Summary: Two young visitors bring a surprise for the Cartwrights.
Rated: K+ (14,725 words)
Pains of Love Series:
Legacy Of Love
In the bedroom of the small ranch house near Sacramento, Carrie Hawes watched as her husband bent to pick up his new baby daughter. Once again the feelings of unease, which had haunted her these past months, swept over Carrie as she saw the tender pride with which Robert surveyed the tiny child. It was just less than nine months since the Hawes had left Virginia City, and Adam. Not once in those months had Robert questioned his wife on just how far her relationship with the eldest Cartwright son had gone. He may have thought it beyond Carrie to have slept with Adam outside the sanctity of marriage, or perhaps he just didn’t want to know. When Robert’s comforting of her the night before they left had turned more intimate Carrie had welcomed it, but now she would always wonder. Was the child that her husband held so lovingly really his, or was it Adam’s?
SEVEN YEARS LATER – PONDEROSA RANCH, NEVADA
Busy cleaning out the barn, Joe didn’t even notice the horse that rode into the yard of the Ponderosa. It wasn’t until he finished up and started back for the house that he was aware of the arrival of the two young visitors.
“You’re Joe Cartwright, aren’t you mister?” The abrupt question caught Joe by surprise and he ran a puzzled eye over the boy who had asked it. He was no more than fourteen or fifteen, a good-looking youngster with black curly hair and brown eyes, standing beside a tall chestnut horse. Perched up in the saddle sat a little girl, dressed more like a boy in dungarees and a chequered shirt but with ringlets of long dark hair escaping from a faded blue bonnet which shaded her face.
“That’s me.” Joe acknowledged with a smile. “What can I do for you?”
“Is your brother, Adam, at home?” The boy glanced around the yard as though expecting to see the man he sought emerge from somewhere. “I knocked on the door but nobody answered.”
“Adam’s not here.” Joe told him, feeling once again the slight pang of loss that touched him whenever he thought of his eldest brother. “He doesn’t live here at the moment.”
“Then where is he?” The boy demanded and Joe could hear anger in the youthful voice. “‘Cause I need to see him, wherever he is.”
“That might be a little difficult.” Joe said, wondering what this was all about. “Adam’s back east. New York last we heard.”
“Oh.” The boy looked downcast at the information, his shoulders slumping.
“Is it something I could help you with?” Joe suggested, looking at the youth in concern. “Or perhaps my father…or my brother, Hoss?”
A hint of a smile touched the boy’s lips at the mention of the name. “Hoss? Oh, I remember him well.”
“You remember…” Joe scrutinised the youth again, trying to recall if he’d met him before. “Do I know you from somewhere, kid?”
Dark eyes flashed angrily at him and the boy reached up to the little girl, helping her to dismount and setting her down beside him. “My name’s Paul. Paul Hawes.”
“Paul Hawes!” Joe’s eyes widened in surprise. He’d last seen Paul some seven or eight years previously as a small child. “Carrie Hawes son?”
“The very same.” Paul agreed with a dip of his head at Joe’s recognition of his name. “And this…” He thrust the little girl forward. “Is my sister Amanda. Your brother Adam’s daughter!”
“A…Adam’s daughter!” Joe managed to stammer eventually, hoping that he didn’t look as stunned as he felt. “What makes you think that she’s Adam’s daughter?”
“This!” The boy almost yelled the word, reaching a hand inside his jacket and withdrawing an envelope which he brandished in Joe’s direction. “My Pa said so in this letter.”
Looking down at the little girl Joe could see that she bore a slight resemblance to his brother, with the same hazel brown eyes and dark hair, but remembering how much Robert Hawes looked like Ben that could mean nothing. Noticing that the child looked to be on the verge of tears, no doubt distressed by the conversation, Joe held out his hand to her. “You come along with me, honey,” he said reassuringly, and as Amanda put her small hand trustingly in his, looked over at Paul. “I think we should discuss this inside,” he told him, starting towards the house. “Your sister is getting a little upset.”
As Paul followed them into the ranch house, Joe noticed the appraising glance the boy gave the great room and the look of recognition that crossed the youthful features.
“Now, little lady.” Turning his attention to Amanda, Joe pulled out a chair for the child. “What would you say to some milk and cookies while I talk to your brother?”
The little girl nodded vigorously in agreement, settling herself down at the table while Joe fetched food and drink from the kitchen.
“Right,” he said to Paul as he put a cup and plate before Amanda and the child reached for a cookie. “Let’s go and sit down and you can tell me what this is all about. For a start,” he continued, as he led the way across to the couch and motioned for Paul to sit. “Do your parents know you’re here?”
“My parents are dead.”
“Dead!” Joe stared at the boy in shock, memories of Carrie and Robert Hawes running through his mind. “Both of them? What happened?”
“They were travelling to San Francisco.” Paul said softly. “There was a stagecoach accident.”
“I’m so sorry.” Joe’s sympathy was heartfelt, to lose both parents at such a young age was a terrible tragedy for Amanda and Paul. Joe had never quite forgiven Carrie for the pain she had caused his eldest brother, but he was truly distressed to hear of the woman’s death. “What about your relatives?” he asked quietly. “I know your mother had family.”
“We were supposed to be going to live with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Sarah. But when I was packing up my father’s things I found this.” Paul angrily waved the envelope he’d shown Joe in the yard, before pulling a sheet of paper from it.
“What does it say?”
“Just what I told you,” the boy thrust the paper at Joe, “That your brother is Amanda’s father. That my mother betrayed my Pa.”
Wordlessly Joe unfolded the sheet and smoothed it out. The writing on it was in a bold hand and was dated some five years previously. The address at the top was that of the Hawes ranch outside Sacramento.
“Mr. Cartwright…” Joe read and looked up at Paul enquiringly.
“I guess Pa was going to send it to your brother but never did,” the boy said, watching Joe carefully as he returned to the letter.
“Mr. Cartwright, I have no doubt that you remember me and, of course, my wife, Caroline. You may not know that two years ago Caroline was delivered of a child, a little girl, almost nine months after we left Virginia City. I have never let Caroline know but I believe the child to be yours, not mine. I even asked my wife to name the baby Amanda, perhaps hoping that she would realise my fears and repudiate them. As Amanda grows I feel more than ever convinced that she is not my daughter. I do, however, care for her very…”
“That’s all?” Joe turned the paper over, looking in vain for a continuation.
“Looks like he changed his mind.” Paul shrugged, but hurt was evident in his expression. “I found it tucked inside an old book. Couldn’t believe it at first.”
“Do you remember Adam? And what happened here that year?”
“Some,” Paul took the letter from Joe and carefully returned it to the envelope before stowing it in his pocket. “I know Ma and Pa were living apart back then. I remember Hoss the most, he gave me Lemon out there,” he nodded his head toward the door, “I wrote him once or twice.”
“That’s Lemon Drop?” Joe got up to look out the window at the big chestnut horse standing by the hitching post. “Hoss was right, he did grow into a mighty fine animal.”
“He did,” for the first time Paul grinned, his whole face lighting. “I don’t call him Lemon Drop anymore though, just Lemon.”
Joe nodded, turning back to face the boy. “I don’t really know what to say about all this,” he confessed. “I think that the best thing would be for you and Amanda to wait until my father gets home, see what he says.”
“But you think I’m right? Amanda is Adam’s?”
“I don’t know. I agree that your father thought so, and I do know that Adam loved your mother very much.” He stood lost in thought for a moment, watching Amanda who had now finished her milk and was leaning back on the chair, eyes drooping sleepily. “How about I sort you out somewhere for your sister to get some sleep and we’ll wait for my Pa to get here?”
Hands thrust deep in his pockets, Ben rocked gently back and forth on the balls of his feet as, brow furrowed, he stared unseeingly into the fire that burnt brightly on the Ponderosa’s stone hearth. Joe’s story of young Paul’s arrival and the boy’s assertion that Amanda was Adam’s child had come as a great shock to him.
“So, what do you think?” Joe asked hesitantly from behind, as his father remained silent. “Should we tell Adam?”
“Tell Adam?” Ben repeated slowly, turning round to survey his youngest son. “Tell him what exactly, Joseph?”
“Well, that he’s…er…he’s got, I mean he might have….” Joe faltered to a halt seeing his father’s brows draw together in a scowl.
“There’s no proof that any of this is true!” Joe took an involuntary step backwards at the fury in his father’s voice. “It’s almost certainly some jealous imagining of Robert Hawes. Robert’s assumption, an assumption that he wasn’t even sure enough of to face Adam with, is hardly enough for me to tell your brother something that will change his whole life.”
“Pa, you know these things happen. Sometimes people just get carried away, and you know how in love they were. Let’s face it, she could be Adam’s, and if she is he’d want to know, wouldn’t he?”
“I’d like to think that your brother would have had more sense than to get the woman pregnant,” Ben said harshly, stalking away from Joe and heading for his desk, his thoughts in turmoil. Of course Adam would want to know he had a daughter and, despite his words to Joe, Ben couldn’t help a small part of him hoping that Amanda was Adam’s. A longed for grandchild and, perhaps, a reason for his oldest son to return home. But there were other people to be considered in this, and the child was legally Robert’s. “At least we should wait until we contact Carrie’s brother and see what he has to say.”
“You think Carrie might have confided in him? Not exactly the sort of thing a woman would tell a man is it, even her own brother?”
Reaching for the framed picture of his eldest son that had stood on his desk ever since Adam had left, some twelve months previously, Ben studied it for a moment, then sighed heavily. “It’s possible she did, Joe, or she might have said something to her sister-in-law. Until we speak to them I don’t think we should tell Adam.”
“Then what do you want to do?”
Putting the picture gently back in place, Ben pulled open the desk drawer and began to sort through some papers. “The first thing to do is get in touch with Jack,” he said firmly, deciding on a course of action. “He and his wife must be worried sick about those children.”
“You’ve got Jack Dawson’s address?” Joe asked in surprise as his father pulled forth a slip of paper and handed it over. “Why?”
“He gave it to me when he was here, in case I ever needed to contact him. In case things didn’t work out between Adam and Carrie.” Ben explained stiffly.
“I see, Joe looked down at the scrawled address and smiled wryly. “Remember how happy Adam was before Robert showed up? Happiest I’d ever seen him except that he was worried what you thou…” He clamped his mouth shut on the last word and glanced guiltily at his father.
“Worried about what I thought,” Ben finished for him. “Well, that’s all in the past now, there are more urgent matters to deal with.”
Joe stowed the address away in his pocket. “I’ll ride into town and get a telegram sent. Jack’s sure going to be surprised to hear from us.”
“Relieved to know the children are safe I should imagine,” Ben pushed the drawer shut and looked up as Hoss came into the house from seeing to the horses. “Might be better if Hoss goes to town,” he suggested as his middle son joined them. “And you stay here, Joe, so that when the little girl wakes she sees at least one familiar face.”
Hoss cast a glance at the stairs, a disappointed frown creasing his face. “The kids are still asleep? Thought they mighta woken up by now.”
“They were real tired.” Joe had shown Paul and Amanda up to the guest room and when Paul hadn’t come downstairs a half hour later he had investigated to find brother and sister both fast asleep. Amanda snuggled down under the covers, Paul softly snoring in the chair beside her. “Guess the long journey wore them out, they’ve been sleeping nigh on two hours.”
“Poor kids,” Hoss said sympathetically. “‘specially that little girl. Lost both her parents and now her brother tells her that her Daddy ain’t who she thought he was,” he shook his head sadly. “Little mite must be real confused.”
“Hurt and upset from what I could see,” Joe told him. “Probably missing her Ma a whole lot.”
“Then let’s get moving and get her aunt and uncle informed,” Ben said abruptly. “Start sorting this mess out.”
Handing over Jack’s address, Joe listened as his father instructed Hoss in how to word the telegram to Jack and Sarah Dawson. Watching his brother don hat and gunbelt and depart for Virginia City, Joe came to a decision. Whatever his father thought, Joe believed that Adam had a right to know what was happening. He didn’t like going against Ben’s wishes but in this case he knew he was going to. Tonight he would compose a letter to his eldest brother.
Waking from a deep, dreamless sleep Amanda wondered where she was for a moment, the bed soft and comfortable beneath her unlike the past few nights on the trail, where only a thin bedroll had cushioned her from the hard, dusty, ground. Turning her head her gaze fell on her brother, slumbering in the chair, mouth slightly open and face flushed from sleep. Memory flooded back at the sight, and she squeezed her eyes shut tightly, trying in vain to hold back the tears as she remembered why they were here. The ache in her stomach, ever present since the day she and Paul had been told their parents were dead, returned with full force and she rolled over to bury her face in the feather pillow beneath her head, and wept bitterly.
After a while the tears slowed, and the little girl raised her head to take a curious look around the bedroom. Someone had closed the drapes against the afternoon sun and the room was dim, but there was enough light to see the furnishings and the pictures on the wall. Thumb straying to her mouth, the child found her attention drawn to a watercolour of a ship at sea. The vivid hues of the painted ocean reminded her of times spent at her aunt and uncle’s house in San Francisco, and how she had walked on the beach with her parents. She could almost hear the cry of the gulls as they swooped overhead, and picture her mother, blonde hair dancing in the wind and laughter in her eyes, as they watched the waves crash on the shore.
With a deep sigh Amanda returned to the present and, pushing the bedcovers aside, slid down onto the polished wooden floor. A faint aroma of roasting meat was beginning to drift into the room and the child found her stomach rumbling at the smell. The man that she’d met earlier had given her some cookies to eat but she was still hungry and she tiptoed across to the door, hoping that he might offer her some of the meal that was cooking.
Outside the bedroom the corridor was empty and, quietly closing the door behind her, Amanda made her way to the top of the stairs. Below, in the big room, she could hear the rumble of male voices and she peeped shyly round the corner to see who was there. She spotted Joe immediately; he was talking to another man who had his back towards her, a silver haired man wearing a tan vest. As she watched, the man turned and Amanda gasped. The hair, the dark brows and the deep brown eyes were so like that of her beloved Papa that for a moment she thought it was him and almost called out his name. But this man was older than Papa, she realised, and thinner.
Her gasp had drawn their attention, and both men looked up at her. The silver haired man came to the foot of the stairs and smiled reassuringly. Amanda couldn’t help smiling back, the man looked so kind, and, when he held out his hand to her, the child found herself descending the stairs willingly, shyness forgotten.
Ben watched the girl as she came downstairs, searching the solemn little face for any resemblance to Adam. Like Joe, he could see some similarities but not enough to conclude that the child was Adam’s and not Robert’s.
“You must be Amanda,” he said as the little girl reached him. “My name’s Ben Cartwright and I used to know your mother and father.”
Amanda looked up at him, hazel eyes studying his face. “You look a lot like my Papa,” the small voice was hardly more than a whisper and Ben bent closer to hear. “I wish he was here with me,” she bit her lip, looking away, and Ben felt his heart contract with sympathy as he saw the tears well in her eyes and tremble on her dark lashes.
“I’m sure you do, sweetheart,” putting a hand on Amanda’s shoulder, Ben guided the child over to the couch. “I know you must miss him very much.”
“Hey!” Paul’s annoyed shout from the top of the stairs made them all start. “What are you doing with my sister!”
“She’s just introducing herself,” Ben said soothingly as the boy clattered down the stairs. “It’s nice to see you again, Paul, though I’m sorry it’s under such tragic circumstances.”
Wresting his gaze from Amanda Paul looked up, his eyes widening in surprise as he saw Ben’s face. “I’d forgotten!” he exclaimed softly. “Forgotten just how much you look like Pa.”
“Yes.” Ben agreed. “There was a strong resemblance,” he looked down at the boy who had plumped himself down on the couch beside his sister. “I understand you have something important to discuss with me.”
“I sure do. I want to know what you’re gonna do about Amanda.”
Dark eyes narrowing at the boy’s tone of voice, Ben held out a hand to the little girl and drew her to her feet. “What I don’t intend to do,” he said evenly, “Is to discuss any of this while Amanda is here. Would you take her into the kitchen and get her something to eat, please, Joe?”
With a nod, Joe took the child’s hand and led her away, casting a quick glance back at his father and Paul as he reached the kitchen doorway, curious to know what Ben was going to say to the boy.
“What exactly do you want?” Ben asked as Joe and Amanda left the room. “What’s your purpose in coming here, Paul?”
“Amanda’s your granddaughter!” Paul said, springing to his feet angrily. “She deserves a share of all this,” he waved a hand to indicate the house and the ranch. “And all that the Cartwright name stands for around here.”
“So you’re after money,” Ben accused quietly, staring down into the boy’s dark brown eyes. “Didn’t your father provide for you both?”
“I don’t want your money!” the boy denied hotly. “It’s for Amanda, what she’s due.” Turning on his heel, he headed for the stairs, pausing on the first step. “My Pa did all right,” he informed Ben tightly. “I got money coming to me. I won’t be rich like you, but I won’t be poor either.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben apologised softly. “This has come as a bit of a shock to me,” he held out a hand to Paul as the boy slowly turned to face him. “Come on, sit back down and we’ll talk about this sensibly.”
With a reluctant nod, Paul returned to the couch. “Here’s what I reckon,” he said slowly, looking up at Ben, “Amanda is a Cartwright and she has a father. I think she should go and live with him, she’s young and she needs a Pa. Me, I can manage okay. With my uncle’s help I intend to run my father’s ranch.”
“I see,” Ben studied the boy with a new sense of respect. “That’s a fine ambition, Paul, and I wish you luck with it. But as for Amanda, don’t you think she needs her brother, her aunt and uncle, people she knows and loves?”
“She’ll come to love her father. I know she will.”
“We don’t even know that he is her father, do we? We just know that your Pa thought he was. I’ve sent for your aunt and uncle and hopefully, when they arrive, we can begin to sort everything out.”
“It’s nothing to do with them. Amanda is my responsibility.”
“Of course it’s to do with them. They must be out of their minds with worry. Don’t you think your Uncle Jack has a right to be involved with his own sister’s children?”
“I suppose so,” Paul conceded reluctantly, though his tone still simmered with anger. “But I hope you’ve sent for Adam as well.”
“Not at this stage. I want to speak to Jack and Sarah first, see if it’s even necessary to involve Adam.”
“But he should know. He’s her father!”
“I’ll send for him when I see fit,” Ben said, and recognising the finality of the words, Paul subsided. “Until your aunt and uncle arrive, you will be guests at the Ponderosa. I’ll try and get you and Amanda enrolled at the Virginia City school. You need to continue your education and Amanda could do with the company of other children.”
“I’m not going to school,” Paul said, still glowering at Ben. “I’m old enough to work for my bed and board, and I don’t want your charity.”
“Very well, if that’s how you want it,” Ben agreed and fixed the boy with a stern look. “But I want nobody outside these four walls to know anything of this.” He warned. “Understand, Paul? Nobody is to know.”
“All right by me,” Paul told him with a shrug. “They’ll all know soon enough. When you’re finally forced to admit that your son has a daughter.”
Mouth dry with apprehension, Sarah Dawson stared at the telegram in her husband’s hand. “Well?” she asked impatiently. “Is it about the children? Are they all right?”
“They’re fine,” Jack reassured her automatically, his gaze riveted on the piece of paper he held. “Just fine.”
“Praise be!” Sarah exclaimed, letting out a sigh of relief and sitting down abruptly on the fine horsehair couch that graced her elegant living room. “I’ve been so worried.” She looked up at Jack who was still studying the telegram, a baffled frown creasing his brow. “Where are they?”
Glancing over at his wife, Jack shook his head in consternation. “Well, I can’t think why,” he said slowly. “But it appears they’re at the Cartwright place.”
“The Cartwright’s? Adam Cartwright?” Sarah’s hand flew to her mouth, her face draining of colour.
Jack held the paper out to her, “It’s from Ben Cartwright. Just says the children are safe and well.”
“He wants us to go and collect them,” Sarah scanned the telegram quickly. “Even offers to pay the fare.”
“But I don’t understand it. Why would they go there? What are the Cartwrights to Paul and Amanda?”
“I think I know,” Sarah bit her lip and looked away from her husband’s quizzical gaze. She knew exactly why Paul had taken Amanda to Nevada. The reason was a secret she had kept from Jack since before Amanda’s birth, a secret that she knew would shock and upset him. But if Carrie’s children were at the Ponderosa then it could remain a secret no longer. “I imagine Paul must have found out something.” She whispered softly. “Something about Amanda.”
Jack looked none the wiser at her word, “What about Amanda?”
Sarah took a deep breath, and, nervously twisting her wedding ring round and round on her finger as she spoke, she finally told her husband the secret his sister had entrusted to her over seven years before.
“So she wasn’t sure who the father was?” Jack asked stiffly as his wife finally finished speaking. “She didn’t know whether it was her husband or her lover?”
“Jack!” Sarah remonstrated miserably. “You know it wasn’t like that. Carrie loved Adam.”
“She was a married woman. And just look where it’s all led. How did Paul get to know, anyway?”
Sarah shook her head numbly at the question. She had no idea how Paul had found out about his mother and Adam Cartwright.
“You’d better start packing,” Jack told her quietly, after a few moments of thought. “Whoever’s daughter she may be, Amanda is still our niece.”
Getting to her feet, Sarah hastened to do as she was bid, eager to get to Nevada where she knew that both her niece and nephew were in need of her care.
Ben looked up with a smile as he heard the buggy rattle into the yard. These last few days he had grown to look forward to Amanda returning home from school and her happy chatter as she told him of her day. It was something he would miss when Jack and Sarah arrived to take her home with them.
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” the little girl called as Hoss brought the buggy to a halt. “Guess what I did today?”
“She done told me all about it on the way home,” Hoss said with a laugh as he lifted the child down and set her on her feet. “Your turn now, Pa.”
“So what did you do, Amanda?” Ben asked, as the little girl scampered over to join him on the porch. But he didn’t hear much of the child’s reply, listening with only half an ear to her long and complicated account of her day. In the short time that the Hawes children had been at the Ponderosa Amanda had settled in well. Ben, Hoss and Joe were all charmed by the little girl and she seemed to have taken to them, her initial shyness fading as the days went by.
The same couldn’t be said for Paul, and it was that which was worrying Ben at the moment. He had found the youth jobs to do around the ranch, as he was so determined to pay his own way, and Paul did them conscientiously and well. Once work was over, however, he made no attempt to settle into life at the Ponderosa. He ate his meals in virtual silence and spent most evenings ensconced in his room. The only time he seemed to come alive was when he was with Amanda. Watching him read to his little sister, or help her with her writing; Ben could clearly see just how much Paul loved the child. He wondered how, if Paul’s accusation turned out to be true, they could possibly separate brother and sister.
“Mr. Cartwright,” Amanda’s insistent voice and her small fingers plucking at his sleeve brought Ben’s attention back to the little girl, noticing for the first time the paper she held in her hand.
“What’s this sweetheart?” he asked, reaching to take the paper from her. “A note from your teacher?”
The child giggled, a sound that for one heart stopping second reminded Ben of Adam as a young boy. “No, it’s a telegram. Hoss telled me to give it to you.”
Opening the telegram, Ben scanned it quickly. “It’s from your Uncle Jack,” he told Amanda as he read. “He and your Aunt Sarah will be arriving next week.”
The little girl clapped her hands together, her small face lighting with pleasure. “Oh, good,” she exclaimed happily. “Are they coming to take me home with them?” her expression sobered suddenly and she looked up at Ben with anxiety in her eyes. “They will still want me, won’t they? Paul says I have to live here now but I’d rather go with Aunt Sarah.”
“Of course they’ll want you. And you’re not to worry about what Paul says. It will all be sorted out.”
Smiling at his reassuring words, Amanda scurried off into the house where she knew Hop Sing would have laid out milk and cookies for her. Ben watched her go with concern. If Adam did have a claim to the child what would happen to her? He wouldn’t want to keep her here against her will, but if she was truly a Cartwright then her place was with Adam. Whatever happened, it would be difficult to avoid hurting the little girl in some way and his heart ached at the very thought of it.
Adam Cartwright looked at the familiar slanted writing on the envelope he’d just picked up, and smiled. It was about time he had a letter from Joe. Unlike his father and Hoss, who wrote faithfully every other week, Joe’s missives were irregular, but Adam considered them well worth waiting for. The letters held so much of his youngest brother’s personality that reading them was almost like hearing Joe talk. Sprinkled throughout with the younger man’s quirky sense of humour they were obviously hastily written, though many pages long, and containing all the day to day goings on of the Ponderosa and Virginia City that Adam so missed and longed to hear about.
Slitting open the envelope and drawing forth a single sheet of paper, Adam frowned in disappointment. He’d been hoping for a longer letter. His frown turned to surprise as he unfolded the paper. Instead of Joe’s usual scrawl he found a page of near perfect writing, that obviously his brother had taken time and trouble over. Puzzled now, he began to read.
I don’t know how to tell you this and I know it’s going to be a shock, so I guess the best thing is just to come right out and say it.’
Heart leaping to his throat, Adam scanned the next line quickly. Surely not Pa, he thought, or Hoss. The name when it came was almost a relief, though that initial reaction was immediately replaced by a sense of sorrow. Laying the letter aside for a moment, Adam stood and walked over to the window. Leaning his head against the cool glass he gazed down at the busy street below but saw instead the blue of the lake on a warm spring day, and Carrie, her eyes alight with love as she kissed him beneath the pines of the Ponderosa. It had been eight years since he’d last seen her, eight years since she’d returned to her husband. He had grieved for her then, and time had blunted the pain, other women had come and gone, he’d even come close to marriage once. Yet the news of her death still sent a sharp pang of loss knifing through him.
With a heavy sigh, Adam pushed aside the memories and reached for the letter again.
‘Thing is, Carrie had a baby after she left here, nine months after. A baby girl, and it seems Robert thought she was yours. Carrie’s son found a letter Robert wrote to you but never sent, a letter accusing you of being the baby’s father.’
Adam stared down at the letter in shock. “It couldn’t be…could it?” Shaking his head, trying to clear his thoughts, he admitted to himself that it was certainly possible that the girl could be his. He returned once more to the letter, reading it rapidly now, eager to know what had happened to Carrie’s child.
‘This afternoon, young Paul turned up here with the little girl. Her name’s Amanda and she’s a cute little thing. Paul says he feels she ought to get to know her real father. Pa’s sent for Carrie’s brother, Jack, but he didn’t want to tell you yet, just in case it’s all some big mistake. Perhaps it is, but I felt you ought to know. If she is your daughter, Adam, or if it’s possible that she might be, then perhaps you should come home and help sort this mess out. Let me know if you are coming and I’ll break it to Pa. Means I’ll have to confess to writing this, so I hope the prospect of seeing you again helps sweeten his temper!
Folding the letter, Adam returned it to its envelope. For a while he stood motionless, letting the thoughts scurry round inside his head. A daughter, he might have had a daughter all this time and never known. If Carrie hadn’t died would he ever have known? One thing was certain, he decided, stowing the letter away in his jacket pocket, he wanted to meet this child. It wasn’t going to be easy; he had planned on leaving New York shortly, aboard a ship bound for Europe. But that plan would have to be changed. He was going home.
“Jack,” Ben stepped forward to greet Carrie’s brother as the man alighted from the stage in Virginia City. “Good to see you again.”
Shaking hands quickly, Jack turned to assist Sarah down onto the sidewalk before turning back to Ben. “I just wish the circumstances were happier,” he said gravely and looked down at his wife. “Sarah, this is Ben Cartwright. Ben, may I present my wife.”
Ben held out a hand to the dumpy little woman at Jack’s side. “Mrs Dawson. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Mr. Cartwright,” Sarah took his hand and smiled, transforming her rather plain face into a soft prettiness. “Where are Paul and Amanda?”
“Amanda is in school. And Paul is working at the ranch. I thought perhaps it might be better if we talked things over without the children being present.”
“That’s probably best,” Sarah agreed with a nod. “There’s a lot to discuss.”
“I’ve taken the liberty of arranging a suite at the International House for the afternoon,” Ben said, indicating the imposing building opposite where they stood. “I’ve asked for refreshments to be served and we can talk privately without any distractions.”
Taking a bag in each hand, Jack followed his wife and Ben across the road. “Perhaps they’ll let us rent the room for the duration of our stay.”
“There’s plenty of spare room at the Ponderosa,” Ben told him, pushing open the door of the hotel. “You’re most welcome to stay with us, and I’m sure Paul and Amanda will want you to be there.”
“We’d love to stay at your ranch,” Sarah accepted quickly before Jack could answer. “I hear it’s very beautiful.”
“We think so.”
Settling themselves in the hotel’s spacious suite, Jack and Sarah waited politely until coffee and sandwiches had been brought by one of the hotel staff, before turning the conversation to Amanda.
“Have you let Adam know that Amanda is at the ranch?” Jack asked as Ben poured the coffee and handed it round.
“Not yet,” taking his own cup, Ben sat back in the chair and took a sip of the drink. “I assume from the question that you know what is being suggested?”
“Yes,” Jack said shortly. “Though I don’t know exactly what you’ve been told.”
“Paul found a letter that Robert wrote some two years after Amanda’s birth. It was apparently intended for Adam but never sent. In it Robert said he believed that the child was Adam’s.”
Jack exchanged a quick glance with his wife before replying, her slight nod encouraging him to proceed. “I wish I could tell you that it was all Robert’s imagination. Because I’d like nothing better than to take my niece and nephew home to San Francisco with me, and if I was a less honest man that’s exactly what I’d do.”
“But we can’t,” Sarah said softly. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“Are you telling me that Amanda is my granddaughter?” Ben asked, and was surprised at how much the idea pleased him. Despite the scandal he knew it would cause, he would happily welcome the child into the Cartwright family.
“We don’t know,” Jack confessed, and an expression of disgust flickered momentarily across his kindly face. “Much as I hate to admit it, my sister had no idea whether it was Robert or Adam who fathered Amanda.”
“I’m afraid that’s true,” Sarah added quietly. “Carrie told me before Amanda was born that she wasn’t sure of the father. She made me promise to keep it a secret, and I did, even from Jack, until I realised that the children knew.”
Ben sat quietly for a moment, mulling over what he’d been told. “I see,” he said at last. “The child does resemble Adam a little. But not enough to be sure.”
“Perhaps it might be best to send for your son,” Jack suggested reluctantly. “But I have to warn you that we won’t give Amanda up easily, and if it comes down to a matter of law then we’ll win, no doubt about that.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to just hand the child over. But with a possibility that she may be Adam’s I think he’s entitled to a say in what happens to her.”
“So you’ll send for him?” Sarah asked softly.
Ben nodded. “I’ll get a telegram off to him today.”
Coming out of school that afternoon, Amanda was overjoyed to find her aunt and uncle waiting alongside Ben. Happily cuddling up to her aunt in the back of the buggy she chattered merrily away as they rode to the Ponderosa, her animated talk lifting the spirits of the adults.
They arrived at the ranch to find the place filled with the wonderful aromas of the special dinner that Hop Sing was preparing for the Dawson’s arrival.
“Welcome to Ponderosa,” the little cook greeted Jack and Sarah, as Ben ushered them inside, Amanda skipping ahead. “Mr. Hoss and Mr. Joe just washing up, will be down directly.”
“And Paul?” asked Sarah, glancing anxiously around the room, hoping to see her nephew. “Is he here?”
“He be home soon,” Hop Sing assured her with a smile. “He want finish chores first.”
“As I told you, Paul insists on working,” Ben said as he escorted the Dawson’s across to the couch. “He refuses to take any charity, as he calls it.”
“Just like his father,” Jack remarked solemnly, sitting down with his wife, Amanda wriggling in between them. “He’s a very proud, and stubborn, young man.”
Ben nodded in agreement, breaking into a smile as Joe and Hoss appeared at the top of the stairs. “Jack, you remember my younger sons,” he said as the two came down to join them. “Hoss, Joe, this is Jack’s wife, Mrs. Dawson.”
“The name’s Sarah,” the little woman told them with a gentle smile as they shook hands with her. “Amanda has been telling me how kind you’ve both been.”
“Was our pleasure, Ma’am,” Hoss said with a slightly abashed grin. “She’s a real sweet little lady,” he reached out and tousled the child’s hair with his large hand, eliciting a happy giggle from the little girl. “And she’s sure been lookin’ forward to you getting’ here.”
“So what’s going to happen now?” Joe asked abruptly, turning to his father. “Did you get things sorted out?”
Throwing his youngest son a warning glance, Ben turned to Hoss. “Would you show Jack and Sarah to their room?” he asked quietly and, with a nod of agreement, Hoss went to pick up the bags that Hop Sing had brought in and left by the door. “Dinner will be ready in about an hour if you’d like to clean up first,” Ben continued as the Dawson’s got to their feet, Sarah drawing Amanda with her.
“Could you send Paul up when he arrives?” Jack asked as his wife and niece followed Hoss toward the stairs. “We’re very anxious to see him.”
“Of course,” Ben waited until the Dawson’s and Amanda were out of sight before turning back to Joe. “I sent for Adam,” he informed him shortly.
“Sent for Adam?” Joe echoed hollowly. “Does that mean she is his daughter?”
Ben sank down in the leather chair by the fireplace and sighed heavily. “Seems Carrie never knew who the father was.”
“Then she sure couldn’t have wasted much time getting back with Robert,” Joe commented dryly, his dislike of the woman resurfacing. “After all that talk about loving Adam.”
“We shouldn’t really judge. Robert was her husband after all, perhaps she felt a duty to him.”
“Yeh,” Joe’s reply held little understanding. “So you thought you’d better let Adam know?”
“I sent a telegram this afternoon.”
“Right,” Joe looked down at the floor, and bit his lip before replying. “Thing is, Pa…Adam’s already on his way.”
“On his way? What do you mean?”
“I know you said that you didn’t want him to know,” Joe explained quietly, his voice just loud enough for Hoss, coming back down the stairs, to overhear. “But I thought he had a right to, so I…I…told him.”
Ben shot to his feet angrily. “You contacted him! After I specifically told you not to?”
“I sent a letter. Had one of the hands take it to the train depot so it could get there as quickly as possible. Got a telegram back yesterday.”
“Boy, letters sure travel fast these days,” Hoss interrupted jovially, as he clumped down the last few stairs. “Times were when it would take…”
“You had no right to do that, Joseph,” Ben’s irate voice cut across his middle son’s words.
“I had every right!” Joe’s head came up, eyes alight with anger as he faced his father. “I’m sorry, Pa, but Adam is my brother and I think I was right to send for him.”
Ever the peacemaker, Hoss stepped calmly between his father and brother. “So Joe jumped the gun a bit.” He said soothingly. “There ain’t no point in fightin’ about it now. Least it means Adam will get here sooner.”
“What did you tell him?” Ben asked, temper fading although his voice was still taut as he addressed his youngest son. “Did you tell him Amanda was his daughter?”
“I told him we didn’t know.” Joe said with a half laugh. “Seems I was right about that, even Carrie didn’t know for sure. I may be an uncle but looks like I’m never gonna know that for certain.”
Stepping down from the stagecoach, Adam took a long look around him as he waited for his bag to be unloaded. He’d left Virginia City over a year ago and yet the place looked the same as it had on the day of his departure. The street was just as dusty, the sidewalks still thronged with people, discordant music and laughter issued forth from the saloons as it had back then. The town was just the same, it was Adam who felt as though he had changed.
Taking his bag, he was about to head for the livery when he was halted by a ringing cry from across the street and turned to see his youngest brother come racing toward him, narrowly missing being trampled by a couple of horses in the process.
“Adam!” Joe exclaimed breathlessly, sliding to a halt in front of his brother. “We didn’t expect you yet.”
“I managed a quicker connection than I anticipated…” Adam began, but was stopped as Joe impulsively flung an arm round him, thumping him heartily on the back and grinning inanely all the while.
“It’s sure good to see you,” grabbing Adam’s bag from him, Joe began to lead the way along the sidewalk, one hand firmly on his brother’s arm. “Pa and Hoss will be real glad you’re home.”
“I’ve got to go to the livery or I won’t get to the Ponderosa,” Adam pointed out, pulling Joe to a halt. “I’ve no horse, remember?”
Joe waved a hand in the direction of the mercantile just along the street. “No problem, buckboard’s over there by the store, I brought it into town to pick up supplies. And now you’re here,” he added, with a mischievous grin. “You can help me load them up.”
“I guess I could at that,” Adam agreed with a laugh, throwing his bag into the back of the waiting buckboard as they reached the store, and following his brother inside.
The loading of the supplies was left to Joe, however, for as soon as Adam entered the mercantile he was beset by the storekeeper and a number of customers, all wanting to welcome him home and ask about his time away. By the time he’d exchanged pleasantries with them all Joe had finished with the supplies and was leaning against the wall, waiting patiently for his brother to break away from the welcoming group.
“Well?” Adam asked as he and Joe eventually climbed aboard the buckboard and headed out of town. “What’s happening at home? Is Amanda still there?”
“Amanda and Paul, Jack and his wife. All waiting for you to arrive.”
“They’re all at the ranch? Reckon perhaps it might be better if I took a room in town till this is all sorted out?”
Joe half turned in the seat to look at his brother. “You think Pa would let you do that? You think I’d let you do that? Your room is ready and waiting for you.”
“And what about Pa? Obviously you told him you wrote me. What did he say?”
“He bawled me out of course. But he’s just glad you’re coming home, even if it is under these circumstances.”
“And Amanda?” Adam queried softly. “What has she been told about me?”
“She knows you’re coming,” Joe concentrated on the road for a moment, unwilling to meet his brother’s gaze. “She knows you might be her father,” he hesitated slightly before adding. “Carrie told Jack’s wife that she didn’t know who Amanda’s father was, could have been you or Robert.”
“I see. That’s a pity.”
“A pity!” Joe exclaimed, unable to hold back the bitterness he held for Carrie. “She tells you she loves you then days later she’s climbing into bed with Robert. Just shows what sort of a woman she really was.”
“She wasn’t a whore if that’s what you’re implying,” Adam said angrily, springing to the defence of the woman he’d once loved. “She was trying to do what she thought was right, for her and for her son. Robert was her husband after all.”
“But she said she loved you! If that was true how could she do that?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps she felt it was her duty, perhaps she never really did love me. But I loved her, Joe, loved her with all my heart and if Amanda has come out of that love then she’s a wonderful legacy of what we had.”
“How are you going to know?” Joe asked, pulling the horses to a standstill and twisting round to face his brother. “It’s not like you’ll ever be certain she’s your daughter.”
“What’s she like?” Adam asked, avoiding the question. “Is she like her mother?”
“No, I don’t see any of Carrie in her.”
Joe shrugged, and reached to take up the reins again. “You’ll see for yourself soon enough. You know where we are don’t you?”
Adam smiled as he looked around him. “I haven’t been away that long, Joe. This is the boundary of the ranch,” he sat quietly for a moment just admiring the view before turning back to his brother. “I’ve seen a lot of things in the last year,” he told him softly. “But nothing to touch this place. It’s good to be back.”
“Good to have you back.” Joe assured him, as they started forward again on the way to Adam’s first meeting with Amanda.
Seated on the couch engrossed in the book she was attempting to read to her aunt, Amanda didn’t hear the noise of the buckboard returning from Virginia City. It was the flinging open of the ranch house door that attracted the little girl’s attention and she looked up to see Joe come in. Standing in the doorway he ignored Amanda and Sarah, calling loudly for his father.
Ben had been sitting at his desk working and he rose quickly at Joe’s summons. “What is it, Joseph? Problems?”
“No, sir,” a jubilant grin on his face as his father rounded the corner, Joe moved aside to reveal the figure standing behind him. “But I found someone in town I thought you might like to see.”
“Adam!” Ben exclaimed in delight, arms outstretched as he moved forward to embrace his eldest son. “It’s so good to see you.”
Watching the reunion, Amanda found that her heart was suddenly beating faster, her mouth a little dry. This then was the man who Paul had told her was her real Papa, the man who might want to take her away from her family. Reaching for Sarah’s hand she edged a little closer to the security of her aunt’s side, eyes fixed on the man who, having greeted his father, had turned to look at her.
“You must be Amanda,” his voice was deep, warm like his father’s, and he smiled reassuringly as he slowly crossed the room toward the child. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Sarah got to her feet as he approached, still holding her niece’s hand tightly. “Mr Cartwright. I’m Sarah Dawson, Amanda’s aunt.”
“Jack’s wife,” Adam acknowledged, taking her free hand in his. “I was so sorry to hear about Carrie and Robert.”
“Thank you,” Sarah looked down at Amanda who had gotten down from the couch and was standing half hidden behind her. “It’s been a difficult time for us, and especially for the children.”
“You’re the man Paul says is my Papa,” Amanda suddenly interrupted, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. “Aren’t you?”
Squatting down so that he was almost on a level with the child, Adam spoke softly. “Yes, I am. That’s why I’ve come to see you, to find out if you might be my little girl.”
For a moment Amanda was silent, studying the face of the man before her. Then, to Adam’s dismay, huge tears welled in the child’s eyes. “I don’t want a new Papa,” she wept, breath catching in her throat. “I want my Papa… I want my Papa.”
Quickly, Sarah bent and picked the little girl up, cradling her in her arms and murmuring soothingly to her.
“I want to stay with you, Aunt Sarah,” the child sobbed brokenly into her aunt’s shoulder, her words clutching at Adam’s heart as he straightened up. “I don’t want to go with him, I hate him. I want my Papa…”
“I’d better take her upstairs,” Sarah said as Amanda continued to cry. “See if I can calm her down,” she looked up at Adam apologetically. “Perhaps she’ll talk to you later.”
Ben laid a consoling hand on Adam’s shoulder, as Sarah ascended the stairs, carrying the distraught child. “I’m sorry, son. That must have been hard for you.”
“I should have expected it,” with a sigh, Adam sat down heavily on the couch. “She’s not just going to accept me, even if she is my daughter.”
“Do you think she is?” Joe asked, eager to know what Adam thought, even though he too had been shaken by Amanda’s distress.
Running agitated hands through his dark hair, Adam looked up at his father and brother. “I don’t know,” he admitted quietly. “I suppose I hoped there’d be some spark between us. Something that would tell me if she was mine or not, but there isn’t.”
Sitting down on the hearth, Joe regarded Adam worriedly. “So, you gonna let her stay with Jack and Sarah?”
“It’s obviously what she wants,” Adam said softly. “And I hate to see the child upset like that. But no…” he sat up straighter and took a deep breath. “I’m not just going to let her go with the Dawsons, not yet anyway. She might be my daughter, my flesh and blood and I can’t just give her up.”
Paul Hawes leaned on the fence post he had just set in place, and looked up at Hoss. “You sure look happy,” he observed. “That fella have some good news for you?”
“That was Sam Jenkins,” Hoss told him, with a quick glance at the retreating form of the man he had just been speaking to, now riding off toward his ranch. “He’s just been inta Virginia City.”
“And..?” Paul asked as Hoss picked up the spade he’d discarded when Sam Jenkins had hailed him.
Hoss grinned widely, a twinkle of pure delight in his sky blue eyes. “Sam saw the stage arrive,” he told the boy, “and he saw Adam get off it.”
“Adam! He’s here already?”
Hoss set to the digging with alacrity. “Sure is,” he confirmed. “So let’s get a move on with this fencin’. I’m in a powerful hurry to get back to the ranch and see my big brother.”
“You go on home now if you like,” Paul offered, “I can finish up here.”
Hoss paused in his digging and cast a curious glance at the boy. Though the offer to finish the fencing was a generous one, Paul had sounded almost surly when he spoke. “Thought you’d be glad to see Adam home, get everythin’ settled.”
Paul shrugged, turning aside.
“Don’t you wanna see Amanda meet her Pa?” Hoss asked quietly, not really surprised at the boy’s attitude. He had suspected for some time that Paul had been having second thoughts about seeking out Adam, and was glad to get the chance of asking the boy about it. “It’s what you wanted ain’t it?”
“Then we’ll get finished here and both ride back and see Adam.”
Paul didn’t answer immediately and, watching the emotions chase across the youthful face, Hoss was reminded how very young the boy really was. He looked so hurt and miserable that Hoss’s heart ached for him.
“I wish I’d never brought her here,” he broke the silence at last, choking out the words as his feelings threatened to overcome him. “Wish I’d never found that darn letter…” Tears threatened, and the boy swiped at his eyes in a vain attempt to hold them back. “I’ll never see Amanda again, and that ain’t right. She’s my sister, we should be together.”
Sympathetically, Hoss reached out to pat the boy’s back with a gentle hand. “It ain’t as bad as all that. ‘Course you’ll see Amanda again.”
“Not if Adam’s her Pa. He’ll want her to stay with him, and he won’t want me around.”
“We don’t know anythin’ fer sure,” Hoss pointed out. “So no need to go findin’ trouble before it appears. Anyway, one thing’s certain, if Adam is that little girl’s Pa he sure as heck won’t keep you away from her.”
“He won’t? You think he’d let me see her sometimes?”
“Sure he would. If there’s one thing I know is real important to my big brother, it’s family. And you’re Amanda’s family ain’t ya?”
Paul nodded, wiping away the last traces of the tears. “But what if he takes her to live with him though?” he asked anxiously. “In New York, or wherever it is he lives.”
“Like I said,” Hoss said, with a reassuring smile for the boy. “No point lookin’ fer trouble. Let’s just wait and see what Adam has to say about it all.”
Supper that night was a sombre affair, nobody talking much. Amanda wasn’t present. The child had cried herself to sleep after her outburst and her aunt thought it best to leave her be until the morning. Adam, though he willingly answered his father and brothers’ questions about his time away from the ranch, was obviously distracted. The Dawsons’ and their nephew picked at their food in silence. It was a relief to everyone when the meal was finished, the plates cleared away, and they were free to leave the table.
All through supper Jack had been feeling a little like the spectre at the feast. He had witnessed the joyful reunion between Hoss and Adam earlier that evening, and knew how delighted the whole family were at being together again. But the tension in the air was palpable, the awkwardness of the situation hanging over everyone. Now, as Sarah wished everyone a quiet “Good Night,” and headed upstairs, followed by Paul, Jack took a seat beside Hoss on the settee, and prepared to broach the subject of Amanda.
But before he had a chance to marshal his thoughts and speak up, Adam had brought over a bottle of brandy and poured each of them a drink. “Quite a situation we find ourselves in,” he said, handing Jack a glass. “What do you think about it?”
Jack swirled the brandy around in the glass and took a sip before he replied. The drink slid like liquid fire down his throat, and he looked up, meeting the other man’s level gaze. “I’d be happier if I knew for sure just who Amanda’s father was,” he admitted, “As it is I find myself in something of a quandary.”
Adam nodded. “I can see that. You’d hardly want to leave the child here with me if she’s not my daughter.”
“No,” Jack sighed. He’d discussed all this with his wife earlier that day, but there seemed to be no satisfactory conclusion to their dilemma. “I have a business to run,” he said hesitantly, “And Sarah and I really should be thinking of going home.”
“And you want to take Amanda with you?”
“It’s not that I don’t want you to see the child,” Jack said quickly, aware of the look of dismay on the faces of all the Cartwrights. “I do feel that you ought to get to know her, after all she may indeed be your little girl. But, there is no way we can know that. I think she belongs with us, with her aunt and me, who she’s known and loved all her life.”
Adam put down his brandy glass and leaned forward in his seat. “I do understand your point of view,” he said. “But before you make a final decision to take the child away, I’d like to ask you if you could grant me a little time with her. To try and get to know her.”
There was a long pause as Jack mulled the suggestion over in his mind, very aware of Adam watching him, and the tension of the rest of the Cartwright family. At last he nodded, “I’ll make arrangements to stay here two more weeks,” he said. “But after that, unless you can come up with any reason why not, I’ll be taking Amanda home.”
“But if she’s a Cartwright…” began Ben, disappointed at Jack’s edict.
“That’s just it, though,” Jack interrupted. “Believe me Ben, I wouldn’t want to see a man kept from his child, but we don’t know, may never know, if Amanda is Adam’s. What we do know is that the child is my niece. I am her blood relative and she belongs with me.” His opinion given, Jack stood up, tossed back the rest of his brandy in a single swallow, and left the room.
Dawn’s rosy fingers were just beginning to touch the sky as Adam quietly let himself out of the ranch house the next morning. It had been a long night. Tired though he was from the journey, he had found himself unable to sleep, and had tossed and turned restlessly for hours, as thoughts churned around his brain. Eventually, he had risen and dressed and headed out into the cool, pine-scented air.
Sport was in his accustomed place in the barn, and the big horse seemed as pleased to see him as Adam was to reacquaint himself with his equine friend after so long apart. He was just debating whether to saddle the animal and take a ride down by the lake when he heard the sound of voices coming from the direction of the bunkhouse. The hands were on their way to find out their tasks for the day.
As he strolled across to the barn door, Adam was a little surprised to see Joe on the porch of the Ponderosa, waiting to greet the ranch foreman, Lenny Smith. The daily ritual of handing out the ranch chores had been Adam’s job before he left, and he watched with interest as Joe discussed what was needed with Lenny, before turning to talk to the hands and issue their orders for the day.
Joe headed back into the house as the men dispersed, and, figuring that breakfast must be on the table by now, Adam followed. He was savouring the memory of Hop Sing’s breakfasts and imagining a plate piled high with food when the little man himself appeared from around the side of the house.
“Mr. Adam, there you are. Hop Sing look for you.”
“For me? Why? Is there some problem?”
“No problem…” the cook shook his head. “Hop Sing just think maybe Mr. Adam like to help Missee Amanda collect the eggs?”
Adam nodded, grateful to the cook for the suggestion. This would give him a welcome chance to make contact with the little girl. “Is she out at the hen-house now?”
Hop Sing nodded, and watched with a satisfied smile as Adam headed off.
By the time that Adam unhooked the latch of the chicken run and let himself in, Amanda already had a couple of eggs in her basket.
“That used to be Joe’s job when he was little,” Adam said, keeping his voice at a gentle pitch so as not to alarm the child. “And Hoss before him.”
Amanda glanced up, but looked quickly away, a frown settling on her small face when she saw who it was.
“When I was small we never had chickens,” Adam continued conversationally, ignoring the girl’s silence. “My father and I lived in a wagon, you see, no room for chickens,” he bent to pick up a warm brown egg from where it lay in a bed of straw and held it out towards Amanda. “Here’s another one.”
For a long moment the child didn’t respond, and Adam held his breath, worried that she might turn and bolt. But, at last, a tentative little hand reached out and took the egg, placing it with the others in her basket.
“I always got the eggs at home,” she confided softly, and risked a shy sideways look up at him. “I was a bit scared of the chickens when I was little, ‘case they pecked me. I’m not now, though.”
Adam smiled and lowered his tone to a conspiratorial whisper, relieved that she appeared to be thawing towards him a little. “I’ll let you in on a secret. When we first started keeping chickens I was a bit scared of them myself.”
Amanda giggled at the thought of this big, tall man being frightened of the scrawny birds. The joyous sound was quickly cut short as she looked away from him, gnawing her bottom lip. Tears filled the brown eyes. “I miss home,” she said, her voice breaking on the words. “I miss my Momma.”
Adam knelt beside the child and put a gentle hand on her shoulder, knowing that any more contact than that would probably frighten her. “My mother died when I was a baby,” he confided. “So I can’t remember her, but I do remember Hoss’s mother and Joe’s mother. I loved them both, and I still miss them. And I know that they’re in Heaven, watching over me with my own mother – just like your Momma is watching over you.”
Amanda dashed an arm across her eyes, wiping away the tears on the sleeve of her dress. “Perhaps they’ll all be friends,” she suggested, shooting a quick glance skywards.
Adam held back a smile at a mental image of the four women together. “Perhaps,” he agreed gravely.
“And my Pa too?” Amanda asked, breaking Adam’s mental picture immediately. He couldn’t imagine it himself, but, for her sake, he nodded in silent agreement. The thought seemed to comfort the little girl and this wasn’t the time to suggest that maybe her real Pa was right here with her.
With the quick change of subject common to young children, Amanda pulled back from Adam’s touch and held up her basket. “I need to find more eggs,” she told him. “Hop Sing wants to bake some cakes and he’ll need more than this.”
“Would you like me to help?” Adam asked, and was pleased when she smiled and accepted his offer. Together they spent the next few minutes collecting all the eggs that they could find.
It had been agreed among the adults that Amanda’s daily routine should continue as normal, the situation facing her was difficult enough for the child to manage without everything changing around her as well. So, breakfast over, she collected her books and departed with Hoss for the Virginia City schoolhouse.
Paul had already left with the ranch hands, and Jack and Sarah retired to their room ‘To catch up on some correspondence,’ Jack said, though Adam felt they were just being tactful and giving him some time alone with his father, knowing how long they had been apart.
“I watched Joe dealing with the hands this morning,” Adam said, as he poured coffee for himself and Ben and took it over to the table in front of the fireplace. “How long has he been doing that?”
“Pretty much since you left. Hoss took on your old duties at the lumber camp and I took over the books for the mines. Seemed natural for Joe to do the rest.”
“I guess I didn’t think about all the extra work for you all after I left,” Adam said, a frown creasing his brow at his father’s words. “I’m sorry…”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Ben interrupted him quickly. “It just meant we gave up some of the more, shall we say, mundane jobs, and I hired on a couple of new hands to do them.”
“Kind of good to know it took two men to fill my place,”
Ben laughed, but his eyes were soft as he regarded his eldest son. “Nobody could ever fill your place. You know that, don’t you?”
Adam nodded, uncomfortable at the emotion in his father’s voice. “I know it.”
“We’ve all missed you. And it’s so good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back. Even in these circumstances.”
Ben looked down at his rapidly cooling coffee. “It came as something of a shock, Adam, I have to admit. I know that you loved Carrie but I hadn’t realised it had gone that far.”
“It seemed so right at the time,” Adam told him, a little surprised that he felt no embarrassment at discussing it with his father. “We loved each other, intended to marry. At least…” he wryly amended his words. “I thought she loved me.”
“So what now?” Ben asked, unable to hide the hopeful note in his voice. “Are you going to acknowledge the child as yours?”
Adam shook his head, “I would in a heartbeat if I just knew for sure. But I don’t. She could just as easily be Robert’s, and to her he’ll always be her father.”
“So you’re going to let her go?”
“I just don’t know what to do,” Adam sank back in the chair and sighed heavily. “I need time to think things through. And without any help from my family. Please?”
Ben nodded reluctantly, “All right. No more questions. Though if you want a suggestion…?”
Adam raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“I always find that a little hard work helps me to think through my problems. And there’s a whole pile of wood needs chopping outside.”
“You know that’s not a bad idea. But what I’d really like is to get back in the saddle again. Think I might just go out and see the herd, if that’s all right with you?”
Ben nodded his approval, happy to see the spring in Adam’s step as he collected hat and gunbelt and headed for the barn to saddle up Sport.
Joe had just helped himself to coffee from the battered pot that one of the hands had put on to boil, when he spotted the figure in the distance.
“Looks like we got company, boys,” he said, addressing the two men who were crouched by the fire, coffee cups in hand. “My brother, Adam.”
The men looked up with interest, both were new on the Ponderosa and hadn’t yet met the eldest Cartwright son. From what they’d heard from the other hands, Adam had been a good and fair boss, just like the rest of the family, and he had been missed.
“Morning, brother,” Joe called as Adam drew rein and dismounted. “What’re you doing out here? Thought you’d have wanted to rest up after your long journey.”
“Just thought I’d like to take a look around the old place. It feels real good to be back in the saddle, I’ve missed that this past year.”
Joe gestured to the coffee pot, and at his brother’s answering nod, filled a cup and handed it over. “Sorry I missed you at breakfast this morning. Hop Sing said you were out collecting the eggs with Amanda.”
“Yeh,” Adam took a sip of the coffee and grimaced. That was one thing he hadn’t missed while he was away, the overboiled, bitter coffee that you got out on the range. “Hop Sing kind of engineered it, to give me a chance to talk to her.”
“Did it go well?”
“Yeh,” Adam darted a pointed glance at the two ranch hands, not really wanting to discuss things in front of them.
Joe nodded his understanding, “Hey, boys, you’d best be getting back to work. But before you go, let me introduce you. This is my brother, Adam. Adam, this here’s Jack and Bill.”
With a brief handshake the two men welcomed Adam back, before heading off to their horses, which were ground tied a short distance away.
“I think it went well with Amanda,” Adam confided as the ranch hands departed and he and Joe were left alone. “At least she didn’t burst into tears and yell at me like last night.”
“That’s a step forward, I guess. You made any decision yet?”
Adam shook his head.
“You know what Pa wants?” Joe asked, tossing the remains of his coffee on the fire and stirring the embers with his boot.
“I can guess. He wants me to come home doesn’t he? And I think, deep down, he’d like me to say Amanda is my child, and that she’s going to be brought up here. But it’s not going to be that way, Joe.”
“No?” Joe scrutinised his older brother for a moment, emotions warring inside him. “You’re not staying? Not even if Amanda is yours?”
“No, I’m not. My life’s not here on the Ponderosa anymore. Sure, it’s my home. It always will be, somewhere I will come back to from time to time. But not to live.”
“Pa’ll be disappointed.”
“And you?” Adam had seen on Joe’s face something of the conflict that was going on inside his youngest brother, and had to ask the question. “How do you feel about it?”
“I …” Joe looked away, marshalling his thoughts. He had missed Adam this past year, missed him desperately and it was so good to see him again. But to have Adam back at the ranch, taking back his place as Pa’s right-hand man? He was finding that he didn’t relish the thought of that.
“You’d rather I stayed away?” Adam said gently, and Joe was surprised to hear no hurt or accusation in the question.
“No…I mean…No, of course not…”
“Be honest, Joe. I watched you this morning, giving the men their orders. Saw you just now with those two hands. And Pa’s been telling me how much work you’ve taken on. You’ve grown up since I left, little brother. You’ve taken on new responsibilities and I don’t think you’d want to go back to taking orders from me. Would you?”
Joe shook his head in reluctant agreement. His brother had cut to the truth of things. “But it’s not that I don’t want you back,” he insisted softly. “I really missed you, you know? I didn’t think I would, but I did … I do. It’s just that if you did come home…” he looked at his brother with a wry grin, “Things would have to be a bit different.”
“You’d want to be the one giving me the orders, I suppose?” Adam said, and smiled as his brother laughed. “And talking of orders, shouldn’t you be watching those hands with the herd.”
“Guess I should at that,” bending down, Joe gathered up the coffee pot and cups. “You wanta ride along?”
“I’d like that. But just one thing…”
“Yeh?” Joe straightened up and ambled off towards Cochise, Adam following.
“Could we just forget about Amanda for now? I need time to think, time to work out what I want to do, and time to get to know the girl. And I need to do it alone. No pressure from Pa, or Hoss, or you. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Joe said, and, despite everything, couldn’t help smiling to himself as he mounted up and led the way to where the herd was grazing. It had been good to hear Adam describe him as grown up, and responsible. Suddenly he felt more of an equal to the man riding with him than he ever had before. No more just the kid brother.
Good though it was to be back in the saddle, it had been a long time since Adam had ridden and, before too long, he found his muscles beginning to ache in protest. By the time he and Joe rode home that evening he was stiff and sore and looking forward to a long soak in the tub.
“Hard to believe that just a year ago I could have ridden all day and still felt fine,” he observed wryly, as he eased himself out of the saddle in the yard of the Ponderosa.
“Old age catching up on you?” Joe asked teasingly, though the question was tempered by the sympathy in his eyes as he watched his brother carefully straighten up and stretch. “Tell you what,” he offered, reaching to take Sport’s reins, “just this once I’ll put up the horses, and you go on in and see if Hop Sing has some coffee on the stove.”
“Just as long as I don’t have to sit down to drink it,” Adam said, accepting the offer with a smile. “Or at least not without a couple of soft cushions.”
Heading into the ranch house, as Joe led Sport and Cochise off to the barn, Adam found that Amanda was already home from school. She and Paul were seated together at the table, books spread out before them.
“Homework?” Adam asked, walking towards the pair. Amanda looked up at his approach and gave him a shy smile.
“Just helping her with some reading.” Paul said abruptly, as Adam paused by the table and took a quick look at the books. “She likes me to help her.”
Adam nodded at the boy, “That’s what big brothers are for, I guess. I remember helping my little brother with his homework when I was your age. Carry on with the good work, I’m just going to get myself a coffee.”
Leaving the youngsters, Adam walked, somewhat stiffly, into the kitchen to find Hop Sing busy with dinner preparations. A pot of coffee stood brewing on the stove and, snagging a cup from the dresser, he poured himself a generous measure of the dark, fragrant brew and sipped it appreciatively, savouring its mellow taste after the harshness of the drink Joe had given him earlier.
Heading back to the great room he paused in the kitchen doorway, seeing that Sarah had joined the children at the table. She was seated beside Paul, with Amanda now nestled happily in her aunt’s lap. Adam watched, unnoticed, as the three bent together over one of Amanda’s math books, Sarah reaching out to gently tousle her nephew’s hair as she showed him how to figure out a problem.
They look so happy together, he thought, coffee momentarily forgotten as the sight took him back in time to before Joe was born. Adam had been the one that sat at the table then, helping Hoss with his homework. Marie had joined them, letting the little boy slide on to her lap and cuddling him close as she listened to her elder stepson explain long division in terms that Hoss could understand. Adam remembered Marie smiling at him over Hoss’ head, as he worked, and his tentative grin in return, still slightly unsure of his feelings for his new stepmother. It had been one of the first times that he truly felt that she was beginning to be part of the family, a real mother.
“Good evening, Adam,” Sarah’s voice broke through the web of memories as she looked up and noticed him standing in the doorway.
“Sarah,” he acknowledged with a nod.
“I …er…I just came down to fetch the children,” as she spoke Sarah lifted Amanda from her lap and set her down on the floor, before standing up herself. “They need to wash up before supper.”
Adam nodded again, “Could I have a moment of your time?” he asked softly, as Paul stacked up Amanda’s books, “There’s something I’d like to ask you.”
“Yes, of course,” Sarah hastened to herd the children toward the stairs and watched as they went up before turning to Adam again, “What is it you want to know?”
“I just wondered if Jack had made those arrangements with his company, to stay here for a while?”
“No, he hasn’t,” Sarah looked a little put out at the question, no doubt thinking that Adam was annoyed that Jack had not yet sorted things out, “he was intending to go into Virginia City tomorrow.”
“Would you tell him not to do anything. At least, not for the moment?”
Sarah’s eyes widened in surprise, “Does this mean you’ve decided what you’re going to do?”
“Yes,” Adam told her, his decision having been made as he watched Sarah and the children together. “But I need to talk to my family first, before I say anything more.”
“That’s understandable. I’ll tell Jack as soon as I see him.”
As Sarah turned away, about to follow the children upstairs, Adam reached out and stopped her with a hand on her arm. “I wasn’t going to ask this,” he said softly, as, with a rustle of skirts, she turned around and faced him, “In fact I told myself I wouldn’t, but I find I need to know. Carrie and Robert, were they…”
“Happy?” Sarah asked as his voice trailed off. “Are you sure you want to know that, Adam?”
“When she first left me I told myself I wanted her to be happy,” Adam confided, a wry smile touching his lips as he admitted the feelings he had harboured all those years ago, “though deep down I think I really wanted her to be miserable. Pining for me, like I was for her. But over the years I’ve come to terms with what happened. I’d like to think she had a happy life, that she and Robert loved each other.”
Sarah looked away, summoning memories of her sister-in-law. Remembering the times she and Carrie had talked together, shared their deepest secrets. The two had grown close over the years, as close as blood sisters and Sarah still felt her loss keenly. “They were content,” she said eventually.
“She never stopped loving you,” Sarah explained quietly, “she used to say that her love for Robert was comfortable, familiar and safe, but that the love she’d known with you was true love, passionate and deep. She and Robert made a life together and they were a happy family, but I think she had a few regrets. That sometimes she wished she’d stayed with you. And I know … deep down in her heart … that she hoped Amanda was yours.”
“I thought you wanted to get to know the child before you made a decision,” Ben Cartwright protested. Along with Hoss and Joe, he had listened in silence as Adam told them his news. When his eldest son had summoned them into the great room after supper that evening Ben had guessed that something like this was about to happen, but had still hoped that he was wrong. Adam’s words had shattered his dreams.
“That was what I originally intended,” Adam said, sorry to see the distress this was causing his father. “But I’ve thought things over and I really feel this is best for everyone. Please try to understand, Pa.”
Ben shook his head, aware only of the deep disappointment he was feeling at losing his son again, and with him the child that could be his granddaughter, “All I know is that you’re leaving the Ponderosa. Giving up on Amanda.”
“That ain’t what Adam said, Pa,” Hoss spoke up from where he stood by the hearth, listening, “he’ll see her often. Won’t you?” he appealed to his brother.
“I intend to get to know the child, just like I said I would,” Adam confirmed, coming to kneel beside the red leather chair in which his father sat, and laying a tentative hand on Ben’s arm, “It’s just that I think that’s best done in San Francisco, at Jack and Sarah’s home. Amanda needs to be settled, at home with the family she loves. Then, with Jack’s permission, I can call on her, in an environment in which she’s happy and settled.”
“She’s happy here,” Ben argued, hoping to change his son’s mind. “This could be her home.”
Adam shook his head, “No Pa, it couldn’t. No court would ever have given me custody of the child. There’s no proof at all that she’s mine. Even her own mother didn’t know for sure. Besides, it would break her heart to separate her from her aunt and uncle and her brother. I couldn’t do that to her.”
“So what are you going to do?” Joe put in, “Stay in San Francisco? Give up your dreams of travelling overseas?”
“Not exactly,” Adam squeezed his father’s arm gently, willing the older man to understand, “I shall be in San Francisco for a few months, then, depending how things are going with Amanda, I’ll carry on with my plans. Do some travelling. But perhaps not quite so far as I intended, or for as long. I’ll be back in San Francisco often, able to see Amanda grow up, have a place in her life.”
“And what of us?” Ben asked, “Will we have any place in her life?”
“I want you to,” Adam said earnestly, “If there’s even the slightest chance that she’s your granddaughter then she should get to know you. Know her uncles too,” he added with a quick smile for his brothers. “I want her to spend some time here occasionally, with me or with her aunt. You won’t lose touch, I promise. But I really want your blessing on this, Pa. I need to know that you’re behind me.”
Above his father’s head, Hoss caught his younger brother’s eye and nodded toward the kitchen. He had heard the note of pleading in Adam’s voice and thought that his brother and father needed some time alone together. Joe, luckily, understood immediately and the two brothers silently left the room.
“I know what you thought, what you hoped,” Adam continued softly, “That I’d come home for good. But I can’t do that, Pa, I’m sorry. My life is away from the Ponderosa now. Please, could you find it in your heart to wish me well in San Francisco? In my new life with Amanda?”
Silence reigned for long moments until, at last, Ben sighed heavily and reached out to pat his son’s hand. “You’re right,” he acknowledged, “I was hoping you’d come home for good. That everything would be just as it was before you left. But you can’t turn the clock back, can you? You know that all I’ve ever wanted for you, and for your brothers, is for you to be happy. If going to San Francisco will achieve that, then go with my blessing.”
Adam watched as Amanda walked along the beach before him, laughing happily. Her dark hair whipped up by the wind, to dance wildly about her head. Behind them the waves crashed onto the sand, sending spumes of spray high into the air where the water droplets glittered in the bright morning sun.
Reaching into his coat pocket Adam fingered the crisp folds of the letter from his family that he had picked up yesterday. He smiled as he recalled his father’s message, already looking forward to next week’s journey to the Ponderosa with Amanda and the welcome they would receive there.
It had been almost a year since they had left the Ponderosa, a year full of happiness for Adam as he had gradually come to know the girl who could be his daughter, slowly gaining her trust, and eventually, her affection.
Jack and Sarah had been glad to welcome him into their family and even Paul, so hostile at first, had accepted him in the end. In a few months time Paul would finish his education and Adam had offered to help him as he took over the running of Robert’s ranch in Sacramento, an offer which the youth had graciously accepted.
Nothing had changed of course, there was still no way of knowing if Amanda truly was his daughter. Somehow, that didn’t really seem to matter. He already thought of her as his child and certainly loved her as if she was his own.
And as for Amanda, Adam knew that he could never take the place of her beloved Papa. It had been the proudest moment of his life though, when the child had asked him if she might call him Uncle Adam.
“She’s so beautiful, Carrie,” he whispered into the wind now, as Amanda turned to smile brightly at him, “Somehow I just know she’s ours, yours and mine. A true legacy of our love.”
Other Stories by this Author
- Watchers in the Snow (by KateP)
- Le Collier d’Or #2 – Eloise (by KateP)
- Pains of Love (by KateP)
- Away in a Manger (by KateP)
- A Flame Rekindled (by KateP)