’t dare stop for both their sakes. Adam huddled in his coat, his hands barely able to keep hold of the reins. He felt as if he were trapped in some nightmare…trudging endlessly with the wind tearing at him, the snow blinding him and muffling all sound. He was exhausted from the cold and the long day in the saddle, but he didn’t dare stop. He had no idea what time it was, or whether or not he was going in circles – but movement seemed like his best chance to stay alive until the snow broke, or daylight, or both. He was trying not to think about the fact that, here in the high country, storms like these could last for days. He felt pretty sure that he couldn’t.

Sport’s whinny of alarm woke him. He sat up with a start, encrusted with snow, just barely registering that he’d fallen asleep in the saddle. “Shhh, boy.” He reached down automatically to soothe Sport, trying to orient himself. He was stiff and confused, cold beyond shivering. Sport whinnied again, shriller this time, dancing sideways, sliding awkwardly in the snow and ice. This time Adam’s instincts caught up with him and he reached for his rifle.

It had just barely cleared the scabbard when he heard it – the distinctive barking cough of a cougar – and he fired wildly, with no time to aim – once, twice – before a weight like a rushing locomotive hit him square in the chest, knocking him from the saddle and flat on his back in the snow. He felt the seepage of snow down his collar and up his sleeves, the cougar’s hot breath on his neck, a terrible burning in his chest. He swung the rifle stock at what he hoped was its head, felt it make contact with something, heard Sport’s scream of terror.

Wild things and weather, he thought hazily with the irrelevant irony of the dying. Well, you’ve just always got to be right, Pa, don’t you?

…knowing, with regret, as the darkness washed over him, that being right would be no solace to his father at all.

Chapter 4

Joe was feeling pleased with himself. His evening with Jenny had gone well – she had danced as many dances with him as was seemly and had allowed him a chaste kiss on the cheek when he’d taken her home. He had even managed to remember a line of poetry he’d found in one of Adam’s books and he’d tried it out when they’d strolled outside to take a little break from the dancing and get some air. The dewy-eyed look she’d rewarded him with had him considering memorizing the whole thing. He hadn’t had too much to drink, hadn’t gotten into a single fight, and now he had good news for his father.

He hailed Ben to catch his eye, then rode out to meet him. “Say, Pa, good news – Perkins found over eighty head trapped in a box canyon on the southern rim. That only leaves a dozen or so unaccounted for.”

“That is good news, son. We’re making good progress moving the herds, too, though I could wish it would go a little faster. Don’t like the look of that sky. Hoss is in town trying to hire a couple of more men and Adam should be home late today or tomorrow, so I suppose we’ll make up the time then.”

Joe shook his head. “You might not want to count on Adam right away, Pa – from the looks of those hills, they’re havin’ some snow up there – likely to slow him down.”

Ben turned to frown at the hills. Joe was right – they had developed white blankets some time during the night.

He stared so long that Joe reached out to touch his arm. “Hey, Pa, it’s just a little snow. Adam knows what he’s doing.”

“There aren’t that many opportunities for shelter up there. Even the best woodsmen can be taken by surprise. I wouldn’t mind going up as far as the Pass to meet him.”

“Pa, Adam’s away and you just hired extra men – what kinda sense would it make for us to lose you, too? And Adam’ll be all prickly if you start chasin’ after him like a nursemaid.”

Ben smiled a little. “True.” He fussed with his reins. “Check among the men when you get the chance and see if any of them happen to know the status of the weather up there. I’d at least like to have an idea of when to expect him.”

“I’ll ask around, Pa. And I’ll get this herd moved down by tonight.”

Ben gave his youngest son a warm glance. Joe could be heedless sometimes, but at other times, like this, he was such a thoughtful boy. “Thank you, son. If you could keep things moving down here until your brother returns from town, I’d appreciate it. I’ve got to go check on Williams and his crew.”

000

“Say, Hoss – I need to talk to you.”

Hoss turned from finishing his task of settling the three new hands he’d hired in the bunkhouse. “Yeah? What is it, Joe?”

Joe grabbed his sleeve and led him toward the barn.

“Shoot, Joe – cain’t we talk in the house? I’m starved!”

“I don’t want Pa to hear. Not yet. You notice it’s been snowing up in the hills where Adam is?”

Hoss pushed his hat back on his head thoughtfully. “Cain’t say that I have. But then, I ain’t had much cause to look thataway. Why?”

“Well, Carter tells me his brother turned around and came back from that way yesterday without finishin’ his trip because the weather was so bad. Said it looked like it was buildin’ up to a real blizzard, and that the Pass wasn’t actually impassable, but could be if it kept up for a couple days.”

“Huh.” Hoss scratched his head. “Reckon we should tell Pa?”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you. He’s already worried some and I don’t wanna worry him more for nothin’, but he asked me to ask around about the weather and I did. I don’t wanna lie to him, either.”

Hoss pondered, then shook his head. “Reckon there’s no point in tryin’ ta keep it from him, then. He’ll just ask an’ find out fer hisself if we don’t tell ‘im.”

Joe squirmed. “Don’t suppose you’d like to tell ‘im?”

“Now, Joe, he asked you to find out an’ ya did. I figger it’s your job to see this thing through. He’ll worry fer a minute, maybe, but he knows ol’ Adam can take care of hisself.”

“Sometimes I don’t think he knows any of us can take care of ourselves.”

“Well, you can tell him over dinner.” He pondered a moment more. “Better wait fer dessert.”

000

Joe waited until well beyond dessert, despite the meaningful glances Hoss kept shooting him. He told himself he’d tell Pa while he had his brandy, then while he sat by the fire, then just before he went to bed.

He was contemplating telling him at breakfast so as not to interfere with his night’s rest when his father startled him by asking “Well, Joseph. You did a fine job of moving those animals. Were you able to find out anything about this weather in the hills?”

Joe swallowed. “Y-yes, Pa.”

Ben waited expectantly.

“Carter’s brother was riding up into ’em yesterday and had to turn back cause o’ the snow. Said he thought there was a blizzard startin’. Course – ” he added hastily, “he doesn’t know for sure.”

Ben’s brows lowered. “A blizzard,” he said slowly.

“He doesn’t know fer sure, Pa,” Hoss repeated. “Personally, I think them Carters tend ta exaggerate.”

Ben nodded absently. “Pass still open?”

“For now. It’s rough going, but it’s open. He thought if it kept up, though, it could close.”

Ben blew out his breath thoughtfully. “Well, we know that Adam didn’t find much in the way of stock up there, because we found them down here. So if the weather is fairly manageable, he should be back in a day or so. If the weather is rough, hopefully he’s holed up someplace until it passes. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged relieved glances.

“I was afraid you’d be worried, Pa.”

Ben shrugged. “You boys are grown men. You know what you’re doing by now.”

Hoss smiled at Joe triumphantly. “See? What did I tell ya, Joe.”

Ben closed his book. “Well, it’s been a long day and I’m going to bed. I’ll see you boys at breakfast. Don’t stay up too late.” He strolled up the staircase and into his room, closing the door carefully behind him.

Without turning on a lantern, he moved to the window and looked out at the night sky, too overcast to show moon or stars. And while he was looking he began a quiet prayer for his son’s safety.

000

Hoss and Joe watched him go in silence. After a minute Hoss said, “Well, that weren’t so bad.”

“No,” Joe agreed. “That wasn’t bad at all. You reckon he’s worried?”

Hoss pursed his lips a moment and nodded. “Yup. He’s worried.”

Joe hesitated, then blurted, “Hoss, you figure Adam’s okay?”

Hoss yawned and stretched, thinking about his answer. “Well, Shortshanks,” he said at last, “You know what Adam always says. The only way ta hurt him…”

“Is to kill him,” Joe finished with a laugh. “Guess he’s right.”

Then Joe’s smile faded abruptly. Suddenly, somehow, that didn’t sound comforting at all.

Chapter 5

He was straddling a fire-filled chasm, flames licking at his feet. On one side stood his father, calling to him, begging him for his help. On the other was his grandfather, reaching out for him, beseeching him to save him. The chasm was growing, the edges crumbling under his boot heels. He wouldn’t be able to keep his balance much longer. He couldn’t save them both, but how could he possibly choose? And yet if he didn’t leap to one side or the other soon he would be dropped into the flames below.

“Adam.” His father held out his hand to him.

He ran an arm across his forehead. It was so hot, making it difficult for him to think.

“Pa…”

“Adam…” His grandfather’s face was pleading.

Adam met his eyes with his own haunted ones. He couldn’t leave his grandfather there all alone. He turned to make the leap to his side.

“Adam…”

His father’s voice.

He looked over his shoulder to him, saw Joe and Hoss with him, in peril too. He hesitated. He couldn’t just abandon them.

The ground shook under him warningly. Could he grab his grandfather, pull him back to his father’s side, then take care of his father and brothers? He’d have to try.

“Grandfather, move a little closer if you can. Take my hand.” The chasm widened. His grandfather didn’t seem to hear him. “Grandfather, please, we’re running out of time…” Sweat was running in his eyes now, the chasm was wider, the fire hotter than ever. “Grandfather, please…”

The ground roared beneath him, he made a desperate decision. He leapt for his grandfather, grasped his hand to pull him back to join his father and brothers. The ground gave way under his feet, dropping him dangling on the chasm rim, flames licking at him.

“Adam!” His father’s voice raised, desperate.

“I’m coming, Pa, just let me…Grandfather, pull me up…” But his grandfather was old and the terrible heat seemed to paralyze him. “I’m coming, Hoss, Joe, I just have to…” His hands were slick with sweat, the fire leeched his strength. “I’m sorry, I can’t…” His hand slid from his grandfather’s grasp, he felt the rough surface of the chasm wall against his chest, then he was free falling, over and over, a surge of flame engulfing him…

“Ssshh…be still now. You’ll make it worse.”

That was different voice. A woman. He searched his scattered brain for recognition, grabbed for her to stop his falling.

“Easy now.” There was a hand on his, cool in all the heat. “Try to be still. Can you drink this for me? Just a bit. There’s a good lad.”

He wanted to warn her about the fire, ask her to help him with his terrible problem. Maybe if he hurried, if she helped him, there was still time to save his family. “Of course I’ll help you. Lie easy, now.”

He needed to explain to her that lying still was not the answer, but things were getting mixed up in his mind, fading to a dull greyness.

He tried to ask her if she could see them, his father or his grandfather, but the words were having trouble forming in his mind and the greyness was spreading, deepening, swallowing him, until he disappeared into its nothingness.

Into blackness.

000

It was the music that jarred him from the darkness next time – a sweet, plaintive singing, in a language he didn’t recognize. The blackness still sucked at him, threatening to pull him under, but he fought it, struggled to open his eyes. He was amazed at how much effort it took. He managed to pry them to the merest slits. He had a glimpse of a harp, of red gold hair lit by the lantern into a fuzzy aureole around a small, pointed face, then he let his eyes slide shut, exhausted.

He frowned slightly as he tried to analyze the picture, make sense of it in his mind.

Was he dead, then? He had some memory of dying. Maybe he was waiting for someone to guide him into the next world. Somehow, he had always had some idea that his mother would come for him when the time came, but even his faint glimpse told him that this wasn’t her…his mother had been dark, like him. Not Inger or Marie, his stepmothers, either, though surely he’d see them soon enough? He drifted into some vague memory of Dante’s Divine Comedy and his travels from hell to purgatory to heaven. Maybe this was his Beatrice, then. Waiting to show him the way. He wished she’d hurry. He longed to shake off this terrible lethargy that engulfed him, keeping him rocking in Limbo.

He thought of calling out to her, but forming sentences seemed an unbearable chore, and after a brief mental struggle, he surrendered once again to the darkness.

000

The third time he came to himself he felt stronger. He was aware of a small, cool hand caressing his forehead. His father did that sometimes when he was ill and he certainly felt ill now, but that wasn’t his father’s hand. Inger had done it too the first time she’d met him, a small feverish boy of five, but Inger’s hands had been large and strong and gentle, like Hoss’s. He thought again of his mother, but his father had often told him that his mother’s hands had been long and slender, like his. This one was small and delicate, like Marie’s had been. Which would mean that he was, in fact, dead. He ought to open his eyes for a look, but it seemed somehow like an awful lot of work. After a while, curiosity got the better of him and he tentatively pried his lids apart.

“Well. There y’are, then.”

Not Marie. Marie had had a faint Creole accent. This accent was different.

“Why don’t ye take a wee drink o’ this for me? There’s the laddie.” Adam felt a cup against his lips and drank almost involuntarily. “That’s more like it, now.”

Irish. Adam was pleased with himself. He recognized the accent as Irish. So maybe his brain hadn’t deserted him all together. He cleared his throat experimentally. “Am I alive?”, frowned at how faint his voice sounded.

“Oh, aye, that y’are, though by the bare skin o’ yer teeth, let me tell ya. You’d a nasty run-in, it looks like, with a cougar and a snow bank, and lost the battle but won the war, so ta speak, seein’ as he’s dead an’ yer not.”

“Dead?” Adam remembered now, the cougar that had leapt on him from out of the darkness, driven to attack by cold and hunger, no doubt.

“Aye, he died right on top o’ ya. And in a cunning twist of irony, saved yer life, in a way, seein’ as it’s probably his body that kept ya from freezin’ afore I found ya. He banged you up a bit, but it’s the cold that nearly carried you off.”

Adam was remembering more now and he heard again Sport’s scream. “My horse…”

“Is tucked up in the barn with mine. The accommodations aren’t so grand, but they keep out the weather. A steady animal – most’ll bolt at the smell of cougar, dead or no.”

Probably too cold and tired to move, thought Adam.

“Do you think you could manage a bit o’ gruel, if I fed you? You could use the strengthnin’.”

Adam nodded slightly. He actually had no idea, but it seemed more polite.

“I’ve got it on the back o’ the stove. Don’t move – I’ll be right back.”

Adam tried to focus his eyes on her. He could just make out a slender figure swathed in a large bib apron, but the details kept running fuzzily together. He closed his eyes wearily.

After a minute he felt her sit on the bed next to him, deftly slide another pillow under him to prop him up a little. She had a bowl of water in her lap, and gently but efficiently began to wipe down his face with a soft cloth, talking all the time. “It’s fine to have ye come round. I’ve been curious to meet a man who quotes Milton when he’s barely conscious.”

“Did I?” Adam chuckled a little, then immediately regretted it as the movement slashed across his ribs in a tearing pain. He took a ragged breath to steady himself. “Paradise Lost?”

On His Blindness. Sure sign of a vocational crisis. You want to be careful about movin’ anything. Humor is good for the soul, but bad for cracked ribs.”

Adam grimaced in agreement. “Cracked ribs. What else?”

“You’ve a broken collar bone, and you’re a bit mauled on that side. You’ve a lovely voice for poetry, even in delirium. Are you an orator? Or a minister, perhaps.”

Adam wanted to laugh again, but managed to stop himself. “Nothing like that.” He noticed for the first time that his left arm was supported by a sling. “I can’t believe I killed him. Didn’t even have time to aim. Sure he wasn’t already wounded when he attacked?”

“Now, I’ll admit I didn’t take much time for a post mortem on the cougar, seein’ as I had my hands a bit full wit’ you. All I remember is that he was a big feller – about two hundred pounds – and I’d a big job ta get him off you.”

“I haven’t thanked you…” She interrupted him with a spoonful of gruel. His brain was slowly trying to pull the threads together. “Delirium,” he repeated suddenly, after swallowing. “How long have I been here?”

“Just about three days.”

Three days?” He had already been gone nearly three when the storm hit…he was at least another day from home…”Oh, God…” He tried to pull himself up, was immediately arrested by a torrent of pains attacking him from all sides, too many to separate, slumped back, struggling to remain conscious against the barrage of agony.

“Now, there was a turrible idea.” He felt small hands on his shoulder and chest. “What did I tell you about keepin’ still?”

He rubbed his eyes with his good hand. “My family will be worried sick.”

Her voice was gentle. “Well, I’m sorry for that, but I’m afraid there’s no help for it.”

“You don’t understand, my father was already…if you could just help me up…”

Even through his wavering vision he saw her eyebrows jump in a mixture of exasperation and amusement.

“Now, you listen to me. Even if you get up – and I’m thinkin’ it’s a long shot at best – you’d make it one or two steps – ” She eyed him shrewdly “three, say, outta sheer cussedness, before you’d tumble on yer head. Making cracked ribs broken ones and undoing all me fine doctoring. Not to mention leavin’ me with the job o’ getting’ yer large self back in that bed, which was no easy task the first time and is an experience I’ve no desire ta repeat.

An’ after all that, dy’a know what you’d find? Dy’a remember how the snow was comin’ down when you were hurt?”

He stopped rubbing his eyes and looked at her, suddenly knowing where this was going.

“Well, it has been ever since. Still is. For better or for worse, my friend, we’re snowed in. It’s all I can do to get to the barn and chicken coop and woodpile, and I use a lead line for that. So you might just as well make the best of the situation and get yerself better.”

Adam sighed. “Three days,” he repeated. She watched him for a moment, and seeing that he didn’t look likely to move again, began washing his hands. It was a soothing movement, and he felt his eyelids droop. “Wait a minute…” Something else she’d said suddenly registered and he opened his eyes. “You know Milton.”

“Oh, aye.” She wrung out her cloth. “Milton and I are good auld friends.”

“No kidding. Who else?”

“Who else? Well, it’s a longish list. I’ve been readin’ everythin’ I could get my hands on fer as long as I can remember. Eye hunger, my Da used ta call it.”

“Eye hunger.” Adam smiled faintly. “I like that.” She was drying his hands now, in gentle, hypnotic strokes. “So we’re stuck here for a while, is that it?”

“Afeered so.” She reached for the gruel and offered him another spoonful.

He took it, eyeing her consideringly. His heavy eyes were betraying him, but he just had to know. “Miss – I don’t know you’re name.”

“Halloran.”

“Miss Halloran. You haven’t by any chance read Ralph Waldo Emerson, have you?”

000

Ben opened Adam’s bedroom door and stood in the entryway, glancing about. It hadn’t escaped his notice that Hoss and Joe had taken to spending an inordinate amount of time in there, and he was curious to know why. At first glance, nothing seemed out of place, except for a few books pulled off the bookshelves and the bedspread in something less than its usual perfect order. He bent down absently to smooth it.

He suspected a practical joke was underway, and while he rarely interfered with his sons’ high jinx, he couldn’t help feeling that after spending a few days battling snow in the high country Adam might be less than receptive. Suspiciously, he peeled back the covers and checked the sheets. Nothing in the bed. No short-sheeting. He picked up the loose books and flipped carefully through them. No. Nothing there. He returned them to the top of the bookcase. Was it possible that his two younger sons had simply developed a sudden interest in literature?

He snorted. Not likely.

He spotted Adam’s mother’s picture on his night table and walked over to pick it up. Elizabeth’s face smiled at him from across the years.

Well, my love, he thought, I hope you’re looking out for our son, because he’s out of my hands now.

Elizabeth’s smile was comforting somehow and he sat down on the bed and gazed at her. Look at all these books. Wouldn’t you be pleased, though? And the guitar. Our son is a thinker and a dreamer, just as you were. I can imagine the talks the two of you would have had if you had lived.

That reminded him of the talk he and his son hadn’t had and he leaned back against the headboard to really take in the room – the shelves of books, the pictures of classical structures on the walls, the building plan sketches and drafting tools, the guitar. He suddenly had an odd sensation, as though an important piece of his son was carefully stored, hidden and contained within this room, behind a closed door. He looked back at Elizabeth, his expression thoughtful.

Something you’re trying to tell me, love?

After a while, he gently replaced the photo and, with a final glance at Elizabeth’s smiling dark eyes, then one around the room, left, carefully closing the door behind him.

Chapter 6

“Well, now, that’s sommat better.” Miss Halloran took her hand from his forehead and smiled at him. “Did ya have a nice sleep? It seems to have done ya a great deal o’ good.” She surprised him by pulling out a pocket watch and checking his pulse as efficiently as Doc Martin ever had. After a moment she nodded her satisfaction. “Well, this is fine. And just as well, since I need to change yer dressins’ and that’s bound ta hurt a mite. Do you think you could manage more than three spoonfuls o’ somethin’?”

Adam shifted tentatively, wincing a little as his body complained. “I’d like to get up.”

She smiled. “And I’d like ta fly, but they’re neither very likely, are they? No, I’m afeerd it’s best all around if you stay where you are for the moment, Mr. – Cartwright, isn’t it?”

He was surprised. “Yes. How did you know that?”

“You’d a letter in yer pocket – a bit blurry now, but I could make out the name. I dried it out fer ya.” She folded back the quilts and blankets piled on him and carefully unfastened his sling. “You fell asleep before I could answer yer question.”

“Which question?” He was irritated by the sluggishness that seemed to have invaded his brain.

“Emerson.”

“Oh.” He studied her, able to see her clearly for the first time. She was small and slight, with a head of tightly curly red gold hair that escaped in wild wisps around her face and a pair of disconcertingly direct blue violet eyes. He couldn’t put an age to her, but when she smiled she seemed very young.

“I am, in fact, a great fan of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and Margaret Fuller is somethin’ o’ a hero o’ mine – ye might say she’s the reason for my bein’ here.”

Now that Adam was clear-headed enough to reflect on it, her being there, alone in the wilderness, did seem odd. “Miss Halloran – ”

“It’s not really ‘Miss’, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I’m sorry. Mrs. Halloran. Is your husband away?” At least that made some sense.

“No, not ‘Mrs.’. Doctor, actually, Mr. Cartwright. It’s Dr. Halloran.”

“Doctor.” Adam paused to assimilate this new information. It still didn’t make a whole lot of sense. “I’m assuming of medicine, not philosophy?”

She put down the scissors she’d been about to apply to his bandages and studied him keenly. “That’s right. You seem sommat less than shocked.”

“I’ll admit I’m a little shocked to find you out here alone.”

“I meant about the Doctor part. There’s many a man who’d take exception ta bein’ treated by a female physician.”

Adam placed an arm protectively over his ribs and winced. “Obviously these men haven’t enjoyed the privilege of having you piece them back together, like all the kings horses and all the kings men.” He studied her curiously “Did you really think it would be all right with me to have you save my life until I found out you had the credentials to do it? What kind of sense would that make?”

“You’d be surprised how people feel about it. And sense seems to have very little to do with it.”

“Because you’re a woman.”

“So it would seem.”

She was clipping the bandages that covered his left shoulder and the upper part of his chest now and he said, partly to distract himself, “Where did you study?”

“Ever hear of a woman named Elizabeth Blackwell?” She started to peel the bandages away but they had dried to the wounds in places and even her gentle tugging made Adam draw air sharply through his teeth. She reached for a cloth that was resting in a bowl of warm water and placed it against the bandage to soak it loose from the wound.

“I think so,” Adam gasped, trying to keep his voice normal. “Um – a British woman, isn’t she? Doctor? Organized some kind of social medical care back east?”

“Aye. Steady, now.” Dr. Halloran took a firm grasp on the bandages and pulled. The pain was so sudden and so intense that Adam didn’t have time to make a sound. The room did a slow loop-de-loop and then righted itself, fuzzing in and out before his eyes. “All right, easy.” She used the cloth to sponge his face. “I went to her alma mater and then studied with her, helped her with her organization fer a while…then I met a man from this part o’ the world, and between his stories and me head full o’ Walden Pond and Margaret Fuller I got the idea that I wanted to coom here…still with me?” After a second Adam nodded and she smiled in satisfaction. “Well, that’s fine. Because this next part may hurt just a bit. A little alcohol to disinfect you – cougar claws are nasty breeders o’ infections.”

If this part was supposed to hurt, Adam wondered what the last part was supposed to have done, but his thought was answered far too soon as a flash of lightening seemed to sear the left side of his body. He gasped, too hurt even to cry out, and the world dissolved into a buzzing grey tunnel.

“There, there…I know, I know…” Dr. Halloran’s voice crooned softly in his ear, “Just a bit more, now…good lad.” He felt himself lifted to sitting position and fresh bandages wound about him. After a minute the greyness seemed to sharpen and separate back into colors. Dr. Halloran lifted a glass of water to his lips and then studied his face closely. “All right, then?”

Adam swallowed the water and nodded, fighting to control his breathing. “Just – dandy,” he said through his teeth.

“Good. Because I really should re-wrap those ribs. And that might hurt the tiniest mite.”

Adam groaned. “Why – is it,” he struggled with his voice, “that doctors – always say that? If you mean that the pain is going to lift the hair right from my scalp, why can’t you just say that? Is that something your Dr. Blackwell taught you?”

Dr. Halloran chuckled a little as she sponged down his face again. “Aye, well. It’s considered sommat discouragin’ to the patient ta say ‘Hang on, love, we’re goin’ ta have some righteous agony here for the next few minutes’. But if ye prefer…favored odds are it’s gonna hurt a big bit, but you’ll feel better when it’s done. Hang on, now.”

Desperate to keep his mind from his ribs, Adam said, “So, where exactly were you with Dr. Blackwell?”

“New York City.”

“And in New York they didn’t mind that you were a woman doctor?”

Dr. Halloran finished unwrapping his ribs and reached for a new bandage. “Steady. Na, there they didn’t mind sa much.” She twinkled at him. “Though they seemed to object ta my bein’ Irish.” She pulled the new bandage tight, caught him as he slumped against her and lowered him back on the pillows. “All right, all over now.”

It occurred to him, hazily, as she wiped down his face again, that she was strong for someone so small.

She gave him another drink and drew the blankets up to his neck. “Think you could eat somethin’?”

He half opened his eyes to glare at her. “You must be joking.”

She chuckled again and rose to remove the basin and soiled bandages. “Rest, then.”

He reached out his good hand and caught her sleeve. “Stay and talk to me?” He was exhausted and dizzy, but longed for company.

She lay a gentle hand on his forehead and caressed it softly with her thumb. “Well, I’ll tell ye what. Let me get rid o’ this and fix ye a little medicinal tea I make – na, na, it tastes fine, I promise ye – and then I’ll sit with ye. How’s that?”

Adam nodded gratefully. “Thanks.”

“I’ll be right back. Now, if ye start ta sleep, don’t fight it. We’re neither o’ us goin’ anywhere fer a while, there’ll be plenty o’ time to talk.”

Adam sighed. “All I’ve done is sleep.”

“Ye’ve barely slept a tall. Unconsciousness and delirium do not count as rest – quite the contrary. Now, lie easy an’ I’ll be back in a jiff.”

000

The doctor was as good as her word, both as to returning quickly and to the tea. Adam was surprised at the spicy fragrance it emitted and the slow, warm bloom it spread throughout his system. “This is good,” he admitted. “It reminds me of some Hop Sing, our Chinese cook, makes when we’re sick.”

“Really?” She made herself comfortable in the wing chair next to the bed. “I’d love to know what he makes it of sometime. I got that recipe from the Bannock. Between them and the mountain folk here abouts I’m become quite expert in folk medicine. Makes a fine supplement way out here where real apothecary supplies can be slow comin’. I’m workin’ on a very good study about it – I’m hopin’ some day ta send it East fer publishin’. Under a pseudonym, I suppose, if I want anyone ta read it.”

Adam blew on his tea and frowned. “That doesn’t seem right.”

“No, but there we are. If it were glamour and glory I were after I don’t suppose I’d be out here in the wilderness anyway. Now, the people here abouts – they wouldna care if I’d two heads, as long as I could help ’em, God bless ’em.”

“So you must have a pretty large territory you cover. Especially to include the Bannock.”

“Oh, aye. I take Betsy – she’s my horse – on regular rounds – especially if I know a baby’s comin’ somewhere. The Bannock I usually only treat if they come ta me. Not much money in that clientele, o’ course, but they keep me in food and firewood and blankets an’ sech. Repair my roof in spring. Warm-hearted folk, once ya earn their trust, but that’s no easy thing either. Took me a while.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Almost two years. This is my second winter – that’s the worst part, I think. Isolatin’. Folks could need ye desperate, an’ how would ya know?”

“What made you come way out here all alone?”

I told ya – I thought it’d be my Walden Pond.”

Adam put down his teacup and closed his eyes for a minute. “If I remember correctly, Thoreau had more than his share of visitors.”

“Now, y’know, I thought I’d overlooked somethin’ important. Do ya want ta sleep now?”

Adam shook his head without opening his eyes. “I’m not asleep, my eyes just ache. Do you mind? Pretty rude, I know.”

“Oh, don’t worry aboot me. My Ma died when I was just a wee thing and left my Da with the raisin’ o’ me, so I’ve no upbringin’ a tall.”

“Mm. Me too. My mother died right after I was born.”

“And you with sech elegant manners. Who’d’ve believed it?”

“My Pa was pretty strict about things like that. And I had two stepmothers, even though briefly.”

There was a short silence. “Three mothers, an’ all dead?”

“Mm-hm. My two brothers and I all had different mothers.”

“My, my. So you’ve no women at home?”

“No.”

“Then who’s Beatrice? Yer girl?”

“Beatrice?” Adam opened his eyes to frown at her.

“You called me Beatrice. When you were delirious.”

“I don’t know anyone…” Adam tried to follow the thread through the scrambled days and nights of delirium. “Oh.” He grinned, a little embarrassed, closing his eyes again. “I think I thought I was in Dante’s Divine Comedy at one point.”

“Ah, well, then. I’m flattered.”

Adam had to admit that it was nice not to have to explain himself or guard his words for once. “I thought you had a harp,” he smiled at the memory.

“Happens I do.”

He opened his eyes. “Really?”

“Oh, aye. A small Irish harp. ‘Twere my mother’s. I play not sa ill, if I do say so. Are ye fond o’ music?”

Adam swallowed. “More than almost anything.”

Dr. Halloran shook her head. “Mr. Cartwright, yer a man after me own heart. I count it a lucky day ye landed on me doorstep.”

“Then I wish you’d call me Adam.”

Her keen eyes glowed and she extended her hand. “Bridie. It’s Bridget, but I’ve never answered ta any but Bridie.”

“Well, it’s a fine name and your research should be published under it.” He paused, thinking. “I know one or two people at Harvard Medical…of course, I didn’t go to the medical college myself, but I still keep in touch with some of the other faculty…maybe if I wrote to someone they would know how to go about getting your work looked at.”

Bridie’s eyebrows rose like twin question marks. “Are ye tellin’ me ye went to Harvard?”

“Mm.”

Bridie gave a low whistle. “And what is it ye studied?”

“Engineering and architecture.”

“I see. And what is it ye said ye did?”

“I don’t think I did say. My father and brothers and I run a ranch.”

“Well, of course, it only follows. Seeing as ye studied engineering and architecture at Harvard.”

Adam looked at her then looked away.

She was immediately contrite. “Damn me careless tongue! I didna know it was a sore spot. Forgive me, Adam, of course ye can do whatever ye wish. I mean, afterall, it’s not as if yer doin’ somethin’ crazy, like hiding in the wilderness with a medical degree.” She slipped her hand into his good one and squeezed.

After a minute Adam gave her a rueful smile. “Actually, I guess I am, in a way.” He turned to look at her earnestly. “You see, I’ve been struggling with that very thing lately. I can’t seem to come to a solution I can live with.”

She nodded. “Well, that explains Milton’s On His Blindness, doesn’t it? Is this about deciding whether or not to go to your grandfather?”

Adam stared at her. “How did you…? Did you read my letter…?”

She cleared her throat. “I might have caught a word or two while I was dryin’ it, like…and then you talked about it a great deal when ye were delirious…”

“My private mail? You read it…?”

She threw up her hands. “All right, all right, I confess, I did! I’ve excuses, o’ course…I thought ye were dyin’ and I needed ta know about ye, I needed ta know how ta contact yer family…but the truth o’ the matter is, I suppose, that I’ve a hopelessly curious nature and, damn, as I told ye, I’ve no upbringin’ a tall! So now I need ta beg yer pardon twice in as many minutes.”

Adam closed his eyes and shook his head, clutching his ribs. When he could speak he said, with the merest quaver in his voice “I’ve never heard a woman say ‘damn’ outside of a saloon before. You’re one of a kind, Bridie Halloran and that’s a fact. But you’ve got to stop making me laugh. It really hurts.”

“Then I’m forgiven?”

“How could I not?”

“Then maybe you’d like to try a little chicken broth?”

He opened one eye. “You’ve just got to push, don’t you?”

“Well, like I told you – ”

“No upbringing. Yes, I can see that.”

“Poor creature gave her life fer ya. The least ya can do is savor her memory.”

Adam took a deep breath. “If you promise to try to go five minutes without setting me off and doing harm to my ribs I’ll do just about anything.”

“I’ll try. It’s just I’m sommat giddy, ye see, ta have company fer a change, and literate company at that. If yer good and eat a bit I promise ta drag out me harp and dazzle ye with me Euterpien skills. What have I said now?”

“Euterpien,” Adam gasped. “I’m trying to remember the last time I heard anyone use it in a sentence. I’m not sure I ever have.”

“Aye. Well. Ye can be blamin’ me Da fer that.”

“I’d like to hear more about your Da.”

“I’ll tell ye all about him. While ye eat.”

“Aye, aye, doctor.” Adam rested his eyes until Bridie returned with a bowl and spoon on a tray.

“Now, can ye manage, or shall I help ye?”

“I can manage.”

“Hm.” She squinted shrewdly at him. “Proud, are we?”

Adam smiled a little. “Maybe. But if I feed myself then you can eat at the same time.”

“Well. That seems a fair bargain. Just ignore me table manners.”

Adam let her settle herself before saying. “So. Your Da…?”

“Mm. Me Da.” Bridie chewed contemplatively. “He was a grand man, in his way, a Killarney dreamer. Full o’ pretty thoughts. He’d a beautiful voice, like yers – only not sa deep. Made everything he said sound like music. Now, me Ma – she was a hard-headed Connemara lass. Always thought it a shame she didn’t live long enough ta teach me a bit o’ sense.”

Adam carefully negotiated his spoon. The broken collarbone and cracked ribs made things a little tricky since he couldn’t comfortably lean forward, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “Mine are just the opposite. My mother was a dreamer, or so I’m told, anyway, while Pa has sense and to spare. I respect it a lot, but sometimes I wish he could be a little more…” he hesitated, reaching for the word.

“Whimsical?”

Adam grinned. “Now, there’s a picture I can’t quite get. Pa, whimsical.”

“Ah, well, that was me Da. To a fault, I expect. But he gave me two very important things and I’ll be forever grateful: he never made me feel there was anything I couldna do just because I happened ta be a girl, and he never made me feel I had any less responsibility fer lookin’ out fer meself just because I happened ta be a girl. I honestly don’t think he treated me much different than if I’d been a son.”

Adam’s eyes twinkled. “Now, that explains a lot.”

She pointed her spoon warningly at him. “Now ye watch yerself , or I’ll stop pretendin’ I don’t see ye strugglin’ there an feed ye meself.”

“Don’t be such a tyrant. I’m doing just fine.”

“Oh, tyrant, is it?”

“Mm hm.” Adam painstakingly managed another spoonful. “You remind me of my Pa, come to think of it.”

“Yer Pa, is it?” She lowered her brows at him. “And how is that, not the red hair, I suppose?”

“Definitely the disposition.” Adam paused to consider, then nodded. “Pushy. Always needing to be right.”

Bridie gave an indignant laugh. “Lucky fer you yer a wounded man.”

“See? My Pa does that, too. Say something he doesn’t like and he threatens you with a tanning.”

Bridie folded her arms and studied him with narrowed eyes. “Is it possible, d’ya suppose, that we think we’re always right because, in fact, we are?”

“I’m sure he thinks so.”

“Well, it’s sorry fer him, I am – havin’ sech an ungrateful, impertinent son.”

“Just as I said. You two are of one mind.”

Bridie glanced down at the bowl in front of him and back up into his face. “And I suppose ye think that provokin’ me, like, has distracted me from the subject at hand?”

Adam met her eyes with a glimmer of a smile in his own. “I don’t know – has it?”

“No, it has not. At this rate yer like ta starve ta death with food right in front o’ ye.” She struggled with herself for a moment. “I suppose y’intend ta be stubborn about this?”

“Very.”

Bridie sighed. “Just see to it that ye get somethin’ down ye. I can’t have my way in everythin’, I suppose.”

“No? I take it back, then. You’re not like my father at all.”

Bridie smiled in spite of herself. “You get yer stubbornness from yer father, I’m thinkin’, then.”

Adam swallowed another carefully maneuvered spoonful. “He says from my mother. Which makes me suspect I got a double dose.” He put down the spoon. The effort of eating cost him more than he cared to admit. After a moment he said, “We do this at home every night. Talk over dinner. Pa and my brothers and I.”

Bridie gave him one of her curiously direct glances. “And what do ye talk about? Books? Music?”

Adam shook his head with a smile. “Oh, no. My father and brothers aren’t that interested in books or music. Ranch business, mostly. What happened that day. But it’s nice. A nice way to end the day.”

“I never had siblings. Tell me about yer brothers. Now that I know that yer father is terribly like yerself.”

Adam laughed out loud, then groaned. “I asked you to stop doing that.”

Bridie looked smug. “Oh, you were askin’ hard fer that one.”

“Guess I was at that.” Adam told her about Hoss and his penchant for bringing home strays, his gentleness despite his massive size, his shyness, his boundless good nature until pushed too far; then about Joe’s quick temper, his energy and enthusiasm, his fondness for the ladies, his knack for trouble. He interrupted himself with a yawn and leaned back and closed his eyes for a minute. “I can’t remember the last time I talked this much. You’re a good listener.”

“It’s a treat ta have someone ta listen to. But yer wearin’ yerself out.”

“I’m all right.”

“Mm hm. Of course y’are.” She rose and looked in his bowl, then offered him another spoonful. “Come on. Just a little more.”

He half opened his eyes at her. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to leave that alone.”

“Happens yer right. Would yer father?”

“Absolutely not.” He took the spoonful resignedly, swallowed. “I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape just because of a couple of broken bones.”

She filled another spoon. “It’s not sa much the bones, though you’d some blood loss from the cougar clawin’ ye took – it’s the exposure that’s got yer system in a tizz. Took a lot more outta ye than ye think, and it’ll take a bit to right itself. Yer lucky ta be alive. Which is why ye should listen ta yer doctor.”

“Knew we were building up to that…do you…can you…damn…” Adam struggled to keep his eyes open. “Sorry…”

“Hush. Don’t fight it. Sleep’s the best cure…here…” She abandoned the spoon and bowl and disappeared from the room.

Adam fought a losing battle with his eyelids, drifting briefly then shaking himself awake with a jerk that painfully rattled his ribs and shoulder. He had an irrational fear that if he fell asleep Bridie would disappear and he’d find himself alone in the dark and storm on the mountain. He sensed, rather than saw, her return, felt her gently remove one of his pillows so he could rest more comfortably. “I don’t want to sleep…” he protested.

“Hush, I said.”

He heard the sweet, plaintive voice of the harp and peered at her through slits in his heavy lids. “‘Sbeautiful.” She began to sing soft accompaniment in that language he didn’t recognize and after a moment he ventured “…Gaelic…?”

“That’s right…sssh, now…”

Adam wanted to say something more, started to, opened his mouth to form the words, but it turned into a sigh and a final surrendering to sleep.

Chapter 7

Ben’s eyes drifted toward the high country for the dozenth time that day. The mountains were still blanketed in white, though the chill in the lower lands had yet to turn to snow. He steered Buck toward the chuck wagon and dismounted, his thoughts vaguely troubled. “Coffee, Charlie.”

Charlie handed him a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and beans. “Cattle are movin’ fast,” he offered conversationally. “Don’t know as you’ll need me as long as you thought.”

“It’s going all right. Not quite as fast as I’d like.”

“You’ll beat the weather.”

“I don’t know.” Ben’s eyes fixed on the mountains. “The weather can play some harsh tricks on a man.”

Charlie followed his gaze. “I know what you mean. Early snow, even for that part of the territory, hey? My friend Carl is a scout through those mountains and he was telling me that the trails are all just about impassable. Snow came so early that lots of the trees still had their leaves – all kinds of trees and branches came down from the extra weight. Anybody trying to make their way through would be slow goin’, even if the Pass were open, which by now it ain’t.”

“Mmm.” Ben’s uneasiness deepened. “The Pass being closed is only temporary, right? This early in the season.”

Charlie shrugged. “Could be. But like you said, weather can play some cruel tricks on a man. Even if the snow goes there’s gonna be a lotta debris makin’ that Pass treacherous, sounds like. By the time that’s cleared away could be another storm comin’ up.”

Ben felt the beginnings of a headache behind his eyes and paused to rub them. “I see.” It was ridiculous to be worrying about a woodsman as smart and as able as Adam, but he was worried and he couldn’t seem to shake it. He would feel better if he could only have some word – some reassurance that he had found shelter from the storm – but there was no way to get that and that made him feel helpless and desperate. He didn’t deal well with either emotion. He thought a moment. “Charlie. Is your friend Carl in town?”

Charlie nodded. “Sure. Waiting for a break in the weather so’s he kin git back to work.”

“I might have something for him to do. Could you send him out to see me? Or I’ll go to meet him. Wherever he says.”

Charlie looked puzzled. “Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright, but Carl’s not a hand with cows.”

“That’s all right, Charlie, another cowhand is not what I’m looking for. Just ask him to meet me at his earliest possible convenience, will you? And thanks for the grub. I’d better get down to the lower pasture.” He handed his empty plate and cup back to the still mystified Charlie and climbed back into the saddle, tipping his hat and riding off with a lighter heart.

000

Joe put down another book and lay back on the bed, rubbing his face with his hands. “Well, I’m sure remembering why I didn’t like school. This is the driest stuff I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Hoss grunted sympathetically. “Could just about put a body ta sleep. Try that next shelf.”

“Aw, c’mon, Hoss, ain’t you ready ta give up yet?”

Hoss squinted at the next page. “I ain’t got no plans fer given’ up, Joe, so if’n you’ve changed yer mind about helpin’ me, at least don’t distract me.”

Joe sat up and shook his head at him. “Guess I know why Adam calls you Missouri mule. Well, okay, if you’re game, I am, but I need a break. Let’s find out if Hop Sing’s got any of that apple pie left in the pantry.”

Hoss carefully marked his place and closed the book. “Little brother, that’s the best idee I’ve heard today.”

They scrambled down the stairs toward the kitchen.

Hoss paused to glance around the great room. “Where do ye suppose Pa got to?”

Joe shrugged, pushing through the kitchen door. “Maybe he went to bed early.”

Hoss trailed him into the kitchen and hovered while he stuck his head in the pantry.

Joe emerged triumphantly bearing a half an apple pie and put it on the kitchen table. “Wonder of there’s any coffee left. Get a couple of forks and cups, will ya?”

Hoss agreeably rummaged out some cutlery and cups and felt the coffeepot. “Dang. Still hot.”

“Sssh. Keep it down or you’ll wake up Hop Sing and he’ll be in here scolding us.”

Hoss obediently poured coffee while Joe unceremoniously cut the remaining pie in two and put the tin between them on the table. They were happily munching when they heard the front door open.

“Who the heck is that at this hour?”

“SHHH!” Joe repeated sternly. He got up and made his way quietly to the swinging kitchen door, pressing his ear against it. “It’s Pa,” he whispered “He’s got somebody with him.”

“Who?”

Joe shook his head, frowning. “Don’t recognize the voice.”

Hoss got up to join him at the door, bringing the pie tin with him.

“…thank you for coming, Carl.”

“Charlie told me you might have some work for me.”

“That’s right. He tells me you work as a guide through the mountains.”

“Yup. Eight years now.”

“Please. Sit down.”

Joe leaned a little on the door as they made their way further out of earshot, presumably toward the fireplace.

“Can I get you something? Coffee? Brandy?”

Hoss and Joe exchanged glances, prepared to beat a hasty retreat back to the table if Pa came near the kitchen.

But Carl said, “Brandy. Please.”, and they relaxed.

“I sent my son up into the mountains on an errand over a week ago. I can only assume he was trapped up there by the storm. Needless to say, I haven’t had any word from him. I’d like you to guide me up there, to take a look for him.”

Hoss’s and Joe’s eyes met in alarm. There was a pause.

“Mr. Cartwright, if Charlie told you about me he must have also told you the reason I’m down here. There’s no way up there right now. No way that’s safe, anyway.”

“I’m not afraid of taking a few chances. Especially not with an experienced guide.”

“Mr. Cartwright. We’re not talking chances. We’re talking suicide. I can say this because I am an experienced guide, and I do know those mountains. If your son found shelter, then he’s safe waiting it out, but not trying to return before the storm passes. And you certainly wouldn’t be safe going to look for him. Even with me guiding, odds are within two days they’d need to be looking for us. Don’t forget, the Donner Party had an experienced guide, too. What experience tells us is that Mother Nature holds all the cards.”

“I’d be willing to make it worth your while.”

Carl’s sigh could be heard even in the kitchen. “You’re not hearing me, Mr. Cartwright. Let me put it another way. Suppose your son did find shelter and is just waiting till he can return. Then he does return. Only to find that, while he was waiting it out, you were getting yourself killed looking for him. How’s he gonna feel?” Joe and Hoss held their breath in the pause that followed, then Carl continued more gently, “I know it’s hard to wait, Mr. Cartwright, but it’s the only choice you’ve got.”

There was a long silence, then they heard their father, his voice gruff and low. “And what if my son did not manage to find shelter?”

A longer silence. “Then chances are we won’t find him till spring. I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I can’t stand the not knowing.” His voice was so low Joe nearly fell through the door trying to catch it.

“Mr. Cartwright, tell you what I can do. I’ll keep you up to date on everything I hear about weather conditions and anyone who makes it up or down. And then the second I hear it’s passable, I’ll ride over here and off we’ll go to find your son. What do ya say.”

There was a longer silence, then Hoss and Joe could only surmise that their father nodded, because Carl said, “It’s a deal then. First sign of a change in the weather, I’ll be here. You made the right choice, Mr. Cartwright. Try not to worry too much. It’ll all work out.”

“Like it did for the Donner Party.” Joe winced at his father’s tone, heard him heft himself to his feet. “Well, I thank you for your time, Carl, and your kind offer. Anything you can tell me will be most appreciated.” Joe moved back a step as footsteps moved closer, toward the front door. “Have a safe ride back to town. And thank you for making the trip out.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright. And like I say – don’t worry.”

The door opened and closed, and they heard their father mutter, “Don’t worry, he says. My son could be buried under ten feet of snow and he says don’t worry.” Then his footsteps, heavy and weary, as he moved past them and up the stairs.

Hoss and Joe stood silent until they heard the footsteps disappear over the landing, then stood looking at each other uneasily. Finally, Joe cleared his throat. “Pa’s really scared.”

Hoss nodded, poking at his slice of pie. “Well. You know Pa.”

Joe nodded. Hoss offered him the rest of his pie to finish, but he shook his head. He cleared his throat a couple of more times, then blurted, “Hey, Hoss, you don’t really think…I mean, Adam…he’s alive, isn’t he?”

Hoss doggedly chewed at his piece of pie. “Yup,” he said, after mulling it over. “Sure he is. Don’t give it another thought.”

Joe glared at him suspiciously. “You don’t know that. How could you know that?”

Hoss persisted in his chewing, his face stubborn. “Well, Joe…I figger I known Adam my whole life, an’ if’n he was dead, I’d know it.”

Joe studied him, wanting to believe him, but not sure he should. “How? How could you know? And why wouldn’t Pa know, then?”

“Pa don’t know just cause he worries so much – drowns out that little voice inside here.” He gestured to his heart with his fork. “Cain’t blame him, considerin’ all the tragedy he’s had if’n he thinks the worst. Now, me, I think on Adam an’ I just plumb know he’s out there somewhere, tryin’ ta get back home. An’ he will.”

Joe’s frown relaxed a little. “He will. You’re that sure, huh?”

“Yessir.” Hoss cleaned out the pie tin and put it in the sink. “Darn sure. Cause I can tell ya this, Joe. I sure as heck wouldn’t be wading through all those dang books fer a dead man.”

Chapter 8

For the next two days Adam had to concede that, despite his frustration and embarrassment, he was in no shape to sit up by himself, never mind walk. The combination of near-freezing, blood loss, broken bones and fever had left him tiresomely weak. Additionally, the nightmare that had plagued him throughout delirium lingered, leaving his sleep restless and shallow.

Bridie continued to dose him with soup and tea, scolding him when he tried to move too fast, soothing him when he grew restless and the edge of the fever returned. She had a quick and challenging mind, and he found himself finally able to discuss Transcendentalism to his heart’s content.

He had read little of Margaret Fuller and was pleased to add her contributions to the philosophy to his intellectual arsenal. In addition, Bridie had read most of the same poets and authors and was able to discuss them with wit and energy, though she was very quick to bring even the most absorbing conversation to an end the instant he showed any signs of tiredness. All in all, Adam felt he might have enjoyed his time there very well but for the nagging reminder of the decision he had to make and the anxious conviction of the disquiet his continued absence must be causing his father.

Bridie must have sensed some of his feelings when she brought him his breakfast because she gave him one of her intense glances and said, “I was thinkin’ if you were doin’ all right this mornin’ that you might like to move ta t’other room and outta the surgery. It would give ya a nice change a view, and ye could see a bit o’ the weather. Here I keep the windows covered to be more restful like, for me patients.”

Adam looked up hopefully from the oatmeal she had placed before him. The thought of seeing anything other than this room was heartening. “What’s in the other room?”

She smiled. “Me home. It’s humble, like, but nottsa sterile as here. There’s plenty o’ books ta keep ye company, too.” She reached over to feel his forehead. “Finish all yer breakfast an’ we’ll see if ye can’t manage ta stroll the distance between rooms.”

Adam returned to his oatmeal with renewed determination. His appetite was gradually returning, too, so he made short work of it.

Bridie quirked her eyebrows when she came to retrieve the empty bowl. “Well, ye can be an obedient patient with the right carrot on a stick, can ye not?” she observed dryly. “Very well. Let me set up the couch fer ye in t’other room an’ we’ll see how yer legs hold ye.”

“I don’t need a couch.” Bridie gave him a look. “All right, all right – anything you say.”

“Now, there’s what I like ta hear.”

Adam smiled as he watched her disappear through a door, fingering his ribs experimentally. He admitted to himself that they were still pretty painful and made breathing a bit of a challenge. Eager as he was to let his family know he was all right, he knew he would never be able to mount a horse in this condition, even if the weather did break. He was going to have to be patient, whether he liked it or not.

Bridie returned with a robe over one arm. “I’ve precious little fer ye ta put on – me Da was a much smaller man than what you are – but I’ve a few odd bits and pieces people have donated fer destitute patients. We’ll see if we can get ye inta this without hurtin’ yer shoulder.” She began to skillfully maneuver his good arm into the sleeve, then moved around to his other side to do the same with his bad arm.

Adam instinctively braced himself. To divert his attention from the task at hand he dropped his eyes to the collection of blankets and quilts that covered him. “I see you have a Bannock blanket, too.”

“Aye, I’ve two I was given fer helpin’ with a breech birth.” She gently undid the sling “Lovely things, aren’t they? I found yers an’ put it on there, too. I knew I liked ye right off when I found it – not everyone is trusted by the Bannock. And it was providential, seein’ as I was a long way from sure I’d ever get ye warm again. Every warm thing I own was on that bed at one time, includin’ meself.” She felt him jerk under her hands and looked at him. “Did I hurt? Now look at yer color – is the fever back?” She placed a practiced hand on his forehead. “Feels all right. So what in almighty…Adam Cartwright, have I made ye blush, then?” The color was flaming in Adam’s cheeks and he avoided her eyes. She eased his bad arm gently into the sleeve and retied the sling, shaking her head. “Now, there, I’ve shocked you again, haven’t I? But it was strictly medicinal, like, and after all, body heat is the most reliable…there now, I’m makin’ it worse. I’d no idea ye were sa modest.”

Adam cleared his throat, still focused on the blankets. “I – ” He smiled and shook his head. “Bridie Halloran, you are unique among women of my experience.”

She folded the robe over his chest and studied the results. “And that’s not such a good thing, is it?”

He looked up at her, his eyes still a little shy, but twinkling nonetheless. “Oh, no – it’s very – refreshing. I’m just not always ready for it.”

“Well, I’m thinkin’ I was right, then, ta come here ta the mountain. Ye can imagine the mess I’d make a’ society.”

“Society’s loss,” he said firmly. “Let’s see if I still know how to walk.”

Standing revealed a whole new set of aches and pains and the room had become a wavering grey by the time Adam had made his way from the surgery to Bridie’s living room. He could barely make out Bridie’s outline as she settled him on the couch, but Adam was still pleased with himself. It was a relief to move around after all this time, pain, dizziness and all, and after a few minutes things began to clarify and take shape and Adam looked around with interest.

It was as shabby a room as Bridie had promised, but the couch pulled in front of the roaring fire was comfortable. Bookshelves flanked the fireplace on either side with the lap harp leaning against the hearth and a desk piled with more books pulled up near it. A stove and some shelves covered with glass jars marked the kitchen area, the ceiling hanging with drying herbs by a door that presumably led to the yard, while a bed and washbowl were tucked into one corner. Everything was old and worn, but there was something cozy and personal about the whole that made Adam sigh in contentment.

“This does make a nice change. Thank you.”

“Well, glamorous it’s not, but it’s home. I’ll fix ye some tea an’ then I’ll take care o’ the stock. Would ye like a book or two, or are ye not yet up ta readin’?”

“A book would be wonderful, but what stock? Can’t I help you?”

“There’s a cow and some chickens an’ our horses and how in the name o’ all that’s wonderful do ye think ye could do that? I didna think ye were goin’ ta make it in here without tumblin’ on yer head.”

“How is Sport doing? I’d love to visit him.”

“And so ye shall, but not today. Yer horse is fine, better than yerself, in fact. Love o’ Mike, man, let ye stand up an’ ye get right cocky!”

“I’m not used to not doing anything. I feel useless.”

“Yer doin’ somethin’ very important – yer provin’ what a fine doctor I am. Now I’ll get ye some books and that tea but I won’t go out until ye promise me ye’ll stay put, Adam. I’ll want yer word on it.”

Adam chuckled and shook his head at her. “You sure you’re not my father in disguise?”

“Your word,” she repeated firmly.

“Fine, fine – you have it. But I won’t stay down forever – I hope you know that.”

“I didn’t ask forever, did I? Just until I say so.”

He eyed her consideringly. “We may need to discuss that one. But for now I concede the point.”

“Fair enough.” Bridie set him up with tea and a series of books and bundled herself in work boots and jacket and a bewildering collection of shawls. Adam noticed that almost all her clothing, except for skirts and shoes, seemed to be men’s.

Maybe her father’s, he thought. He wondered whether she didn’t like pretty things, found them impractical or just plain couldn’t afford them. He wished he knew. He’d like to give her something to thank her for all she’d done for him.

The blast of cold air as she slipped out the door shocked and faintly panicked him, bringing with it sudden memories of his frigid near-death on the mountainside. The window told him that the snow had slowed, but the wind was still fierce and from his viewpoint on the couch the drifts looked imposing. It disturbed him to think of Bridie’s faint weight fighting that wind. It should be him – it was the least he could do for her. He remembered what she’d said about the lead line but it made him feel only a little better.

He had a book in his hand, but let it rest unopened on his chest and turned his head to look into the fire. It reminded him of his nightmare and he tucked his good hand behind his head to think.

Despite, or maybe because of, his dreams, he was no closer to making a decision than he had been. Instead he was languishing on this couch, no use to his father, no use to his grandfather, and precious little use to Bridie. He could barely remember a time since he was small that he hadn’t been busy and responsible for something – usually many things – his brothers, the ranch, his father, his horse, his studies – and the unfamiliar feeling rankled. He sighed and shifted carefully, noting with some satisfaction that things didn’t hurt quite as much as they had.

He was letting his tea grow cold and he knew Bridie would be irritated but he had somehow drifted into brooding and couldn’t interest himself in it. He wanted to get up and see how he could manage on his own, but he had given his word and he wouldn’t break it. More than that he wanted to go outside and relieve Bridie of tending the stock.

If he was honest with himself, he knew full well that the first wind would about blow him over, but somehow that just irritated him more and made him more impatient to give it a try. He had a good capacity for mind over matter. If he set his head to it he might be able to manage. Well, maybe not just yet, but surely there was something he could do in return for her hospitality.

The fire was hypnotic and he stared into it, thinking of how helpless he felt and how much he hated the feeling, how torn he felt between his father and his grandfather and how much he hated that too, how confused he felt about where he belonged and how to move forward with the next part of his life.

He fretted about not being there to help move the cattle to winter pasture when his father was short-handed, of what he’d say about his deal with the Bannock, about the fool’s errand that had taken him away for so long with so little result, about how to manage the parts of himself that just didn’t seem to fit with ranch life. He teased and tortured himself with his restless thoughts until finally he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

A rush of cold air woke him out of another bad dream – this one searching for his father and grandfather in a frozen wilderness – and he sat up with a gasp, not sure which was real. It took him a minute to realize that it was Bridie, returning from her outside errands, stamping the snow from her boots.

“Snow’s slowin’, but the wind’s fierce and it’s cold as bedamned…” she stripped off her gloves and the shawl over her head, shivering. “Yer horse says ‘hello’, or sounds ta that effect. He and Betsy seem ta have developed a friendship – ” she paused in pulling off her bulky man’s jacket and peered at him more closely, a frown gathering. “Another bad dream?”

Adam grit his teeth. The horror of the dream still clung to him and he’d hurt his ribs with sitting up so fast. What’s more, he was racked with guilt to see her struggle in from the tempest while he stayed inside snug and warm, and suddenly unnerved by her habit of seeing right through him. Consequently, he was somewhat testy when he asked, “How do you know I have bad dreams?”

Bridie hung her wet things by the fire. “Ye call out in yer sleep. Often, too. Care ta talk about it?”

“No.” It sounded shorter than he intended. “What I’d like is to do the barn chores for you this afternoon.”

Bridie paused in peeling off her extra sweaters. “Ye mean out there?”

He nodded.

“In the cold?”

He nodded again.

She carefully smoothed an ice-encrusted scarf and spread it out to dry. “I see. Well. What a splendid idea, ta be sure.”

She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at him, her voice rising a notch. “Brilliant, about, actually. Can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it meself.”

She was gaining vocal momentum. “An’ here I was, just congratulating meself that we’d somehow escaped pneumonia, which between the ribs an’ the freezin’ I’d feared was a forgone conclusion, and here you are just bound an’ determined ta put yerself, not ta mention me, through that particular bit a’ hell!”

For a small woman, her volume was impressive.

“Well, I’ll tell ye what, Mr. Cartwright, ye stagger outside, then. But before ye go out by all means leave me yer family’s address, nice an’ clear, so I can tell ’em where ta come an collect the body come spring – the mercy o’ it is that at least ye’ll keep well in this weather till the ground thaws enough fer burial!” She finished with something very like a roar.

Adam stared at her in fascination, a reluctant smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. After a moment he said, “You have a salutary bedside manner, Dr. Halloran.”

She glared at him, her eyes still flashing with anger. “Well, fer a very intelligent man, who knows a great deal about a great many things you’ve a woeful sad grasp o’ biology! Outside, indeed!”

“I take it that’s a ‘no’.”

“Well, yer a quick one, ta be sure.”

He leaned back, astonished and amused by her temper. “You know, people tell me I have a caustic bent, but I really don’t think I can begin to compete.”

Despite herself, the anger in her eyes softened and she gave a gust of laughter. “It’s impossible, y’are.”

Adam smiled back at her, then grew serious. “Bridie, there must be something I can do for you. I’ve lost track of how many days I’ve been here, enjoying your hospitality. And you did save my life.”

“I’m a doctor, Adam,” she said gently. “Saving lives is what I do.”

“That’s not the point, and I think you know that. Taking care of me and my horse takes up all your time.”

“Ta be sure, it’s put a turrible crimp in me social calendar.”

“Still, there must be something I can do to repay you. I really can’t stand being so useless.”

She gave him a glimmer of a smile. “‘They also serve who only stand and wait’,” she quoted primly.

He returned her smile ruefully. “Touché.”

Her face grew pensive and she perched herself on the end of the sofa, by his feet. “Truthfully, Adam, you mustn’t think that. I can’t tell ye what it’s meant ta have ye here – ta talk about books and ideas and hear ye quote Keats and Shakespeare and Wordsworth from memory…it may not seem like much, but fer me…well, I was feelin’ lonely and discouraged, like, about the time y’appeared out a’ the air. I was workin’ on some decisions o’ me own, truth ta tell, about stayin’ or goin’, and somehow – well, I can’t describe it, except ta say…‘ye restore me soul.’ There’s a fine quote fer ye. Let’s see if ye recognize that one.”

He gave her his half smile. “Too easy. Twenty-third Psalm. It’s my father’s favorite.”

“Is it indeed.” She patted his leg under the quilt. “Ye mustn’t feel the books are unbalanced, like. They aren’t. Not a tall.”

He nodded, studying the pattern on the quilt intently. “Bridie – ” this sort of thing didn’t come easily to him, any more than it obviously did to her. “For me – well. I feel the same.”

She patted his leg again. “Good. Then there’s nothin’ more ta talk about. I think what we need is some lunch.”

000

“So what about you? What did you decide?”

“How’s that?” Bridie looked up from an indiscriminate piece of knitting she was working on.

They had finished lunch and were sitting in companionable silence before the fire, Bridie knitting and Adam still holding the unopened book while he watched the snow swirl around outside the window.

“About staying. You said you were wondering about leaving your Walden Pond.”

“Ah.” She shrugged, tugging at a misstitch. “I don’t know that I have decided. Doesn’t seem sa bad right now, but ye’ll be leavin’ by an by, an’ then who knows?” She threw him a mischievous glance. “I don’t suppose you’d like to come to call every now and now and chew the fat, like?”

“I would like that, actually. Long way though.” He pondered for a moment. “You could come to Virginia City. Doc Martin could use the help. Or Carson City or Genoa. We’re pretty short of medical help down there, too.”

Bridie shook her head. “But not like here.”

“No,” Adam admitted. “Certainly not like here.”

“And yerself? Have you decided?”

Adam grimaced. “No. I just go round and round and round. If I go east, I let my father down. I leave him short handed and I desert my brothers, who count on me too. If I stay west, I let my grandfather down. I leave him all alone in his old age. There just doesn’t seem to be a good answer.”

“And what about yerself?”

“Pardon?”

“Yerself. You’ve told me how it will affect yer father and yer brothers and yer grandfather…what about yerself?”

Adam looked surprised. “I haven’t thought much about it.”

“Maybe that’s yer answer, then.”

Adam ran his hand absently over his ribcage. “Maybe. I’m not sure it makes things any clearer. Before I ended up here I honestly felt like I was going to explode if I didn’t find an outlet for everything that was going on in my head – someone who would listen and understand and appreciate some of the things I needed to talk about. It’s a part of me that I try to suppress on a day to day basis, but seems to need more attention, and I don’t know how to do that and work at the ranch, too. On the other hand, when I think about leaving the ranch…” he hesitated, his eyes returning to the window.

“Yes?”

Adam’s voice was soft. “It just about breaks my heart.”

They were silent for a long moment. Then Bridie said, “There’s an answer, Adam. It’ll come ta ye. Ye may need ta be a bit patient. And a bit easier on yerself. That’d stop the nightmares, anyway.”

He squinted one eye at her. “I thought you didn’t know what they were about.”

She looked innocent. “I didna say that. I asked if ye cared ta talk about it.”

He laughed reluctantly. “In another century you’d be burned as a witch. I’ve never considered myself exactly an open book – can you see right through everybody, or just me?”

Bridie’s eyes danced, but her smile was apologetic. “I see meself in ye. Makes ye an easy read.”

He nodded, but his eyebrows lowered in a troubled frown. “‘A stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.’

“Housman,” she responded automatically. “Yer not referring ta yerself, I hope?”

“Who else?”

She tilted her head at him. “That’s not the Adam Cartwright I know.”

He smiled a little. “And you know me so well, too.”

“I think I do.”

He looked up to meet her penetrating blue gaze. Almost against his will he asked, “So what do you see?”

She skewered him with a look for another moment, then smiled suddenly. “Much too easy. I’ll find you a poem or a quote that tells ye.”

“Hmm.” He snorted skeptically. “Well, I have one for you, then.”

She looked amused “What’s that?”

‘A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startles.’” He gave her his rare, full smile, all the way to his eyes.

She looked at him, looked quickly back at her knitting. “Well,” she said, a little gruffly, “You do know yer Emerson.”

But he wasn’t fooled. Before she’d looked away he’d seen the quick rush of tears in her eyes.

Chapter 9

Two days later Bridie announced that the temperature was rising.

He was ensconced in a wing chair by her desk, whistling softly to himself, having finally persuaded her to let him take on the task of copying her research for submission. He found it pleasant, interesting work and he had made decent inroads into it.

Even more pleasant was his increasing ability to get around by himself. Today he had actually gotten dressed, using the spare shirt from his saddlebags, since Bridie had shown him his other one, shredded and blood stained beyond repair, the left sleeve cut out to free his swollen shoulder. His jacket had fared a little better, but though she had managed to sew up the rents made by the cougar claws he’d probably have to replace it. He was a little sobered by this concrete evidence of how near he’d actually come to death and the strange series of chance circumstances that had saved his life.

Bridie came up behind him and watched him work for a minute. “I said it’s warmer. Markedly so. What is it there ye find so interestin’?”

Adam stopped whistling and looked up at last. “Oh. I didn’t hear you come in. Your research. I was just wondering what you’d find if Hop Sing gave you some of his herbs and powders to try. I wonder if I can get him to recommend some I could pick up for you the next time I’m in San Francisco.”

She perched on the arm of the chair. “Would ye now. The mail isn’t sa efficient here abouts but there’s a Trading Post about a day’s ride I go fer supplies where I can receive things.”

Adam winked at her. “And here I was going to offer to hand deliver them.”

She smiled in return. “Now, that would be better.”

“Or better still, you could come visit at the Ponderosa. I’d love for you to meet my family.”

Bridie shook her head. “Heaven help them. Are ye sure they’re ready fer me?”

Adam grinned. “No. But I think they’d love you. Once they adjusted to your – originality.”

Bridie snorted inelegantly. “Indeed.”

“Your botanical sketches are very good. Do you grow your own herbs?”

“Some. That field o’ whiteness covers a very nice herb garden. I collect some from the wild. Ye know, I’m pleased ye find me work so interestin’ but I thought you’d want ta take advantage of the change in temperature ta visit yer horse. He’s been askin’ fer ye.”

“Who’s been…?” Adam dragged himself away from the page and blinked at her as her words slowly registered. “Wait – are you actually suggesting we go outside?”

“I thought, since it’s warmer we should take advantage. Never know how long it’ll last. Ho – ho – slow, now. Let me help you get yer jacket on over that arm.”

Adam paused resignedly as she eased the sleeve over his bad shoulder, then slid his good arm in himself. “You treat me like I’m an invalid,” he complained.

“Happens y’are.” She adjusted his sling and did up his buttons. “Need help with yer gloves?”

“I’ve got them.”

Bridie watched him struggle with a cynical uplift of brow.

It was a little on the painful side, but he did manage and gave her a triumphant smile.

She led the way out the door, shaking her head.

Adam took a deep breath of the cold air. He felt like Lazarus. The light on the snow was almost blinding. Drifts almost as high as his shoulders bordered a path to a small, rickety barn; a rope was strung between the two buildings. He glanced around, curious as to where the chicken coop might be, but it wasn’t immediately visible. “Did you shovel this? How’d you get the snow all the way up there?”

“I’ve plenty of practice. Come along.”

Adam felt so much like himself for the first time in over a week that he started after her at his old pace. His whole left side protested emphatically and he steadied himself against the wall of snow and proceeded more cautiously.

The barn had the familiar smell of hay and horses and he stopped again to inhale deeply. He was greeted by a familiar nicker.

“Hey, boy.”

Sport tossed his head at him. He was occupying one of four narrow stalls, next to a big boned brown nag, and two stalls over, a scrawny cow.

Adam walked over to stroke his nose. He wished he had a carrot or an apple to offer him. “Miss me? I sure missed you.” He patted him along his neck, looking him over. “Well, you look good. Somebody’s been taking good care of you.”

Bridie was rubbing the old nag’s ears. “He’s been good company fer Betsy. She’ll miss him.” She stooped to check the water and food troughs, though she’d filled them only this morning. “Won’t be long now if the weather keeps warmin’, the way yer gettin’ about.”

Adam nodded, rubbing his hand under Sport’s chin, feeling relieved and sad at the same time.

“Ye visit a bit. I want ta see ta the chickens.”

Sport nuzzled under his arm, looking for treats, and Adam shifted a little to keep him from bumping anything half-healed.

“Ready to go home, boy? Back to Chubb and Buck and Cochise?” Part of him wondered which one of them he was really talking to. He had promised himself he’d make some sort of decision before he went home, but he was dithering as much as ever. He leaned his head against Sport’s neck, continuing to stroke him absently. When he was younger and troubled about something that had always seemed to help.

He had no idea how long he had stood there when he heard a voice say, “Enough fer now, Adam. It’s warmer, but it’s still cold enough.”

He had been a million miles away in a different time and place and it took him a second to come back. He gave Sport a parting pat.

“For a minute you sounded like Inger.” He moved past her and let her fasten the barn door behind them.

“Now, who was Inger?”

“My first stepmother. Hoss’s mother.” He took another deep breath of fresh air, noting with satisfaction that breathing was now only a little tender. “She was a good mother to me.”

“Ah.” Bridie handed him a basket of eggs to carry. “How old were ye then?”

“Five. She was this great big woman, like Hoss. Swedish. She had a very sweet, musical voice and even when she was telling you to do something it never sounded like an order.” He smiled at the memory. “Not like my father. Or Marie, for that matter.”

“Marie. Yer other stepmother?”

“Mm. Joe’s mother. But she was small and I gave her kind of a hard time…she probably felt she needed to be a little more forceful.” He waited while she opened the door, turning for one last wistful look at the outdoors before following her in.

“And how old were ye when yer father married her?”

“Eleven.”

“So yer father an’ Inger weren’t married long?”

“No. Hoss was just a baby and I was six when she died. Indian raid. One minute she was firing a gun, good as a man, the next…”

Bridie took the basket from him and gave him a peculiar look. “Ye saw it, then.”

“Mm hm. Marie, too. Her horse…” he trailed off, suddenly uncomfortable. Now, how had he gotten into talking about that? He never talked about it. “Anyway. It was a long time ago.”

“It’s no wonder ye’ve nightmares. It’s a wonder y’ever sleep a tall.”

He shook his head as if to shake away the past. “I haven’t had nightmares about that in years.” He sought to change the subject. “What about your Da? How did he die?”

“Consumption. It was sad, like, but not unexpected. We both had some time ta prepare. As much as anyone can fer sech a thing, I suppose.” She put away all the eggs but five and reached up to unbutton his coat. “Yes, I know this hurts yer precious manly pride but buttons are hard ta manage with one hand. Let me help ye off with it and refasten yer sling.”

“How much longer do you think I’ll need the sling?”

“Another week or two at the least, I should say.” She saw his expression and chuckled. “Now, yer bones are doin’ the best they can. Take it off early an’ ye’ll find it wonderful painful, I promise ye.”

Adam shifted his left arm experimentally and caught his breath sharply at the sudden shaft of pain the movement evoked.

Bridie looked amused. “Now, I thought we’d established I was always right. Why must ye learn everythin’ the hard way?”

Adam smiled sheepishly. “My nature, I guess. What can I do to help you?”

“I suppose ye can set the table, and then ye can beat these eggs, if ye sit while ye do it. If ye really want ta do right by me, though, ye’ll pick up reading aloud where ye left off. I’ll miss it when yer gone. Do ye do that back home?”

Adam set out the simple plates and cups and forks and went to the desk for the book by Harriet Martineau they had been making their way through in the evenings. “Aloud? No. I used to read to Hoss and Joe when they were little, but I can’t imagine either of them sitting still for it now.”

“Well, they don’t know what they’re missin’, then.” Bridie was efficiently slicing an onion. “Makes it lonely, like, does it?”

Adam looked up sharply from the eggs he was breaking one-handed into a bowl.

Bridie paused in selecting a potato to meet his gaze. “It’s not witchcraft, Adam. I’m a woman in a profession I love that has no want a me, merely because o’ me sex. No one has ta tell me about the loneliness o’ feelin’ out o’ place.”

“And yet some people seem to be exactly where they belong. Why is that, do you suppose?”

“I’ve no idea – and I’ve puzzled it some. I suppose we serve some purpose in movin’ things forward, like – it’s just not very comfortable fer us.”

Adam nodded, taking a fork to the eggs. “What do you do about it?”

“Same as you. Struggle.” She took down a big iron skillet and checked the flame under one of the stove lids.

Adam watched the eggs begin to froth, steadying the bowl carefully with the back of his bad hand. “I’m glad I met you, Bridie. Even aside from saving my life, I mean. Sometimes you seem so unlikely and providential that I half expect you to dissolve and disappear as I ride away. Like a heavenly messenger or a fairy godmother.”

Bridie laughed out loud. “An angel or a fairy – me. That’s a loud one. I’m sure there’s never been one with this red hair or turned up nose. Now, yerself, on the other hand…” She crossed behind him to take the bowl of eggs and ruffled his hair into curls as she passed. “That yer a handsome prince there can be no doubt.”

A faint scratching sound from the window made them both look in that direction. The sunny morning had greyed suddenly and sleet scrabbled against the windowpane. By evening it had turned to rain.

000

Ben stared at the sheets of rain greying the window. Carl Waters had stopped by yesterday to tell him that it looked like rain in the high country as well – and that if it continued it would make a serious dent in the snow. That was good news, mostly. Adam had been gone for nearly two weeks and a thaw should at least resolve the awful strain of not knowing. On the other hand, if knowing meant knowing that his son was dead he wasn’t sure he could bear it.

He moved away from the window and over toward Adam’s desk. He had taken to visiting here every evening lately, before bed. It seemed a proper place to chat with Liz while he waited for news of their son. Adam’s familiar, beloved possessions made him seem immediate, alive.

He smoothed some of the large drafting sketches, wondering what Adam was working on now. He was no engineer himself, but it looked like a pump of some sort. He smiled to himself, remembering Adam’s first engine – how old had he been when he built it – twelve? thirteen? – and how angry he’d been when he found out he’d been using the forge unsupervised. And then Adam had started a bit of a fire trying to make it run…now it seemed precocious – boy’s mischief. Then he’d been enraged.

He moved away from the desk. Well, he’d been right of course, the consequences of fire could be deadly and using a forge unsupervised could also lead to disaster and injury, though – he winced a little at the memory – he’d certainly left Adam unsupervised in many other ways. He frowned to himself, wondering for the first time what his answer would have been if Adam had asked for supervision in something that had seemed so frivolous at the time.

It had been a difficult period for Ben: three children, the future of the ranch so precarious, all their livelihoods at risk. Most of his time and energy had been focused on that – on making his dream a reality. Probably, he admitted to himself, he would have said no. Possibly – it brought a pang, but he couldn’t be less than honest with himself – he might have even been a little cutting in reply. Feeling the pressure of supporting them all, of making the ranch a success, had sometimes made him impatient of anything that didn’t contribute to its future. No doubt Adam had known this better than he had himself when he’d decided to do it surreptitiously instead.

Well, through the years Adam had certainly proven that what his father saw as his odd whims and crazy ideas could indeed contribute to the success of the ranch. Even his college education, the result of a hard fought battle culminating in four years absence from the ranch, had paid for itself by now, a couple of times over.

Liz’s picture snagged his eye and he studied her quizzically. “You are trying to tell me something, aren’t you?” He walked over and picked up the small gold frame, looked into the large, dark, long lashed eyes that reminded him so much of his son. “In fact, I have the strongest impression that you’re lecturing me.”

He carried her over to the chair by the window and sat down, looking from the rain to the desk to the bookcases to the guitar to the framed pictures and back to Liz.

“All right, darling, fire away. I suspect I’m not going to like this, but I’m a grown man. I can take it.”

Chapter 10

At dinner three days later Ben announced his intention to make a quick trip to the high country.

“But Pa, what fer?” Hoss protested. “Adam’ll be back any day now – no use yer haring after ’em.”

“I’m not ‘haring after him’, as you put it. I’m going as far as the Pass to meet him and ride down with him. I figure he has to go through the Pass sooner or later so it’s not very likely we’ll miss each other.”

Hoss chewed at Hop Sing’s pot roast and eyed his father dubiously. “Mighty slick up thata way, Pa, what with all the snow and then rain. You sure it’s a good idee?”

“That’s why we waited a day after the rain stopped, to give things a chance to dry out a little. Carl Waters is going with me – he’s an experienced guide through those mountains. Not that I haven’t been through them many times by myself, but I thought that this time it might be a good idea for…” he hesitated, not really wanting to discuss why he wanted Carl along. He didn’t have to.

Joe and Hoss exchanged a look.

“Well, we’ll go with you, Pa,” Joe said at last.

“No, you will not,” answered Ben emphatically. “I need you both here. I know the cattle have been moved but there’s plenty else to do and we’re short handed as it is.”

Joe lowered his brows. “Pa, if your going to look for Adam – ”

“I said I was going to meet Adam,” Ben corrected him sharply. “I don’t know why you can’t listen to what I say.”

Hoss cleared his throat. “Pa. All Little Joe means – ”

“I know what Little Joe means.” Ben paused and adjusted his tone to a more normal register. “Look, Adam’s been gone for over two weeks and I’d like to meet him and ride with him for a little ways. Is that really so hard for you two to understand?”

Joe looked at Hoss.

Hoss met his gaze and shrugged. “No, Pa.”

“Good. Now, I expect Adam will start back about the same time we start out, but in case he doesn’t, I may camp at the Pass for a day or two. So don’t panic if we’re not back right away.”

Hoss looked like he wanted to say something else, but he swallowed instead. “Sure thing, Pa.”

“Carl reads the weather well and knows how to negotiate the worst of the mud, so there’s nothing to worry about. Just keep the work on schedule and I’ll be back as soon as I connect with Adam. Understood?”

“Yeah, Pa.”

Ben turned his gaze to Joe.

“Whatever you say, Pa,” Joe muttered at last.

“All right, then. We’re leaving early, so don’t feel you have to get up to say good bye – I’ll see you in no time.” Hop Sing entered and began clearing away the plates, placing a sweet potato pie in the middle of the table for dessert. “Ah, Hop Sing, that reminds me.” Hop Sing put down the coffeepot and waited. “Adam will be back tomorrow or the next day – give his room a good going over, will you?” He smiled slyly at his two younger sons. “There’s been quite a lot of traffic in there in his absence.”

000

Adam sat at Bridie’s desk, gazing out the window. Three days of hard rain had, astonishingly, reduced the snow to almost nothing. The ground was covered with torn branches and some downed trees – aside from that, it was hard to believe the blizzard had ever been. The Pass, he figured, would be open for sure. Time to head home.

“Ground’s a bit o’ a mess.” Bridie’s voice unexpectedly materializing over his shoulder made him jump. He nodded silent assent. “We’ll see how it looks tomorrow. There’ll be some floodin’, I suppose, and ground ready ta slide. Let me take a look at yer bandages. They need a change.”

Adam obediently followed her to the surgery and sat on the table and let her unbutton his shirt. It was still a painful enough process, but nothing like it had been the first few times and while he held his breath throughout, he was able to remain silent and conscious until she finished. Finally, she rebuttoned his shirt and put away her salve and scissors and bandages.

“Well,” she said finally. “That’s not sa ill. Yer wonderful resilient, I will say.”

“Must be the quality of the medical care,” he suggested seriously.

She smiled slightly. “Indeed.” She was silent for a long moment. When she finally spoke it was with some difficulty. “Yer not really fit fer a long ride, but the weather changes so fast hereabouts – I don’t know but we shouldn’t risk it if the ground dries out a bit more. Not that you wouldn’t be more than welcome ta stay the winter…” she gave him a touch of her roguish smile “but fine as it would be fer me ta have yer company I suspect I’d have ye wanderin’ the four walls like a bear with a sore head once ye’d fully recovered yer health.”

Adam gave her a faint smile in reply. His own feelings were confused and he certainly didn’t want to seem ungrateful. “I’m sure it would be a wonderful place to spend the winter, especially given the company. But I’m afraid my family will come looking for me if I wait too long – I don’t want them risking life and limb, especially since I’m fine.”

Bridie gave a decisive nod. “Yer right, o’ course. We’re about half a day’s ride from the Pass. I can take ye there.”

Adam frowned. “You don’t have to – ”

She raised her eyebrows at him. “Happens I do. I hardly trust ye ta behave sensible, like, without me along at least part o’ the way. Yer goin’ ta find mountin’ an’ dismountin’ difficult, if not downright impossible, without help an if ye run across a tree or sech blockin’ the path, what is it ye think ye’ll be able ta do about it? Ye’ll need a hand. Besides, I know the safest way down, given the ground conditions.”

Adam looked indignant. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to sit on my horse and watch you drag trees out of the path! And how exactly do you expect to be able to do that anyway? Sheer hard headedness?”

“I expect ye ta do as I ask. Yer still me patient.”

“I’d say you’re expecting a little too much.”

She met his gaze with a steely one of her own, but he wouldn’t look away, and after an extended stand off, she did. “Well. Let’s hope there are no trees in the path, then.”

“Let’s hope. Bridie – ”

She turned abruptly away. “This had better not be the beginnins’ of a speech or a thanks or anything else morbidly sentimental, fer I’ve no patience fer it.”

He caught the sound of something in her voice and said quickly. “God forbid. I was just going to ask you if you’d mind playing the harp. For auld lange syne, like.” He winked at her.

The look she gave him was a little misty, but she smiled. “Aye, well. I’m a sucker fer an encore.”

Chapter 11

“We’ll stop fer a rest.”

Adam didn’t argue. He would have liked to have said that it wasn’t necessary, but he was pretty sure that he couldn’t make it convincing. It would be a relief to get down for a minute.

“Now, don’t get down. Wait fer me.”

That one he thought about disobeying, then thought better of it. Mounting, to his complete surprise and displeasure, had almost caused him to pass out. He wasn’t willing to risk it on an ill-advised dismount.

“Why don’t ye pull ‘im alongside that fallen tree – we’ll use it as a mounting block.”

Meekly, he obeyed. For a man who had always mounted effortlessly while his horse was already in motion, it was a humiliating turn of events.

He allowed Bridie to steady him as he eased his way out of the saddle, clinging to the pommel with his good hand. He stepped down from the log and seated himself on it, spent. Sport nudged at his ear and he reached up to pat his cheek. “Not quite the pace you’re used to, eh, boy?”

Bridie was eyeing him intently. “Couldn’t go any faster in this mud anyway – not on these slopes. Are ye holdin’ up there?”

He nodded mutely.

“Time fer some lunch anyway.” She pulled down her saddlebags and seated herself next to him. “Lovely day. Hard to believe it’s the same country as two weeks ago, isn’t it?”

“I’m finding it even harder to believe I’m the same man I was two weeks ago. I feel about 100.”

She handed him some chicken and patted his knee. “Yer doin’ fine. It is premature, like, but all things considered I don’t think we dared wait.”

“No.” They ate in silence, Adam trying to find the words for what he wanted to say, if she would only let him. They had almost finished when he finally ventured, “Bridie, I want to – ”

She must have read his expression, because she said quickly, “What is it now? Are ye lookin’ fer a story, then? Well, all right, one last time, I suppose…let’s see…once upon a time…”

He smiled despite his exasperation.

“Once upon a time, there was a princess who went ta live on a high mountain o’ stone.” She shot him a sideways glance. “Not a very fair princess, ye understand, but she had high ideals and thought she could do some good there alone on the mountain. And maybe she did, fer a time, in her way. But, anyway. This princess lived all alone on the mountain, with her books an’ her music and her fine ideals until one day she noticed a strange discontent was growin’ in her heart. Until finally, ta her surprise an horror, she realized that she was turnin’ ta stone, just like the mountain.”

Adam was watching her very intently now, but she avoided his gaze.

“So she said ta herself, she said, ‘I must leave the mountain, then, before I turn all ta stone. Maybe then I can turn back into a real live girl.’

So she made up her mind ta take her books an her music an leave her fine ideals high on the mountain and seek a new place and a new mission. But before she could leave, a strange thing happened.”

Here she glanced up at him for a moment, then away again. “One day, when she was haulin’ wood ta have against an early storm, what should she find in the snow but a handsome prince, injured and unconscious.”

He started to say something then, but she hurried on. “O’ course, she couldn’t just leave him there. So she put him on the sledge instead o’ the wood and took him home to nurse him back ta health. An’ ta her surprise, even while he was still outta his head, he spoke ta her in a secret language – one she hadn’t heard since she’d come ta the mountain. An then she knew there was a miracle in play.

Oh, there’s more – ” she stopped his interruption. “Fer ye see, he was a very responsible young prince. So, lest he leave and take his poet’s heart away too soon, the angels sent snow, fer days an days…so there was nothin’ for it fer a time but ta read poetry an’ make music an talk about high ideals fer hours on end…”

She still avoided looking at him, but to his surprise, reached out and slipped her hand into his. “Have ye ever heard o’ sech a miracle, really? Imagine two people in all o’ Nevada Territory loving literature and music somehow findin’ each other at just the right moment…and then.

As the snow began ta melt away and they knew their time was at an end the princess looked at herself an found ta her amazement that she was no longer turnin’ ta stone. She was indeed again a real live girl.”

They sat quietly with hands clasped until Adam tried again. “Bridie, I – ”

“Is it the lesson yer wantin’? O’ course, there is one, as with all the best stories.” She looked directly at him now, her intent blue gaze more penetrating than ever. “The princess learned that when yer where ye need ta be, doin’ what ye should be doin’, things have a way o’ takin’ care o’ themselves. Ye may not always get what ye want just when ye want it, but ye’ll always get what ye need just when ye need it. Don’t ye think that’s an important lesson?”

Adam met her gaze with a glowing dark one. “Yes,” he said quietly. “It is.” He cleared his throat. “You’re staying, then.”

She nodded. “It’s where I belong. Fer now. And yerself?”

“Still not sure.”

She threw him off guard by suddenly pressing her face into his sound shoulder. “Ye’ll come back?”

He had to strain to make out the words. “Count on it.”

“Even if ye decide ta go east. Ye’ll come back one more time ta tell me?”

He reached up to touch her hair. “I promise.”

She sat up suddenly and made a dash at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Well. I expect we should see about gettin’ ye back on yer horse. Daylight won’t last ferever and ye’ve still a long ways ta go.”

He rose cautiously, surprised. “You’re not coming?”

She shook her head. “I should make rounds. See how me clientele weathered the storm. The Pass is only about a mile down thataway. Won’t take ye but a bit ta reach it, even at a walk.” She gave him a look. “An don’t ye even think about canterin’.”

“Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am.” He grinned despite the pain as he gingerly remounted. “Something must have changed. I’m surprised you’re letting me go off on my own.”

“From all you’ve told me, I don’t expect ye’ll be on yer own fer long.”

He looked puzzled, then shook his head. “Surely, not this soon…”

“We’ll see. I’d be bettin’ on it meself. If I were a bettin’ kinda girl.” She opened his saddlebag and slipped something inside.

He protested. “What now? You’ve already given me enough food for five days.”

“It’s that poem I promised ye. Read it when yer alone.” She stood on tip-toe on the log and kissed him on the cleft in his chin. “Ye take care o’ yerself. An’ I’ll expect ye come spring. No excuses.”

“No excuses.” He lifted the small hand still resting on the saddlebag and kissed her fingers gently. “Thank you, Bridie.”

She gave his hand a squeeze. “Get on with ye now. Daylight’s wastin’.”

He urged Sport into a walk, following the direction she had indicated, thinking of how funny and wise she was, how she had been just what he’d needed.

She was right. It was nothing short of a miracle, and feeling that feeling again that she had to be an other-worldly being in disguise, he turned carefully in the saddle to look back and see if she had indeed dissolved or disappeared.

She was standing on the log, grinning at him, knowing exactly what he was up to. “Now ye see, what did I tell ye?” she called “Still here! Nothin’ magical about me!”

He grinned back companionably and touched his hat to her, but as he rode away he thought, Not magical, hm? For once in your life, Bridie Halloran, you couldn’t be more wrong.

000

Adam had gone over half a mile before curiosity got the better of him and he reached in his saddlebag to pull out the slim volume. A faded satin ribbon marked the page and he brought Sport to a halt to open it. No reading and riding today – everything felt just a little too precarious.

The first thing he noticed were the words ‘THIS is the Adam Cartwright I know’ penned there in Bridie’s spidery handwriting. He smiled to himself. She must really want him to pay attention if she’d actually defaced a book for it. The next thing he noticed was the title, “Invictus”.

He knew the piece, had even committed it to memory once, but now he wanted to read it afresh, through her eyes. Sport stood patiently while he read:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as a pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced or cried aloud

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

He closed the book carefully and slid it tenderly back into his saddlebag, then sat gazing for a minute, unseeing, at the landscape before him.

Chapter 12

Bridie was certainly right about the distance to the Pass. It seemed like no time before, riding in a kind of trance, feeling the peace that had so eluded him when he left, he saw it before him.

He made his way down it, Sport picking carefully through the debris.

It required all his concentration for a time. So much so that he didn’t even notice the smoke from a campfire at the other end of the Pass until he was almost upon it. He was so surprised that he pulled Sport up to stare, taking in the familiar buckskin tethered nearby and the tall, silver haired figure looking toward him, waiting.

I keep forgetting you’re always right, Bridie, he mused as he urged Sport forward again, stopping right in front of the imposing figure. “Well, you’re a long way from home.”

Ben smiled. “So are you, stranger. Thought you’d be on the move today and that you might like some company on the ride home.” He eyed Adam’s sling and pallor, frowning a little. “What happened to you?”

Adam shrugged. “Little accident. Almost healed now. Still, I’d prefer not to dismount unless I have to, if you don’t mind.” He extended his hand down to him. “How ya been, Pa?”

Ben took his hand, returning the handshake warmly. “Just fine, son. All’s well at home, but we’ve missed you.” He studied his face more keenly. “What’s the damage, exactly?”

Adam sighed inwardly. He should have known there was no getting around this. “Four cracked ribs, broken collarbone. Couple of scratches. Hoss and Joe okay?”

“They’re fine – into some kind of mischief, I think, but I haven’t been able to figure out what, exactly. Let me break camp and we’ll go home and see for ourselves. Want some coffee while you wait?”

“Sure. Thanks.” Adam accepted the cup and watched his father pack up the sparse campsite. “I warn you I go at a kind of a pokey pace, so if you want to ride on ahead I won’t take it personally.”

“I’m just in the mood for a slow pace. Been a hectic couple of weeks.” He saw Adam’s face and was sorry the minute he said it. “Everything’s fine, Adam,” he repeated emphatically. “Cattle all moved in short order and well underway with other things. We found those missing cattle to the south, so I’m guessing you didn’t have much luck?”

Adam suddenly remembered his deal with the Bannock. He hoped his tally sheet had survived his dunking in the snow. “Um – sort of. I found eight head of ours.”

Ben paused in tying on his bedroll and looked at him. “Whereabouts did you leave them?”

Adam hesitated. “I traded them to the Bannock.”

“For-?”

“Four mares, come spring.”

“Seems like a pretty uneven deal – four mares for eight head of cattle.”

Okay, here it came. “It wasn’t just eight head, Pa, though they were pretty sad specimens. There were a handful of head from each of a bunch of our neighbors – I figured to pay them for their cattle and gave the Bannock the lot to help get them through the winter.” He held his breath.

Ben pulled himself into the saddle slowly. “I see. And if our neighbors don’t care to sell?”

“They’ve probably written those cattle off anyway. I figure they’ll be glad to get anything for ’em.”

“Any from the Circle J? Johnsons hate the Bannock. What you going to tell them?”

“Haven’t figured that out yet. I’ll pay them with my own money, Pa. I know it was my decision.”

Ben pursed his lips. “Bannock can be unreliable, especially at this time of year. Pretty big risk, walking into their camp alone.”

“I know, Pa.”

Ben clucked his tongue to move Buck forward. “You and your underdogs. Seems like a good deal for us, anyway. I don’t see any reason for you to use your own money, unless you want the horses for yourself.”

“I thought we could use some new blood in the breeding stock.”

“Good idea. But I’d prefer it if you didn’t take chances like that with your life in the future.”

“Yes, sir.” Adam was relieved to let it pass so easily.

“So, where’ve you been holed up all this time?”

“A little northwest of the Pass. A doctor found me and took me in.”

“Found you…?”

Adam cursed his carelessness. He hadn’t intended to mention that. “Had a little trouble with the storm.”

Ben smiled amiably. “Good thing we have the trip home, since I’m guessing it’ll take that long to pry the whole story out of you.”

Adam grinned. He’d really missed his father, he realized. As it happened, they continued for the next few hours in a companionable near silence. Adam was enjoying watching the landscape change and flatten. He knew it was a good time to tell about his grandfather while they were out here all alone, but his father was so clearly happy to see him and the quiet camaraderie was so pleasant that he was loathe to spoil it.

By the time the sky was purpling they were still a long way from home. Ben gave a look at the sky and then a shrewd look at his son. “Probably should make camp for the night. We can make it home by tomorrow.”

Adam nodded and began to carefully lower himself from the saddle. Before he had gotten very far, Ben was there, supporting and helping him. “I’m okay, Pa,” he said a little breathlessly.

Ben continued to support him. “Why don’t you have a seat while I set up camp.”

Adam frowned. “I’m not that bad off, Pa – why don’t you take care of the horses while I build a fire?”

Ben hesitated. “You look tired to death, son.”

Adam shrugged. “I’m okay. Besides, you’ll notice I left the strenuous work for you.” He began gathering kindling. Bending, he decided, wasn’t too bad if he took his time. By the time Ben had finished with the horses and was pulling out provisions, he already had a decent fire in place. He looked at his father and raised his brows triumphantly.

Ben gave him an affectionate, rueful smile. “Stubborn,” he said simply. “Just like your mother.”

“But not like you?” Adam asked innocently.

“Me?” Ben looked at him in mock astonishment. “Never.” He began to lay out provisions for cooking.

Adam suddenly remembered. “Bridie packed me enough food for an army, if you don’t feel like cooking. This won’t keep forever anyway.” He untied his saddlebags, lowering them rather hastily as he found the act of lifting their weight a little more than he was ready for.

Ben walked over and took them from him. “Who’s Bridie?”

“The doctor I told you about. That I stayed with.”

Ben filed that away for future conversation and began to set out the food. He was trying to decide how to begin something he wanted to talk about. He waited until they had finished and were relaxing before the fire in the gathering darkness before he said, “I had a couple of long talks with your mother while you were gone.”

“With my – ?” Adam smiled in the darkness. How could he have told Bridie his father wasn’t whimsical? “No kidding.”

“That’s right. She really gave me a piece of her mind, too. Turns out she’s pretty disappointed in me.”

Adam stopped smiling. “Pa. That can’t be true.”

“It is, Adam. Gave me some food for thought, let me tell you.”

Adam looked at him, but he couldn’t read his face clearly in the firelight. “What did you talk about?” But he already knew.

“Why, you, of course.” Ben hesitated. “Adam – you know how proud I am of you, don’t you?”

He supposed he did, he didn’t really think about it much, so he said, “Sure, Pa.”

“Your mother would have been so proud of you. Firstly, of course, that you’re a good, honest man. But after that…that you’re a man of letters. That you love and understand beautiful things, big ideas. That you fought so hard for your education. That would have made her so happy. It would have been just what she would have asked for.” He paused, ordering his thoughts. “When I met her, she opened a whole new world for me…of music and poetry and art and literature…I’m not quite sure why I haven’t let you continue to do that for me. Did it hurt too much? Is it something I shut away when Liz died? I don’t really know anymore.” He poked at the fire, letting it blaze up again.

Adam remained silent, unsure as to what to say.

“I spent some time in your room while you were away – ” Ben glanced at him quickly, wondering how he would take this trespass on his privacy, but he couldn’t make out any change in his expression, “and it occurred to me while I was there that that whole part of you – that part your mother would have cherished – was shut away in there somehow, like a secret. Like a prisoner.”

“Pa.” Adam’s voice was quiet. “You sent me to college – ”

“Fought you most of the way. Don’t think I ever even told you how impressed I was when you got that scholarship. If it weren’t for Marie – ”

“You needed help with the ranch and money was tight. I don’t think that’s very hard to understand.”

Ben nodded soberly. “Curse of being the oldest, I suppose. I wonder sometimes if it would have been different if you’d been last – ranch more stable, money more abundant, not needing help with the younger boys – ”

Okay, that was a little too much. “Pa – ”

“Adam.” Ben’s tone was kind, but firm. “I’ve been practicing this speech for about four days – I think you’d better just let me get through it.”

He couldn’t see his father’s face, but he knew that tone. After a brief struggle with himself he sighed. “Okay, Pa. Whatever you say.”

Ben looked into the fire. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I only accepted that part of you when it was useful to me – when it helped with the ranch or contributed to our business interests. Otherwise I sort of expected you to put it away and take it out only for occasional decoration, when it didn’t get in the way. Kind of like a Sunday shirt.”

“Pa, the ranch is our livelihood. If that came first – ”

Adam.”

Adam shifted uncomfortably, but fell silent.

“Your brothers’ talents – Hoss with his animals and Joe with his guns – fit in so well with ranch business – well, if I ever made it seem as though that was more important, more worthwhile, I apologize. Maybe I actually thought it was, at the time. Maybe I didn’t stop to think about it at all – either way, I’m sorry. Sorry if I’ve somehow driven part of you underground, even inadvertently. Marie always understood better than I did. If she’d lived…” he smiled a little. “…she told me once that if I found a rose growing in my vegetable garden, I should appreciate it for what it was, not try to turn it into a cabbage. I wish I’d paid more attention.”

They were silent for a long time, remembering, gazing into the fire. Finally Adam said lightly, “Actually, I think I’m a pretty good cabbage. Nice, versatile vegetable.”

Ben laughed at his droll tone.

“I mean it, Pa. It’s not a bad thing to have to stretch more than one side of you. Maybe I’d have neglected that part if circumstances hadn’t forced otherwise. I’d have missed a lot.”

Ben snorted. “Trust you to take my side, no matter what.”

Even in the dark he saw Adam’s teeth flash in a grin.

“Seriously, Pa, I know you’ve always done your best by me. I never asked for more than that.”

“I guess I’m saying I’d like to do a little better, going forward.”

“Whatever you say, Pa.”

They were silent again so long that Adam felt himself drifting off to sleep. He was startled back to half-wakefulness by his father’s voice.

“So. You really think I’ve done all right, huh?”

Adam yawned. “No doubt about it.”

“Then do me one favor.”

“Anything.”

“Tell your mother.”

Adam laughed out loud. “She knows. ‘Night, Pa.”

“‘Night, son. Sleep well.”

Chapter 13

He did sleep well – so well, in fact, that Ben had some trouble waking him the next morning. When he finally sat up and accepted the coffee offered he noticed his father studying him with some concern.

“Why don’t you stay here at camp and take it easy? It’s not that far now – I could go home and be back with a buckboard in no time.”

Adam scrubbed his face with his hand and swallowed a yawn. “No, I’m all right. Just give me a couple of minutes.”

“Adam – ”

“Pa, I haven’t been on horseback in two weeks and it was a long ride. Tired me out is all. I’m fine.” He saw his father’s indecision and pushed his advantage. “Look, like you said, it’s not that far now. I just want to go home.”

Ben relented. “All right, son. But you relax until we’re ready to leave while I break camp. No – ” he held up his hand to stem Adam’s protest. “No more arguments. That’s settled.”

Adam nodded resignedly and leaned back against a rock, watching his father fix breakfast. He was drowsy, but it felt good to be outside. He was almost asleep again when he caught himself drifting and sat up to wake himself – a little too quickly. His ribs ached in protest, but nothing like they had before. He glanced at his father to see if he’d noticed. He’d have to watch it – Ben was not above throwing a blanket over him while he slept and leaving to get that buckboard after all.

His thoughts drifted to their conversation of the night before. Did it make his decision easier, or harder? He wasn’t sure. He looked at his father, wondering if he should mention it now, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Coward, he chided himself.

“Something on your mind, son?”

Adam looked at him quickly. “Yeah, breakfast. That ever gonna be ready? I’m starved.”

Ben chuckled. “Just about. And maybe while we eat we could have that conversation on Emerson you were wanting.”

Adam stared. “I didn’t think you even heard me. How did you remember that?”

“Something Hoss said brought it to mind. Wish I’d paid more attention.” He handed Adam a plate and prepared his own.

Adam gave him a half smile. “To be honest, Pa, Bridie turned out to be a big fan of the Transcendentalists, so I’m about talked out on the subject. She even introduced me to some of the female Transcendentalists I was less familiar with – Margaret Fuller, Helen Martineau, Mary Moody Emerson…we were snowed in, so we did a lot of talking.”

Ben raised his eyebrows. “She…?”

Adam nodded. “She. Bridie Halloran. She’s a woman doctor and a little sensitive about it, so no jokes.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Was she there with her husband?”

Adam felt himself flush and concentrated on his plate to hide it. “Um…no.”

Ben had a lot of questions now, but knew there were some things he had no right to ask. His son was a grown man, after all. “I see.”

“No, you don’t, Pa. She doctored me and we talked and read a lot and ended friends. That’s all.”

“It isn’t any of my business, son.”

“No, it’s really not, but it’s the truth anyway. She’s a nice girl and I hope I’m a gentleman, so take that look off your face, please.”

Ben laughed. “I wasn’t aware. I’ll try. So that’s really all there was to it? What is she doing up there alone?”

“Well, not quite all – ” He let his father hang for just a minute and had the satisfaction of seeing Ben flush this time. “She played the harp, so we made music, too,” he finished sweetly, feeling himself avenged. “She’s treating the mountain folk and the Bannock, doing a study on herbal medicine. She calls it her Walden Pond.”

“Ah. A kindred spirit. I’d like to meet her sometime. Thank her.”

“I’d like you to meet. I invited her down. I’ll warn you, though, she doesn’t take kindly to thanks. Bristles right up.”

“Well, I’ll try to restrain myself, but if she gave you shelter from the storm and took care of your injuries I may feel obliged to say something. About ready to ride?”

Adam nodded and made his way slowly to his feet, wondering how long it would be before he felt like himself again. Ben doused the fire and rinsed and packed their dishes. Adam noticed for the first time that the horses were already saddled – Pa must have taken care of it while he was still asleep. He wondered if he could mount without help today – maybe if he used something as a block.

Ben caught his look. “Wait for me,” he said warningly, making his way to him. “I’ll give you a hand up.” Since he was a whole lot bigger and stronger than Bridie, he hefted him up easily, without a block. “All right?” He looked into his face, trying to gauge how he really felt.

Adam gave him a wry grin. “Just great. How old was I the last time you had to boost me into the saddle? Four?”

“That was the last time you needed my help reaching the stirrup. I remember a few times since you needed a hand up because you were hurt. You sure this is the best idea? Not too late to change your mind.”

“I’m sure.”

“Good. Then on the way home you can tell me about those female Transcendentalists.”

Adam tilted his head at him. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

Ben smiled as he climbed on Buck. “Let’s just say I’m in the mood to improve my mind.”

To his own surprise, Adam did talk about the Transcendentalists and Bridie along the trail, his father drawing him out with his questions and reading more into things than he knew he was revealing. Lunch was eaten from the saddle, Adam responding to Ben’s suggestion to rest with an embarrassed laugh. “To tell the truth, Pa, I’m not sure if I got down that I could get back up again.”

“Hmph. When we get home I suggest you wait a couple of days before getting back on a horse.”

“You know, Pa, I don’t think you’re going to have to talk me into that one.”

When they finally could see the ranch house in the distance Adam pulled up, surprised to find a lump in his throat. He automatically set himself to ask for a canter, but Ben’s hand came down unexpectedly on his arm.

“Do you think that’s wise?”

Adam looked at him, a little miffed. Make that two people who could read his mind.

“Probably not,” he admitted. “Force of habit. But we’re almost there and I know Sport would really like to – ” He saw Ben’s face and let out his breath in an exasperated sigh. “Fine, fine, we’ll creep the rest of the way, too.”

“The ranch isn’t going anywhere, son.”

When they finally approached the hitching rail outside the ranch house porch Adam felt like he was in a dream, everything looked so indelibly familiar and estranged at the same time.

Ben swung out of the saddle briskly. “Don’t dismount without me.”

Adam could barely contain his impatience as Ben wrapped Sport’s reins around the rail and made his way to his side to help him down.

As Adam’s feet hit the ground and he stood leaning against Sport, gazing mutely at the beloved façade, Ben added, a little shyly, “Think I could hug you without hurting anything too much?”

Adam turned to him and grinned. “Guess I’ve survived worse.”

Ben put his arms around him and pulled him close, careful not to jostle the ribs or arm, thinking about all the days he’d wondered if he’d ever be able to do this again. “Welcome home, son,” he said quietly.

“Good to be home, Pa.”

Ben released him and gave him a quick pat on his good shoulder. “Now, I want you to go straight into the house and relax. I’ll get somebody to take care of your gear and your horse. Those two brothers of yours should be around here somewhere; it’s almost supper time. And I’ll send someone to fetch Paul.”

Ben had started toward the barn and Adam gratefully toward the house before he realized the significance of that last remark.

“Pa, I don’t need a doctor!” he called after him. “I’ve been with a doctor all this time. In fact, I’ve pretty much been doctored within an inch of my life!”

Ben turned and looked at him – the look his sons knew brooked no argument.

Adam blew out his breath. “All right. I can see I’m surrounded by tyrants. But you’re just wasting his time.” Well, he’d wanted to ask Paul to recommend some current medical texts for Bridie anyway – maybe talk to him about her research. It would just be sooner rather than later, that’s all.

He made his way through the heavy front door, enjoying how reminiscent it was of a thousand other returns from the road, and removed his hat in the entryway. Hop Sing must be fixing dinner, judging by the tantalizing smells coming from the kitchen. He fumbled with his coat buttons for a few minutes before admitting to himself that he was probably going to need some help there. Well, he was chilly anyway. Maybe he’d just spend a little quiet time in his room before dinner. He was walking over to admire the fire in the massive fireplace, wondering idly where Hoss and Joe could be, when he found his legs suddenly unsteady and sat down with more haste than grace in his father’s leather chair. Surprised, he let his head rest in his hand and took deep breaths until the room stopped shifting under him. He leaned back carefully and closed his eyes. Glad I didn’t try that canter after all…

He jumped at the sound of feet clattering down the stairs and realized he’d been just about asleep, smiled to himself. Hoss and Joe entered a room with all the subtlety of a cattle stampede.

“Hey, Adam! You’re home!” Hoss moved energetically toward him, then hesitated at the sight of the sling. “What in tarnation happened to you?”

“Welcome home, Adam!” Joe chimed in. “Pa meet up with you? Wow, you look awful!”

“Thanks, Joe,” said Adam dryly. “Yeah, Pa met me at the end of the Pass. I had a little disagreement with a cougar, but that was two weeks ago. It’s just about better now. How ’bout you fellas? What’s new with you?”

Hoss and Joe looked at each other and grinned. “We have a surprise for you.”

“A surprise?” Adam remembered what his father had said about mischief and eyed them a little apprehensively. “What kind of a surprise?”

Hoss elbowed Joe. “Go on. Tell ‘im, Joe.”

Joe pushed him playfully. “You tell ‘im. It was your idea.”

“Well – ” Hoss hesitated. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he felt a little bashful about it.

“Well, somebody tell me.” Adam devoutly hoped he was up to this.

Hoss cleared his throat. “Well, it’s like this, Adam…say…you comfortable there?”

“Very.”

“You sure?”

“Quite sure.”

“You don’t need a cushion or nothin’?”

Adam took a deep breath. “Hoss, if you’re trying to build suspense – ”

“Nope. Sorry, Adam. It’s just a little tough to explain.” He scrunched his face into a thoughtful frown. “You remember what you were sayin’ about that there Milton feller just afore you left?”

“Milton?” That was about the last thing he’d been expecting. “Let’s see…some, I guess. What exactly…?”

“About his light bein’ spent an’ all. I mean his time. You explained it real good. Anyway, it just sorta stuck in my head – ”

“It did?” Adam couldn’t have been more surprised if Sport had told him he’d been thinking about Milton.

“Sure did. An’ I puzzled on it some, an’ I sorta thought that mebbe, well, you were talkin’ about yer light, Adam, an’ how that was spent. I mean yer time.”

Adam stared at his brother with new eyes. After a minute he said slowly, “I guess I was.”

Hoss nodded eagerly, warming to his topic now. “So anyhow, I got this here idee to read that there Emerson book you seemed so keen on an’ then we could talk about it an’ you could feel like maybe that part of your time was well spent, if’n you foller me.”

Adam nodded, transfixed. He cleared his throat carefully. “And – did you?”

“Well, I’ll tell ya, Adam,” Hoss made himself comfortable in the chair opposite. “I sure did try. But it was just a whole lotta mumbo-jumbo to me. So then Joe, here, hit on an idee – ”

Adam turned his bemused gaze to his youngest brother. “He did.”

Joe grinned at his expression. This was even better than he’d hoped. “Well, I figured it didn’t matter which book you talked about, we just needed to find one you both liked, so we went through all your books – ”

“We were real careful, Adam,” Hoss interjected hastily. “We didn’t hurt nothin’…”

“No, no, of course not – ” Adam passed a hand over his face and looked from one to the other. “Please. Go on.”

“And you sure gotta whole lotta books,” Joe put in. “Took about forever.”

“I’m sure. And what – ? Did you…”

Hoss grinned his full gap-toothed smile. “Well, shoot, Adam, I was just about ready ta give up when danged if I didn’t hit on somethin’ good. I found this here poem that sounded just as if it came out of my own head.”

Adam leaned forward. “Which poem?” he asked softly.

“Well, see, I done memorized it.”

“You…?” Adam remembered years of struggling with Hoss to help him memorize his lessons and suddenly had to swallow hard.

“Let’s see…” Hoss looked up at the ceiling as though the text was written there, cleared his throat resoundingly:

Happy the man, whose wish and care

a few paternal acres bound,

content to breathe his native air

In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,

Whose flocks supply him with attire;

Whose trees in summer yield him shade

In winter, fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find

Hours, days, and years slide soft away

In health of body, peace of mind:

Quiet by day

Sound sleep by night; study and ease

Together mixed, sweet recreation,

And innocence, which most does please

With meditation

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;

Thus unlamented let me die,

Steal from the world, and not a stone

Tell where I lie.”

“Don’t ya think that sounds like Hoss, Adam?” Joe jumped in, unable to stand the silence that followed. “Especially the part about the sound sleeping.” He sat on the arm of Hoss’s chair and elbowed him in the ribs.

Adam nodded, looking at his large brother as though seeing him for the first time.

Hoss leaned his elbows on his knees and faced his older brother intently. “Adam, how did this feller I ain’t never met before – what’s he called again – ”

“Alexander Pope,” Adam managed faintly.

Hoss snapped his fingers. “That’s it! How did he know just how I feel?”

Adam sat up straight. “But that’s what poetry is, Hoss – it’s not a lot of fancy words. It’s when someone takes an idea or a feeling so personal and so visceral – ” he saw their faces and tried again, “Um…gut level – ” They nodded and he continued, “that they have to express it, and puts it into words. And really great poetry – poetry that lasts and becomes classic – is that way because hundreds and thousands of people through generations read it and say just what you said – ‘that’s how I feel’. Because it’s universal. Because what started as just the poet’s voice expresses all our voices, in a way that we couldn’t do for our selves.”

Hoss nodded solemnly. “Well, I’ll be danged.”

Joe swung his leg impatiently from his perch on the chair arm. “So, ya wanna hear mine now?”

“You too?”

Joe nodded vigorously. “You didn’t think I was gonna let Hoss take all the glory, did ya? I had me a time findin’ something, too, but then I found some stuff by that guy you used to read to me when I was a kid – that Walter Scott guy – and I remembered I liked that Ivanhoe, and that other one, about the Scottish guy…”

Lochinvar.”

“That’s it. And I figured he might have somethin’ for me. And darned if he didn’t. It was about just how I feel when I come back to the Ponderosa after a long trip.”

Adam was pretty sure he knew what was coming – how many times had he recited it to himself as he rode onto the Ponderosa after a long absence? – but he wouldn’t have stolen Joe’s thunder for the world, so he waited.

Joe narrowed his eyes and clasped his hands behind his back, just as he used to when he was practicing his lessons, and began:

“Breathes there a man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land?

Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,

As home his footsteps he hath turned

From wandering on a foreign strand?

If such there breathe, go, mark him well;…”

Adam listened to the familiar words, but he was studying his brothers’ faces. He had never doubted that they loved him. He knew without question that neither would hesitate to take a bullet for him, take a punch for him, face a stampede for him. But this was something different.

The thought of them using their scant free time to hunt through books that held little interest for them just because they thought it would give him pleasure touched him so much that for the moment he didn’t trust himself to speak. He smiled a little to himself. Bridie would love this story. And she was right, as usual. When you were where you should be, doing what you should be doing, things had a way of taking care of themselves. You got what you needed just when you needed it.

He thought about bringing his grandfather west for a while. It would give him a chance to renew his relationship with Ben – he had been not only his son-in-law, after all, but his First Mate. He knew his father would be pleased with the idea. And neither Hoss or Joe had ever had a grandparent – it would be nice for them, too. For all of them. If he traveled out to meet him and bring him back himself, it would give them some time alone together. And who knew, the fresh air and quiet might even be good for his health. He smiled again. Well, relative quiet, considering Hoss’s and Joe’s presence. There was no reason for him to grow old alone. He had family – more even than he realized.

Joe stumbled a little over the words and Adam returned his full attention to him.

“The wretch, concerted all in self, um – Living, shall forfeit fair renown, And doubly dying, shall go down, Back – ” he shook his head, frowning in concentration “No. Back? No, to -”

“To the vile dust…” Adam prompted gently.

Joe’s face lit up. “Right! To the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung!” He finished with a flourish and a bow.

Adam applauded warmly, if awkwardly.

He’d write his grandfather tomorrow – after he talked to Pa. As for himself, well, he knew where he belonged – for now anyway.

After all, this was his own.

His native land.

Fin, June 1999

 

Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright

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Author: LissaB

3 thoughts on “Native Land (by LissaB)

  1. Brilliant story, nice that Adam was rescued by who also loves the art of poetry. How nice that Hoss and Joe went to the trouble to learn a poem to surprise him. I know this is one story I will go back and read again.

  2. This is the third or fourth time I have read this, and it was just as good this time through. Such a wonderful story — I ❤️ it so ridiculously much …

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