Imperfect Memory (by JC)

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Summary:  A conversation overheard at a party evokes Adam’s memories of Marie and the integral role she played in his own first love. (Part of the Ties That Bind AU series)

Rating:  T   (47,245 words)

Ties That Bind series

Ties That Bind
Imperfect Memory
A Pearl Without Price
A Piece of Cake
Something About Amy
Guarding the Henhouse
When Angels Cry
When Worlds Collide
No Ordinary Day
Winter of Discontent
Interval
Gently, Full of Grace 

 

IMPERFECT MEMORY

 

Author’s note – This novella was first posted in the Bonanza World library where it received the Great Romance award in a 2007 reader’s poll. It includes a non-canon Cartwright born during the flashback portion of this story.

 Preface – The Enigma of Adam and Marie

 Writers who tackle this subject are faced with the task of creating a history between two characters that never interacted in the series, and they rely mainly on inference, speculation and in some cases other fan fiction for a basis. It really comes down to what you want to believe.

You could make the case that Adam would have resented Marie’s “intrusion” into the Cartwright lives after having Ben and Hoss to himself all those years. The resulting changes would likely have been very difficult at first. But after watching Adam as a man, I don’t see him as the kind of boy who would hold a grudge for a long time, especially against someone his father loved. From Marie’s point of view, she would have realized that “winning” Adam, though it might take time, was very important to the success of her marriage. She would use her talents to that end.

At the time of this story, Adam’s grudging acceptance of Marie has given way to admiration and other feelings he might not have expected. By no means traditional, their relationship is as complex as the line between love and hate is thin.

 

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind

 –William Wordsworth

 

 

CHAPTER I — Whispers and Echoes

“It was a nice party, didn’t you think so, son? …Adam?”

Entrenched in thoughts that precluded the present, he was only vaguely aware of someone speaking to him when he heard his name.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  Did you say something?”

“I was merely talking about the party.  I think everyone had a good time, don’t you?”

“Considering their generous host, I’m sure they did.”  He raised a glass of Ben Cartwright’s “special” punch, the one he kept in the kitchen for those who enjoyed a little more kick to their liquid refreshment.

Ben smiled. “Well, it makes a man feel good to be able to show hospitality to his neighbors.”  He rose from his chair and stretched his arms above his six-foot frame.  “It’s been a long day, though.  I think I’ll go on up.  What about you?”

“No, I think I’ll take another look at that timber contract with Sperry.”

“At this hour?”

“I’d just like to have it firm in my mind before the meeting tomorrow.”

“Well, suit yourself.”  Ben yawned.  “See you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Pa.”

Adam loosened his tie as he sat down at the desk and pulled the contract from the drawer. It was no different from the dozens of others he had negotiated in the past, and he could probably quote it by heart. Though he intended to read over it, his eyes kept drifting from the page. Contrary to what he had told his father, there was something else keeping him up on this particular night.

Leaning back in the chair, he frowned as he recalled the conversation between Minnie Shaw and Grace Robertson at the party. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but they were standing in front of him talking loudly enough for him to hear, and he couldn’t help but listen when they made reference to his sister.

“Looks like Ben’s girl is the belle of the ball tonight,” said Minnie.

Grace nodded. “I remember when she was just a skinny little thing, cute as a bug, but mostly knees and elbows and not very lady-like.”

Adam smiled behind them.  That was a fairly accurate description of his youngest sibling during what some people might refer to as her “awkward years.”  Jilly hated wearing a dress almost as much as Joe hated being trussed up in Sunday clothes when he was a kid.  She looked every bit a lady now, though, as the attentive young men flanking her would no doubt agree. They seemed to be hanging on her every word.

“I guess all those years in San Francisco paid off,” Grace continued. “What surprises me is how much she grew up to look like her mother. I never saw it in her before.”

“Well, you can sure see it now.  Though for Ben’s sake I hope she’s nothing like her.  That’s all he needs.”

“Minnie, shame on you. You know it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.” 

“Oh, don’t tell me you’re not thinking the same thing because you remember her as well as I do.  And you know the old saying — the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

“Of course I remember, but don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh?  She’s not her mother, and she has nothing to do with things that happened nearly twenty years ago. I think Jilly is a lovely girl and her father has every reason to be proud of her.” 

“Pretty is as pretty does, so we’ll see.  If you ask me, though, that girl’s a heartache waiting to happen, just like Marie Cartwright.”

“I didn’t ask, so let’s just drop the subject and try to enjoy the rest of the evening.”  Grace let go a long sigh.  “My, but I hope you’re wrong…”

The woman staring back at him from the gold frame on the edge of the desk was smiling.  He rested his chin in his hand and shook his head.

“You still have people talking after all these years, did you know that?”

If she knew, she’d probably just throw back her head and laugh. Truth was, Marie never cared much about what people thought of her, at least not those she knew she couldn’t win, and she had an eye for knowing. She could read a person like she could read cards, and she had a keen sense of when to keep playing and when to fold and cut her losses.  People wasted a lot of time chasing what they could never have, and she didn’t waste a minute of hers trying to curry the favor of those in Virginia City.

Men liked her for the same reason many women didn’t, because she was beautiful. Not that beauty is anything to hold against someone, but she made absolutely no attempt to hide hers, choosing instead to wear it like a medal, flaunting it in their plain faces. That’s what rankled at first, the fact that she could make them feel inferior simply by walking into a room.  It soon became apparent to some that she was well aware of her effect on men and even enjoyed it, though she was a married woman.  Depending on which camp a person belonged to, she was either delightful or scandalous. Whispers about her “questionable” Creole background circulated rumors, innuendo and epithets which were occasionally stanched by a few kinder and gentler souls, though with marginal success.

Adam learned most of this from his father after the fact, though he was able to observe some things for himself.  Once he recovered from the shock of suddenly having a stepmother, and a young one at that, he conceded that Marie was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  As a mature twelve year old, he was beginning to have a new appreciation for the female form, and during his most honest and unselfish moments he could understand why his father might want to marry her.

Little Joe came right along (in retrospect, Adam was sure there were people counting the months between the wedding and the birth), cementing them as a family. Marie tried hard not to play favorites, but he was her baby after all, and she was utterly taken with him from the first moment he entered their lives.  But then, so seemed everyone.  Curly-headed Joseph Francis Cartwright was by all accounts an angelically beautiful child who quickly became the darling of those within his sphere, and his arrival even softened some of the community’s brittleness toward the new Mrs. Cartwright.

Motherhood seemed to have offered Marie a form of redemption, one which she accepted graciously, but it turned out to be only a temporary reprieve.

In her defense, Adam supposed she was unprepared for the tedium and isolation of ranch life in the untamed West, and he felt his father was partly to blame. During their whirlwind courtship certain future realities seemed to have been neglected in the pursuit of a more immediate happiness. Though daunted from the beginning by a harshness she had not imagined, Marie embraced her new home and family with a grace and grit Adam came to admire. But no matter how much she resolved to leave New Orleans behind, the city seemed determined not let her go.

Over time her boredom with the Ponderosa seemed to gnaw at her, and though she and his father never argued in front of him, Adam sensed the strain in their relationship.  Their open affection for one another, once so effusive it was almost embarrassing to witness, slowly cooled to a polite deference.  It was a subtle shift, detectable perhaps only by the discerning eye of someone close, though no less disquieting in its implications.  As far as most people knew, the Cartwright skies were sunny, but beneath the public pleasantries and stoicism Marie’s frustration churned like a dust boil on the horizon.

Her only release was riding, and the faster the better.  She preferred to ride alone for that reason — a practice widely frowned upon, one that only fueled further conjecture about Ben’s ‘French Quarter wife’ who seemed to have too much free time on her hands.  Some people thought he had gotten in over his head by marrying a woman he couldn’t control.  Others shook their heads, remembering her first husband, that poor Jean DeMarigny who died saving Ben’s life. Such a nice young man wouldn’t have left his beautiful wife back in New Orleans without cause, and some believed they knew why.

Nothing short of an edict from her husband could have stopped her, and so far, he hadn’t issued one.  Sometimes Marie seemed to be running for her life, or maybe she was trying to outrun it. Adam wasn’t sure which; he just watched her in awe.

~*~

“Ride with me?”

It was more a challenge than a request, and he jumped at it that day. His father and Hoss were delivering supplies to an ailing neighbor and Little Joe was napping under Hop Sing’s protective eye, so there would be no distractions. Marie was going to be in for a surprise.

Their race was by no means disappointing.  Adam gave her a run for the money all the way, but she finished half a length ahead of him in the end.  Cantering her horse to a walk afterwards, she turned to him with a look of exhilaration.

“That was wonderful,” she gasped, catching her breath. “You’ve gotten very good.”

Winded, he could only nod at first. His heart hammered in his chest, and every part of his body tingled with the adrenaline coursing through his veins.  It was great to be young and strong and alive on a day like this, and he wished the feeling could last forever.

He pulled up next to her and grinned.  “You know I’m gonna beat you next time.”

Her laughter bubbled up from deep inside her, warm and rich like a mineral spring. “I expect you to.”  She patted her horse’s neck and smiled.  “Let’s give them a rest before we go back, shall we?”

The sun was still high over the blossoming meadow, its gentle heat diffused by the barest hint of a breeze. Marie lifted her face to the sky and closed her eyes, smoothing her hair.  It was the color of honey, both light and dark depending on your view.  From where Adam was standing it shone like gold.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “The meadow even smells beautiful this time of year, don’t you think?”

At fifteen he was a head taller, so she had to look up to him now.  He knew height was no measure of a man but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the feeling, and he smiled.   “Yes, it does.”

“I’ve always loved spring,” she murmured.  “Everything is so fresh and new and unspoiled, like a promise unbroken.”

The wistfulness in her voice was like a shift in the wind.  His smile faded as he stared at her.  With her hair falling on her shoulders, her skin dewy and pink from the race, she looked very young, but her eyes harbored an old sadness that troubled him.  For the first time since she came, he realized how much he wanted her to be happy here.

“You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong if you don’t want to,” he heard himself saying. “Just tell me if there’s something I can do.”

His concern seemed to take her by surprise.  For an instant he thought she might cry, but he should have known better – Marie was not a woman given to tears.  Instead she smiled.   “I do believe you’re destined to be someone’s knight in shining armor, but you don’t need to worry about me.  You’ve already helped me more than you could know.”

He closed his eyes as she pressed her lips to his cheek and whispered her gratitude.  She was soft and smelled like springtime.

A moment later she was mounting her horse and he was still standing there.  “I really think we should be going.  Little Joe is probably up, and Hop Sing will be threatening to quit if somebody doesn’t rescue him soon. Besides, I’d like to get home before your father.”

He had to hurry to keep up with her, but it didn’t matter.  Pa was waiting for them in the yard, his hands on his hips, and even from a distance Adam could see that he was not pleased. His greeting was terse.

“I’d like to speak with you privately. Adam can take care of the horses.”

It was a tone Adam knew well but it was the first time he had heard it directed at Marie. He gauged her reaction as he took the reins from her.

She acknowledged her husband with a nod, her chin high, shoulders squared as he escorted her to the house. It was always her way.  Adam imagined Marie would maintain the bearing of a queen even if she were being led to the gallows.

He may have admired her for it, but the thought didn’t give him much comfort.  He couldn’t help but be a little anxious, wondering what kind of trouble was brewing.

 

CHAPTER II — A Piece of the Sky

Adam took his time in the barn and again in the bath house, washing up.  Supper was on the table when he finally came inside but only half of his family was present.  It was not a good sign as far as he was concerned.

“Pa said we should go ahead and eat,” said Hoss, lifting a squirming Little Joe into his high chair.

At two and a half, Little Joe was still on the smallish side, but what he lacked in size he made up in stubborn.  Luckily he had a couple of older brothers who knew how to handle him.

“Cut it out, Short Shanks,” warned Hoss.  “I’m too hungry to put up with you tonight.”

“I want Mama.” Little Joe pouted, kicking the table leg.

“She’s busy.  Here,” said Hoss, placing a bowl and spoon in front of him.  “You can feed yourself.”

Of course he was perfectly capable, though not without making a mess.  Marie didn’t like messes, so she usually helped him over everyone’s objections except Little Joe’s. He was used to being the center of her world and enjoyed it very much.

“Oh, no he can’t,” said Adam, winking at Hoss.  “Only big boys can do that.”

“I’m a big boy, Adam.  See?”

Adam grinned as Little Joe shoveled a spoonful of stew into his mouth as proof.  He was a pretty good kid in spite of being spoiled rotten. “Sure you are, buddy. Let’s not forget this, though.”  He tucked a napkin around his neck.  “Where’s Pa?”

“Upstairs with Ma,” said Hoss.  “They’ve been up there a while.”

Whatever the discussion, it was apparently serious.  Adam sat down and helped himself to a serving of stew.  He didn’t know why his father was upset with Marie, but she had not seemed surprised. It was almost as if she had expected a confrontation.

A few moments later his father came down the stairs alone.  Adam tried to read his face but couldn’t.

“Hey Pa, I’m feedin’ me!”

“And you’re doing a mighty fine job, too,” he replied, wiping his youngest son’s chin.  “You’re getting to be such a big boy; you won’t even need that chair much longer, will you?”

Hop Sing entered with a plate of hot biscuits.

“Is Ma comin’ down?”  Hoss asked.

“No, I’m going to take a tray up to her in few minutes.  Hop Sing, would you mind?”

“Is Mama sick?” asked Little Joe.

“No, son; she’s just tired.  She’s resting.”

“Ain’t you gonna eat, Pa?”

“I’ll have something later, Hoss. I think I’ll take my pipe out on the porch and get some air.  Adam, take your time, but perhaps you could join me when you’re finished.”

“I’m finished!”  Little Joe announced.

Hop Sing pretended a frown. “Only little boy who eat all supper get cookie for dessert.”

“Okay, oh boy!”

His father’s smile as their eyes met gave Adam reason to believe that maybe the storm had passed without any damage.  He sure hoped so.

~*~

Except for the slow creak of the rocking chair and the chirp of crickets in the yard, the evening was silent.  Twilight had deepened to darkness above them, revealing the stars one by one, and Pa had yet to say a word. He had merely acknowledged his son’s presence with a nod, puffing his pipe.  His mood had mellowed since the afternoon, but something was still weighing on him.  Adam waited.  Silence could be your friend sometimes.  Then again, too much of it could make a body nervous.  He was relieved when Pa’s voice finally cut through the smoke and shadows.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever live long enough to understand women.  For a man who’s had three wives, I seem to know very little.  Of course, I didn’t have much time with your mother, or with Inger for that matter, but they were both so different from Marie.”

“Yes sir, I imagine that’s true.”  Inger was his only means of comparison, the only real mother he’d ever had, and for such a little while.  Marie was nothing like her. Marie was like no other woman he’d ever known.

“I never knew a man could love a woman so much who makes him so angry. One minute I’m ready to strangle her and the next minute I’m….” his voice trailed off into the night.

“Are you sorry you married her?”

Adam could tell from the way he shifted in his chair that he was surprised by the question. A sigh preceded his answer.  “There have been days when I think we’ve both been sorry.  Son, I know you’re perceptive enough to realize things have not always been as they should between us.  But I don’t want that to become your burden.”

“I just wish Marie could be happier here with us.”  He didn’t give voice to his nagging fear that she might one day decide to leave and take Little Joe with her.

It was almost as if Pa had read his thoughts. “It has been hard for her, coming here, harder than we imagined for many reasons. But this family is as important to Marie as it is to me, and I’m not just talking about Little Joe. She loves you and Hoss too, very much. We had a long talk this afternoon about a lot of things, and we both realized we have too much at stake to risk losing it. There are going to be a few changes around here, and we’re going to make them work, for all our sakes. So don’t you worry about this family; we’ll be fine.”

His father’s confident demeanor assured him more than than the words. Pa believed what he said, and Adam trusted him enough to believe it too.

“I’m really glad to hear it, Pa.  But if you don’t mind my asking, why were you so angry with her when we came home?  Did you tell her she couldn’t ride today?”

“It never occurred to me that I should have to tell her such a thing at a time like this. Of course she knew better; she took advantage of my absence and your ignorance of the situation to have her own way. Well, it won’t happen again.  She won’t be taking that horse out again for a long while.”

“I don’t understand.  Ignorance of what situation?”

Pa cleared his throat.  “Remember when I said there were going to be a few changes around here?

“Yes.”

“Well, one of them is getting Little Joe out of his crib in the next few months, because someone else will need it by then.”

Adam felt his jaw drop. “You mean Marie is…she’s having a baby?”

“You sound surprised.”

“I guess I am.”

“Well, don’t be too shocked. After all, there are those days when I don’t want to strangle her….”

Adam heard the smile in his father’s voice, and he smiled too, there on the porch in the dark.  How about that? Instead of losing a sibling he was gaining one.

Move over Little Joe.  You’re about to get some competition.

Even the moon seemed to be smiling.

~*~

“Mama!”

Little Joe hurled himself toward the figure descending the stairs, but Ben caught him before he could do any damage.  “Hold on, son. She’s got her hands full.”

“Mama, guess what? I ate my supper all by myself!”

Marie pretended to be shocked. “You didn’t!”

“I did so!  Did you eat your supper, Mama?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

“Not much,” said Ben, eyeing the tray as he took it from her.

“I couldn’t possibly eat all that food.  It was more than enough for two people.”

Adam hid his smile at her remark. It might be a while before Hoss and Little Joe found out another Cartwright was on the way, but Pa had taken him into his confidence like a man. It made him feel like one too, and though his father’s frankness was a little unexpected, he was grateful for it.

“I had a cookie, Mama.  Did you have one?”  Little Joe was already in her arms.

“As a matter of fact, I had two.  I was saving them for some young men who might want to hear a bedtime story, but they never came.   I was beginning to get a little lonely up there all by myself.”

Little Joe’s voice softened in sympathy. “Were you sad?”

“If I was, I’m not now.”  She smiled.  “Do you have a kiss for me?”

He delivered a noisy smack to her cheek and threw his arms around her neck, giving her an exaggerated squeeze.

“Mama, could you read to me ‘n Hoss?”

“I suppose I could.”

“And could we have the cookies, too?”

Marie looked skeptical.  “Did you really eat all your supper?”

“Yes, see?”  He opened his mouth as wide as he could.

“I don’t see anything.”

“That’s because it’s in my tummy!”  He giggled at his own joke, buoyed by his family’s chuckles.

“Hoss, what you do think of the idea?”

He smiled at her. “I like it fine.”

“Well then, why don’t you boys go up with your father and get ready for bed?  I’ll be there in a minute.”

“You come now, Mama,” coaxed Little Joe, releasing his hold on her reluctantly.

“In a minute, Joseph.  I want to talk to Adam.”

“Adam, were you bad today?” he asked over Pa’s shoulder.

Adam grinned.  “I don’t think so.”

Hoss traipsed after them, pausing to hug Marie.  “I’m glad you’re feelin’ better, Ma.”

“I feel fine, Hoss,” she said, smiling.  She bent down to kiss him and whispered something.  Adam had no idea what she said but it had him beaming all the way up the stairs.

Marie was watching him, too.  “Little Joe is so lucky to have two such wonderful brothers.”

“The kid’s in for a surprise, isn’t he?”

The corners of her mouth lifted slightly.  “So your father did tell you.”

He wasn’t sure if the pink in her cheeks was from the sun or if she was blushing.  “He did,” he grinned.  “You wanted to talk to me?”

“Let’s sit down.”

She positioned herself on the settee and motioned for him to sit next to her.  For the second time that evening, he found himself waiting.

She took a deep breath before she began.  “I’m afraid I owe you apology, Adam.  Your father pointed out, and rightfully so, that I put you in an awkward position this afternoon.  I behaved selfishly and carelessly, and I took advantage of you.  I hope you’ll forgive me.”

He figured Pa must’ve given her a good lecture, because her apology sounded more like his words than hers, and he suspected she might be chafing a bit under it.  He almost smiled.  “Well, I would’ve felt awful if anything bad had happened…”

She looked chagrined at his words.  “I know, and I am sorry.”

“But I’m glad you asked me.”

Her penitent expression changed to one of amusement.  “So am I.  And don’t worry, you’ll get your rematch…one of these days.”

He grinned.  “It’s okay.  I can wait.”

“Another year and I probably won’t stand a chance against you.”

They smiled at one another.  At what point had they become allies?  He couldn’t say, but it felt good.

“Can I ask you something, Marie?”

“Always.”

“Did you ever think about leaving?”

Her dark eyes clouded, and she looked down at her hands in her lap.  A sigh escaped her lips.  “A person can think about a lot of things and never do any of them.”

He had been right, then.  He stared at his boots, wondering why he had asked.

“Adam, I had a child taken from me. It was the worst pain in the world.  I could never do that to your father any more than I could leave Little Joe behind.  My children are blessed to be Cartwrights and I want them to grow up here where they belong, with the three finest men I know.”

He felt her hand on his arm as she continued.  “I know it’s hard to give your heart to someone you could lose, especially when it has happened before.  But you really don’t have to guard yours so closely, Cheri. I’m not here to break it.”

Touching his cheek where she kissed him goodnight, he watched her until she disappeared at the top of the stairs.

~*~

Spring eased into a summer that passed largely without incident, at least until the day Hoss broke his arm. He spent six weeks in a sling after his efforts to rescue a cat from a tree turned sour.  During the excitement that followed the foiled attempt, an unrestrained Little Joe had a run-in with a patch of poison oak and broke out in hives that same night.  Oatmeal baths and calamine only went so far in soothing his misery, which was as much his mother’s as his own. Even with Hop Sing’s help, she nearly wore herself out between her two patients.

On top of that, Pa worried about Marie being sick with the baby.  Adam didn’t remember her being so ill when she was carrying Little Joe.  More than once he had to rush to get the basin for her just in time. The heat and exhaustion finally took its toll, and after a fainting spell at the bottom of the stairs that left her with a goose egg on her forehead, the doctor ordered her to bed for the rest of her “confinement”.  Marie hated that word in the first place and resisted with what strength she had, but Pa’s will was iron clad. He stood firm, at least until the sickness subsided and her appetite returned.  Adam suspected that was his plan all along, and he was aiming high just to get what he really wanted.  Shoot for the moon and you’ll at least get a piece of the sky, Adam remembered him saying.  Whether he was building a ranch or raising a family, Pa always kept the moon in his site, and most of the time it paid off.

With time and rest and food she could finally keep down, the bloom returned to Marie’s cheeks along with her old vivacity.  The lap Little Joe was so fond of grew smaller as she grew rounder, and though he didn’t know it, he was already sharing his mother with someone new.  She seemed to dote on him even more than usual, lavishing her affections on him as if each day was her last opportunity. He wouldn’t be her baby much longer.  Time was spiriting them both away from this precious moment in their lives, and Adam couldn’t help but think how lucky they both were to have had it at all.

The wheel of seasons turned once more with the arrival of September, mild temperatures and golden afternoons that reflected the sense of contentment on the Ponderosa.  Pa and Marie had not only made good on their agreement, they seemed to have fallen in love again. Their playful affection in front of the family was merely a token compared to the small intimacies observed unaware — a look, a smile, a touch — revealing a tenderness that could only be genuine.

Maybe the moon wasn’t so unreachable after all.

 

CHAPTER III — A Fortuitous Occasion

“Now, you’re sure you’re up to this?”

Marie finished tying her bonnet and gave her husband a peck on the cheek. “Stop being an old mother hen.  That’s my job,” she reminded him.  “I feel fine.  It’s such a beautiful day, and I’m looking forward to this as much as the boys are.  I only wish you were coming with us.  It would do you good to relax and see some of your friends for a change.”

“First things first, I’m afraid.  If that herd in the south pasture is infected, I can’t afford to wait even a day to find out.”

Adam felt guilty about going on a picnic and leaving his father with so much work and worry. “Pa, are you sure you don’t need me?”

“Gib and I can handle it. Besides, Marie needs you to ride herd on those two today,” said Pa, jerking his thumb toward Hoss and Little Joe in the back of the wagon.  “You boys mind your Ma and your older brother, you hear?”

“Yes sir, Pa,” said Hoss, echoed by Little Joe.

“They’re good boys and they’ll be fine,” said Marie. “You just take care of yourself out there with those cattle.”

“I will.” He smiled and placed his hand on her middle. “I hope this one doesn’t give you too much trouble today.”

“Don’t worry. This one’s probably too tired from keeping me up most of the night.”

“I know you didn’t get much rest, and that’s what concerns me.  It’s going to be a long day for you.”

“Ben, I’m having a baby, but I’m not an invalid. I’ve had more than enough rest these past few weeks, trust me. I need this day,” she entreated him with a beguiling smile.

There was a moment that followed, a window to what was secret and sacred between them, so brief and so subtle that most people would have missed it, but it was enough to make Adam drop his eyes before they kissed.

“Ready, Mama?”  Little Joe’s hopeful voice chimed from the wagon.

“Ready, darling.”

“Well, they’re all yours, son,” Pa said to Adam. “Stay on the main road as much as you can. Be sure to leave in plenty of time to get back before sundown. Keep an eye on everyone, and,” he added in a low voice, “don’t let her get too tired.”  His reluctance to let Marie out of his sight still showed in his face.

“I’ll look after her.”

“I know I can count on you. There is one more thing, Adam.”

“Yes sir?”

“There will be plenty of work tomorrow.  Enjoy yourself today,”  Pa smiled.

Adam grinned.  “Thanks, Pa.”

He urged the team forward, and the chorus of farewells behind him was soon replaced by Little Joe’s excited prattle to Hoss, who listened with the patience of a saint.  Adam was counting on him to help keep their youngest brother occupied at the picnic, in case a certain young lady happened to be there. His heart beat just a little faster at the thought of seeing her again.

Marie’s voice penetrated his thoughts.  “So, is there any chance I’ll get to meet the lovely Miss Lafferty today?”

Startled by the fact that she seemed to have read his mind, he felt his face go red.  “How do you know about Colleen?”

She looked amused.  “Your father couldn’t recall her first name, but he did say she was very pretty, and that the two of you seemed to get on very well.”

He cleared his throat. “Yes, she is pretty, but I don’t know whether or not she’s going to be at the picnic.”

“Well, it will be a shame if she isn’t,” she said, moving closer to him and slipping her arm through his, “considering the fact that you look so handsome and you smell so nice…”

He kept his eyes on the road; his ears felt like they were on fire. “Don’t,” he said, with more force than he intended.

She let go of him.  “What’s the matter?”

“I just wish you wouldn’t make fun of me.”

“Is that what you think?  I wasn’t making fun of you.  Honestly, I would never do that,” she assured him.  “You are a prize, or at least you will be someday.  Believe me, I know whereof I speak. You’re not angry with me, are you?”

He attempted a frown, but they both knew he wasn’t. He was beginning to wonder if he could ever be.

Marie’s pretty mouth curved into a smile.  “Oh, Adam, the world is going to be your oyster one of these days.”

He wasn’t exactly sure what it meant, but he allowed himself to smile back knowing it was something good, welcoming her shoulder next to him as they rolled toward the promise of the day ahead.

~*~

“Mrs. Cartwright, I didn’t think we’d be seeing you today. We heard you were confined to bed.”   The surprise in Grace Robertson’s voice matched her expression.

“Only temporarily, Mrs. Robertson,” said Marie.  “I’m feeling much better, particularly now that the weather has turned.”

“Where is your husband?”

“Ben had some pressing business back at the ranch. He sends his regrets to everyone.”

Minerva Shaw pursed her lips in disapproval.  “You mean he let you come alone, in your condition?”

“I’m not exactly alone, Mrs. Shaw, as you can see.”  Marie smiled over at Adam, carrying the hamper she had packed for the picnic.  “Hop Sing baked enough blackberry pies for the whole territory.  Where would you like them?”

“Over there.”  Mrs. Robertson pointed to a makeshift table under a stand of trees.  “I believe Mrs. Lafferty is organizing the desserts.”

Adam’s heart nearly skipped a beat at the mention of the name.  Marie smiled.  “How fortuitous,” she murmured, with a sly glance at him.  “Thank you, Mrs. Robertson.  Come on, boys. We have pies to deliver and people to meet.”

Mrs. Lafferty was tall and rawboned with pale eyes and angular features made more severe by the tightly wound bun perched on top of her head.  She was nothing like Colleen, Adam thought as he acknowledged their introduction.

“Colleen mentioned meeting you and your father, but not the rest of your family. I had no idea they were so young.”  She brushed a wisp of hair away from her face with a large hand and directed a thin smile at Marie.  “When is your time, dear?”

“Not for three months yet.”

“Well, if it isn’t young Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam turned to accept the hand that accompanied the booming voice.  “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Lafferty.”  He tried not to smile too much at the girl next to him.  “Hello, Colleen.”

She returned his greeting with a dimpled smile of her own.  “Hello, Adam.”

“Now, who have we here?”  Mr. Lafferty’s hands were on his hips as he grinned down at Little Joe, clinging to Marie’s hand.

“These are my brothers, Little Joe and Hoss, and this is my stepmother, Marie.”

“How do you do, Mr. Lafferty, Colleen?”  Marie smiled her most engaging smile.

“Call me Angus,” he said.  “Where is Ben?”

“He so wanted to come, but I’m afraid the Ponderosa won this round.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m glad it didn’t keep the rest of you away.”  He smiled. “If you need anything at all today, we’re at your service.”

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”

Adam turned to Colleen, lovely in a lavender blue dress that nearly matched her eyes. “It’s good to see you.”  As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he had said something a little less…common.  She probably thought he was boring.

She smiled and chewed her bottom lip.  “I was hoping you’d be here today, and I was so afraid you might not come.”

“We almost didn’t, but I’m glad we did.”  He knew he had Marie’s stubbornness to thank in this case.

“Colleen…” Mrs. Lafferty called.

“Coming, Ma,” she answered over her shoulder.  “I have to help my mother now, but maybe we can go for a walk later.”

“I’d like that.”

She smiled. “Until then,” she whispered, planting a quick kiss on his cheek before she dashed away.

Adam stared after her, startled, but in a way that felt more than good. He turned around just in time to see Marie look away.  Hoss didn’t even try to hide his grin.

Little Joe tugged on Marie’s arm. “Mama, that girl kissed Adam!”

“Did she now?”

“You saw!”

“I didn’t see a thing,” said Marie. “Why don’t we get you something to eat?”

Little Joe frowned at her, and then glanced over at Hoss, who merely shrugged.

“Well, I did see.  And I don’t want any girls kissin’ me.”

His mother laughed. “You just wait a few years and see if you don’t change your mind about that.”

“But what if I don’t want to?”

“Cheri, the right woman can always change a man’s mind.”

“Huh?”

“Little Joe, I think maybe this is one of those things we’re gonna understand when we’re older,” said Hoss.

“Well, not me.  Hoss, can you ride me on your back?”

“Sure, buddy, hop on.”

Adam and Marie watched them gallop away. “Your father was right,” she said. “Colleen is a very pretty girl.”

“Mm hmm.”

“You know, I think Little Joe’s probably going to need a nap before the day is over, don’t you?”

He met her smile with a grin.  “That sounds like a good idea to me.”

~*~

It was nearly an hour after lunch before Marie was able to finally persuade Little Joe to join her on the quilt she had spread out for them.  By then Adam had worked up the courage to look for Colleen.  He didn’t know why he was nervous when he had been so anxious to see her, but the thought of being alone with her made his stomach quiver.  What if he couldn’t think of anything to say?

He spotted her among the crowd watching her father and some of the other men pitch horseshoes.  She was leaning against a tree, eating an apple, and he thought she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen.  His mouth went dry and his palms got sweaty just watching her.

He was on the verge of turning around when she saw him.  “Adam!  There you are.”  She smiled. “I thought maybe you had forgotten about me.”

“No.”  His voice cracked a little and he cleared his throat. “I didn’t forget.  I had to help Marie with my brothers.”

“Do you and your stepmother get along well?”

“We didn’t always, but we do now.”

“She’s very beautiful, and a lot younger than I would’ve imagined.”

“She’s twenty-seven.”

“That’s the same age as my brother.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“I hardly know him myself. He’s been on his own for a long time.”  She took his hand. “Come on; let’s go down by the creek.”

He declined a bite of her apple and let her lead him down.   She moved with the confidence of someone who knew what she wanted and where she was going, and he wondered if she ever got nervous about anything.

The creek bank was deserted and still, except for the trickle of water and the rustle of leaves above them. The feeling of the sun on his face and Colleen’s hand in his made him sigh for the sheer pleasure of being.

She moved closer to him, lifting her dark lashes to meet his eyes, and smiled.   “Would you like to kiss me?”

Her invitation was unexpected, but at that particular moment he could think of nothing he wanted more. He put his hands on her shoulders and met her lips tentatively.  They were soft and warm, parting just enough for him to taste her sweet apple breath. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him back with so much enthusiasm that he was forced to stop and come up for air.

He stared at her, wide-eyed and dizzy from the experience.  She smiled up at him. “I’m glad you like me, Adam, because I like you.  I think you’re the nicest, handsomest boy I’ve ever known. And I love the way you kiss me.”

Adam wasn’t sure who was kissing whom, but before he could figure it out he heard someone calling his name.

“Adam Cartwright!”  It was Mr. Miller.  “Hurry up!  Your stepmother needs you — your brother’s hurt!”

~*~

Adam could hear Little Joe before he ever got a glimpse of him. After nudging through a sea of onlookers, he found him wailing in Marie’s arms.

“Hush, darling. It’s all right, just a little blood. Look, here’s Adam.”  She handed her son to him with a rather desperate look. “See what you can do with him,” she murmured before turning away.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” Adam tried to comfort him as he looked him over. He saw no sign of injury. “What’s the matter?”

Little Joe protested with all the frustrated ferocity a three year old could muster.  “I want Hoss!” he sobbed, holding his arms out in the direction of his mother, who paid him no mind as she threaded her way through the milling throng. Adam’s stomach clenched as he followed her, afraid of what he might find.

Hoss was sitting up on the quilt holding a bloody rag to his forehead, looking a little dazed.  Marie knelt next to him. “Let me see, sweetheart.”  She removed the cloth, revealing a crimson trickle from his hairline and a respectable lump above his left eyebrow.

Mr. Lafferty squatted in front of him, assessing the cut on his scalp. “It’s not too deep. Scalp wounds can bleed a lot, and that makes them look worse than they really are. How many fingers am I holding up, son?”

Blue eyes focused. “Four.”

“Who’s this pretty lady?” He put a hand on Marie’s shoulder.

Hoss managed a faint smile. “Ma.”  Marie smiled and patted his hand.

“You know where you are?”

“At the picnic.”

“What did you eat for lunch?”

Hoss thought for a few seconds.  “Fried chicken and biscuits, an apple, lemonade and blackberry pie.  Two pieces.”

A chuckle rippled through the crowd.  Mr. Lafferty grinned.  “Looks like his head’s clear now.  Little Joe, your brother’s going to be fine, but I think he needs to take it easy the rest of the day.”

“Feel better, Hoss?”

“Sure, buddy.  Come over here and sit by me, okay?”

“What happened?” Adam asked as Little Joe wriggled out of his arms.

Mr. Lafferty straightened up.  “Horseshoe caught him. Nobody’s fault, really.  Just a case of being in the right place at the wrong time, you might say.”

“Good thing you have such a hard head.”  Adam’s tone was teasing, but he felt a little sick inside, thinking how much worse it could have been.  It might’ve have been Little Joe, and he wouldn’t have been anywhere near to prevent it.

“I’m really glad you’re all right, Hoss.”

Adam had all but forgotten Colleen.  Hoss answered with a shy smile. “Thanks.”

Marie put her arm around Hoss and kissed his cheek.  “I want you to rest while I gather our things. We’ll need to be leaving soon. Joseph, I need someone to stay with Hoss and make sure he sits quietly.  That’s a very important job — do you think you can do it?”

Little Joe’s green eyes were wide and serious as he nodded. “Yes, Mama.  I can do it.”

She smiled. “Thank you. I won’t be long.”

She rose, swaying a little when she got to her feet, and she might have fallen if Mr. Lafferty hadn’t been standing near enough to steady her.

“Are you all right, Mrs. Cartwright?”

Adam hurried to her other side, alarmed to see her suddenly so pale.  “Marie?”

“I’m all right. I just stood up too quickly, that’s all,” she assured them.  “I’m fine, really.”

“Are you sure?” Adam tightened his arm around her.

“Yes, I’m sure.  I just need a moment.”

“Colleen, get Mrs. Cartwright some water, please.”

“Yes, Pa.”

Mr. Miller brought over a chair.  “Would you rather lie down?”  Adam asked.

“No, the chair is fine.”

“Put your head down,” Mr. Lafferty instructed, kneeling next to her.

Adam looked on, feeling helpless. Colleen returned in a moment with the water which Marie accepted gratefully.  Her color had already improved.

“Better?”

“Yes, thank you.”  Marie smiled. “I’m sorry to be such a bother.”

“It’s no bother, I assure you,” said Mr. Lafferty.

“Well, you’ve come to our rescue twice today, and I’m very grateful to you; we all are.”  She looked up at Adam and Colleen and smiled before she turned back to him.  “I’d like to invite you and your family to Little Joe’s birthday party next Saturday.  We’ll have a barbecue with all the trimmings. I do hope you’ll come.”

“How could anyone refuse such a charming invitation? We’d be delighted.”

Adam knew he should be grateful too, but gratitude wasn’t exactly what he felt watching Mr. Lafferty with Marie. He wondered where Mrs. Lafferty was while her husband was playing Sir Galahad this afternoon.

Colleen was also watching them, her expression inscrutable. “So, Little Joe’s having a birthday party?”

“I guess so.  It’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“It should be very interesting, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

She arched a brow as her lips formed a coquettish smile.  “I think you know just what I mean.”

~*~

It was a quiet ride home with Little Joe and Hoss both asleep in the back of the wagon. Though Marie didn’t complain, the rigid seat and bumpy road afforded little comfort to a woman in her condition. As much as he enjoyed seeing Colleen, Adam wondered if the picnic had been such a good idea. He gauged the rate of the sun dipping into the trees. They should make it home before dark even at this pace, but he wished for Marie’s sake they were closer.

She shifted next to him and put a hand to her back, drawing a deep breath and letting it out slowly.  The jarring ride was taking a toll on her even if she wouldn’t admit it.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just hard to stay in the same position for very long.”

Her smile did not convince him.  “We could stop for a minute if you like.”

She took a long look over her shoulder at her sleeping sons as she considered the idea. “No, let’s keep going. We’ll all feel better when we get home.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I said yes, didn’t I?”  Her peevish response was softened by a slightly amused expression as she shook her head.  “You’re beginning to sound like your father.”

“I’m beginning to understand why he worries about you.”

“Too much worry isn’t good for a person, and you’re too young for that.  And while we’re on the subject, there’s no need to mention that little episode this afternoon.  It was nothing at all.”

“If it was nothing at all, then why are you afraid to tell him?”

She struck an indignant pose.  “I am not afraid to tell him!”

“Prove it, then.”  He challenged her with a sidelong glance. “Otherwise, I’ll tell him. Don’t think I won’t.”

It was all he could do to keep a straight face at her wide-eyed disbelief.  She stared at him for a moment and then sank back against the wagon seat, her lips molded into a distinct pout.

Incroyable.”  She muttered one or or two other French words she probably thought he wouldn’t understand. “All right, you win. Checkmate.”  Her frown gradually disappeared in a sigh as she resettled herself next to him. “You are definitely your father’s son.”

He allowed himself to smile at that.

 

CHAPTER IVCelebration and Revelations

 The afternoon of Little Joe’s party was picture perfect.  Pa had been skeptical of Marie’s idea at first but gave in on the condition that the hostess get plenty of rest during the week and not lift anything heavy, including the birthday boy.  Adam doubted he would even attempt to hold her to the latter.  Pa tended to pick his battles with Marie carefully, though these days they seemed to be few and far between. In fact, when Adam overheard them that morning, fighting was obviously the last thing on their minds.

He was bent over in the stall inspecting a stone bruise on his horse when he heard them come in.  It was clear they thought the barn was empty.

“Ben, really, I have too much to do.”

“You don’t need to do anything, my love, except this.”

Marie’s soft laughter dissipated into an even softer sound, followed by a sigh and his father’s baritone rumble. 

“Mrs. Cartwright, if you weren’t my wife I’d get down on my knees and ask you to marry me right now.”

“Mr. Cartwright, if I wasn’t your wife you should be ashamed for not asking me six months ago.  Now you can help me by hanging those lanterns….”

She looked so happy and beautiful that day, relaxed and radiant with the new life she carried.  There was no hiding it any longer; in fact, Little Joe had recently very become curious about his mother’s expanding girth.  Pa explained the situation to him by reminding him of the litter of puppies Brownie had delivered a few weeks earlier.  He seemed satisfied with the analogy between dogs and humans, even if he wasn’t overly impressed by the prospect of a new baby in the family, but he did have one question.  “Pa, how do the babies get into the mamas?”

Adam and Hoss exchanged grins.  Even though Adam doubted Pa had had that talk with Hoss yet, he’d been around bulls and cows long enough to know a few things. They both waited to see how their father would respond.

As ever, Pa was the resourceful diplomat.  “Little Joe, why don’t we see if Hop Sing has any  doughnuts he can spare, hm?”

“Okay, oh boy, doughnuts!”

Adam chuckled. Doughnuts — an easy answer to life’s difficult questions. “How about you, Hoss?”

“I’m right behind ya, older brother.”

~*~

Colleen and her father were among the last of the guests to arrive. Adam had all but given up hope when he spotted their wagon.  Mrs. Lafferty wasn’t with them.

“Miriam isn’t feeling well,”  Mr. Lafferty explained.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Marie.  “I hope it’s nothing serious.”

“No, nothing serious. She insisted that we come, especially since Colleen has been so anxious to see the Ponderosa.”

“Well, we mustn’t disappoint her then,” said Pa, smiling.  “I’m sure Adam can find time to show her around.”

“I’d like that,” was all she said, but her eyes and her smile said more, and at that moment Adam knew he was going to have a hard time thinking of anything but kissing her again for the rest of the afternoon.

Their first chance to be alone was later in the day after Little Joe’s cake had been cut and served, when he walked her down to the corral.

“You sure have a lot of horses.”

“These are mostly surplus stock Pa’s selling to the army.  Not all of ’em though.  See that bay roan over there?  That’s Bill; he’s a really good cutting horse.  We’ll keep him.”

“What’s a cutting horse?”

“Sometimes you have to separate cattle from the rest of the herd, and they don’t always move in a straight line.  You need a quick, smart horse to cut ’em out and turn ’em where you want ’em to go.”

“Oh. What about that one?  She looks like she’s going be a mother.”

“Yeah, we’re keeping her, too.  Pa promised her foal to Hoss.”

“What’s her name?”

“We just call her Girl.”

“Which one is the father?”

“I don’t think he’s in this bunch.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, except for a couple of mares they’re all geldings.”

“What’s a gelding?”

“You don’t know much about horses, do you?” He smiled.  “Geldings are males that…don’t breed. They can’t.”

“Are they born that way?”

“No…” He stopped short of explaining, enjoying the reaction in her face as meaning became clear.

“Why would you do that?”

“They make better saddle horses if they’re not…thinking of other things.”

“Like girl horses, you mean.”

She smiled, and the back of his neck suddenly felt prickly and very warm.  “Yeah.”   He cleared his throat and changed the subject.  “I’m sorry your Ma’s sick.  What’s wrong with her?”

Colleen shrugged and looked away.  “She just doesn’t enjoy being around a lot of people. Believe me, she’s happier staying home.”

That explained Mrs. Lafferty’s solitary demeanor at the picnic.  “I’m sorry.”

“She wasn’t always this way. She was even pretty when she met my father. She was his nurse, back in St. Louis.”

“Was he very ill?”

“No, he was a doctor.”

“Your father is a doctor?”

“Was,” she corrected him. “He gave up his practice before I was born, though it’s still hard for him not to treat people as patients.”

“So that’s why…”  No wonder Mr. Lafferty seemed so assertive with Hoss and Marie.  “Colleen, why doesn’t he set up a practice here?  We only have one doctor, and we could sure use another one.”

“Well, I’m afraid you can’t count on Pa. I told you, he gave up medicine,” she said over her shoulder.  She was leading again and he followed.

“Why?”

“A woman died, and he blamed himself.”

“How did she die?”

“Childbirth.”

“My mother died when I was born,” said Adam, trying to picture the woman he never knew.  “It happens sometimes, and it’s no one’s fault. Why did your father blame himself?”

“Because he promised her he would be there, and he was with another patient when her time came.”

“He couldn’t help not being there if he was just doing his job. I don’t understand why he would give up being a doctor because of that.”

“Well maybe you’d feel differently if you were the one out sewing up a couple of drunks while your wife was bleeding to death.”

“Oh.” The disconcerting image left him with an uneasy feeling. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t know your father was married before.”

“Yes, I’m afraid my mother was his second choice. She’s never been able to forget it either, any more than he can forget his first one.”

“She shouldn’t expect him to forget her. A man can love more than one woman in his lifetime.”  That was one thing he learned from Pa. “Your father loved your mother enough to marry her, too.”

Colleen smiled as though she were somehow indulging him. “In the first place, my father couldn’t love my mother because he was already in love with a perfect memory, and in the second place, he married her because of me.”

He tried not to look shocked at this second revelation, but the admission didn’t seem to bother her.  “They never told me. I overheard them talking once. They don’t know how much I know.”

“But you said you had an older brother.”

“Half brother, same as you. My mother was also married before. Her first husband treated her badly before he left her with a baby. She was young and could barely take care of herself, so she sent him to live with relatives. She was lucky to find training as a nurse, and then she went to work for my father. He was good to her, and of course she was very grateful.  After his wife died, she was afraid he would go mad with grief and guilt, and she was determined to do whatever she could to help him get over it.”

“She must have loved him very much.”

“I suppose.”  Colleen plucked idly at the bark of a tree where they had paused on their walk.  “Though I’m not sure my mother can ever really love anyone because she doesn’t love herself.  I think it was more a case of two lonely, wounded people trying to find their way out of the dark, and I was the light they had in common.”

The picture she painted of her parents contrasted sharply with his own view of Pa and Marie, and it occurred to him that Colleen’s life might not have been a very happy one.  “I’m sorry,” he said again. “For all of you.  But if those things hadn’t happened you wouldn’t be here right now, and I’m not sorry for that.”

There was nothing coy in her expression when she raised her eyes.  He was standing near enough to see the pale sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and it was almost as though he was seeing the real Colleen for the first time.  The breeze caught a strand of her hair and he brushed it away from her face as he leaned in to kiss her.

This time it was his turn to lead.

They managed to make it back to the party before they were missed, and Marie only raised a slight eyebrow at the ripped seam in Colleen’s dress, which she graciously mended with no one else the wiser.  It was the absolute truth that it snagged on the tree bark, but Adam didn’t find it necessary to supply every detail of that lovely autumn afternoon, and Marie didn’t ask.

It wasn’t until he was on his way upstairs to bed that night when she stopped him. She looked troubled.

“What is it, Marie?”

“You’re a good boy, Adam, but young hearts can run wild sometimes. If you’re not careful you could find yourself taking on the role of a man before you’re ready.”

He felt his color rise. When was she going to realize he was not a boy?  “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Her smile seemed almost sad. “I’m afraid you do.”

It was a long time coming but when sleep finally arrived, two women haunted his dreams, a blue-eyed, raven-haired beauty and a dark-eyed charmer with hair of honey-gold.

 

CHAPTER V – Deliverance

“Adam — wake up, son.”

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and when he opened his eyes his father’s face hovered over him like a specter, grim and gray in the shadowy dawn.

“What is it, Pa?  What’s wrong?”

“The baby is coming.  I sent Gib for the doctor, if he can find him, and I want to you take the wagon and get Mrs. Shaughnessy. If the doctor doesn’t get here in time we’ll need her help with the birth.”

Adam threw back the quilt and reached for his trousers on the bed post.  “But I thought the baby wasn’t due for another three weeks.”

“That’s what we all thought, and that’s why Marie didn’t wake me three hours ago when she should have.”

“How soon do you think?”

“She says not for a while, but then again, she didn’t think she was in labor, so she could be wrong about that too.”  Pa tried to keep his voice light, but Adam could hear the worry.

Hoss and Little Joe were still sleeping when Adam passed their room.  He wanted to see Marie before he left. She was propped up against the pillows with her hair fanned out behind her, sweat drops beading on her pale forehead in spite of the cold.  His father was wringing out a cloth for a compress.

She managed a smile when he entered.  “Sorry to wake you.”

“It’s all right,” he assured her.  “Looks like someone decided he couldn’t wait to join the fun around here.”

“And what makes you so sure this baby is a boy?”

“Girls are never early.”

She laughed as though she were grateful for the diversion.  “Did you hear that, Ben?  Your very serious son just made a joke.  Things can’t be all bad, can they?”

“Of course not,” said Pa, wiping her brow. “Everything’s going to be fine. Adam, stay here. I’ll be right back.”

He left quickly without looking at him.

Marie’s obvious discomfort made Adam nervous. He hadn’t been this close when Little Joe was born. “Don’t worry. As soon as Pa gets back I’m going to get Mrs. Shaughnessy.”

“No, that would be a wasted trip, I’m afraid.  Your father’s so distracted, he quite forgot that Mrs. Shaughnessy is visiting her sister and won’t be back for several days. None of us thought we would need her…so… soon.”

She gripped his hand as a pain nearly doubled her over.  The best he could do for her was hold on and not let go.

In a moment she lay back and closed her eyes as she murmured under her breath. She was praying, still holding his hand.

“Is it always this way?”

She opened her eyes and looked over at him. “It’s always work bringing new life into the world.  Punishment for original sin, you know; and perhaps a few of my own.”

He didn’t like to think of Marie being punished any more than he liked seeing her in pain.  “I’m sorry.  I wish there was something I could do.”

“There is. You must listen to me, Adam, and hear what I have to say even if it is hard.”

There was something in her eyes that made him afraid.  He didn’t want to hear, but he knew he had to.  “All right.”

“Things may not go well today.” Her voice was shaking.  “Your father and I both know it.  He is as strong a man as ever was, but he has had to bear so much…he needs your strength, and so do your brothers.  I know you’ll be strong for them.”

He knew what she was saying, and he wanted to scream at her for even suggesting such a thing. How could she? It was too much to ask. Besides, who would be strong for him?

It was as if she read his mind.  “I know it seems unfair of me to ask, but what is fair?  Certainly not life or you wouldn’t have lost your mother in the first place.”

“You can’t leave us.”  He knew he sounded like a petulant child but the words would not remain unspoken.

“Do you think I want to? It’s not up to me. Don’t make this harder, I need you to promise me, Adam – my peace is in your hands.”

He realized then, he had never before seen her cry.

“I’ll do whatever you need me to do, always,” he promised. “But you are not going to die today.”

She closed her eyes and continued her litany in French. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous pécheurs maintenant et à l’heure de notre mort.”  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death….

He heard his father on the stairs and met him in the hallway.

“Why does Marie think she is going to die?”

Pa looked startled by the question.  He peeked into her room and turned back to Adam, his face set into a grizzled frown.

“What did she say to you?”

“She said things might not go well, and that you knew.  She asked me to…be strong for you.”

Pa ran a hand through his hair and drew a shaky breath. It was the first time Adam ever thought he looked older than his age.

“When the doctor was here a few days ago, he said the baby was breech and that it could be a very difficult birth, even with his help.  If he’s not here when she delivers…Hop Sing and I will do the best we can, but I don’t know.  I just don’t know….” his voice cracked.

Adam felt sick. Sick and angry, and in spite of what he told Colleen about such things happening and being no one’s fault, he wanted to blame someone.  There was no one but God.

Then he remembered something. He grabbed his father by the shoulders.  “Pa, Mr. Lafferty is a doctor!”

Pa stared at him, uncomprehending. “What are you talking about, Adam?”

“Colleen told me he had a practice in St. Louis but he gave it up after his first wife died. He’ll come for Marie. I know he will.  Let me go to him.”

“Yes, of course.”  Pa nodded.  “Angus is a good man. He’ll help us if he can.”   They both knew it was a desperate hope, but better than none if the doctor didn’t get there in time, and they couldn’t count on that.

~*~

The morning was bitter, too cold even for snow, and the wind scourged Adam’s face like a whip as he drove his horse across the open meadow.  Cutting across the hogback was a risk this time of year, and he couldn’t afford to take any chances.  It was ten miles using the main roads, an hour by his most optimistic estimate, and another hour home plus the time in between.  He dared not tarry.   Marie needed every minute he could save; there were none to spare.  A lot of bad could happen in the next two hours.

Mr. Lafferty answered his pounding at the door with a look of absolute surprise.  “Adam Cartwright!”  He put down the rifle he was holding and opened the door wider to let him in.  “What on earth…?”

Adam stumbled into the house and into his arms, where his trembling knees gave way after the strain of the ride.  Mr. Lafferty guided him to a chair.

“What’s wrong, boy?”  He frowned, looking him over.

“I’m all right,” he assured him, his chest heaving to catch his breath.  “It’s Marie.  The baby’s coming early…she needs a doctor.”

Mr. Lafferty’s frown traveled to Colleen, standing nearby with her mother.  “I told him, Pa.”

“Then I guess she also told you I don’t practice any more.  I’m sorry.  I can’t help you.”

It never occurred to Adam that he might refuse. He stared at him in disbelief. “You’re sorry? Marie could die if you don’t come!  How could you live with that on your conscience?”

“A man learns to live with a lot of things he thinks he can’t.”

Adam stood up.  “I know you have your reasons for not wanting to be a doctor, Mr. Lafferty, but I didn’t figure it was because you were a coward.”  He heard Colleen gasp but he kept his eyes locked on the man in front of him. He would not make it easy for him.

“Angus.”  Mrs. Lafferty’s voice was quiet but firm.  “You know what you have to do.”

There was a long pause in the room as she held out his medical bag.  Adam breathed a sigh of relief when he took it.

Mr. Lafferty put on his coat and scarf.  Adam followed him to the door but he stopped him.  “Your horse is winded. I can be halfway there before he’s ready to go again. You could use some food and rest yourself.  Colleen will get your breakfast.”  The hesitancy in his manner was gone now, replaced by an air of authority that made it clear this was not a request.

Adam watched him ride away, feeling numb from cold and dread.

“My father is not a coward.”  Colleen’s tone rebuked him all the more with its gentleness.

“I didn’t say it to hurt him. I guess I would have said anything to get him to come.”

She put her arm through his and leaned her head against his shoulder, consoling him.  “He’ll do what he can, Adam. We’ll just have to pray that it’s enough, for both of them.”

He ate from courtesy and necessity, not from hunger, and he couldn’t say whether or not the food was good because he scarcely tasted it going down. He was merely marking time until he could begin his return. Mrs. Lafferty withdrew unceremoniously to her room, and to her credit Colleen didn’t burden him with questions or idle chatter.

She did admonish him as he was getting ready to leave. “You should have worn gloves. I don’t know how you managed to keep from freezing to death on the way over.”

He brushed away her tender scold with a frown as he buttoned his coat. “I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Her liquid blue gaze softened him, reminding him once again that she was just about the prettiest girl he’d ever known. “Yes. Thank you for breakfast.”

“You’re welcome.” She draped a wool scarf around his neck and pulled him toward her. “Be careful, Adam. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Under different circumstances he would have returned her kiss with ardor, but today it was a distraction he knew he didn’t need.  There were more important things happening in the world.  She seemed to understand that, too.

What was unfinished between them would have to wait.  Watching her wave goodbye from the porch, remembering how it felt to hold her that day by the corral, he hoped it wouldn’t be long.

~*~

“Adam, guess what — Mama’s havin’ a baby with Mr. Lafferty!”

Little Joe’s interpretation of the facts made him smile in spite of himself.  He didn’t bother taking off his coat before scooping him up to give him an affectionate squeeze.  “Is that so?”

“Uh huh. Where were you, Adam?”

“Somebody had to get Mr. Lafferty.”

“But you didn’t come with him.”

“Little Joe, I done told you Adam had to rest his horse.  A man’s got to take care of his animal,” said Hoss.

“That’s right,” said Adam.  “Any news?”

“Nothin’ yet. Pa told us to stay down here and wait. That was a while ago.”

“I wanna see Mama,” said Little Joe.

“Not now, buddy. You just have to be patient,” said Adam.

“What’s patient?”

“It means we have to mind Pa and wait like he said. How many times do I have to say it?”

The edge in Hoss’s tone put Adam on guard.  He rarely spoke that sharply to anyone, much less Little Joe, except when he was sick or terribly upset.  Most likely he was sick from worry and pushed to the limits of his own patience by a three year old’s unflagging curiosity.

“Why don’t I go upstairs and see what I can find out?”

Hoss brightened, nodding, “Yeah, Pa didn’t say nothin’ about you stayin’ down here.”

Adam set Little Joe down with a friendly warning.  “You stay with Hoss and don’t give him any trouble, you hear?  I’ll be back in a minute.”  Hoss rewarded him with a grateful smile.

He heard Marie’s stifled cries as he reached the top of the stairs, and through the crack in the door he saw his father standing by the bed holding her hand.  “It’s all right, sweetheart.  Angus says you’re doing fine.”  Pa’s face was pinched and grave in spite of his words.

Mr. Lafferty’s voice came from somewhere at the foot of the bed. “I know you’d really like to push right now, Marie, but not yet. I’ll tell you when. Just hold on.”

“Mon Dieu,” she gasped. “I can’t do this.”

“Yes, you can. We’re almost there, I promise you.”

“Ben…please, God, help me!”

Her sobs ripped Adam like jagged glass. He pressed his back against the wall as fear pumped a cold sweat to his forehead. The possibility that Marie might die suddenly seemed too real. How could he go back downstairs and tell his brothers everything was all right when it might not be?  All he could do was to listen and wait.

“Okay, I’ve got a hold now.  A good strong push should do it, Marie. Ben, help her sit up a bit, give her some leverage.  Hop Sing, be ready with that towel.  There we go, that’s it. Good girl.”

A protracted groan ended in another sob. “I can’t!”

“You’re doing it now, don’t stop.”  Mr. Lafferty’s voice was calm but firm above his father’s murmured encouragement. “Come on…almost…almost…there. All right, the worst is over now, you can rest a bit. I’ll take it from here.”

Marie released a ragged cry as she let go of her pain. Afterwards, Adam could hear Pa comforting her, and Mr. Lafferty was saying something to Hop Sing.  He strained his ears for an infant’s cry but none came. A new fear struck him even before his father spoke.

“Angus, is something wrong?”

Marie moaned.  “My baby…please let me see my baby.”

Adam peered into the room once more with a morbid dread.  Mr. Lafferty was placing the baby into Marie’s arms.  “Well, she’s little and not very loud, but she’s with us and that’s what counts.”

She?  Adam had a feeling this would be the first of a few surprises for Little Joe, who had made it quite clear on more than one occasion that he expected a baby brother.  On the other hand, Hoss would be pleased.

Marie was crying again.  “Oh, Ben…  She’s a miracle, isn’t she?  I can hardly believe she’s here.”

“She probably wouldn’t be if it weren’t for you, Angus,” said Pa, his voice trembling.  “How can we ever thank you?”

“You really should thank your son.  He’s the reason I’m here.  He’s a remarkable young man,” said Mr. Lafferty, opening the door with a smile.  “Why don’t you come in and say hello to your sister, Adam?”

Pa’s eyes were especially bright as he pulled him into his embrace.  A pale and exhausted Marie smiled up at him.  “Come and see.”

Adam sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. The mewling from the blanket was nothing like Little Joe’s lusty announcement of his entrance into the world.  He had been round and red and raucous, with legs like a bullfrog. This one looked more like a china doll, her head crowned with a spate of black curls.  She was a girl, all right.

“She’s pretty.”  He met Marie’s dewy eyes and smiled.

“You were truly a knight in shining armor today,” she whispered.  “For both of us.”

Mr. Lafferty spoke up behind him.  “I hate to rush you, but I’m not quite finished with my patients, so if you gentlemen could excuse us for a while…”

“Of course,” said Pa, cuffing Adam on the shoulder.  “Come on, son.  Let’s go tell the boys.”

Their reactions were pretty much what Adam predicted.  Hoss was thrilled, and Little Joe expressed his disappointment with tears.

Pa took him in his lap to console him, “Little Joe, you’ve already got two brothers, don’t you think it will be nice to have a sister, too?”

Little Joe pouted, “I want to be a big brother like Adam and Hoss, with a little brother like me.”

Adam laughed. He knelt down in front of him, face to face. “Little Joe, I don’t think there could ever be another little brother in the world like you.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Hoss.

“But you and me and Hoss are gonna be big brothers together, and she’s gonna need all three of us. Okay?”  Little Joe’s skeptical look prompted him further.” You’ll like her, I promise. You just wait and see.”

A grudging sigh preceded his reply. “Oh, all right.”

Adam grinned, and Pa caught his eye as he straightened up. Something in the way his father looked at him made him feel taller than he did the day before.

It was a grand feeling.

~*~

Mr. Lafferty excused himself shortly after the doctor arrived, which was around noon. He wouldn’t accept anything for his services, not even a meal, but Adam knew Pa would find some way to try and compensate him. He could never repay him though, not for what they owed him.

Adam brought Mr. Lafferty’s horse from the barn where he had fed and watered him along with his own.  He was grateful for the chance to talk to him alone.  “I just wanted to thank you again and tell you I understand why this was probably very hard for you. I meant no disrespect to you before, and I’m sorry if I…”

Mr. Lafferty interrupted him.  “No need to apologize at all. You kept me from making a terrible mistake. You were right. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t at least tried. Thank you, Adam.”  He thrust out his hand and smiled.  “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other. You’re welcome anytime.”

“Thank you, sir.” Adam returned the handshake and the smile.  “Mr. Lafferty?”

“Yes?”

“What was your first wife’s name?”  He hadn’t planned to ask the question, but suddenly it seemed important to know.

Mr. Lafferty didn’t answer at once, but when he did his smile seemed to come from somewhere deep and warm.  And he was still smiling when he rode away.

~*~

Dr. Hickman didn’t stay long. He said Mr. Lafferty had done his job so well his immediate services weren’t required, but he would be back tomorrow to check on Marie and “the baby.”  At the end of her first day she still had no name.  Several suggestions had been narrowed to two, Louisa and Mary. Adam was laying odds on the latter, after their grandmother Cartwright, so when Pa made the announcement that evening it was a surprise.

“Jillian Marie,” he said. “We’ll call her Jilly for short.”

“I’m glad you told us about Angus,” said Marie.  “I’m sure his wife must have been as lovely as her name.”

The three of them exchanged smiles. To Adam, it seemed right. He had a feeling Jillian Lafferty had more than a little to do with the way things worked out that day.

“She sure is tiny.  Ain’t she cute, Little Joe?”  Hoss had been grinning all afternoon, and he just couldn’t seem to take his eyes off their new baby sister.

Little Joe, perched in his father’s arms so he could see, didn’t venture his opinion on the subject one way or the other.  “Why’s she sleepin’?”

“That’s what babies do, mostly,” said Pa.

“When’s she gonna wake up?”

“When she’s hungry, which should be soon I hope,” said Marie.

“I’m hungry now.  Can I have a cookie?”

“Little Joe, is that all you ever think about?” asked Hoss.

“No, I like doughnuts, too. Can I, Mama, please?”

Marie sighed and suppressed a smile as Little Joe entreated her. Though she tried not to show it, anyone could see he was her weakness, and like as not would always be.  “Be careful what you ask for, Cheri; with a face like that you’re liable to get it.  Yes, you may have a cookie and then it’s bedtime for you.  But first I’d like a goodnight kiss.”

He complied enthusiastically. “‘Night, Mama.”

“Aren’t you going to say goodnight to your sister?”  Pa asked.

“‘Night, Jilly for short.  Maybe when you wake up you can have a cookie, too.”

Adam stared after him before turning his attention back to the child in Marie’s arms. He tickled the tiny chin and grinned. “Well, Jilly, in case you missed him, that was Little Joe, and I think I’d better warn you, he’s a tough act to follow.”

 

CHAPTER VI – A Long Winter

The day which began in turmoil and uncertainty ended peacefully; a little too peacefully perhaps.  Aside from sleeping, babies are expected to cry and eat, but Jilly did neither one to amount to anything.  Marie tried several times unsuccessfully to interest her in a feeding but couldn’t keep her awake long enough. By the next day she was getting a little frantic.

Dr. Hickman returned that afternoon. He was a good doctor though his manner could be a bit stiff, even gruff at times, and he never stayed longer than necessary because he always had other people waiting to see him. “So many patients, so little time,” he grumbled more than once. His bluntness was mostly born of frustration with the limits of frontier medicine and being spread too thin, but he was not an unsympathetic man.

Adam knew something was wrong when he left. He could see it in his face as well as his father’s.

The doctor had been very candid about Jilly, but there wasn’t much he could do.  Nature would just have to take its course.  Even if Marie could get her to nurse, he cautioned, the baby had a lot of ground to cover by coming three weeks early and was a likely candidate for illness; even a cold could be fatal. In his experience, babies in her situation had precarious infancies which most did not survive.

The joy of Jilly’s arrival was now tainted with a grim dose of reality. It happened; babies died, more often than people liked to acknowledge, but it was easier to accept the fact in general terms than specifically.

Adam allowed himself some time to sit with the news before going up to see Marie that evening.  Knocking softly in case she was asleep, he almost hoped she was.  She wasn’t. Dr. Hickman had assured Pa she was recovering well physically, but her red-rimmed eyes reflected a deeper distress in spite of her smile.

He lowered himself into the chair on the side of the bed where his sister lay sleeping.  “How’s she doing?”

“It’s hard to say. I’m not sure she even knows she’s been born.”

“She sure doesn’t look like Little Joe, does she?”

“Your father says she reminds him of you. Maybe it’s the hair.”

He smiled.  “She has a cleft in her chin, too.”

“Would you like to hold her?”

“Sure, if it’s all right.”

“Of course. You remember how, don’t you?”

“I think so.”

The wee bundle in the crook of his arm weighed next to nothing – it was almost as much blanket as baby. Adam stroked her cheek, marveling that someone so tiny and so fragile could hold such power. The lump in his throat surprised him.  He hadn’t expected to love her so soon.

“This is my penance, you know.”

He looked up in surprise.  “What do you mean?”

“God is punishing me. He’s not going to let me keep her.”

Her tone carried a quiet resignation, a concession to the inevitable that disturbed him.  “Why would God punish you?”

“Because he knows I didn’t want her.”

“What?”

“You have to understand. I was confused…having second thoughts about your father and me. I was beginning to think I had made  the wrong decision rushing into marriage and coming to a place where I might never belong. When I found out I was going to have another child, I was angry. I felt it was a terrible mistake. And I prayed…” her voice broke. “May God forgive me for being so selfish and… foolish.”

He frowned. “I understand. You were thinking of leaving, and another baby didn’t fit into your plans. So what changed your mind?”  The words came out harsher than he intended.

Marie dropped her eyes for a moment.  “She did. Last spring, the day we ran the horses, do you remember?  There in the meadow, I felt her for the first time…I knew I’d been wrong, so wrong about a lot of things.  I knew I had to go home to your father and try to set them right.”  She paused, unable to keep the tears from her voice.  “She wasn’t a mistake; she kept me from making one. She opened my eyes to everything I had to lose, and I’d trade the rest of my life not to lose her now.”

In the aching silence that followed, words from a Sunday sermon whispered across time.  And a little child shall lead them.  Adam looked down at the baby stirring in his arms. Where was she leading them?  Part of him feared the answer.

Jilly stretched and blinked, her pink mouth puckering in a pout.  “Here,” he murmured to Marie, “I think maybe she needs her mother.”

Tiny fingers grasped his thumb in a tenacious grip as he handed her back. Maybe it was a good sign.  That’s right. You just keep holding on. You’re one of us now, and we won’t let you go easy.

~*~

Her ideas about penance and punishment notwithstanding, Marie could not abandon her baby to the whim of God. On the contrary, she poured herself into the task of coaxing her to live. It was a painstaking process and sometimes painful to watch, particularly as it affected Little Joe. He didn’t understand why his Mama was so preoccupied and weepy or why he couldn’t get close to his baby sister, much less play with her. His petulance was forgivable under the circumstances, and no one resisted the tendency to appease him whenever possible, especially Hoss.  It was no wonder to Adam that Little Joe grew up thinking their middle brother hung the moon.

Jilly persevered on her own timetable, oblivious to the gloomy odds assigned to her. No one could call her plump by any stretch of the imagination, but she did begin to flesh out a bit, and in her case a little in either direction made a big difference.  More awake and alert now, her dark eyes were quick to engage the eager faces before her, and if she hadn’t already won Adam’s heart she would have surely captured it the first time she smiled at him.  Every day she was with them made it harder to imagine life without her.

December came and went, along with a Christmas of quiet hope and gratitude. January blew in with a second blast of winter more harsh than the first. It took a lot of wood to keep the fire going, and that was Adam’s job. Though not unbearable once you found your rhythm, splitting logs was still backbreaking work, and some evenings he went to bed so tired he didn’t even feel the cold.  The days were short and the nights were long; between ranch work and his studies, the winter was busy and blessedly uneventful.

Physical labor had its rewards, though.  It pleased him more than he let on when Marie commented on his broadening shoulders; he wondered if Colleen would notice.  In the three months since Jilly was born he hadn’t seen Colleen even once, but she teased him in dreams that were sometimes shamelessly vivid, and the woodpile usually reaped the benefit the next day.

He awoke with a headache one morning in February but shrugged it off and did his chores as usual.  The snow had lately turned to rain, and a bone-chilling drizzle drove him indoors long before noon, where he fell asleep in front of the fire. When Hoss woke him for lunch the ache in his head extended to his whole shivering body. His cough alerted Marie, who took one look at him and ordered him to bed.

Fever and chills and the pain in his chest could only mean one thing — pneumonia. He was no stranger to it; his latest bout was around this same time last year, and it kept him bedridden for nearly three weeks.  Once again he marveled at the suffering the human body could endure and remain alive.

“Here, son — take a bit of this.”  He felt the cup at his lips as his father’s voice filtered through the haze of his delirium. “…Just a little tea for now.”

There were other voices in the fog and darkness…Hop Sing’s…Marie’s…Mr. Lafferty’s?…and hands, cool on his face…Colleen. Colleen was there. Her hair spilled over her shoulders onto his chest as she comforted him. He wanted to put his arms around her but he couldn’t move, he couldn’t even speak, and the thought occurred to him that he might really be dying.  If he was, it was a sweet death; there was no pain except the longing of love unfulfilled, what might have been.  If he couldn’t show her, he wished he could at least tell her he loved herThe thought expressed itself in a moan, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t there when he opened his eyes.

“How are you feeling?”  Pa’s hand was on his forehead.

“Better, I think.”

“You’ve been in and out the past couple of days, but your fever’s down.  Marie said you seemed to be sleeping peacefully when she checked on you earlier. I think that plaster must have done you some good. You’re breathing easier, I’d say.”

“I am.”  The heaviness in his chest had subsided. “Was Mr. Lafferty here?”

“No, it was Dr. Hickman.  He stopped by on his way back to town to see how Jilly was doing.  He said you’re not as sick as you were last year, thank goodness, but you’ll still need to take it easy for a while.”  Pa smiled and patted his hand.  “In the meantime, you need to get your strength back.  Hop Sing’s got some broth all ready for you. I’ll get it.”

Adam closed his eyes once more, as if he could will Colleen back to him. Of course, she hadn’t really been there; she was only as real as his dreams. But some dreams could come true, and the ache he felt now was hope for what could be and fear of what might not.  He loved Colleen and that scared him a little. What if she didn’t feel the same way? Or what if fate intervened to keep them apart? Life was uncertain, and love seemed to put it even more at risk.  The more you love, the more you could lose.

 

CHAPTER VII – A Young Man’s Fancy

Adam shifted in the saddle once more to counter the new weight on his hip.  It would take some getting used to, but he didn’t mind one bit.  This was something he had looked forward to for the past year. “When you’re sixteen,” Pa had promised him, and a promise from Pa was the next best thing.

The gift was a surprise to Marie though, who was quick to voice her objections when Pa presented it to him for his birthday last month. “This is not New Orleans,” Pa reminded her.  “A man needs to know how to use a gun out here even if he never has to, and odds are he will sooner than later.  If I don’t equip my sons for life in this land, I’m no real father to them.”

Marie must have known it was a battle she couldn’t win, and there was no point in wasting breath. But the worry in her eyes remained.  Adam was sorry to see it, yet at the same time he was a little hurt that she still thought of him as a boy.  He wasn’t a twelve-year-old who needed to be reminded to wash behind his ears or go to bed, and she had a tendency to forget that sometimes, even though he had outgrown two sets of clothes since last spring and was nearly as tall as Pa.  Well, almost.

Pa understood. The gun was a rite of passage, not to prove he was a man but because he was one.

He had been practicing for months using Pa’s old Paterson Colt. It was a belt model with a much shorter barrel than his newer holster model, but it didn’t take him long to adapt to the difference in heft and balance.  He warmed under the admiration in his father’s voice as he demonstrated his handling skill.

“That’s good son, real good. Just remember, a gun is merely a tool, no better and no worse than the man carrying it.  He should only use it when all else fails, but if he has to, he’d better be prepared to pull the trigger.”

Pa looked him straight in the eye and put a hand on his shoulder.  “It’s a great and terrible responsibility, Adam; because there’s no giving back a life once it’s taken, including your own. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I think so – ‘be as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove,’ is that right?”

“That’s it, son.”  Pa smiled.  “You’ll do fine.  Just don’t give Marie any real reason to worry or we’ll both be in trouble.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

Adam hesitated for a moment, wondering if sixteen year old young men still hugged their fathers, but Pa settled the question for him. That was the day he realized he’d never be too old.

~*~

Just the thought of seeing Colleen again made his heart race. He’d had that same feeling when he ran into her father in town last week, only to have his hopes dashed when he found out she wasn’t with him. A woman sure could do strange things to a man.

With a deep breath he rubbed his sweaty palms on his trousers before knocking on the front door.  Heavy footfalls preceded its opening by a long haired stranger, and a pair of deep-set eyes raked over him.

“Who are you?”

Taken aback by this unexpected presence, he frowned. “Adam Cartwright. I’m here to see Colleen.”

The stranger braced himself in the doorway with one hand on his hip and looked amused.  “Are you friend or foe?”

Adam felt his jaw muscles tighten at the man’s smirking proprietary manner. “Friend.  Which one are you?”

To his relief, Colleen opened the door wider behind him. “Neither,” she said, elbowing the tall figure as she stepped onto the porch.  “This is my brother, Jason.”

“Ouch. Watch it, skinny.”  His hand went to his ribs, but the complaint was merely for show.  He nodded to Adam.  “Jason Travers. So, you’re Colleen’s friend.”

“Yes,” he replied, returning his inscrutable gaze and wondering what he was doing here.  From what little Colleen had told him about her brother he’d gotten the impression that he wasn’t much for home and hearth. He was the same age as Marie, he recalled, broad-shouldered and lean, smooth-skinned with finely sculpted features and stormy blue-gray eyes. Adam tried to dismiss the feeling of dislike that nagged at him, for it had no basis that he knew. Not yet.

“It’s so good to see you, Adam,” said Colleen.

He gladly focused his attention on the object of his visit.  If it was possible, she was even prettier than he remembered. “I saw your father in town the other day and he said it was all right to come by.”

“You’re always welcome, you know that,” she smiled.  “Let’s sit out here. It’s such a nice day.”

“Sure.”  He would have been content to sit anywhere as long as it was next to her.

Jason’s footsteps echoed from inside the house, and he re-emerged buckling his holster.

“Where are you going?”  Colleen asked.

“I think I’ll go into town and try to get in on a game.”

“But you told Pa you were going to stay with Ma today.”

“She’s sleepin’ and won’t even know I’m gone. Besides,” he grinned, “I’m sure Adam would rather not have your big brother around right now.  I know I wouldn’t if I were him.  Be good, children,” he called over his shoulder, striding toward the barn. “Don’t get too naughty while Papa’s away.”

Adam frowned at the insinuation.  Colleen stared at her hands in her lap.  “I’m sorry about that,” she murmured. “He can be impossible sometimes.”

“That’s nothing for you to be sorry about. How long has he been here?”

“Nearly a month.  Pa thought it would be good for Ma, but I don’t know…”

“Is she all right?”

“Some days she seems fine, other days are like today.”

Adam wasn’t sure what that meant. “Where’s your father?”

“He’s helping Dr. Hickman.”

He sighed, “Maybe I should go.”

“No, please.”  Colleen touched his arm, and she looked like she was going to cry.  “I haven’t seen you in six months, Adam.  Please don’t go.”

“Colleen, I don’t want to go, but if your father’s not here…”

“It’s all right.  He won’t mind. He likes you. It’ll be all right.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Don’t worry. He knows the kind of person you are.”  She kissed him on the cheek.  “You wait here; I’ll bring out some lemonade.”

“Yeah, I’ll just…wait…out here.”  He sat down on the step and used his bandana to wipe the sweat from the back of his neck.  Lemonade would be nice. The afternoon was turning out to be a little warmer than he anticipated.

He held the door for her when she returned with a tray containing two glasses and a plate of molasses cookies.

“I knew there was something different about you,” she said, handing him a glass.

“What’s that?”

“Not only are you taller, you’re wearing a gun.”

He smiled, pleased that she had noticed both.  “Pa said I could have one when I turned sixteen.”

“You’re sixteen?”  Her brows arched with the question.

“Last month.”

“Oh.”

There was something in the way she said the word that put him on the defensive.  “Is something wrong?”

“No. I just thought you were older, that’s all. I’ll be eighteen in December.”

“Well, I guess that sort of makes us even, because I thought you were younger.”  He was relieved to see her smile as he sat down next to her on the step.  “I don’t see that it matters much.  Between us, I mean.”

“I suppose you’re right. Here.”

He accepted her offer of a cookie.  “Did you make these?  They’re good.”

She nodded.  “Thank you. I do all of the baking, a lot of the cooking, too.  I like to cook. I guess it’s a good thing, especially with Jason being here.”

“How long do you think he’ll stay?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I think it would be better if he left sooner than later.  He and Pa tolerate each other on the surface, but there’s always tension underneath.”

“I’m sure they probably don’t see eye to eye on everything. It must be hard on you, though. He is your brother, after all.”

“Half-brother,” she corrected him.  “Sometimes I have to remind myself that we’re related at all. I was only six years old the last time I saw him, and I hardly knew him then.  I don’t really know what I think of him now.  He can be funny and sweet and that’s the part of him I think maybe I could learn to love.  And then he can be almost cruel.  He’s careful about it though. His smiles don’t always mean what people would like to believe they do. I never really know what he’s thinking, even on the days when we’re getting along. Sometimes I’m not sure I want to know.”

The instinct to dislike Jason Travers raised its head once more.  His crude remarks earlier went beyond brotherly teasing, at least in Adam’s mind.  What kind of a man would disrespect his sister like that, especially in front of a friend?  Then again, considering his absence from her life until now, maybe he didn’t exactly think of Colleen as a sister.  The thought made Adam uncomfortable.

“Has he ever…given you any reason to be afraid of him?”

“No.”

“If he ever does, you’ll have to tell your father, and he’ll have to go.”

“I suppose so,” she replied, brushing the dust from the top of her shoe.

“Don’t just suppose, Colleen. Promise, okay?”

“Okay, I promise.”

“Good.”  He took another bite of cookie and looked up to find her staring at him, chin in hand.  “What is it?”

A corner of her mouth lifted.  “I was just thinking how dear you are.”

“I was thinking the same thing about you.”  That was an understatement. There was so much more he felt and had wanted to say, but face to face the confessional was more daunting than he imagined.

“Why did you stay away so long, Adam?”

“I didn’t intend to. It’s just the way things worked out.  After Jilly was born, things were so uncertain for awhile. It was a long, hard winter in a lot of ways. I thought about you every day, though. I even dreamed about you, more than once.”

“Really?”  She moved closer to him.  “Tell me about your dreams.”

“Uh…I don’t think I can.”   Of course he couldn’t. She would be mortified. He realized now it was a mistake to mention them.

“Why not?”

“Because…”

His tongue-tied discomfiture expressed itself in a chuckle which seemed to amuse her, and she laughed, too.  “Because…” she prompted him.

“…because if you knew you’d probably never speak to me again, that’s why, and I couldn’t stand that.”

“I see.  Well, you’d never have to worry about that but you don’t have to tell me, since it obviously disturbs you more than it does me.”  She smiled.  “I must say I’m flattered, though.  I was afraid you’d forgotten me.”

“Colleen, even if I never saw you again, I couldn’t forget you as long as I live.”  There it was, as close to a declaration as he could manage.

She looked down at her shoes again, and when she looked up a moment later her eyes were full.  “Adam Cartwright, do you know what you are?  You are the most genuine person I’ve ever met, and I’m so glad I know you.”

“I’m glad I know you, too.”  He smiled as she slipped her arm beneath his and leaned against his shoulder.

I love you, Colleen.

That’s what he meant, even if he didn’t say it.  But somehow he felt that she already knew.

They sat on the steps in ambient silence, enjoying the comfort of one another’s presence after so long apart. Colleen smelled like vanilla and cinnamon, and her warmth next to him was pleasant even in the heat of the day.

“Did you hear that?”  She glanced over her shoulder toward the door.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“I’m pretty sure I did.”  She stood up. “I’d better check on Ma.”

Adam heard voices from inside the house, so Mrs. Lafferty must have awakened.  He was debating whether or not he should prepare to leave when she appeared at the door.  He scrambled to his feet.

“Adam, how nice to see you,” she said, smoothing her hair.  “You’re looking very well. Don’t just stand out there. Come inside, won’t you?”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you.”

“I’m so glad you’ve come to call on Colleen. She sees so few people her own age. You will stay for supper, won’t you?  I should get started on it right away. Jason will be hungry when he gets home.”  The normally laconic Miriam Lafferty was practically tittering.

Colleen followed her to the kitchen. “Ma, Jason didn’t say when he’d be back.  He might have supper in town.  You should go lie down again.”

“Nonsense, I’m fit as a fiddle. Besides, Jason likes it when I cook. You know what they say; the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  Adam, did you know Colleen is an excellent cook?”

His reply was swallowed by the clatter of a skillet as it fell to the floor.  Mrs. Lafferty stared at it. “Oh dear, how clumsy of me,” she muttered, wringing her hands.  “I should have been more careful. It’s just that…it was hot, you know.”  Her voice became very small.

“It’s all right, Ma,” Colleen assured her, avoiding Adam’s eyes.  “There’s no harm.  Come on; let me help you back to bed.”

Mrs. Lafferty fidgeted with her collar. “Oh, I really should get the men’s supper going.”

“Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it when the time comes.”  She put an arm around her mother’s waist and led her out of the kitchen.

Adam picked up the cold skillet and placed it back on the stove, wondering what he should do.  He felt like an intruder, a witness to something he shouldn’t have seen, but something was clearly amiss and it seemed wrong just to stand by.

Colleen had so far only been able to persuade her mother to sit down.  Adam brought Mrs. Lafferty a cup of water which she had a hard time holding steady, but she did manage to take a little.  She attempted a smile as she handed it back to him

“You’re such a kind and thoughtful person, Adam.  Colleen needs someone like you.  She is lovely, don’t you agree…too lovely, perhaps.  I was pretty once, but not like Colleen. It can be a terrible thing to be a woman sometimes….” her voice trailed off.  “Promise me, Adam.  Promise you’ll always be good to Colleen and never hurt her.”

“Ma, please don’t.”  Colleen’s voice was a desperate whisper as she stood frozen next to her, staring at the floor.

Mrs. Lafferty seemed not to hear. “You will promise, won’t you?”  Her gray eyes were strangely dark.

“Yes ma’am, I promise you that. You have my word on it.”

She seemed satisfied and suddenly tired.  “I think I will lie down now.  You should stay for supper, Adam.  Colleen is an excellent cook, in case you didn’t know.”

He waited in the living room while Colleen tended to her mother. When she emerged a few moments later, he could see that she had been crying.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be, not on my account anyway.  Look, I don’t want to pry, but something is obviously wrong with your mother.  Do you want talk about it?”

She shook her head.  “I can’t, Adam, not right now. I wish I could.”

“It’s all right. I understand. It’s family business.”

Colleen smiled a bit.  “You would understand that. I’m just sorry she put you in such an awkward position.”

“How so?”

“By exacting a promise from you when she had no right to ask. You were very sweet with her, though, and I’m grateful.”

“I didn’t say it be sweet or to earn your gratitude, Colleen.  That’s a promise I mean to keep.”  He touched her cheek.  “You must know how I feel about you.”

“I know you like me.”

“It’s more than that.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure I love you.”

She was in his arms now, warm and beautiful, the Colleen of his dreams, and he felt his heart run wild as he kissed her this time. Marie’s warning echoed faintly in a nether region of his brain, subdued by a more immediate and demanding rhythm….

~*~

“If you want me you’ll have to catch me,” Colleen laughed over her shoulder.

He reached her in three strides, locking her in his embrace from behind as she giggled. “Did you think I couldn’t?”

“I think you could do anything you wanted.”  She turned in his arms to face him.  “What do you want, Adam?”  Her voice was soft, her tone no longer teasing.

He plucked a piece of grass from her hair and smiled, smitten once more by her loveliness.  “Do you really need to ask?”

Maybe it was spring and being sixteen, or maybe it was the invitation in her eyes that prompted his boldness.  Her lips parted in response to his kiss as he molded her to him, and then suddenly she pulled away.

“Something’s happening,” she breathed.

He followed her gaze to the sky.  The blue had faded to a sickly yellow-gray which was darkening by the second as clouds devoured what was left of the sun, and there was a charge in the air that made the hair on the back of his neck bristle.  The storm seemed to have boiled up out of nowhere; if there were signs he had missed them, and going back to the house meant heading straight into it.  Their only hope for shelter was in the opposite direction at the old line shack.

Lightning sizzled, follow by an ominous rumble.  The rain wouldn’t be far behind.

“Come on!”  He pulled her by the hand as they sprinted for their horses. “Stay close to me!”  Even if they couldn’t outrun the storm, they’d at least have a chance to escape the worst of it.

The line shack was further than he thought and more primitive than he remembered. Still, it was a roof over their heads. Any port in the storm, he reasoned.

“What about the horses?”

“They’ll be all right,” he assured her, hoping he was right.  The animals were on their own. He couldn’t worry about them, but Colleen was his responsibility.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, just wet.”  She wrung the water from her hair and looked down at her clothes, dismayed.  “Look at me. I’m a mess.”

They were both soaked, and Adam couldn’t help looking.  The sheer fabric of her blouse as it clung to her left little doubt as to what lay beneath.  He forced his eyes to her face before she caught him staring, and he smiled.  “You look fine to me.  I’m sorry about this.”

“Don’t be silly.  It’s not your fault.  I’m the one who wanted to go riding.”

A thunderclap left her shaking in his arms. “Are you afraid?” he asked her.

She raised her lashes to meet his eyes.  “Not with you,” she whispered, “never with you.”

Even as he kissed her he knew it was wrong, but that knowledge wasn’t enough to stop him. The sweet ache of desire, since the beginning of time the undoing of so many, rendered him momentarily blind to the pitfalls of this new and dangerous path where want triumphed over reason, where there was no return.

Another crash that rattled the windowpanes jolted him upright.  Drenched in sweat, his heart beating nearly out of his chest, he surveyed the four walls of his own room before falling back against his pillow.

A sound shook him from within, but he didn’t know whether he was laughing or crying.  All he knew was that he couldn’t keep living this way.

There was only clear course of action in his mind, one that had been forming for a while now. Pa would say he was too young, but he wasn’t too young to be in love, and he loved Colleen so much it terrified him sometimes.  Mr. Lafferty trusted him, but he’d be shocked to know the sins he had committed with his daughter, even if only in his heart and dreams.  So would Pa for that matter.

Worse than that was the feeling that the only way they could keep from ultimately disappointing their families would be to stop seeing each other, and he could never do that now.  This was the only way. His father wouldn’t be happy about it, at least not at first, but Adam was determined to make him see that this was for the good of everyone.

Calmer now but still unable to sleep, he got out of bed and put on his robe.  A glass of milk sounded pretty good. He met Marie in the hallway, balancing a lamp and a fretful baby. “What’s the matter?  Is she sick?”

“No, the storm woke her.  I know she’s tired, but she won’t settle down long enough to go back to sleep. I was going to take her downstairs because I didn’t her to wake your father.”

“I’ll take her.”

“You don’t mind?”  Marie looked surprised and then grateful when he nodded.  “All right then.  Off you go, Cherie,” she said, giving Jilly a peck on the cheek.

“Come here, dumpling.”  His reward was a wide baby grin as she recognized him.

Marie smiled. “Sweet dreams.”

He forgot about the milk as they entertained one another for the next half hour.  Jilly didn’t seem the least bit tired, even at two am, and everything he did made her giggle. By two thirty she was nestled against his chest, clutching his robe in her tiny fist, her chin quivering in slumber. He could’ve taken her back to her crib then but he was content just to hold her.

Jilly shuddered and breathed a little sigh.  Adam patted her back, resting his cheek on top of her downy curls.  It made him a little sad to think of leaving her, but he and Colleen would have their own children after they were married.

 

CHAPTER VIII — A Big Step

“Hey, Adam!”  The lone diner at the breakfast table greeted him with a syrupy grin.

“Hey, yourself.  Where is everybody?”

“Mama’s in the kitchen, gettin’ me more pancakes.  Want some?”

Adam took the seat next to Little Joe’s stool and yawned. “Maybe in a minute. I think I’ll start with coffee.”  He righted his cup in his saucer and was looking for the pot when Marie brought it out from the kitchen, the baby secured in one arm.

“You’ll want this; it’s fresh. We finished the first one.”  She smiled as she poured.

“Thanks.  I didn’t mean to sleep so late.”

“Well, don’t worry about it.  Your father and I felt you were entitled after last night.”

“I didn’t mind it.”  He gave his sister’s foot a little shake. “How’s my girl this morning, huh?”   Jilly rewarded him with a wide smile.

“Just full of herself, I’d have to say.  Do you think you could hold her while I finish up in the kitchen? Hop Sing went into town with your father and Hoss, and I’ve got a little too much help right now, if you know what I mean.”

He feigned a sigh. “Oh, I guess so, if I have to.  Come here, you. Hey Little Joe, watch this.”   He held Jilly in front of him and nuzzled her tummy with his nose.  She burbled and laughed.

“Why is she laughing?”

“She’s ticklish, just like you are.”

“Do it again, Adam.”

“She likes it when you make faces at her, too.”

“Let me try.”

Little Joe puffed his cheeks, crossed his eyes and contorted his expression a dozen different ways, all of which amused Jilly.  “She’s almost like a real person,” he said afterwards.

“She is a real person, Little Joe.  She’s a baby now, but one of these days she’s going to walk and talk and run and play, and she’ll want to do all of that with you.”

“Me?”

“Sure.  I mean you’re her big brother, but you’re not that much older.  You’ll be growing up together. She’ll probably want to do everything you do.  You’ll have to look out for her.”

Little Joe considered the idea for a moment as he studied her.  “Can I hold her?”

“Not here at the table,” said Adam, helping himself to some scrambled eggs. “Finish your breakfast.”

“I’m finished.”

“Not with your milk.”

Little Joe picked up his cup and drained the contents without stopping for air.  “Okay, done.”  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and hopped down from his seat.

The hopeful green-eyed stare made Adam put down his fork with a sigh.  Once his baby brother got an idea into his head it was hard to put him off.

“Come on over here.”

At his instructions, Little Joe climbed into the chair by the fireplace.  “All right, sit still. She’s squirmy.  You’re gonna have to hold on to her so she won’t fall.”  Adam set her in front of him, between his legs.  “Have you got her?”

“Yep.  Don’t worry, Jilly. I won’t let you fall.”  He tickled her ear with his nose and she giggled.  “See, she likes it when I hold her.  Look Mama, I’m takin’ care of Jilly,” Little Joe beamed.

Adam turned to see Marie smiling down at them, and he thought he saw tears in her eyes.  “Mes anges. You make your Mama very proud, though sometimes I think you’re both growing up too fast.”

“When Jilly gets bigger we’re gonna play together and I’m gonna look out for her, just like Adam said.”

“That’s as it should be.  You’ll always do well if you listen to your big brother.”  She smiled at Adam, “Go and have your breakfast. I’ll take over from here.”

“No no, Jilly, not my hair..,” said Little Joe. “ Ouch, she’s pullin’ my hair…Mama!  Take her, I’m done!”

~*~

Hop Sing and Hoss arrived home with the supplies shortly before noon, but to Adam’s disappointment his father was not with them. By mid-afternoon he still had not returned. Adam tried to allay his impatience with a book but it wasn’t working

He looked up to see Marie paused in her sewing, watching him. “What is it?” he asked.

“I was about to ask you the same question.”

“Nothing, why?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  You just seem a little restless today, pacing around like a cat in a cage all morning, pretending to read that book when it’s fairly obvious your mind is on something else.”

“I’m not pretending. I am reading.”  It was a poor attempt, anyway.

“It must be a very difficult book then, for you to spend fifteen minutes on the same paragraph,” she smiled.

Refocusing his attention on the book, he turned the page with no idea what he had just read.  “I just need to talk to Pa about something.”

“It’s Colleen, isn’t it?”

Adam fidgeted under her knowing gaze.  It was disconcerting, the way Marie could see right through him sometimes.  He didn’t answer.

“She’s very important to you, isn’t she?”  She was no longer smiling.

“Yes, but I don’t expect you to understand or approve.”

She seemed to flinch at his words, and her response made him regret his tone.  “You judge me too harshly, Adam.  I’m not so far from sixteen that I can’t remember what it feels like. The truth is that I do understand, and that is why I ache for you. I know how easily a young heart can be broken, and I also know there is no way I can keep you from that.”

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate your concern, Marie, but it’s not up to you to keep me from anything,” he said, rising from the chair. He hadn’t imagined getting into this discussion with her but it seemed to have been more or less thrust upon him, and emotions that were already raw gave rise to a resentment he thought long buried.

“I’m not your son, and I’m not a boy like Hoss or Little Joe, and you just can’t accept that, can you?  Look at me, Marie. I’m not twelve years old anymore.  I’m a man, and I can make my own decisions.”

“You’re wrong, Adam.  I don’t think of you as a boy. You’re more of a man than most men I know.  But the world at sixteen looks very different than it does at twenty-one, and so does love.  You won’t really understand that until you’ve learned it first-hand, as I did. I just hope it’s not a bitter lesson.”  She looked down before continuing.  “I suspect you’ve already given your heart.”

“I love Colleen and I intend to marry her.”

“Oh.”  Her shoulders sagged with a small sigh.  “So it’s gone that far, has it?  Have you asked her?”

“Not yet,” he admitted.  “But I know she loves me, and she’ll say yes.”

Marie got up from her chair and crossed the room to the window. She kept her back to him when she spoke. “Have you thought about what your father will say?”

He had given the matter quite a lot of thought during the past few hours, mentally rehearsing the answers to every argument his father was bound to raise. “I’m sure he’ll try to talk me out of it, but he won’t stop me. He can’t.”

She dropped her head for a moment before turning around, and for the second time that day he saw her tears. “No, I don’t suppose anyone could,” she said quietly, “not if you’ve made up your mind. What will be, will be.” A baby’s cry from upstairs diverted her eyes from his. “Excuse me.”

He frowned as he watched her go. She hadn’t really argued with him at all, and yet he felt somewhat deflated. Deep down he knew that her words had only been prompted by concern, and his response had been unnecessarily harsh. He would apologize, but he wouldn’t change his mind.

There was no going back to his book when Hoss and Little Joe bounded down the stairs, but it didn’t matter because Marie had been right about that – he hadn’t really been reading it. Besides, his brothers were a much more effective distraction. A half hour later his father finally came home.

Little Joe greeted him with characteristic enthusiasm. “Hey, Pa! You sure were gone a long time today.”

He scooped him into his arms with a grin. “What’s the matter boy, did you miss me?”

“Yes sir! Next time you go to town, can I go?”

“Well, maybe we’ll all go next time, how about that?”

“Yippee!”

“And how are my girls?” He set Little Joe on his feet, kissed Marie and took the baby from her. “You were still asleep when I left this morning, Jilly,” he said, jostling her in his arms.

“Careful, Ben. She’s full of milk,” her mother warned.

“She pulls hair too, Pa,” said Little Joe.

“Oh, she does, does she?”

“Pa, I need to talk to you about something,” said Adam.

“Sure, son. Oh, I almost forgot. I saw Angus Lafferty in town today and invited him and his family for dinner Saturday night. I thought it was about time we got together to celebrate.”

“Celebrate?” Marie’s voice sounded a little strange. Adam didn’t trust himself to look at her.

“Yes,” said his father. “After all, if it wasn’t for Angus, well, we might not be such a happy family right now.” He gave Jilly a squeeze and a kiss.

“Of course,” said Marie. “You’re right. It’s a lovely idea. Come on, Little Joe; let’s get you washed up for supper. You too, Hoss.”

Ben turned to Adam. “Now what was it you wanted to talk about, son?”

“It can wait until after supper,” said Adam. “Uh, you might want to get cleaned up yourself, Pa.” He pointed to his vest.

“Uh oh. Here, can you take her for me? Oh…sweetheart, let go…ouch!”

“Told ya, Pa!” Little Joe hollered.

~*~

Things had gone well at the bank, and Pa was in high spirits at supper. Marie busied herself with the baby and Little Joe and didn’t have much to say.  Adam caught her eye once; she acknowledged him with a rather poignant smile which he gratefully returned.  He was only just beginning to realize how much her opinion mattered to him, and how much he disliked being at odds with her.

There was bread pudding for dessert, one of Pa’s favorites. “Mmm, I think you’ve outdone yourself, Hop Sing.  Perhaps you could make another one for Saturday night.  We’ll have four more for dinner.”

The cook bobbed and smiled at the compliment.   “Yes, Mistah Cahtlight.”

Marie looked up in surprise.  “Four?”

“Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you.  Colleen’s brother is visiting.”

“I didn’t know Colleen had a brother,” she said.

“Half-brother,” Adam volunteered, wary at the prospect of this unexpected guest.

“Yes, he’s Mrs. Lafferty’s son from her first marriage. You met him, didn’t you, Adam?  What’s his name?”

“Jason something or other.  He’s a lot older than Colleen.  They’re not very close.”

“I see,” said Marie.  “I get the feeling you weren’t very impressed by him.  What is he like?”

Adam could think of a few choice words to describe him but decided against them. “Well, I didn’t have much time to get to know him, but as far as I could tell, he likes to play cards and he’s very rude.”

“Well,” said his father, “it sounds like it could be an interesting evening.”

Marie was still looking at Adam.  “I’m sure it will be.”

~*~

With Hoss and Little Joe tucked in bed and Jilly on her way, Adam had his first chance to speak to his father.  He was suddenly more nervous than he thought he would be.

“Well, son?”  Pa lit his pipe and waited for him to answer.

Adam took a deep breath and plunged in. “Pa, I want to ask Colleen to marry me.”

The stunned silence that followed lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed to swallow the room until his father found his voice.  “Married?  You want to get married?”

“That’s right.”

Pa sank back into his chair.  “Well, I certainly didn’t see this coming,” he murmured, shaking his head in disbelief.  “Adam, I know Colleen is a very lovely young lady and I can see why you’re so fond of her, but marriage?  It’s an awfully big step.  You hardly know one another.”

“I know her well enough to know that I love her.”

“Son, I know you believe that, but at sixteen it’s very easy to confuse love with something that only feels like love for a while. Only time can tell if it’s true.  Now, you have to think about your future.  What about your plans to go to college?”

“They aren’t set in stone, Pa.  I can have a future here without going to college. Plenty of people have done it.  You did.”

“But surely Colleen must know how important this is to you, and if she loved you she wouldn’t want you to give it up for her.  Now it seems to me that the wise thing would be to wait until after…”

Adam cut him off. ”No, I don’t want to wait that long. I can’t. I want to marry Colleen now.”

His father gave him a hard stare.  “Adam, is there a particular reason for this urgency, something you haven’t told me?   Have you and Colleen…is she in trouble?”

“No, it’s not that.  We haven’t, Pa. I swear.”  At least he could say that much with a clear conscience.

“I’m sorry, son.  I was sure I raised you better than that, but I had to ask.”

Adam had prepared himself for his father’s objections and had no intention of backing down. He rose from his chair. “Pa, I’d like to have your blessing, but I don’t need your consent to get married.  I’m old enough and so is Colleen.”

“I’m well aware of that, Adam. If you’re determined to do this I can’t stop you.  But I would be remiss in not voicing my concerns.  Tell me, how do you intend to provide for a wife and a family?  I know it’s just the two of you now, but that’s likely to change in the natural course of events once you’re married. You could find yourself with two or three extra mouths to feed before you’re even twenty.”

“I’ll get a job, of course.  I thought maybe I could work for you, hire on as a hand.  You could pay me wages like Gib and Ed.”

“I suppose so, though the bunkhouse is no place for a husband and wife.  Have you thought about where you will live?”

“I thought we could live here in the house until we can get a place of our own.”

“Of course, you’d be welcome here for as long as it’s practical. It might be a little difficult for Colleen, though.”

“How do you mean?”

“I’m talking about two women living in the same house where only one can be mistress.  After a while that can become a rather sticky situation. Every woman wants and needs her own home, especially when she starts having children.”

“I know what you’re trying to do, Pa.”

“Am I doing it so badly?”

Adam returned his father’s half-hearted smile.  “No. You’re just doing what you feel you have to.  I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Pa rubbed his forehead. “I guess I’ve said all I can say. This is your decision to make, not mine.  Even though it’s far against my better judgment, if you’re determined to go through with this I won’t oppose you. In fact, I’ll do what I can to help you, you know that. Just know that it won’t be easy.”

“I know.  But you’ve told me more than once that nothing worthwhile comes easy.”

“Well, it’s good to know you were listening.”

Adam smiled. “I hear everything you say, even when I don’t want to.  Pa, I’m ready for this.”

“Who am I to say you’re not?” His father’s furrowed brow relaxed a little, though his expression was still wistful.  “I love you, son. I just want you to be happy.”

“I love you, too, and I want you to be happy for me.”

Pa cleared his throat and rose from his chair. “I wish you and Colleen all the best.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

The handshake became an embrace, and Adam didn’t know if he was more surprised by his father’s unexpected kiss or the sting of his own tears.  Embarrassed, he brushed them away quickly, but Pa didn’t bother.  Pa wasn’t afraid to cry.

“Well, I guess Saturday night will be more of a celebration than we planned,” said Pa as they started up the stairs together, “after you’ve spoken to Angus, that is. He probably won’t be expecting this. It’s liable to be a big surprise.”

“I guess you’re probably right. At least I know he likes me, and I think Mrs. Lafferty does too.”

Pa smiled. “I’m sure that’s true.   Goodnight, son.”

“G’night, Pa.”

Adam lay in bed for a long time that night, too excited to sleep, mentally rehearsing what he would say to Mr. Lafferty when he asked for his daughter’s hand. Colleen’s face and form swirled in his head until he finally succumbed to dreams of wedded bliss that put a spring in his step the next morning.  It wasn’t until later in the day that he half-remembered the other dream.  It was more feeling than memory, but it was enough to make him wish Colleen’s brother would go back to wherever he came from, preferably before Saturday night.

 

CHAPTER IX – A Reckoning Force

Adam finished buttoning the cuffs on his new shirt and surveyed his reflection in the mirror.  Frowning, he picked up the brush and attempted to smooth his hair one more time.  He should have let Marie cut it when she offered yesterday. It was too long and too curly, but there was nothing he could do about it now.

“Hey, Adam.”

“Hey, yourself,” he muttered, fiddling with his tie.

Little Joe hopped onto Adam’s bed, making himself right at home.  “Whatcha doin’?”

Hoss answered for him as he entered the room.  “He’s gettin’ himself all gussied up for Colleen.”

“Why?” asked Little Joe.

“Cause he’s sweet on her,”  Hoss grinned.

Adam rolled his eyes but didn’t respond.  Maybe if he ignored them, they would just go away.

Little Joe wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

Hoss walked closer to Adam and sniffed.  “Smells like ladies.”

“It’s lilac water,” Adam growled.   “Doesn’t anybody knock around here?”

Little Joe answered his question with another question. “Are you gonna let Colleen kiss you again?”

Adam jerked the tie loose from around his neck and whirled toward his brothers.  “All right, that’s it!  Get out, both of you, now!”

“What’s going on in here?”

Marie stepped aside when Hoss ushered Little Joe past her through the doorway. “Come on, Little Joe, I think we’re makin’ him nervous.  Sorry, Adam.”  Hoss’s expression was a mix of sympathy and amusement.

“Sorry, Adam,” Little Joe echoed.  “Don’t worry.  You look and smell real pretty.”

“Thanks.”

He turned back to the mirror with a sigh, and made another clumsy attempt with the tie until Marie intervened.  “Here, let me.” It wasn’t his brothers who were making him nervous, and they both knew it.

“There,” she said when she was finished. She smoothed his shirt with her hands and rested them on his shoulders.  “Little Joe was right.  You do look pretty. Colleen is a very lucky girl.”

She smiled, but it was that same sad smile he had seen that day in the meadow, the one that troubled him.

“Don’t worry, Marie.  Everything’s going to be fine, you’ll see.”

“I pray so, Cheri, with all my heart.”

~*~

The evening couldn’t have begun more perfectly. Colleen and her family arrived on schedule and without her brother, much to Adam’s relief. In spite of any misgivings she may have had, Marie welcomed them warmly, taking great care to put Colleen’s mother at ease. Of course, she had some help from Jilly. At nearly nine months, she was a happy, adorable baby, rosy-cheeked and all smiles — the picture of health, Mr. Lafferty noted with pleasure, and his wife seemed captivated by her.

“Would you like to hold her?” Marie asked.

“Oh, could I?  Do you think she would mind?”

“Not at all.  She loves everyone.”

Mrs. Lafferty smiled as Marie placed Jilly in her arms.  It wasn’t the tight-lipped nervous smile Adam had seen before, it was much softer, and it seemed to lift years from her face.  As she bounced the baby in her lap, delighting in her laughter, he caught a glimpse of the lovely woman she must have been.  He was glad to see her happy.

“Her hair is so pretty,” said Mrs. Lafferty, fingering Jilly’s dark curls.  “It reminds me of Colleen’s.  I could hardly keep my hands from it.”

Adam stole a glance at Colleen next to him, whose hair was still very pretty and tempting to the touch, but that wasn’t all he longed to fill his hands with as he returned her smile.

“How long until dinner?” he asked Marie.

“We have a few minutes yet.”

He turned to Colleen. “Would you like to take a walk?”

“I’d love to.”

“Would you excuse us?”

“Certainly,” said Mr. Lafferty.

“I wanna go.” Little Joe squirmed in his mother’s lap.

“Not this time,” said Marie, securing her hold on him.  “I need you to stay right here with me.”

~*~

They walked outside to a sunset Adam would’ve ordered for the occasion if he’d had the power.  Sky and earth converged in a blaze of red and gold and every hue in between as day yielded to the blue shadows of twilight.  Shoulder to shoulder with Colleen on the porch, his fingers curled around her hand as she slipped it into his.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

She was looking at the view, but his eyes were on her. Her black hair tumbled loosely past her shoulders, and her skin glowed like the moon on new snow.  “I think it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.”

She turned and smiled, stopping him when he leaned in for a kiss.  “Not here.”  She tugged on his arm with a mischievous grin and led him away from the house toward the barn.  Like a lamb to the slaughter, he followed.  It wouldn’t have mattered where.

Colleen was in his arms the moment they stepped inside.  “Now,” she whispered.  “Kiss me before I die.”

He needed no further prompting after missing her so, and when their lips met it was like tossing a lighted match into a pile of dry brush.  He pulled her close, burning like the sky, to the point where he felt his whole body might burst into flames.

The next few seconds were a blur, and everything happened so quickly he wasn’t sure what happened first.  The best he could figure was that the cat startled Colleen, who jumped and knocked them both backwards, causing him to kick over a bucket which startled the horses, and somehow the two of them wound up on the ground in a very awkward position. Mercifully, a pile of hay broke their fall, and after he rolled her over and made sure she wasn’t hurt, they spent the next few moments convulsed in laughter at the absurdity of their situation.

When they recovered themselves sufficiently, he helped her to her feet.  “I’m sorry,” he chuckled, pulling hay from her hair as she dusted herself off. “This isn’t what I had planned.”

“No harm done,” she assured him with a smile he had come to know.  “Where were we?”

“Colleen, wait…”

“What’s wrong, Adam?  Don’t you like kissing me?”  She stared up at him with that pretty pout, her arms around his neck.

“That’s the problem.  I like it too much.”  He tried to ignore her fingers in his hair as he warned her.  “To be honest, it makes me want to do terrible things to you.”

The corners of her mouth turned up in a way most beguiling.  “I don’t think you could ever do anything terrible to anyone.”

“If you keep kissing me like you did before, I’m liable to forget myself.”

“Do you know what I think, Adam?”

“What?”

Her lips were very close to his as she answered. “I think you worry too much.”

Colleen Lafferty was a force to be reckoned with, and any resolve he had to put her off was gone by now.  He gave her the full force of his kiss, boldly allowing his hands to roam where they naturally wanted to go.  After all, they were going to be married, and he intended to settle that matter in a hurry, as soon as…

“Well, well, caught in the act. I knew it was bound to happen.”

The intruder startled them both, and though his face was hidden in shadow Adam had no trouble identifying the sneering voice.  He felt more irritation than guilt as he loosened his hold on Colleen.  “I thought you said he wasn’t coming.”

Colleen frowned.  “What are you doing here, Jason?”

“I believe I was invited, same as you.”

“But you told Ma you were going into town.”

“I changed my mind,” he said, coming closer. “That’s not a crime is it? I decided I shouldn’t pass up a chance to visit the Ponderosa.

“What made you decide to come in here instead of going on up to the house?”  Adam knew his tone was less than polite, but he wasn’t feeling very hospitable toward Colleen’s brother at the moment.

“Well, I heard a commotion when I rode up and thought I’d see what it was. You oughta thank me. If I hadn’t come in when I did you two might’ve burned down the barn.”  He chuckled at his joke.

“It’s not what you think,” said Colleen.  We were just…”

“You don’t have to explain it to me.  What you and your young swain do in the dark is your own business. Then again, the old folks might not see it that way.”

“Please, Jason, don’t cause any trouble.”

“Oh, don’t worry, darlin’. I’ll keep your little secret.”

“There’s nothing to keep,” Adam retorted.  “We were only kissing.”

“You do look thoroughly kissed, I’ll say that,” he smirked, brushing a piece of hay from Colleen’s shoulder and straightening her dress. “But I’m not sure I believe the part about ‘only’.”

“I don’t care what you believe,” said Adam.

“Fair enough,” said Jason.  “Why don’t we all go up to the house together, hmm?”  He put his arm around Colleen and led her toward the door.

“Colleen, wait a minute…”

“We’d better go, Adam. They’ll be expecting us back. Oh, you’d better fix your shirt.”

Adam tucked in his shirttail and followed them, scowling.  Of all the times for a person to show up, and it had to be him.  He now had reason enough to dislike Jason Travers.

Pa met them at the door.  “We were just about to send out a search party,” he joked.  “Dinner’s ready.”

“Better set another place,” growled Adam.

“Oh?”

“Mr. Cartwright, this is my brother, Jason,” Colleen explained.

“I hope my coming at the last minute isn’t an inconvenience.”

“Not at all,” said Pa, shaking his hand.  “We’re very glad you could join us.”

Speak for yourself. Adam shot his father a look to let him know his enthusiasm was not shared by all.  Pa’s brows arched with a silent question; Adam rolled his eyes and shook his head. No, not yet.

“My wife is upstairs putting the baby to bed, but she’ll be down in a minute and then we can get seated for dinner. Please make yourselves comfortable in the meantime. I’ll go tell Hop Sing we have another guest.”

“Jason,” Mrs. Lafferty greeted her son. The lines had returned to her forehead. “I’m glad you decided not to stay in town.”

“Hello, Ma.” He and Angus acknowledged one another with a curt nod, nothing more.

Jason looked down at Little Joe, who was staring up at him like he had two heads.  “Who might you be?”

“That’s Adam’s brother, Little Joe,” said Colleen, smiling, “and that’s his other brother, Hoss.”

“Howdy,” said Hoss with a smile for Colleen.

“Adam said you like to play cards,” said Little Joe.

 Adam stepped forward to intercept him. “Little Joe, why don’t I help you get washed up for supper?”

“I already washed.  Mama helped me.”

“Then let’s get you to the table.”

“I wanna wait for Mama.”

“No need to wait any longer, Cheri,” said Marie, tripping lightly down the stairs.  “I’m sorry for the delay.”

“Your timing is perfect, my dear,” said Pa.  “By the way, we’re privileged to have Colleen’s brother with us tonight after all.  Jason, this is my wife, Marie.”

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet the lovely Mrs. Cartwright,” said Jason, lifting her hand to his lips with a smile.  “Thank you for having me in your home.”

For a moment, Marie seemed taken aback, but her recovery was so quick Adam wondered if anyone else noticed.

“Any brother of Colleen’s is welcome here, of course.”  She took her husband’s arm.  “Shall we sit down?”

~*~

Pa took his usual seat at the head of the table, with Mr. and Mrs. Lafferty and Jason on his left.  Marie sat at the other end so she could tend to Little Joe. That left the bench from the front porch for Hoss, Colleen and Adam.  It was a little crowded, but Adam didn’t mind that at all. In fact, Colleen’s warmth next to him dispelled his earlier irritation, especially when her leg brushed his.

“Angus, I understand you’ve been staying pretty busy helping Dr. Hickman,” said Pa.

“Yes, I have been.  He doesn’t seem to mind sharing his case load.”

“I don’t doubt that. The man’s pretty hard pressed. This territory is more than one doctor can handle.  Have you given any thought to establishing your own practice here permanently?”

“Well, to be honest, I never thought I would ever consider it again, but yes, I am thinking about it. There are a lot of good people here.  I’ve grown quite fond of some of them already.”

“From what I understand, the feelings are mutual,” said Pa.

Mrs. Lafferty smiled at her husband.  “Angus was always a wonderful doctor.”

“He certainly has my endorsement,” said Marie, smiling as well.

“Amen to that,” said Pa.  “We owe you so much that we can never repay, Angus.”

Mr. Lafferty almost seemed embarrassed by their praise.  “I don’t know about that.  All I know is that if it weren’t for Adam I’d still be running away from myself. I think I’m the one who’s indebted.”  He smiled.  “Adam, Colleen tells me you’re planning to go to college back east. Are you thinking of Harvard?”

Adam could feel his father’s eyes on him as he contemplated his answer.  “Uh, I haven’t actually made up my mind about that yet.”

Mr. Lafferty pressed him further. “What are your interests?  What would you like to study?”

Colleen was smiling at him.  She had been impressed when he told her his ambitions when they first met.  He cleared his throat.  “Well, I had thought about architecture or engineering, but I’m not sure.”

“Well, whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll do very well,” he said. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and I know you won’t waste it. This country needs more educated men.”

“Yes sir. Thank you.”

Pa offered him a look of sympathy before redirecting the conversation.  “Jason, how long will you be staying?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Until the wind changes, I guess. I’ve never been one to let the grass grow under my feet, at least not for the past fifteen years since I took to the road.”

“That’s a long time for such a young man.”

“I’ve been on my own since I was thirteen.  A man gets a different kind of education that way, the kind of things you don’t learn in books.”

“You mean like playin’ cards?” Little Joe asked.

“Eat your dinner, Joseph.”  Marie’s voice was quiet but firm.

Jason seemed amused by the question.  “Yes, among other things.”  He smiled at Marie.  “That’s quite a boy you’ve got there, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“Thank you.”  She offered him a polite smile before returning her attention to her son.

“You left home when you were thirteen?”  Hoss was staring across the table at Jason with a puzzled frown. “That’s only three years older than me…and three years younger than Adam.”  He seemed pleased with himself for figuring out the last part.

“Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Makes a boy grow up too fast, especially when he sees things he shouldn’t. Of course, if I’d had a home like this I never would’ve left.”

Adam felt Colleen stiffen next to him. He had nothing but sympathy for Mrs. Lafferty, whose demeanor since her son’s arrival had shifted from happy to tense and was now edging toward miserable.

“Jason, please…” she whispered.

“Now Ma, there’s no need to fret.  It’s not your fault.  You couldn’t have known how it was, you were nowhere near.  Besides, that’s all water under the bridge now, and things worked out in the end, didn’t they?  I mean, here we are together now, one happy family.  In fact, I’d like to propose a toast, if I may.”  He lifted his glass.  “To family, friends… and future generations.”

There was an awkward moment of silence before glasses were slowly raised in response. The toast was a mockery as far as Adam was concerned, and he felt like a hypocrite even following his father’s lead. Jason didn’t care about family or friends, and Adam suspected the part about future generations was a jab at him and Colleen, based on his crude assumption of what went on in the barn. His smirk in their direction confirmed the feeling.

Mrs. Lafferty’s hand brushed her glass as she reached for it, knocking it over in the middle of the table. She looked like she wanted to crawl under it, away from all their eyes. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” she murmured.

“Uh oh, there’s a mess,” said Little Joe, shaking his head.

Marie shushed him promptly.  “It’s all right; it’s only water,” she assured Mrs. Lafferty.  “I’ll get a towel from the kitchen and we’ll have it right up.”

Mrs. Lafferty rose from her chair also, and for a moment she just stood there, wringing her hands.  “I’m so very sorry,” she repeated. “Please excuse me.”  She fled the room in tears before Marie could return with the towel.

Jason pushed away from the table with a sigh.  “Well, I suppose one of us should go after her.”

Mr. Lafferty was already on his feet.  “I’ll go.”  He kept his voice low but there was no mistaking its contempt.  “You’ve done enough already.”

Adam glanced at his father, and judging from his expression he didn’t like what he had just seen, though he said nothing.  But Colleen had a few things to say.

“How could you, Jason?”

“Is it my fault she spilled her drink?”

His cavalier response set her off. “You know what I’m talking about.  You couldn’t let her enjoy just one evening, could you?  I’m beginning to think the only reason you came back here is to punish her for what you think she did to you. Like you said, you’ve had fifteen years, so when are you going to grow up enough to stop blaming her for your miserable life?  It’s not her fault, and it certainly doesn’t give you the right to ruin hers and everyone else’s around you.”

“Is that all?”

“No, there is one more thing. You’re my brother, and I know I’m supposed to love you, but right now I think you’re the most despicable person I’ve ever met.”

Jason dropped his eyes for a moment, and it seemed as if her last words might have wounded him a little.   He rose from the table.  “Well, I guess I’ll be going into town after all. Thank you kindly, Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright.”  He nodded farewell to Pa and to Marie, who stared after him with troubled expressions.

Colleen was near tears.  Adam squeezed her hand.  “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I just need to check on my mother.  Would you all please excuse me?”

It pained him to let her go, but he knew he wasn’t needed. This was a family matter, and their privacy had been shattered enough.  He caught a sympathetic glance from Marie as he watched her clean up the spill. His hopes for proposing to Colleen that night were fading, like the water spots on the tablecloth.

It was no surprise when Mr. Lafferty returned to express his regrets that they wouldn’t be able to stay and to beg their forgiveness.  Miriam had not been well lately, he explained, and the strain of the evening had been too much for her. Pa and Marie were quick to assure him they understood, even if they didn’t understand everything.

At his invitation, Adam followed Mr. Lafferty outside.  Colleen wanted to say goodnight. She met him on the porch while her parents waited in the wagon.

“I’m so sorry, Adam.  I don’t know what else to say.”

“Believe me; you’re not half as sorry as I am. I wanted this to be a special evening.”

She managed a smile. “It started out that way, didn’t it?”

“Yes it did.”  He longed to kiss her again, but her folks were there.  “I’ll come to you,” he promised.

She pressed her lips to his cheek.  “Come soon,” she whispered.

Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.

The wagon disappeared into darkness, and the creak of wheels was soon swallowed by the stillness of the night.  Adam plopped down on the front step and loosened his tie. He was in no hurry to go back inside.  He didn’t want to talk to anyone and he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

An owl called to his mate. Adam rested his head in his hands and listened as they carried on their courtship above him.

Damn her brother.

 

CHAPTER X – Fateful Intervention

Adam tugged at his collar, chafing in the sweltering heat of the church house.  His misery had plenty of company that morning.  Every bench was filled, mostly with women and children who fanned themselves and fidgeted while most of the men stood in the back. Adam had given his seat to a rather large woman he didn’t know, and that didn’t sit well with Little Joe. After an apprehensive appraisal of the stranger, he sent a scowl over his shoulder to his oldest brother. His body sagged when Marie whispered something to him, and Adam didn’t have to see his face to know his expression.  A moment later, Marie handed Jilly to Hoss and pulled Little Joe onto her lap. That seemed to satisfy him.  It was probably what he really wanted anyway.  He still had a bit of a jealous streak where his mother and sister were concerned.

Adam rested his back against the wall next to an old man dozing in the corner.  A soft snore became a snort which garnered a few disapproving looks but more snickers from those who were close enough to hear.  Adam grinned at Ross Marquette who had just come in. His presence didn’t quite make up for Colleen’s absence, but Adam was sure glad to see him.

The preacher was a circuit-rider who passed through once a month, usually every fourth Sunday. This morning he seemed intent on making up for the other three.  He had already sermonized for the better part of an hour with no signs of slowing, much less stopping.  There were those in Virginia City in dire need of spiritual discipline, and he was giving them their fill.

“Brothers and sisters, let not sin reign in your mortal body,” he was saying, ”The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes are worldly sins, fathered by the Devil himself. Do not be deceived.  God is not mocked. When a man looks on a woman with lust, he has already sinned in his heart, as though he had committed the act in the flesh. And when sin is conceived, it brings forth Death.”

It wasn’t the heat that made Adam tug at his collar this time.  Ross nudged him and winked. “If he’s right, if thinkin’s the same as doin’, a man might as well enjoy himself, wouldn’t you say?”

It wasn’t any kind of insinuation. Ross was just being Ross. Adam grinned, “Well, I doubt a girl’s father would see it that way. My Pa neither.”

When the service was finally over, they took advantage of their positions near the door to be among the first ones out. Adam knew Ross was probably itching for a smoke even if it was Sunday.  Sheriff Coffee stopped them before they could duck out of sight.

“Is Angus Lafferty inside, by chance?”

“No,” said Adam.  “Why?”

“I had to arrest a couple of men last night for fightin’ and bustin’ up the saloon. One’s hurt pretty bad, needs a doctor.  Hickman’s over at Abe Foster’s place deliverin’ a baby so I reckon I better send someone out to get Angus.”

“I’ll go.”

“If it’s all right with your Pa I’d appreciate that, Adam. There he is.”

The sheriff waved him over and explained the situation.  “Of course, that’s fine,” said Pa.  “You have your horse.”

Adam nodded. He had ridden into town with the idea of stopping by to see Colleen on the way home.

“Thank you, Adam,” said the sheriff, his mouth set in a grim line.  “One more thing — you might better tell Angus it’s his stepson, in case his wife wants to come along.”

“Oh…”

The word came out almost as a sigh, and Adam stopped short of the other one that conveyed his true feelings. Here was more drama with her brother, who seemed to be everywhere in his life all of a sudden. The irony was almost too rich.

“How bad is it?” asked Pa.

“Hard to say. One thing’s for sure, he got the worse end of the deal goin’ up against Dooley Smith. He walked into the cell on his own last night, but he ain’t moved an eyelash this mornin’, not even when I tried to wake him up for breakfast. It’s more than just sleepin’ off a drunk.  I don’t think he knows he’s in this world. For all I know he may not be for long.”

Pa’s face grew somber. “You go on, Adam.  I’ll find Marie and let her know what’s happened.  We’ll stay in town until you get back with Angus. Maybe you should speak with him privately first and tell him Roy thinks it might be pretty serious.”

“All right.”

Ross fell in next to him as he started for his horse. “You want me to go with you?”

“No, that’s okay. You’ll miss the picnic.”

“So will you.”

“Don’t worry about me. I can afford to miss a meal more than you can,” Adam grinned.

“Hey, I may be lean, but what’s here is all prime,” he joked, flexing a bicep. “Well, I reckon you’d rather see Colleen than eat anyway.”

“I sure didn’t want to have to see her this way.”

“Yeah, she’s liable to be mighty upset about her brother.”  Ross frowned,”He must have been blind drunk or just plain crazy to take on Dooley.  That man’s at least 250 pounds of muscle, and he ain’t the kind to go gentle on the fella that riles him.  Reckon what started it?”

“Who knows?”  Adam removed his tie and put it in his saddlebag.   “Nothing would surprise me.”

~*~

He made it to the Lafferty home in half an hour.  Colleen answered the door almost before he finished knocking.

“I heard you ride up.”  She smiled, opening the door to invite him in.  “I was hoping you’d come.  Ma didn’t feel like going to church this morning.”

“Is she all right?”

“She’s better.  She’s in her room resting right now.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.  Thank you for asking.”  She smiled again.  I’ll bet you haven’t eaten, have you?”

“No, I left in kind of a hurry.”

“I’m glad for that.  Sit down; I’ll fix a plate for you.”

“Is your father home?”

“Yes, he’s at the barn, I think.  Why?”

“I need to talk to him.”

“Oh?”

“Sheriff Coffee sent me to get him. He’s got a man at the jail who needs a doctor.”

“I see.”  She looked disappointed. “So that’s why you really came. Never mind me.”

He caught her by the waist as she turned away and brought her back around to face him.  “I was coming anyway.  That’s why I brought my own horse this morning.  When Sheriff Coffee said he needed someone to ride out here I knew I didn’t want it be anybody but me.”

Her mouth slowly curved upward.  “I guess I believe you.”

“You should.”

He faltered, gazing into those blue eyes, thinking if ever a girl wanted kissing….but he couldn’t, not without telling her the whole truth first.

“What is it, Adam?”

“It’s Jason.  He’s the one who’s hurt.”

“What happened?”

“A fight in the saloon last night. I don’t know the details.”

“So that’s why he’s at the jail,” she frowned. “How bad is it?”

“I don’t know. Sheriff Coffee’s no doctor, but he couldn’t wake him up this morning…he thought maybe your Ma might want to come.”

“Oh, no…”

“I’m sorry, Colleen. I meant to tell your father first. I didn’t want to upset you, but I guess there was no way around it.  He is your brother, no matter what.”

“He doesn’t feel like my brother very much of the time, and he may have gotten what he deserved for all I know. But if something happens to him…it’s just liable to kill my mother.”  She finished her sentence on the verge of tears.

From what he knew of Miriam Lafferty, he figured she might be right. Adam didn’t want to see her hurt that way. “Let’s try not to worry about the bad that could happen,” he consoled her.  “Let’s just get your father to town so he can help him.”

~*~

Adam loaned Mr. Lafferty his horse and drove Colleen and her mother to town in the wagon.  They stopped first at the jail, only to find it empty.  Mrs. Lafferty uttered a small cry as she peered through the bars at the blood stained cot.

“Where is my son?”

Adam took her arm and led her away.  “Come and sit down.  I’ll go find out.”

Approaching footsteps belonged to Sheriff Coffee.  He removed his hat when he saw Mrs. Lafferty.

“What have you done with my son, Sheriff?  Where is he?”

“Ma’am, your husband had us take him over to Doc Hickman’s so he could tend to him. Adam, your Pa’s there too.”

~*~

“He’s in here.”  Pa ushered Mrs. Lafferty and Colleen through a curtain into a back room before joining Adam in the parlor to wait.

“How is he?  Any change?”

“Marie sat with him a while. She said he opened his eyes for a few seconds and tried to speak.”

“That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

“You’d like to think so, but he’s been bleeding from his ear, and that’s not a good sign.  Angus says it could be from the brain.”

“Does he think he’ll make it?”

“It depends on the damage.  It’s too soon to tell how bad it is, and that could be another heartbreak even if he lives.”

Adam knew what he was thinking.  Ross had an uncle, his father’s youngest brother Gus, who got kicked in the head by a horse a couple of years ago.  He didn’t die right away, but you could hardly call what he did in the meantime living. There were three things he could do on his own — breathe, open his eyes and mess himself.  It was a cruel fate for a young man of only twenty-two, but it was worse for the people who loved him.  Mr. Marquette told Pa that every day was like an open wound that wouldn’t heal. It wasn’t until after they buried him that they finally stopped grieving.

It was a depressing subject, so Adam changed it. “I guess Sheriff Coffee let Dooley go.”

Pa nodded.  “He paid for half the damages, and Roy didn’t think it was necessary to hold him now that he’s sober.”

“Any idea what started the fight?”

“Dooley wouldn’t say.  He just told Roy it was personal.  The bartender said there wasn’t any reason for it to go on as long as it did.  Dooley had him beat a long time before it was over.  Everybody in the place told Jason to stay down, but he wouldn’t.”  Pa shook his head. “I don’t know what that boy was thinking, but if he was trying to get himself killed he sure picked a hard way to go.”

“Yeah, hard for everybody.”  Adam stared at the curtain and wondered what was happening behind it.

“I guess things haven’t worked out the way you intended with Colleen so far.”

“No,” he admitted with a frown.  “And I know it’s not the time to ask her, so I guess I’ll just have to wait.”

Pa smiled.  “Love is patient, remember that.”

“I’ll try.”

Pa got up and stretched in front of the window.  “There’s Marie.”

Adam hadn’t given much thought to the rest of his family; in fact, he had forgotten they were even in town. “Where are the others?”

“They’re with Mrs. Hawkins.  Marie went over to check on them and try to get Jilly down for a nap, but it looks like somebody had other plans.”  He opened the door to let her in.  “Everything okay?”

“The boys are fine. Hoss is playing checkers with Mrs. Hawkins, and Little Joe’s asleep.”

“But no luck with this one, I see,” he said, reaching for his fretful daughter.

“No. She fell asleep during her feeding and woke up screaming when I put her down.”

Pa bounced Jilly on his arm, trying to coax a smile. “That doesn’t sound like you, honey. What’s wrong?”  She turned her face into his chest and whimpered. He put a hand on the back of her neck.  “She feels hot.”

Marie looked tired. “We’re all hot. There’s no breath in this miserable town.”  There was an edge to her voice that Adam seldom heard, though she was quick to apologize.  “I’m sorry,” she murmured, massaging her forehead. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“I know, and it has been a very long day for all of us.” Pa glanced at Adam.  “Son, do you think you could…”

“Sure, I’ll take her.”  He eased Jilly out of his father’s arms.  “Is it all right if we go outside?”

“Yes,” said Marie.  “She’s probably just teething. You can bring her back if she gets too fussy, or if you just get tired of her.”

“We’ll be fine.”

Adam stepped out onto the porch.  Marie had been right; there wasn’t a breath of air stirring.  He sat down in the swing and balanced Jilly on his lap.  “Let’s get this bonnet off.  It’s got to be as bad or worse than wearing a tie.”

He earned a smile when he blew across the top of her damp curls.  They made a game of it after that until she nearly giggled herself hoarse, and the next moment she was rubbing her eyes.

“You are sleepy, aren’t you?  Let’s try this.”  He unfastened the tiny buttons on the back of her dress and pulled it over her head, leaving her in nothing but a slip and a diaper.  “That’s better now, isn’t it?”

She yawned and settled in the crook of his arm. The rhythm of the swing made her eyelids heavy, but she raised them once to smile up at him. He smiled back and planted a soft kiss on her brow, watching her lashes flutter before finally resting on her pink cheeks.

The door opened.  “Mind if I join you?”

“Please do.”

Colleen sat down gently, careful not to disturb the baby.  “Are you in the habit of undressing young ladies?”

He grinned, “I can’t say that I am. I was just trying to make her more comfortable so maybe she would sleep.”

“Mission accomplished, I’d say.”  Colleen smiled as she studied the sleeping face.  “She’s so pretty.  She looks like she could be yours.”

“Well, Pa did say she reminded him of me when I was a baby, so I guess maybe there is a little resemblance.”

“Yes.”  Her smile faded, “I was watching you from the window before I came out.  It almost made me cry.”

“Why?”

“Because I can see the way you feel about her, and she’s going to grow up knowing how much her brother loves her. I suppose I’m a little envious of the two of you.”

She was thinking of her own brother, and Adam was at a loss how to comfort her. “Any change at all in there?”

She shook her head. “Ma wants to take him home but Pa says he shouldn’t be moved right now. He said maybe tomorrow, so we’ll be staying the night. Or until he dies, whichever comes first.”

“I’m sorry, Colleen.”

“Part of me doesn’t want to care at all, and the other part me can’t help but grieve for the family we were never able to be.  Maybe we could have loved each other if we’d had the chance. Maybe it would have made a difference. I don’t know.”

Adam put his arm around her.  “I wish there was something I could do.”

Colleen wiped her eyes and even managed a smile.  “You’re doing it.”

He looked down at the child asleep in his arms. That lump in the throat feeling the first time he held her was nothing compared to what he felt for his sister now. He also thought of his brothers and the person he might or might not be without them, and he knew for a fact it was true. That kind of love always makes a difference.

 

CHAPTER XI – Life in the Balance

The world took a strange turn after that Sunday, reminding Adam that things are not always what they seem.   Life has a way of shuffling the possible with the improbable and dealing a hand you never expected.

To start with, Jilly wasn’t just teething as Marie had suggested.  She slept the rest of the afternoon and all the way home, where she revived with an uncharacteristic bad temper.  No amount of consoling or cajoling could persuade her to take any supper, so she was put to bed once more.  She woke just before midnight with a raging fever. Marie and Pa both walked the floor with her, but by the next morning she was too sick even to cry.

For obvious reasons, they sent for Dr. Hickman. The dark circles under his eyes testified to his long hours at Sally Foster’s bedside the day before.  She would probably live, but her twin boys had died within a few minutes of each other shortly after birth.  Dr. Hickman was tired, you could see it in his face and hear it in his voice when he told the story, but it wasn’t just physical.  He was soul weary from squaring off with Death so many times and losing.

He had nothing in his black bag for Jilly.  She would either live or die with or without his help.  Of course he didn’t say it in those words. He was as kind as his practicality would allow.  He had seen other children with the same fever this time of year and many of the older ones did recover. His only prescription was a “wait and see.”

Dr. Hickman did have some surprising news.  Jason Travers had regained consciousness during the night.  It wasn’t clear how much he remembered or even understood, but he recognized his family and they were taking him home to care for him.

Adam pondered the news with mixed emotions.  He was happy for Colleen and her mother and a little ashamed of himself for what else he was feeling, but he couldn’t help it.  Not that one was fairer than the other, but the thought that Jason would live while Jilly might die was as bitter as wormwood.

Fortunately, Adam didn’t have to struggle long with his conscience.  Jilly’s fever broke and she came back to herself so quickly that it was hard to imagine she had ever been so ill.  Dr. Hickman, who admitted to twice giving her up, said she must have been born under a lucky star.  He smiled when he said it.

The Cartwrights hardly had time to take a breath before the other shoe dropped.

There was no way Adam could have known, but if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with Colleen he might have noticed the change in Marie. She had been pale and tense while Jilly was sick, and that was understandable, but it wasn’t until that morning when Little Joe spilled his milk he knew something was wrong.

He never expected to see her lose her temper that way with her “petit ange” as she called him.  Neither did Little Joe; and it nearly crushed him. The table fell silent except for his quiet sobs.

Marie’s hand flew to her mouth the moment she realized what she had done, and she was near tears herself when she picked him up to console him. He clung to her as she kissed him and murmured her apology.  “I’m so sorry, my love.  Your Mama is tired and cross these days, but it’s not because of you. Please forgive me.”

Fortunately, forgiveness comes easily for a four year old.  The two of them made amends with a hug and more kisses, and Little Joe seemed content to be back in his mother’s good graces when she set him back down on the floor.

She drew in a sharp breath as she stood up and had to steady herself against the back of the chair.  Pa had been cleaning up the spill and was by her side in an instant to catch her before she collapsed.  “Just get me upstairs, please,” she whispered, her face contorted in pain.  Pa picked her up and carried her, and for once she didn’t protest that he was making too big a fuss.

“Mama!”  Little Joe called after them, bewildered and frightened.

Pa didn’t turn around as he answered.  “Stay there, Joseph!  Adam, don’t let him come up.”

Adam’s heart was in his throat as he answered.  “Yes sir.”

~*~

They hadn’t told anyone about the baby.  By the time Marie was certain enough to tell Pa, she already suspected something was wrong so they agreed to keep it between themselves.  Dr. Hickman came once more, this time to confirm the loss.  Marie would be fine after a few days rest, he said, and he saw no reason why she couldn’t have more children in the future.

“Is Mama havin’ another baby?”  Little Joe surprised Adam with the question.  No one had mentioned it to him, but Adam supposed the last time he was forced to stay downstairs while a doctor tended his mother was still fresh in his mind.

“No,” he answered truthfully.  “She just needs some rest, so she’s going to stay in bed awhile.  You can see her later.”

“Okay.”  Little Joe seemed satisfied.  “I’m glad she’s not. I don’t want another baby.”

“You don’t?  Why not?”

Little Joe didn’t look up from his blocks. “We already have a baby.  We don’t need another one.”

“You love Jilly, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Adam smiled at his nonchalance. Truth was Little Joe adored his sister, in spite of the fact that she had upset his world by forcing him to share his mother.  As far as Adam could see, Jilly was the best thing that could have happened to both of them.  She was everybody’s child, but Little Joe had always  belonged to Marie.  Mother and son were both learning how to share.

“Little Joe, if your Mama does have another baby sometime, you’ll love that one just as much.”

“Mama doesn’t need another baby.”  Little Joe put the finishing touch on his block tower and sat back to survey his work. He met his oldest brother’s eyes with a look Adam would come to know well.  The issue was settled, at least in his mind, but he added one more thing for emphasis as he got to his feet.

“Jilly’s enough.”

~*~

The upsets that kept them apart only made Adam miss Colleen more. According to Dr. Hickman, Jason was making good progress in spite of his head injury, and Angus expected a full recovery in time.

No one seemed to know who or what started the fight at the Sazarac, or if they did they weren’t talking.  In most cases like that the trigger was either money or a woman or both, but whatever it was remained a mystery and no longer seemed to matter. Dooley must have decided he’d had enough of Virginia City, because he paid his part of the damages and left town without further comment. There was one surprising revelation, however.  According to what Sheriff Coffee told Pa, one of the girls who worked in the saloon left the same day, but not before she paid Jason’s share.  She told the sheriff she knew there were a lot of stories going around about him, but she wanted his family to know he had been kind to her and had given her the money so she could go back home to Chicago, and it was more than she needed.

That certainly didn’t sound like the Jason Travers Adam knew; but he had to admit he didn’t really know much about him.  Neither did Colleen, for that matter.  Now was her chance, since it looked like he was probably going to be around for a while.

It was too soon to tell whether or not that was a good thing, but with the break in the weather and crises averted, it seemed like the right time to pay a call on a certain young lady.  Goodness knows Adam had waited long enough.

 

CHAPTER XII – The Faces of Love

Colleen didn’t wait for him to come up to the house. She met him in the yard, and the smile on her face assured him that she was as happy to see him as he was to see her.

“Hello, Stranger.”

“Hello yourself,” he replied, grinning.  Kissing her would have to wait.  There were spectators on the porch.

Mrs. Lafferty welcomed him.  “It’s good to see you, Adam.  How is your family?”

“Fine, thank you.”

“We heard the baby was sick, and then Marie…we had no idea. I’m so sorry. I do hope she’s feeling better.”

“She is. She’s anxious to start riding again. I don’t know how much longer Pa can hold her off.”

“Oh.”  Mrs. Lafferty’s smile tightened a bit.

“I understand she has a fondness for horses.”  Jason stepped forward, leaning on a cane.  “Hello, Adam.”

“Jason.”  He shook his hand as he looked him over. Other than the limp the only visible sign of injury was a fresh scar above his right eye. “We heard you were up and about. “

“He’s getting better every day,” Colleen smiled. “Pa says his recovery is nothing short of amazing.”

Jason smiled. “Well, I’ve had a couple of pretty good nurses, so maybe that had something to do with it.”

Mrs. Lafferty placed a hand on his cheek, and the look that passed between them was almost tender.  “He has been a good patient,” she said, smiling.   “Stay for supper, Adam?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, then yes ma’am, thank you.”

“It’s no trouble at all. Angus may not be back for a while, but I can have everything ready in about an hour.  Colleen, could you help me in the kitchen for a minute?”

“Sure, Ma.”  Colleen smiled at Adam.  “Excuse me.  I won’t be long.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“You can keep Jason company until I come back.”

“Right.”   That’s just what I came for. 

“Sit down, Adam,” he said, lowering himself into a chair.  “Let’s talk a while.”

“What’s on your mind?”

“You.”

“Me?”

Jason nodded.  “I owe you an apology. I behaved badly the last time we saw each other; there’s no other way to put it.  I said some things I shouldn’t have said, and I want you to know I’m truly sorry.  I hope we can put that behind us now.  I think we should, for Colleen’s sake, don’t you?”

Adam was wary but willing to try, at least — for Colleen’s sake. “Yes,” he agreed.

“Good.”

Colleen came back out on the porch with a pail.  “Which one of you handsome gentlemen would like to help me pick some blackberries?  Ma decided she needs more for her cobbler.”

Jason pushed himself to his feet. “All things considered, I’d say that’s a job for Adam.  I think I’ll go see if Ma needs anything else.”  He winked and grinned at her.   “Watch out for the thorns.”

Adam watched him disappear inside.  “Was that really your brother?”

She laughed.  “I think so.  It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

“I’d have to say it’s a definite improvement. He seems like a different person.”

“You know something? I think underneath he has always been this person. I mean even before, there were moments when I would catch a glimpse of him but then he would turn away, like he didn’t want me to see him. I don’t know why, but I think for some reason he was afraid.”

“Colleen, why do you suppose he came here in the first place?”

“I’ve wondered about that sometimes.  I just think maybe he got tired of running.”

“Maybe.  He apologized to me for the other night. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“He told me he wanted to make things right. I’m glad, Adam.”

She looked so happy, he could only smile. He took the pail from her and held her hand as they walked.

“Well, anything that makes you glad makes me glad.”

~*~

“You hold the bucket. I’ll pick,” she instructed him when they reached the thicket by the creek.

“I can help.”

“You are helping.  This way I can pick with two hands. Just stay close. It won’t take me long.”

“Yes ma’am. I’m right behind you.”

He was content to watch her;  he would have only been in the way. In fact, it was contentment just to be near her, no matter what she was doing.

“Ouch.”  She drew back her thumb with a grimace.

“Let me see. Hold still,” he cautioned her as he removed the thorn. “Sorry.”  He put her thumb to his lips, tasting the blood and the blackberry juice as he kissed it.

Her fingers caressed his cheek, and her sigh went right through him when he kissed her palm, and then her wrist, where he felt her pulse racing with his heart.

“Colleen, I…”

She was too close for him to finish what he wanted to say, whatever it was.  They were through talking, for now at least….

~*~

Adam ate everything on his plate that evening at supper, but he didn’t taste a bite of it. His mind was too full, swerving between the reason for his visit and what happened on the creek bank that afternoon.  Colleen seemed perfectly at ease, but he felt himself nearly blushing when Mrs. Lafferty asked him if he liked blackberries. He would never be able to eat them again without remembering.

Alone with Colleen on the porch afterwards, he finally had the chance to ask the question that had been burning a hole in his brain.  Except it didn’t come out quite the way he intended.

“I think we should get married.” He was so nervous he just blurted it out, and he could have kicked himself for it. He hadn’t even spoken with her father yet.

She looked dumbfounded at first, and then she smiled.  “You mean because of this afternoon?   We were just kissing.”

It amazed him sometimes, the way she could simplify things. “It was more than that and we both know it.”

“All right, maybe it was,” she conceded. “But it’s nothing you’d have to marry a girl over. Honestly, Adam. There’s no reason to feel guilty about this afternoon.”

“Is that why you think I’m asking, because of this afternoon?  Well, that’s not why. I don’t feel guilty for wanting to be with you, but I would have felt guilty if it had happened, and the reason is because I love you and I don’t want our first time to be that way. I want you to be my wife.”

“You’re serious.  You’re really asking me to marry you.”

He put his hands on her shoulders.  “Colleen, I’ve been trying to ask you for a month now.  And I would have if it hadn’t been for your brother.”

She opened her mouth, but no words came. He didn’t like what he saw in her face.

“Say something.”

Her answer was postponed by the opening of the door behind them.  Adam wondered what he could’ve done to make God hate him so much as he dropped his hands and glared at Jason.

“Sorry to interrupt. Ma doesn’t like me smoking in the house.”  Jason struck a match on the post and held it to his cigarette.  “I’ll be in the barn if anyone needs me.”

“You forgot your cane,” said Colleen. “I’ll get it.”

“I don’t need it.”

“Jason, it’s dark and you could fall.”

“In this moonlight?  I think not.”  He exhaled a smoke ring skyward before turning back to her with a smile.  “You don’t need to worry about me, but it’s nice that you do.”   He kissed her on the cheek and stepped off the porch into the yard. “Carry on.”

They watched until he disappeared into the barn. The limp was barely noticeable.

“Colleen…”

“Let’s sit down, Adam.”

She took his hand and led him to the steps, and there was that awful moment when she took a deep breath and pulled her words together before she looked at him.  He knew his heart was about to get broken, but he sat there anyway.

She was still holding his hand when she spoke.  “I’ve never lied to you, Adam, not about the way I feel about you.  You make me feel so good in every way when I’m with you. I don’t think I ever told you I loved you, but I do.  And that’s why I can’t marry you.”

“I don’t understand. If you love me, then why not marry me?”

“Because I’m afraid we’re too young.”

“You mean you think I’m too young.”

“I mean both of us. In some ways you seem older than me, but you are only sixteen.”

“I’m not too young to know what I want, Colleen.”

“You wanted to go to college when I first met you.  It seemed really important to you. What about that?”

“There’s something I want more now. People change.”

“That’s just what I mean.”

“Well, maybe I’m a little too thick-headed to understand, so could you just explain it a little more, because I’m confused.”

She looked away for a moment, and then she stared at her lap as she answered.  “The first day I met you, I thought you were the handsomest boy I’d ever seen.  I was sure you had a lot of girls.  I just wanted you to notice me.  I had already made up my mind that if you came to the picnic I was going to try to get you to kiss me. But you were so different from the way I thought you would be.  I meant it when I said you’re the most genuine person I’ve ever known. I should have known I was the first girl you ever loved.  I am, aren’t I?”

“Yes.”

Tears spilled from her eyes as she looked up.  “I’m so sorry you picked the wrong one.”

He touched her cheek. “I didn’t pick the wrong one, Colleen.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Adam, what I’m trying to tell you?  There were other boys before you, some I thought I loved. But it wasn’t love. I’m not even sure I would recognize it. How do you know if you love someone enough to spend the rest of your life with them?  What I feel for you might be that kind of love, Adam, but I can’t be sure right now.  There’s a part of me that wants to say yes, because it means we could be together. But I could end up hurting you and losing the dearest friend I’ve ever had, and I won’t do that. I can’t.  Please understand.”

He pulled his hand away and shifted his weight forward, elbows on his knees.  “So what do we do now?”

“I don’t think we have to do anything, do we?”

“You mean you wanna keep things the way they are?”

“Why not?”

He could feel his throat tightening as he answered. “What if I decide I can’t?”

“What are you saying, Adam?”

He took a deep breath and stood up.  His insides were shaking but he kept his voice calm.  “I think maybe we shouldn’t see each other for a while.”  The words didn’t sound as bad as they made him feel.

“Oh.” Her voice sounded very small. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“It’s not what I want, but I think it’s probably best.”

“If you really think so…”  She stood up and wiped her face.  “Pa’s home.”

There was no time left to talk before Mr. Lafferty rode into the yard.  “You’re late, Pa.”

“I know. It’s hard to get away from a patient sometimes.  I stopped by your place this afternoon, Adam,” he said, shaking his hand.  “Your father said you were headed our way.  It’s always good to see you.”

“You almost missed him,” said Colleen.  “Adam was just leaving, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” he said, though he couldn’t seem to make his feet move or tear his eyes away from hers.

She solved his dilemma by making the first move.  “I’ll warm your supper, Pa.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.  Adam, take care going home.”

“Yes sir.”

He gathered his horse’s reins and was about to mount when Jason walked out of the barn.  “You don’t look too happy, Adam – trouble in paradise?”

So the old Jason hadn’t completely vanished.   “That’s none of your business.”

“Point taken.  Do me a favor, will you?”

“What?”

“Thank your stepmother for me. She sat with me that day in the jail.  I didn’t remember too much when I woke up, but tell her I remembered that….if it’s not too much trouble for you.”

“Sure.”

“See you around then.”

“Not likely.”

Adam rode off into the night faster than he should have and without looking back.

~*~

He hadn’t wanted to cry, but when you’re sixteen and lose your first love, your heart doesn’t give you much say in the matter.  At least he had the darkness to hide him.  When he got home he remained in the barn long after he had taken care of his horse while he waited for the lights in the house to go down.

He wasn’t surprised, though, when he heard footsteps.  Pa wouldn’t be able to sleep without checking on him first. Though he dreaded it, he sat up and braced himself for the questions that were bound to come.

“Adam?”

“I’m here.”

Pa stepped forward with the lantern. The darkness withdrew from the flickering flame, revealing the concerned lines in his brow.

“We heard you ride up a while ago.”

“I just needed some time to myself.”

“I see. I guess I don’t need to ask how things went for you this evening.”

“She turned me down.”

“I’m sorry, son.  Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really, no.”

Pa squeezed his shoulder with a smile that was both sympathetic and sad.  “I understand. But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.”  He turned to go.

“I never thought she’d be the one I’d have to convince. I thought all women wanted to get married.”

Pa hung the lantern and pulled up a crate across from him.  “I suppose most of them do, eventually.  But there are all kinds of women, just as there are all kinds of men.  They don’t all want the same things at the same time. What did Colleen say?”

“Something about our being too young to know what we really want and whether or not it’s the right kind of love, how she wants to be with me but she doesn’t want to ‘hurt’ me.”  He tossed the straw he had crushed between his fingers. “She’s the one who doesn’t know what she wants.”

“Well, at least she’s wise enough to realize that.  As much as it hurts now, it would be much worse to rush ahead and find out afterwards you’ve made a mistake.  It seems to me Colleen cares a great deal for you.”

“Oh, she loves me,” he snorted. “I’m the dearest ‘friend’ she’s ever had.”

“There are many faces of love, Adam – and that’s no small thing.  In fact, there’s no better place for two people to start.  Perhaps the best thing is to let time take over and follow where it leads.”

“I can’t, Pa.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I can’t just be Colleen’s friend. We’ve gone too far to ever go back, and I can’t stay where we are now because it’s too…hard. I told her that.”

“So it’s all or nothing then.”

“I guess so.”

“Well, that’s too bad.  I’m sorry for both of you.”  Pa stood up slowly.  “I’ll leave the light. You can come in when you’re ready.”

“I didn’t want it to be this way, but she’s asking too much.”

Pa looked down at him for a moment, not unkindly, but was that sympathy in his face or disappointment?  “It seems to me that you’re the one who gave the ultimatum.  Goodnight, son.”

“Oh, before I forget,” he added over his shoulder.  “Marie thought you might be hungry when you got home, so she saved some dessert for you.  She knows how much you like blackberry pie.”

“Thanks.”  Adam cast an upward glance after his father was out of earshot. Blackberries. Was that supposed to be funny?

He pulled his knees to his chest and lowered his head, letting his tears fall into the dust.

 

CHAPTER XIII – What Friends Are For

Marie didn’t ask him any questions.  Of course, Pa had told her all she needed to know, but to her credit she didn’t press for more information.  She expressed her empathy in subtle ways without words — a lingering smile; a gentle touch; the last piece of chocolate cake; a shirt mended and neatly pressed, left on his bed along with one of her favorite books, a volume of poems by Wordsworth.

As much as he might have preferred to remain in his private world of pain, life wouldn’t allow it.  There was work to be done, studies to pursue, and even if he wanted to he couldn’t be sad in the middle of his family, where it was lively and warm.  Little Joe discovered his talent for entertaining his sister and it became their new favorite pastime.

Jilly was learning all sorts of new things.  She could stand alone and was beginning to take a step or two.  It wouldn’t be long before she’d be running after Little Joe as Adam had predicted.  Marie’s pride in her baby’s progress seemed tinged with a sort of melancholy.  “Don’t leave me too quickly, Cherie,” he heard her say.  “We need more time, you and I.”

Time is a two-edged sword, and in Adam’s case the passing of days and the resilience of youth eased the burden on his heart. Besides his family, Ross was a terrific diversion.  He was sympathetic in his own matter-of-fact fashion, though he acted a little disappointed that his counsel had not been sought earlier.

“I coulda told ya you were makin’ a mistake.  You need to spread yourself around a little more, boy. A fella ought to have a few notches on his gun before he turns professional.”

Adam shook his head and grinned. “Ross, you’re plumb awful sometimes, you know that?  But I’m sure glad you came over.”

“Well, that’s what friends are for, ain’t it?  Now about that dance Saturday night…you’re in, right?”

“I dunno…”

“Well, I do. It’s just what the doctor ordered.”  Ross pulled him into a choke hold and growled low into his ear. “Don’t make me hurt you now.”

“Okay, okay, since you put it that way.”

Ross let go and pushed him away with a chuckle.  “That’s better.”

Adam flexed his neck and rolled his shoulders.  “You know somethin’, Skinny?  You’re stronger than you look.”

“Uh huh.  Appearances can be deceivin’, can’t they?”

He and Ross had divided the better part of the afternoon between riding the rim and working on a fast hand.  They could both outdraw the Bonner brothers any day of the week, and when it came to each other they were pretty evenly matched. Or so they had been.  Adam bested him eight out of ten that day.

“You’ve been practicin’ without me.  You’re not lookin’ to kill somebody, are ya?”

Adam slipped his gun back into the holster with a satisfied smile.  “Well, I had to do somethin’, and no, I’m not.”

“That’s good to hear.”  Ross rolled a cigarette.  “Want one?”

“No thanks.”  Adam didn’t share his friend’s fondness for tobacco.  “I don’t think a man ought to have too many vices, and I’ll take whiskey over a smoke anytime.”

“The way I figure it, the average man’s got at least five vices — drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, fightin’…and women.  I’ve got the first four down pretty good, ” he grinned, snuffing out his match.

“What about the fifth?”

“Workin’ on it, same as you.  Though I might outdraw you on that one.”

“No contest. I’m out of that game.”

Ross took a deep draw on his cigarette and exhaled with a measured breath.  “No man’s out of it until he’s dead.  Colleen ain’t the only pretty girl in the world.  You’ll have to give in sooner or later.  That’s the law of nature, and the nature of man.”  He stretched out on his back and took another drag as he contemplated the sky.

Adam leaned back on his elbows next to him.  “Ross, I had no idea you were such a philosopher.”

Ross winked at him before he slid his hat over his eyes.  “I’m dang good, ain’t I?”

~*~

“See?  What’d I tell you?  Just what the doctor ordered. I’ll even let you have the first pick.”  Ross flashed  a toothy grin.

“You go ahead.” Adam tugged at his collar, wondering why he ever let Ross talk him into anything.

He ignored the directive and pointed to a petite blonde in a green dress.  “How about that one? I ain’t ever seen her before.  She’s pretty.”

“Ross, I know what you’re trying to do and I appreciate it, but I’m not in the market.”

“Market for what?  This ain’t a cattle auction, son, it’s a dance.  That’s what people do here, and that’s why we came.  I didn’t take a bath to stand around and sip cider all evenin’ with a bunch of old ladies.  Besides,” he whispered, “we can do a lot better than this watered-down stuff, if you know what I  mean.”

“Yeah?” Adam followed his gaze across the room to where Rick and Jeff Bonner were watching them, both grinning like ghosts.   “I dunno, Ross…”

Ross slapped him on the shoulder and changed the subject.  “She’s lookin’ over here.  Now’s your chance.”

She was a pretty girl, but Adam just wasn’t in the mood, at least not right now.  “You ask her.  You’re the one she’s lookin’ at anyway.”

“Me? You sure?”

“Go ahead.”

“All right. I’ll put in a good word for you.”

The sight of them together made Adam smile.  She was so tiny and Ross was so tall she had to crane her neck to look up at him, but they somehow seemed to fit together, especially when she said something that made him laugh.

Ross introduced her afterwards. Her name was Delphine, and Adam liked her immediately.

“Nice girl,” he said as they watched Todd McCarren escort her back onto the floor.

“Yeah.”  Ross was wearing a strange expression, one that made Adam smile again.  He wouldn’t mind dancing with Delphine himself, just as a friend, of course. He could put in a good word for Ross, though it might not be necessary judging from the way she had looked at him.

Adam was beginning to relax when he noticed them.  They must’ve just walked in because Jason was taking Colleen’s wrap. Adam cursed to himself, but he couldn’t stop staring.

He knew from memory that the blue of her dress was a perfect complement to her eyes, but it wasn’t just the color that was stunning. It hugged her form in a way that invited every man’s attention, baring her neck and the tops of her shoulders.  He swallowed hard, remembering the touch of her skin beneath his fingers.  Why did she have to come, and looking like that?

Adam glared at the slack-jawed Bonners, who were busy filling their eyes and most likely their imaginations.

Ross’s hand was on his shoulder. “Take it easy, boy.”

His heart was beating so loud and fast he couldn’t hear himself think. Colleen hadn’t seen him, and he thought it might be better to keep it that way, at least for now.

“I’m gonna get some air,” he told Ross.

“You look you need more than air. Come on.”

He motioned to Rick and Jeff, who followed them outside to the alley.

“Howdy boys, fancy meetin’ you here,” Rick greeted them. “Hey, did you see what just walked in? Lord, have mercy…”

“Yeah, I’d sure like to wake up next to her,” said Jeff.

“Heck, who could sleep?”

Their laughter was cut short by the long arms of Ross Marquette, who grabbed them both by their collars.  “Shut up, you morons!”

“What did we say?”

Ross pulled them into a private conference.  Adam couldn’t hear what he said, but they were both contrite afterwards.

“Sorry, Adam,” said Jeff. “We didn’t know she was your girl, or we woulda never said nothin’ in front of you, honest.”

“That’s right.  Here, this’ll make you feel better.”  Rick offered him the bottle he pulled from his vest.  “It’s brand new.  You can go first.”

He knew he shouldn’t – Pa certainly wouldn’t approve – but at that moment Adam didn’t care. “Thanks.”  He put the bottle to his lips and turned it up. It went down warm and smooth, like his sigh afterwards.  “That’s good stuff,” he said, passing it back to Rick.

“Adam.”

The voice came from behind him.  His first instinct was guilt as he spun around, but it was only Jason.   He frowned. “What do you want?”

“I just wanna talk to you. Alone would be best.”

“You don’t have to, Adam,” murmured Ross. “Not if you don’t want to.”

“It’s all right.”

“We’ll be right here if you need us,” Rick assured him.

“Thanks.”

Adam walked to the edge of the street where Jason was standing.  “So talk.”

“What are you doing out here?”

“If that’s all you wanted to know you wasted a trip outside, because what I’m doing out here or anywhere is none of your business.”

“Colleen is my business.”

“Well, she’s got nothing to do with me anymore.”

“Why?  That’s what I want to know. Why did you leave that night?”

“Why don’t you ask her, now that you two are so close?”  He wasn’t jealous, he told himself.

“I did ask her.  All she said was that you didn’t want to see her anymore.  Now I can respect a person’s privacy but I can’t abide to hear a girl cry herself to sleep and not know why.”

Adam was silent as he recalled the hurt on Colleen’s face and in her eyes that night.  He had pushed that image out of his mind because he didn’t want to acknowledge her pain while he was so deeply rooted in his own.

“I have to know, Adam.  Did you take advantage of her and then ride off?  Because if I find out you did…”

“I did no such thing. For your information I asked Colleen to marry me and she turned me down.  Satisfied?”

Jason looked confused.  “I don’t get it.”

“What don’t you get?”

“You love her, but you’re giving up on her, just like that?”

“She doesn’t want me.”

“Then why does she cry?”

Adam’s pride and impatience with the discussion made his response even more curt. “I don’t know. You’ll just have to ask her.”

Jason sighed.  “I brought her here tonight because I thought you might be here, too and maybe…. Won’t you at least come back inside and dance with her, just once?”

He dropped his eyes, flooded by memories of when their love still had life, especially that afternoon they came so close to giving themselves to each other.  He didn’t think he could hold her again, not even for a few moments, knowing they never would.

“No.  She won’t lack for partners.  She doesn’t need me.”

“I think you’re making a big mistake, Adam.”

“Think whatever you want.”

Adam left him standing in the street and went back to his friends.  “Everything all right?”  Ross asked.

“Yeah, all right.”  He accepted the bottle from him and took another long swig.  “Big brother’s just trying to stick his nose in where he has no business, but I set him straight.”

“You’d better be careful, Adam,” Jeff warned him. “I heard he killed a man when he was just a kid, back in New Orleans.”

Adam gave him a hard look.  “Who told you that?”

“That’s just talk on the street. Who knows if it’s true or not,” said Rick.  “But I’ll tell you something that is true.  Dooley Smith turned up dead as a door nail day before yesterday.  Somebody shot him.”

“Dooley’s dead, no foolin’?  I thought he just left town,” said Ross.

“Guess he came back. Not for long, though.”

“Any idea who did it?”  Adam asked.

Rick shook his head.  “Nah, but I reckon there might be a few people who thought they had a reason.”

“Maybe.” Adam could think of one person, but he didn’t say it out loud.

They passed the bottle around again. The night grew warmer and the whiskey tasted sweeter as the moon climbed higher.  It seemed very far away when Adam tried to bring it into focus later, in fact, there were two of them at first. His head buzzed pleasantly, but mostly he was numb. He had enough sense to know he’d pay for his sin in the morning, but at that moment he judged it a cost worth bearing.

Ross was holding him up.  “What are you laughin’ at?” Adam asked him.

“Do I look like I’m laughin’?”

Truthfully, Ross didn’t look too happy. “Must be me then,” he said, chuckling for reasons he couldn’t fathom.

“I might laugh too if I had half a bottle in me, though it won’t be too funny when it comes up later.  Dang it, Adam, I ain’t ever seen you drunk like this.”

“That’s probably ’cause I ain’t ever been drunk like this.”

“Well, one thing’s for sure. You can’t go back to the dance.”  Ross propped him against the wall.  “You stay right here and wait for me.  I’m gonna go inside and say goodnight to Delphine, and then I’m gonna get you home, if you think you can ride, that is.”

“I can sit a horse, Ross.  You don’t have to worry ’bout me.”

“We’ll see. Stay here.”

Adam pushed his hat up away from his forehead and gave him a mock salute.   “Yes sir.”   He felt warm and sleepy, and he knew he was probably smiling too much at the girls who passed by but he didn’t care. They were all so pretty.  He crossed his arms and closed his eyes, and a moment later he heard someone say his name.

“Adam, are you all right?”

Colleen was there when he opened his eyes, looking like an angel from a dream. His mouth was dry and his tongue was thick, but he managed a hello.

“Hello,” she said softly before repeating her question. “Are you all right?”

She was close enough to touch, and oh, how he wanted to. Wanting her was something he had yet to master.  Then he saw Jason over her shoulder.

“I’m fine.”  Was that a lie?  Maybe it was. He wasn’t sure he trusted himself to know. His stomach was starting to pitch.

“I don’t think you are,” she was saying.  “You should go home. We can take you in the wagon.”

Sweat beaded on his brow. “No, no, that’s not necessary.  I have my Ross, I mean my horse, and we’re fine.  There he is, see? Ross, I mean.”

Ross was there to steady him as he staggered.  “I’ll get him home,” he promised her.

“Are you sure you can?”

“Well, it won’t be pretty but we’ll manage.”

They said goodnight and Ross helped him onto his horse, but not until after he had nearly puked his guts out.

“Think you can make it now?”

Adam’s head was pounding and his stomach was still flopping, and he knew it was bound to get worse before it got better.  “I’ll make it,” he mumbled, righting himself in the saddle.  “You don’t need to worry ’bout me.”

Ross handed him the reins. “Maybe you oughta worry about yourself.  You’re the one who’s gonna have to face the wrath of Ben Cartwright on top of one of the worst hangovers in the history of drinkin’.”

He moaned. Ross was right.  “I feel sick.”

“Figured you might.”

 

CHAPTER XIV – Learning from Mistakes

“Well, here we are.  Home sweet home,” said Ross.  “Come on, boy. Might as well get it over with.”

The night had cooled considerably, and the crisp ride home had cleared his head enough to give him plenty of time to dread his reception.  Pa was gonna be some mad.  Furious might not even come close.

“I can walk.”

“Sure you can. Let’s go.”  Ross put an arm around his waist and guided him to the door.  It seemed like a much longer walk than he remembered.

Marie answered the knock and gasped when she saw them.  “What happened?  Is he hurt?”

“No ma’am,” said Ross.  “He’s just feelin’ a little under the weather.”

The worry faded from her face, replaced by raised eyebrows and then a frown.  “I see. Oh, Adam…”

“You want me to put him up in his room?”

“No, put him in here,” she said, leading them to the bedroom next to the kitchen.  “I don’t trust him on the stairs, and besides, I don’t want to take a chance on waking anyone.”

Hope springs eternal, and here at least was a glimmer. “Is Pa asleep?”

“You’re not that lucky. He’s over at the bunkhouse. I’m surprised you didn’t run into him. He’ll be back any minute.”  Marie pulled the covers down for him.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and contemplated his boots.  They should probably come off, he decided.

“I can put his horse up before I go, if you want,” Ross offered.  He seemed in a hurry to get gone, and Adam couldn’t exactly blame him.

“Ben can do it.  I have a feeling he’s going to need a diversion…” Marie sighed.  “Thank you for bringing him, Ross.  You should go on home before your mother gets anxious. Be careful.”

“Yes ma’am.  See ya around, Adam.”

“Yep.”  Maybe, depending on whether or not there was anything left of him after his father got through with him.

Marie removed his boots, and then she began unbuttoning his shirt.  He smiled at her.  “You smell nice.”

“You certainly don’t.  Let’s get this off and get you cleaned up.”

He wasn’t much help as she tugged his arms from his sleeves, making the process awkward for both of them.  Her hair was down, and it brushed against his bare chest as she reached across him. It was soft, and it tickled.  Even her hair smelled nice. Marie was nice.  Good to him too, even back when he wasn’t always good to her. How wrong he had been to think he could never love her.

He didn’t know what possessed him to do the unthinkable. Drunk as he was, it sobered him up in a heartbeat.

She had every right to slap him; he deserved it.  But she didn’t.  She didn’t say anything, either.  She just sat there for a few seconds and then she got up and walked out of the room.

Adam lay back against the pillow with his eyes closed and cursed himself. How on earth could he have done such a thing?  He was in enough trouble already before this, but he didn’t even care about that anymore.  He had ruined things between him and Marie. She probably despised him now. That was worse than any punishment Pa could hand him.

A moment later she was back with a basin of water and a cloth and began washing him.  At first he couldn’t even look at her, he was that ashamed.  But if she was angry he didn’t feel it. What he saw in her face when he finally glanced up at her was not judgment at all.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a voice that sounded like someone else’s. “I don’t know what came over me.”

She almost smiled.  “I’ve been kissed by drunks before, and I’ve never taken it personally.  Was Colleen at the dance?”

He dropped his eyes again.  “She was there.”

“Did you dance with her?”

“I didn’t dance with anyone.”

“Too busy having fun, I suppose.”

The front door creaked open.  “That’s your father. I don’t know how much I can help you there, but I can at least prepare him.” She shook her head with a sigh. “I’m afraid you’re going to wish you had danced.”

~*~

Footsteps, and there was Pa, a shadow looming over him.  Even in the dim light the scowl was evident, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the jaw muscles clenching in unspoken anger. Adam waited. The only thing more unsettling than the silence was the fact that the bed was starting to spin.  He closed his eyes to try to stop it.

Pa never uttered a word.  After a while there were more footsteps, and then a door closed heavily in the distance.  Adam forced his eyelids open only to find to an empty room.

He turned his head, dreading the thought of having to lift it from the pillow. Luckily the basin was right beside him.  His father may have granted him a momentary reprieve, but his stomach wasn’t nearly as forgiving.

~*~

He woke the next day with a cotton mouth, feeling like he’d spent the night under a log pile. Marie had left him a fresh shirt, and after cleaning up as best he could without a bath he put it on and dragged himself to the table. He looked like “death warmed over” according to Hoss, who ventured his opinion and left the questions to Little Joe. Youngest brother didn’t disappoint.

“Why’d you sleep downstairs, Adam?  You sick?  What’s wrong?  Your eyes are all funny and red.”

“Let him be, Joseph.”  Marie set a cup of coffee in front of Adam.  “You can start with this and then you should eat something.”

He watched her as she sat down and began spooning eggs onto Little Joe’s plate. If she was upset about last night she didn’t show it.

Little Joe was studying him with sympathetic interest.  “You got the miseries, Adam?”

“Guess you could say that.”  He took a sip of the strong hot liquid and massaged his throbbing temples.

“Maybe you need some castor oil.”

“Maybe you should concentrate on your breakfast and let Adam worry about himself,” said Marie.

He had every reason to worry.  Marie seemed to read his mind as he glanced at Pa’s vacant seat.

“Your father left at daybreak to check on some cattle.  He said he hoped to be back before noon.”

“Oh.”  Adam mulled the information, wondering what it might mean for him. Sometimes waiting was worse than the punishment, but he doubted it in this case.  Pa had already had plenty of time to stew over his coming home drunk as a sailor, and he wondered if Marie had told him everything.

Her mind was apparently on other things this morning, like trying to get Jilly to eat breakfast.  She wasn’t having much luck.  Every time she brought the spoon up to her mouth Jilly turned away. Marie pleaded with her.

“Come on, baby, please take a bite for Mama.”

Jilly smiled. “Mama.”

“Hey, she said Mama!  She can talk!”  Little Joe’s jaw dropped.

“She can say a few words.” said Marie.  “Open your mouth, sweetie.”

Jilly reiterated her refusal with a shake of her head.

“Can you say Little Joe?”  He leaned across the table toward his sister.  She clucked her tongue at him.

“Oh, I give up,” said Marie, handing her the spoon.  “You just want to play, don’t you?  Well, I guess you’ll eat when you get hungry enough.”

Jilly took the spoon and started banging on the table.

Little Joe wasn’t ready to give up yet.  “Say my name, Jilly.  Say ‘Little Joe’.”

“I don’t think she can just yet. But she knows your name even if she can’t say it.  Watch,” Marie instructed him as she got Jilly’s attention.  “Where’s Little Joe?”

Jilly looked over at him and grinned.  “That’s right!” he exclaimed.  “She does know!”

“She knows all of her brothers,” said Marie, smiling.  “Jilly, where’s Hoss?”

Hoss was on her right.  She swiveled her head toward him and returned his adoring smile. “You sure are smart,” he said, patting her hand.  “How about Adam?  Where’s Adam?”

“Dada?”

“Not Daddy,” he corrected her. “Adam.”

“Dada,” she repeated.  She smiled across the table at her oldest brother.

Little Joe laughed. “No, Jilly.  Adam’s not your daddy. Pa is.”

“Papa.”  She looked around the room.

“She knows the difference,” said Marie. “She’s trying to say Adam, and that’s how it comes out.”

“Well, that’s pretty silly,” said Little Joe.

Adam grinned.  “She can call me whatever she likes.  I don’t mind.”

Little Joe got off his stool and went over to Jilly.  “Come on Jilly, try to say my name.  Say ‘Little Joe’ — you can do it, come on!”

Jilly leaned over the edge of her high chair toward his eager face and blew a wet raspberry at him.  Hoss nearly busted a gut laughing, but Little Joe was indignant.

“Mama, did you see what she did to me?”

Marie stood up and started clearing the table.  “Don’t get so close next time. Sit down and finish your breakfast so Hop Sing can get these dishes washed before lunch.”

Little Joe complied, muttering under his breath.  “Dumb baby.  I don’t know why everyone thinks she’s so great. All she does is pull hair and spit on people.”

Adam nearly choked on his biscuit trying not to laugh. Marie topped off his coffee on her way to the kitchen, almost chiding him with her smile.  “Now, aren’t you glad the sun came up this morning after all?”

He smiled his thanks.  He didn’t know how he would feel later whenever Pa got home, but at that moment, looking around the table he couldn’t argue, his aching head notwithstanding.

A soak in the tub and a few hours later Adam was feeling more like himself. Lunchtime came and went, and still no Pa. Marie took Jilly upstairs for her nap while he watched his brothers setting up the toy soldiers for battle.  As usual, Hoss was listening while Little Joe was chattering. Patience has it rewards, and Hoss’s reward for getting his ears talked off every day was the fact that he could sometimes get Little Joe to do something when no one else could.  Adam had a feeling it would always be that way.

Marie had just come back downstairs when Pa came in the door.  Adam caught her eye for a few seconds before she hurried to welcome him.   He was more than willing to let her go first.

Pa hung up his hat and put away his gun and holster. He looked tired but he smiled at Marie and kissed her. They spoke quietly for a moment before he greeted the rest of them.

Little Joe jumped up.  “Hi, Pa!  You missed lunch.”

“I’ll have something in a little while.”

“I’ll take care of your father,” Marie assured him.  “In the meantime, I think you’re due for a nap.”

“A nap!  I’m too big for a nap!”

“Young man, you’re not too big to mind your mother, is that clear?”  Pa’s voice was firm.

“Yes sir.”

Little Joe sighed and took his mother’s hand.  As they started up the stairs, Marie turned to Hoss.  “I could use your help too, Hoss, after you’ve put those away.”

“Yes’m.”

Adam read Hoss’s parting look of sympathy, the one that wished him luck but gave him no odds.  His headache was beginning to come back, or maybe that was just his heart pounding in his ears.

Pa spoke from behind him.  “You can thank Marie for giving me time to sit with this. I guess she figures it’s been long enough.  What about you, Adam?  Are you ready to get it over with?”

He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder, and he swallowed.  “Yes sir.”

“Let’s sit down.”

Adam slumped on the sofa opposite his father’s chair.  Pa leaned back and studied him for a long moment.  “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” he finally said.

He managed a small smile.  Pa didn’t.

“Adam, your behavior last night was disappointing, not to mention disgraceful.  Would you care to explain it?”

He lowered his head, knowing he had no answer that would appease his father.  “I can’t Pa. There’s no excuse for what I did.”

“You’re right.  But I still want to know why you thought it would be worth the trouble you’re facing today.”

“I wasn’t thinking about today.  I didn’t want to think about anything after…”  He was reluctant to bring Colleen into this; it sounded too pathetic even to him.

“Son, I know you’re upset about Colleen, and I’m sure it must’ve been painful seeing her last night, but I’ve never known of a sorrow that could be drowned in a bottle. A lot of people have tried it, only to find it rising up double the next day.  It just heaps misery upon misery, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes sir.”  Obviously Marie had filled him in.  He wondered if she’d told him everything.

Pa continued. “I know young men have a tendency to sow wild oats sometimes, and maybe you’re no different, but I’ve always believed you were.  I’m not blaming anyone else because you alone are responsible for your actions.  No one forced you, you chose.  But it was a poor choice.  I hope you see that. And speaking of choices, I have to tell you your choice of companions worries me a little.”

“Ross is a good friend, Pa.”

“I don’t mean Ross.  I’m talking about the Bonner brothers.”

He didn’t remember mentioning them to Marie.  “How did you know?”

“A father can know more than a son thinks he does.”

Adam searched his father’s face for a clue to what that might mean but found none.

Pa’s tone softened.  “I don’t mean to make light of your pain, Adam.  I was sixteen once.  I know how it feels, believe me.”

“Did you ever drink yourself blind over a girl?”

The question seemed to catch him off guard.  “Whether I did or didn’t doesn’t excuse you.  My point is that a wound like this is more tender than deep.  It still hurts, and I know it’s hard to believe it now, but when it heals you’ll have to look hard to see the scar. The first time life opens a vein you’ll see the difference and know what I mean.  Either way, a bottle only makes things worse.   I’ve seen it destroy many a man who underestimated its strength.  Some of them were good young men.  Do you understand, son?”

“Yes sir.”

“And do you also understand that I will not tolerate any further such behavior as long as you live under my roof?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good.”  Pa stood up.

Adam couldn’t believe his luck.  He had thought it possible that Marie might not mention the unmentionable, but he never dreamed he might get off with a lecture and a warning about the evils of drinking.

“Now about your punishment…”

Here it comes.

“I’ve decided you can dig the new outhouse, starting first thing in the morning.  Oh, and no more Saturday nights in town until I say otherwise. Any questions?”

“No sir.”  All in all, he figured he was getting off pretty easy.  “Well, just one.  Who was she?  The girl.”

Pa paused at the bottom of the stairs.  He looked confused at first, and then he smiled.  “Millicent Hughes.”

“What happened?”

“Let’s just say she did us both a favor.  If she hadn’t broken my heart, I probably wouldn’t have gone to sea, and then I never would’ve met your mother.”

 

CHAPTER XV – What a Man Knows

“What are you two looking at?”

“Nothin’, Adam.”

It was his first trip to town since the dance.  A month of hard work and self-recrimination had sobered him for good, he would swear it. With his hands calloused from digging a new outhouse and post holes and anything else Pa could dream up, he found his patience with the Bonner brothers  wearing thin on this late summer afternoon.

Adam glared at them. “Well, put your eyes back in your heads then.”

“We didn’t mean any disrespect to your stepmother,” said Jeff.  “She is just about the finest lookin’ woman around here, though. You gotta admit that.”

“Aw, he’s used to her,” Rick reminded him.  “He probably don’t even notice.”

“A man would have to be dead to live with somebody like that and not notice.”

Thankfully Marie was out of earshot, down the street on her way to the dressmaker.

“Just shut up, will you?”

“All right, no need to get in a huff, Adam.”

“Maybe he’s got a guilty conscience,” said a voice behind him.

The innuendo came from Frank Whaley, a rangy cowhand in his early twenties, more swagger than salt.  Adam had seen him earlier in the mercantile when he was helping Marie with Jilly, saw the way Frank was watching her. If Pa had been there he wouldn’t have dared.

“What’s that supposed to mean?  You might as well say it to my face.”

Frank’s smile was more of a sneer. “You and your pretty stepmother and that baby you were totin’ around this mornin’ make a cozy little family.  That button’s got your brand all over her if I’ve got eyes.”

Rick protested. “Come on, Frank, everybody knows that’s his sister.”

“Well, I wasn’t the only one who heard her call him Daddy. How about it Adam?  Are French Quarter women as good as they say?”

Adam’s anger turned from fire to ice in his veins, and he replied with an uppercut that sent Frank sprawling into the dust, where he lay stunned.  His hand ached from the impact, but it felt good just the same.  Besides, it was the only answer a question like that deserved.

His mistake was in turning his back.  Rick’s warning came too late.  There was a blow from behind just before the ground came up to meet him.

In terms of strength they were pretty evenly matched, though Adam was quicker; he almost had him beaten, but Frank wasn’t ready to lose.  He picked up an empty bottle and raised it over Adam’s head. Shards of glass rained down on him but Adam never felt the blow.

The shot startled them both, and Adam couldn’t have been more surprised to see who fired it.

“What are you doing here, Travers?”

“Just trying to even the odds, Whaley.  Looks like you fight the same way you play cards.”

“And you’ve got a bad habit of stickin’ your nose where it don’t belong, just like you did with Dooley.” Frank growled. “You know what that got you.”

“You’re not threatening me, are you?  You ought to thank me for stopping you.  If you had cracked that boy’s skull you’d be headed for jail — or worse if you’d killed him.”

“He threw the first punch.  Ask them.” Frank jerked his head toward the Bonners.

“I’m sure he had a reason.”

A crowd was beginning to gather. Adam caught Rick’s eye and shook his head.  Rick nodded his understanding.  “Frank asked for it, all right. I ain’t gonna repeat what he said, but he got what was comin’ to him.”

“That’s for sure,” said Jeff.

“Figures.”  Jason picked up Frank’s hat and handed it to him.  “If I were you I’d get out of here before the sheriff shows up.”

“Too late,” said Roy.  “I heard the shot.  What happened here?”

“It’s all right, Sheriff.  It was just a friendly warning.”

Roy frowned.  “What are you mixed up in now, Travers?”

“Frank would’ve opened Adam’s skull with a bottle if he hadn’t blasted it out of his hand,” said Jeff admiringly.

“You two were fightin”?  Roy surveyed the evidence on their faces with a scowl before addressing the crowd.  “All right, folks, show’s over.  Just go on back to your business, there’s nothing more to see here.  “Now,” he said, turning back to Adam and Frank, “which one of you wants to tell me what this was about?”

Frank stood silent and sullen.  Roy shifted his gaze to Adam.  “Well?”

“It was personal, that’s all.”

“I kinda had that figured out on my own. I guess what I should be askin’ is, are ya done with it?”

“Yes sir. I’m done,” said Adam.

“Frank?”

Frank rubbed his jaw and stared at the ground.  “Yeah.”

“Well, I guess there’s not much for me to do here.  You’re not drunk, and if I arrested everybody that took a notion to settle a personal matter with their fists I wouldn’t have time to do my real job.  All  right, Frank, I reckon you can go.  I know you don’t have enough sense to stay out that saloon, but you better not cause me any more trouble today.  If I so much as see you spit on the sidewalk, I’ll be on you like stink on a skunk.”

Frank took his leave without comment, but not before leveling a cold look at Jason.

“Are you through with me?” Adam asked.

“Not just yet. I don’t think I’ll be needin’ you boys, though,” he said, dismissing Rick and Jeff.  “I’ll have my eye on you, too, so watch your steps.”

Adam sat on a crate while Roy examined his head for any cuts from the glass. “I don’t see anything that needs a stitch. You’re mighty lucky Travers came along when he did.”

“Guess so. I’d have had him in a fair fight, though.”

“I reckon you would’ve, from the looks of things.  That Frank Whaley’s a mean-mouthed son of a gun, and I’m sure you had good reason to be riled with him, but do you think fightin’ him was a good idea?  What’s your Pa gonna say when he finds out?”

Adam didn’t answer. The prospect was too gloomy to consider, especially in light of the recent past. Roy patted him on the shoulder.  “Why don’t you get yourself cleaned up now?  You can use the jail while I make my rounds.”  He nodded to Jason and went on his way.

Adam beat the dust from his hat and placed it back on his head. His next words didn’t come easy but he knew he had to say them.  “Thanks.  I guess I owe you now.”

“Forget it.”  Jason reloaded his pistol as he continued.  “You handled yourself pretty well with Whaley. His biggest mistake was underestimating you.  Next time you won’t have that advantage, but maybe he’ll think twice before he makes you mad.” His eyes shifted from Adam’s face to a point beyond. “Wait a minute.”

“What is it?”

“Do you want your stepmother to see you before you get cleaned up?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Then we’d better go the back way.  Come on.”

~*~

It was the long way around, but Adam managed to make it to the jail without running into anyone he knew.  News of the fight would soon be all over town and there would be no keeping it from Marie.  Except for a cut on the inside of his lip that left it twice its size he hadn’t bled much, but the blue-tinged swelling under his right eye was going to get worse before it got better.

“I didn’t see your Pa in town today,” said Jason.

“He’s at a cattle auction in Arizona, won’t be back for a couple of days.”

“I guess that’s a point in your favor then, at least for now.  What are you going to tell Marie?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is the truth that inconvenient?”

“It’s nothing she needs to hear.”

“I see,” he said slowly.  “You know, I had a feeling this might have been about her.”

“I didn’t say that.  What makes you think it was?”

“Because I know Whaley. He thinks a woman is only good for one thing, and he’s too dumb to know when to keep his vile mouth shut. Like I said, I figured you had good reason to put yourself out there, and defending a lady’s honor is the one that makes the most sense.”

“I guess you had good reason to put yourself up against a mountain like Dooley Smith.”

Jason didn’t answer right away.   “I guess there are things a man just has to do sometimes, reasonable or not.”

“Some people thought you killed him, before they caught that fella with his saddle gun.”

There was another long pause before he replied.  “People think a lot of things, but that doesn’t make ’em so.”

“No, it doesn’t.”  Adam didn’t know if it was intended as a rebuke or not, but he felt a little uncomfortable for bringing up the subject.  “What are you doing in town today?”

“I guess you didn’t hear.  I moved into the hotel three weeks ago.”

“No, I didn’t. Why?”

“Four was definitely a crowd, especially now that I’m back on my feet.  I thought about just moving on but I decided to stick around for a while, mainly because of my mother, you know.”  He was staring through the bars into the cell where he lay near death a few weeks ago.  “I never meant to stay this long, and now it’s kinda hard to leave.”

“I’m sure she and Colleen would both be sorry to see you go.”

“You still think about her, don’t you?”

It was more an assertion than a question, and Adam didn’t affirm or deny it.  He couldn’t help thinking about Colleen sometimes, even when he would rather forget.

The heavy door creaked open, and he heard Roy call him from the front room.  “Adam, you in here?”

“Yes sir.”

There were other voices too, Little Joe’s chief among them.  “Why is Adam in jail, Mama?”

“Good luck,” murmured Jason as they walked out together.

“I’m not in jail, Little Joe.”

“See, Marie?  I told you he was all right, didn’t I?”

Marie didn’t say anything at first. When she did speak it wasn’t to him.  “Hoss, would you take Little Joe outside, please?”

“Why don’t we all go outside?” said Roy. “I’ll be glad to take the little one for a few minutes.”  He smiled as he lifted Jilly from her mother’s arms.  “Come on, honey.”

Jason tipped his hat to Marie as he followed them.  “Don’t be too hard on him.”

Adam waited, and in the seconds that dragged by her silence was like Chinese water torture. Finally he broke. “Say something, please, so we can get this over with.”

“I’m waiting for your explanation.”

It wasn’t until that moment he made up his mind. “I’ll tell you what I told Sheriff Coffee.  It was personal.”

Her brow arched in displeasure. “Your father is going to want more of an answer than that when he finds out.”

“That’ll be between him and me.”

“Are you trying to protect me?  Is that why you won’t tell me?”

His height gave him the advantage of being able to look down at her, and he used it, along with a firm reply.  “Just let it go, Marie.”

She lifted her chin.  “All right, but I want to tell you something.  I’m not a schoolgirl, Adam, and I’m certainly not naive.  I know how some men look at me, how they’ve always looked at me. It’s something your father has had to come to terms with, that and the fact that to some people I’ll always be that ‘French Quarter woman’.  But none of that matters to me, because I know who I am, and the only people who matter are those I love.”  She brushed his bruised cheek with her fingertips.  “The last thing I want is for one of them to be hurt because of me. It’s so unnecessary.”

He didn’t have to tell her, and in a way he was glad she knew.  “There are some things a man knows he has to do. He doesn’t even have to think about them.  Maybe I did it for myself as much as anyone.”

She weighed his words for a moment.  “Well, I can’t stand in the way of your being a man, because that’s what you are.  Was it worth it?”

He smiled, wincing just a little. “Yes, it was.”

Outside, Adam took charge of Jilly so Marie could thank Jason for what she called his “excellent timing”.

“Dada,” she grinned.

Roy laughed. “She sure is a cutie. I think she looks a little like you, Adam. Well, I got to go over to the courthouse. Give my best to your Pa when he gets back.”

“I will. Thanks.”

“Dada,” Jilly repeated, patting Adam’s colorful cheek.

He pulled her hand away from his face and scolded her with a tickle that made her laugh out loud. “You’re cute, all right, but you’re gonna get us all in trouble if you don’t learn how to say my name.”

~*~

Any worries Adam might have had about his father’s reaction to the fight were dispelled after he arrived home.  Pa was in good humor, warmed by the enthusiastic greeting from his family, particularly Little Joe, who threw himself into his arms.

“Pa, you’re back!  You were gone a long time! We missed you!  Did you miss us?”

“I certainly did,” he chuckled, giving him a big squeeze before setting him back on his feet so he could embrace Hoss.  “My ears were so empty I couldn’t wait to get home.”  He smiled at Marie.  “Ten days is a long time,” he said, leaning to kiss her.  He tugged Jilly’s ear.  “How’s my little girl, huh?”

She squealed in delight when he lifted her into the air above his head.

Pa laughed with her.  “I declare, Jilly.  I think you’ve grown since I last saw you.”

“What about me, Pa?”

“You know, I believe you do look taller.”  He ruffled Little Joe’s hair before acknowledging his eldest with a handshake.  “Adam.”

“It’s good to have you home, Pa.”

“It’s good to be home, son. I heard you had a little trouble in town the other day.”  Pa looked him squarely in the face, but he didn’t look angry, not at all.

“Not too much,” he replied cautiously, wondering how he knew.

“I stopped on my way back and talked to Sheriff Coffee.  He told me you were all right.”

“I’m fine, Pa.”

Pa was still looking at him.  “I’m glad to hear it, really glad.  Well, I’m starved,” he said to Marie.  “Is there any chance of a man getting something to eat around here?”

She slipped her arm through his. “Right this way, sir.  Your wish is my command.”  They both smiled at Adam before they strolled toward the house.

And that was it.  Pa never brought up the matter again.  People could sure surprise you sometimes.

The biggest surprise was Jason Travers.  Adam was still trying to figure him out.  He certainly seemed different from the man who arrived a few months ago.  The smugness and the cynicism were gone, and he actually seemed to care about his family.  There was no denying that if he hadn’t come along when he did Adam would’ve fared a lot worse against Frank Whaley.  He owed Jason for that, and he was grateful.  But as much as he wanted to, he still found it hard to trust him completely, just as he couldn’t completely forget Colleen.

The next time he saw her was at church the following Sunday.  She was there with her father; her mother wasn’t doing well at all according to what Angus told Pa, so they weren’t staying for the picnic afterward.  Adam only spoke with her briefly before Little Joe came up missing right after the service.  A frantic searched followed until he was located at the livery stable half an hour later, and by the time Adam thought of Colleen again she was already gone.

The rest of that day held nothing of interest for him, and as he watched Ross with Delphine, he couldn’t get Colleen out of his head.  She’d seemed glad to see him, but subdued and sad, too.  She looked like she could use a friend.

Was it pride that made him throw away something that might’ve been salvaged between them?  The guilt that pricked his conscience wasn’t for not feeling strong enough to be her friend.  It was for not even wanting to try.

That night he dreamed of her once again.   She was wearing a dress that matched her eyes, and they were dancing.

 

CHAPTER XVI – A Shift in the Wind

In the days following Little Joe’s Sunday disappearing act, Hoss was unusually quiet.  They all knew he blamed himself because he was supposed to looking after his younger brother, but even after Pa and Marie both assured him ‘all’s well that ends well’ the mood seemed to linger.  That was the unusual part.  Hoss wasn’t a moper, and Adam was beginning to suspect it was something else altogether.

On Friday they got up early to finish their chores so they could go fishing, just the two of them.  It was Adam’s idea, and he was glad to see Hoss perk up at it.  They hadn’t had much leisurely brother time lately, and it seemed long overdue.

They lazed on the creek bank, relishing the glow of a sun that was just warm enough.  This was Adam’s favorite time of year, when summer threw off the sultry mantle of August and slipped into September like a shimmering second skin.

Hoss liked to fish, and he had the patience for it that Adam lacked.  Hoss was patient and methodical about everything — that was his way.  Impulsive and impetuous, he was not.  If he wasn’t sure about something, he had a tendency to let it simmer before he made a decision, especially if it was a difficult one.  That’s what he had been doing all week, Adam decided.  Simmering.

Adam waited until he felt the time was right before he asked, “Hoss, you wanna tell me what’s been bothering you lately?”

“What do you mean?”

“Hey, this is me you’re talkin’ to, remember?  I know you were upset about Little Joe, but that’s over and done with, so what’s wrong?  You know you can tell me, whatever it is.”

Hoss looked troubled.  “I don’t know if I should tell anybody.  It’s probably none of my business, anyway.”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?  If it’s true I’ll tell you.”

He took a deep breath and stared out over the water.  “The day we were lookin’ for Little Joe, I saw Colleen and Jason. They didn’t see me.  I stayed out of sight cuz I knew somethin’ was wrong.  Colleen was cryin’.”

“Why was she crying?”

“I don’t know.  Jason shushed her, told her to calm down.   He hugged her and she was still cryin’.  I didn’t mean to spy on ’em, Adam.  It’s just that Colleen was so upset.”  He paused, frowning.  “I like Colleen.  She’s always been nice to me.”

“I know, and it’s okay.  You didn’t do anything wrong,” Adam assured him.  “You know, her mother’s pretty sick right now, and Colleen’s worried and sad about that.  I’m sure that’s what it was about. After all, Jason is her brother.  Mrs. Lafferty is his mother, too.”

“Yeah, I know.”  Hoss was still frowning.  “Like I said, I like Colleen, and Jason helped you in the fight, so he’s not a bad fella, right?”

“There’s more, isn’t there?  What are you not telling me?”

“I don’t know if I should say.”

Adam felt his patience slipping.  “You’d better say.  There’s no room to turn around on this trail.  We’re ridin’ all the way to the end, so out with it.”

Hoss looked like he’d just as soon have a tooth pulled.  “It’s bad for a brother to kiss his sister, ain’t it?”

“Depends,” he replied slowly.  “Is that what you saw?”

Hoss nodded, looking glum.  “The way Pa kisses Ma when he thinks nobody’s watchin’.”

“You must be mistaken.  I mean…surely you are.”  Adam stumbled over the words, knowing Hoss would never make a mistake about something like that.

“I hope so,” Hoss mumbled.  “But I ain’t.”

The warmth was snuffed out of the day like a candle in a blue norther.  They packed up their gear in silence and headed for home.

~*~

Neither of them spoke on the way back. It wasn’t Hoss’s fault, but Adam was too upset to try to talk him out of his misery.

He remembered with disgust the Jason he first met — his disrespect toward Colleen, his insinuations about the two of them that night in the barn, the way his eyes raked over her and the familiar way he touched her. Brother or no, Adam’s gut told him then something wasn’t right. He should have trusted his instincts.  Colleen had seemed wary of him at first, but after his fight with Dooley she let her guard down.  All this time, Jason had been living under the same roof with her, watching her.  Wanting her.

Did anyone else know?  Did Jason move out on his own free will, or did Angus throw him out?  He should have done it a long time ago, in Adam’s opinion, but maybe he was too preoccupied with his wife to notice how vulnerable his daughter was to a man like that.  Adam sensed it from the beginning, and maybe if he hadn’t been so full of pride and self-pity he would have been there to protect her.

There seemed to be plenty of blame to go around, but the bulk of it lay squarely on one person, as far as Adam could see.  His anger at Frank Whaley paled next to what he felt for Jason.  Frank didn’t pretend to be anything other than what he was.  Jason was far more deceptive and dangerous, gaining people’s goodwill and trust and then using it to get what he wanted.   The thought of what he may have gotten from Colleen made Adam sick inside.   If Jason hurt her in any way, Adam would see that he paid for it.  He would not let this pass.

Fate seemed to be listening.  Adam drew up short as they approached the house. Apparently they had a visitor. Hoss had an eye for horses, and he recognized this one, too, even before they spotted the owner.

“Adam…”

He heard the warning in his brother’s voice but didn’t linger to hear the rest.  The enemy was in the camp, and Adam rode to meet him.

Jason saw him too, and he waited.

“I was just about to leave. Marie said she wasn’t sure when you’d be back.”

Adam dismounted. “So you’re here to see me?”

“That’s right.  I want to talk to you.”

“You saved me lookin’, then, because I wanna talk to you, too.”  He turned to Hoss.  “Go in the house. I’ll tend to the horses.”

“Adam, I think…”

“Go on, Hoss. Now.”

He didn’t often use that tone with him, which was probably why it was effective.  Hoss obeyed, but not before shooting Jason a look that would drop a man cold if it were a bullet.

“What did you want to talk to me about?”  Adam kept his voice calm.

“I’m leaving town.”

Some good news for a change. “What’s that to me?”

“Nothing, except that I’m taking Colleen. I just wanted you to know.”

Adam stared at him, momentarily tongue tied. He hadn’t expected this. “Angus won’t let her go with you.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Colleen’s old enough to make up her own mind about where she wants to go and doesn’t need her father’s permission.  But since you mentioned it, you might as well know that Angus has already agreed to it.”

“I don’t believe you.  He’d never agree to something like that.”

“He would if it was best for Colleen. It’s not good for her to be here right now, and things will only get worse if she stays.”

“I don’t know what this is about, but I do know that you’re the last person she needs to be with.  You’re no good for her.  Hoss saw the two of you in town the other day when you thought you were alone.”  The cards were on the table now.

Jason seemed surprised.  “It’s not what you think,” he replied, frowning.  “And as much as you want to believe it, I am not a threat to Colleen. But my mother is.  She tried to hurt her last night.”

Another deception.  “Why would she do a thing like that?”

“Adam, you haven’t seen my mother in quite a while. Her world has little to do with the one you and I live in.  She doesn’t even know her own family half the time.  Angus can’t control her.  It’s not safe for Colleen. I’m not going to leave her here.”

“I don’t know how you talked Angus into this, but I’m not buying it. You’re just using your mother as an excuse to get Colleen.  You’re obsessed with her, aren’t you?  This is so wrong, you can’t possibly defend it!  She’s your sister, or have you forgotten?”

“That’s not exactly true.”

“Half-sister then — it doesn’t matter!  Miriam is your mother; that makes you blood.”

Jason looked almost sorry. “It would if she were Colleen’s mother, too…but she’s not.”

“You’re lying!  You’re just saying that so you can justify yourself!”

“I’m not the one who kept the truth hidden all these years.  Angus and my mother are the ones who lied to Colleen. They may have thought they were doing it to protect her, but they’ve only ended up hurting her.”

“Colleen said her parents married because of her — if Miriam isn’t her mother, then who is?”

“Angus’s first wife died when Colleen was born. He needed someone to take care of his little girl, and my mother needed someone to love.  I guess she saw it as a second chance.”

Jillian Lafferty was Colleen’s mother. Adam didn’t want to believe it, but his heart told him it was true. Still, he didn’t understand. “Why would they lie about it?”

“Apparently there was bad blood between Angus and his wife’s family.   He was afraid they would try to take the baby if they found out she was their granddaughter.  The lie was easier than the truth, for everyone except Colleen.”

“So you told her.”

“I had to. It wasn’t fair for her not to know. ”

“Well, I guess that cleared the way for you, didn’t it?  How long did it take after I was out of the picture?”

“I’m gonna overlook that because I know you’re upset, Adam.  You shouldn’t have given up so easily. I tried to tell you that night at the dance, remember?  But it’s too late to do anything about it now.  I’m sorry.”

Adam’s insides were flailing, but his voice was steady, though muted through clenched teeth.  “I don’t need you to feel sorry for me.”

“Okay, well, I just wanted you to know how it was.  Colleen and I are leaving tomorrow.  I’m taking her to Sacramento. We’re getting married.”

Married.  The word ripped his heart like a dagger.  “Do you love her?”

Jason took a moment to answer.  “I tried not to…guess I didn’t try hard enough. I’m certainly not as noble as you are, Adam; you’re the better man, I won’t pretend otherwise — but I intend to do right by Colleen. I’m the one who’s gonna marry her. It can’t be any other way now.”

“I think I’d like to kill you.”  His strangled response sounded like it came from someone else.

Jason sighed. “Well, you’ve wantin’ to have at me since we met, so we might as well get it over with.”  He unbuckled his holster and dropped it.

It was all the encouragement Adam needed. He lunged at Jason, knocking them both to the ground where they grappled in the dirt. He landed a couple of solid blows before Jason flipped him over and straddled him.

“Jason, don’t!  Stop it!”

Jason loosened his hold on Adam as Marie rushed toward them. He stood up and spat out blood.  “He came at me.  I didn’t want to hurt him.”

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” Marie’s voice was cold.

Adam waved her away as she tried to help him up.  “I’m all right.”   It was only after he got to his knees that he realized his mouth was bleeding, too.  He stood and turned away from both of them.

“Marie…”

“There’s nothing you can say, Jason.  I think you should just leave now.”

“He had his chance. I even tried to give it back to him. I never meant to hurt anyone, Marie, least of all you.”

Adam heard him ride off and he felt Marie’s hand on his shoulder, but this time he didn’t move away. “He’s going to marry Colleen.”

“I know,” she murmured. “Did he tell you why?”

He turned and saw the sadness in her face. “Adam, Colleen is going to have a baby. I’m so sorry.”

That was the moment he realized he had not entirely given her up no matter what he’d said before; and if his pride hadn’t gotten in the way this might never have happened.  If only…but it was too late.

“He’s not gonna to get away with this. I’m gonna to make him pay for hurting her.”

“You’ll do no such thing.”

He jerked his arm free. “Let go of me, Marie.”

“Think, Adam. Is that really how you think it was?”

She was wrong.  She had to be.  “He had no right…”

“She gave him the right, or he never would have.”

“How do you know?  And why are you defending him?”

“I’m not defending either one of them. I just know he’s not that kind of a man.”

He stared at her. Some things were finally beginning to make sense.  I heard he killed a man when he was just a kid, back in New Orleans.  “Well, I guess maybe you would. Just how long have you two known each other?”

“Long enough.”

“Does Pa know?”

She didn’t flinch.  “Your father and I have no secrets from one another.”

He turned his back to her and stepped away with the terrible knowledge that everything she said was true.  Pain and rage urged him to cry out, and though he didn’t, shattered hope drove him back to his knees.

The world wavered before him and his breath came hard and fast.   He felt Marie’s arms around him.  “Go away,” he whispered, though he didn’t have to strength or the will to make her.

She didn’t move. She rested her head against him and quietly shed the tears he somehow couldn’t.

 

CHAPTER XVII – Love Laid to Rest

What happened at the Lafferty house the next day would be talked about in one context or another for years to come, how Miriam Lafferty tried to kill her family before turning the gun on herself.

Word came to the Ponderosa that afternoon by way of Sheriff Coffee after he made arrangements for the bodies to be moved.  Dr. Hickman was doing what he could for the living, but two were headed for the undertaker.

Adam barely remembered the ride into town with Pa.  They covered the miles swiftly in silence, with a weight on his heart so oppressive he could hardly breathe.  What he did remember was Colleen’s blood-stained dress, crumpled on Dr. Hickman’s floor.  It was the one she wore the night he didn’t dance with her.  Why had he been so stubborn?  It all seemed foolish now.  Even though he knew the blood wasn’t hers, she was wounded just the same.  The man she loved, the father of her unborn child, was dead, and so was the only mother she’d ever known.

According to Angus, Miriam had become agitated, nearly hysterical, when she found out Jason and Colleen were leaving.  Angus had tried to calm her and thought he had succeeded when he persuaded her to go lie down.  A few moments later she came out with his pistol and fired before anyone knew she had it.  That first shot hit Angus in the shoulder and stunned them all, even Miriam.  It was as if someone else’s hand had pulled the trigger. Jason eased toward her, telling her they knew she didn’t mean to hurt anyone and asking her to please give him the gun.  She looked as though she might comply, and then she shot him point blank in the chest.

“He went down and Miriam dropped the gun; that’s when I was able to get it.  Colleen was screaming. I had to pull her off of him to see if there was anything I could do, but I knew better.  He was dead when he hit the ground.  When I looked up Miriam was gone.  And then we heard the shotgun go off inside the house. I went in…” Angus dropped his head and shielded his eyes, but Adam could hear the tears in his voice.  “I couldn’t let Colleen see her.”

Colleen was in shock when Angus brought her in. Dr. Hickman had given her something to help her sleep.  Sleep was best for both his patients, he said.  There really wasn’t more anyone could do at the moment.

“I’d like to stay anyway,” Adam told him.  “I’d like to be here when she wakes up.”

“It might be a while.”

“I don’t mind.  I just want her to know she has a friend.”

“Suit yourself,” said the doctor.  “There’s plenty of coffee and a blanket if you need it.”

“Thanks.”

Pa put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “It’s good of you, son. I’m sure it will mean a lot to her. See you in the morning.”

“’Night, Pa.”

He pulled the chair closer to the bed so he could hold her hand.  “I’m so sorry, Colleen,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry for everything.”

~*~

The funerals were brief, the mourners few.  Angus and Colleen moved into the boarding house, returning to what had been their home only to collect their personal belongings.  Angus had decided to sell everything else and return to St. Louis.  They had friends there and a job waiting.

Adam stayed as close as he could to Colleen in the time they had left.  Though it was bittersweet knowing she was leaving, he intended to make good on his promise to Mrs. Lafferty, to always be good to her and never hurt her. It was a promise he felt he had been remiss in keeping.

He marveled at Colleen.  She was sad but not bitter. Being bitter can’t change the past, she said, it can only make a person hard.  In spite of everything, she still referred to Miriam as her mother and said she could never blame her for what happened. “My mother didn’t pull that trigger,” she told Adam. “She wasn’t even there.”  Their relationship was different now, and strangely, more comfortable, marked by a deeper affection and understanding.  Being in love and truly loving someone almost seemed like two separate things, and it was because he loved her that he knew he would have to let her go.

Saying goodbye is never easy no matter how prepared a person thinks he is.  Adam felt his resolve crumbling on that last day.  They made small talk for as long as they could.

“Folks around here are going to miss your father.  They’ve gotten spoiled by having two doctors.”

Colleen nodded.  “Pa liked it here, and I know he’s happy to be practicing again, which he wouldn’t be if not for you. But there are too many shadows.  He needs a place where he can start over.  Besides, everyone here knows I’m not married.”

She didn’t duck her head when she said it, and for that he admired her.  “Yes, but you could stay here, and marry me.”  It wasn’t an impulsive offer, for Adam had given the idea considerable thought.  “No one would have to know the baby isn’t mine.”  Some people might suppose it was anyway.

“You and I would know.”

“It wouldn’t matter.”  It was the truth, at least for him.  He would love any part of her, even another man’s child.

“You’d really do that?”

“If you would.”

She smiled the saddest lovely smile.  “That’s why I won’t. I can’t take your future, Adam.  It’s too precious for you to give it up for me.  I’m not worthy.”

“Don’t say that, Colleen. It’s not true.”

Her eyes filled with tears before she looked away.  “I’ve had enough secrets and deceptions in my life.  My baby is going to know who his father was.”  She put her hands to her face and wiped her cheeks. ”I’m sorry. I didn’t want to cry today.”

“It’s all right. You can cry with me.”

She came into his arms, sobbing. “Oh, Adam — you are the dearest, truest friend I’ve ever had.  I know I hurt you once by saying that, but I don’t think you know how important that makes you to me.”

“I do now,” he whispered. He kissed her cheek, mingling her tears with his own. “I promise I do.”

He held her long after she quieted, trying not to think how much he would miss her and what they might have had. At last he gathered his courage and eased himself from her.

“You have to promise me something.”

“What?”

“Promise me that you’ll never think you’re not worthy of the very best things in life, because you are.  You are a remarkable person, Colleen Lafferty, and no one knows that better than I do.”

She smiled.  “I promise I’ll try to live up to your opinion of me.  I do want to make something of my life.  My father is going to train me as his nurse.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even be a doctor someday.”

It was his turn to smile. “You’ll have all the men in town doing themselves bodily harm just to get a house call.”

“I can promise you something else too,” she said softly.  “No matter how many men I meet, there won’t be anyone to take the place reserved for you in my heart. I’m going to keep you there always and love you forever.”

She was crying when she kissed him.  It was almost more than he could bear.  “Colleen…”

“Adam, please let me go before I change my mind,” she whispered.  “I have to go.”

She needed his strength, and he gave it to her though it broke his heart again.  They were on different paths, destined to cross but ultimately divergent.  So he sent her off with a tender kiss and a promise to write and to never forget.

He would think of her often through the years, and of the summer he was sixteen, that feeling of owning the world and being at its complete mercy, and he came to the conclusion that his father was indeed a wise man.

And he made good on his promise not to forget, not Colleen Lafferty or the lessons of first love.

~*~

True to human nature, sympathy for another’s misfortune gave way to grumbling over personal inconvenience as people lamented the loss of their affable new doctor.  The tragic circumstances coupled with the fact that Miriam Lafferty had been a virtual recluse gave rise to a great deal of speculation.   What kind of a woman would try to kill her husband and murder her own son?  They ignored or simply refused to accept the fact that she was merely ill.  There had to be some other dark explanation.

From what folks recalled, Miriam was a plain, shy woman, an unlikely match for a handsome, gregarious man like Angus Lafferty.  People sensed an unhappy union, perhaps fueled by jealousy over the doctor’s hours away from home and his friendships with new people.  They remembered with particular interest Angus and Marie Cartwright at the picnic the summer before, how she seemed to have captivated him.  Of course, she had that effect on men, didn’t she?  She had the audacity to attend without her husband, and in her condition!  Why, the very idea…it wasn’t proper, not at all.  Poor Miriam Lafferty couldn’t hold a candle to a woman like that.  And then there was Miriam’s son, Jason, a good-looking, enigmatic stranger with a murky New Orleans past. Everyone knew Marie Cartwright came from New Orleans, too (the French Quarter, mind you).  A coincidence, perhaps — but it seemed doubtful, especially since there were one or two rumored witnesses who would swear that the reason Jason Travers nearly got himself killed in a saloon brawl was his chivalrous if foolhardy defense of the aforementioned Madame Cartwright.

No one could verify or disprove the latter; after a few beers and a few years some people seemed to remember things that never happened at all.  Still, the gossip remained plausible to those who wanted to believe it, being precisely the sort of fodder that buries reputations and breeds myths, like the ones that chased Marie even beyond her days.

It was a while before Adam got around to asking her about Jason.  It was really none of his business, and he told her so.  “You don’t have to tell me.  I’ll understand if you’d rather not.”

She smiled with the indulgence she so often afforded her younger children.  “Since you put it that way, I will tell you.  In fact, I’ve been wondering when you were going to ask.”

A pensive silence followed, as though she were picking through the threads of her memory before she began. “He was a wild boy living on the streets when I met him. I was still at the convent where I was raised after my parents died, helping with the young ones, giving serious thought to taking my vows.  Can you imagine that?”

He smiled, trying to picture her as a nun.  No, he could not.

“He spoke to me in the marketplace that day.  He asked me my name and told me I was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. The next day I saw him helping our caretaker repair the fence around the garden. It was the first of many little odd jobs for which I found out later he wasn’t even getting paid. He said he just wanted to be near me.”  She smiled. “He was bold and handsome in a careless sort of way, almost as if by accident.  Underneath the bravado was a gentleness I’m sure most people never saw.  We were the same age, though he was much wiser in the ways of the world than I was then. I was terrified the sisters would find out about us, but I just couldn’t keep myself from him….I was thoroughly smitten.”

“How old were you?”

“Sixteen…we were sixteen,” her voice trailed off and she was quiet again.

“What happened?”

“He came to me one day, and I knew something was terribly wrong.  He said the police wanted to arrest him for a robbery and a murder the night before, and that he had to go away. I knew he was innocent. He couldn’t have been where they said he was because he was with me, and I wanted to go to the police and tell them so.  He said no one would believe us and that I would be disgraced and thrown out of the convent for nothing.  He said his only chance was to leave the city. I begged him to take me with him, but he said no, he couldn’t, because he would be on the run and couldn’t take care of me.  He said he didn’t want me to get hurt…but it was too late for that.”

He’d been her first love, and he’d broken her heart.  Adam could see it in her face.

She seemed far away as she continued.  “He had no one, and he was only trying to stay alive. I’m afraid I didn’t make it easy for him to leave, but he had no choice. He said he loved me but he couldn’t ask me to wait for him because he didn’t know when he would be able to come back.”

“Did he ever come back?”

She nodded.  “After a few years, yes.  The police had long since cleared him, since they caught the real murderer in another robbery. He came back just before I married Jean.”

“Did he know you were getting married?”

“I hadn’t even decided myself until then. Seeing Jason again helped me make up my mind. You can’t go back, no matter how much you might want to. It only took one evening for us to realize we were two very different people at that point. No matter what we felt for each other in the past, it wasn’t enough; some things just weren’t meant to be.”

She grew quiet again, and then she sighed. “I didn’t see him again until he showed up here for dinner that night. I could never have imagined such a thing if I lived to be a hundred. I only went along with him because I was so shocked.”

He recalled the look on her face. “You covered yourself well.. Did he ever say why he pretended not to know you?”

“He told me later that he only wanted to see me again, not cause me any trouble with my husband, in case he was the jealous type. He apologized for that night, for everything that happened.  The whole evening was so bizarre and awkward; it was as if I really didn’t know him, because he wasn’t anything like the person I remembered. I didn’t know what to expect after that, but I did tell your father about him as soon as I had a chance.”

“I’m glad you did.”

“I had to. One of the first things I learned about Ben Cartwright is that he places a premium on the truth. He doesn’t shy away from it, even if it’s not pretty. He has never been afraid of the truth about me, and that’s why I can tell him; and why I love him so.”

Adam smiled.  “I’m sure he’s glad you decided not to become a nun.  So am I.”

“That makes three of us,” she laughed.

He had a feeling there might have been more to the story, but it was hers and she had a right to keep it.  They never mentioned Jason Travers again, and it wasn’t until years later that he had any reason to think of him at all.

Adam wondered if Pa saw the same thing he did when he first looked into Clay Stafford’s storm colored eyes.  He was Marie’s first-born, taken at birth by a mother-in-law who despised her and blamed her for the loss of her own son.  Adam didn’t fault Marie for neglecting the truth of the matter, for he could honestly believe she hadn’t known, but it seemed pretty clear in hindsight that old Mrs. DeMarigny had gone to a lot of trouble for nothing.

 

Chapter XVIII – Strength in What Remains

Adam wasn’t there when she died.  If only he could have known, he would never have gone on that roundup.

Tragedy had skirted them just the week before.  Jilly, by that time an inquisitive toddler, had escaped her mother’s attention and fallen into the water trough.  Hoss heard the splash and pulled her out just in time.  Marie cried over both of them, lavishing them with so many hugs and kisses that Little Joe nearly got jealous, but only until she took him in her arms as well.  “We take so much of this life for granted,” Adam heard her tell Pa that evening while they watched their little ones at play.  “Wouldn’t it be heaven if we could hold onto these days forever?”

There were no omens, no warning that the world as they knew it was coming to an end.  Adam was all packed and ready to go when Marie handed him something in a brown wrapper.

“What’s this?”

“Open it and see.”

It was the scarf she had been knitting.  “I thought this was for Pa.”

“I think you need it more than he does.  It can get pretty cold when the sun goes down this time of year.”  She smiled up at him.  “I want you to promise me you’ll take good care of yourself out there. Come back in one piece.”

“I will.  Thanks for the scarf.”  He kissed her on the cheek.  “And you,” he warned Jilly as he scooped her up to give her a squeeze, “be a good girl and stay out of that water trough, you hear?”

“Oh, don’t worry, she will,” Marie laughed.

In his last memory of her, she was smiling and waving goodbye, with her baby on her hip and the sun turning her hair to gold.

He made it back in time for the funeral.  The day was mostly a blur, but he remembered the unexpected snow that afternoon.  It was if the angels were crying along with them.  All except for him.  He was so numb inside he couldn’t shed a tear.

Cruel and unrelenting life went on.  Practical matters demanded their attention, not just the running of the ranch but also the care of two young children.  Mrs. Shaughnessy was generous and helpful in that area.  In fact, she offered to take Jilly and keep her until things settled down a bit, but Pa declined. Adam was glad. Mrs. Shaughnessy meant well, but the family needed Jilly at home, particularly Little Joe.

How do you explain forever to a child? Adam wasn’t sure his youngest brother understood that his mother was never coming back. What Little Joe did understand was that his whole world had been devastated by her absence, and his father was too bereft for comfort; even his older brothers were sometimes at a loss amid their own grief.  His greatest and sometimes only consolation was Jilly. She was too young to grieve, so she was never sad or uncomfortable with him. She was his reassurance that not everything in his life had changed.

On one of many sleepless nights, Adam was passing by the room his brothers shared when he heard whispering.  There was moonlight enough for him to see that Hoss was asleep, but Little Joe wasn’t. Adam knelt next to his bed.

“Hey Buddy, how’d you get Jilly out of her crib, huh?”

“I stood on the chair.”

“I didn’t know you were that strong.”

“I’m five now.”

“I know.  You’re a big boy, but I don’t know if Jilly’s big enough to sleep in your bed.  She might fall off.”

“I won’t let her.”  Little Joe patted her back as she slumbered next to him.  “She likes to be with me.”

“Sure she does. Still, I need to take her back.”

“Please, Adam, don’t take her away. I don’t want anybody to take her away.”

His plaintive tone pricked Adam’s heart. “You don’t have to worry about that, Little Joe.  No one’s going to take Jilly anywhere except back to her own bed, I promise, okay?”

“Okay.”

Adam lifted her gently, trying not to wake her.

“She smells like Mama,” Little Joe murmured in a sleepy voice.

Her hair smelled like lilacs.  Mrs. Shaughnessy had put lilac water in her bath that afternoon, the way Marie did.  He felt his throat tighten.  “You go to sleep now, okay?  You can play with her in the morning.”

Her eyes were open, so he took her downstairs and rocked them closed again, breathing in memories. When he put her back to bed he was careful not to disturb his father, for whom sleep was his only escape from the sorrow that consumed him.  Adam’s heart ached for him, for all of them.

In the two weeks since Marie’s death he hadn’t really cried, but that night when the tears came, he finally understood what Pa meant about life opening a vein….

~*~

…If only you could have stayed.  

The woman in the picture merely smiled.

Adam felt eyes on him before he looked up. “Are you coming down or are you just going to stand there all night?”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Sure, why not?”  He leaned back in his chair and regarded his sister with a slow grin. “What are you doing up so late?”

“I couldn’t sleep, and I thought maybe a cup of tea would help. What’s your excuse?  Dare I ask what sorrows you’re drowning while you’re pretending to be working?”

He arched a brow at her playful impertinence as she perched on the edge of the desk. “And what makes you think I’m drowning sorrows?”

“Well, the party’s been over for hours but I know Pa’s recipe when I smell it.  Besides, you had that rainy day look.”  She noted the picture of her mother.  “What were you doing just now?”

“Woolgathering, mostly.”  He smiled and changed the subject. “Did you enjoy yourself tonight?  You looked like you had your hands full.”

“I had a wonderful time except for Joe putting me on the spot.  Thanks to him, Charlie Evans asked me to the picnic.”

“Really? I trust you let him down easy.”

“I told him I’d go.”

“Oh…I see. But you don’t really want to.”

“Would you?”

“Sorry, he’s not my type.”  Not hers either, if he was any judge. Not that there was anything wrong with being only a few inches over five feet, but Charlie Evans was one of the shyest people he’d ever met, and he stuttered when he was nervous.   “Why’d you say yes?”

“I couldn’t think of a good excuse off the top of my head, and you know how I hate to hurt people’s feelings.”

“Poor Jilly,” he teased. “You’re just like Hoss sometimes, too nice for your own good.”

“I know.  Darn that Joe,” she frowned.  “Why can’t I be more like him?  Wait a minute, what am I saying?”

They both laughed.  Jilly picked up Marie’s picture and studied it for a moment.  “I wish I could remember her the way he does, though I don’t suppose she was as perfect as he makes her out to be.”

“She wasn’t perfect, but she was quite a woman.”  He took the picture from her and set it back in its rightful place. “I used to think there could never be anyone like her.”

“I think I’d like to hear your version of her.”

He considered the idea, wondering if he could ever do her justice, and he settled on this.  “Her favorite poet was Wordsworth, her favorite season was spring, and she loved her family more than anything else in the world. The rest will have to wait for another day.”

“You loved her too, didn’t you?”

The affection in her dark eyes and tender smile was warmly familiar, and he basked in it for a moment until a voice intruded.

“Doesn’t anybody sleep around here?”   Joe padded down the stairs in his bare feet. “What are you two up to?”

“I came down for some tea,” said Jilly. “Would you like some?”

“I think I’d rather have a sandwich if you don’t mind.”

“Why should I mind if you make yourself a sandwich?”

“I thought as long as you were goin’ in the kitchen anyway you wouldn’t mind makin’ it for me, oh lovely sister of mine,” he grinned.

“Don’t you ‘lovely sister’ me!  You’ve got some nerve expecting a favor after what you did to me tonight.”

“Me?  What’d I do?”

“Charlie Evans,” Adam volunteered.  “It seems our lovely sister has a date for the picnic she hadn’t planned on, and she thinks it’s your fault.”

“How can it be my fault?”

“It is your fault!  He never would have asked me if you hadn’t talked him into it. Admit it!”

Joe hemmed and hawed for a moment before he confessed. “I only did it for you. You could’ve said no.”

“And you could have kept your nose out of my business in the first place.  Besides, you knew I wouldn’t have the heart.”

“Joe,” said Adam, “why Charlie?”

“Why not Charlie? He’s a nice guy. If she’d give him a chance I’m sure he’d grow on her…look, I wasn’t trying to be funny, I know he’s short, but… Okay, you wanna know why Charlie?  Because he’s harmless, that’s why. He can be trusted, unlike some of those other coyotes hangin’ around here tonight.  I’m just lookin’ out for you, Jilly, that’s all.”

She rolled her eyes.  “I’m doomed to be an old maid. I just know it.”

“All right, maybe I got a little carried away.  If you really don’t want to go with him, just tell him you changed your mind.”

“I can’t do that!”

“Well, maybe I can get him to change his mind,” Joe offered.

“Just forget it.”

“No, I got you into this; I’ll get you out of it. Let me think…”

“Really, you’ve done enough…”

He ignored her.  “Let’s see…I could tell him you have a ‘condition’ that might be contagious, something that would scare him away…like…leprosy?  No, that’s no good…it has to be something a little less obvious but disgusting, too…how about lice?  Never mind, I’ll think of something….”

“So help me, Joe — if you say one word to him, I’ll fix your wagon with Ellie, I swear!”

Their banter from the kitchen made Adam smile.  He glanced fondly at the woman in the picture. Though absent in body, she remained very much alive and present in spirit, especially at times like these.

You’d be proud of them, Marie.  They’re everything you hoped for.

Rising to follow the sound of her children’s laughter, he could almost hear hers as well.

 

~END~

 

 

 

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Author: JC

I've been writing Bonanza since 2004 when I posted my first story, "Ties That Bind", which introduced a Cartwright daughter. In addition to that series and another loosely based on the life of Pernell Roberts, I've written everything from drama to comedy, from poetry to parody, most of which you will find here in the Brand library. I enjoy porch swings, logic puzzles, old movies, crisp fall mornings, family game nights, and PIE. Dogs and children seem to like me (but they forget to leave reviews, hint, hint). If you like my stories, I'd love to hear from you. Thanks for reading! #CartwrightsForever #Moo

32 thoughts on “Imperfect Memory (by JC)

  1. Thank you for a moving story. Your characters seemed to jump off the pages, and I feel as if I am sitting like a fly right in the midst of the story as it evolves around me. Looking forward to reading the next in the series.

    1. Thank you for the high compliment, Chavel. I love being able to connect with a reader the way you described. 🙂

  2. This is my second time reading but it had been a while so it felt like a new story to me. I love your full version of Marie. You captured her fire and independence but also her mothering nature. She knew how to give what each child needed at the time. You also showed us a side of Adam we seldom see – while he was working though the trials and angst of teenhood into manhood, we also saw a nurturing side when it came to his siblings and even Marie. In this story I can see the bond between Adam and Jilly forming, and at the end, when they are much older, it is just as strong. It was a shame in a way for Adam and Colleen to be on different planes in their relationship, but both grew from the hard lessons learned that year. Oh how I loved Ross – perfectly written, the guy’s a worldly mess but no truer friend could there be for Adam. I can see why this won the award. There is so much depth and many threads to lead the characters and reader through the joys and sorrows of love.

    1. Thank you, Robin, for one of the nicest reviews I have ever received. I’m flattered that you tackled this story a second time. I have to admit, I loved writing young Ross Marquette, and I love your description of him as “a worldly mess” because it’s so on point, but as you said, he’s a true friend to Adam and a real stand up guy, the kind you want on your side when the odds are against you. I hope you enjoy the rest of the stories in the series, and thank you again! 🙂

  3. This is my second time I have read this. Really enjoyed it just as much the first time. Reading helps me get through the sleepless nights. Thanks for all the wonderful stories you write.

    1. I’m so flattered you chose to read it again, Chris. I understand that sometimes it helps to immerse one’s self in another world for a while. Thank you so much for commenting, and may God bless you and your family.

  4. This is my second time I have read this, and enjoyed it just as much as the first time. It has kept me company through the nights, Bonanza and fanfiction stories have help me in the past. I can lose myself in the stories. Thanks for all the wonderful stories you have written

    1. I’m glad you approve of my version of Marie. I’ve always imagined her as being “perfectly imperfect.” I appreciate all of your kind reviews, jojay — thanks so much! 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the story, BWF. It turned out to be much longer and more involved than I first envisioned, and it’s my favorite of the ones I’ve written. Thanks so much for taking time to read and review. 🙂

  5. Hormones suck. And so does being a teenager. Between the two …

    You paint Marie as a very good mother/friend figure for a teenage boy. She’s not afraid to share of her own experiences if she thinks it’s appropriate or will help, but she also is not afraid to tell him bluntly (though kindly) if she thinks he’s making a mistake — even if she knows he probably won’t listen to her. I can see her as the type of woman he would remember fondly, especially associated with such a turbulent time in his life…

    Thanks for writing!

    1. I appreciate your comments, PSW. Marie has always intrigued me, and I loved fleshing out her character beyond the way she was portrayed in the series. Your summary of her is exactly how I hoped readers would see her, and why I think she and Adam would have had a unique and ultimately close relationship. Thanks so much for taking time to read (a big commitment in itself) and for leaving such a thoughtful review. 🙂

  6. I’m another who can’t generally abide Cartwright family additions, but I forgive you totally for Jilly because this story is so good and so beautifully written (and Jilly is only a baby for 99% of the story, which makes it easier to bear!). Love your Cartwrights; they are so three-dimensional. And you write a Marie who is more than one I can just about stomach – I actually liked your Marie. Fiery, subtle, sensitive, clever and self-aware – and her own woman. I liked the fact her relationship with Ben was no picnic. Your Marie addressed a lot of the issues I have with the way she was portrayed in the series.

    Your teenage Adam was a delight. Totally credible as the forerunner to the Adam we meet on screen. I could really feel for him as he went through all the angst of first love. And young Hoss and little Little Joe were perfect too. I have moments of dread when I come across very young Cartwrights in most stories, but you avoided sentimentality and sickly sweetness and gave us fun and believable boys and family relationships that had the ring of truth.

    On top of that, your OCs were fully rounded characters too, all with their flaws and their surprises. I believed in all of them. (She should never have worn that blue dress, of course.)

    Anyway, so glad I managed to find enough time to read this. And plenty to keep me thinking for a good while yet.

    1. Inca, I know how busy you are, and you honor me with the gift of your time. Thank you for seeing my vision and for leaving such a lovely, detailed review! 🙂

      1. Resolution for the winter: read more stories here in the library. I’m so picky about stories having to be well-written before I can enjoy them, for a long time I haven’t had the motivation to trawl the library. But, thank to challenges such as Pinecone and your threads about stories, I’ve discovered some amazing talent I haven’t yet explored, and writers I know I’ll enjoy.

  7. Great story, I love how Jilly fits in perfectly as if she has always been there. Love the relationship between Marie and Adam, and how he confided in her.

    1. I think Marie would have been a very important person in Adam’s life (and he in hers), and she would surely have influenced his journey into manhood. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed writing their scenes together. At the end — where he is more man than boy — it was she who confided in him. Thanks so much for reading and leaving your comments, Chris. I’m glad you enjoyed the story! 🙂

  8. I like how this story shows young Adam trusting and even leaning on Marie for support. Of course she makes a good adviser having been young once herself. I enjoyed the family dynamics, especially the way Jilly was added to the family. She fit in so well.

    1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to review, AC1830. I loved exploring the Adam/Marie relationship and once I got started, the story seemed to write itself. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Oh wow! What a story. I’m not usually a fan of little sister stories, but this was exceptional and not at all forced. You wove a tale that could have been on our screens and you gave us a much greater depth to Marie and Adam. Thank you for the amazing effort that you have obviously put into this story. I loved it.

    1. Questfan, I am honored that you were willing to venture into my little universe for a while. Thank you for having the eyes and heart to see what could have been. I’m glad you felt your time was rewarded.

  10. Lovely story, JC2. You do have a wonderful way with words. I have always imagined that Adam would have loved Marie just as you showed. So much love, yet so much heartbreak, but then that is the way of life, and you did it all beautifully.

    1. MissJudy, thank you for your kind review. The Cartwrights lend themselves so well to my favorite kind of story — the long view of life, where love, loss and remembrance all have a part.

  11. Such an excellent story. The brothers needed a sister. The story of first was so good. The way the characters were woven together was excellent.

  12. I read this so many years ago, back at BW, that I had completely forgotten it, but I read it today and it was like coming home to the most beautiful home-made quilt you’d forgotten you had, and then wrapping yourself for a few hours in its warmth and beauty. JC, you’ve done the impossible in a variety of ways.

    –you’ve created a credible, lovable Cartwright daughter (and I speak as one who hates ALL Cartwright daughters)
    –you’ve given us a living, breathing, complex Marie Cartwright who is someone Ben Cartwright could fall in love with
    –you’ve explored the relationship between Adam and Marie, and Ben and Marie, in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else, by any other writer, and made us understand the many tendrils of feeling between a stepson and his mother (and between a stepmother and the stepsons)
    –you’ve given us a believable teenaged Adam, complete with an intellectual side in full-scale warfare with raging teenage hormones
    –you’ve explored Adam’s first love and given us a viable reason why this one is one he’ll never forget (not the standard beautiful-we-went-all-the-way-but-then-she-died or any of that oh-so-easy stuff).

    No wonder this won an award. I’m surprised if it only won one award. It should’ve swept the awards. Thank you for posting it again, and for providing this lovely quilt we can wrap ourselves in again and again.

    1. Sandspur, I’m so grateful to you for your comments and advice regarding this series (and especially your editor’s eagle eye), but most of all, thank you for seeing my vision. If I can convince someone like you, then I’ve done my job. 🙂

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