Take Me Home (by Home Alone)

Summary:  Adam is called home from Boston for a family emergency after a ten-year absence. Will he be able to win back the love of his life he left behind?

Rating:  MA/R   WC 19208

Take Me Home Series:

Take Me Home
Letters from Home

 

Take Me Home

By Home Alone

Ellie Cartwright sat on a chair in a darkened bedroom at the Ponderosa.  Lit only by low lamplight, the room was eerily silent except for the sound of labored breathing.  In the bed in front of her was Ben Cartwright, a victim of a suspected stroke.  He had suffered small strokes before and had recovered quickly, but this one had taken him down, rendering him unable to walk and barely able to communicate.  He was sleeping fitfully and looked pale and weak lying in his huge bed.  She held his hand in hers and whispered to him to fight.  Although he was her father in law, she loved him as much as any daughter could love her father.

###

When Ellie first arrived in Virginia City, she was only 19.   Her father and brother had a small silver claim and big dreams of striking it rich.  They settled on a little farm adjacent to the Ponderosa, and while the men were out working their claim, Ellie was home tending her chickens and growing produce in a garden next to the farmhouse.

Even though she was closer in age to Hoss and Little Joe, it was Adam who noticed her first.  She was just his type.  Tall and slender, her skin glowed a golden brown with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks from working outside.  Her hair was streaked with blonde, and her bluish gray eyes seemed to be always smiling.  She was just as much at home in britches and boots as she was in dresses and petticoats.  Although young, she seemed to possess a maturity Adam had not known in other girls her age – most likely from having to fend for herself and care for her brother and Pa after her mother died.  She was beautiful, desirable, and independent.   She was not without some faults, however – the biggest of which was her tendency to swear.

Ellie was immediately taken with Adam.  Drawn together at first by a shared love of literature, she found him disturbingly handsome.  Quiet and reserved, he seemed to be a gentle man of few words.  His voice, low and melodic, stirred her inner emotions.  She felt safe when he was around.  Any woman would be lucky to land a man like Adam.

They began spending more and more time together, enjoying each other’s company.  Adam was not looking to get married, but if he was, she certainly seemed to be the perfect fit for a wife.  A hard worker herself, she understood the demands of a ranch on a man and accepted the time he spent away from her on ranch business.

After a year of getting to know each other more intensely, Adam began courting Ellie in earnest.  When he was sure he was ready to commit to a life together, he went to Ellie’s father and asked for her hand in marriage.

The day Adam announced to his family he and Ellie were getting married, Ben was overjoyed.  Ellie became the daughter he never had and a sister to Hoss and Joe.

###

Ben stirred.  He opened his eyes and locked gazes with Ellie.  His eyes were wide, and he looked frightened and agitated.  Ellie sat on the bed next to him.  She gently bent his head forward and rearranged the pillows.  Looking him straight in the eye, she mustered one of her best smiles.  “Hello, handsome” she whispered.  “How are you feeling today?”

Ben responded with a groan.  He was trying hard to say something, but because his speech was affected by the stroke, it all came out garbled.  Ellie moved closer to his lips to try to hear him better.

“Is there something you want, Pa?”

Growing frustrated, Ben shook his head no and made another attempt to speak.

Ellie’s eyes grew wide as she understood some of what he was trying to say.  Ben repeated the sound over and over until Ellie repeated it back to him.

“Adam.  You want Adam?”

A look of relief flooded Ben’s face.  He nodded yes.

“You want to see Adam?”

Ben nodded again and clasped Ellie’s hands.

“I’ll send for him, Pa.  I’ll send for him right away.”

Ben let his head fall back on the pillow, and muttered what Ellie guessed was his attempt at ‘thank you.’  He said it over and over until he fell back asleep.  Ellie sat back in the chair and wiped tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.

Behind her, the door opened quietly, and she felt Joe’s hands on her shoulders.  She reached up and grasped his hands while resting her head on his arm.

“Sis, come on.  You’ve been up here all afternoon.  Go on downstairs.  Alice has made some food – you haven’t eaten all day.”

Ellie stood up and faced Joe.  Her face was tired and drained.  Ben’s condition had deeply affected everyone, but Ellie seemed to be taking it especially hard.  The day Ben collapsed he had been working in her barn, and somehow she felt responsible.

“Come on now.  Alice and I can take over here.”

“Joe, Pa asked for Adam.”

Joe looked shocked.  “What? Are you sure?  He is so hard to understand – are you sure he asked for Adam?”

“Yes, I’m sure.  When I asked him if he wanted me to send for him, he nodded.  I think he wants to see him one last time before . . .”   Ellie couldn’t finish the sentence.  She looked over at Ben again.  “If that’s what he wants, I am going to make it happen.”

“Come with me.”  Joe took her by the arm, led her out into the hallway, and quietly closed the door behind him.  He spoke in a whisper.  “We already discussed this.  If Adam wanted to be a member of this family and a part of the Ponderosa, he’d be here right now, standing alongside us, helping Pa fight.”  Joe’s temper flared.  “He chose to leave and begin a new life in the East.  I’m sure he’s too damned busy and important to travel across the country to watch his father die.  We shouldn’t have to beg him to come.”

“Yes, but Adam doesn’t know how serious Pa’s condition is.  What if Pa has something to tell him before it’s too late?  What if he wants to make amends?”

“Well, Pa had better not be trying to apologize to him.  If there’s an apology coming, it had better come from Adam.  He owes that to Pa, to us, and especially to you.”

Upon hearing all the commotion, Joe’s wife Alice had come up and stood at the top of the stairs, listening to the discussion.   “I agree, Joe.”  Alice joined the debate. “Imagine if something happens to Pa and he leaves this earth without being able to tell Adam what’s on his mind.”

Ellie reached for Joe’s arm.  “You are the head of this household now, Joe.  If you ask me not to do it, I won’t.  But if Pa struggled that hard to ask for him, I think we should at least send a telegram.  Let him decide whether or not to come home.”

Joe looked at the two women.  “Well, I can argue with you one at a time, but it’s pointless to try to argue with both of you.”

Ellie looked at Joe.  “Then I have your blessing?”

Joe let out a deep, thoughtful sigh.  “It’s been a long time.  Do you know how to contact him?”

“Yes, Adam’s address is in Pa’s desk drawer.  I can send Benji to town with the message.”

Joe crossed his arms over his chest.  “All right – go ahead.  Let’s see what happens.  But if you are disappointed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Ellie wrote out a quick note.

October 11, 1880

To Adam Cartwright

51 Elm Street

Boston, Mass

Adam-

Pa’s health failing.  Asking to see you.  Please come without delay.

Ellie

Ellie called for her nephew.  “Benji, take this into town to the telegraph office and have Ira send it right away.  Here’s the address and the money.  Tell him to mark it urgent, and have him bring any reply to the Ponderosa immediately.”

“Yes, Auntie Ellie!”  Benji grabbed his hat and ran out the door so fast he didn’t close it behind him.  He leaped into the saddle without touching the stirrups, just like his father used to do.  Always trying to prove he was no longer a child, he was excited to be given the important responsibility of delivering the message to town all by himself.  He shot out of the yard with a thunder of hoofs and a cloud of dust.

“Be careful!” Ellie called after him.  “So much like your father,” she muttered under her breath.

Watching him ride away, Ellie couldn’t help but smile.  Never having children of her own, she loved her role as Auntie and relished spoiling Joe and Alice’s children every chance she got.  Benjamin Joseph Cartwright was thirteen years old and a serious young man, anxious to become a grown up.  Little Marie was four and the apple of Joe’s eye.  She was able to wrap her father around her finger and was the delight of her Grandpa Ben.

###

The next day Ellie was in the barn grooming Ben’s horse when she heard a rider approaching.  It was Ira from the telegraph office.

“Mornin’, Mrs. Cartwright.  You have a response to yer telegram.”  He handed her an envelope.  “Came across the wire about an hour ago.”

Ellie reached up for the message and tore open the envelope.

October 12, 1880

To Ellie Cartwright

Ponderosa Ranch

Virginia City, Nevada

Ellie:

Leaving immediately.  Expect me by the end of the week.  Will message you when I get close.

Adam

“Thanks, Ira.  If there are any other telegrams from Mr. Cartwright, I would appreciate it if you could bring them immediately.”

“Will do, Mrs. Cartwright.”  Ira shifted in his saddle.  “How’s Ben doing?  We all wish there was somethin’ we could do fer him.”

“No change, Ira.  Please, if you could, remember him in your prayers . . .”

“The whole town is prayin’ for him.  Have no doubt about that!  Let us know if there’s anything we can do fer you folks.”  Ira spurred his horse and started off down the road back to town.

Joe walked up behind Ellie, and she handed him the telegram.  “So he’s coming,” he said as he read the wire.  “I hope he knows what to expect when he gets here.”

###

Days went by with no word from Adam.  Finally, Ira brought a telegram from town.  Adam was due in Virginia City tomorrow on the morning stage.  Ellie went up to Ben’s room to tell him the news, but decided against it – just in case Adam didn’t show up.  She didn’t want to get his hopes up for nothing.  She took his hand and looked at his sleeping face.  How could a man who lived so large be reduced to this body in the bed in front of her, a body that was broken and barely surviving?  She hoped Adam would make it home before Ben breathed his last breath.

The next morning at the light of dawn, Joe and Benji hitched the wagon to the team for the trip to town to meet Adam.  Father and son worked silently, buckling and strapping the horses to the rig.  Joe was deep in thought.  Ellie rode up just as they were ready to leave.

“Off to town to collect Adam?”

“Let’s see if he has the courage to show up.”  Joe spat out.

“Joe, please don’t do anything to make Adam feel unwelcome.  Remember, this is for Pa.  You can hash out the problems between you another day.”

Joe tugged on the harness and patted the horse on the neck.  “Don’t worry, Sis.  I’ll be amiable, just like Pa would expect me to be.  After all, we are brothers, and Benjamin Cartwright’s sons.”  He boarded the wagon and handed the reins to Benji.  “Here you go, son.  Your turn to drive.”   Benji grinned broadly, snapped the reins, and the wagon pulled out.

Ellie went into the house and found Alice in the kitchen.

“Mornin’, Ellie.  Coffee?  The pot is still hot.”

“Yes, I would love some.”  Ellie poured a cup and sat at the table while Alice cleaned up from breakfast.  “How’s Joe doing?  I mean, with Adam coming today and all . . .”

“He’s a little edgy, as I’m sure you noticed.  I’m hoping that will all disappear when Adam arrives and the two of them catch up.  The bond of brothers should be stronger than their pride, right?”

Ellie sipped her coffee thoughtfully.  “Well, we are talking about Cartwright men here, so it’s anyone’s guess.”

Alice poured herself a cup and sat with Ellie at the table.

“How about you, Ellie?  Are you nervous about seeing Adam again?”

Alice was such a gentle soul.  She and Ellie had become sisters and good friends since marrying the Cartwright brothers.  Ellie was grateful to have such a caring, thoughtful ally.

She looked down into her cup.  “I don’t think nervous is the right word.  I think panicked would be a better description.”  Ellie and Alice laughed.  “I’m worried about how I’m gonna be around him.  I’m so grateful he’s coming for Pa, but . . .”

Alice looked at Ellie and took her hand.  “Just go with what your heart tells you.”

“That’s what I am afraid of!  I don’t know how to feel or to act around him.  I think it would be better if I stayed out of the way altogether.  When the nurse comes today, I plan to head back home so the family can be together.”

“But you’re family too, Ellie.”

Ellie looked up.  “I don’t want to create any awkward moments.  Adam and Joe should have a chance to be with their Pa without any distractions.”

With that, Ellie finished her coffee, gathered Ben’s breakfast tray and climbed the stairs to his room.  As usual, he was asleep.  Ellie sat beside him on the bed and squeezed his hands.

“Pa?  Pa?”

Ben opened his eyes and tried to smile at her, but now he didn’t seem to have any control of his facial muscles.  He took in a deep breath and tried to squeeze her hands in return, but there was no response from his efforts.  Frustrated, he tried to say something.

Ellie was devastated by the sudden deterioration of his condition.

“Shhh… don’t try to talk.  Just close your eyes and rest.”

###

Arriving in town, Joe hitched the wagon in front of the mercantile, and he and Benji made their way over to the stage depot.  Leaning against the wall, Joe scanned the street for signs the stage was approaching.

Benji looked up at Joe.  “Pa, my Uncle Adam – he’s your older brother, right?”

“Yes, Benji, he is my older brother by 13 years.  He was your age when I was born.”

“He lived and worked with you and Uncle Hoss on the Ponderosa, right?”

“Yes, that’s right.  Adam, Hoss, me and Pa ran the ranch, just the 4 of us.”

“Why did he leave the ranch, Pa?

Joe looked down at his boots and let out a slow breath.  “I guess the Ponderosa wasn’t his dream.  He had a different dream of living in the East and building things.”

“Why didn’t he come home when Uncle Hoss died?  If you have a brother and he dies, shouldn’t you come to his funeral?”

“Yes, Benji, he should’ve come home.”  Joe put his hands on Benji’s shoulders and looked him in the eye.   “Family is the most important thing a man can have, and he should do everything he can to keep family first.  Don’t ever forget that.”

Just then, a rumble of horse hooves came up the street, pulling the stagecoach.  The wheels locked and coach came to a stop, kicking up the dust.  As the station attendant set down the step and opened the door to the coach, Joe took a step closer and strained to see inside.  A young man emerged first and turned to help a lady step down.  Two children followed.   A moment or two went by with no one else disembarking the coach.  Certain there was no one else on board, Joe began to feel his temper rise.  Maybe Adam didn’t come after all.

Before Joe could come to the obvious conclusion, he saw a man inside the coach place his hands on the grips near the door.  Ducking out with his head down, he placed his foot on the step.  He was dressed formally in a charcoal gray suit with a matching vest.  The collar of his crisp white shirt stood up at the neck, and a loosely knotted tie kept the shirt closed.  Holding a black felt top hat in his hands, he jumped down from the stage and straightened up, brushing the dust off his clothes. It was Adam, but not the Adam that left Virginia City ten years ago.  His hair was gray now, and growing sparsely in the front.  He had a well manicured gray beard that made him look distinguished.  He definitely looked like an Easterner.  Recognizing his brother, Joe felt a surge of excitement and smiled broadly as his eyes met Adam’s.

“Joe!”

“Hey, brother!”  Adam reached for Joe’s hand and shook it warmly.  A second or two went silently by while the two brothers assessed each other.  “Welcome home.”  Joe stepped back and reached for his son.  “Adam, you remember my son, Benji.”

Adam held out his hand.  “Yes. Benjamin Cartwright.  I am pleased to see you again.  You’ve grown quite a bit since the last time I saw you.  You’re a man now.”

Benji shook his hand.  “Hello, Uncle Adam.”  Turning to his father, Benji whispered “See Pa?  Even Uncle Adam can see that I’m a man now!”

Joe and Benji gathered Adam’s bags into the wagon.  As they pulled out of town, Adam looked around Virginia City.  Some of it had changed since he left, but it seemed to be the same active mining town it was ten years ago. The Sazerac was still there, as was the Bucket of Blood.  The Opera House had undergone a facelift, and the International Hotel had closed after a fire a few years back, and new one now stood in its place.  Passing the Virginia City jail, he was flooded with memories of old Roy Coffee, who Joe said had recently passed away.  His head moved from left to right, taking in the town.

Rolling down the road out of town, Adam was struck by the beauty of the land, and how green it was.  He had almost forgotten what fresh air smelled like, scented by the pine trees and jasmine growing along the road.  If it wasn’t for the fact that his father was dying, this could have measured up to be a wonderful getaway from Boston.

Adam asked Joe about Alice and the children.  Benji chimed in from the back of the wagon that he was at the head of his class in school.

“Is Mrs. Meyers still the teacher?”

“Yes.  She says I’m a serious student just like you were, Uncle Adam.”

“Well, young man, thank goodness you’re not causing her any problems.   Your father was in trouble nearly every day at school!  I’m sure between the three of us she’s had her fill of Cartwrights.”

Finally, the talk turned to their father.

“How is he, Joe?”

Joe explained this stroke had been a severe one, and Ben’s age and condition were making it worse.  He told Adam how difficult it was for their Pa to communicate.  The conversation grew silent.  So much was going through Adam’s head.  Guilt mostly, for leaving the family. For not coming home when Hoss died.  And then there was Ellie . . .

As they reached a rise in the road, Adam could see the ranch house, standing majestically in the distance.  Although ten years had passed, it seemed as if time had not touched the Ponderosa.  They approached the house and Joe pulled back on the reins and stopped the wagon.  As Adam started to get down, Joe grabbed his arm.  “Just so you know  – Ellie is here.  She has been Pa’s caregiver since the stroke.  When Pa asked to see you, it was Ellie who insisted we contact you.”

Adam felt his stomach catch with trepidation.

“Thanks for the warning, Joe.”

###

Inside Ben’s bedroom, Ellie heard the wagon stop in front of the house.  She pulled the curtains back ever so slightly and peeked out the window.  Immediately, she felt a twinge of dread.  Adam looked different, but the voice was undeniably his.  She watched from the window as he embraced Alice, and scooped up little Marie in his arms and twirled her around.  Joe and Benji grabbed his bags from the wagon, and they all went inside.  Ellie sat back down in the chair next to Ben’s bed and waited in the darkened room.  Her heart was pounding.  She could hear his boots on the stairs.  She took in a breath and cursed herself for being so nervous.  There was a soft knock at the door.  Ellie stood up and turned around as the door opened.

There stood Adam.

“Ellie.” Adam stepped towards her and took both her hands in his.  “Ellie.”  They remained fixed for a moment, neither one knowing what to say.

“Good to see you again, Adam.  I’m so grateful you came.”  Ellie inwardly kicked herself.  Why did she say it was good to see him?  It wasn’t good.  It was painful.  Suddenly she was plunged into emotions she hadn’t felt since Adam left for Boston ten years ago.

He seemed slightly older and more mature.  Grayer and a little heavier, his new look seemed to suit him.   His eyes were exactly as she remembered them, even though the last time she looked into Adam’s eyes, he was angry and frustrated, packing his bags to leave for Boston.  Today, his eyes conveyed hesitation – perhaps unsure of how Ellie would respond to him.

Adam looked past her to his father.  Ben lay motionless in the bed, except for the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.  One side of his face seemed to be drooping, and his mouth hung open.  He looked so much older than Adam had remembered him.  Shocked by the sight before him, he clenched his jaw.  His father, always so strong, so big, so full of life and conviction, was now small and pale as he lay in his bed.  Ellie took a towel and dabbed the saliva that came from his mouth.

“He’s been asking for you.  I didn’t tell him you were coming because I wasn’t sure . . .” She didn’t finish the sentence but Adam knew what she meant.  She wasn’t sure he would come, if he would honor his promise to come and visit his dying father.  “I didn’t want him to be disappointed.”

Adam took a few steps towards the bed, and Ellie offered him the chair.  She sat on the edge of the bed next to Ben, leaned over and called to him.

Adam put his hand on her shoulder.  “No, don’t wake him.”

“Adam, I have to.  He sleeps for hours, and the doctor said he could slip into a coma-like state at any time from which he may never recover.”

She leaned forward and called his name.  “Pa?   Pa, can you hear me?”  Ben’s eyes fluttered open, and he fixed his gaze on Ellie.  He groaned out.  Adam grimaced and swallowed hard.  His father was trying to talk, but he couldn’t make out what he struggled to say.

“Pa, Adam is here.”  Ben’s eyes grew large.  “Pa, Adam is here to see you.  Look, here he is.”

She moved aside, and Ben looked into the eyes of his eldest son.  The son he had not seen in ten long years.  The son with whom he had argued on the day he left the Ponderosa.  The son he had written to and begged to come home to his wife and to the ranch that desperately needed him.   His mouth moved as if he was trying to talk, but no sound came out.  Tears began to roll down his cheeks.  Ellie took his hand and placed it in Adam’s hand.  As the two men connected, she slipped out the door and quietly closed it behind her.

She leaned against the closed door and tried to collect herself, her heart beating wildly.  She tried to calm her emotions.  She took a deep breath, smoothed her hair, and put her shoulders back.  She made her way down the stairs to see Joe and Alice sitting in front of the fireplace.  They searched her face for a glimpse of how it went when she saw Adam.

“I woke up Pa, and left them alone to talk.”  Joe looked at Ellie and could tell she was fragile.  He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her close.  She loved his father so much that she had put aside her own confused feelings for Adam so that father and son could be reunited.

“You are a remarkable woman, Ellie Cartwright.”

She felt like crying, but why?  Was it Adam’s return?  Was it Ben and Adam reuniting?  Was it the realization that everything she once had was gone, and Adam’s life had gone on without her?  Since his departure, her life had been hanging in a kind of limbo.  She lived, but was not living.

“I’m going home, Joe.  The nurse from town is due here any time. If there’s any change, please send word.”  She hugged him tightly and embraced Alice.  Everyone in the room felt an atmosphere of dread.   She walked out the door and quietly closed it behind her.

After a half an hour, Joe decided he should go up and see if everything was all right.  He softly knocked on the door to his father’s bedroom, and slowly opened it.  Adam was sitting in the chair next to the bed, holding his father’s hand.  Ben was asleep.  Joe stepped in and stood beside his brother.

“Were you able to talk?” he whispered.

Adam stared straight ahead.  He was silent for a moment and then spoke in a soft, emotional voice.

“He was difficult to understand.  I got the words ‘son’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’.”  He looked up at Joe and continued. “I was able to tell him how sorry I was, about everything.  Especially about not coming home when Hoss died.”  He buried his face in his hands and leaned over, exhaling deeply.  Moments went by without a sound.  He took a deep breath and pulled his head up.  “So much I regret now, Joe.”  A side of Adam rarely seen, Joe couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“Do you think he understood you?”  Joe asked.

“Yes, he tried to nod when I told him I loved him and again when I said I was sorry.”  Once again, Adam plunged into silence.  He struggled to keep is emotions in check.  Always the one to be calm and collected, his façade was crumbling.

Joe remained silent.  After his emotional reunion with Pa and the admission that he had made some regretful choices, Adam had had enough for one day.  Ten years of pain could not be undone in one hour.

The nurse from Doc Martin’s office arrived to stay with Ben, and Joe and Adam went downstairs to eat the lunch Hop Sing had prepared for them.  The last time Adam sat at this table, all the Cartwright men – father and sons, were together.  Now it was just Joe and Adam.  Alice had taken the children on a picnic so the brothers could be alone to talk.

“Will Ellie be joining us for lunch?”  Adam asked.

“She’s gone home, Adam.  She wanted you to have some time alone with Pa and the family.  The nurse will be staying with Pa for a few days.”  A quiet lunch with uncomfortable silences ensued.  Finally, Joe could no longer control his temper.

“So, why this time, Adam?  Why did you decide to come home this time, and not when your own brother died?”

Adam put his fork down.  He spoke in low, measured tones.  “I made a dreadful error, Joe.  I should have come home.  If I could undo what’s been done, I would.”

“But why, Adam?  Why didn’t you come?  You broke Pa’s heart!”

“Believe me, Joe.  No one can hate me more than I already hate myself.”

Joe dropped his fork on his plate.  “Think again, brother.”  With that, he shoved his chair out from under himself, strode outside, and slammed the door behind him.

Alone at the table now, Adam surveyed the room.  It was just as it was the last time he sat there, except for a few feminine touches here and there.  A vase of wildflowers sat in the middle of the table – no doubt provided by Ellie. The house, the furniture, the fireplace – all ignited memories of celebrations and arguments, chess games and singing, brothers laughing and teasing each other.  A memory of Little Joe as a young boy brandishing an epée while jumping from table to chair in mock battle came to mind.  Adam could hear his father chastising him as if it were yesterday.

After the blow up at lunch, Joe left Adam alone.  Throughout the day, Adam checked in on his father but always found him in the same state – sleeping peacefully.  He began to feel the hopelessness of the situation and began to realize his father could not win this battle, and would not recover.

By nightfall Ben had still not awakened from his sleep.  Adam declined dinner and went instead to his old room.  It was Benji’s room now, but there were still a few memories there for him.  In particular, the bookcase containing all his copies of the classics was standing right where he had left it ten years ago.  Alice said Benji loved the books, even though some were too advanced for his vocabulary.

Worn out, Adam retired to the guest room downstairs, removed his jacket and boots, and stretched out on the bed.  Memories of his life on the Ponderosa came flooding back.  The sounds from outside, the wind blowing through the pine trees, even the smell from the barn, awakened happy memories of his life at the ranch.  Weary from traveling and the emotional day, Adam closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep.

###

Adam bolted awake to the sound of a sharp knock on the door.  “Adam, wake up.”  As Joe opened the door, a crack of light illuminated the darkness of his room.  “It’s Pa.  Come quick.”

Still dressed in his traveling clothes, he hurriedly followed Joe up the stairs to his father’s room.  Alice and the nurse were gathered by his bedside.  A lamp cast a low light over the room.

The nurse looked at the two brothers.

“He is failing”, she said quietly.  “It won’t be long now.  I don’t know if he can hear you, but if you want to say goodbye, now is the time.  I will be right outside the door if you need me.”

The nurse excused herself, and Joe and Adam looked at each other.  This was the moment the family had been dreading since the stroke occurred.  Joe took one hand, Adam the other.  Together they held their father’s hands and whispered to him gently in his ear.  Ben was trying to talk in his sleep, but no one could understand him.  At last, Joe understood.  Ben was calling Hoss.

“Hoss is here.”

Joe sat on the bed next to his father and leaned in close.  “Hoss is here to help you, Pa.  Take his hand.  He will lead you to your next life.  I know you’re not afraid.”  Emotion gripped Joe by the throat.  “Don’t worry about the Ponderosa.  We will take good care of her.”

With that, Ben took in a breath, exhaled, and breathed no more.  Benjamin Cartwright was dead.

Adam, always the unshakeable one, found tears rolling down his cheeks.  Impossible to hold it together any longer, he collapsed into quiet sobs.  Alice put her hands around his shoulders until he was able to let go of his father’s hand.  Joe took his father’s hands and gently crossed them over his body.  The three of them stood silently.  After allowing the family some time alone with their father, the nurse returned and began to prepare his body.  When finished, she wrapped Ben’s body in his sheets.  The scene was unthinkable.  Under the low light of the lamp, Ben lay still, his two devastated sons standing by his side.

###

With only an hour to go before daybreak, Joe and Adam went out to the barn and hitched up the wagon. They solemnly brought their father down, reverently laying his body in the back of the wagon, bundled in the quilt his wife Marie had made him many years ago.

At first light, the two brothers began their trip to Virginia City.  A mile out from the ranch, Joe stopped the wagon on the road and hesitated.

“We have to tell Ellie.  She’ll want to know right away.”

Joe veered the wagon to the right and began down the road to Ellie’s.  In the shadowy light of dawn, they could see her house in the distance, smoke rising from the chimney.  Adam had not seen it in ten long years.  Built for his bride with his own hands, Adam had carefully selected the site and designed the house as his wedding gift to her.  His father and brothers all helped to complete the home on time for the wedding day, all the while keeping it a secret from Ellie.

She was standing on the front porch, having her morning coffee and getting herself ready to make the trip to the Ponderosa.  Down the road, she could see Joe and Adam in the wagon, making their way slowly towards her house.  As they came into view, she could see their faces and knew something was wrong.  As they approached the house, she caught sight of a bundle covered by a quilt in the back of the wagon.  She froze, unable to move.  The realization of what had happened finally hit, and she dropped her coffee.

“Joe. . .”  She clasped her hands over her mouth in an attempt to stifle a scream.  “No!”  She jumped off the porch and ran towards the wagon when Adam stopped her.  He grabbed her by the shoulders and wrestled with her, trying to keep her from seeing the cargo in the wagon.

“Ellie.” His voice was low and gentle. “He’s gone.”

Her legs went weak.  Adam drew her into his chest.  As they held on to each other, she felt a long forgotten comfort that gave her strength.  Finally, she looked up at him, her eyes red and swollen.

“When?”

“Early this morning,” Joe responded.  “By the time we figured out his time had come, there was no time to send for you.  It was peaceful, Ellie.  He passed gently.”

Adam reached into his pocket and handed her his neatly folded handkerchief.  She accepted it gratefully, and tried to wipe the tears from her face, but they kept coming.

“Are you all right, Ellie?”  Adam was genuinely concerned.

“Yes. . . damn it . . . yes, I’m all right.”  She tried hard to calm herself.  All the while, Adam held her close.  Finally, she dropped her arms from around Adam, wiped her eyes again and steadied herself.

“May I see him?”

Adam led her to the back of the wagon.  He lifted the sheet, and she saw one of Ben’s bare feet.  She stroked his foot, kissed it, and gently wrapped it back in the sheet.

###

Ben Cartwright’s funeral was the largest the Comstock had ever seen.  Townsfolk, ranchers, and even the governor attended the solemn service.  The merchants in town closed their business out of respect, and even a few of the saloons were shuttered.  Ben was laid next to Hoss and his beloved Marie, on the bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe.  Everyone in attendance was invited back to the Ponderosa for a reception put on by the ladies in town.  Ben would have been embarrassed by all the attention.

After a long day, the reception finally wound down.  Departing guests were shaking hands with Joe and Adam, embracing them and offering their sincere condolences.  Exhausted by the event, the brothers finally sat at their father’s desk and poured glass after glass of his best brandy.  As Alice walked by, Adam asked her if she had seen Ellie.

“Yes, Adam.  The last time I saw her she was heading out to the barn.”

Adam rose and set his glass down.  “I’m going out to see her, just to make sure she’s all right.”  Joe and Alice looked at each other knowingly.  Ever since he’d come back to the Ponderosa, Adam seemed preoccupied with Ellie – where she was, what she was doing.  Clearly, he still had feelings for her.

He entered the barn and saw Ellie standing with Ben’s horse, gently whispering to him and stroking his nose.  A delicate ray of sunlight streaming through a gap in the roof illuminated the scene.

Standing here alone with her now, he couldn’t help but notice how simplistically beautiful she was.  She was wearing a tasteful dark blue dress with lace cuffs and collar, no doubt made by her own hands.  Tapered at the waist, the skirt hung close to her slender form – no ridiculous bustle or hoops like the ladies in the East were known to wear.  Her hair was rolled softly at the sides and cascaded freely around her shoulders.  Around her neck she wore a gold necklace he had given her on their first anniversary.  Her skin was glowing, free from any intrusion on her natural beauty by powders or paints, or any of the other things ladies wear on their faces believing it makes them more attractive.  In his opinion, nothing was more beautiful than a natural blush.

“Oh, Adam.  I was just out here for a moment-“  She turned away to try to hide her tears from him. “Damn it!  I can’t seem to stop crying.”

He had already noticed and reached for his handkerchief.  He walked up to Ellie and offered it to her.

“Why is it you never seem to have a handkerchief when you need one?”

Ellie tried to smile.  “I guess some things never change.”  She gratefully accepted the handkerchief and began to dab her eyes.  “Now I owe you two.”

“Ellie -”  Adam reached for her hand, but she clasped her hands together and took a step back.

“Have you thought about how long are you planning to stay, Adam?”

“I haven’t decided yet.  I will need some time with Joe to figure out where the Ponderosa goes from here.  A month or two – maybe more.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, now that you’re back, I figured you would want to stay in our . . . the house.  Just let me know when you would like me to move out.  If you can give me a few days to pack my things, I can move into town until you go back to Boston.”

“Move out?  Ellie, I’m not taking your house away from you.”

Ellie brushed past Adam on her way out the door.  “You built, it, Adam.  It’s your house.”

“Ellie! Wait!”

Ellie disappeared into the house.  Adam felt defeated.

###

A few days had passed since the funeral, and although Ben was gone, the responsibilities at the ranch never ended.  Joe needed to ride out and check on the herd and Adam had decided to go with him.  As Joe and Adam were preparing to leave, Ellie rode up to the house with a horse in tow.

“Good morning Ellie.  What do you . . .?”

Adam stopped in mid sentence.  Behind Ellie was Sport, looking a little older but still vigorous.

“Well, if it isn’t old Sport.”  Adam walked up to the horse and patted his neck.  Sport nickered, as if he remembered him.

Ellie smiled.  “I’ve been taking care of him since you left.  I thought you would like to ride him while you’re here.”

“You weren’t riding him, were you Ellie?  He’s far too high strung for you to handle – or at least he used to be.”

Adam looked at Ellie.  She had a smug look of satisfaction on her face.  “Why yes, I ride him almost every day.  We get along great, right Joe?”

“That’s right, Adam.  Ellie and Sport are fast friends.”

Adam frowned.  “Well, you’ve taken excellent care of him, I must say.”  He ran his hand down Sport’s neck and patted him on the chest.  “If you don’t need him I would love to take him for a ride down to the lake later today.  Would you like to join me . . . if you aren’t busy, that is.”

“Sorry, I have chores at the house waiting for me.  But you enjoy – it’s a great day for a ride.”

With that, Ellie handed Adam the reins, turned her horse around and trotted away.  Adam watched as she rode out, her hair bouncing on her back from beneath her hat.  He adjusted Sport’s stirrups and tightened the cinch, all the while continuing to glance in her direction.  None of this was lost on Joe.

The brothers made a loop around the ranch and checked on the stock.  It had been quite a while since Adam had been in the saddle.  Funny how soon your muscles forget how to sit a horse.  Back in Boston, they took buggies and cabs everywhere.  No one in his circle of acquaintances rode by saddle.  That would be considered low class.

Legs aching, Adam turned to Joe.  “If we are done here I’d like to take Sport on a ride alone – just to collect my thoughts.”

“Fine with me, brother.  Sure you can find your way home all by yourself?”  Joe couldn’t resist a little good-natured teasing.

“I think I can manage.  See you later.”

“OK then.”  Joe turned his horse and galloped full speed away.  Adam watched him until he disappeared on the rise towards the ranch, then started out in the opposite direction – the way to Ellie’s house.

###

Ellie stood at the sink in the kitchen of her house, washing up after lunch.  Glancing out the window, she saw Sport enter her yard – rider less.  She wiped her hands on her apron, pulled it off, and went outside to see what had happened.  In the distance, she could see Adam walking through the pasture towards the house.  Ellie grabbed Sport’s reins and rubbed his nose.

“Well, old Sport, did you throw him after all?”

As Adam got closer, Ellie could see something was not quite right.  He was walking with his hand to his head, and he didn’t have his hat.  She tied Sport to the post and ran towards him.  As she got closer she could see his head was bleeding, and he was not too steady on his feet.  She was horrified to see he had a wound to the head that was bleeding profusely.

“Merciful God in heaven!  What happened?”

She helped him into the house and sat him at the kitchen table.  She grabbed some linen napkins out of a drawer and moistened one at the sink.

“Ellie, don’t fuss!  I’ve had a lot worse than this.  I think I’ll live.”

Ellie took his hand away from his head and placed the napkin over the wound.  She held it firmly with her hand.

“Do you feel dizzy or nauseated?  How did this happen?”

“No, Ellie, I’m fine.  Something spooked Sport, and he ran me into a tree and knocked me off, that’s all.  I guess I’ve lost my hat.”

Ellie turned back to the sink to moisten the napkin again.  She broke into a wide smile that Adam couldn’t see.

“So, Sport threw you?”

“No, I wouldn’t say he threw me. . . well, ok.  Yes – he did throw me.”

Ellie whispered under her breath “there is a God”.

She carefully washed the blood off his face and was relieved to see it wasn’t as bad as she had originally thought.

“I should send for Doc Martin.  You may need a stitch or two here.  You’re going to have a hell of a headache.”

She went to the cupboard and brought out a bottle of bourbon and a glass.  “Here, have some of this.  It should deaden the pain a little.”  She poured an inch of bourbon in the glass, and Adam tossed it back.

“Another?”

He nodded, and Ellie poured another inch in the glass.  Again, he took it right down.  Immediately he could feel warmth and numbness begin to radiate throughout his body.

Ellie stood directly in front of him, carefully assessing the damage to his head.  He took the opportunity to take a closer look at her while she was distracted.  Although ten years older than the last time he had seen her, it seemed as if she hadn’t aged a day.  She was dressed in denim britches that were belted at the waist and hugged all her curves and accentuated her long legs.  Her riding boots came up to her knees, and the collar of her white blouse was embroidered with lavender flowers.  Her hair was tied loosely at the nape of her neck.  She smelled sweetly of soap and fresh air.

Adam thought about the women he had met in Boston, and how they dressed.   A man could hardly touch a woman, least she complained her skirts were being crushed.  Eastern women were thin and pale, as if they never stepped foot outside.  And their perfume was always overwhelming.  Ellie dressed like a real western gal – hearty and strong, with a natural beauty.

“Ellie, how is it that we all got older and grayer and you look exactly as you did the last time I saw you?”

“I think your memory is fading with time, Adam.”  Ellie took a step back.   Well, he certainly was still as charming as she remembered him to be.  She silently warned herself to be careful.  She had suffered so much since he left.  He can’t just stride back in and pick up like nothing ever happened, even though every day while he was gone she dreamed he would.  She started to feel a rush of emotions.

She lifted the napkin and watched to see if the bleeding was slowing any.  She placed it right back down on his head and held it firmly with her hand.  “Well, this proves it,” she said.

“Proves what?”

“That your head is not made of granite like I always thought it was.”

Adam threw his head back and laughed heartily.  Ellie giggled.  For just a moment she saw a glimpse of the old Adam – the one she fell in love with.

Smiling, he looked up at her and their eyes met.   Their faces were so close.  She could smell the bourbon and feel his breath on her cheek.  She looked steadily into his eyes, and her breathing became quick and purposeful.  She could feel her heart racing.  When he reached out and put his hands on her waist to draw her towards him, she wrapped an arm around his shoulder to steady herself. His eyes were scanning her face – from her eyes to her neck and finally to her lips.  He reached up and took her face in his hands.

Ellie stopped him and pulled away.  She stepped back and sat in a chair across from him, trying to catch her breath.  She knew he was going to kiss her, and although she wanted it too, she just couldn’t allow it.  He owed her an apology.  He owed her an explanation.  He owed her ten lost years.

“Adam . . .”

“No, Ellie . . . I’m sorry.  I got carried away.  Maybe it was the liquor. . . I lost control, and I’m sorry.  You were so close, and . . .”

“Adam, I’m the one that’s sorry.  I obviously sent the wrong message.”

They sat in the kitchen without talking for a moment.  Adam was trying to figure out how to broach the subject of his leaving her.  He had so much he wanted to tell her, and he was sure she didn’t want to hear it.

“Ellie, I want to . . .  well, what I mean to say is . . . I hope you will . . .”

Ellie interrupted him.  “Oh, don’t worry, Adam.  I forgave you a long time ago.  You can go back to Boston with a clear conscience.”

Ellie stood up and checked his head again.  Suddenly, she seemed cold and distant. “Looks like you’re good to go.  You had better take this with you.  If I happen to find your hat, I’ll let you know.”  With that, Ellie went outside, untied Sport, and handed the reins to Adam.

“Good bye, Adam.  You be careful now.”

###

Adam kicked himself all the way home.  He had moved too quickly on Ellie.  He blamed the bourbon for his poor judgment.

When he arrived at the Ponderosa, Joe was standing in front of Pa’s desk looking over some papers, trying to make heads or tails out of a pile of invoices and receipts.  Since Pa’s illness, it was all Joe could do to keep the ranch running by himself, and paperwork was definitely not one of his strong points.

“Adam.  I’m glad you’re here.  I’m gonna need some help with all this.”

Adam sighed and sat down behind the desk.  He started sifting through the papers.  “Could I start on this tomorrow?  I have a pounding headache.”

Joe looked down at Adam and noticed the gash on his head.  “Been to see Ellie, huh?  Did she do that to your head?  Not that you don’t deserve it.”

Adam remained silent while looking at the papers on the desk.  Joe looked closely at his face.  Even after 10 years, Joe could read Adam.  Something had happened at Ellie’s –

“Adam, sooner or later we will need to discuss the future of the Ponderosa.  Pa left the ranch to you and me, so you have an equal stake in what happens here.  I could go on alone as it is now for a little while, maybe a year.  But after that, I don’t know.”

Joe waited for a response, but none came.

“What are your intentions in regards to the ranch?  To all of it – the mining, the timber?”

Still no response.  Joe walked around the desk and shoved the chair out from behind the desk with his foot.  He grabbed Adam by the shirt and pulled him up out of the chair.  He was tired.  Tired of shouldering all the responsibility.  Tired of having to do everything himself.  Tired of seeing his sister-in-law struggle to be happy.  Adam was here, and Joe wanted this settled now.  Was he in or out?

“Are you listening to me, brother?

Adam twisted himself out of Joe’s grip and tried to remain calm.  “Joe, I’ve had enough for today.  Can we discuss this some other time?”

“You’ve had enough?  YOU’VE had enough?  What about the rest of us?”

Joe’s voice got louder.  He couldn’t contain his temper any longer.  It was all about to tumble out.

“Alice and I have been struggling to hold it together here while you’ve been off chasing your dream.  While you were gone, Pa talked about you almost every day.  And when Hoss died and you didn’t come home, it almost killed him.  And how do you think I feel?  Do you think I’VE had enough, too?”

Joe was right in Adam’s face, shouting at him.

“And what about Ellie?”

Adam looked down, and his voice began to rise.  “I don’t want to talk about her, Joe.”

“Oh, you don’t?  Of course not.  She’s just your wife.  The wife you left behind. You have no idea what you did to her, do you?  You crushed her and left it to Pa and me to pick up the pieces!”

Joe shoved Adam back down in the chair.  Adam put his hand on the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes as if attempting to shut Joe out.  Finally, he looked up.  He spoke through clenched teeth.  “I fully intended to send for her to join me in Boston.  You know that.  I wrote every week, but after a while, my letters came back unopened.  What was I supposed to do?  I was sure she never wanted to see me again, so I stopped writing.”

Joe became incensed.  “You should have come home!  You should have fought for her!  How could you just leave like that?”

Adam slammed his hand down on the desk.  He had reached his limit.  “That’s ENOUGH!”  He stood up to Joe.  “Come on, Joe.  You’ve been spoiling for a fight ever since I got back.  Let’s do it – right here, right now.”

“You got it, brother!”  Joe took a step forward and swung at Adam, hitting him square on the jaw.  Jolted, Adam steadied himself and swung back as Joe came at him, catching him in the gut.  Joe rolled over the desk and fell to the floor, and the papers went flying.

“Stop it you two – STOP!”  Alice came running into the room.  “How dare you?  Brothers fighting in their father’s house!  And him still warm in his grave!  There are children in this house!  Is this what you want to teach them?  Violence?”

The two men looked at Alice like boys who got caught fighting in the school yard.  Benji stood directly behind her, peeking out from behind her shoulders, his eyes wide.

Adam and Joe were red in the face and breathing hard.  They looked around at the damage they had caused.  Joe spoke first.  “I’m sorry, Alice.”  He crouched down to gather the papers from the floor.

He stood and faced Adam.  “I’m sorry, brother.  I lost my temper.”

“Not without good cause.”  Adam extended his hand to Joe and shook it firmly.

“Well, you may be out of shape, Adam, but you still throw a mean punch.”

Adam put his hand to his mouth and flexed his jaw.  “You too, little brother.  I guess I’ll think twice about mixing with you again.”

Adam and Joe stood together quietly for a moment.

“I promise to make a decision soon, Joe.  Give me a few days.   I have a lot to think about.”

Adam grabbed his father’s brandy bottle and a glass and went out to the front porch.  Leaning a chair back against the post, he poured glass after glass, hoping to quiet the voices in his head.  He heard the door to the house open and expected to see Joe, but it was Alice, pulling her shawl around her shoulders.

“If you would rather not have company right now I’d understand.”

Adam pulled out a chair for Alice and patted the seat for her to sit down.

“I’m sorry if I scared Benji.”

“Benji has a sister, so he’s not familiar with how brothers interact.   I think it was good for him to see you fight, but more importantly, to see you forgive each other.  That’s the bigger lesson here, don’t you think?”

Adam stared straight ahead.  “I guess I’ve made quite a mess.”

“Adam, don’t be so hard on yourself.  You’re here now – that’s the most important thing.”

Adam sat quietly for a moment.  “Alice, I know I have to make a decision about my future soon.  I owe it to you and Joe to let you know what my intentions are concerning the ranch. But before I do, I need to know where I stand with Ellie.  I’ve tried to talk to her, but she doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.  If she can’t forgive me, if there’s no chance she will take me back . . . I just couldn’t live here on the ranch, seeing her every day. . .”  He looked down at the empty brandy bottle.  “I never stopped loving her, Alice.  I want to set this right, but I don’t know where to begin.”

Alice reached over and placed her hand on Adam’s arm.

“Well, if I were a man trying to win back the woman he loves, I would start by earning her trust.  But, be careful with her, Adam.  Go slowly.  She’s very fragile.”  Alice squeezed his arm, and left him alone to think.

###

Adam woke to the light of dawn streaming through his window.  He sat on the edge of the bed and watched the sunrise turn the horizon vivid orange and purple, silhouetting the pines.  He couldn’t remember ever having seen such a beautiful sunrise in Boston.  The buildings there, some of which he had designed, blocked the sky and the horizon was filled with smoke from the nearby factories.

He could hear Hop Sing in the kitchen, preparing breakfast.  He pulled on his trousers and buttoned up his shirt.  How did he ever live in city attire?  Ranch wear fit him like a glove, like an old friend.  Today seemed like a new beginning.

Joe came down for breakfast, and soon Alice followed with two little sleepy heads plodding down the stairs behind her.

“Good morning children.”

“Good morning, Pa.”  Benji sat at the table, while little Marie climbed into Joe’s lap and snuggled close, her little bare feet peeking out from beneath her nightgown.

“Benji, you can eat your breakfast, and then I’ll need to you clean out the barn before you leave for school.”

Benji returned a look that any young boy would have when asked to do the dirtiest chore on the ranch.  He plopped his chin in his hands and dejectedly responded “Yes, Pa.”

Joe looked at him sideways.  “And take your elbows off the table.”  Benji yanked his elbows back and dug into his grits and molasses.

Adam smiled and sipped his coffee.  Memories of his father saying the same thing to him as a young boy flooded back.

“You know, Benji, I’m a little out of practice cleaning the barn.  Would you mind terribly if I took that chore from you today?”

Benji’s mouth dropped open.  He looked over to his father, and Joe nodded his approval.

“No, Uncle Adam.  I don’t mind at all!”

Adam finished his breakfast and went out to the barn.  He sang softly to the horses as he cleaned and raked, and laid down fresh hay.   The simplicity of the chore made him feel purposeful and part of something bigger than himself.  Joe came out to join him, and Adam proudly showed him his work.

“Well, Joe, does the barn pass your inspection?”

“Looks great.  Good to know you still remember how to shovel manure.”  Joe grabbed the rake and began helping Adam.  “That was a nice thing you did for Benji.  He hates cleaning out the barn.”

“You know, Joe, I envy you.”  Adam leaned on the pitchfork.  “You have a beautiful wife and two beautiful children.  You’ve taken great care of the ranch and the businesses.  You are an honest, hard-working man with strength of character.  I wish I could say the same about myself.  You should be proud of the man you are today.  I know Pa would be.”

Joe stopped working and looked at Adam.  He started to say something but thought again.  “Thanks, brother.”

Later that morning, Adam sat at Pa’s desk and finished the last of the accounting.  Joe came in the front door and tossed his hat on the credenza.  He glanced over to Adam, who was wearing his glasses to help him see the figures on the paperwork.  Joe couldn’t resist another opportunity to tease him.

“Hey, Adam, what’s that on your nose?”

“Those are glasses, Joe.  Don’t laugh – you’ll be wearing them someday, too.”

“Oh, not me, brother.  I can see the cows just fine without them.”

“Hey Joe, how about we go down to the canyon for some target practice.  I could do with a little brushing up on my gunplay. Maybe we can place a few wagers on who’s the best shot.”

“Well, be sure to bring a lot of cash with you, Adam, because you are going to lose big!”

The two brothers saddled up and rode down to the canyon.  After yesterday’s blow out, things between the brothers seemed less tense.  Adam treasured this moment he was having with his only remaining family member.

One of Adam’s favorite places on the ranch, the canyon was rimmed on three sides by gigantic boulders.  It was wild and magnificent, and he always felted dwarfed by its size.  He had fond memories of learning to shoot there under his father’s watchful eye.

When they got to the canyon, Adam gathered up the cans littering the ground, lined them up, and stood behind Joe.  Joe drew his gun from his holster and shot them all down in seconds.  Adam whistled.

“Good shootin’, little brother.”

Joe set the cans back on the rock.  “OK, your turn.  Let’s see if you still got it.”  Adam’s gun in the holster, he took a stance and drew his gun quickly.  Six shots – six misses.  “Good thing that wasn’t a bank robber with a gun in your face.  You’re getting slow, old man.”  Again, Joe could not resist an opportunity to tease Adam.

“I don’t carry a gun anymore.  No need where I come from.  That would be considered rude.”

“Rude?  Well, I think getting gunned down with no means to defend yourself is rude, too.”  The men ejected the empty cartridges and reloaded their pistols.  The conversation stalled.  Joe had something he wanted to know from Adam.

“I guess I’m going to come right out and ask you, brother.  Have you made your peace with Ellie?”

Adam continued to look down, plugging bullets in the empty chambers of his gun.

“I tried, but she wouldn’t let me.”  He clicked the revolver closed and looked down the handle to the sight at the end of the barrel. “She won’t talk to me about it.”  He looked at Joe.  “If I could just get some time alone with her . . .”

Joe holstered his gun.  “Why don’t you buy her picnic basket at the charity auction this Sunday?  She always enters a basket.  That would buy you at least 2 hours of her time.  Maybe you could talk to her then.”

Adam looked at his brother.  “Joe, I think you might have something there.  What time is the auction?”

###

On Sunday afternoon the town of Virginia City bustled with activity.  Bunting and banners were everywhere, dressing up the town.  Up and down Virginia Street there were booths and games, shooting matches, and baked goods for sale; all to benefit the Virginia City charities.  In addition to a horse race and a sewing contest, there would also be a beautiful baby contest.  It seemed like everyone in the territory was there.

Alice and Joe arrived with the children in tow, and Adam and Sport followed behind.  “All right, kids, where shall we go first?” Adam asked, rubbing his hands together.  The children each took a hand and pulled Adam down the street to the candy booth.

Dressed all in black, he had permanently shed his city clothes for ranch attire. He’d even replaced his lost top hat with a new black Stetson.  His gun strapped to his waist and his boots clean and shiny, he looked every bit the westerner.  As he walked down the street with Benji and Marie, he casually scanned the crowds to see if Ellie had arrived.  From a distance he saw her, radiant in a blue gingham dress, hair blowing in the breeze.  The sight of her set his heart pounding.  She still looked every bit the young lady he had courted and married.

Ellie was looking for Adam, too.  Arriving in town she had seen Sport tied to a hitching post, so she knew he was here.  She nonchalantly looked around but was unable to find him.  Waving to Alice, she crossed the street, and the two women dove deep into conversation.

Joe was getting ready to ride out to moderate the horse race when Dave from the land office caught him by the arm.

“Hey, Joe.  I’ve had a few people stop into the office asking about the Ponderosa.  They wanted to know when the ranch will be ready for sale.”

“Sale?”  Joe was confused.  “The Ponderosa isn’t for sale, Dave.”

“That’s what I thought, Joe.  But one of the men had a newspaper with an advertisement for prime grazing acreage for sale.  They didn’t mention the Ponderosa by name, but your ranch is the only one in this territory that fits the description.  With your father passing and all, I guess they just assumed . . .”

“I’m sure it’s a mistake, Dave.  Has to be.  But I’ll come out to your office next week to see if we can get this straightened out.”

At noon the mayor called everyone over to the auction table to begin the lunch basket auction.

“Folks, folks, if you could, please gather around as we begin the picnic basket auction.  You will be able to bid on a basket and have lunch with the lady who prepared it.  Remember, this is for charity, so please be generous!  Our first basket is prepared by our very own school teacher, Mrs. Abigail Meyers.  Do I have an opening bid?”

Hank Meyers stepped forward.  “Twenty dollars!”

“We have a bid of twenty dollars!  Do I hear twenty-five?  Twenty-five?”

A voice in the crowd called “twenty-five!”

“I have twenty-five!  Come on, folks, this is for charity.  How about thirty?”

Hank stepped forward, and bid again.  “I bid thirty dollars!   And if anyone tries to outbid me, I’ll throttle them!”

Laughter ran through the crowd.  The mayor continued.  “Thirty, going once. . . going twice . . . sold to Hank Meyers for thirty dollars!  Hank, come collect your basket!”  The crowd responded with polite applause.

Three more baskets were auctioned in similar fashion.  Finally, Ellie’s basket was up.  “This basket was prepared by Ellie Cartwright, and we all know about her fine pie making skills.  Now, who will open the bidding?”

Joe spoke up.  “Twenty dollars!”  Adam shot him a glance from under the brim of his hat and scowled.  This was too good for Joe.  He was going to up the bidding against his brother, just to get a rise out of him.

“Twenty-five” came a bid from the crowd.  “Thirty!” Joe called out. Then two more bids came in. “Forty!” “Fifty!”

This was Adam’s chance to win the basket, and he wasn’t going to play around.  He took a step forward and coolly placed his bid.  “Five hundred dollars.”

The crowd went silent, and the Mayor was dumbstruck. “Well, we have a bid for five hundred dollars from Mr. Adam Cartwright!”

Ellie looked at Adam with her mouth gaping open.  What was he trying to do?  This was nothing but embarrassing.

“Do I have any other bids?  Anyone?”  The Mayor scanned the crowd but knew no one was going to outbid Adam.  “Going once. . . going twice. . .”  The crowd started to get excited.  “SOLD!  To Mr. Adam Cartwright for five hundred dollars!”

Thunderous applause and cheering came from the crowd.  Ellie felt her face getting red and hot.  Adam stepped through the crowd and paid for the basket in cash.  He went over to Ellie to collect his prize.  He tipped his hat to her and took the basket from her hands.

“I hope you get what you paid for, Adam,” she said out of the corner of her mouth while trying to smile for the crowd.

“If your pie is as good as I remember it would be worth twice the price.”  Smiling a devilish smile, he extended his elbow towards Ellie, and she wrapped her arm through his.  Adam sauntered through the crowd with Ellie on his arm, tipping his hat to the ladies who had gathered to watch.

They loaded the basket in Ellie’s wagon and took the north road out of town.  Adam whistled a little tune in time to the gate of the horses.  They came to a clearing in the trees they both knew well – they had spent time there together while courting many years ago.  Adam parked the wagon and reached up to help Ellie down.  Effortlessly, he lifted her from the wagon and gently set her on the ground.  She took the basket from the back of the wagon and set about arranging the picnic.

Adam had decided to let Ellie do the talking today.  The conversation was light for a while, but soon it became awkwardly quiet. As she busied herself with cleaning up the picnic, Adam stretched back on the blanket and leaned on his elbow.

“I haven’t had a chance to thank you for sending the telegram about Pa.  If it hadn’t been for you, I would never have been able to make my peace with him before he died.”

“You’d have done the same for me.  After all that’s happened between us, we’re still family, right?”

Adam became thoughtful.  “I very much want to be, Ellie.”  He moved in closer and took both Ellie’s hands in his.  She made a move to draw them back, but he held them fast. “I hope, at the very least, we can be friends.  I know you don’t trust me, and I don’t blame you.  I am going to work hard to earn back your trust.  Do you think we could start again and see where it takes us?”

This time she pulled her hands away.  “Oh, Adam. I don’t know . . .”

“Ellie, I promise, I will never hurt you again.”

She remained silent.

“You don’t have to decide today.  Let’s start at the beginning.”  Adam held out his hand.  “Friends?”

Smiling, she took his hand in return.

“Friends.”

###

The picnic was over and the sun was beginning to set.  Ellie and Adam rode silently back to town.  Inside, she was deep in thought, back to the days before Adam left for Boston.

She knew when they were married it wasn’t easy for Adam to be the oldest son of Ben Cartwright.  He had placed a lot of the responsibility for the ranch squarely on his son’s shoulders.  Knowing his father intended to pass the Ponderosa down to him and his brothers made him feel trapped.  He tried to be a dutiful son, but at the same time, he had dreams for his life, too.  While going to school in the East, a whole new world had opened up to him – literature, architecture, music.  Having to return to the grind of the ranch with no hope of ever being able to pursue his dreams made him inwardly angry and resentful.

When his classmate Michael wrote and asked him to join his building firm in Boston, Adam regretfully declined his offer.  Ellie immediately noticed a change in him.   Restless, he felt the world was passing him by.  It even began to affect their marriage.  He was often distant and withdrawn.   Their sexual relationship, which had always been passionate and exciting, had waned.  Many nights when he came to bed, she could expect nothing more than an emotionless kiss on the cheek.  His desire to move back East and her love of the ranch life in the West was causing them to drift further and further apart.  Ellie knew he would have to go and pursue his dream if he was ever going to be happy.

Knowing he would never approach his father about the possibility of leaving, Ellie confided in Ben and talked him into supporting Adam’s desire to go to Boston.  A few weeks later as he was preparing to leave, she discovered one thing she hadn’t counted on – he wanted to go ahead of her to establish himself with the firm and find them a place to live.  When he was ready, he would send for her to join him.  Ellie was crushed.  She assumed they would be leaving for Boston together.  She tried to be understanding but felt angry at being left behind.  The day Adam left they argued and said dreadful things to each other.

###

In the days following the picnic, Adam became optimistic about the possibility of reconciling with Ellie.  In the back of his mind, however, he knew he had a big decision to make.  His obligations in Boston certainly wouldn’t wait forever.  He hoped Ellie would give him some clue as to whether they might have a future together.

Over the next few weeks, he fell into a routine of helping Joe with the ranch chores – mending fences, chopping wood, and even some branding.  He began to realize just how out of shape he had become.  Ranch work certainly kept a man in shape, and the physical demands of the ranch also helped a man stay focused on what is important.

He tried to make a trip out to Ellie’s house nearly every day.  Sometimes he stopped just to bring her some wildflowers he had picked for her, and other times he spent the day working on fixing little things at their house.

The tension between them seemed to lessen as the days went by.  They became more comfortable in each other’s company, and she had even invited him to dinner once or twice.  Adam enjoyed his time with her.  When they parted, he always gave her a tender kiss on the back of her hand.  Despite the progress they were making, there were still some unasked questions needing to be answered.  Ellie would know when the time was right.

Today she busied herself with touching up the paint on the interior of the house while Adam worked on the stalls in the barn.  She found herself gazing out the windows frequently, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

When finished, she prepared some lunch and headed out to tell Adam it was ready.  She stepped into the barn and, without his knowing, found him working without his shirt on.  Glistening with sweat, she could see his defined muscles as he hammered some new boards into place.  She stopped dead in her tracks and stared.  The time that passed while they were apart brought the new reality of age.  His hair, once full and dark, was now disappearing and had turned silver, along with the hair on his chest.  His body was heavier, but still in good shape.  He was every bit as attractive as the day she met him – if not more so.

Ellie’s heart pounded.  She could feel her face getting warm.   Flashes of their passionate nights together sparked her memories.  She had not felt desire for Adam or any other man since he left.   A few years after he had been away, suitors in the area began to make themselves known to her, but she rebuffed all their advances.  She was married to Adam and would remain so until he ended their marriage.

Not accustomed to the site of half naked men, she felt as if her feet were nailed to the floor.  She cleared her throat to make her presence known.

“Eh hem. . . “

He turned to face her.  “Ellie!”

She tried to look only at his face, but couldn’t help herself.  Her eyes flicked up and down his body.  Finally, she looked at the floor.  Adam knew what she was doing and unashamedly stood with his exposed body facing her while he wiped his hands on a towel.

“Um . . . well . . . I have some lunch ready if you’re hungry.”

“That sounds great – I’m starving.”

He washed up at the pump and put his shirt back on.  Ellie invited him to sit and scurried around the kitchen serving him his lunch.  It reminded her of their life together before he left.

“How’s the work coming?”

Adam sipped his lemonade.  “Pretty soon I’m going to have a hard time finding anything to do around here.  You’ve taken exceptional care of the place.”

“Well, Pa and Joe helped a lot.  You know, I feel a little guilty taking you away from the Ponderosa.  I’m sure Joe relies on you now for your help with the ranch.”  Ellie took a seat at the table and passed a plate of sandwiches.

“Don’t feel guilty. I enjoy coming here.  Brings back some good memories.”

“Well, um, there’s something else I feel guilty about.”  Adam looked at Ellie.  She was serious.  She lowered her head and fidgeted with the edge of the tablecloth.  “Adam, I . . . I  . . . I have done something I shouldn’t have.  I hope you can forgive me.”

“I can forgive you anything.  What is it?”

She raised her head and met his inquiring gaze.  “Well, you remember the day Sport threw you?   After you left, I went out and found that damned, ridiculous hat of yours.  I intended to bring it back to you, but I was so angry – I threw it in the river.”  She smiled a devilish smile.  “If you want it, it should be somewhere at the bottom of the lake by now.”

He broke into laughter.   “Ahhh. . . thank you.  That’s exactly where that ridiculous hat belongs!”

###

The next day, Adam was already at the breakfast table when Joe and Alice came down and joined him.

“You’re up awfully early.  Where are you running off to?”

Adam blotted the corners of his mouth and dropped his napkin onto his empty plate.

“Ellie and I are going riding this morning, so if you don’t mind . . .”  He stood up from the table.

“Sure you wouldn’t rather spend the day fixing fences with me, brother?”

Adam shot Joe a sideways glance and flashed a sly smile.

“Well, if you don’t look like the cat that ate the canary!  Maybe I should come along – you know, to chaperone you two.”

“Goodbye Joe,” Adam called as he walked toward the door.  He strapped on his gun and put on his hat, pulling the brim low on his eyes.  He turned back and tipped his hat.  “Alice.”  Alice winked back.

Adam and Sport made their way down the road to Ellie’s house.  It was a crisp autumn morning, and he could see the breath puffing from Sport’s nose as they plodded their way along.   Grinning to himself, he felt like a young suitor, romancing the woman he loved.  Over the past few weeks, they seemed to have grown closer, even though Ellie was still wary of him.  Today’s ride down to the lake should be a beautiful one, with plenty of time to talk along the way.  When he got to the house, Ellie was out front, sitting in a chair trying to get her boots on.  Adam threw his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground.  He could hear Ellie swearing.

“Anything I can help you with, my dear?”

Damn these boots!  They are so hard to pull on!”

Adam moved in front of her and without a word, took the boot from her hand and crouched down so his face was even with hers.  He took her hand and placed it on his shoulder for balance.  With the boot in one hand, he took her leg just under her knee and twisted the boot on to her foot.  His mission complete, his hand lingered on her leg, caressing it while looking into her eyes.  Ellie took a breath in – afraid to move lest she break the spell.  His touch made her heart beat faster.

“I guess we’re ready then,” Ellie whispered.

Adam let go of her leg, reached for her hands and pulled her out of the chair.

“First one to the oak tree wins.”  Adam smiled.

“What?  Wins what?”  Ellie yelled to him as she ran for her horse.  She jumped into the saddle and kicked her horse hard, sending her galloping down the road.  She loved a good race!

Laughing, Adam jumped on Sport and ran after her.  The two of them dashed down the road, neck and neck.

“Don’t let Sport throw you again!”  Ellie shouted back to Adam.  They laughed as they sprinted down the road, the oak tree in their sights.  She put her head down and leaned low on the neck of her horse, nudging him to the finish line.  The clear winner, she dismounted and fell down in a patch of green grass.  She rolled on her back, laughing and breathing heavily after the heated race.  Adam came down from his horse and lay in the grass next to her.

“So, what did I win?”

Adam brushed the hair from her forehead.  “This,” he said, and leaned in and gently kissed her on the lips.  He looked into her eyes to try to measure her response.  Ellie put her hand on the side of his face and returned his kiss.

“I guess we’re both winners now,” Adam said.  He lay on his back and reached for Ellie’s hand.

“I want you to know I’ve noticed how loving and considerate you have been lately, Adam.  But. . . I don’t know. . .  there are still a lot of things I need to work out.”

“No need to rush anything.”

The two lay in the grass for hours.  Adam had brought a book of sonnets, and he selected a few of his favorites to read aloud. His low, melodious voice was almost hypnotic.  Ellie listened to the words a poet had written many years ago – of lovers who were lost to each other, just as Adam and Ellie were.  How was the author to know his words would resonate with them now, as surely as those words did for other lovers in other places?

Ellie rolled over and propped herself up on her elbows.  She reached over and touched Adam’s beard. It was gray in most places, and even some pure white patches appeared next to his mouth.

“So, what do you think of my new look?”

Ellie ran her hand over it again and again.  “I like it, Adam.  I remember how much you disliked shaving.  It must be a relief not to have to do it anymore.  I think it makes you look – distinguished.”

“Oh, distinguished, huh?  I like that.”

“But -”

“But what?”

“I miss seeing your dimples.”

“A man my age shouldn’t have dimples. There’s nothing distinguished about dimples.”

“A man your age – what are you talking about?  You are just as handsome as the day I met you.”  Just then, the sky darkened and the wind started to blow.  Adam scanned the sky.  He remembered how quickly the weather in the Sierras could change, and how dangerous it could become.

“Looks like a storm’s blowing in – we’d better start making our way back.”

Ellie and Adam mounted up and began the ride back to the house.  They had only ridden 15 minutes or so before the sky opened up and rain fell in sheets.  The thunder rolling against the mountains intensified the sound, and the horses were getting spooked.  They made their way home as fast as they could safely travel.  Arriving back at the house, Adam took the horses to the barn and bedded them down for the night.  He would not be traveling back to the Ponderosa tonight until this storm had passed.

Ellie ran into the house and started a fire.  She was thoroughly soaked.  Adam, soaked as well, entered the house, removed his jacket and hung it by the fire to dry.  Ellie lit the stove in the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee.  Outside, the thunder cracked and the lightning flashed, making her jump.

Adam began peeling off his wet clothes, draping them over the furniture near the fire.  He glanced toward the kitchen and caught a glimpse of Ellie.  Her wet clothes were clinging to her body and had become transparent, leaving nothing to the imagination.  He tried not to stare, but he couldn’t help it.  She was beautiful, even soaking wet.

“Do you remember the big storm a few years back?  The one that almost blew the roof off the barn?”

“Of course, Adam.  How could I ever forget?  As soon as the roof was patched you left.”

Ellie’s good will towards Adam was now gone.  She felt anger and hurt rising in her chest.  She was now ready to know why Adam had left her ten years ago, however painful that was going to be.  If their relationship was going to continue, it had to be told.

Dripping wet, she glared at Adam from across the room.  “There is something I need to ask you, and I want you to promise to answer me honestly and truthfully.  Are you able to do that?”

Adam already knew what the question would be.  She wanted an explanation, a reason why.

“Adam . . . why?”

Adam let out his breath.  He rubbed his hand over his beard and became deeply thoughtful.  Ellie handed him a cup of coffee, but he could only stare into the cup.

“Well, when I got to Boston, I found a small apartment and went to work for Michael’s firm right away. Before long, he married into one of the most influential families in Boston.  Once you are in that circle, well, things begin to happen for you.  We were designing houses, warehouses, and storefronts for wealthy, influential people we would never had met had it not been for Michael’s in-laws.  I found these people to be shallow and disingenuous, but Michael urged me to try to fit in for the sake of the firm.  Soon, we were getting referral after referral, and it seemed the work would never end.  We were making a fortune.”

“Yes, I remember reading about that in your letters.”

“Everything happened so fast.  I bought a home and was making it ready for you in my spare time, which I didn’t seem to have much of.  Before I knew it, a year had gone by, then two.  I was getting ready to write you to come join me when Michael’s wife found out he had a mistress and an illegitimate child.  Overnight, we were pariahs in the community.  I was unfairly judged by my association with Michael.  He left for parts unknown, and I stayed in Boston and tried to make a go of it alone.  No one would hire me.  I had business debts to pay and no work coming in.  I had to sell the house just to pay the creditors.  I lost everything.  I had to swallow my pride and start from the ground up.  I was earning enough to get by, but I was never able to recapture my previous success.”

Ellie interrupted.  “Why didn’t you come home?”

Adam remained quiet for a moment.  He stood up and turned his back to her.  “I was a failure, Ellie.  I pursued my dream and failed on the grandest of scales.  I just couldn’t admit it to Pa, to you, or even to myself.  I couldn’t come home a failure.”  Adam turned.  “I needed you so much then.  I wrote you over and over, but the letters came back unopened.”

“I just couldn’t read your letters anymore, Adam.  They all spoke of how happy and successful you were.  When you were here with me on the ranch, you were miserable and restless.  I could only guess you were happy in Boston because I wasn’t there with you.   I wanted so much to join you and waited for the invitation that never came.  It seemed like each letter had a new reason why you didn’t want me to come – you were too busy, the weather was bad, the house needed renovations . . .  The excuses went on and on.  Your letters became too painful to read.  You had a new life.  I knew I was a simple ranch girl . . . I would never fit in with the society of Boston.  So I sent your letters back.”

Adam was silent.  He was trying to absorb the weight of the words she had spoken.  He knelt down in front of her and looked into her eyes.  Finally, he spoke. “When I left you that day, I knew it was wrong not to take you, but I was selfish and thinking only of myself.  I think that’s why I was so angry.  The things I said to you . . .  I knew I was hurting you . . . Ellie, I am so sorry.  I don’t expect you to ever forgive me.”

Ellie stood up.  Her face turned red, and she could feel her temper flaring.  “Adam, do you know what you are asking me to forgive?  Do you know what I went through?  If it weren’t for Pa, I might have done some harm to myself.  I tortured myself every night.  What was wrong with me, that you would just ride away and leave me?”

“Ellie, I . . .”

“Too fat?  Maybe too thin, huh?  Maybe you wanted a more lady-like wife.  Maybe I wasn’t fancy enough for Boston.  Maybe I wasn’t educated enough.  Maybe I wasn’t your intellectual equal!”

Adam started to protest, but Ellie kept on going.

“You were gone and never coming back.  I had to let you go.  And now, here you are!  Do you think you can patch the barn, read a few poems to me, and we would pick up as if nothing had happened?”

Adam remained silent.

Ellie stood up to Adam.  “You see me, Adam?  LOOK at me!  I’m not the woman you left here ten years ago – I’m disillusioned and angry now.  You did that to me.  You say you want a life with me now, but what will happen when the feelings that drove you away come back?  Why don’t you pick up your hat and go back where you came from?  Why don’t you get out and leave me alone!”

Adam’s heart was breaking. The day had started so full of promise and now it had all collapsed.  Maybe Ellie was right.  Maybe too much damage had been done. The hope of reconciliation was over.  Crushed, he slowly exhaled, silently dressed, and gathered his coat and hat.  He opened the door to the house, stood in the doorway, and looked to the rain falling outside.

“Doesn’t feel so good to be unwanted, does it, Adam?”  She instantly regretted the words.  She had pushed him too far.

Hearing those words, Adam stopped, but he did not turn around. Placing his hat on his head, he stepped outside, gently closed the door behind him and made his way out to the barn to wait out the rain.  Outside, the thunder and lightning resonated around the valley, like the emotions rumbling deep in his soul.

Inside the house, Ellie broke into sobs.  “What have I done?”  All those feeling she had kept inside all those years had just come spilling out.  “Damn it!”  When would she learn to control her mouth?  She wanted to hurt Adam like he had hurt her.  She wanted him to know what it felt like to be left behind like a piece of unwanted furniture.

All the years he had been gone, she only wanted him to come back to her.  Now here he was, and she just closed the door on any chance for them to be together.  This was it.  This was her last chance.  She knew if she let him leave, he would never come back. Ever.

She looked out the window and saw him with his back to her, leaning against the doorway to the barn, his head bent down against the rain. If she didn’t do something now, right NOW, she would lose him forever.  She suddenly felt emotions she had not felt in a long time – love, regret, forgiveness.

She grabbed the door and flung it open.  Adam looked over his shoulder and saw her coming across the yard to the barn in the pouring down rain.  “Adam!  Adam!”  He burst out of the barn door and swept her into his arms, kissing her over and over.

“Adam, don’t leave . . . don’t leave me!  I need you so much, please Adam . . .

“Ellie, forgive me.”

“No, Adam, please forgive me.  I’m so sorry for what I said.  I was trying to hurt you.”

Adam lifted Ellie off her feet and carried her into the house.  He could feel her heart beating through her chest.  She collapsed into Adam.  He took her face in his hands and gently smoothed her wet hair from her forehead.

“My Ellie, how could I have ever hurt you like I did?  You are everything to me” he whispered in her ear.

Ellie looked up at Adam.  Her heart pounded.  This was the man she loved.  This was the man she was destined to be with.   Her desire for him overwhelmed her.  She reached for his hand, and wrapping her fingers in his, led him up the stairs to her bedroom – their bedroom.

Once inside, she sat on the bed and pulled him down next to her.  As they sat next to each other, Adam reached out and touched her face.  She covered his hand with hers and closed her eyes.  The storm outside raged as all that had once come between them – the pain, the stubbornness, the pride – melted away.  Only passion and love remained.  The moment was electric.

Ellie opened her eyes and looked at Adam.  His eyes were hesitant.  He was waiting for her signal to continue.

“Ellie . . . I’m not sure if I should . . . do you want me to stop?”

She leaned into him, and tenderly kissed him on the lips.  He drew back and began slowly kissing her cheeks, her neck, her temple, her eyes, her lips.  Softly at first, she opened her mouth to his, and he began to kiss her – stronger, deeper, harder. They embraced each other as their passion took over. Adam’s hands began to move along her body.   He kissed her over and over, again and again.  Slowly he moved his hand up her side and caressed her breast.  He reached for a button, and undid it, waiting to see if she would ask him to stop.  He continued one at a time until her chemise was fully exposed.

“Ellie.”

Ellie, in turn, pulled his shirt out from his trousers and undid his belt.  She ran her hand up and slipped it under his shirt, caressing the hair on his chest.  Button by button, she unfastened his trousers.

They undressed each other until no clothing came between them.  He gently laid her on her back and began to make love to her.  She relished his touch, arching her back to meet his caresses.  Although they had been apart for so long, it seemed to make their lovemaking even sweeter.  The excitement and desire felt brand new – as if this was their first time together.  They spent the night as one – both of them overcome with passion.  Finally, exhausted, they fell asleep entwined in each other’s arms.

###

The next morning, Ellie was awakened by a noise downstairs in the kitchen.  She looked over and saw Adam was not in bed.

“Adam?”

“Don’t come down, Ellie.  I have a surprise for you.  Stay in bed, please.”

“Yes, Adam,” Ellie smiled.

He came up the stairs with a tray of coffee and toast.  On the tray he had placed some wildflowers he found in her garden.   He proudly handed the tray to Ellie.

“Well, I’m not the best cook, but the coffee isn’t bad.”  He was relaxed and smiling.  He pulled back the covers to hop into bed, and got a glimpse of Ellie, naked beneath the quilt.  He stood for a moment and took in the sight of his beautiful wife.  Ellie, feeling exposed in the morning light, grabbed the quilt away from Adam and tried to cover herself.

“No, my love.  Don’t cover yourself.”

Ellie held up the quilt and allowed Adam to have his fill.  “Is it all as you remember it to be?”

Adam’s eyes went up and down her body.  In the light of day, the sight of her unclothed body immediately aroused him, and he began to slowly caress her, kissing her all over.  “Is it possible it’s better than I remembered?”

“Adam, if we start this again we won’t get any chores done this morning.  I’m sure Sport is hungry by now.”

“Well, I’m hungry, too,” Adam winked.  “But you’re right.  I guess we’d better get going.”  He was quiet and thoughtful for a moment.  “Ellie, I have made my decision.  This trip has reminded me of what’s important in life.  I want to come home – to you, to the ranch, to our life.  Will take me back?  I want to be your man again – the man you knew ten years ago.”

“My love, I would never trade the kind and caring man you are today for the husband that left me ten years ago.”

He threw back the quilt, got out of bed, and knelt on the floor next to Ellie.  “Ellie Cartwright, would you do me the honor of being my wife – again?”

“Wait!”  She jumped out of bed and pulled the quilt around her.  She went to her dresser and opened a drawer.  Inside she found a small box that held her wedding ring.  The one he placed on her finger on their wedding day.  Ellie gave the ring to Adam.  “Take this and ask me again.”

Adam took the ring from Ellie and held it over the end of her finger.

“Ellie . . .” That was all he was able to get out before she yelled “Yes!”  He placed the ring on her finger, and kissed it.

“When you placed this ring on my hand on our wedding day, you asked me to wear it as a sign of your love and devotion.  I want the world to know Adam Cartwright loves me and is devoted to me – and me alone.”

###

Dressed and fed, Adam and Ellie went out to the barn to feed the horses.   “Adam, you should head back to the Ponderosa.  Joe and Alice are going to wonder what happened to you.”

“I’m not going without you.”  He took her by the waist and lifted her off the ground.  She crossed her arms around his neck and met his lips for a passionate kiss.  How lucky could he be – to have had this woman and then lost her, only to find her again?  His mind made up, he intended to tell Joe that he and Ellie were back together, and he planned to stay on the Ponderosa permanently.

They hitched up the buggy and began the trip back to the ranch.  As they pulled into the yard, Joe came out of the house – a serious look on his face.

“I’ve been looking for you, Adam.  Where have you been?”

“Joe, Ellie and I . . .”

“A man was here, Adam.  He was looking to buy your shares of the Ponderosa.  Did you place an advertisement in the paper?”

“What are you are talking about?”

“He said you were going back to Boston and would be selling out.  You know what that means to me!  I can’t run half a ranch!  Pa must be turning his grave.  He worked so hard to build this place.  How dare you divide the Ponderosa?”

“Joe, wait – I have no idea what is going on here.  We should go into town and see what Dave in the land office has to say.  Obviously, there’s been a huge mistake.”

“I just came back from town.  Dave showed me the advertisement. There are surveyors out in the north pasture already.”

Just as he finished his sentence, a carriage pulled into the yard.  A thin woman, dressed all in green velvet, stepped from the carriage.  Adam looked like he had seen a ghost.

“Lila!”

“Hello, Adam dear.”  She approached him, and as she leaned in for a kiss, Adam took a step back.  He looked at the woman and immediately knew she was the source of all the trouble.  Lila was nothing short of a devious, manipulative woman.  She had set her sights on Adam back in Boston and was bound and determined to land him.  The spoiled daughter of a wealthy business associate, Lila was known as poison in the Boston community.  Unfortunately for Adam, he found out too late to avoid her attentions.  She fully intended to marry him and made no effort to hide the fact from anyone, including Adam.  He had tried to let her down by politely refusing her advances.  She, however, continued to pop up wherever Adam was, foisting herself into his life against his wishes.

“Aren’t you happy to see me, darling?”

“What are you doing here?” he sneered.

“Well, darling, I came to help you close up the ranch and sell the land.  Since your father is dead now, you certainly wouldn’t be thinking of staying in this God forsaken place!”  Adam clenched his jaw.  “But, enough of that talk for now, darling.  Get my luggage into the house for me, won’t you?”

“You don’t think you are going to stay here, do you?” Adam hissed.  “Go back to town.  There are several hotels to choose from.  You can catch the stage back to Boston tomorrow morning.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, love.”  Lila shot a sideways glance to Ellie.  She guessed this was Adam’s wife.  “Not much competition for me,” she thought.

Ellie stood next to Alice.  Knowing Ellie’s temper could quickly get out of control, Alice reached down and grabbed her wrist.  The last thing they needed right now was Ellie swearing at their guest. “Let’s all go inside, shall we?” Alice said.  “We obviously have a lot to talk about.”  She held Ellie fast and led her into the house.

Lila brushed into the house and looked around.

“Oh, my . . . how . . . rustic.”  Her face looked as if she had seen the bottom of the outhouse.  “Adam, darling, I am simply parched!  Be a good man and get me something to drink.”

“I’ll get it for you, Miss . . .  Miss . . .” Alice stammered over her name.  Still holding her by the wrist, Alice pulled Ellie into the kitchen.  “Ellie, dear, could you help me in the kitchen, please?”

The two women made their way into the kitchen.  Ellie went up to the sink and leaned on it for support.  Feeling emotions rising, she tried to control herself.  Damned Adam!  And after he promised to never hurt her again.  She looked at the ring on her hand.

“I’ve been a fool, Alice.”

Alice came up behind her, took her by the shoulders and turned her around.  “Ellie – what’s this all about?  Who is that terrible woman?”

“Apparently she is someone from Adam’s life in Boston.  Someone he neglected to mention to me.”  Ellie buried her face in her hands.  “Adam and I reconciled last night.  I forgave him everything.  We . . .we . . .”

Ellie’s eyes were red and teary.  Alice knew – Adam and Ellie had been intimate.

“I can’t do this again, Alice.”  Ellie opened the back door and ran out into the yard.  She untied Benji’s horse, climbed aboard, and rode away.

Meanwhile, Adam, Joe, and Lila were seated around the fireplace.  Lila continued to look down her nose at the furnishings and décor.

Adam tried to hold his temper in check.  “Lila, are you behind the advertisement for the sale of the ranch?”

“Why, yes darling.  I hadn’t heard from you in quite a while, so I made some inquiries regarding this property.  I discovered you had done nothing to disperse it, so I thought I would help and move it along for you.  I was only trying to get you back to Boston as soon as possible.”  She continued on with a sickening, child-like voice.   “Darling, I hope you’re not angry with me.”

Joe stood up.  “Look, lady, I don’t know who you are, but the Ponderosa is not for sale!”  He looked at Adam, who was sitting with his mouth gaping open.

“Well, maybe your half is not for sale, but my Adam has decided to sell his half, right darling?”

Adam, clearly trying to stay calm, answered her with a low voice.  “Quite the opposite, Lila.  I have no intention of ever selling my stake in the Ponderosa.  I have decided to stay in Nevada, and run the ranch with my brother.”

Joe looked at his brother – a look of relief on his face.

“Oh, darling, you are just blinded by the grief of your father’s passing.  I’m sure when you think about it, you’ll want to return to me and our life in Boston where you belong.”  She reached over to put her hand on his, but he forcefully grabbed her by the wrist.

Our life?  What do you mean our life?”

Alice returned with a glass of water for Lila.  “Here you are, Miss. . . What did you say your name was?”

“Oh, it’s Lila.  Lila Donnelly of the Boston Donnelly’s.  Thank you, my dear.  Now, I’m going to need a napkin to blot myself with. The heat here is brutal!   Be a dear and fetch one for me?” Lila pulled a small compact mirror from her handbag and began to powder her nose.

Joe’s face was getting redder by the minute.  He was not going to allow this woman to order his wife around.  He stood up and walked over to Lila, and taking her by the elbow, walked her to the door.  “I think you better leave.  You are not welcome here.”  Joe led her outside, and all but threw her into her carriage.

“But how will I find my way back to town?”

“Take the north road.  You’ll find it.”

Joe strode back to the house.  As he closed the door, Lila called out “But which way is north?”  Ignoring her, he bolted the door shut.

Adam paced the floor.  So angry, he could barely speak.  “Where is Ellie?”

“She left, Adam,” Alice replied.  “She was upset.”

Adam covered his mouth with his hand and slowly shook his head.

“Oh, no.  I’ve lost her for sure now.  We were reconciled. I had decided to stay on and make a go of it with you and Joe on the ranch.  She had forgiven me.  But now . . .  I need to talk to her, to explain . . .”

Alice took Adam by the shoulders.  “Adam, Ellie is hurting right now.  She probably won’t listen to a thing you have to say.  Let me go to her.  I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not promising anything.”

###

Alice drove the wagon to Ellie’s house.  She opened the door of her house without knocking.  “Ellie?  Are you here?”

An emotional voice from upstairs called down to her.  “Go away, Alice!”

Alice ignored her and climbed the stairs.  She found Ellie in her room, lying face down on her bed.

She grabbed her by the arm and forced her up.  “Ellie!”

“Leave me alone!”

“No, Ellie.  I won’t leave you alone.  Listen to me . . .  LISTEN to me!  A few weeks ago, Adam and Joe had a terrible fight.  Joe was trying to get Adam to confess why he had left you.  Adam said the fault was all his, but Joe wouldn’t believe it.  Do you know what he said to Adam?  He said ‘Why didn’t you fight for her?  Why didn’t you come home and fight to get her back?’”

Ellie looked at Alice.

“I’m asking you the same thing, Ellie.  Why aren’t you fighting for Adam?  A Cartwright woman would never allow that skinny-assed, pale-faced phony to steal her husband.  A Cartwright woman would kick and scratch and claw to keep what’s hers.”

“Adam is yours, Ellie.  You said so yourself.  He’s broken and hurting now, and he’s afraid to talk to you for fear you will reject him.  Our men seem tough, but sometimes they are as fragile as a teacup.  Men need the help of their woman, and Adam needs your help right now.  Now, get up out of this bed!  Wash your face, saddle up your horse, go into town, and send that harlot packing!  Claim what’s yours!”

Ellie fingered her wedding ring; the one Adam had put on her finger just that morning.  She took a breath and wiped her eyes on her bedspread.  She grabbed Alice by the shoulders and gave her a hug.  “Thanks, sis.  Wish me luck.”

“You don’t need luck, Ellie.  Go get your man!”

###

Ellie jumped on her horse and headed for town.  She went straight to the Palace Hotel, assuming Lila would only settle for the best in town.  She was right – Lila had taken the entire upstairs suite.  She climbed the stairs and stood in front of Lila’s door.  She steadied herself and knocked on the door.  There was no answer.  She knocked again, this time more forcibly.  Her stomach dropped as she heard the lock turn.  Lila opened the door, dressed in a dressing gown and slippers.  Her hair was down, and Ellie could tell it was not a natural color.  She wore a large amount of face powder and rouge.  Ellie thought she looked much older than her years.

“Well, if it isn’t Mrs. Cartwright.  My, my!  Aren’t you the western gal!”  Lila’s eyes ran up and down Ellie’s body.  “Won’t you come in, Mrs. Cartwright?”

While trying hard to control her anger, Ellie spoke in a quiet, measured voice.  “No, thank you.  I won’t be coming in.  I came here to tell you to stay away from Adam.  He is my husband, and he will not be seeing you again.”

Lila narrowed her eyes.  “Well, Mrs. Cartwright, it seems we have a difference of opinion.  You see, even though Adam talked about you all the time, it was me he came to for comfort on those cold nights in Boston.  We were a couple.  Adam was working hard to build his business, and he was going to ask me to marry him.”

Ellie crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight.  It was impossible to even try to control her temper now.  She was in full fight mode.

“Well, I’m not sure about Boston, but here in Nevada it’s against the law to have two wives.  Adam never divorced me, so that would make you nothing but a damned whore.”

Lila gasped.

“And funny thing about you saying he talked about me all the time – he never once mentioned you to me.”

Lila’s gaze suddenly shifted over Ellie’s shoulders.  Behind her at the top of the stairs stood Adam.

“Adam!  Adam, my love!  This woman is delusional!  She is trying to intimidate me into not seeing you again.   Tell her, Adam.  Tell her who I am.  Tell her what I mean to you.”

Adam stepped between Lila and Ellie.  He put his hands on Lila’s shoulders, his face inches from hers.  He spoke to her in low, forewarning tones.

“Listen to me, Lila.  You are the one who is delusional.  You mean nothing to me, except in your own mind.  You’ve been ruthlessly pursuing me despite my telling you to stay away.  You are nothing but a spoiled, lying woman determined to get her way by any means possible.   Now, you get this straight.  Ellie is my wife, not you.  She is everything you are not.  I love her and intend to stay here with her.  I am not selling the Ponderosa, and I am not going back to Boston.  Ever.   Do you hear me?”

Adam took Lila by the shoulders and shook her.  “Do you hear me, Lila?”

“Adam, no!”  Lila broke down in tears.

“Now get out of my sight.  Go back to Boston where you belong.”

He took a step back and turned to face Ellie.  Suddenly he heard a loud crack and felt a bite on his shoulder that twisted him around against his will.  The unmistakable smell of gunpowder filled the air.  He turned and saw Lila standing in the doorway to her suite with a smoking gun in her hand.

Instinctively, Ellie pushed past Adam and dove on Lila.  She knocked her to the ground and the pistol went flying across the floor.  Sitting on Lila’s chest, she clasped her arms together and swung, striking Lila in the face with both fists, knocking her out cold.

Townsfolk who had heard the shot came running up the stairs to see what had happened.  Adam leaned against the wall, his shoulder bleeding.   Ellie turned around and saw he’d been hit.

“Adam!  Adam!  Oh my God – are you all right?  You’re bleeding!”

“Just a nick.”

The sheriff came upon the scene and deduced Lila had fired in a fit of jealousy.  When she came to, he took her off to jail.  “Come by the jail tomorrow and sign the complaint, won’t you Adam?”

“With pleasure.”

Ellie helped Adam across the street to the doctor’s office.  She gingerly removed his shirt while the doctor prepared his instruments.  He put on his glasses and silently studied the wound to Adam’s shoulder.

“How is he, Doc?”

The doctor turned and smiled at Ellie.  “Oh, this little thing?  You’ve been shot by much bigger guns than that peashooter, Adam.  Some cleaning and bandaging, and you’ll be on your way.”

Ellie held Adam’s hand while the doctor dressed his wound.  He was quiet and thoughtful.

“Did you see to the woman, Doc?  Is she going to be OK?  I hit her kinda hard.”

Adam smiled.  “You really walloped her, Ellie!”

“Well, that’s what happens when some woman messes with my man.  Best you remember that, husband.”

Freshly bandaged, Ellie helped Adam back into his shirt.  “Thank you, Ellie,” he whispered.  “For everything.”

Ellie smiled at Adam.  She knew right there they were destined to live together for as long as God would give them.  She whispered a prayer of gratitude and took her man by the arm.

“Let’s go, Adam.  Take me home.”

 

Next Story in the Take Me Home Series:

Letters from Home

Other Stories by this Author

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Author: Home Alone

15 thoughts on “Take Me Home (by Home Alone)

  1. Great story, and just the kind of girl I pictured Adam ending up marrying – strong and self sufficient, but vulnerable and in love with the simple things!
    The flow of your story was very pleasant, and the highlights of the other Cartwright members felt genuine and appreciated! I also enjoyed the prequel, and though it didnt quite provide enough of an assurance for Adam’s neglect in returning home once Hoss died, it still filled a lot of gaps.
    I wish there was more from you to read!

  2. Enjoyed the story, was sad at Ben’s passing. Ellie was a wonderful girl and a great help the to Ben. How A could Adam leave his wife behind for so long, wonder she did slap him. I will be searching out more of your stories to read.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for reading and commenting! I wrote another story called Letters from Home which deals with Adam’s time in Boston and why Ellie was alone at the Ponderosa. I hope if you read it you’ll let me know if you liked it.

  3. What a great story you truly have a talent here. It was very sad to read Ben in such a state I really wanted him to recover, but you wrote the passing so well. It was a very intense story which kept me captivated all the way through. may I say what a strong woman that Ellie is in a time when it would have been hard to be one

    1. Thanks so much for your very kind comments! My first attempt at writing. So happy you enjoyed it1

  4. Ellie is a tough woman, remind not mess with that woman’s man. Ben Passing was sad but everything ended well.

  5. Interesting premise of how complex a relationship can get with misunderstanding and miscommunication. Sad to think that any of our favorite guys will ever get old and pass, but it’s only natural and you handled that part of the story so tastefully. Loved the ending — literally had a resolution with a wallop!

  6. Someone needed to have that girl to girl pep talk a long time ago. And Adam should be thankful I’m not there; don’t think I could prevent myself from administering a vicious slap or two!

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