Summary: After six years away, Adam is on his way home. But events conspire against him to delay his long anticipated return, and he finds himself up to his eyes in a plight that threatens both his life and those around him. With his father and brothers one step behind, will they be able to reach him in time to bring him home to the Ponderosa.
Rated: T (49,558 words)
The Protector Series:
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement is intended.
“I’m coming home, Pa.”
Four words. Four simple words. But my, how they made Ben Cartwright’s heart soar.
As phrases go, this was only the latest that, on recollection, could make him pause and smile. One such phrase would come to him when Hoss was animated with excitement, his eyes shining with enthusiasm. Ben would see a hint of Inger in his mobile features and recall her passionate declaration, “Yes, Ben, I will marry you,” which had been cried out with a warmth and exuberance to match its blue-eyed owner.
Joe’s crazy laugh had been known to take Ben back to the day of his youngest’s birth. He would remember pacing the hallway outside his and Marie’s bedroom, back and forth, back and forth. Then everything had gone silent and Ben had stared at the door, dumbstruck with unease, before a high pitched wail pierced the air. A few moments later the doctor appeared with the kicking and clutching newborn. Raising his voice to be heard above the baby’s lusty wail, the doctor had said, “It’s another boy, Ben, a little fella, but strong,” and handed the child to his father. He never forgot those words.
He looked at Joe who was laughing at Hoss’s attempt to dampen down his flyaway hair. The ‘little fella’ might have been the smallest of his three boys, but the passing years and hard work had turned the boy into a man, with a hard physique to match. Joe’s mop of greying hair still surprised Ben and he wondered whether Adam, who had been away for so long, would be as astonished at the change in his little brother.
Yes, the letter all those weeks ago had contained but four simple words and they warmed Ben’s heart to think of them.
“I’m coming home, Pa.”
Adam had been gone six long years. He had ridden out of their lives at the end of a tumultuous twelve months in which Adam’s character had changed before Ben’s eyes. And there had been nothing he could do about it.
During a summer of long unbroken days and sapphire blue skies, Adam had become attached to a young widow, Laura Dayton, and Ben had anticipated an imminent Cartwright wedding. But then a moment of distraction by an exhausted Adam had led to a devastating accident. He had been laid up for weeks, and spent much of that time on his back worrying he would be confined to a chair for the rest of his life. Oh, he’d put on a brave face and pretended he was confident he’d walk again. But Ben knew his son and recognised the telltale signs of feigned assurance.
He did walk again, but the damage was done. For in the time Adam was bedridden and out of sight, Laura had struggled with a secret of her own: she had fallen in love with Will Cartwright, Adam’s cousin.
As Laura rode out of Adam’s life, clutching tight to the arm of her new beau, Adam began to change. It was as though a broken relationship and a shattered body had unearthed truths that had lain dormant and unrecognised, and the only way Adam could fend them off was to build a barricade around him so impenetrable that no one could breach it. And, God knows, Ben had tried. Persuading Adam to open up about whatever was troubling him was like attempting to cross Lake Tahoe with a toothpick for an oar. Ben became used to seeing Adam’s hunched back as, with an almost agonisingly slow gait, he would walk away from another aborted attempt to shatter his walls. And Ben despaired, because all he could do was watch as Adam was pushed and battered by whatever dark thoughts were assailing him.
Eventually, Adam proclaimed he had a growing desire to make his own way in the world; that he wanted to leave the Ponderosa and follow a path of his own making. It was a motive Ben could understand, having left home himself at a young age to pursue his dream of a life at sea. But understanding wasn’t the same as accepting, and although he had suspected this day would one day come, Ben still felt as though he was losing a part of himself. As the months passed and Adam withdrew further behind his walls, he became increasingly ill-tempered and antagonistic. So when he finally announced he was leaving on the stage in a few days’ time, Ben, with shame, breathed a secret sigh of relief.
Ben knew little of his boy’s life after he had left. Letters, or rather, notes, had arrived from various parts of the country, but they said little. They simply wished his father and brothers a joyous season or good wishes on their birthday, or stated he was now living in New York, or Topeka, or Walla Walla. He never revealed what he did with his time; simply that he was well and missed them. Ben would always sigh when reading the latest succinct correspondence, and file it away with the others in his desk.
But now Adam was coming home. The letter announcing Adam’s intentions had sent Ben running from the house to the barn where his two remaining boys were repairing a stall damaged by a spooked Buck during a recent lightning storm.
Hoss and Joe had read the spartan note, and rejoiced at their father’s wide grin and clear excitement. But, as Ben had left the barn he had paused at the sound of Hoss’s voice; the tone of his son’s, “so help me, Joe,” drawing his brows together in a frown. There was silence from within, then the sound of a bucket of a nails being stirred. Ben shook his head, concerned perhaps his boys weren’t as happy about their brother’s return as they’d made out. Then Hoss spoke again, and Ben cocked his head towards the barn door.
“So help me, Joe, older brother’d better come home like he says he will, or I’m gonna hunt him down, hogtie him, throw him over the back of a horse and bring him back myself. I ain’t gonna have Pa fall into the doldrums like before.”
Ben relaxed as his concerns were dispelled and he smiled at hearing Hoss’s worry for him. But then the frown returned, for Hoss had spoken true, and it was clear the memories of that time cut deep into his sons’ consciousness. Ben had fallen into a dark mood following the departure of Adam. His lust for life had become a memory for a while until he had grown used to the empty chair at the table, or the permanently closed bedroom door, or the sight of two riders, rather than three, returning home at dusk. Ben shook his head to dismiss the recollections of those dark days. They were history, the past. His boy was coming home.
He looked down C Street to the bend in the road around which the stage would shortly be tearing in its usual breakneck manner, barely staying on four wheels as it took the turn at speed. He leaned a hand against a porch support, drumming a rhythm against the wood, unaware the smile he had worn since waking had slipped from his face. It had been so long. What if the special bond they had always shared no longer existed; what if they were strangers to each other now? And for Ben Cartwright, overjoyed though he was, he couldn’t help but feel a tease of anxiety on the fringe of his excitement.
Two days earlier
Adam kicked smoothly away from the edge of the pool and floated backwards through waves of wafting steam. The natural spring water was hot against his skin, but not uncomfortably so, and he could feel weeks of bone-rattling stagecoach travel ease out of his muscles. There was a strong smell of sulphur in the air but the soothing water more than made up for the odour. He looked down his body and between his upturned feet to observe the roofs of the town in the near distance. It was an uninteresting view so Adam spun himself around to face the other way and marvelled at the vista of never-ending sagebrush, coloured copper by the new day’s sunrise and edged by a low ring of rocky mountains. This was more like it: a landscape that told Adam he was days from home. The corners of his mouth rose as he relaxed. It was early, yet the sun was already warm and he had to squint against the sun’s bright new rays. And as his body drifted, so too did his mind.
Adam was going home.
The Laura Dayton debacle had made Adam face up to the realities of his life: he was a man in his thirties, still living under his father’s roof and living by his father’s rules. He had no wife and no children, and it suddenly seemed as if he had no place. When Laura left, Adam believed his last chance of being head of his own home, his own household, had left with her. He began to feel listless, as though the wider world was calling out to him. Life on the Ponderosa was good, but was it what he really wanted? His brothers relished the life, and each other, and as they would boisterously enter the house, joshing about some incident or other that had happened that day, Adam found himself growing increasingly remote from them. He began to distance himself, armed with a cool aloofness that became colder as time passed. He knew he was hurting them, and hated himself for it, but could not help himself. And it was only later he realised, without knowing it at the time, that he had been paving his way to leave. Sever the ties. Don’t give them any reason to want to have you around.
And so he had left. He travelled from great metropolises to tiny desert towns. Work was found in coastal ports where he would watch the ships arrive laden with salt, coffee and sugar, and depart with cotton and tobacco. He was never tempted to board ship and sail away, though; that would have taken him too far from home. He encountered the best and worst of humankind, but this came as no surprise to a man whose father had never hidden him from the realities of life.
His restless search for a place to call his own became more and more fruitless. No sooner had he arrived in a new town and become acquainted with one or two of the inhabitants, than the urge to move on would consume him. He did not know what he was searching for, and so never found it.
In the past year he had signed onto a cattle drive to herd thousands of beeves from Texas to Kansas. Along the way he encountered hostile Indians, and homesteaders intent on protecting their newly purchased land from a great river of cattle that destroyed everything in its path. But despite such incidents, Adam had felt exhilarated for the first time in years by his return to a world he knew so well, and a yearning began deep within him to see home again. Home, where the land could ease a restless heart; where it was as though the waters of a blue lake flowed in his veins; and where his family waited, unjudging, welcoming, with hearts as large as the Ponderosa pines.
Adam’s hands stroked the soft water and he propelled himself farther into the centre of the small pool. He stared up at the blue sky above, breathed in the steamy air and thought back over the last six years.
That he had failed in his quest, there was no doubt. He hadn’t found a place of his own, or a woman he could love, and so his tired soul conceded defeat. But that was not important to him now. Pride be damned. All Adam wanted was to be home where he could rest without worrying about the next day and the need to find a job or a bed for the night. With every creak of the stagecoach wheels towards home, he had felt rejuvenated at the prospect of seeing the familiar old ranch house, and the land where every stone and stream and blade of grass was as recognisable as the back of his hand.
An unexpected voice cut into Adam’s thoughts. He raised his head in its direction and lost his centre of gravity, his body dropping below the surface of the water. A woman and an adolescent girl were standing a few feet from the water’s edge. They were attired in long bathing dresses, their skirts brushing against ruffle-bottomed drawers, and straw hats shielded their faces from the strengthening sun. The woman’s eyes were wide and her mouth had dropped open at the sight of a semi-naked man floating before her. She quickly whirled her younger companion around to face the opposite direction and followed suit.
“Did you not see the sign?” She pointed towards a wooden board at the side of the pool. “It clearly states that between the hours of eight o’clock and midday, this pool is reserved for the use of ladies only.” Her clear high voice held a strong accent. From somewhere in Europe, Adam presumed. She huffed and said something to the girl Adam could not understand. Then, after a somewhat imperious glance over her shoulder, she started to shoo the girl up the path and away from Adam.
“Wait.” Adam could not stop himself from smiling at the woman’s reaction. “I’ll go.”
The woman stopped and angled her face over her shoulder, evidently waiting for Adam to exit the pool. He swam to the water’s edge and took the opportunity to observe her profile. Her face was shaded by the large straw hat but he could make out high angular cheekbones, a small straight nose and pale skin shining in the heat. She opened her mouth to speak but changed her mind and turned to look at the distant mountains. The girl next to her glanced up at her older companion and seeing the woman’s gaze fixed elsewhere, peered over her shoulder to watch Adam climb out of the pool. Her face stayed expressionless as she watched him grab his shirt and roughly rub away the excess water from his chest and shoulders. Adam noticed the girl watching and immediately turned his back hiding a grin; his wet cotton under-drawers left little to the imagination. The girl’s interest was soon noticed by the woman. After a sharp tug on the arm and a rapid-fire admonishment in their native language—German, Adam decided—the girl looked down at her feet. The woman threw a sharp frown at Adam before turning away.
Adam donned his shirt and pulled his trousers over the wet under-drawers. It would be uncomfortable for a while, but he had a change of clothes back at the hotel. Now, with boots pulled on, gun belt slung low on his hips and his hat positioned just so, Adam was ready to leave. He slipped past the woman and girl but stopped a few feet away, aware of the woman’s eyes burning into his back.
He turned to face them. “I’m sorry I delayed your swim. The water was so tempting I couldn’t help myself.” He smiled at the girl, whose eyes had grown large at the sight of the man in black. But when he looked across at the woman, he was startled to see she was staring hard at his gun with eyes white with alarm. And when she wrapped her arm around the girl’s shoulders and drew her closer to her side, Adam could only frown. Should he say something? Reassure her that he carried the gun for his own defence and wouldn’t hurt her? He decided against it. Instead he tipped his hat with a “ma’am”, and continued along the path which led back to the town. She was clearly of a nervous disposition, and he pushed all thoughts of her out of his head.
The small town of Chia Springs had not been on the stage route when Adam had passed through it six years before. Surprised to see it on the route map, and intrigued by the literature describing secret springs only the Indians had once known about, he had decided to break his journey for a day or so to take the waters. He had been on the road for ten days by then, and the prospect of a hot soak had bolstered Adam’s spirits during the long, uncomfortable journey.
He soon discovered that calling Chia Springs a town was a misnomer. In reality it was nothing more than a single street comprised of a stage stop and corral, a surprisingly grand hotel, a saloon and general store. A few houses were starting to spring up in the surrounding area as travellers learned of the spa’s existence, but it was a slow business. The stage had driven past several buildings in various stages of construction and Adam’s interest had been sparked watching men and boys crawling over their future homes with hammer and saw.
He had been the only traveller to alight, and after taking a room in the hotel, had stepped onto the hard-packed earth of the road, watched the stage rattle on its way, and been greeted with absolute silence. After days of snoring fellow passengers, the rackety clattering stage, and the constant jangle of harnessed horses, Adam had breathed in the hushed air. He had an afternoon to kill so snatched a towel from his room and searched out the natural pools for a long leisurely wallow. The pools had been deserted, like much of the town appeared to be, and he saw a mere handful of inhabitants going about their business. In the restaurant that evening, he was the only diner.
The following morning, Adam had not intended on taking a dip in the waters so early in the day. But, as was his habit he had woken early, and a walk before breakfast had led him to the springs. The sight of the morning sun hovering over the far horizon, and golden light bouncing off the steaming waters, had drawn Adam into the first pool he came to. He had not expected to be interrupted.
It was early evening before Adam next encountered the woman and child. He was seated alone by the window in the hotel restaurant when she swept in with her head held high. The girl, who Adam presumed to be her daughter, trailed in her wake. She paused momentarily at the sight of Adam who nodded in her direction. But the woman merely raised her chin, gathered the girl closer to her side and moved to the centre of the room where she waited to be noticed; a not difficult feat considering the sparsity of clientele. Adam raised an eyebrow and resumed his consumption of a surprisingly good steak and greens. After a few moments the waitress appeared from a back room, and with an unhurried air took the woman’s order. As it was laboriously written down on the waitress’s pad, Adam rose to his feet, his napkin between his fingers.
“Would you and the child care to join me for dinner?” He looked at the empty tables which surrounded him. “We are the only people here, and it would be agreeable to have some company.”
The woman’s arm moved around the girl’s shoulders and if it was possible for her to raise her chin any higher, then she did.
“I do not know you, sir.” Her strong German accent carried across the empty room. “And we do not eat with strangers.” She looked back at the waitress. “We will take our meal in our room.”
Adam shrugged. “As you wish.” He sat back down and dug his fork into the pile of greens. The woman was plainly troubled by Adam’s presence in the restaurant. Hell, she was concerned about his presence in the whole town. Adam determined to stay clear of her. If she was worried about him so much, then he would give her no cause for concern.
The sound of a half dozen horses in the road outside drew his attention away from his meal. A group of men had ridden in and were dismounting across the street. One man stood out as the leader. His long white duster flapped around his calves as he lowered himself to the ground, one eye scanning the small spa town as he did. A flash of metal from the watch chain he wore across his vest caught Adam’s eye, as did the low-slung gun belt resting comfortably on the man’s hip. Too comfortably for Adam’s liking. He watched the man signal to his men who then dispersed, heading towards the saloon and mercantile.
The long-coated leader headed towards Adam’s hotel, followed by a younger man who lit a cigarette as he crossed the street. As they reached the sidewalk, Adam was surprised to see the leader turn and smack the cigarette from the young fella’s lips. The older man was angry, gesticulating at the town, the hotel and waggling a finger in the youngster’s face. Adam couldn’t hear what was said, but as the leader turned to open the hotel door, Adam could not miss the contempt in the younger man’s expression. His eyes burned into the back of the duster and Adam wondered that the leader did not feel the heat.
Adam shifted in his seat and positioned the reassuring weight of his six-shooter on his thigh. With his fork transferred to his left hand, and an elbow planted on the table, he bent over his meal and let his gun hand fall below the table.
He lost sight of the two men as they entered the hotel lobby, but a moment later the white-coated man appeared in the archway to the restaurant. The man paused, framing himself beneath the apex of the arch, and a smile started to play around his lips as he observed the woman and child. Adam watched as he then studied the room, taking in the largely empty space and the serving girl. As the man’s gaze moved towards the lone diner by the window, Adam quickly looked down at his meal, placing a portion of meat into his mouth. Only when the man looked back towards the woman did Adam raise his gaze again. He saw narrow eyes in a long face and was immediately reminded of a dispassionate cougar scrutinising its next meal. The man didn’t take his eyes off the woman as he moved easily across the room. His younger companion hovered by the entrance, his hand picking at the rawhide flap over his holster. The woman had not moved from the centre of the room but she had pulled herself up to her fullest height and she fixed her stare on the opposite wall.
The woman turned her head away.
The man smiled and licked his lips as he momentarily looked down at his boots.
“You knew it was only a matter of time before I found you.”
His words were greeted with silence. The woman, Johanna, tightened her grip on the child at her side who stared with large eyes at the newcomer.
“Your husband is a singularly persistent—and generous—employer. I could have strung this search out a lot longer, sent word back to him that you were continuing to elude me, and he would have continued to pay me. But I missed your…” the man paused and smiled, “…charming, warm and witty company.”
Johanna’s head turned sharply.
“You are a snake, Mr. Cordell, and I have told you before I am not going back to my husband.”
Cordell’s eyes moved to the serving girl who was rooted to the spot and obviously as aware as Adam of the tension fizzing through the room. With a sharp flick of his head, Cordell sent her packing and she scurried away to the kitchen. He turned to stand in front of the woman and leaned over her, directing his voice to her ear.
“You’ve given me the slip twice before, Johanna. It’s not going to happen again. The Count wants his daughter. You, I’m guessing, are dispensable. But I’m instructed to take you back, so take you back I will.”
“I’m not going.”
The woman made to move away but Cordell wrapped his hand around the top of her arm.
“You’re coming with me.” With a sharp tug he yanked her towards the entrance, at the same time reaching out to clamp his long fingers over the girl’s shoulder. The child shrank back, crying out “Mama!” as she shied from his touch, but no matter how much she wiggled she couldn’t free herself from his grip.
A loud audible click echoed through the room. Cordell froze, his eyes turning towards the man seated by the window. The young thug by the door had his gun halfway out his holster but was stopped by Adam’s voice.
“I wouldn’t,” said Adam, “unless you want your boss to take a slug in the stomach.” Adam turned to look at Cordell. “And that’s exactly where my gun is pointing right now.”
Cordell nodded at the young man. “It’s okay, Nate. Let’s hear what this gentleman has to say.”
Nate did not move, but after a few seconds had passed he loosened his grip and thrust the gun back into its holster.
Adam rose from his seat and in two paces was next to Nate and retrieving the weapon from the young man’s possession. There was an indignant “hey!” which Adam ignored as he slotted the gun into the top of his pants. Keeping both men in his sights, he edged towards Cordell.
“The woman doesn’t want to go with you, so I suggest you save yourself a lot of bother and release her.”
Cordell sighed and looked at the woman still held fast within his grip. “There’s always someone who has to play hero.” He turned to Adam. “You’re involving yourself in something much bigger than you, friend. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll let me and the lady and the girl walk away, and you’ll be avoiding a whole lotta trouble for yourself.”
Adam blinked slowly. “Why don’t we let the lady decide?”
Johanna’s mouth dropped open slightly. “I…” She looked from Adam to Cordell and opened her mouth again, but no words were forthcoming.
Cordell’s eyes were hard as he stared at Adam. “As you can see, the lady knows what’s best for her and the girl.”
Adam ignored him.
“Ma’am, if you tell me to mind my own business, I’ll go back to my table and carry on eating my dinner. But if you…” Adam paused and looked pointedly at the girl, “and your daughter don’t want to go with these men, and I don’t think you do, then you only have to say.”
Johanna’s lips grew tight and her brow furrowed as she deliberated his words. But then her daughter spoke for the first time.
“Please, Mama, he wants to help us.”
Cordell tightened his grip on the girl’s shoulder and she winced from the pressure. This was more than Adam was willing to endure. He raised his weapon.
“Let her go.”
No one moved for what seemed like an eternity yet was nothing more than a few seconds. But then Cordell smiled and released his grip on the girl’s shoulder, holding up his palms to show compliance.
Looking back, Adam was to curse himself for his laxity. All he did was lower his gun a fraction. But it was enough. With a sudden burst of speed, Cordell shoved the girl towards Adam who instinctively reached out for her. His gun clattered to the floor as he opened his hands wide, catching the girl as she fell into his arms. Sudden movement drew his attention. Nate was running across the room and Adam turned to face his foe. But it was too late. He reeled back from an explosion of pain on his temple and fell to his hands and knees, a kaleidoscope of black and white flashes careering across his vision. A nudge from a boot pushed him onto his back. He squinted up to see Nate standing over him holding Adam’s own gun by the barrel, a satisfied grin cutting his face in two.
“Pick him up.”
Rough hands hauled Adam up and shoved him into a chair. He felt, rather than saw, Nate retrieve his weapon from where Adam had tucked it in his pants. He rolled forward, pressing his elbows into his knees, and clutched his head. The sound of scuffling drew his blurred gaze to see Cordell haul the girl up from where she had fallen on the floor. She was thrust towards her mother who pulled her into a tight hug, one hand smoothing over the girl’s hair.
“Give me his gun.”
Nate handed Adam’s weapon to Cordell who turned it over carefully in his hands. With a signal to Nate to keep an eye on Johanna and her daughter, Cordell crouched before a dazed Adam.
“This is an expensive piece.”
Adam ignored him, too consumed by the overbearing pain that was causing his scalp to tighten. Even his hair seemed to hurt.
“What’s your name?”
With nausea threatening, Adam could barely speak. He took several deep breaths.
“Cartwright,” he eventually managed.
“Cartwright?” Cordell glanced up at his younger companion and back to Adam. “You one of the Ponderosa Cartwrights?”
Adam managed a nod.
“You got a big spread outside Virginia City?”
Adam refused to acknowledge the man in front of him. All he wanted to do was press his hand against his temple to stop the pain throbbing deeply in his head. A trickle of blood was warm beneath his palm. Cordell rose to his feet and stared down at Adam.
“Which one are you?”
Adam squinted up.
Cordell took a couple of steps away, paused and turned back. “Adam Cartwright.”
The room was starting to settle down in Adam’s vision and he watched the man gaze out of the window before looking down to study Adam’s gun held loosely in his palm. A few moments passed and then Cordell spun towards Nate.
“Get the men and tie him up. He’s going with us.”
Nate frowned. “Why? He ain’t nuttin but trouble. We got the girl and her ma. Another crack on the head, he’ll be out for hours, time enough for us to get clean away.”
Cordell stared down at Adam.
“You’re not using your head, Nathaniel. This is Adam Cartwright. His father is Ben Cartwright. And old Ben Cartwright will pay big money to get his boy back unharmed.”
Comprehension dawned on Nate’s face. But then his brows drew close.
“But what about the Count?”
“What the Count doesn’t know.” Cordell looked down at Adam. “Mr. Cartwright will be a little side business of our own. We’ll be paid handsomely for returning young Clara to her father, and we’ll do well out of Cartwright’s old man.”
He might have just received a knock to the head, but Adam was not about to go without a fight. With a roar, he forced himself to his feet and lurched towards Cordell. He didn’t know how he managed it, but his fist connected with Cordell’s mouth. But then a hand gripped his shoulder, spun him around and he was sent sprawling with a perfectly executed blow to his cheek.
Adam lay spread-eagled on his back, staring up at the ceiling which seemed to drop to mere inches above his head and was pulsing in time to his throbbing brain. He shook his head. Bad idea. A wave of nausea washed over him and he squeezed his eyes closed. He managed to shift to his side and push himself up onto an elbow. One eye was already starting to swell and refused to open, so it was with clouded vision that he sought out Cordell.
Cordell’s hand was on his lower lip, his fingers dabbling at the blood starting to seep down his chin.
“Sweet mother of…” he stopped himself. A glance at Johanna who still held her daughter close to her chest, stayed his words.
Adam met Cordell’s disgruntled look and pushed himself up into a seated position. His head was spinning, and he had to balance on one arm to keep himself upright. He watched through one eye as Cordell pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and patted his split-lip. “I’ve heard about you Cartwrights. You stick your noses into other people’s affairs. You seem to think you have a God-given right to interfere.” He looked at the scarlet blood on his handkerchief. “But you might have played hero for the last time.” He dabbed at his lip one more time then thrust the soiled scrap into a pocket. “Nate, get the men over here, we’ve got work to do.” He approached Johanna and Clara who stood huddled together. “You’d better change into something suitable for sitting a horse. You’ve got a long ride ahead. And as for you,” he turned to Adam still slumped on the floor. “This is what you get from meddling in someone else’s business.”
Adam was pulled to his feet by Cordell’s strong grip, and had to steady himself against a nearby table. But a hard push sent him stumbling toward the archway to the lobby, and another one pitched him through the hotel’s door and onto the hard surface of the road. As he struggled to pick himself off the ground, the realisation he was not going home any time soon hit Adam like a stampeding buffalo, and suddenly the place he had spent six years running from was the one place he most wanted to be.
No one came to their assistance. Not when a bleeding Adam was pushed so roughly across the main street that he fell on his hands and knees in the dirt. Not when he was hoisted onto the back of a horse, his wrists bound and he sat with his head hanging low, swaying in the saddle. Not even when a straight-backed Johanna, Clara’s hand clasped tightly within her own, was marched out of the hotel at gunpoint and made to mount up, the daughter white with fear as she was lifted up in front of her mother. Perhaps it was the heavily armed men who stood eyeing up every door and window and alley that kept the townsfolk at bay. Or perhaps it was the remuda of horses that had, minutes before, been galloped at speed down the main thoroughfare, stirring up dust…and trouble. If there was a sheriff in this tiny spa town, he was holed up in his office, too intimidated by the number of men to show his face.
Cordell ignored Adam for the rest of the day, placing him in the charge of a thickset hulk of a man known simply as Rance. His keeper was by Adam’s side for the duration of the painful ride out of town to their first camp. He was always there, either leading Adam’s horse on a rope held securely in his grasp, or keeping Adam from slipping sideways as his battered skull played with his ability to stay conscious. In moments of lucidity, Adam gawked at Rance’s neck. It was wider than the man’s head, and Adam wondered that his vest didn’t split as it stretched across his back. And how his horse could stand Rance’s weight was anyone’s guess. Such haphazard thoughts kept Adam’s mind off his pain-filled head.
On that first night out of Chia Springs, Rance hauled Adam away from the light and warmth of the campfire and tied him to a tree. With his arms forced behind him and secured with what seemed like a long and complex knot, Adam knew he was in for an agonising night. He was released once to eat a plate of beans whilst a gun was pointed at his stomach, and to take care of necessary business in nearby rocks. But the rest of the time, Adam sat in the shadow of the camp nursing his headache, and watching with his one good eye the men tuck into their meals and warm their hands at the blazing fire. The days might be growing increasingly hot as late spring drifted into summer, but the nights were still chilly, and Adam envied their proximity to the fire’s heat. Johanna sat with her arm pressed tight around Clara’s shoulders, stiff and unmoving, and refusing to talk to Cordell who, several times, addressed words to her. As the hours melted away, and one by one the men rolled themselves in their saddle blankets, Adam grew colder and more fidgety with discomfort. Unable to move his arms from where they were pulled back behind the tree, his muscles were soon aching, and that ache became a cold and penetrating numbness. With little sleep to be had, it was a long and dismal night.
The following day Rance dragged a shivering Adam to his feet and shoved him to nearby rocks to empty his bladder. It took a while to move his arms and shoulders without having to grit his teeth from the agony, especially when the blood started to flow into his swollen fingers and he was tormented by the thousand torturous pinpricks of his nerves firing back into life. With a hunk of bread thrust into his hand, Rance pushed Adam ahead of him towards the horses. His body was stiff, but soon loosened up as the early morning sun warmed his flesh, and his headache became a memory. Once he had drawn a leg over the saddle, his no-nonsense keeper bundled Adam’s wrists together and tethered them with a rope. He was none to gentle about it and Adam grimaced as the rigid fibres bit into his flesh.
As the column resumed its journey—Rance once again leading Adam’s horse—he considered slamming his heels into the animal’s sides, jolting the lead rope from Rance’s hand and making a run for it. But each time he looked around him, there was Nate or Cordell or another member of the gang. They would stare pointedly at him and drop a hand to one of their weapons. Adam wouldn’t have got five paces before being gunned down. And there was Johanna and Clara. He couldn’t abandon them.
It wasn’t long before Adam spied Cordell a short way ahead of him. Having had no communication with his captor since the day before, he needed questions answered.
“What do you want, Cordell?”
Cordell turned in the saddle and slowed his horse to let Rance and Adam catch up. “Want?”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “From me, the woman and child?”
Cordell looked over at where Johanna rode with her arms hooked around her daughter. Even under duress, she held the reins loosely and Adam could tell she was an experienced horsewoman.
“What I want from Johanna and her daughter is of no concern to anyone but me and her husband. You, on the other hand…” He paused and looked over at Adam. “You realise your name saved your life.”
Adam kept his one good eye on the path ahead of him.
“I know you would have killed me there and then if you hadn’t recognised the opportunity staring you in the face.”
Cordell smirked. “You’re not wrong. I don’t take kindly to do-gooders, especially those who punch me in the face.” He put his hand up to his swollen mouth and touched the black scab on his split lip. He winced. “Still hurts.” He looked over at Adam whose eye was partially closed, his cheek and eye socket a mask of vivid colours. “But you fared worse, thanks to Nate.”
Adam sighed heavily. “You’re wasting your time with me. My father and I aren’t on good terms. It’s been years since I last saw him.” Adam had always had a good poker face, the ability to keep his true emotions under wraps. It made him a good liar, though he wasn’t proud to admit it. “When I last saw him he told me I was dead to him. He won’t pay a single dollar for my return.”
Cordell didn’t reply and it took all the willpower Adam had to keep looking to his front. He couldn’t let Cordell know he was keen to see his reaction, so he fixed his gaze on a nearby bluff and didn’t look away. It was several long moments before Cordell spoke.
“If that is so, Mr. Cartwright—and I don’t believe it is for a minute—then what’s to stop me from shooting you dead, right here and now?”
Adam blinked slowly as he looked over at Cordell. “Because I’m worth more to you alive than dead.”
Cordell’s mouth twitched as a smile flickered across his lips. “How so?”
“You said yourself my name stopped you from killing me back in Chia Springs. Well, my name can open doors.”
He glanced across at Cordell who appeared to be deliberating on Adam’s words, but then twisted in his saddle to face the man beside him. “Who is this count you work for, this man who pays you to pursue his wife across the country?”
“That’s of no concern to you.”
“Well, I’m making it my concern. It’s because of him I’m wrapped up in this mess.”
Cordell pursed his lips and took a long nasal breath.
“The Count Friedrich Ernst von Falkeberg,” Cordell paused and looked over at Adam. “The Fourth.” He shook his head. “He’s a piece of work. I’ve never met him. As far as I’m aware he’s never left Hanover, even when his wife up and left with their, as she was then, two-year old daughter in tow. I have a reputation for being able to find people and was employed ten months ago to track her down.”
“You’re a bounty hunter?”
Cordell frowned. “Yeah, and a damn good one at that.”
Adam raised his palms in his best effort at a conciliatory gesture; not easy with his wrists bound as they were.
“So, once you’ve handed her over and got your big pay-out, what then? You go back to tracking thieves and murderers?”
“It’s what I do.”
“You don’t have to. Like I said, my name can open doors.”
“And why would you do that for me?”
Adam smiled. “So you don’t kill me, why else?”
Cordell guffawed. “I’m starting to like you, Cartwright.” He nodded. “I’ll think over what you said.”
And as Cordell urged his horse forward to join the lead riders, still laughing as he rode, Adam let out a long low breath. He had no idea whether Cordell would keep his father out of this—he doubted he would—but he had to try. Even if it meant lying through his teeth about helping him when all this was over. Adam knew what kind of a man he was dealing with, and he knew he would have to say, and maybe do, anything to still be breathing at the end of it.
That night as Adam was being secured to another tree, Cordell called out to Rance to stop what he was doing and bring Adam into the ring of firelight. The bull-like Rance frowned at his boss but obeyed the order, dragging Adam over to the inner circle of the camp and forcing him to the ground with one hefty press to his shoulder.
Rance had placed Adam next to Nate, but Nate took one look at Adam, shook his head and rose to his feet. Crossing to the other side of the camp, he pushed another man out of the way and took his spot. He glared at Cordell and lit a cigarette.
Cordell sat himself next to his prisoner and had Adam’s wrists unbound, handing him a plate to receive a dollop of beans.
Adam nodded his chin towards Nate. “Your protégé doesn’t like me.”
Cordell looked over at Nate who was sitting with his arms resting on drawn-up knees, taking long slow draws of his cigarette.
“He doesn’t agree with my decision to bring you along. Thinks you’re trouble.” He turned to look at Adam. “Is he right, Cartwright? Are you trouble?” Adam said nothing and Cordell turned back to stare at Nate. “He’s got a grievance with me because I slapped that damn cigarette out of his mouth back at Chia Springs. I told him he needs to concentrate on the job at hand, not parade about like some fancy riverboat gambler.”
Adam’s fork was halfway to his mouth. He lowered it slowly and smiled. “That’s how my father used to refer to my little brother sometimes.” His eyes fixed on his plate as he remembered. “Usually when he needed a haircut.”
“Your father’s a smart man.” Cordell pointed his knife towards Nate. “Look at him with that darn cigarette. They’re manufactured; the boy thinks they show off how much money he earns. Seems I pay him too much.” He snorted and took another mouthful of his beans.
Johanna and her daughter sat on the opposite side of the fire, Clara huddled close to her mother. Every time Adam looked at the child through the flames of the fire, she was watching him, her eyes revealing no emotion. It was only when a portion of the stodgy mixture was spooned onto her plate that she looked away.
Cordell said nothing more until his meal was consumed and he had taken a long draw of water from his canteen.
“You said you and your old man weren’t on speaking terms.”
Adam chewed slowly on his food.
“What’d ya do? Steal from the family coffers? Sell one of your brothers into slavery? What?”
Adam sighed and looked down at his plate.
“My father had a woman.”
There was a pause and then Cordell burst into laughter. “You got a little bit too friendly with your old man’s woman?” He slapped Adam on the back. “Well, I’ll be. You Cartwrights with your high standards and morals, it’s all a sham. You’re just as low as the rest of us.”
Adam took no pleasure in lying, especially if it concerned his father. He quickly moved to change the subject.
“We’ve been heading west since we left Chia Springs. D’ya wanna tell me where we’re going?”
Cordell’s laughter faded. “You’ll find out in due course.”
“My guess is San Francisco, where you’ll charter a ship to take you to New York, and then Johanna and her daughter will be put on a steamship back to Hamburg.”
Cordell looked closely at Adam. “God damn, I’m glad I didn’t kill you.”
“And what’ll happen to me?”
Cordell reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a small silver flask. He took a swig and offered it to Adam. After a moment’s consideration, Adam took it, enjoying the warmth of the liquid as it flowed into to his stomach.
“You might have played dirty with your old man’s woman, but I don’t believe he’d let his little boy be returned to him piece by piece. We’re a few days’ ride from Virginia City. I’ll put out some feelers, and if you’re still the apple of your papa’s eye, I’ll get my money, and you…well, we’ll see.”
Adam looked through the fire at the woman opposite. She sat stiffly on a blanket, her legs pulled in beneath her, picking at the food on her plate. Her face was a mask. Whatever emotions she might be feeling, they were locked up within. Adam wondered when those emotions would be laid bare.
“The child is what, eleven, twelve? Why would this count wait ten years before tracking them down?”
Cordell followed Adam’s gaze and looked at Johanna. “His agent told me Johanna is his second wife; that he had an adult son, an heir, from his first marriage. Unfortunately the heir decided to insult the honour of a young lady whose husband took exception. There was a duel and the heir did not come out on the winning side. The Count knew Johanna and the girl have been in America all this time, but only now, when the spare heir is needed, has he made his play.”
Did Johanna hear them talking, or sense two pairs of eyes on her? For she suddenly looked up and seeing both men staring, she raised her chin and stared boldly back.
Cordell’s brow creased. “Scared? Her? She’s not scared of anyone. I should know, I’ve had to put up with her sticking her nose up at me for months now.”
Adam laid his now-empty plate at his feet and continued to look at Johanna who had turned to gaze into the darkness. “You’re not a particularly good judge of character, are you, Cordell?”
Adam awoke on the second morning stiff and bruised, but it had been a more comfortable night than the one before. He had been allowed to stay with the rest of the group by the fire, albeit with his wrists and ankles bound together, but at least he could stretch out his long limbs and feel the heat from the flames.
Rising at dawn, they were on the move before the sun had even warmed the air, their shadows stretching like tentacles out before them. Cordell avoided the main thoroughfares, moving them in a north-westerly direction: a large group of armed men, three captives and an impressive remuda of horses. The terrain had changed from flat rocky desert to folds of granite ridges like the spines of giant creatures which had laid down and died millennia ago. Adam could see they were heading for a stretch of green hills in the near distance.
He found himself riding near Johanna which gave him his first opportunity to speak to her properly. It wasn’t Adam, however, who started the conversation.
“He’s taken a liking to you, Mr. Cartwright. Don’t be fooled by his apparent camaraderie.”
Adam’s face softened as a gentle smile dimpled his cheeks. “I’ve been duped a few times in my life, mostly by women.” He glanced at her but her expression remained stern. He raised an eyebrow at her lack of humour. “But I’ve met his type before. Money is his driving force. And looking around at the number of men who work for him, I’d say power is a factor too. I’ve known men like him all my life. I know how to play them.”
“Your father is rich, yes? Is he one of these men you speak about with such knowledge?”
Adam twisted his wrists within the binds that restrained them and grimaced when the rope chafed against his sore skin. “My father is wealthy, yes, but that was never his goal in life. He dreamed of a ranch in the wilderness, somewhere that would be a safe, warm home for his family, and his dream became a reality. But it was through back-breaking hard work and years of toil and hardship. The comfort he lives in now was not gained through kidnapping women and children.”
Adam’s voice was bitter and drew a long look from Johanna. She opened her mouth as though to say something but instead looked out over the dry landscape. Clara was asleep in the saddle, her head bouncing from side to side in tune with the horse’s gait. Adam lowered his voice.
“You’re scared of your husband?”
“I’m not scared.” Her voice was sharp. She closed her eyes and took a breath. “I’m not scared for me, but for her.” She angled her head to check Clara was still asleep and then dropped her voice. “My husband is a cruel man, Mr. Cartwright. I could endure the beatings and the humiliation; I had no choice, I had nowhere to go. But when he twisted Clara’s arm as punishment for crying in church; or when he sent her to bed without food for pulling the petals off his precious roses; or when he beat her for playing with the gardener’s son…” Johanna’s voice had grown steadily louder but then she stopped and took a shaky breath. “She was just a baby. I knew I had to escape. For her.”
“How did you get away?”
“I had help. Our housekeeper was a kind woman. I confided in her and she arranged a coach one night. I fled with Clara to Hamburg where we boarded a ship to America.” Johanna looked down. “I dread to think what happened to Elsa when Friedrich discovered she had helped us.”
Adam frowned. “He didn’t try to stop you?”
“Of course he did. My husband is very rich and also very proud. My leaving him would have been a slight to his family name. I saw his men at the docks in Hamburg, but they were too late. We were already pushing away into the river.”
“You were very brave.”
“Not brave. I did what I had to do. We were happy, Clara and I, until he found me.” She turned a pair of cold eyes on Cordell who was leading the group up ahead. “We had to run and have been running ever since.”
Johanna turned her gaze on him.
“When I saw you at the pool and I saw your gun, I thought you were one of his men. I apologise for my rudeness.”
Adam smiled. “No need. My habit of wearing black often gives people the wrong idea about me.”
“Then why do you? Wear black?”
Adam caught her eye. “Because it gives people the wrong idea about me.” Johanna’s eyes widened a little but when Adam laughed, she smiled, and her face was transformed as a momentary sparkle brightened her features.
But then Johanna studied his half-closed eye and the confection of colours that mottled the side of his face, and her smile faded. “Why did you get involved, Mr. Cartwright? This was none of your affair.”
“Because I’m a Cartwright.”
“What does that mean?”
The side of Adam’s face quirked upwards and he let out a gentle snort. “It’s what we do.”
Adam squinted against the sun’s rays blinding his vision and snorted softly. It was early evening and the moon was already hovering over the far horizon as the sun set. It was about this time his stage was due to arrive at Virginia City. He knew his family would be there, and he could picture his father, tense, anxious, pacing on the sidewalk in anticipation of his return. Hoss and Joe would be larking around. That was their way of hiding any nervousness. They had no reason to be, but it had been six years. He shook his head. Damn his natural compunction to defend someone in need of help. If only he’d stayed out of it. But that wasn’t his way. Heck, it wasn’t any of the Cartwrights’ way. There was no way he could have sat back in that restaurant and watched as Johanna and her daughter were hauled away to the waiting horses.
He lifted his bound hands to wipe the sweat from his forehead and cursed when the action nearly knocked the hat from his head. He tugged at his bindings in annoyance, ignoring the pain caused by prickly rope on raw flesh.
“I wouldn’t bother, Cartwright,” said a voice to his right. It was Cordell, who urged his horse up beside Adam. “My man here, Rance, knows how to tie a man so there is no means of escape.” He looked at the stocky man ahead of them, his leather vest straining across the broad muscular back. “He prides himself on never having lost a prisoner yet.”
Adam trained his vision on the track ahead. He was in no mood to talk to Cordell. For his mind was far away, on the streets of Virginia City, and his heart was heavy.
Ben Cartwright straightened up. The stage, not unusually, was late, and Ben had slumped against a roof support. At the first sign of the horses lunging around the bend towards the stage stop, Hoss yelled across the busy street to where Joe was glugging a beer outside the Silver Dollar. Joe took a last hasty gulp and was soon running across the street to meet the stage.
Hoss and Joe exchanged cheery glances and put an arm around each other’s shoulders. The Cartwright boys were about to be reunited and they could not keep the joy from their faces. Ben, on the other hand, had whipped his hat from his head and was standing anxiously on the sidewalk. He unconsciously took a step back as the stage drove to a sudden noisy halt beside him. The carriage creaked and rattled as it settled, in chorus with the jangle of the horses bridles as they stamped their hooves in protest at the swift stop. The stage official ran from the office with a small stool and turned the handle to the door. Ben, unknowingly, ran the rim of his hat through his fingers, excited and nervous and afraid all at the same time.
Three passengers alighted from the stage.
None of them were Adam.
Ben stepped forward and peered into the vehicle, but there was no sign of his son.
“Jake?” He shouted up at the driver who was throwing parcels and baggage down to the waiting passengers. “Is this it? No one else?”
“That’s all of ‘em, Mr. Cartwright. You expectin’ someone?”
Ben turned and looked at Hoss and Joe, who looked as bewildered as he did. “We got the right day, didn’t we? His wire said Saturday the fourth, on the 6 o’clock stage.”
“I must’ve read that telegram a hundred times, Pa, that’s what it said,” replied Joe.
Ben turned back to Jake. “I was expecting my eldest boy, Adam. He was breaking his journey in…” He shook his head, struggling to remember the name of the town Adam had named in his wire.
“Chia Springs, Pa.”
“Yes, that’s right, Chia Springs.” Ben gazed up at Jake, hoping against hope the man would have an answer for him that wouldn’t leave his gut in knots.
“Chia Springs, ya say?” The old man climbed down the side of the coach and jumped the last foot, scratching the back of his head as he approached the three men. “There was a bit of a to-do there few days back, so’s I heard.”
Ben frowned. “What do you mean, a ‘to-do’?”
Jake looked down for a moment before squinting up at Ben. “Why, a kidnappin’ o’ course. Woman and her daughter. Way’s I heard, a whole bunch of gun-slinging outlaws rode in ta town, shootin’ the place up, and stole a woman and her kid right from under their noses. Townsfolk said they’d tried to stop ‘em but they rode out, shootin’ off their guns and such before anyone could.”
“What’s this got to do with my son?”
Jake scratched his head once more. “Why, they snatched another fella too. Guest, stayin’ at the hotel.” Jake twisted around to look at his stage. “I gotta get on, Mr. Cartwright, my team needs waterin’ and stablin’.” And before Ben could say another word, Jake was gone.
Hoss took a step closer to his father. “Are you thinkin’ this fella that was took was Adam?”
Ben could only stare at the ground; his eyes moving from side to side.
Hoss’s voice was sharp and Ben started out of his reverie. “Unless your brother has dramatically altered character in the last six years then it’s not like him to change his plans without telling us. He knows…” Ben sighed. “He knows to…”
“We know, Pa.” Joe’s voice was soft. “What are we going to do?”
Ben pulled himself upright. “It looks like we’re going to Chia Springs.” He threw a stern glance at his boys and then began to stride to where their horses were tied. He stopped suddenly and spun around. “You know, for once, just once, I wish you boys would not get yourself into scrapes and mishaps. Just once.” He turned on his heel and strode off, leaving Hoss and Joe staring at him with growing smiles on their faces.
Joe tapped his brother’s chest with the back of a gloved hand. “Shall I remind him, or shall you, about the time he got himself into a fight with Josh Tatum, and all before breakfast?”
Hoss grinned. “Or how about when he got himself kidnapped and held to ransom?”
“Or those ‘scrapes and mishaps’ he got into trying to get a good night’s sleep in town?” Joe’s lips pursed in amusement. “Come on, we can laugh, but it looks like older brother has gotten himself into some sort of trouble. Some things never change, huh?”
That night as his father and brothers were sitting at the dining table picking at food they were too impatient to eat, Adam was also consuming a meal. But rather than the pork chops and mashed potatoes that Hop Sing had prepared, Adam had to make do with yet another slushy dish of lukewarm beans. He nudged the unappetising meal around the plate before discarding it next to the fire. Rising to his feet, he made to move to where Johanna was sitting, but the sound of several guns being cocked in unison stayed his course. Feeling an irritation he tried his best to hide, Adam turned to face Cordell and with a raised eyebrow lifted his untied arms. Cordell stared at him, then Johanna, then nodded at Rance. The big man seemed to take more pleasure than usual in roping Adam’s wrists, causing Adam to flinch as the rope was tightened with gusto. With a last look at Cordell, Adam picked his way past the men’s outstretched legs and sat down next to Johanna. Clara was already asleep by her mother’s side.
“How did you end up in Chia Springs?” Adam asked in a low voice.
Johanna sighed. “It is a long story, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Adam holding up his bound wrists. Johanna stared at him as though deliberating whether to trust him. She must have seen something in his expression, because after a glance at her sleeping daughter, and tenderly stroking a lock of stray hair back from the girl’s brow, she began to speak.
“We were living in New York City and were happy there. I had a job as a governess to two small boys. My employers allowed Clara to live in the house with me, and to be educated at the same time as their children.
“One day I met a man, a very charming man. He had a mystery around him that I found…compelling. It was a, how do you say, a, er, whirl, um, whirly—”
Adam smiled. “A whirlwind romance.”
“Yes, that is it. I only knew him for two weeks. He would meet me in the park when I took the boys out to play, and once he took me to a cafe when I had my afternoon off. He was always attentive, and I…” She paused and looked down at her hands which she had begun to wring together in her lap. “I fell in love.” She blinked several times and shook her head. “It was stupid. I was stupid.”
Adam frowned. “Why?”
“He asked me to marry him and I said yes. He knew I had a daughter, though he had never met her, and he also knew I was married, but he said he did not care and that we could elope and no one would ever know. He laughed and said we would have to escape in the night like I had done all those years ago with Clara.”
Johanna paused and swallowed her lips. Her eyes were starting to glisten with unshed tears. Adam leaned over with his bound wrists to take her hand, but she crossed her arms to stop him.
“Please don’t. If you comfort me, I will cry.” She abruptly brushed the tears from her eyes. “And I do not want to cry.” She took a long breath.
“I had never told him Clara’s name, or the circumstances of my leaving Friedrich. It was all a lie, all those words of love, his declaration of marriage. He had not meant a word of it.”
She drew herself up. “I knew then he was a spy for my husband. That he was working for him, to get me and Clara back to Hanover. I don’t know how I did it, but I hid my suspicions and pretended nothing was different and we arranged a time for when we would next meet.
“But I knew we had to leave New York. The next morning Clara and I took the train to Philadelphia and from there to Baltimore and on to St Louis.”
“And you’ve been running ever since?”
Johanna nodded. And so did Adam. He knew the life: an endless succession of anonymous towns, nameless faces and rootlessness. At least Adam had a home to go back to; Johanna had nowhere.
“And that’s how you ended up in Chia Springs?”
“Yes. We were going to San Francisco and from there, I don’t know. I wrongly believed I would not be found in the middle of the desert.”
Adam looked down at his feet and asked the question he already knew the answer to. “What was his name, the man in New York?”
Johanna looked at him and then turned to stare through the fire at the white-coated man seated opposite.
“Jefferson Cordell. And he’s been pursuing me every day ever since.”
Ben doubted he got any sleep that night. He seemed to wake every hour, throwing his quilt from his body and sighing heavily in worry. A father never stopped worrying about his sons, no matter their age.
They had risen as a mist infused the dawn in a purple haze. And now they were on their way. Wearing their coats to combat the chill which still lingered in the air, the three riders were headed east towards the last place Adam was reported to have been. Ben’s mind was far away, his body acting on impulse as he rode. The golden hue stretching across the land was nothing more than a blur; Ben was too distracted by circumstances to appreciate the beauty of his own land.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He and his three sons should be making their way to the dining table for breakfast. His three sons. For six years he had longed for all three of his boys to be eating together, and he had believed he would wake this morning to a reunited family. But fate, divine intervention—call it what you will—had once more stepped in and prevented them from being together. They should have been rejoicing at Adam’s return, hearing his stories, finding out at last what he had actually been doing. Hoss and Joe would have worn grins as wide as Hoss’s expanding girth; there would have been questions, laughter, smiles. His three sons. Together.
But again it wasn’t to be. Once more he was riding out in search of a lost boy. His mind couldn’t help but remember previous times when one of them had been missing. There had been an occasion when Joe was barely out of boyhood and missing in the Arizona Badlands. Ben, Adam and Hoss had scouted through country heavy with Apaches and Comancheros in an attempt to find him. In desperation, Ben had given Hoss and Adam the slip and ridden hell for leather to save his boy. And he had. He would never forget cradling an exhausted Joe in his arms; battered and dehydrated, but alive.
Another time, Ben had had to use all his gifts of persuasion on an angry, grief-stricken boy to find Hoss and prevent his murder at the hands of a desperate jailbird. As it turned out, Hoss was the survivor in a bitter fight to the death. He was found bruised and bleeding, but still able to ride a horse.
And then there was Adam in the desert…Ben shook his head to dismiss the image of his delirious son staggering on trembling legs and babbling mindlessly. Those memories were too painful to be revived.
And so Ben rode. And prayed.
On the fourth day out of Chia Springs Adam woke to the realisation that he could see out of both eyes for the first time in days. He put his fingers to his battered eye socket and winced at the still tender flesh, but at least he could easily look at what was to the side of him rather than having to crane his head around to see. He immediately felt more alert and thoughts of escape began to formulate in his mind.
Adam was to wonder later if the Fates had been listening to the plans he had begun to devise, for during the early hour preparations to move out, Cordell made a decision he would come to regret.
He gave Adam control of his horse.
“I trust you won’t try to escape, Cartwright,” he said to a bemused Adam. “But I ain’t gonna take too many chances. Rance will still tie your wrists.”
Cordell watched as Rance bound Adam’s hands together. “Try anything, and you’ll have seven bullets in you before you’ve had a chance to blink. Just remember that.”
He turned his back, clapping his hands together to hurry the group along; if they pushed hard they would arrive within thirty miles of Virginia City by nightfall, and the following morning one of the men would be dispatched with a ransom note for big Ben Cartwright—Adam’s attempt to dissuade Cordell from his plan having fallen on deaf ears. They had a lot of miles to make up though, and Cordell wanted the camp cleared, the team mounted up and the company on the move before the sun had fully crested the horizon.
And then, several hours into their journey, Corky Wood fell off his horse.
Corky was the gang’s wrangler. His natural ability with horses had impressed Cordell so much the young lad had been assigned the task of looking after the remuda. However, the uncanny way he had of communicating with the horses made the rest of the men uneasy around him. It was though he could read an animal’s mind, knowing when it was about to start limping, or when it was distressed. He would ride up beside the afflicted animal, gesticulating wildly at its rider that he needed to dismount there and then and change horses. How he could know such things when he had been riding a ways behind the rest of them unnerved the rest of the company, so they avoided him wherever possible. Not that Corky appeared bothered by this. He spent most of his time with his horses, even sleeping amongst them, and stayed away from the rest of the gang and their prisoners. And if anyone but Cordell spoke to him, he would duck his head down with his eyes fixed on the ground as though seeking an escape from the unwanted contact.
“Something happened to the kid that screwed with his mind,” said Cordell in one of his nightly chats with Adam. “Won’t talk to no one. Just the horses. And that damn bottle.”
For despite not yet reaching the grand old age of eighteen, Corky would lose himself in the depths of a whiskey bottle at every opportunity. Cordell left him to it, as long as the horses in the remuda were well cared for. And they were. It was only himself Corky abused. On the one occasion when he had been sober, Adam had seen an expression in those bloodshot eyes that spoke of a deep, searing pain. Corky needed the oblivion caused by strong mind-numbing alcohol.
On this morning Corky was hanging back, riding the black Morgan he favoured whenever Cordell was not making his own use of the impressive steed. Slight in build, Corky sat with his legs curled around the animal’s sides, riding bareback as was his want. He led the team of horses which brought up the rear and it was only the sound of glass smashing against a rock that told the rest of the company he had come to the end of his current bottle. And the sun was not even halfway to its highest point in the sky.
The group was skirting the side of a valley, following a track that ascended ever-upwards to where the path reached its highest point and then dipped down out of sight on the other side of a bluff. To one side a wide, wet valley spread out below them. A river snaked along the valley floor, bleeding tiny tributaries that sparkled in the morning sunlight.
As they approached the top of the ridge, there was the sound of a thump and a groan as a body hit the ground. Three of the men turned their heads to see what had happened and a muttering of fiery expletives lit the air. They cursed and wheeled their horses around to retrieve the fallen wrangler who lay on his back dazed and kicking at the dust with his heels.
It was the first time since they had been taken that Adam, Johanna and her daughter were left unguarded. A lone gang member behind them watched his comrades deal with the drunken lad, and ahead of them, Cordell and Nate stood waiting a short way down a cutaway leading to the valley below. Adam drew himself upwards and carefully looked around. Was this the chance he had been waiting for? Behind him the remuda was blocking the rear, and up ahead, the track ascended steeply to the pass. Too steeply. It would be a slow business reaching the top. Adam relaxed back into the saddle. Their time would come, but it wasn’t now.
But then he looked at Johanna, and knew instantly she had been having the same thoughts. She was staring up the empty track ahead of them, her eyes wide and her tongue snaking over suddenly dry lips. He saw her turn to see the men occupied with hauling Corky to his feet and the remuda behind them. And then she looked back up the steep track ahead and Adam knew she had made her decision. He cried out her name to stop, but it was too late. She had already kicked her heels forcefully into the side of her horse, leaned over Clara and with a shout forced the animal into a gallop.
Adam knew it was a lost cause. The track was too steep for her to make a clean getaway and her horse was struggling to claw its way up the sheer slope with two riders on its back. Dust billowed into the air as the animal’s hooves dug into the dry earth causing a torrent of gravel to tumble down the track behind them. Johanna shouted to urge the horse up, up, up, past a started Cordell and Nate, up towards the top where the ground should level out and the horse could fly.
Adam drove his horse into action behind her. He had hardly covered any ground at all when the sound of a gunshot tore through the air. He pulled back hard, his animal’s head rising vertically as its movements were so abruptly curtailed.
Johanna slowed and came to a stop. For several long moments she didn’t move, but sat staring ahead of her. But then a dark mark formed and spread across the back of her dress. Toppling sideways out of the saddle, she fell to the ground.
Nobody moved. Adam watched in shock as a sheet of dust settled on Johanna’s body. But then the sound of hooves drew his gaze to Cordell who had spurred his horse towards her and dismounted, dropping to one knee by her side. With a tenderness Adam found surprising, Cordell gently turned the woman onto her back and rested her head on his knee. He leaned low over her and placed his palm on her chest. No one breathed. But then Cordell’s head dropped and after a moment’s pause he looked up at Clara. The girl was staring down at the lifeless body of her mother. Adam knew what she was thinking; he could see it in her eyes: she was waiting for her mother to stand up, brush herself off, straighten her clothing and proudly thrust her chin in the air. Clara met Cordell’s look and at the slight shake of his head, the blood drained from her skin. White-faced, she looked back at the body of her mother, her mouth gaping open.
Cordell rose to his feet and turned towards Nate who had followed his boss to the scene.
“Get off your horse.”
Nate hesitated for a moment and then complied. He fingered the reins which trailed through his hands. “Boss, she was getting away.”
Cordell moved his gaze to the dead woman. “Get over here.”
His remark was cut off by the steely gaze that met his. “I said, get over here.”
Nate dropped the reins of his horse and the animal stood docilely on the track as Nate moved with slow steps to where his boss stood. Cordell was looking down at Johanna, but with a suddenness that made Adam’s mount rear its head in alarm, Cordell slammed his fist into Nate’s face. His punch sent the youngster tumbling backwards to the ground. Cordell reached down and hauled him to his feet only to punch him across the jaw once more. Nate stayed where he fell, nursing his bruised flesh, sprawled in the dust. Cordell staggered backwards and once more dropped to his knees beside Johanna. He pulled her into his arms and looked up at Clara.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could say.
Clara stared unblinking at the tableau at her feet. Her mother was dead, cradled in the arms of her captor. And as the truth of what had happened hit her, she collapsed over the horse’s neck, squeezed her eyes closed, and screamed.
And her horse bolted.
With a suddenly lighter load, the animal made short work of the slope. Clara’s head rocked up as she flung her arms around the horse’s neck, hanging on for her very life. Adam didn’t need to think twice. Thumping his feet hard against his mare’s ribs, he spurred her after the runaway horse. The girl disappeared from sight as she crested the ridge and seconds later Adam was at the top as well. The track had levelled out and he could see Clara clinging onto the horse as it flew down the track ahead of him.
Adam dropped low over his mount’s neck. Shouting in the animal’s ear, he urged her to move, go faster, go, go! His horse thundered down the track behind Clara, kicking up a cloud of sandy dust as the mare’s legs pounded over the hard ground. Either the girl’s horse was tiring or Adam’s was enjoying the sudden burst of speed because soon his mare’s outstretched head began to edge past Clara’s horse. Adam kicked hard against the mare’s flanks, spurring her to move faster and was soon neck and neck with the white-eyed runaway. Clara was hanging low over the horse, her face pressed tight against its neck and her eyes wide with fear. Adam cursed his tied hands as he had no way of reaching across for her, or grabbing the creature’s reins, and maintaining balance on his own horse at the same time. Adam glanced ahead. Not too distant was a bend in the track.
“Clara! You’ve got to stop the horse, grab the reins!” he shouted.
The girl threw a white-eyed look at him, put her head down and squeezed her eyes shut.
They turned into the bend.
Dammit! Adam could think of no other recourse. He urged his mount a short way ahead, and then, using all the strength he had, yanked hard to one side, pulling her into the path of the runaway. Adam’s mare went down hard on her side but Adam was ready and hit the ground with a roll, tumbling towards the side of the track. The runaway’s front legs crashed into the fallen animal and Adam watched as Clara was thrown from the saddle. He scrambled to his feet, amazed he had not smashed a rib or knocked himself senseless by this reckless action. As he ran towards the girl, the two horses staggered to their feet and stood dazed on the track. Clara was pushing herself into a sitting position as he reached her.
“Are you okay, you’re not hurt?”
“I…I don’t think so.”
Adam glanced down the trail towards the bend. He had no doubt Cordell and his men were behind them, but presently their pursuers were out of sight. He ran towards the two stationary horses, waving his bound arms and shouting, satisfied when both animals tossed their heads in alarm and ran from him down the trail. He hauled a still-stunned Clara upright and over to a jumble of boulders, the girl tripping over her feet as he tugged her along. Retreating behind a large rock, Adam yanked Clara down to the ground beside him. She began to speak but at the sound of approaching riders Adam clamped a hand over her mouth. He hardly dared breathe as they pounded past. It was only when he had peered over the rock and watched the last rider disappear from view that he removed his hand from her mouth.
“Come on,” he said, pulling Clara to her feet once more. “It won’t take them long before they realise we’ve given them the slip.”
But Clara wasn’t going so easily. She yanked her hand from Adam’s grip. “Mama. She’s…” She looked back in the direction from which they had come, back to where her mother lay unmoving on the ground. Her eyes filled with tears and she began to stumble back to the track. “I have to go back. Mama…She…”
Adam grabbed one of the girl’s arms and pulled her around to face him. “We don’t have time for this. Your mother is…” He paused, his gaze wandering from the girl’s accusing stare. He looked back at her. “We need to keep moving. Now come on.”
He pushed her ahead of him, away from the rocky boulders and down into the pine forest that cloaked the side of the valley. Adam’s fear for what the men would do if they caught up with them made him belligerent. The girl floundered over tree roots and found ankle-twisting dips in the thick of pine needles that carpeted the forest floor. Time and again she would fall to her knees, and each time Adam would yank her up and tug her along, ignoring her indignant yelps and cries as she scratched her hands and skin on bark and cone. But she was not the only one to stumble. The angled slope, slippery pines underfoot and Adam’s bound wrists meant he struggled to keep his balance. Branches whiplashed into his face and as he threw his head away from the oncoming limb, his foot would slip out from under him in his rush to keep moving. Landing heavily on his backside, he would slide down the slope before picking himself up and continuing on.
The sound of rushing water began to break through the closely growing trees, growing louder as they slipped ever nearer to the valley bottom. And then another noise could be heard: those of men shouting and careering through the forest behind them. Adam threw a desperate glance behind him and then tugged Clara along even harder.
But then, without warning, the ground ran out and they were poised on the edge of a cliff. To their backs was the forest, Cordell and his gang. Twenty feet below them a river was cutting its way through the side of the valley forming a narrow canyon of fast-moving water. Squeezed into a thin channel of rock, the water was moving at a speed and ferocity which made Adam’s throat dry. He looked both ways along the cliff edge but there was no discernible path, only a mesh of trees growing at all angles and splayed out over the river. He twisted quickly to see their pursuers coming into view, shouting as they ran and slid down the slope.
Adam grimaced. “We’re gonna have to jump.”
The girl turning terrified eyes on him. “I can’t swim.”
Adam’s face creased into an instant frown. “But you were at the pools back in Chia Springs.”
“I sat in the shallows whilst Mama swam.”
Adam swivelled on his heels to see the men drawing closer. “We’ve got no choice, we have to jump. Unless you want those men to catch you.”
Clara clamped her mouth shut and shook her head.
“Good girl. Now untie this knot.” Adam thrust his wrists out to Clara who began to pick at the rope. He kept his eyes on the men who were nearly upon them. “Dammit! There’s no time, we’ve gotta go!”
He pushed Clara over the precipice, hearing her scream as she fell, and then leaped off the cliff edge.
There was no sound.
He fell for no more than a few seconds but in that time the world fell silent. Adam thought he would hear the river as it rushed up to greet him, or the shouting of the men scrambling down the forested slope, or Clara’s penetrating scream. But it was as though all the noise in the world had been sucked out of the air. And it was as this peculiar fact registered in Adam’s brain that he hit the water and plunged beneath the surface.
It was cold, so mind-numbingly cold, that for a moment all Adam could do was tumble head over heels through the river, his body in shock as the blood fled from his flesh. Which way was up or down—his thought processes were as frozen as his body—he had no idea. The question couldn’t even form in his mind.
But Adam had been taught to swim the Indian way, as had both his brothers. On a warm summer morning when he had been eight years old, his father had taken him to the lake, tied a rope around his waist, and thrown him in the water. Adam would always remember the panic as his arms thrashed frantically and he struggled to keep his head above the surface. Someone was shouting at him to kick his feet, but his tense body had sunk, and he had been hauled out of the water at the end of the rope. It took several dunkings before what his father was saying registered. And as Adam began to kick, and his arms held him upright, a wave of euphoria produced a wide grin on his face. He’d never been afraid of water after that.
Now, as the silence of his fall was displaced by the muffled roar of agitated water, and the shock of the sudden cold dissipated, he felt a calmness direct his thoughts. His eyes adjusted to blurry greyness and he began to kick his way up towards the swirling blue light above him, his locked-together arms pumping up and down to aid his ascent. He was aware of the water propelling him along with the current. But then he broke through and was hit with the angry thunder of racing water. Adam’s senses were buffeted: hard water was an assault on his face, the canyon cliffs rocked in and out of vision at crooked angles and the noise was overpowering.
Adam gulped in several gasps of delicious air, and seemed to drink half the river at the same time. But he didn’t care about that, or that he was being tossed about like a piece of loose driftwood. He was alive. He’d survived the mad jump into the violent waters.
Clara! Where was Clara? Adam spun in every direction, straining to see through the rise and fall of the choppy current. There was no sign of her. He twisted again, kept scanning the water. Nothing. Good God, what if she had hit her head on a rock, or become entangled in an underwater tree root. What if she had drowned? It would be his fault. He had disregarded her plea that she couldn’t swim. Adam’s heart was already beating nineteen to the dozen, but it seemed to beat even more as fear for the girl began to overtake him.
But then what looked like the top of a head bobbed up a short distance away. Adam blinked the water out of his eyes and stared towards where the head had appeared. But it was gone. She was gone. He rose out of the water as high as he was able and strained to find another sign of the girl. Clara was nowhere to be seen. Adam let the current carry him, not caring whether he hit submerged rocks or was propelled towards the canyon walls. His entire concentration was focussed on finding the girl. But then…yes…there she was! She broke the surface, coughing and crying, and Adam threw himself across the flowing water, desperate to not lose sight of her again. He was feet away when she went under once more. Adam dived. The world became muffled and as his eyes adjusted to the murk, he saw a flash of bright colour. He kicked towards it, his two hands reaching out in the gloom. They connected with something. Cloth. He grasped tightly, his fingers finding a solid form, and not letting go, he pushed to the surface.
Adam gulped in fresh oxygen once more and pulled the girl up so her head was above the water. She struggled in his grip, her body bucking as she panicked.
“I’ve got you, I’ve got you, it’s okay, you’re okay.” Adam shouted over and over.
His grip on her was tenuous, his two hands holding tightly to her upper arm. “I can’t hold you, you gotta hold on to me.”
Clara twisted violently around to face him and flung her arms around his neck. She was crying and shaking with fear as the water rushed them down the river. After a while she began to regain control and raised her head from where it was buried in his shoulder. Adam found a smile. “Whatever you do, don’t let go.”
She lowered her head once more and together they were propelled down the river.
There was no way of telling how long they were in the water. The current took them for what seemed like miles, carrying them through the narrow canyon cut into the valley edge. They had left Cordell and his men behind a long time ago, a distant splash of colour on the cliff as they were spirited out of sight. The river twisted and curved until the canyon walls gradually lowered and were replaced with close growing trees, their roots a-tangle on the river’s edge. Then as they were bundled around a bend in the river, they suddenly slowed, for the river had broken free of its constraints and widened across the valley floor.
Clara never loosened her grip on Adam’s neck, but kept her face locked against his shoulder. She didn’t even look up as the river quietened into the soothing wash of water over stone. Adam kicked over to the shallows and found himself sitting on the pebbly river bed with Clara on his lap, weighed down by his waterlogged clothing and the girl clinging to him.
He spoke her name softly but still she would not look up. After a few moments, Adam nudged her with a shoulder and she raised her head. Her eyes were wet and red-rimmed and Adam knew it was not only the river water in her eyes. When she saw they were no longer moving and spied the green grass on the bank she clambered to her feet, her sodden skirts wrapped around her legs, and sat down heavily on the ground. Adam dragged himself out of the water and collapsed on his back, staring up at the sky above.
He took a few moments to appreciate a world no longer constantly in motion. Closing his eyes, he relished the heat of the sun on his skin and the stillness in his limbs. Turning his head to look at the river, he observed how gentle it was now it had passed the canyon.
A black object floating in the shallows caught his eye. Adam jumped to his feet and waded back into the river. It was his hat. He couldn’t believe it had not become snagged in a branch or rock farther upstream. After he had knocked out some of the water, he placed it on his head, feeling properly dressed once more.
Clara was quiet—too quiet—which made Adam pause; his jaw protruded as he contemplated her. Knelt on the sandy earth, Clara was leaning forward on clenched fists, staring down the river towards the canyon they had been so roughly spat out of. Her gaze was fixed on the water that flowed at speed around the bend. Her face showed no emotion, and those blank, unblinking eyes worried Adam more than any hysterics would. He sighed. She was here physically, but her mind was back where they had come from, back where the men were, and the horses, and her mother.
Adam was torn between comfort and practicalities and grimaced as he considered his next move. He looked around to get his bearings. The opposite bank of the river was lined with thickly growing trees. It would slow their pursuers down, but not for long. A few steps away from the river he mounted a small rise and saw where the river meandered away from the steep valley edge and cut a swathe through the flat wet plain. A quick glance at the sun and Adam concluded the river was flowing south. He had an approximate idea of where they were, somewhere in the forests and mountains north of Tahoe in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. If they followed the river south, maybe, just maybe, he would see a landmark he recognised and they could get to safety.
But for the moment, that was nothing more than a distant dream. He looked down at himself: wet-through, with no gun or knife, his hands still tied together at the wrists. And Clara, her dress bedraggled and sodden, not saying a word, not crying. Just staring towards where her mother lay on a hard, dry road, forever silent.
Adam walked back to her and tapped her shoulder with his fingers. “Clara, we’ve gotta move, we can’t stay here.”
She ignored him, her gaze not moving from the river.
“It won’t take long for those men to come after us. We have to move.”
The girl’s obstinacy or distraction or whatever it was, began to fray on Adam’s nerves.
“This isn’t what your mother would have wanted. She was trying to get you away from those men when she…” He stopped, not wanting to say the words. Clara sat back on her heels, but continued to stare at the river. It was a start, thought Adam.
He softened his tone. “We can’t go back, Clara. There’s nothing there for you now.”
She looked at him sharply, and Adam was taken aback by the blazing anger in her eyes. “Mama’s back there.”
He sighed gently. “Your mama’s dead.”
The anger faded, and then Clara burst into tears. She rocked forward and Adam dropped to his knees to catch her, as best he could with two bound wrists. She fell against his chest and Adam let her cry for the duration of a few breaths.
“Come, child, there’s time enough for that later. For now, I need your help.”
She raised wet eyes to his and he held up his wrists. And as Clara began to pick at the rope with young nimble fingers, Adam wondered how he would get out of the predicament he found himself in. He was stuck in the middle of rough country with a grief-stricken child; they were soaked to the skin; he had no weapon and a gang of men were probably already following the course of the river in pursuit. He had been in tough spots before, but this was definitely one of the worst.
The wet, swollen ropes came loose after a deal of effort and Adam flexed his sore wrists in relief. He hid the frayed strands in the scrub at the base of a nearby tree, and covered the marks they had made on the river bank as best he could. He stood for a moment, staring south, towards the big blue lake, towards home. Then, taking Clara’s hand, he began to walk in the opposite direction.
They headed north. Adam knew that where he and Clara had washed up on the river bank was the first place Cordell and his men would start looking. It was where the river had slowed and grown shallow; it was where two exhausted fugitives would have crawled out of the water. But perhaps—and Adam threw a glance upwards in supplication—perhaps the men would continue to follow the river south as it diverted course into the centre of the valley and beyond. Adam prayed Cordell would head towards Virginia City with the assumption that his prey would immediately head to home and safety.
Cordell wasn’t entirely wrong; that was Adam’s eventual aim. But for now, Adam pulled Clara north. There was little cover to hide in amongst the flat river lowland, so Adam knew their best hope was for speed. There was a wall of trees on the other side of the valley, about two hundred yards distant, and Adam fixed his eyes on his goal, splashing through the tiny streams that criss-crossed the valley to hide their trail. They only left the water to cross the grass when there was no choice, but whether in water or on terra firma, the going was tough. The stream beds were lined with pebbles that rolled and slipped beneath their feet, and the grassy terrain was uneven and pitted with unexpected depressions.
Clara was a dead weight in his hand. She tripped over the heavy wet skirts that flapped around her legs and went down hard several times, almost taking Adam down with her on a few occasions. He would haul her up—none too carefully in his haste to reach cover—and drag her along behind him. She struggled to keep up with his speed, handicapped as she was by a pair of dainty heeled boots and an outfit more suited to the wide avenues of New York than a river valley in the untamed West.
Halfway across the open stretch of land, she fell flat on her face for the umpteenth time. And as Adam attempted to heave her upright yet again, Clara rebelled.
Adam had his eyes on the valley behind them, scanning for men on horses, as he reached out to grab her elbow. But he was surprised by a hard slap knocking his arm to one side. Looking down, he saw Clara drop to her backside and cross her legs in protest, rubbing her arm and wrist where Adam had been gripping them so tightly.
He stretched out once more to grab her arm but she batted his hand away again.
“Clara, what are you doing? We don’t have time for this.”
“I don’t care. I’m cold, I’m wet. And you keep hurting me.”
Adam looked over her toward the river bank they’d not long vacated. A moment of guilt made his cheek twinge. He had been forceful with her, but it was only because he knew what was at stake. Clara’s future depended on him keeping her out of Cordell’s clutches. As the old adage said, he had been cruel in order to be kind. He brushed the guilt aside; it would do neither of them any good.
“Clara, I know this is hard but we have to get out of the open. Those men could appear at any—”
“I don’t care. Right now, I’d rather be with them than with you!”
Adam dropped to his haunches, and couldn’t stop his voice from rising in anger. “Well you should care. This is not what your mother wanted for you. She spent her life keeping you safe and away from your father, and that man, Cordell, he wants to take you back to him. Do you want to undo everything your mother strived for?”
His words were greeted with silence.
“No!” Clara shouted. She stared back at him with dark flashing eyes. But then the fire went out of her and her lips began to wobble. “I just want my mama.”
Adam had no answer for her. He couldn’t give her what she wanted. He sighed and reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Come on, it won’t take us long to reach those trees, and then we’ll get out of these wet clothes and—”
A flash of movement caught Adam’s eye. It was a horseman on the river bank. He threw himself down next to Clara, pushing her down onto her back. He whispered, “Men—don’t move,” and lowered his head next to hers.
They lay in the foot-high grass and for once Adam was thankful Clara had tripped where she did. She had lost her footing where the ground had dipped and they were hidden by the grass in a shallow hollow.
Faint voices of men shouting to each other carried across the valley. Adam fought the temptation to raise his head and look, but it was too risky. He kept his head flat on the ground and turned towards Clara. Despite her earlier proclamation, it was clear she had no intention of returning to Cordell. She was breathing fast, her head jerking as she strained to see over her shoulder. Adam caught her eye and made a soft shushing noise as he held her attention. He lifted his hand to her shoulder to keep her calm. She was like a deer caught in a trap; her tongue flickering over her lips as she stared at him.
Adam heard the sound of a rider approaching. He fixed his gaze on Clara and pointed first at her eye and then at his, and then laid a finger across his lips. She got the message, and didn’t take her eyes from his as they flattened themselves even further into the ground. Barely breathing, he stretched his arm across her thin shoulders, feeling her heart beating wildly beneath his arm.
The rider slowed, and halted.
The two escapees lay huddled against the ground. Clara’s lips were clamped together, her eyes growing wider in fear and she flicked her gaze away, straining once more to see where the rider was. Adam squeezed her shoulder gently, drawing her attention back to him. He nodded the tiniest of nods and a single blink told him she had calmed a little.
The horse snorted and its hooves stamped against the ground as it shifted position. The rider was close, too close. Dammit, would be ever move? In his mind’s eye, Adam could see the horseman peering out across the valley, looking for any sign of the fugitives. He seemed to stand there for an eternity. But then Adam heard leather creaking and the jingle of metal and a horse being turned and ridden away. The beat of hooves on the ground receded into the distance.
Neither Adam nor Clara moved, though Adam released a long held breath. After a minute or two had passed, he dared to take a look. Raising his head, he squinted through the tall grass to see a distant group of horsemen gathered by the river’s edge. Adam’s vision was obscured but he could see they were talking amongst themselves and pointing in various directions. After a short while, they turned their horses to ride down the valley, following the southbound route of the river. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“We’ll wait here a bit longer, until the coast is clear.”
Clara lay quietly in the grass. She closed her eyes and Adam could see tears forming on her eyelashes. To her credit she did not cry, but she was hurting, badly. In the last couple of hours she had seen her mother die in front of her, been terrified out of her wits on a runaway horse and then nearly drowned in a raging river. And now, she had to lie quietly on cold damp ground whilst men hunted her down. She probably didn’t know which way was up, thought Adam. His heart began to ache for her; he knew how she was feeling. But at this moment, right now, he had to concentrate his priorities on keeping her alive and away from Cordell. This wasn’t the time for comfort, and just then, Adam hated himself. He turned away from her and surveyed the land around them. There was no movement, no sign of riders, so Adam decided they could risk it.
“Come on, we’re sitting ducks out here. We have to get to cover.”
He reached out to tug her to her feet, but then remembered her earlier words and the reason she’d rebelled. He had been too harsh, too unmindful of her abilities and hurt her as he’d dragged her along. Adam stood and waited until she looked up at him. Then with a sympathetic smile, he held out his hands. Returning a nervous smile of gratitude, Clara took them and let Adam pull her up off the wet grass. Then, with a soft tug of her hand, Adam urged her on beside him.
They were soon splashing through another low creek. They didn’t move as fast as before, but Clara didn’t fall this time, and in no time they had made it to the cover of the trees. Keeping one eye on the valley behind, Adam wouldn’t let them rest until they were deep amongst the darkening forest, hidden amongst the shadow of the pines. And only when the valley was nothing more than strips of glare through the curtain of trees, did Adam stop and let Clara collapse on the soft pine bed at their feet.
She lay on her back for a few moments before sitting up against a tree, her arms wrapped tight around her knees. The pines grew so densely here that the sun barely broke through the canopy above, and it was not long before Clara was shivering.
“I’m cold, Mr. Cartwright.”
Adam looked away from where he had been watching the trail they had made through the forest and crouched by her side. “We can’t light a fire or we might be spotted.” He paused. “And you can call me Adam.”
Clara rested her head sideways on her knees and Adam could see her lips quivering with the cold. He circle her wrist with his hand.
“Can you walk a little farther?”
Clara raised her head.
“You see where the trees start climbing up the side of the valley. It opens out at the top, becomes rocky scrub. It’ll be tough on the legs, but once we’re through the trees we can hide amongst the rocks, and let the sun dry our clothes. I might even be able to set a snare to catch us some dinner.”
He smiled but Clara merely stared back at him.
She sighed but then nodded, and together they began the long hard slog up the mountainside, scrabbling on their hands and feet to haul themselves up. Clara kept losing her footing so Adam moved behind her, placed his hands on her waist, and pushed her up, pointing out roots to grab and low lying branches to use hand over hand like a rope. They were both sweating heavily through already wet clothing, panting from the effort involved. The pine needles beneath their feet would slide treacherously and keeping a foothold was difficult as the ascent became ever more perilous.
It seemed nothing more than minutes since she had last fallen, but when Clara’s skirts once more snagged on a scrubby bush, Adam decided enough was enough. He braced himself with one knee against the slope and ripped the whole lower panel from her skirts before Clara had a chance to react. She stared down at her stockinged knees, her eyes wide in shock.
“Don’t worry, Clara, there’s no one around to see you like this.” And pushing her up in front of him, and wrapping the torn remains of her skirt around his waist like a cummerbund, they resumed their arduous climb.
It was another hour before they reached the edge of the forest, and by then the sun was at its highest in the sky. The glare bouncing off the white rocks was blinding after the dappled shadow of the woodland. Adam moved them along. Up, up they climbed, weaving through man-sized boulders, clambering over smooth granite ledges, shinnying over waist-high rocks, until Adam halted them a short way from the top. Several boulders had formed a natural barrier around a large flat shelf. Adam could look out between them and observe the valley and forest below. One of the rocks had an overhang providing shade and shelter for when the sun grew unbearable, and the heat beating off the stone would dry their clothes in no time.
By this time they were both starting to grow thirsty, having drunk nothing since a last mouthful of water from a valley stream before they entered the forest. Looking out over the river glinting in the afternoon sun, Adam felt like his tongue was covered in a layer of fur. But finding water would have to wait, at least until he had managed to get Clara dry.
Still embarrassed by the unexpected revealing of her legs, Clara was loath to remove any more clothing until Adam promised he would remove himself to the other side of the boulders and not return until she was fully dressed again. And so it was Adam found himself sitting on a natural shelf, looking down on the valley, his shirt and vest stretched over one rounded rock, and his pants, socks and boots on another.
Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the rock and for the first time in, he couldn’t recall when, Adam felt his mind relax. He knew he shouldn’t feel this way, not in the situation he and Clara were in, but it was years since Adam had felt this much at ease. He opened his eyes, squinted against the glare, and suddenly realised what it was. He was home. This land was home. The dusty rocky bluffs and boulders; the rivers which created green oases in the midst of high dry mountain terrain; and the pines…Ah, he was in the pines again, smelling that wonderful sweet aroma like Hop Sing’s cookies fresh from the oven. Adam knew then the land was in his blood, that he couldn’t be anywhere else and be content with his life. The land sung to him in the same way it called to his father and brothers. He found a smile creeping over his face because the familial bond he believed he had broken, all of a sudden felt stronger than ever. The desire to get home was overpowering, but Adam knew he would have to rein it in; his young companion would never be able to keep up with his pace.
The sun was hot on his skin, his torso and arms already bronzed from days of shedding his shirt at the first sign of heat. He smiled at the sight of the pale skin on his legs, and his thoughts turned to the girl hidden behind the rocks. Her fair complexion would soon burn if she didn’t stay covered. Adam frowned at the unexpectedly paternal nature of his concern, but shook it off as he turned in her direction.
“Clara? Are you under the overhang like I told you?”
There was silence.
“I know it’ll be a little cooler but you need to stay out of the sun. Clara?”
She still didn’t answer, and Adam rose to his feet. The sun-soaked rock burned his soles as he padded towards the opening to their hideaway.
“Don’t come any closer!” Her voice wavered in fright. “It’s not seemly for you to see me like this.”
“Well, why didn’t you answer me?”
She was quiet again and Adam rolled his eyes.
“Clara, for pity’s sake.”
He heard a sniff, then another one, and Adam realised the girl had nothing else to do but think, and miss her mother, and mourn. He laid his hands against the rock that separated them, pushing his chest close to the smooth, creamy stone.
“Clara, I…I know how you’re feeling.”
“No! No, you don’t!” Her shout echoed around the hill. “You don’t know anything about how I’m feeling. My mama is…My mama…” She burst into tears and Adam wanted nothing more than to go to her and comfort her, but all he was wearing was a pair of under-drawers, and Clara would be clad in nothing more than a thin strip of material, and propriety and manners and everything that was an obstacle at this moment, stopped him from moving.
He looked at his fingers pressed across the stone like a salamander’s feet.
“I do know,” he said softly. “My mother died a few hours after I was born.”
Adam kept certain aspects of his past buried deep. It’s not that he couldn’t talk about them, more that they were nobody’s business but his own, so he wouldn’t. He learned a long time ago talking about his mother or his two step-mothers prompted questions he either couldn’t answer, or didn’t want to.
His own mother, Elizabeth, was nothing more than a photo on his father’s desk, a shadow made perfect by his father’s tales. What could he say to anyone who asked what she was like? He didn’t know. And not knowing was more painful than he’d ever admit.
His step-mothers were different. They had been flesh and blood to him. He had known them, lived with them, experienced their lives. And they had both died in front of his eyes. Perhaps he shied away from talking about them, unwilling to allow long-buried and unbidden emotions to see the light of day. How could a six-year-old Adam, and his later eighteen-year-old self, not be affected by what he had witnessed on those two fateful days. How could he not be forever altered? So Adam pushed emotions he did not choose to deal with deep within him. And if asked about Marie and Inger, he would answer, but soon change the subject.
Clara deserved more, though. She was in the same situation he had been in twice before, and Adam knew, to help her through what she was suffering, he would have to be completely honest about his own experiences.
He sighed and pushed away from the rock, turning to look out over the valley below. Lowering himself to the ground, Adam leant back against the warm granite surface, and waited. There was a moment of silence, then…
“Was she shot? Like my mama?” Clara spoke so quietly that Adam had to strain to hear her. He raised his eyes to heaven, sad that should be her first thought.
“No.” He looked down at his hands. “My mother was not strong. Giving birth to me took all the strength she had, and…” he sighed, “she simply faded away.”
After a pause, Clara spoke again. “Do you miss her?”
Adam turned his head towards the gap in the rocks, towards Clara. “Every day. You might ask, how can I miss someone I don’t remember, but I do. She was my mother and I think about her even without knowing it. She’s always there, in the back of my mind.”
There was the sound of movement, the rustle of material, and when Clara spoke again it was much closer, from behind the rock.
“Do you feel sad?”
Adam considered the question.
“I used to, but I don’t anymore. Now I feel grateful she lived, that she made my father happy, even if it was only for a short time.”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to stop feeling sad, for as long as I live.”
Adam scratched at the scab on his temple.
“I know it seems that way now. But if I told you I watched both my stepmothers die in front of me; that the pain of losing them, of seeing my father and brothers grieve, cut deeper than anything I’d felt before, well, surely you’d ask how am I still standing and able to go on.”
Adam waited, to see if she would respond. He didn’t have to wait long.
“You had three mamas? And they all died?”
“My first stepmother, Inger, was killed by Indians. I saw it happen, right in front of my eyes. She was fighting to protect me and my younger brother.”
Adam looked out over the view, but all he could see was the look of unrestrained anguish on his father’s face as he held the dying Inger in his arms. Adam might have been young, but the memories of that day so long ago were ingrained in his memory and remained fresh.
“Marie, my father’s third wife, died when her horse fell in our yard.” Adam could still hear the crack as her neck broke. He shook his head to dispel the memory and shifted around to face the gap in the rocks.
“Don’t stop grieving, Clara. You’re gonna hurt and hate the world and everyone in it. But it will get better. I know you can’t believe it now, but believe me, it will.”
There was a long sigh and Adam swore he could hear her brain working as she thought about what he’d said. He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. “Check your clothes; they’re probably dry by now. I’ll try and catch us something to eat.” Adam turned to walk back to where his clothes were laid out but paused, angling back to where the girl was.
“You’ll be alright, Clara, I promise.”
And leaving her lost in an impenetrable world of sadness, Adam dressed and went in search of a meal.
After two days of hard riding, Ben Cartwright and his two sons were only a few miles from Chia Springs. They had been skirting the top of Carson Lake when it simply became too dark to continue and they pitched camp on the lakeshore.
The air was still this night and the surface of the lake shone like a burnished silver tray in the moonlight. Ben stood on the water’s edge looking down on his reflection staring back at him. His dipped head alerted Hoss and Joe who exchanged glances.
“What’s eatin’ you, Pa?” asked Hoss from where he sat poking at the fire with a stick.
“What else?” said Joe. “Older Brother.”
Ben turned, his look dark as he stared long and hard at Joe. But as he walked back into the circle of firelight, he shook his head and sighed.
“I know you think I worry too much, but that’s what fathers do. Hopefully you’ll discover that for yourselves one day.” He looked from Hoss to Joe who both suddenly found other things to occupy their attentions.
“I can say with all honesty, Hoss, that you’re the one who causes me the least sleepless nights out of the three of you.”
“Hey!” Joe’s voice was indignant.
“Don’t you ‘hey’ me, young man. From the minute you learned to walk I’ve been chasing around after you. You’ve been injured more times than I can count. All of us have to live with you in the aftermath of your romantic entanglements…”
Joe sat up from where he had been leaning against his upturned saddle. “You make me sound like I fall in love every week.”
Hoss sniggered. Ben merely raised an eyebrow. “It seemed that way once upon a time. Let’s see now. Morvath Terry, Eloise Villon, Tirza, Melinda Banning—”
“Ah come on, Pa, I wasn’t really serious about any of them.”
Ben tilted his head. “Julia Bulette, Amy Bishop.” He paused. “Laura White.”
The look of amusement on Joe’s face faded and he looked down. As Ben stepped past him, he gripped his youngest’s shoulder with a warm comforting hand. He would not linger on what would always be painful subjects for Joe.
Ben settled back against his saddle. “Adam had to grow up too fast. He didn’t have the boyhood you enjoyed, Joe, and he didn’t develop the deep roots that kept him content to stay in one place, like you, Hoss. He’s always had itchy feet, a need to seek out new experiences and new places. It’s one of the reasons he left.”
“I thought that was down to Laura Dayton,” mumbled Hoss.
“Yes, she was a part of it. His injury was also a factor. The realisation you might not be able to do the things you once took for granted can change a man.”
Joe frowned. “But he stood up, Pa, he walked, he made a full recovery.”
Ben looked over at Joe. “In his body, yes, but perhaps not so in his mind.”
The men were silent for several long minutes, all three staring into the fire, lost in their thoughts. But then Hoss spoke.
“Do you remember that time when he almost burned down the house?”
Joe’s head flicked towards his brother? “What? I don’t remember that.”
Ben chuckled. “You weren’t born when it happened. Hoss, you must have been, what, four or five?”
“About that. I gotta few memories of that day, but just fleetin’ images. Most of all I remember feelin’ surprise. Surprise that Adam could be naughty just like me.” A look of awe crossed Hoss’s face as he thought back.
“What happened?” Joe leaned back to grab an apple from his saddle bag.
“Your brother decided he wanted to try smoking my pipe.” Ben’s eyebrows arched high. “He waited until I’d ridden out to the bottomland, or thought I had. He was supposed to be looking after you.” He inclined his head towards Hoss. “Instead he took the pipe from my desk, went behind the barn and tried to light it. And then I arrived home. Early.” He paused.
Joe pulled the apple from his teeth. “Well, what happened then?”
“I could see Hoss sitting on the edge of the porch, completely engrossed in something or other. So I picked him up and said, ‘let’s go look for your brother, shall we.’”
Hoss grinned. “I can remember what happened next.”
“We checked the house. He wasn’t there. So I checked the barn and could hear someone coughing. So, still holding Hoss, I walked around behind the barn and there was your older brother, my pipe in his hand, his eyes watering, coughing up his lungs. He saw me and promptly dropped the pipe.”
A wide grin split Joe’s face. “But how did he almost burn down the house?”
“It had been an especially dry summer, and while I was telling Adam exactly what I thought of him leaving his brother to wander around by himself while he had stolen my pipe and tried smoking it, the tobacco in the pipe ignited some dry-as-kindling grass and before long the barn had started to smoulder, and, well, let’s just say the three of us, including Hoss here, got very dirty, very wet and very exhausted, running around with buckets of water putting out the fire.”
Joe looked a little disappointed. “So, the house didn’t almost burn down?”
Ben pursed his lips. “No, but if the barn had gone up, then the house might have been next.”
Hoss grinned. “Adam sure got a lickin’ that day.”
“The young reprobate couldn’t sit down properly for at least a week.”
The men were silent for a few moments and then Ben turned to look at Hoss. “What on earth made you think of Adam and the pipe?”
Hoss was scratching at the earth with a twig. “I got to thinkin’ about Adam growin’ up way too soon and not havin’ much of a boyhood. He was always studyin’ and readin’ and helpin’ you and lookin’ after me ‘n’ Joe. And I remembered him and the pipe, and it seemed there were times when he was just like me and Joe, gettin’ inta trouble, and gettin’ licked for it.”
Ben chuckled, the rumble deep in his throat. “There were other times, you probably don’t remember. Adam got himself into trouble more times than I can count.”
Hoss sat forward. “See that’s just it, Pa. We ain’t seen him for six years, and up ‘til he left he had gotten all serious and weren’t talking much, and, I ain’t gonna lie, he weren’t no fun to be around.” Hoss threw his stick on the fire. “But I don’t care ‘bout that no more. I just want my brother back. He can be the orneriest, moodiest cuss there ever was, that’s o’ no mind. I just want him home.”
Adam and Clara woke the next morning with hungry bellies; their meal the night before had been a humble affair which had left them both nearly as hungry after eating as before.
The previous afternoon, Adam had left Clara sitting amongst the rocks and had slithered back down to the forest edge in search of food. He had contemplated returning to the river and catching a fish or two, but concluded it was too risky; Cordell’s men might still be in the valley. He’d also be away from Clara for too long. He spent a good half-hour searching the forest floor for signs of fresh runs and animal droppings, and his effort paid off when he spotted a trail leading to the entrance of a small burrow. Tearing long fibres from the bark of a tree, he made a noose and rigged up the snare. By the time he had finished his fingernails were shredded and the skin on his hands was bloody and torn. But it was a small price to pay for a meal.
That task accomplished, and after making note of a few landmarks to help him find the snare again, Adam followed another run leading away from the burrow, praying it would lead to water. He was lucky. The trail led directly to a small stream trickling down the forest slope. Adam scrambled up the valley side and followed the stream to its source, a natural outlet in the rock from an underwater system. Cupping his hands, he brought the water to his mouth and enjoyed the sweetest drink he could recall in a long time. His eyes closed as he let the ice cold liquid pour down his throat and over his face. Several gulps later, and feeling refreshed and revived, he returned to the base of the rocks and called up to Clara. A blond head appeared and Adam beckoned her down to drink.
Returning to the snare sometime later, Adam found his efforts had paid off, for hooked in the trap was a ground squirrel. It was a scrawny creature, barely enough to feed one let alone two people who hadn’t eaten since sun-up, but it would suffice for now. Preparing the creature to be eaten without a knife was a messy business, but it wasn’t the first time Adam had used his fingers and teeth to skin and gut an animal in the wild—he and his father had learnt many tactics for survival as they’d forged a life for themselves in the Sierra. And after the dying sun had lowered trailing a blood-red sky in its wake, and darkness had once more consumed the light, Adam deemed it safe to set a fire. The tiny beast was devoured in no time.
But the setting of the sun took more than the light, for as the darkness crept across the land, it brought with it a chill that seeped through to their very bones. Clara cloaked her shoulders and arms in the torn strip of material from her skirts and folded her legs beneath her, but not even a fire could stop her limbs from shivering. Their rocky hideaway retained some warmth from the sun’s rays but this soon faded and without blankets Adam knew they were destined to endure a cold night. Clara curled up facing away from Adam, who stayed awake to feed the fire and keep a watch out for mountain lions and cougars. But despite the cold, he soon found his eyes growing heavy and he succumbed to a deep sleep with his back against a rock and his head hanging over his chest.
Adam opened his eyes the next morning to a hazy grey light and cold air that loitered like an unwelcome miasma. He groaned as he raised his head, his neck having grown stiff from being tucked on his chest for the last few hours. He kneaded the muscles in his back with one arm, and peered down at the girl who had shifted in her sleep. At some time in the night, she had turned over and flattened herself against his outstretched legs, unknowingly reaching out for his warmth. All he could see was an unruly mop of hair covering her face. He placed his hand on her shoulder to wake her. Bleary eyes blinked into wakefulness, but when she saw how close she was to him she shimmied backwards, looking all around her with startled eyes. Then her shoulders slumped.
“I thought it was all a dream; that I was lying next to Mama.” She looked at Adam. “But it was real. Mama really is gone.”
Adam cast his eyes down and said nothing. After a few moments Clara spoke again. “I have to…I need to go to…”
Adam pointed. “Go behind those rocks there, but don’t go far. I’ll be here when you get back.”
With Clara taking care of private business, Adam turned and walked stiffly in the opposite direction to do the same. She was gone for longer than he was comfortable with and he was about to go looking for her when she walked back into their makeshift camp. Her shoulders were still slumped, she was dragging her feet and it was clear she had been crying. Adam held out his hand to her but Clara hesitated and waited until he had lowered his arm before taking a few steps towards him.
“Where are we going to go?” she asked.
“South. We’ll follow the river to Tahoe. My family are there; we’ll be safe.”
“The men went that way.”
Adam nodded. “They did. But they’ll be miles away by now. We’ll stay in the forest and only go to the river when we need water and food.”
Clara sat down heavily, her fingers tracing a crack across the granite surface. “I’m scared, Adam.”
Adam looked across at the ridge on the opposite side of the valley bathed in the light of the new sun. He thought for a few moments and then crouched down so he was at Clara’s eye level, his hands curled around her shoulders.
“Clara, while I’m still breathing, have two legs to stand on and a fist to fight with, I promise to protect you. I’ll keep you safe. But you gotta trust me and do what I tell ya. Do we have a deal?”
Clara’s lips turned inward as she considered, but then she nodded.
Adam smiled. “Good girl.”
He held out his hand. She paused, then took it and let him lead her down through the rocks to the forest below.
“Are you telling me three people were kidnapped right under your nose and you did nothing to stop it?”
Ben Cartwright’s voice was reaching unprecedented levels, despite it being a couple of hours past dawn. With his fists planted firmly on a ramshackle desk, Ben leaned over the seated Chia Springs sheriff who stared up as his accuser, his nails clawing at the desk edge. The man was hanging onto his temper as best he could, but at the latest accusation he jumped to his feet and mirrored Ben’s pose so precisely that the two men were nose to nose. Unfortunately he was a small man, and he had to stare up at the imposing figure of Ben Cartwright looming over him. And it didn’t help the sheriff’s composure that he had been rudely awakened from his bed when the light in the room was grey and he hadn’t had a chance to dress properly. He stood before them in a shirt and pants, bereft of his vest and coat and the shiny star that imbued him with authority.
“I’m one man, Cartwright, and there were seven o’ them. What did you expect me to do, walk out there and get myself killed?”
“It was your duty to stop it.”
“You weren’t here. They had guns levelled on every door and every curtain that so much as twitched.”
“You could have tried.”
“And this town would have a dead sheriff.”
The two men glared at each other with unblinking eyes, but then Hoss spoke up.
“He’s right, Pa. One man cain’t take on an army. ‘Specially if you’re a puny little fella like the sheriff here.”
The sheriff straightened up and looked indignantly at Hoss. “Hey!”
“No offence intended, Sheriff.”
“Well, offence has been taken, sonny.” The sheriff straightened and moved out from behind his desk, pointing at the three men in turn as he did.
“You said you rode here from Virginia City. Well, from what I heard, that place is full o’ lawless hoodlums, fast women an’ sharp-talking gamblers. And you might be able to ride roughshod over the sheriff there, but you got no right to charge in here and accuse me o’ goodness knows what.”
Ben took a step towards him, his own finger rising in opposition to the sheriff’s. “At least our sheriff isn’t afraid to step up to trouble when it’s staring him in the face.”
The small man lifted his shoulders and chin, but no amount of posturing would stand him on the same level as big Ben Cartwright. It didn’t stop him from trying though, and as Ben stared down at him, the little sheriff returned the glare, looking straight up Ben’s nostrils.
Their stand-off was broken by a calm voice from the back of the office. “Seems to me the only trouble you’ll get here is the occasional missing parasol or an out-of-control mule.”
“Now lookee here, who do you think you’re talking to…” The sheriff began to cross the room towards Joe who was standing with his arms crossed, lounging against the door to the cells. Joe shifted away from the door but Ben caught the man’s arm as he passed, stopping him in his tracks. Ben eyed the angry sheriff and after a moment patted his shoulder.
“Boys, personal insults will get us nowhere. I taught you better than that.” His black eyes pierced the shadows of the room and two Cartwright sons shuffled where they stood. Two renditions of ‘Sorry, Pa’ echoed through the office.
Ben turned back to the sheriff. “My sons are worried for their brother.” Ben paused and took a breath. “I’m worried for their brother.”
The sheriff grunted and cricked his neck. “Well, I guess I can understand you being riled up by circumstances would cause you to forget your manners when addressin’ an officer of the law.”
Ben looked at Joe and they both rolled their eyes as the sheriff turned away and re-took his seat behind the desk.
“What do you know about the woman and girl who were taken?”
The sheriff’s chair creaked as he sat back. “Not much. They kept to themselves, didn’t talk to no one from what I heard. I saw them once on their way to the pools. The woman had her head stuck up in the air as if the whole place was beneath her.”
Ben shook his head. “I can’t make sense of this. Adam wasn’t supposed to be here. He said in his telegram that stopping here was a last minute decision.” The room was silent whilst Ben mulled over the facts. “He never gave the impression in his letters that he was in trouble.” He looked up and looked at each man in turn. “So, was the woman the one they were after? In which case, why take Adam?”
Joe snorted. “He’s a Cartwright, Pa. He probably put himself right in the centre of whatever was going on.”
Ben found half a smile. “You’re probably right there, son.”
Hoss had been staring out the window at the quiet street. “Ya know, maybe the sheriff’s right. There was nothing he could do.”
The sheriff slumped back in his chair from where he’d been leaning forward listening to Ben’s deliberations. “That’s what I been trying to tell you.”
Hoss turned, ignoring the sheriff. “Adam was never an easy man to take. I know, I tried enough times when we was young ‘uns. The only time me or Joe could get the better o’ him was when he wasn’t lookin’ or we tricked him.”
Joe let out a loud breath. “They must have got the jump on him.”
“At last you fellas are talking sense. It’s what I was saying. There was just too many of them, and they bought a whole herd of horses in to town with ‘em, clean terrified the townsfolk.”
Ben frowned as he swivelled towards the sheriff. “Horses?”
“Pa, they’ve got a remuda.” Joe pushed away from the cell door and walked over to his father. “We should be able to track them. They’ll leave a trail even Mrs. Carmedy at the boarding house could follow.” Mrs. Carmedy was well known in Virginia City for her short-sightedness. When addressed by a person in the street, she would move in close, squint up her glasses at them and only then realise who she was talking to. She had been the source of many a schoolboy prank in Joe’s youth.
Ben felt a surge of hope; more than he’d felt since riding into this tiny desert town. He gripped Joe’s arm. “Go to the hotel, collect Adam’s gear and find out what you can about the woman and girl who were taken. Hoss and I will gather some provisions together for the trail. We’ll meet you at the front of the hotel in half an hour.”
Joe nigh on bounced out of the office, and it was with a sudden sense of pride that Ben watched him head to the hotel with his back straight and shoulders squared with determination. His sons never let him down. When one was in trouble, the other two would always step up to the mark, and many times would step right on over it too.
Indicating to Hoss it was time to go, Ben stood in the open doorway and looked back at the little man behind the desk.
“I hope we don’t meet again, Sheriff.”
He nodded over his shoulder at the street which was stirring to life behind him.
“You have a growing town here, and the more people that come, the more likely you’ll face trouble. Bear that in mind the next time you turn your back on someone in need.”
As Hoss squeezed passed him, Ben looked at the sheriff with an expression of such disgust the little man turned his head to avoid Ben’s eyes. And with a final shake of his head, Ben slammed the door behind him.
Adam had been alone in the wilderness before. Being one man against all that nature could throw at him was not a new experience. But this wasn’t the desert where he had stumbled, fallen, dragged himself up and fallen again; where the sun had burned his skin and parched his throat; where one incessant thought had nearly driven him crazy. Water. I need water. Please, God, let me find water. He’d been almost out of his head. And that was before he met Peter Kane.
This time was different. There was an abundance of fresh water from the river. They could fish for fat trout. The forest provided berries, roots, even bark, and when they stopped for the night, Adam could set another snare and hopefully catch something more substantial than a scrawny half-grown squirrel. He had a hat to keep the sun off his head, and Clara had the strip of material from her skirt which Adam draped over her hair and shoulders. She looked like she’d stepped off a ship at Castle Garden, hiding her face behind a woollen shawl. Adam figured as long as they kept clear of wild animals and Cordell’s gang, they should reach Tahoe in three or four days.
Unfortunately, there was an unforeseen complication.
The girl had lived a pampered life in the heart of the big city. She was used to going everywhere by hansom cab, or walking on hard cobbled streets with her small boots and high-waisted outfits. The nearest she had been to the country, until her mother had brought her west, was the tamed wilderness of Central Park. And her experience of the frontier had been from trains as they travelled from town to town. She had never known a world not framed by buildings and crowds and roads.
It wasn’t Clara’s fault the ground would suddenly dip and she’d go down hard on the side of her ankle, or that it would rise in a steep elevation so she’d have to huff and puff to reach the top. Her heels caught in the bouncy soft earth or she’d trip over a tree root feeling out across the forest floor. Adam seemed to have an arm permanently stretched out to raise her upright. As they walked through the trees, she batted branches and leaves out of her face, scratching the skin on her arms and hands. They made slow progress and it was with a sense of relief that they found themselves standing on the edge of a wide green flower-strewn meadow with the forest behind them.
Adam looked out across the grass to see if there was any sign of movement, of horses, of danger. All was peaceful so he took the chance. He started to walk into the open but after a few paces realised Clara was not with him. He turned to see her standing at the edge of the grassland, her arms hanging from drooping shoulders, her dress torn, her hair dishevelled. She had been walking since sun-up and it was clear to Adam she had reached the end of her endurance. And it was only mid-morning.
Clara looked up at him with pleading eyes. “I can’t, Adam. I can’t walk another step. Please don’t make me.”
She lowered herself to the ground. Adam walked back and dropped to his haunches. “I know you’re tired, but if we can just walk a little farther to those trees over there and see what’s on the other side…”
Clara’s face puckered. She was on the verge of tears. “Please Adam, my feet hurt so much, and my stomach hurts too.”
Damn those silly boots, thought Adam. He’d have ripped them from her feet hours ago if it wasn’t for the protection they offered her. She certainly couldn’t walk barefoot.
“Clara, listen to me. Your mama would have kept going, wouldn’t she? She wouldn’t have let a little discomfort and an empty stomach stop her. Your mama was strong, and you’re your mother’s daughter. You have it in you, Clara. I know you do.”
Weary eyes looked up at Adam.
“We’ll take it slow. I’ll stay by your side all the way.”
The girl nodded and with a sigh of relief, Adam helped her to stand.
He kept to his word. As she started to limp across the grass, Adam didn’t move from her side. When she stumbled, he caught her arm. When she halted in her tracks, Adam stopped with her. And he stayed silent, not berating her slowness or hurrying her up. Tempting though it was.
He looked across the sea of Indian paintbrush stretched out before them, their scarlet flowers opened to the sky, and then up at the rocky hills surrounding them. A distant stand of golden cottonwoods promised shelter from the heat.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, a grin lighting his face.
Clara kept her eyes on her feet. “I hate it.”
Adam didn’t lose his grin but his expression was clouded by a furrowed brow. “How can you say that? For me, this is God’s own country. I thought about it every day when I was away.”
“If you liked it so much, why did you leave?”
As Adam thought about her question, a bird’s piercing cry rang out across the valley. He stopped and looked up at the sky. A red-tailed hawk was hovering above them, its body still but its head flickering from side to side as it searched for its next meal. He watched it for a few moments then, with a satisfied nod, took Clara’s elbow and steered her towards the river.
“I’ve asked myself that question many times in the last six years. I guess you don’t always know what you really care about until you no longer have it.”
Clara looked puzzled, but they had reached the bank of the river and paused to drink deeply from cupped hands and splash water over sticky faces. They continued on towards the cottonwoods with the melodic river beside them.
Clara shielded her vision from the bright sun as she glanced up at Adam. “You didn’t say why you went away?”
Adam sighed and raised his eyes to the sky. “I left because of a woman.” He said no more than that.
“A woman made you leave?”
Adam‘s cheek quirked into a half-smile. An adult would have understood his cryptic comment and left it at that. “I was engaged to be married. It didn’t work out and I felt I couldn’t stay.”
“Why didn’t it work out?”
“Why all the interest all of a sudden?”
Clara said nothing; only stared at him.
Adam sighed again. “She fell in love with someone else and went to live with him in San Francisco.”
Clara frowned. “They went to San Francisco but you left too.” She paused. “You didn’t have to go.”
She was still young enough to see the world in terms of black and white. The grey murky centre hadn’t played a part in her life yet.
“It wasn’t just because of her I left. I was…looking for something I couldn’t find at home.”
“What were you looking for?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“I didn’t know what I was looking for so…I had to leave in order to find it.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re too young to understand. One day you will.”
Clara stopped so suddenly Adam had taken several steps before he noticed.
“That’s what mama said: ‘you’re too young’ and ‘you’ll understand when you’re grown up’. Well I’m nearly thirteen years old and I understand a lot more than everyone thinks.” Clara’s cheeks were puffed up, pushing her eyes into slashes of sparkling anger. “I know why mama took me away from my father. I know he used to hurt her. And me.” She paused and Adam opened his mouth to speak but Clara wasn’t finished. “And I knew mama was lonely, and scared. I could hear her crying at night; she was sad all the time. She thought I didn’t know and tried to hide it.” Fierce eyes met Adam’s. “But I did. I wasn’t too young to know. So don’t say that, never say that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
Clara cut off Adam’s apology. “And I understand about you too.” Curled fists found her hips. “You said you don’t know what you were looking for. Well, isn’t it obvious? You were looking for what makes you happy. Only it was all around you and you couldn’t see it. Grown-ups think they know everything but they just make everything harder.” And with a flounce she stalked past Adam and towards the distant trees.
Adam stood and watched her go, then scratched his forehead. He had had the truth hurled at him from a child. With a clarity that had eluded him for six years, she had come to the point in mere minutes. He shook his head and with a half-smile followed behind her.
No more words were exchanged. Clara’s anger at Adam seemed to infuse her with vigour. She began to walk faster, lifting her feet above the uneven ground and stomping across the grass, leaving a path of crushed meadow flowers in her wake. When she stumbled she rejected all offers of a hand, so Adam let her walk ahead lost in her own world of anger and grief. With their increased speed, it didn’t take long to reach the trees, but Clara didn’t stop. She marched through the cottonwoods towards the far side of the stand without a second glance at the trees surrounding her.
She stopped before the treeline in a sunlit glade, her shoulders heaving up and down as she gulped in oxygen. Her head hung on her neck, but when Adam came up behind her she pulled her chin up and tried to look unaffected by the sudden burst of energy. Adam wearily dropped to the soft grass and lay on his back. “You’ve worn me out, child.”
Clara glared at him. “I’m not a child.”
Adam threw an arm across his face to shade his eyes and squinted up at her. “Well you’re behaving like one. Sit down, rest, we’ve a lot of ground to cover before nightfall.”
Clara’s bottom lip protruded and she stamped away towards the open space beyond the trees.
There was something in her tone that alerted him and he was on his feet and at her side within seconds. She pointed. “Look.”
Adam pulled Clara back behind the trees and down to the ground. Together they peered out at the scene before them.
A rickety shack stood on its own on a wide open patch of yellow scrub. It was little more than a large box with a door and sloping roof. To one side stood a sway-backed horse, its hind leg cocked and head lowered in the heat. Adam wondered what stopped it from wandering away as it was not fenced in or tied to a hitching post. Surrounding the cabin were buckets, pickaxes, shovels, piles of rock, all lying higgledy-piggledy where they had been dropped. A fire had burned low and a thin wisp of smoke rose skywards from the embers. Staying low with bent knees, Adam shifted to a nearby tree to try and see behind the cabin. The earth rose steeply in a rocky bank and Adam soon saw what he was looking for: the entrance to a tunnel leading into the hillside, supported haphazardly with wooden boards. It was a mine, but there was no sign of the miner. Adam looked all around him for any sign of movement but all was still and silent. Even the insects had quietened.
“Stay here behind this tree. Don’t come out until I tell you to. I’ll try and get us some food, maybe even ask to use the horse.”
He began to rise but Clara grabbed at his shirtsleeve. “Adam…” she began.
Adam placed his palm on her cheek. “I won’t be long.”
He stood, took a deep breath and walked out into the open. After a few steps he stopped and turned to give Clara what he hoped was a reassuring smile. He then began to move towards the shack.
Adam hadn’t gone far before it became obvious many horses had been here, and recently. The dry earth was scarred with hoof prints, the ground churned up where the animals had been ridden in and driven to a stop. It had to be Cordell and his men. This was proof they had come this way, but hopefully they were a long way ahead of them by now. He paused, looking all around, and then with one careful step at a time approached the shack. A prickly sensation tickled down his spine. He had a strong feeling he was being watched.
“Hey, inside,” he shouted out. “Is there anybody home?”
There was a movement behind the loosely fitting boards.
“I know there’s someone in there.” He raised his arms. “I’m not armed.”
After a few moments, the door swung open. The interior was a shadow out of which the end of a long rifle barrel slowly emerged. Adam raised his hands higher as a scrawny old man came into the light, his face hidden by a mass of shaggy beard. The man was filthy; unwashed pants were held up by a pair of braces; and a sweat-stained flannel shirt was open to the belt revealing a concave chest speckled with spindly white hairs. Adam was sure he could see crumbs and scraps of meat in the man’s beard and chest hair. He gulped away the bad taste rising in his throat.
“This is ma property. Whaddya want here?” The reek of rot-gut whiskey reached Adam’s nostrils and he recoiled slightly, but he noticed the man held his rifle with a steady grip.
“My horse fell and broke a leg a ways back. I was hoping I could borrow yours.” His words were greeted with nothing but a hostile look. “You’d get him back, I assure you.”
The old man’s eyes scanned Adam from the tips of his dusty boots all the way to his battered hat. He didn’t say a word just kept staring. With his arms still held out to the sides, Adam cast a quick glance down. He saw the dirt which covered his pants and the rips in his shirt where he’d caught it on rocks and tree branches. He looked back at the old man. “Like I said, I’ve been on my feet for a while.”
The old man suddenly moved forward causing Adam to stumble backwards, leaning out of reach of the protruding weapon.
“With no gun, or gun-belt? No man in this country goes about without a shooter.”
He raised the rifle barrel with sudden speed, aiming it straight at Adam’s face. Adam jerked his head back. “I left it in the trees. I didn’t want to—”
“Ya lyin’. You’re the one those men are after.”
Adam feigned ignorance. “Men? No one’s after me. I told you, I was riding, my horse fell.”
The old man suddenly stepped to the side. “Who’s that? There’s someone back there.” He kept the gun pointed at Adam but peered towards the cottonwoods. “Come out where I can see ya, or I’ll shoot ya friend here.”
Clara’s head slowly emerged from behind the trunk of a tree.
“Get out here!” shouted the old man.
Clara took one step into the open.
“It’s a girl!” The old man’s attention was back on Adam. “They said to look out for a man and a girl. Said you’d taken her from her ma.”
At mention of Johanna, Clara swallowed her lips and her eyes grew shiny with threatened tears.
“See’s, I knew it. Look at her. What kind of a man takes a kid from her ma?”
Adam had remained calm until now, but as the rifle had been waved in his face and then towards Clara, his anger had started to build. He lowered his hands and pointed at the old man. “Look, I don’t take too kindly to people pointing guns at me.”
The old man took a step forward and raised the gun so it was inches from Adam’s face. Adam acted on instinct. He reached out and grabbed the rifle barrel. He pulled, trying to dislodge the old man’s grip, but his opponent hung on. Like two dogs fighting over a bone, both men tugged at the weapon. First the old man would heave it towards him, then Adam would have the advantage. Back and forth they tussled.
But then suddenly Adam was stumbling backwards, the rifle in his grip. He righted himself and looked up to see the old man standing with an expression of surprise and then pain on his face. Slowly, he toppled to the ground. Clara stood behind him with a metal pail swinging from one hand. She watched the man fall and then dropped the pail as though it was burning hot. Her hands shot to her mouth. “Oh…oh…Is he dead? Did I kill him?”
Adam knelt by the old man’s body. “Don’t worry, he’s not dead.” He felt the man’s skull. Thankfully there was no blood. “But he’s going to have a bad headache when he wakes up.”
Clara took a step back, her brows drawn together in consternation. “I’ve never…I’ve never hit anyone before.”
Adam rose and gripped Clara’s arms. “He’ll be alright.” Wet eyes were fixed on the old man. “Clara, look at me… look at me.” His sharp tone drew her back to him. “You did good, Clara. He might have hurt me, or worse. You did good.” He stroked up and down her arms, feeling her calm a little. “Go into his place, see if you can find some food. I’ll deal with him.”
Clara took several breaths, then nodded and disappeared into the dark shack. Adam watched her go and then turned to the old man lying spread-eagled on the ground. He lifted him into a seated position and hoisted him onto his back. He struggled under the man’s weight, immediately breaking out into a sweat. Either the old man was heavier than he looked, or Adam was weaker than he should be through lack of sustenance. He stumbled into the shack and dumped the old man on a rickety cot. He took a well-needed breath, but soon wished he hadn’t. The shack smelled like something had died in there.
“He doesn’t have much,” said Clara through her makeshift headscarf which she was holding over her mouth and nose. “A tin of peaches and…” she pointed. A slab of green-tinged meat sat on a stool, crawling with flies, a pocket knife stabbed into the top.
Adam’s eyes squinted in distaste. “How hungry are you?”
Clara shook her head. “Not so much.”
“Me neither. We’ll take the peaches though.”
Several rifle cartridges were strewn across the hard dirt floor and Adam bent to retrieve them, slotting them into various pockets.
“That’s stealing,” said Clara.
Adam’s shoulders dropped as he bent his head to look at her. “You were willing to take food. Isn’t that stealing?”
Clara looked down at the floor. “I guess.”
“And right now, we need the gun more than he does.”
Clara still looked doubtful.
“Look, anything I take, I’ll return. We’re just borrowing it. Alright?”
There was a pause. “Alright.”
Adam nudged Clara ahead of him out of the dingy shack and grabbed the knife from the slab of meat as he passed. He stood in the hot sun and used his bandanna to wipe it down before he folded it and tucked it in his boot. He stooped to pick up the rifle from where he’d left it.
“Come on, you can ride the horse, I’ll lead.”
A bridle was hanging from a nail on the side of the shack and was soon fitted to the horse which did not move from its dozing pose. Hooking a finger behind the leather, Adam made to lead the animal to where he could see a beaten-up old saddle, moth-eaten blanket and canteen piled up by the shack’s wall. The animal did not move. Adam tugged more. The animal still did not budge. He tried slapping it on the rear, but all that happened was the cocked hind leg slowly uncocked as the animal placed its hoof fully on the ground. Adam stopped, stepped back and then tried again, pulling on the bridle with both hands. The creature would not be moved. It then dawned on him why the animal wasn’t hobbled or tied up or fenced in. There was no need. It was clearly a one man horse that did not heed the orders, requests or pulling and pushing of anyone but it’s owner.
“I give up,” said Adam. “Looks like we’re walking the rest of the way.” With a look of contempt at the stubborn creature, Adam grabbed the canteen, and they began the next stage of their journey.
Whilst Clara had been stomping angrily across the meadow away from Adam, he had been keeping a watchful eye on the river which had started to veer away from its previous southerly course. Adam assumed it was a stubborn outcropping of rock which had made the river curve, but it would find its way back, he was sure. It had to. Once they had crossed through the stand of cottonwoods it would be there in its customary place, flowing to the south, just where it had been since they had escaped from Cordell.
His worry over the river was forgotten during the encounter with the cantankerous old miner. But when he and Clara reached the top of the bank above the miner’s hut, Adam was dismayed to see the river was nowhere in sight. He ran along the top, Clara trailing behind him, until he spied the river cutting through the land. It had made a ninety-degree turn to the west and was now heading for the ocean.
Adam could only stand and stare, the rifle and canteen suddenly heavy in his hands. Clara looked up at him but in his distraction, Adam didn’t notice. She tugged on his sleeve.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Adam’s jaw clenched. “The river has changed course.”
Clara’s brow creased. “So?”
Adam looked down at her and sighed.
“So, the river has turned west. And we need to go south. Across there.”
Ahead of them, as far as the eye could see, was a landscape of dry, scrubby earth. Gone was the lush, cool forest. This was hard terrain, void of obvious water sources, and littered with sparse twisted trees and clumps of pale yellow bitterbrush. Adam knew it would be hard on their bodies and their minds.
“We’ve lost our water, and food will be harder to come by. But that’s the way we need to go.”
That way was Tahoe, and the Ponderosa.
“We’d better go then,” said Clara. And to Adam’s surprise she started to scramble down the slope. What had happened to the girl who this morning was professing she couldn’t go on, Adam wondered. Heck, right now he didn’t care. He had expected a protest, but hadn’t got one. He’d settle for that.
So the two fugitives had to abandon the cooler river valleys and continue their journey through the considerably harsher land to the south. At first, Adam could recognise the drama and beauty in the country around him: the bitterbrush was in full bloom and the tiny flowers shone like gold coins in the sunlight. But after several hours, Adam’s head was hanging heavily on his neck, as was Clara’s, and the walk had become a slog. The sun was unrelenting. Clusters of jeffrey pines offered some escape, but more often than not the only shelter came from the sparse twisted trunks of the cedars growing singly over the dry sloping hills.
Clara was subdued, the dry heat draining the vigour from her body, so Adam let her be. He was too tired to make conversation anyway. Food was becoming harder to come by and both were growing weak from lack of sustenance on top of the never-ending trudge of the trek.
When the sun was a few hours past its zenith, Adam called them to a halt in the shade of a tree and used the miner’s knife to prize open the can of peaches. They both closed their eyes at the taste of the sweet fruit and enjoyed the juice trickling down their chins and over their fingers. The juice took away their thirst as Adam was conserving the meagre supply of water he was carrying in the old man’s canteen. For now, the syrupy peach juice served to rid them of the spiky dryness in their mouths.
Adam knew they should push on but exhaustion got the better of him, so they both slept until the rotation of the earth took away their shade and they were woken by the evening warmth burning their legs. Clara slept a restless sleep, tossing and turning on the hard ground, and when she woke she was paler than normal. A sheen of moisture made her face shine. Adam frowned as he placed his hand on her forehead.
“You’re hotter than you should be.”
“It’s just the heat.”
“I know the signs of a fever, Clara.”
“I feel fine, honestly I do.”
Adam pressed the back of his fingers against her cheek. There was no mistaking the clammy feel of her skin. He dropped his hand and gave her a hard look. “Are you sure?”
She rose to her feet. “We can’t stay here, can we?”
The child was learning, thought Adam. She was ignoring her own discomfort as she recognised their need to keep moving. How different to a few hours ago.
But then Clara made the unmistakable motion of one who was about to be sick. She turned quickly and took a few paces away before doubling over and losing the contents of her stomach. Adam couldn’t help but notice the half-digested peaches. Damn it! They should have left the can at the shack; it was too rich a food to have eaten after days of basic rations, and especially not in this heat. She wobbled back to Adam and dropped heavily to the ground.
“I don’t feel so good.”
He held the canteen of water out to her.
“No, Adam, it’s only half full, we need to—”
Clara lifted the flask to her lips and took a sip of water. She handed it back to Adam, who took it with a frown.
“I feel better now. We can carry on.”
Adam shook the canteen and felt the weight of the water that swished within it. “You barely had enough to wet your lips. Now come on, take another…” Adam suddenly stopped. Clamping his lips together, he thrust the canteen into Clara’s hands, scrambled to his feet and threw up his share of the peaches. He straightened up, wiped his hand over the back of his mouth and looked at Clara through bleary eyes.
“I don’t think we’re going any farther today.”
And as his stomach protested once more, he fell beside her and collapsed onto his back.
“Those damn peaches,” he muttered.
They were both sick again. The peaches had done their worst.
It was a dismal night. The two weary travellers lay under a twisted cedar exposed to the elements. Clara was lucky; she managed to sleep, waking only once to lurch a few feet away and be sick once more. She staggered back to Adam, lay down and was asleep within seconds. Adam wondered whether she had even properly woken.
Adam wasn’t so fortunate. He slept a little, but the griping in his stomach and the cold would wake him after whatever sleep he got. Looking up at the night sky, Adam could see a shimmering band of silvery light surrounded by a million stars as the Milky Way hung in the firmament above him. It was mesmerising. Adam found staring into its dark centre distracted him from the roiling ache in his belly and he could ease up on the weight of his hand pressed against his stomach. Magnificent as the sky was, however, the lack of any cloud cover meant the night grew bitterly cold. He couldn’t risk starting a fire, not in the open as they were. It would be seen for miles around, a golden beacon in the mahogany night. So Adam had no choice but to curl up, shiver and pray for the dawn.
He was woken by a soft hand on his arm. At some point, and against the odds, he had managed to drift off to sleep. He moved his hat away from his face, and squinted slightly against the new day’s light. Clara was on her knees next to him, holding out the canteen of water. Leaning back on one elbow, he took the flask from her. It was heavier than it had been the night before.
“This is full.”
“I knew you’d need some water.”
Adam sat upright and grabbed her arm. “You can’t go wandering off by yourself. It’s not safe.”
Clara twisted her arm free. “I didn’t…well, I did. But I only went to that line of trees over there.”
Adam looked at where she was pointing and observed a line of yew trees cutting across the landscape about sixty yards from where they were. Why he’d not noticed them the day before he put down to hunger, fatigue and then feeling so sick nothing had registered with him for a long while.
“I had to go and…” Clara blushed, her gaze flicking to the ground. “Anyway, when I got to the trees I saw a stream. There’s water there, Adam, so I came back for the canteen. To get water for you.”
Adam looked over at the trees. How could be have missed the signs? A line of sporadically placed trees, but in a distinct line, following the course of a depression in the ground. All the evidence of water, and he had missed it. He then noticed Clara’s face properly for the first time. Her skin was clean, the dirt of the previous day washed away. The hair around her face was damp where she’d thrown water over it. He un-stoppered the canteen and let a long delicious draught of water flow down his throat. It revived him instantly. A smile played around his lips.
“You still shouldn’t have gone by yourself. Wake me next time.”
“There’s things a girl’s to do by herself, Adam. And anyway, I had this.” And reaching behind her, she pulled over the rifle, the barrel scratching through the earth as she tugged it by its stock.
Adam reached out and gently prized her fingers off the weapon. “Clara, this isn’t a toy. You don’t know how to use it; you could have shot yourself by mistake. Do you have any idea—”
“It’s okay, Adam.” She reached into her skirt pocket and uncurled her palm to reveal two rifle cartridges. “I watched you load them, so I knew how to take them out.”
Good grief, she was a quick learner.
“If anyone, or any animal, had come near me, I was going to club them with it.”
Adam shook his head and smiled. “Your mother taught you well.” Clara hung her head for a moment but when she looked up, her cheeks were puffed up into a semblance of a smile.” Using her shoulder to push himself up, Adam rose to his feel. “How do you feel?”
“My stomach doesn’t hurt anymore, but I’m really hungry.”
“Me too.” He looked towards the sun which was suspended halfway towards its apex and scratched the back of his neck. “We’ve lost good time.”
“I’m ready to go.”
He looked at Clara and was once more surprised by her willingness. “What happened to the girl whose feet were always sore, who was always tired and hated the wilderness?”
Clara looked down at her boots. “My feet are sore, Adam, but I guess I’ve got to get used to it. I have to get used to lots of new things now.” She sucked in one cheek, and exhaled heavily through her nose, suddenly looking about six years old.
Adam smiled. “Come on, we’ll get some more water and climb that ridge ahead of us. Then we’ll know what the day will bring.” They began to walk. “And when we get to the Ponderosa, I’m going to teach you how to fire this thing.” He lifted the rifle in his hand.
“Why not now?”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Because I want to make it home in one piece.” And with a quirk of his lips, he lifted the rifle to his shoulder, and together they strode into the new day.
They laboured to the top of the ridge and were faced with an arid landscape of scrub and sagebrush lying between them and a forest-clad range of hills. And overshadowing the hills were the shallow-topped mountains that ringed Adam’s beloved Lake Tahoe. Adam took off his hat and closed his eyes, as relief washed though his limbs. They were so close, so near to home. And yet the mountains would prove a formidable obstacle. He hit his hat against his thigh as he considered the task ahead. There was no point in worrying about the mountains until they had reached the pine-covered foothills. The forest meant food and shelter, neither of which they had at the present time. So with empty bellies, and after a mouthful of water each, they picked their way down the slope and began the long trek across the scrub.
At first they made good time, in spite of the hunger and weakness caused by their bout of sickness. But the sun was unrelenting. It was as though the sun’s rays were pushing on their backs, pressing them into the earth, until, before long, their feet were dragging and catching on every tiny rock. The water in their canteen was all they had to fill their stomachs and soon the good spirits they shared on waking became a memory. Clara reverted back to her old self, demanding frequent breaks to restore her sapped strength. Adam replied ‘only a little farther, just a bit more’. But in his eagerness to reach the forest, the break would be forgotten, and poor Clara was soon lagging behind. He relented when the sun was at its highest, allowing her to crawl under a shrub and lie down in the prickly shade for a short while. But it wasn’t for long and he soon had her on her feet again, trudging across the scrub. They both became irritable, snapping at each other for no reason besides exhaustion. And so they walked and walked and walked, until, in the early evening, when their legs were struggling to hold their weight, and their feet were sore from the hard ground, they finally made it to the forest.
It was growing dark by the time they both flopped to the ground. Clara lay back with her arms stretched out to either side, whilst Adam hung his head where he sat. But they both desperately needed food and warmth, so after he’d roused Clara with several tugs on her arm, they gathered enough wood for Adam to build a fire. He was past caring about where Cordell was and figured they were deep enough in the forest for a fire not to be seen, so he stirred the flames up to a roaring blaze. But his work was still not done. Leaving Clara in their camp, he wandered into the dark forest to set a snare. He prayed it wouldn’t be long before they had meat cooking over the fire.
On his return, Clara was sitting with her back to a tree trunk, her arms clamped around her drawn-up knees. Despite the burning heat of the day, the night temperature was dropping fast, and the purple light of dusk couldn’t hide Clara’s shivers. Adam sat down next to her, held out his arm and after a moment’s hesitation, she shuffled over. He pulled her close, vigorously rubbing up and down her arms to help warm her. The dry wood in the fire cracked and spat; showers of sparks leaped up to a darkening sky. Leaning back together against the trunk they nibbled on a handful of berries Adam had found and watched the stars begin to twinkle one by one in the sky.
She shifted position letting her knees fall over Adam’s outstretched legs. When she spoke, her voice was so quiet it was almost swallowed up by the noise of the night creatures.
“I’m afraid, Adam.”
He kept his eyes on the fire. “Of what?”
There was a long pause, so long anyone else might have thought she was not going to answer, but Adam gave her the time she needed.
“My mama’s dead. I’m scared I’ll be sent back to live with my father.”
“You told me you remember him.”
She lowered her head, and looking down Adam could see the firelight reflecting on her blonde hair.
“I have only one memory of him. He was tugging on my arm and shouting. I can still see his face. He was so angry he was spitting, and I can remember the feel of the spit on my skin.” She raised her head to look in the fire. “That’s the only memory I have of him. But I have lots of Mama holding me as I cried, of being rocked by her. And I can remember being woken in the middle of the night and her dressing me quickly and carrying me down the stairs. That’s all though. I was so little, I don’t know how I can remember. But I do.”
Adam smiled. “Who knows why we remember some things and not others. I have a distinct recollection of sitting in front of my father on a horse, with my hands gripping the reins. If I close my eyes I can see my little fingers holding on tight. I have no idea where we were, where we were going. But it’s a very strong image in my mind.”
“Were you happy?”
Adam thought. “I think I was. I feel safe when I think of it.”
“Is your father still alive?”
The side of Adam’s face quirked up. “He sure is. I would have been with him now for the first time in six years if this hadn’t happened.”
“He must be old.”
“I guess to you he would be. To me he’s just, well, just pa.”
“Do you miss him?”
Orange flames reflected in Adam’s eyes as he stared into the fire. He didn’t see the flames though but the face of his father. It was not something he had ever thought about, and it was the first time he’d ever been asked. And as he pictured his father’s face, he suddenly wanted more than anything to see him again.
“Yes, I do.”
Clara was quiet. Adam glanced down to see her picking at one of the many holes in her stockings.
“My father’s not a nice man. He’s cruel and shouts a lot. He’s old now but I don’t ever want to see him. He hurt Mama and me enough for her to take me away from him. But Mama’s dead…” Clara’s voice grew tight from the saliva building in her throat. “And I don’t know what’ll happen to me. I’m scared because I don’t have anyone in the world anymore. I’m all alone.”
Adam looked down at her, and with a gentle finger, turned her face up to him. A pair of wet eyes shone back.
“You’re not alone, Clara; you’ve got me. And I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you. You’ll come back to the Ponderosa, and you’ll stay with me and my family until we sort everything out.”
A fleeting thought came into Adam’s mind that the Ponderosa would probably be the first place Cordell would look, but he pushed it away. They’d deal with that when the time came.
Clara looked down again. “No matter where I end up, I’ll never be happy again. Not now Mama’s gone.”
Adam shifted position to face her and gripped her arms firmly with his hands. “Don’t say that, Clara, because it’s not true. You won’t feel like this forever, I promise you. You’ll hurt, and you’ll cry, and tomorrow you might find something will make you laugh, and you’ll feel guilty about it, but that’s life in all it’s up and downs.”
“But it’s not right to feel happy, not now.” Clara hung her head and sobbed, and Adam pulled her close to his chest, letting her cry into his shirt.
“Do you think your mama brought you halfway across the world to a new life, only for you to be miserable? She came to give you a chance, to have the happiness she wasn’t allowed. Don’t deny her that.”
Adam stroked her hair, feeling her shuddering breaths against his body. He suddenly became aware of her slender arms around his waist and smiled.
“You know, some people don’t know how to be happy, how to enjoy what they’ve got. It can be staring them in the face, but they can’t see it. Don’t be one of those people. And don’t be scared of the life your mama wanted you to live.”
Adam rested his cheek on the top of her head, his eyes faraway. “Being scared is good when you have a gun pointed at you, or a rattler is shaking its rattle when you step too close. It gives you an edge, makes you sharper. But don’t let the loss of your mama make you scared of living, don’t let it determine what comes next.”
Clara pulled away, calmer but still sniffing, and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. Adam pulled his bandana from his neck and dabbed at her eyes. “Better?”
Clara nodded. She stared at Adam for a few moments then reached her fingers up to his face, hovering them over his fading bruise. “Does it hurt?
“Not any more. Looks worse than it is.”
She sighed and dropped her hands. “I’m sorry you got hurt at the hotel. But…I’m glad you’re here. With me.” She met his gaze and Adam responded with a smile. But then there was a sudden noise in the woodland behind them, a thwack of a branch springing through the air.
Adam’s eyebrows rose. “I think that’s our dinner.” And with a squeeze of Clara’s shoulder, he left her by the fire contemplating what he’d said.
As he made his way to the snare, his words to Clara reverberated in his mind. He knew he had been talking about himself for he was as guilty as anyone of letting past events affect him. And in his case, in a destructive way. He had let the failure of his relationship with Laura lead him to measure his own achievements against others, in particular his father’s. And he had found himself wanting. For by the time his pa was his age, he had been married three times, was father of three sons and the owner of a prosperous and successful outfit. Adam, on the other hand, was unmarried, childless, and had to settle with being the number two man on the ranch.
So he had left his family, the Ponderosa, the land he loved, thinking he would find what he wanted elsewhere. But it had taken six years of aimless wandering and a twelve-year old girl for him to see that happiness, contentment, peace, whatever it may be, could only be found by letting go of the past and accepting what he had, what he’d always had, was enough. He hadn’t truly appreciated his life, or his family, but now all he wanted was to see them again.
And to tell them what a fool he’d been.
The following morning Adam woke with pine needles in his hair and a body that felt older than his years. As he pulled himself up and leaned back against a tree trunk, he looked down at Clara curled up in a ball and with gentle care pushed a strand of hair back from where it had fallen upon her face. Her cheeks were streaked with dry tears but she had slept soundly and Adam was loath to wake her.
He was in land he knew now, and reckoned another day and a half would find them at the northern tip of Lake Tahoe. Leaving Clara alone for a few minutes, he left the camp to take care of his needs, and on his return found her fully awake and ready to move. She led the way along the path Adam pointed out to her, uncomplaining, willing and with a steady determination in her walk. Adam felt a surge of what he supposed was paternal pride.
They followed a deer’s run through the forest, stopping to eat berries and roots when they saw them. It didn’t fill them up, but it kept the emptiness from their stomachs.
As the terrain started to climb they found themselves at the top of a low hill overlooking a valley filled with lush untouched grass. A fresh breeze cooled the back of Adam’s damp neck as he looked down the gentle slope, and a smile grew across his face. Clara frowned quizzically at him. “Why are you smiling?”
Adam’s grin grew larger, his dimples flaring as he scratched the back of his head. “When I was a boy, my brothers and I would ride out to a hill overlooking the lake and we’d roll all the way from the top to the bottom, sometimes on our sides, sometimes head over heels. It’d be a race to see who’d win, and more often than not, it was my brother Hoss who would get to the bottom first.”
“I guess my brother Joe was too small so he didn’t cover as much ground; I was always too careful; and yet Hoss, who was bigger than both of us, would throw himself into it.”
“No, I mean, why did you do it?”
Adam pulled his head back on his neck as he turned to her. “Why? Because it was fun. What more reason do you need?”
Clara still wore a frown. Shaking his head, Adam lent forward with his hands on his knees and gazed down the slope. He twisted and nudged her with an elbow. “Come on, let’s do it.”
She shook her head and took several steps back. “No, no, I’m scared.”
Adam pulled her back to his side. “What did I tell you about being scared?”
Clara looked down the hill and back at Adam. “That fear makes you sharper.”
Adam raised his eyebrows. “And?”
“Not to be scared of living.”
“That’s right. And this is one of those times where you have a choice. You can jump in, take a chance, enjoy the moment; or you can say no, walk down, and always wonder what it would have been like to roll all the way to the bottom, forgetting all your troubles for a little while. Now, are you going to walk or roll?”
Clara peered over the edge of the hill. “Roll.”
Adam grinned. “Alright.”
He took her hand and together they took a step forward.
Joe’s voice failed to penetrate Ben’s concentration, and it was only when his son appeared by his side that he reined in.
“Pa, we’ve gotta rest the horses. Cochise is beat. I’m beat.”
Hoss came up behind them. “He’s right, Pa. We’ve been drivin’ hard since we left that ol’ spa town. We need to slow down.”
Ben said nothing. But his eyes seemed to burn as they looked down the long straight track ahead of him.
“And I ain’t eaten a solid meal in days,” said Hoss. “I’m sure I could shoot us a rabbit or somethin’ while we letting the horses get their breath back.”
Joe nodded in agreement. “Whaddya say, Pa?”
Ben had listened in silence, his gaze fixed on the road. But now he reined his horse around so he was facing his sons. He leaned forward over Buck’s neck and raised a gloved finger, pointing it first at Hoss and then at Joe.
The boys straightened in their seats and cast a quick glance at each other before looking back to their father.
“What do I say? What do I say?” His voice was quiet. “We’ve not seen Adam in six years. Before he makes it home he is taken by goodness knows who, is beaten, manhandled and tied up. Your brother is out there somewhere. He could be badly hurt, or tortured. We don’t know why he’s been kidnapped, we don’t know where he is.” Ben took a breath. “And all you two can think about is your stomachs.” All three horses tossed their heads in protest at the volume of Ben’s last word. “I’m going to find your brother, with or without your help.” He began to gather his reins together, but a firm hand grasped his wrist.
“Pa!” It was Joe. “Look at Buck, look at him!”
Ben kept his piercing expression on Joe for a few seconds but then looked down at Buck. His horse’s head was lowered in exhaustion, almost to the ground. Ben could only stare, but then his shoulders dropped as the fight left him. Dismounting stiffly, Ben stood close to his weary mount. “You’re right,” he said, running his hand down the animal’s neck. He bowed his head. “You’re right.’
Joe was by his side, his voice soothing. “Pa, we’ll find Adam, but we can’t kill ourselves and our horses while we’re doing it.”
Ben continued to stroke Buck’s neck, his eyes not moving from his horse.
“We want to find him as much as you do, but I don’t think I could take on a ten-year old girl right now.”
Hoss nudged his horse forward a few steps. “Chubb’s still got some life left in ‘im; I’ll go catch us some grub and we can rest up for an hour.”
Ben was too distracted to respond.
Ben looked up, his eyes far away.
“We’ll find Adam, I promise. While’s you two were racing on ahead like there was no tomorrow, I was readin’ the signs. Those men ain’t moving too fast and we’ve made good time. We’ll catch up with ‘em.”
“How do you know they’re going slow?” asked Joe.
“I was studyin’ the horses’ leavin’s.”
“The dung? You were looking at the dung?”
“No need to be so blunt, little brother, but yes, I was studyin’ their dung. And without goin’ inta too much detail I’d say they didn’t pass this way that long ago. We’ll catch ‘em.”
And with that, Hoss spurred Chubb up a rocky slope, and disappeared over the other side.
Joe picked up Buck’s reins and began to lead him and Cochise off the track. “Come on, Pa. Let’s sit.” Joe hadn’t gone far when he realised his father hadn’t moved. “Pa?”
Ben raised his head and with a nod followed his youngest off the track. He sat against a boulder as Joe made a fire and began to brew the coffee. His distracted gaze drew concerned looks from Joe, and after several glances their eyes eventually connected. Ben’s eyebrows twitched and he cleared his throat.
“I was nervous about seeing your brother again after all these years.”
Joe settled himself on the ground. “Nervous? Pa, it’s Adam, what’s there to be nervous about?”
Ben nodded. “That’s what I kept telling myself. I said, it’s your eldest son, the boy who travelled across the country with you, who helped build the Ponderosa, who helped raise you two.” He smiled. “He’s coming home, I said, something I had hoped and wished for since the day he left.”
“So why the nerves?”
Ben looked at Joe, noting the puzzled expression on his son’s face. “I’m afraid he’ll have changed, changed so much I won’t know him anymore. He wasn’t the man he once was when he left. He had grown withdrawn, silent, setting himself apart from everyone. He was spending more and more time alone in the house instead of going into town with you boys, or out with me to check on the pastures.”
Joe poured a cup of thick black coffee and passed it to Ben who cupped it in his hands. “He was difficult to live with that last year.”
“You’re not wrong there, son. Standing in Virginia City for the stage to arrive, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had grown even more subdued in his time away. What if he hadn’t found what he was looking for? Who would step off the stage? The son I knew, or a stranger?”
Joe blew on his coffee. “Adam’s Adam, Pa. No matter what he’s going through and no matter how much of a pain he can be, he’s still my older brother.” He took a sip and grimaced, flicking the contents of his cup to the ground. “He’d never be a stranger.”
“You’re right, of course. But I’m ashamed to admit for a fraction of a second I was almost relieved when Adam didn’t step off that stage.”
He looked up, expecting to see recrimination, shock, disgust in Joe’s reaction. But Joe just nodded. “As much as a fraction, Pa?”
Ben smiled and swirled the liquid around his coffee cup. “Not even that.” He took a gulp of his brew, flinched and threw Joe a look. “You never could make a decent cup of coffee.” He threw the dregs of his drink into the fire and stood, stretching the kinks out of his back and shoulders, then looked along the dusty road in the direction the men had taken his son. “But now I would give every dollar I have to see him riding along that road. Free, unrestrained, unhurt. Instead, I can’t help but imagine what they are doing to him. My boy is in danger, and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Adam and Clara stood at the top of the gently rolling slope of virgin grass and stared down at the bottom.
“You ready?” said Adam. He whipped his hat from his head and with a flick of his wrist, sent it spinning through the air. It landed halfway down the slope. He then threw the rifle to the bottom.
“I think so.”
Adam cast her a quick glance. “You think so, or you know so?”
Clara took a quick breath of air. “I know so.”
“Okay then, when I say. One…”
They crouched down to their heels.
Heads were tucked in.
Together they dropped their heads over their feet, rocked forward and…they were away! Man and child were rolling head over heels down the slope. Over and over they turned, cautiously at first, but as they grew used to the motion their speed increased. Their bodies bounced off the soft grass, and they laughed and yelped all the way down. They had no idea which way they were rolling, just down, ever faster, growing dizzier by the turn. They collided and Clara was knocked off her trajectory, but that didn’t stop them and in no time they landed at the bottom of the slope where the land flattened out, legs and arms entangled. They laughed until their sides hurt and their mouths ached. And as their laughter faded, they lay on their backs fighting to get their breath back.
After a while Adam sat up and brushed the dirt from his clothes. Clara was quiet beside him.
“You okay?” He asked as he reached over to pick a few strands of grass from her hair.
She nodded. “I’ve never laughed that much before. But…I feel bad after Mama…” She stopped.
Adam reached out his hand and cupped the back of her head. “Don’t feel bad. It doesn’t mean you miss your mama any less, or are any less sad.” He saw the grass in her hair, her rumpled clothing and the rips in her stockings. “We make a fine pair,” he laughed. “Come on, we’ll get you cleaned up and be on our way.”
There was a sudden click, the sound of a trigger being pulled back. Adam whirled to his feet and made a move for the rifle.
“I wouldn’t, Cartwright.”
Adam froze and looked up. There, silhouetted at the top of the ridge was Cordell casually holding a rifle aimed in their direction. Next to him was the boy, Nate, one of his fancy cigarettes hanging from his lips, leading a couple of horses. As they began to pick their way down the slope, Adam slumped back on the grass and cursed. They had come so far; were within touching distance of home. He was furious with himself. He’d let his guard down and now Clara was one step closer to being returned to the father she was terrified of. He hung his head and prayed to Johanna for forgiveness.
“Well, look at the state of you two.”
Cordell sat straight-backed in his saddle, his duster covering the flanks of his horse. His clothes were neat and clean, despite the days spent living on the road. Adam looked down at his own attire. His pants were scuffed and dusty, his shirt torn from where he had caught it on trees and rocks. Clara had fared worse. Her hair hadn’t seen a brush in many days, her ripped skirt revealing torn and muddied stockings.
“Forgive us if we were unable to attend to our daily toilette while trying to get away from you.”
Cordell cast his eyes down as a slow grin crawled across his face. “And did you really think you had got away from me? Cartwright, we’ve had you in our sights for the last three days. I must say, the way the girl dealt with that old coot while you were wobbling back and forth fighting over that rifle, I was impressed.”
Adam looked up slowly at Cordell, his brows drawn low over eyes shimmering with anger. He climbed to his feet.
“Are you telling me you’ve been right behind us this whole time?” He spun back to point at the bedraggled child crouching on the grass with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs. “Look at her. Look at the state of her. She’s barely had enough to eat, she’s been sick, at the end of the day she can scarcely put one foot in front of the other. And you’ve been following us with food, blankets, horses! She’s not a commodity you can trade. She’s a child, for God’s sake.”
Cordell’s eyes flashed. “Don’t get all indignant with me, Cartwright. Not after you decided to let your tired little puppy have playtime on this hill.”
Adam hung his head. “She needed a break after what…” he glanced at Clara who was following the conversation with wide eyes. Adam lowered his voice. “After what your man did to her mother.”
Cordell frowned, looking away sharply. Adam wondered at his reaction. But Cordell soon composed himself. “Well I decided to hurry things along a little. You two were taking way too long.”
Without taking his eyes off Adam he spoke over his shoulder. “Nate, get his rifle.”
As Nate followed his boss’s order, Cordell walked his horse over to Adam. “I believe this is yours.” He threw Adam’s hat down to land at his feet. The crown was squashed flat. “I’m afraid one of the horses trampled it.”
Adam bent to swipe his hat from the ground and beat it back into shape against his thigh.
“Oh, and Cartwright, hand over the knife.”
Adam shrugged his shoulders. “What knife? I don’t have a knife.”
Cordell shook his head and sighed. “You forget…” He reached behind him and pulled out a telescope from his saddle bag. “I had my eye on you every minute of every day.” He thrust it back out of sight and held out a gloved hand. “Now, hand over the knife.”
Adam met Cordell’s cool gaze with one of his own, but he knew he couldn’t out bluff him and remain in one piece. With a long exhalation of breath, he bent down, pulled the pocket knife out of his boot and slammed it into Cordell’s outstretched palm.
Cordell turned the blade over in his hand and then, pulling his arm back, he threw it as far as he could. The sun flashed off the metal as it spun in an arc over Adam’s head and disappeared out of sight.
“Time to mount up.”
Adam held out his hand to Clara who jumped to her feet and took hold of it with both of hers. He hadn’t felt so helpless since the day thieves stole his horse, gun and water, and left him to die in the desert. But he’d survived that, and he’d survive this too. If only for Clara’s sake.
The sound of a horse being ridden hard up the road on the other side of the rise drove Ben and Joe to their feet, their hands ready on their holstered weapons. As the vibration along the track intensified, a large white hat appeared on the horizon, soon followed by the rest of the rider. It was Hoss, riding at speed towards them.
“Pa, Joe, I found something,” he shouted, as he reined Chubb into a skidding halt which churned the dust up around them.
Ben and Joe wasted no time in bundling up their belongings and dousing the fire with the dregs of the coffee. All the while, Chubb was skittering on the track, aware of the tension in his master’s body, impatient to stretch out his neck and ride. In less than a minute, Chubb got his wish as the three men retraced Hoss’s steps, galloping along the track until coming to a standstill on the side of a river valley.
“I nearly got us a rabbit, chased the darn thing all the way down here, and then I saw that.” He pointed at the ground before them and dismounted. “You can see where a ton o’ horses were halted. See back there, where we just come from, the tracks are all facin’ the same direction, but here they stop, they’re all turned around.” He looked up at his father. “There’s a broken bottle back yonder, and here are boot prints.”
Joe spurred his mount on a few feet to look down at the churned-up earth. “Couldn’t they have just stopped for a break?”
Hoss put his hands on his hips and looked up at Joe. “I don’t think so, little brother. Each time they’ve done that before they’ve veered off road, found themselves someplace where they cain’t be seen. This is the first time we’ve seen footprints on the road itself.”
He turned to Ben, and took his hat off, hitting it against his thigh in a distracted manner. “There’s something else, Pa, a little ways down the track.” He kept his face lowered, avoiding his father’s eyes.
“What is it?”
Hoss shot him a glance and then turned to grab Chubb’s reins. “It’ll be better if I just show ya.”
The three men trotted along the track. Hoss stopped where the road forked with one path branching downwards through a thick forest of trees, and the other rising steeply to the top of the ridge.
“It’s just up this a-ways.” He seemed reluctant to go any farther, flicking a glance at his father before walking Chubb a short distance up the steep track. He dismounted and with a heavy step and stooping shoulders walked off the track and into the scrub.
Hoss didn’t have to indicate to them what he had found. Ben stared and then slowly stepped down from his horse. With a faltering tread he moved to where his middle son was looking at a long pile of heaped-up stones. It was a freshly dug grave.
Ben’s legs threatened to give way and within moments both Joe and Hoss were either side of him, their hands hooked around his arms to keep him upright. He shook them off gently.
“I’m alright, don’t fuss, I’m alright.”
They released their grip but stayed by his side, watching as Ben bent down to softly caress one of the stones.
“Pa,” Joe’s voice drew a slight head turn from Ben. “Pa, just because we’ve found a grave, doesn’t mean its Adam.”
“It ain’t Adam.” Hoss’s sure tones grabbed both Ben and Joe’s attentions.
“How can you be so certain?”
Hoss moved to the other end of the grave and dropped to his haunches. “Look at it, Pa. Someone took a lot of time and care with whoever is buried here. All the rocks are the same size, that’d take a lot of searchin’.”
Hoss was right. Every rock was nearly identical in size, laid with great attention and care over the body. Not the action of someone burying a kidnap victim.
“And lookee here.” He lifted a single rock which was larger than the others and placed centrally on the top. Beneath it was a powder blue pendant faced with a cameo of a young girl. “I figure this here’s a woman’s grave, maybe the woman taken the same time as Adam.”
Ben was ashamed to feel relief flooding his body. He nodded at Hoss and turned to find his youngest. Joe’s back was turned, his hands splayed across his hips and he was gazing down at the ground. Ben recognised the signs: Joe was struggling to contain his emotions. He watched as Joe picked a pebble up from the ground and threw it violently into the valley below, muttering something under his breath.
“What’s that, son?”
Joe turned and Ben looked upon a face dark with anger. “I said, they killed a woman. How could… why would…?” He looked away.
Ben reached out a hand to grip his boy’s arm but Joe was too consumed with rage to feel the comforting touch of his father. He spun around to stare over the valley again.
“Son, these men don’t care. I know it’s tough to deal with but we’ve encountered people like this before. It doesn’t make it any easier, but—”
Joe twisted back to face his father. “Pa, if they can kill a woman, what about Adam? They wouldn’t think twice about…about dealing with him if he caused trouble.”
“And what about the girl?” Hoss’s question caused Joe and Ben to look at him with stunned expressions. “The townsfolk said the woman had a child with her. What’s happened to her?”
And then all three men were moving in unison to their horses. No words needed saying. It was suddenly clear they couldn’t waste any more time. And with Hoss in the lead following the horse tracks up and over the ridge, they spurred their mounts on, the urgency in their search suddenly stronger than ever.
Adam refused to let Clara ride her own mount, despite the rifle aimed at his head. He gripped the girl’s hand tightly within his own and stood defiant, staring hard at Cordell.
“Is it really worth a bullet?” he spat.
Cordell’s eyes bored into his for several long seconds before he pulled his rifle back into his lap and with a half-smile and shake of the head, indicated with a lazy wave of his hand that Adam had won this battle.
“But if you try anything, Cartwright,” he said, as Adam boosted Clara up onto the horse he’d been assigned, “I’ll put a bullet in your back.”
Adam had his foot in the stirrup, and as he pulled himself up into the saddle, gathering the reins in his hands, he gave Cordell a sharp look. “Because that’s what you people do, isn’t it, Cordell? Shoot them in the back.” And with his top lip curled in disgust, he reined his horse around to follow Nate.
The youngster had stayed silent throughout the exchange, choosing to stay back and only moving when ordered to do so. His face was badly bruised and judging by the looks he threw at his boss, he was clearly harbouring some animosity towards Cordell. As the group moved off, he spurred himself ahead and rode as lead along the track.
Clara’s body was rigid; her muscles so tight she almost quivered in Adam’s arms. The girl was terrified of Cordell after the shooting of her mother and flinched away each time the man looked at her or rode nearby. Adam lowered his mouth to her ear. “Remember what I told you about fear.” She nodded and gradually her body began to relax.
Judging from the direction of the sun, they were travelling south which surprised Adam. Cordell had been behind him but now hurried his animal along so they were riding abreast. Adam put a comforting hand over Clara’s when he felt her shrink away.
“You’re wondering why we’ve not changed direction; why we’re not heading west.”
Adam wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of an answer and kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
“Before we head over to San Francisco, I’ve a little transaction to take care of. The matter of a ransom. You, in return for a tidy pay-out.”
“I told you my father and I are not—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Cordell’s voice was a sneer. “I know what you told me.” He looked over at Adam. “I didn’t believe you then, and I don’t believe you now.”
They rode on in silence. Adam had been determined not to ask, but he could keep quiet no longer.
“What’s your plan?” He glanced at Cordell who wore a triumphant smile on his face and met Adam’s look with one of smug satisfaction.
“We’ll be at the beautiful Lake Tahoe in a matter of hours. It’s not my first visit. I’m looking forward to seeing her again. We’ll hole up there whilst Nate here redeems himself on a visit to your Ponderosa. Once your daddy has handed over what you’re worth, we’ll be on our way to Frisco to return this young lady to her father.”
“Taking me with you?”
Cordell grinned. “You don’t expect me to let you go free, do ya? I know you, Cartwright. You’ll be a thorn in my side until one of us ends up dead. So I either take you with us, or kill ya. I haven’t decided which yet.”
They continued on until they crested a rise. There in front of them, shimmering calmly in the afternoon sun, was the alpine blue lake of Tahoe. All three men reined in simultaneously, struck dumb by the beauty before them. Even the ruthless natures of Cordell and Nate appeared bewitched.
For a moment Adam couldn’t draw air. It was a sight he had seen only in his mind’s eye for the last six years. A feeling of belonging, of being home, enveloped him, and he wondered why he had ever left. Clara was as transfixed as the rest of them and turned to look up at Adam, a rare smile on her face. Adam winked at her, but his pleasure was disrupted by Cordell.
“Quite a sight, ain’t it? I can understand why you’d want to make this place your home. Play your cards right, Cartwright, and maybe you’ll see it again.”
Adam moved his horse on, his mood darkened by Cordell’s words. But he wasn’t to escape that easily as Cordell caught up with him.
“Once we’ve found a spot to camp and sent Nate away on his little errand, maybe I’ll let you take a swim, seeing as how you like to be wet any chance you get.”
Laughing to himself, Cordell motioned for Adam to ride ahead of him. Adam could do nothing but bristle with suppressed anger. But a gentle touch on his thigh made him turn his gaze to Clara who had twisted around to look at him.
“Don’t worry, Adam, you’ll think of something. I know you will.”
His anger faded as he realised Clara had placed her faith, and her life, in his hands. He nodded. He’d think of something. Only, right now, he had no idea what.
It hadn’t been difficult to follow the tracks of a dozen horses through the forest as it angled down towards the raging river. The remuda had cut a furrow across the forest floor, churning up the pine needles and the earth beneath. Branches and saplings were broken or twisted out of shape as the beasts had rampaged past. But there were other tracks. As Ben, Hoss and Joe had left the road and entered the forest, it was clear the gang had separated, following different routes down the slope. They split up, each man choosing a different path down the hillside.
“Pa! Joe!” Hoss’s urgent call brought them back together. “I reckon Adam’s got a lead on ‘em.”
Ben looked down at the ground where Hoss was looking and frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“Because they came down every which way rather than together, and they ain’t split up like that afore. They were on foot and in a hurry.” He dismounted and picked his way over to a section of the ground near the root of a tree. “Look here, you can see where one of them slipped.” He knelt and ran his fingers over a smooth flat piece of mud in the shape of a long elongated footprint. “And there.” He pointed. “There’s a scrap of material. Looks like someone caught their shirt on that tree.” He walked over to where Ben was studying the ground with new understanding. “Back there’s where they brought the horses down. If this was the way they was intendin’ to come all along, why didn’t they all come down at the same time with the rest of the horses. Why slip and slide their way down on foot?’ He looked up at his father. “Pa, I reckon they was chasin’ someone, and seems to me the only person who would give them this much trouble is Adam.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“I don’t. But I got me a gut feelin’, and I cain’t rightly explain why, but I reckon older brother is suddenly makin’ life a whole lot harder for those kidnappers.”
Hoss’s belief was infectious. Ben looked over to Joe whose face had puckered into a grin and then back to the unblinking gaze of his middle son. He shifted in his saddle.
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go find your brother.”
Joe whooped as he turned his horse.
And feeling more hope than they had since this whole ordeal had started, the three Cartwrights grinned and resumed their path down the hillside.
As Buck picked his way carefully downwards, Ben found himself picturing Adam in flight, fleeing from the gang who had taken him, and mumbled to himself, “that’s my boy, that’s my boy.”
The river’s roar grew louder as they descended the forest slope, and when their trail came to a sudden end at the top of a cliff, they got their first look at the raging waters beneath. Dismounting, the three men inched slowly to the cliff edge and peered down. The river was a formidable caged beast, fighting to escape the narrow confines of the canyon walls, and roaring so loudly it drowned out their voices. But this wasn’t the time to admire the river’s power, so after a few moments of shaking their heads in awe, they remounted and returned to the trail. It turned ninety degrees to run parallel with the river and gradually lowered until it was level with the river’s surface. By this time it had broken free of the canyon and widened, its ferocity instantly diminishing. However, it was as the river quietened that the remuda’s trail abruptly ran out. The horses had clearly been run into the water as the bank was broken and pitted with many hoof prints.
The men looked to the opposite bank and Joe’s keen eyes instantly spotted where the horses had been driven out of the water and into a valley of undulating pasture.
They stayed in pursuit, fording the shallows and following a swathe of broken-down grass up the green valley. Through forest and up ridge they rode, across dry scrubland dotted with brush and pine, and they only stopped when necessary to water themselves and their horses.
The wilderness was true to its name. They encountered no one else as they rode, just an expanse of untamed, wild country. Only when the tracks led them to a newly abandoned miner’s shack, did they come close to any semblance of human habitation. The detritus of mining equipment lay all around, and the building showed evidence of recent occupation, but it now sat alone in a clearing, all but ready to collapse and be reclaimed by the land. Joe shrugged his shoulders as he exited the small cabin, and he and Ben waited for Hoss to stumble out of the darkness of the mine into the blinding light. He shook his head, and without a word they continued on their way.
Making camp as the moon was rising, they slept for a few well-earned hours then rose before dawn while the light was still a grey haze.
Joe was slow in mounting up, fiddling unnecessarily with an already tight cinch.
“What’s on your mind, Joe?” Ben recognised the signs in his distracted son.
Joe leaned heavily on his saddle. “What if they’ve caught up with him, Pa? He’s one man. They’re goodness knows how many with a supply of fresh horses. What if they’ve caught him, hurt him, what if—”
“Joe.” Ben’s voice was soft. “We’re all thinking it. But worrying will only slow us down.” He straightened his back. “And there might be just three of us, but I’d go up against an army to get one of you back.”
His fierce gaze stirred his boys with his unyielding determination. Joe nodded and mounted, and soon the three riders were back on the trail, moving ever closer to the big blue lake and, God willing, their errant family member.
Ben and his boys were at the trail’s end, hidden behind a thicket of canyon oak.
They had been on the move for less than an hour when the trail veered away from open terrain and into a spinney of trees and shrubs. When a large group of horses came into sudden view, Ben signalled to his boys to pull up and dismount. The horses were picketed near a tumble of boulders, but there were no men in sight.
“It’s gotta be them,” whispered Hoss, “Their tracks lead right here.”
Ben peered as best he could through the bushes, but the foliage was so thick he couldn’t see anything to tell him who the horses belonged to. He patted Hoss’s arm and indicated the direction they should take. The three men skirted the boulders—climbing up amongst them on silent feet—until they were able to look down into a camp of half a dozen men. Most of them were asleep, despite the sun having risen a couple of hours before. One large man lay on his side, his arms curled around his stomach, his blanket fallen to a heap by his legs; another was flat on his back, mouth open, snoring loudly. Ben noticed a boy propped up against a rock, his head hanging loosely on his neck, a half empty bottle of liquor clutched in his fist. Joe exchanged a look with his father who shook his head in disgust. Hoss didn’t react, though, as his attention was fixed on the other side of the camp. He nudged his father and nodded towards a tree where one of the gang was leaning against the trunk with a rifle in his hands, but fast asleep. Ben wondered he hadn’t fallen to the ground, or dropped his weapon.
He frowned. There was no sign of Adam in the camp; perhaps he was secured nearby. Ben put that thought to one side until the present business was concluded.
“This shouldn’t be too difficult,” he mouthed. He pointed at Hoss and then at the sleeping watchman. He then pointed at the remaining members of the gang and indicated he and Joe would take those.
Joe led the way, placing his feet just so to avoid making a sound. Ben followed with a stealth many would have thought a man of his years was not capable of. Hoss brought up the rear, circling around to approach the sleeping guard. Despite his size, he could move with a surprising lightness of foot.
Once in position around the camp, Ben cocked the hammer on his six-shooter and the resulting click sounded like a hushed cough amongst a church congregation.
Five men instantly moved. The sleeping watchman sprung away from the tree trunk, his eyes blinking open. His raised his rifle but Hoss was quicker. He had intentionally placed himself behind the guard, his own gun holstered. As the watchman moved, he snatched the rifle from the man’s hands and lifted it to his chest, aiming it at the guard and another man who was fumbling in his blankets for his gun. Both men’s shoulders slumped and they raised their hands in defeat.
At the same time, Ben’s steady aim had subdued two more of the men sleeping on the other side of the fire. One, a big man whose shirt seams strained to contain his muscles, had sprung onto one knee, his hand reaching for the holster hanging on his upturned saddle. Ben fired, and the man snatched back his hand, instinctively rubbing his fingers. At the sight of Ben moving out from where he had been concealed, his comrade immediately yielded, throwing his arms into the air.
Joe’s opponent was faster. He had pulled his weapon the instant Ben made his presence known, aiming towards the noise. But he hadn’t counted on Joe positioned behind a boulder out of his eye line. Joe shouted and moved out into the open, drawing the shooter’s attention. As the man raised his gun arm, Joe dived into a roll, came upright on his feet, and fired. The shooter cried out, dropped his gun, and clutched the top of his arm. Joe had soon kicked his weapon out of reach.
The sixth member of the gang, the boy, raised his head revealing bloodshot, half-closed eyes. He blinked once slowly and then gently slumped to the ground, asleep. He would cause no problems.
“Who are you, whaddya want?” said the big man with the muscles.
Ben’s gaze settled on him. “My name is Ben Cartwright. And these are my sons.” He looked at Joe who was gathering the gang’s weaponry, and nodded towards Hoss who stood, solid as a Ponderosa pine, the guard’s rifle unwavering in his grip. “Are you the leader of these men?”
The big man glanced at his companions whose eyes were fixed on the three interlopers in their camp. “I guess I am.”
He made a move to stand up but froze when Ben straightened his arm, pointing his gun directly at him. “Stay where you are.”
The man dropped back to the ground. ‘You lookin’ for your boy, Adam?”
Ben and Hoss exchanged a swift glance. “What do you know of Adam? Where is he? What have you done with him?”
Ben’s voice had grown more insistent as he spoke. The big man lifted his hands higher and then held them out in a placatory manner. “He ain’t here. He made a run for it, got away, took the girl with him.”
“The girl you took from Chia Springs?” Hoss’s voice drew the man’s gaze. “What about the woman with her?”
“If you been trailin’ us from Chia Springs then you know what happened to her.”
Hoss’s eyes darkened, his brows drawn low. Clenching his jaw, he took a step towards the big man.
“Hoss!” Ben’s voice drove Hoss to a halt. “This isn’t the time.”
The man ignored Hoss, apparently unbothered by the imminent threat. He turned his head to face Ben. “There ain’t no point getting yourselves worked up with us. None of us here done shot her. And anyhow, it was an accident. Man who did it got punished. And it weren’t our idea to take your boy. That was our boss. We just follow orders.”
Ben stared at the man. “You just follow orders. So you had nothing to do with a woman and child being kidnapped?” He shook his head in disgust. “I asked you once before, where is my son?”
The so-called leader looked at the man next to him who shrugged his shoulders and looked down to the ground.
“Couldn’t tell ya, if I wanted. We split up when your boy made a run for it. The boss followed him, and he sent the rest of us down here to wait.”
“Wait for what?”
The man’s top lip rose as he sneered. “Well, for you, of course. He’s gonna trade your boy for ransom.”
Ben’s eyes grew black, cutting deep into the man in front of him. “Ransom?”
Hoss side-stepped towards Ben, the rifle never moving from his two captives. “What we gonna do, Pa? They mighta left a note, and if we ain’t there to get it. Adam might be…they might…”
Never taking his eyes from the muscled man, Ben reached out and squeezed Hoss’s forearm then took a step closer to the gang.
“What’s your name?”
The man paused for a moment, frowning slightly. “Rance. What’s it to you?”
“I like to know who I’m addressing. You said my son got away?”
“Uh-huh. Took off when the woman got killed. My boss is followin’.”
“Then he might still be one step ahead.”
Rance sneered. “You’re talkin’ about the best tracker in the country. Your boy won’t get away from Cordell.”
“Perhaps.” Ben’s voice was distracted. “Where was the ransom to be left?”
Rance settled back against his saddle. “Cordell don’t share everything with us.”
“What about his camp?”
Rance looked down at the ground. “As I said.” His hand reached out to flick at the dirt with a fingertip.
Ben gave Hoss a look, an unspoken instruction passing between them. Hoss passed the rifle to his father and in two strides was in front of Rance, pulling the big man to his feet. They were well matched in size, but Rance was taken by surprise, his balance off and he stumbled to his knees. Hoss grabbed the man’s throat and lifted him off the ground. The tips of Rance’s boots kicked up dust as they fought for purchase.
“My Pa asked you a question, and I think you know the answer.” He shook Rance’s neck. “Now where is your boss’s camp?”
Rance’s hands gripped around Hoss’s wrists, his face becoming red from the constricted blood vessels. “I…don’t know…” he gasped.
“I don’t believe you!” Hoss’s grip pulled tighter. “Tell me where we can find it.”
Rance’s eyes were starting to bulge, his grip loosening on Hoss’s wrists. “Tahoe,” he choked. “Top of…Ta…”
“Hoss!” Ben’s voice cut through the air.
The gang had become instantly alert whilst Hoss had Rance in his grip. They had moved to their knees, ready to jump, ready to take action. But the Cartwrights presented a formidable front. Joe was eerily calm, his gun hand still and steady. Ben himself stood with his feet planted firmly on the ground, legs astride, pointing the rifle on any man who so much as twitched. And with Hoss demonstrating his incredible strength, the gang soon changed their minds about attempting a rescue of the unfortunate Rance.
Hoss released his grip and Rance toppled to the ground, his hands on his neck, gasping for air.
“We got our answer, Pa. Now let’s tie these mongrels up and get goin’.”
“Hey!” Rance’s exclamation was a throaty croak. “You can’t…” He heaved himself up onto his backside. “You can’t leave us tied up.” He coughed as his voice returned. “We ain’t done nuffin.”
Hoss was already moving to the first man and securing him with rope from his own saddle. Ben took a step forward, the rifle held firmly in both his hands, and when he spoke, his voice was a low rumble.
“You kidnapped my son. You kidnapped a woman and a child, and now that woman is dead. Don’t you dare act the innocent. You are all guilty and will pay with the law for what you have done.”
Rance and his comrades could do nothing but stare at Ben as Hoss forced their arms behind their backs and tied their hands together whilst Joe secured their ankles.
“But if you’re worried about coyotes and rattlers…” Ben’s eyes moved to the drunken boy who hadn’t moved a muscle since the three Cartwrights had walked into the camp. He was still out cold, his hand hanging on tightly to the bottle of liquor as though unwilling to relinquish it even when unconscious. “We’ll leave him untied. If he sobers up long enough, maybe he’ll be your way out of here.”
Ben turned on his heel and tossed the rifle into the bushes. With Hoss and Joe close behind, he walked away from the indignant protests of the gang, and within minutes they were riding hard for the top of the lake.
Nate thundered into camp, pulling his horse to a stop so violently the animal reared and tossed its head. He had been dispatched on his ‘little errand’ as soon as the morning’s sun had warmed the alpine air. As proof of his identity, Cordell had ordered Adam to hand over something personal and identifiable to his family. He still wore his faithful old belt with its engraved Ponderosa insignia, and it was with reluctance he handed it over to Nate. It was worn and fraying but had been a reminder of home in all the time he’d been trying to escape it.
And now, with the middle of the day approaching, Nate was back.
He jumped off his saddle and in a fit of temper threw his hat to the ground. Clara ran to where Adam was sitting and he took her hand in his, gently pulling her down beside him.
“What’s eating you?” Cordell was on his feet, sipping a mug of coffee.
“Old man Cartwright wasn’t there. None of the Cartwrights were there. Seems they’ve all gone off someplace for a few days.”
Cordell looked at what was left of his coffee and then flicked the dregs onto the ground. He let the cup dangle in his hand as he stared out over the lake. After a few moments he turned to Adam.
“Probably looking for you, huh?”
Adam knew better than to continue the lie about his father. “Yep. My pa and brothers would have known something was up the minute I didn’t arrive when I said I would.” He leaned forward. “They’re not stupid, Cordell, they’ll be tracking you. You’re not going to get away with this.”
“So you say.” Cordell turned to Nate. “Do you know where they went, how long they’ve been gone?”
“How do I know? Some crazy Chinaman met me at the door. ‘Mr. Cartwright no here, Mr. Cartwright no here’ is all I could get out of him. And when I asked when he’ll be back, he started gabbling in Chinese and shaking a cleaver at me. I only just made it out with everything still attached.” He took a step towards Adam. “And what the hell are you grinnin’ at?”
Adam raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture but couldn’t keep the smile from his face. Hop Sing. It seemed nothing had changed. What a relief to know he was still keeping things in order at the Ponderosa. It was an old trick of Hop Sing’s to switch from his broken English to fluent Cantonese and send away anyone he didn’t like the look of. Of course, they always returned and by then the family had been briefed and prepared for any unwelcome visitors. He played the fool, but only a fool would underestimate him.
“What did you do with his belt and the ransom note? It was for Ben Cartwright’s eyes only, don’t forget.”
Nate’s frowning face grew more pinched. “Whaddya think I did with it? I threw it at the Chinaman and hightailed it outta there. But what’s the point? We asked for the money to be left at the Hanging Tree at dawn tomorrow, but what if they’re not back by then? We’re wasting our time here.”
“Nate, my boy, you need to be patient. We’ll get a tidy sum for him,” he looked at Adam who shook his head and turned away.
Nate threw his arms up. “Patient? This little side business of yours is costing us valuable time. We have to be in San Francisco by the beginning of next month. How long are you prepared to wait for Old Man Cartwright to get back from his trip? I say we kill him.” He nodded towards Adam, “and get on with the business we were hired to do.”
Cordell lowered his head as he took a couple of unhurried steps towards Nate, but the speed with which his fist flew and connected with Nate’s chin was anything but slow. The youngster lay stunned on his back for a few moments before he scrambled to his feet and began to charge at Cordell. In the blink of an eye, Cordell drew his weapon and fired at Nate’s feet.
Clara jumped and hid her face against Adam’s chest as the gunshot echoed off the surrounding hills. He enfolded her tightly in his arms, ready to throw her out of the line of fire if necessary. He watched as Cordell stretched out his weapon so it was inches from Nate’s head. The boy swerved back, his arms rising to steady himself as he stumbled away from the gun, dust swirling around his boots.
“You get paid to do what I tell ya, Nate, and don’t you forget it. We stay here until I say so.” Cordell looked at Nate’s horse, which was foamy with exertion. “Now sort your animal out; that’s no way to treat your mount.”
Nate glared hard at his boss before leaning down and swiping his fallen hat off the ground. He stamped out of the camp with his horse in tow.
Adam relaxed and released his grip on Clara. He smiled. “Dissension in the ranks, Cordell.”
Cordell gave him a fierce stare but then dropped to his haunches at the fire to refill his coffee cup.
Adam looked at the man in front of him, then in the direction Nate had gone. Dissension indeed. He could use this. As he squeezed Clara’s shoulder and she lifted her head from his chest, Adam’s eyes narrowed in thought. Yes, he could use this.
With Nate tending to his horse, and out of earshot, Adam climbed to his feet. Clara grabbed his hand and when Adam looked down at her he saw a pair of fearful eyes looking back at him. He winked and squeezed her fingers before walking the few steps to where Cordell had resumed his place overlooking the lake, sipping his coffee.
“Why do you keep him with you? He seems more trouble than he’s worth, arguing, giving you lip.”
Cordell took a long look at Adam. “He’s useful to have around. His talents are, shall we say, varied.”
Adam touched the fading bruise on his temple. “He’s good with his fists, I can attest to that.”
“He’s a fast gun.”
“A little too fast, if you ask me.” Adam glanced over to where Clara was listening to the conversation. He lowered his voice. “He didn’t have to kill Johanna.”
The frown on Cordell’s face was replaced with an expression Adam had not expected. It was a look Adam had seen before. It was the same one his father wore when he didn’t think anyone was watching him. His gaze would fix on the portraits of his wives and a look of loss, of pain, of still lingering shock at the suddenness of their deaths, would steal across his face. For a brief moment, Cordell wore the same look. Adam’s mouth fell open in realisation.
“You were in love with her.”
A mask fell over Cordell’s face. He shot a brief glance at Clara then indicated to Adam to follow him. They walked a short distance from the camp, away from the girl’s hearing.
Adam pulled Cordell around to face him. “You were in love with her.”
A muscle twitched at the side of Cordell’s eye. “So what if I was? I was nothing to her.”
Adam snorted. “Nothing? You were more than nothing. She hated you.”
Cordell let a heavy breath escape him. But then he smiled. “I didn’t fall in love with the woman I met in New York. She was pleasant enough, but she was nothing more than a job. It was only after she saw through my deception that I began to…admire her. I caught up with her in Missouri, in Independence of all places, and she was like a spitting wildcat. She fought me her with her words and with her fists. Ah, Cartwright, she was feisty. And when her blood was up she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
Adam’s top lip rose in disbelief. “And yet you were going to send her back to a man she despised?”
“No!” Cordell’s shout made Adam take a step back. Cordell glared at him but then shook his head and dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, that wasn’t my plan.”
“But that’s what she believed, that’s what you told her. That’s what you told me.”
“Her old man isn’t interested in her, he just wants the girl. And I needed Johanna to get to the girl.”
Adam was speechless and could only stare as Cordell recounted his tale.
“I was careless in New York and she gave me the slip. But then she made a mistake: she underestimated me, thought I wouldn’t find her. But I wasn’t hired by her old man on account of my good looks. I’m damn good at what I do. So of course I found her. I tracked her down to Independence where she was trying to haggle a place for her and the girl on a wagon train west.” Cordell grinned. “Our first meeting was, how should I put it, heated. I’ve still got the scratches to prove it. I was going to take her back to New York, but then…” He snorted, and shook his head. “God, she was wily. I had her under guard, and she got away from me…again. I knew then I had feelings for her. She was a worthy opponent.”
Adam put his hands on his hips. “And yet—”
“And yet I was going to hand her over to the count?” His gaze was steady as he looked at Adam. “No. I decided there and then that when I caught up with her, I wouldn’t let her out of my sight again. The kid would go back to Germany but Johanna was going to stay with me.” He paused. “Nothing’s changed. The kid will still go back to her father.”
Adam’s mouth fell open. “I thought you were an intelligent man, Cordell, but you’ve just proved you’re anything but. Johanna would have done everything in her power to get away from you, to find her daughter. She’d have gone back to the man she hated if it meant being with Clara.”
Cordell took a step towards Adam, his nostrils flaring in barely controlled temper. Adam crossed his arms but stayed firmly in place.
“You think you know it all, don’t you, Cartwright? You only knew her for a few days but you think you know everything about her. She’d have gotten over it.”
Adam dropped his arms to his side. “Gotten over it? You can’t take a child away from their parent and expect them to forget that child existed. Good God, man, what were you thinking?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Adam opened his mouth to reply. In his mind’s eye he could see a small, fair-haired child flying through the air on a swing, giggling with delight as she urged him to push her higher and higher. Peggy would be about fourteen now, not much older than Clara. Adam wondered where she was. He always wondered where she was. He sighed. “No, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
He sat down heavily on a boulder. The view of the lake was as impeccable as he remembered it. Adam looked down at the transparent waters below. Every rock and every scar in the lake bed could be seen beneath the unmoving waters of the bay.
Cordell cleared his throat and moved into Adam’s vision.
“I know she hated me, Cartwright. And she probably wouldn’t stop hating me. But I’d rather have called her mine with all that spit and bile than not have her at all.”
Adam rose to his feet. “As I told you once before, Cordell, you’re a lousy judge of character.” He took a step to move past him, but Cordell was quicker. He pulled his fist back and drove it into Adam’s chin. Adam twisted and landed on his chest. He glared up at Cordell, his fingers carefully manipulating his jaw from side to side to check it wasn’t broken. He lunged upwards but Cordell had pulled his gun and Adam ploughed to a halt, staring down the gun’s barrel hovering inches from his face.
“You hit me once in Chia Springs, Cartwright. You’re not getting another chance here.”
Adam’s body was tense, frozen in a standing crouch. His lips pressed together as his chest rose and fell with every hard nasal breath he took. He glared up at Cordell who leaned in over him, his gun held at the end of a rock-steady arm. The two men were trapped in a tableau neither one could break.
But then the sound of a gunshot rang through the air. Nate’s voice carried through the bushes.
Adam and Cordell exchanged glances and ran.
Ben and his boys had reined their horses to a standstill and were standing abreast when they heard the gunshot. Hoss was taking a long-needed drink from his canteen with his head tipped back; Joe was wiping sweat from the inside of his hat. And Ben? Ben just stared straight ahead as though the power of his gaze could move the hills and rivers and valleys apart and show him where his eldest boy was.
The gunshot was nearby. Near enough for the three horses to jolt their heads up in alarm, their ears alert and erect.
“It came from the lake, Pa,” said Joe, squeezing his handkerchief back into a pocket as he looked in the direction from which the shot had sounded.
“Sounded like it came from Indigo Bay.”
No more words were said. The three riders turned their animals towards the bay and urged them on at all speed. The lake was never out of their view, flashing blue through the tree trunks as they rode through the thickly forested banks of Tahoe.
Adam and Cordell ran into the camp. It was empty. A trail of settling dust showed the direction Nate had gone. They wasted no time as they followed, their feet slipping on the sandy scree as momentum helped propel them down the slope towards the water.
The trees thinned, revealing a rocky promontory projecting out into the bay. Clara was at the end, her heels kissing the edge of the cliff as tears streamed down her cheeks. Nate was approaching her, his gun held loosely in his hand.
“You come away from the edge now, little missy. There ain’t nowhere to go.”
Adam and Cordell came to a halt. She was so close to the edge. Adam knew one false step and she’d fall. But the sight of Nate’s un-holstered gun caused a surge of anger to flood through him. He took a step forward.
“You get away from her, Nate.”
Nate swung around. “I ain’t gonna hurt her, Cartwright. That’s a whole lotta dollars standing right there.”
Clara edged back, her heel slipping a fraction over the cliff edge. Adam and Cordell threw their hands up in a bid to stop her moving.
“I’m not going back to my father. I heard what he said.” Clara looked at Cordell. “I followed you; I heard what you said.”
Adam could hear the terror in her voice. But he also heard something that sent a shiver of fear through him. He heard determination. “Clara, child, please, come away from the edge.”
“I’d rather die than be sent back to my father. My mama’s dead,” she let out a sob and a fresh flood of tears wet her cheeks. “I’ve got no one. I’d rather be dead.” Her eyes squeezed closed as she cried. A shower of loose rock unsettled by her heel skidded down the cliff face.
Adam grimaced and took a step forward. “Clara, look at me. Look at me, child.”
She blinked and her tear-stained eyes met his gaze.
“You don’t mean that, I know you don’t mean that. Your mama wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”
Clara sobbed even harder and with wet eyes looked wearily up at Adam. “I just want my mama.” She screwed her eyes shut again.
Adam refused to take his eyes from hers as he stood with his body and arm stretched out towards her, ready to run, ready to grab hold.
“Clara, you’re not alone, you know that. Child, you’ve got me.”
Clara slowly looked up and Adam nodded, letting her see the truth in his words. “You’ve got me,” he said softly. “For as long as I breathe, you’ve got me.”
She stared at him, her body shaking as she gulped tearfully for air. But then he noticed the rise and fall in her chest start to gentle. And she nodded. Adam let out a sigh of relief and smiled. He moved another step closer, holding out his hand to her and Clara began to reach out towards him.
There was a shout. “Stop where you are, Cartwright!” Adam turned to see Nate moving towards him before halting a few steps away. The youngster twisted to look at Cordell.
“It’s a trick. You remember what happened when Cartwright and the girl jumped in the river last time. They got away from us.”
Adam sneered. “Don’t be a fool. Look at the water, there’s no current to take us anywhere. How would we escape you, huh?”
Cordell’s eyebrows rose. “He’s right, Nate.”
Nate glared at Cordell, anger flashing in his eyes, but Cordell ignored him. He was still holding the gun he’d pulled on Adam earlier. He looked down at the weapon lying in the palm of his hand, studying it closely.
“But I don’t think I’m gonna take any chances.” He pointed the gun at Adam. “Move away from the girl, Cartwright.”
There was a jubilant laugh from Nate who also raised his gun. Adam gave him a look of disgust, which he then bestowed on Cordell, who merely pulled back the hammer on his weapon.
“Don’t think you’re not expendable, Cartwright. I can just as easily return a corpse to your daddy, and still get paid for it.”
Adam looked around him. He took in the cornflower blue sky, the pines and rabbitbrush which cloaked the lake edges. And when he glanced to his side he could see the serene waters of the lake. He was home.
If he was to die today, at least he’d die in the land he loved.
Ben pulled up sharply when he rode into a camp, Hoss and Joe close behind. The fire was lit, a steaming coffee pot sat in the ashes to one side; there were upturned saddles, a pile of canteens, blankets and tinware with the remains of a recent meal. But there was no sign of the occupants, bar several horses hobbled a short distance away. They dismounted with weapons in hand. Ben stood in the centre of the camp looking around him as Hoss and Joe picked up and dropped random items to see if they could identify whose camp they were in.
“Pa!” Ben turned to see Joe holding a long strip of yellow material. “Too fancy for a cowpuncher. Must be the girl’s.”
Just then Ben cocked his head to one side, putting out a hand to silence his boys. The sound of arguing could be heard coming from below them. Leaving their horses they headed down towards the voices.
Adam took a step. But not towards Cordell. He moved in front of Clara, his hand reaching out behind him to pull her tight to his back.
“I know I won’t have done her any good if you decide to shoot me dead right now. But at least I’ll die knowing I did everything I could to protect her from you.”
Adam could feel Clara’s trembling body against his. He stretched his hand out behind him and felt her fingers entwine in his. He squeezed them tight.
Cordell straightened his arm, aiming his weapon directly at Adam’s head. Adam held his breath and raised his chin. He refused to look away; Cordell wouldn’t be let off so easily. He could feel his heart clattering in his chest as the gun pointed unwavering at his forehead. But then Cordell let his arm swing down, and he laughed.
“I can’t kill you, Cartwright. You keep getting under my feet, but, heck, I just can’t kill ya.”
Nate’s head swung around to face Cordell. “Whaddya doing? Kill him!”
“Shut up, Nate!”
“I won’t shut up. If you won’t do it, then I will.”
Before Adam had even taken a breath, Nate straightened out his arm, thumbed back his gun’s hammer, and fired.
In the time it took for the bullet to leave the barrel and hit Adam, a thousand thoughts raced through his mind. They weren’t coherent, being nothing more than instincts and impulses. They told him he had no time to shout out, to warn Clara; that he couldn’t dive out of the way else Clara would be in the firing line; that he had to stay where he was and take the hit. Death had stalked him before and now it was back, ready to claim the one who had escaped him on so many previous occasions.
He must have moved though, else Nate was a bad shot. The bullet tore into his shoulder, pushing him backwards with the force.
As he fell to the ground, burning pain radiating from his shoulder across his back, he heard a scream, and more shooting. He lay there winded, panting to control the pain and clutching his arm, expecting more bullets to tear into his body. But none were forthcoming.
The scream had come from Clara. Gritting his teeth, he rolled onto his side and looked all around him, but there was no sign of her. He could see Nate on the ground, unmoving, his gun a dead weight in his hand. And Cordell was just sitting there, looking down at a red patch expanding in the centre of his chest.
The sound of splashing drew his gaze to the water. One of his feet was dangling over the edge. He pulled it in and looked down. Clara had fallen into the still waters of the lake which were a whirl of white as she slapped frantically at the surface, struggling to keep her head above water.
He had to get down there. He had to save her!
Still clutching his arm, Adam struggled onto his knees. His head suddenly felt as heavy as a cannonball, but his own discomfort was of no mind. He found his feet for a moment before his legs gave out beneath him. But then strong arms were supporting him, helping him back down to the ground. Adam looked up in surprise and grew even more astonished when he looked into the dark eyes of his father.
“Pa, where did…” He couldn’t believe who he was looking at. How come his father was here, right now? And Joe was supporting his other arm. Joe. His little brother. With grey hair! He blinked and his hand unconsciously reached up towards Joe’s curls.
Joe grinned. “It’s good to see you, brother.”
Adam’s distraction didn’t last long. He shook his head. “Pa, Clara, the girl, she’s fallen.”
“It’s alright, son.”
“No, no, it’s not, she can’t swim.”
His father looked at him in that familiar reassuring way he used to when Adam was a boy and having a nightmare.
“Everything’ll be okay, Adam, Hoss has gone in after her. You remember what a strong swimmer he is.”
Adam looked over Joe’s shoulder. His middle brother’s hat, vest and gun belt were abandoned on the edge of the cliff. With his father and Joe supporting him on either side, he looked down into the waters below. There was no sign of Clara but Hoss was in the lake, twisting on the spot as he scanned the surface for the lost girl. He dived, resurfaced, dived again.
The lake was usually so clear, but two bodies piercing the surface had disrupted the calm waters and all Adam could see were clouds of billowing bubbles.
‘Where is she?” Adam didn’t realise he was talking out loud. He leaned over further, ignoring the pain searing across his back and down his arm.
“Careful, son.” He heard his father say and the grip on his good arm tightened.
Adam’s eyes raked over the water but there was no sign of her. “Please God, let her be okay.”
Hoss dived under. He was larger than Adam remembered, rounder in the face, but he’d always been the strongest swimmer of the three, and his bigger size appeared to be no barrier to his skill in the water. Hoss’s head broke the surface and he flicked the water from his eyes.
Adam leaned over again, feeling firm grips on both sides holding him in place. “Where is she, Hoss?” he shouted.
Hoss called up. “I’ll find her, Adam, don’t you worry none.” And he dived again.
Adam waited. He could sense his father and Joe were watching with him, all three staring down into the aqua waters, all three holding their breaths, all three waiting.
Hoss’d find her. Adam put all his trust and belief into his middle brother. Hoss would find her, and she’d be none the worse for her dip in the lake, and they’d go back to the Ponderosa, and…
Hoss had been down a long time. Too long. No one could breathe underwater for that amount of time.
But Hoss was strong. He had always been the strongest…
Anytime now. Anytime now they’d break the surface.
But nobody erupted upwards, creating a cascade of fresh waves and stirred-up water. It was the opposite. The churned-up waters calmed. The bubbles burst and the cloudy haze faded to transparency.
Adam couldn’t take his eyes from the lake, searching constantly for a trace of the twelve-year old girl and his brother. But there was nothing but stillness. Nothing but the sound of silence.
He sat back heavily and with a shaky head turned to look at his father. Ben’s gaze was fixed on the lake, his mouth open. His face was haggard, pale, and Adam wondered with a stab to his heart whether his father had regained a son at the expense of another.
“Oh my boy! Adam!”
Ben Cartwright’s first sighting of his eldest son in six years was of him falling to the ground having been shot at close quarters. Aghast at what he was seeing, Ben had come to a sudden stop at the edge of the promontory, watching a horrifying scene play out before him. For within seconds of Adam falling to the ground, a young girl who had been hiding behind him toppled off the edge of the cliff, letting out a petrified cry as she fell. And as she disappeared from view, the remaining two participants turned on each other and shot each other down.
Ben’s feet refused to move. But the sight of his injured son attempting to stand—and so close to the edge of the cliff—prompted him into a run. He ignored the two downed men, leaving them to Joe to check and kick their weapons out of reach. He and Hoss sprinted towards Adam, and as they ran Ben pointed to the lake. “See to the girl,” he shouted. Hoss veered away to the cliff edge with one eye on the water and the other on his fallen brother. “Go!” urged Ben.
Ben reached Adam in time to save him from crumpling to the ground, allowing Adam’s legs to fold beneath him as he supported him down. And then Adam looked up at him and his expression changed from bewilderment to disbelief, his eyes widening as he realised just who had come to his aid.
Ben closed his eyes, rejoicing at the feel of the strong body within his arms. He looked to the sky above and sent a prayer of thanks upwards. He’d got his boy back. Yes, he was injured, but he was here, now. It wasn’t the reunion he had envisioned, but Ben didn’t care. The family were together again for the first time in six years.
But then Adam grew distracted, his attention turning to the girl who floundered in the water below. As Adam edged too close to the cliff—concern for the girl making him ignore his own safety—Ben held onto him tightly and took the opportunity to check the wound in Adam’s shoulder. There wasn’t a hole in the back of his vest, so Ben prized the leather away to see. There was no blood, no exit wound; the bullet was still in his shoulder. Ben sighed. A painful medical procedure awaited his boy.
Ben looked down at the lake. He could see no sign of the girl, or Hoss. The water was in turmoil so Hoss must have dived below the surface. Ben held his breath, and when his chest began to feel tight he released it with a gasp. But Hoss still hadn’t come up for air. He shifted forward, his grip firm on Adam’s arm. No one could hold their breath that long, surely. Not even Hoss. Where was he? Where was his big gentle bear of a son? His mouth fell open as his head twitched from side to side, his eyes never leaving the stirred-up waters.
The lake settled.
Ben sat back on his heels. He felt faint. Limp.
Hoss was gone.
His dear boy. His sweet, loving boy.
What had just happened?
Hoss could handle himself in the water. Joe would joke that Hoss was like the sea lions they saw in San Francisco Bay: a little lumbering on land, but get him in the water and he was as graceful as a swan. It simply wasn’t possible that Hoss could be gone. Not like this. He’d been there, beside him, only minutes before.
Ben’s heart broke.
The burning sensation turning Adam’s arm numb was inconsequential. The ever-present pain fading as the realisation hit that both Hoss and Clara had drowned in the lake.
His father was breathing heavily beside him, his eyes flickering as he fought to focus, to understand, to comprehend what had just happened.
This was his fault. He had pushed Clara behind him. Why, why, did he do such a damn fool thing as that? He should have pulled her away from the edge but no, he had to play the hero. And Hoss had gone in to sort out his mess. And his beloved brother had paid the price.
“Pa, I’m sorry, I…” his words trailed away as Ben’s eyes caught his, but they were unfocused, unseeing, and he looked away distracted. Adam turned to Joe and opened his mouth to speak, but Joe couldn’t look at him. He stood and walked away, his back stiff and his head lowered.
Did they blame him? Adam didn’t know. But he knew one thing. He blamed himself. If he hadn’t got caught up in this mess, if he had stayed out of it back in Chia Springs, Hoss would be alive today. Clara would be… Adam screwed his eyes closed to stop the tears that were building.
There was a shout.
Three heads rocked up. There it was again, coming from below. Joe threw a quick frown at his father and Adam, ran back to the cliff edge and dropped to the ground. He leaned out over the precipice as far as gravity would safely allow and shouted down to the water. A voice shouted back: a loud prolonged ‘Hey’ which was recognisably Hoss.
“Haha!” cried Joe, his face lit with a wide grin as he turned to look at Ben and Adam. “That’s my brother, alright, I can hear him but I can’t see him.” He leaned out again. “Hey Hoss!”
Ben left Adam’s side, shuffling forward on all fours to look down the cliff face. Adam stayed where he was, the bullet in his shoulder suddenly making its presence known to him. He let his good arm take his weight and closed his eyes in relief and pain. He raised his head as Hoss’s voice carried upwards.
“Hey, did you fellas know there’s a cave down here? It ain’t high but it goes back a long way.”
Ben ignored the question. “Son, are you alright? We thought you were…we thought…” Adam saw him pull his chin into his chest, the words remaining unspoken on his tongue.
“Oh hey, I’m fine. Wet. But fine.”
“Clara…” Adam choked her name out before summoning the strength to raise his voice. “Clara, Hoss. What about Clara?”
“She’ll be fine. Oh, and it’s good to hear your voice, Adam.” There was a pause. Adam heard the emotion in his brother’s words. Of course, Hoss would have seen Adam shot and stumbling at the edge of the cliff, but he wouldn’t have known how seriously, or not, Adam had been injured. Adam opened his mouth to reply but no words would come. Hoss shouted up again.
“She’s a plucky li’l thing. I was flappin’ around in the water lookin’ for her, and she’d found her own way to the cave and hauled herself out. But, er, it’s gonna take a bit of persuadin’ to get her back in the water, so y’all jest hold on and I’ll get her up to you as soon as I’ve worked my charms on her.”
Joe jumped to his feet, the smile having never left his face.
“I’ll come down to the shoreline, see if I can help.”
He trotted past, then stopped and turned. “It’s good to see you, Adam, real good. Only, next time you go away for six years, could you return with a little less drama? My hair’s grey enough as it is.”
And he was gone, running over the promontory and down to the shoreline with all the boyish energy and exuberance that never seemed to leave him. Adam gave a half smile and looked up with pain-creased eyes at his now standing father. Ben took the hint and dropped to his heels next to him.
“Okay, let’s take a look at that wound.”
As Ben started to pull the vest off Adam’s shoulder, Adam let out a snort. “Less drama, he said. That’s funny coming from Little Joe.”
“Indeed. Your brother has more than made up for your absence with his injuries, adventures, and poor Hoss being roped into more than one. This will hurt, son.” Adam grimaced, sweat breaking out on his forehead and his hand clamping onto his thigh as Ben carefully peeled the shirt away from Adam’s wound.
“You’ve lost weight.”
Adam said nothing.
“Suits you.” Ben cocked his head to one side. “In fact, if it wasn’t for this bullet, which is well and truly lodged inside you, by the way, and the bruise on your face, I’d say you’ve never looked better.”
He started to look around him. “I need a strip of material for a sling.” Raising his eyebrows he looked at Adam. “I would use the sleeve of my shirt but it‘s a brand new one. I bought it in honour of your return.” There was a moment of silence and then he laughed. Adam managed a smile.
“It’s okay, Pa. I can wait until we’re back at the camp. There are things you can use up there.”
Ben patted his son’s leg. “Let’s get you up.” He moved next to Adam who wrapped his good arm around his father’s neck, ready to be hauled upright. But before Adam let Ben take his weight, he paused and looked into his father’s eyes. “It’s good to be home, Pa.” He squeezed his father’s shoulder. “Real good.”
Ben slipped an arm around Adam’s waist. “And it’s good to have you back, son, despite your being slightly the worse for wear.”
With a groan Adam rose to his feet. It was then he noticed Cordell for the first time since he’d been shot.
“Pa, he’s still alive.”
Cordell hadn’t moved. He sat slumped on the ground with his knees splayed out and his ankles crossed. His eyes were closed but his chest was rising and falling as sharp shallow breaths escaped him. Adam moved towards him on unsteady legs with Ben by his side.
“Help me down, Pa.”
Adam sat on his knees next to Cordell and with Ben’s help moved the dying man on to his back. Cordell’s eyes opened and his lips twitched into a smile. Adam pulled back Cordell’s shirt and winced at the sight of the gunshot wound on his chest.
“Nate got the better of you.”
Cordell moved his head an inch and looked at the dead body of his former number two.
“More like…I got the better of him.” He looked away, his eyes falling shut.
Adam‘s gaze wandered to Nate sprawled in the dirt and back to Cordell.
“Why’d you do it? Why kill Nate?”
Cordell struggled to open his eyes. But when he did, he looked up at Adam, and a half smile lifted the side of his mouth.
“He was gonna kill ya. I didn’t want him to.”
“I like ya, Cartwright. You’re a pain in the butt…a real pain in the…” He coughed then raised his hand weakly. Adam grasped it. “That little girl looks up to you…you take care of her…”
Adam was surprised by the sudden power in Cordell’s grip. With what was left of his strength the dying man lifted his head and shoulders off the ground, his eyes fixed on Adam’s. “I really did love her, ya know.”
And with a long exhalation of air, Cordell died.
Adam dropped his head. He had done everything in his power to escape from this man. Cordell had been ruthless, cruel and single-minded to the exclusion of all that was fair and good. But Adam couldn’t help but feel an unexpected sadness at his death. He unfurled his fingers from Cordell’s and laid the still warm limb over the dead man’s chest.
Two hands patted his waist and, with a little help, he took his father’s hint to move away.
Ben cocked his head. “What was he to you, Adam?”
Adam looked down at Cordell’s body. “He was my kidnapper. But I think he saw me as a friend. I’ve got a feeling I have a lot to be thankful to him for.”
Ben nodded. “And did you consider him a friend?”
There was a pause as Adam looked down at the man who had caused him so much trouble. But then there was the sound of movement and Hoss calling out as he stomped onto the promontory, Clara snug in his arms. Joe brought up the rear, a broad smile on his face.
Clara begged to be put down, and after Hoss had lowered her to the ground she ran to Adam who dropped to one knee with a grunt. She flung her arms around him, dropping her head over his shoulder. Somehow she managed to avoid his wound, and Adam curled his good arm around her back squeezing her tightly.
“Oh, Adam, I thought you were dead,” she cried. “You fell down. I thought Nate had killed you.”
Adam patted her back. “Do you remember what I told you, all those days ago, when you were struggling to put one foot in front of the other? I said I’d stay by your side all the way.” He pulled back to look up at her and she raised her eyes to meet his. “All the way. And I never break a promise.”
Her eyes glistened from a swelling of unshed tears and with a shy smile she gently lowered her head over his shoulder again, her arms tight around his neck. He kissed her hair and rested his head against hers, and then felt something he hadn’t felt in many years. He felt needed. It wasn’t the need his father had of him as a right-hand man; or the need his brothers once had for his ability to help them out of a tight spot. No, he felt needed, as a father was needed.
Now, with his family around him and the threat to Clara’s immediate safety lying dead, Adam let his own need show. He held her tight, his eyes closed, and was astonished by the flood of paternal feelings that enveloped him.
He patted her back. “Come on,” he said. She lifted her head and he smoothed his palm over her hair, pushing the damp straggly strands off her face. “Let’s go home.”
And taking her hand, they began the trek back to camp.
Five Weeks Later
Clara sat comfortably on the young mare and directed the horse with ease around the Ponderosa’s corral. Joe stood in the centre, keeping face-on to the girl as she rode in a wide circle around him. He called out orders to walk, lope, canter and Clara obeyed, directing the horse’s gait as commanded. Her un-braided hair flew out behind her as she rode.
Each time she neared the barn, she would call out, “Hoss, watch!” And Hoss would look up from where he was pummelling a white-hot metal bar with a hammer, thrust it into a nearby fire, and return an encouraging word as she rode by.
But when she rode towards Adam, who was resting a forearm on the top rail of the corral, she would straighten her back even further, adopt a look of intense concentration and perform whatever manoeuvre Joe asked of her without a fault. Adam would smile, raise a hand and pretend he had not noticed the look of pleasure his response evoked as she rode away.
Adam became aware of a presence beside him. There was no need to look to know it was his father. A slight wobble of the fence told Adam that Ben had rested his weight over the top rail and was also watching Clara at her riding lesson.
Clara had almost completed another circuit when the barn cat—once known as nothing more than ‘the cat’ and now renamed Brush by Clara on account of his large, fox-like tail—bounced up from where he had been stalking a prey by the fence and darted into the corral. The normally placid mare threw back her head and reared a short way off the ground, dancing in panic at the sudden movement. Clara closed her knees tightly around the horse’s flanks and pulled back on the reins and within a few moments the animal was under control.
Joe had begun to run towards the spooked mare but halted at the sight of Clara bringing the animal to a stop, and running her hand over the horse’s neck in long gentling strokes.
“Hey Adam,” he called out. “She’s a natural. Didn’t need my help at all.”
With a large grin on her face, Clara rode towards where Adam and Ben were standing. “Did you see, Adam? I didn’t fall, I settled her down by myself, I didn’t need any help.”
Adam smiled up at her. “You did great, Clara.”
She turned the mare and resumed her course within the fence line.
Ben shook his head. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that wasn’t the same girl who came here five weeks ago.”
Adam’s face dimpled. “She’s doing remarkably well considering it’s not long since she lost her mother, and had to watch it happen.” His eyes followed her. “She still wakes up in the night, though, crying for Johanna.”
Adam threw his father a glance.
Ben smiled sadly. “It’ll take time, son.”
Adam shifted his weight away from the fence, and Ben couldn’t help notice the wince as he did so, and the careful way he lowered his arm to his side.
“How’s your shoulder today? Is the pain any better?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Pa, you’ve asked me that same question every day for the last week.”
“Well, I told you you’d taken your sling off too soon, but you didn’t listen.”
A slow smile formed on Adam’s face. “I guess some things don’t change, huh, Pa?”
Ben placed a warm hand on his son’s good shoulder. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He turned back to watch Clara. “But you should have followed doctor’s orders and kept that sling on.”
The doctor had had to dig deep for the bullet in Adam’s shoulder, but mercifully Adam had been knocked out with a healthy dose of ether. He came to lying on a mountain of pillows, feeling sick to his stomach and with a deep throbbing pain in his shoulder from the assault by the doctor’s probes. After he’d had several hours of sleep, Ben allowed a freshly bathed Clara—wearing one of Joe’s shirts and a pair of pants which were far too big for her—to visit. She knelt on the floor by his bed and put her hand over his.
“Please, Adam, not you too. Please don’t…” And that’s all she managed before tears welled up and a sob escaped her.
Adam was too dozy with sleeping powder to respond with more than a faint and fading, “I’m not going anywhere,” before his eyes closed and he started to drift away. The last thing he was aware of was a soft touch on his face as Clara laid a gentle kiss on his cheek.
At the start, Clara rarely left his side. She insisted on taking all his meals up to his room, not letting anyone else carry his tray. She sat with him as he slept, and read to him when he was awake. Other visitors were tolerated but quickly shooed out, much to their amusement. And it was only when Ben made her eat a meal at table, or when it was her bedtime, did other members of the family have a chance to talk at length with their newly returned relative. That Clara didn’t trust anyone but Adam was clear to all. He tried to explain to her that she could count on his father and brothers through thick and thin—hadn’t she put her faith in Hoss when he had rescued her from the lake?—but his words fell on deaf ears. She let them feed her, tell her when to go to bed and when to bathe, but she didn’t trust them with her heart.
After a few days of bed rest Adam insisted on getting up, despite his father’s protestations. He placated Ben’s worries with the promise he wouldn’t go farther than the porch. But when Clara began to spend less time with him, and calling from the sofa didn’t bring her hurrying to his side, Adam ventured out beyond the confines of the house. He found her in the barn, where she had been spending more and more time talking to and petting the horses, or trying to make the barn cat play with her. Adam suspected that by fussing over him whilst he was injured, and now directing her attention on her new animal friends, she could avoid thinking about her mother; her grief was held at bay. She had cried on numerous occasions when they were alone in the wilderness, but here, surrounded by new people, she was locking her grief deep inside where no one could witness her pain.
The day Adam threw off his sling—literally; the despised piece of material was tugged loose and tossed unceremoniously into one of his drawers—he took Clara on a drive to his favourite spot on the Ponderosa. He hadn’t been there in six years and as he pulled the buggy’s team to a stop and climbed down from the rig, he felt a sense of overwhelming love for the land he had not seen in so long. He placed his hand on Clara’s back, gently leading her to a rocky outcrop where they sat on the hot stone and looked out over a view that his father once said approached heaven itself. A carpet of pines filled the slope beneath them, all the way to the lakeshore. A circle of low mountains stretched out on either side. No words were spoken, the panorama was too magnificent to describe.
Adam looked down at his young charge whose expression, though filled with awe, held a sadness in the cast of her eyes and the set of her mouth. He withdrew from a vest pocket Johanna’s powder-blue pendant. Hoss had ridden out several days previously to retrieve it from her mother’s grave. She took it from his hand, turning it over and over in her fingers, her face a mask as she studied the item her mother had worn everyday of her adult life. But then she braved a look at Adam and he couldn’t keep the pity from his eyes. Clara burst into tears and with Adam’s comforting arms around her, she cried long wailing sobs into his chest. She cried herself to sleep with her head on his lap and when it was time to go, Adam cursed his still tender shoulder that he didn’t have the strength to carry her to the rig.
On their way back to the Ponderosa, Adam told her how Hoss had travelled all those miles back to where her mother had been laid to rest, just to retrieve the pendant for Clara. He had camped overnight near her grave and planted a wooden cross at the head with her name inscribed across it. “He did that for my mama?” Clara had softly asked. “But he didn’t even know her.” And Adam had smiled and put his arm around her, drawing her close to him as they rattled down the road towards home. “He did it for you,” he replied.
Hoss was working on one of the window frames which had become warped in the previous winter’s temperatures as they pulled into the yard. Clara walked up to him and, to his amazement, she reached up to kiss him on the cheek. She then looked down at the pendant in her hand and turned to enter the house. Hoss’s cheeks had bunched as he grinned his gap-toothed smile at his brother and with a touch of blush to his cheeks, he resumed his work on the frame.
After that day, Clara gradually came out of her shell. And when Adam suggested Joe teach her to ride, she jumped at the opportunity. The sound of a child’s laughter once more sounded around the Ponderosa. She spent every moment Joe could spare in the corral and when Joe was tied up elsewhere, this duty fell to Adam or his father. They would lead the horse with Clara sitting straight in the saddle and her confidence grew every moment of every day.
She spent the first couple of weeks in the clothes she had been given on her arrival. Joe’s pants only stayed up with the help of a pair of braces and a belt, and they had to be turned up many times at the ankle. Her shirt was a baggy affair with the sleeves rolled up and the front tails knotted together. With her hair tied back in a ponytail she looked like a tomboy. Once Adam was up and about, he insisted on taking the buckboard into Virginia City to buy her some suitable clothing. Accompanied by his father, it didn’t take long before the return of a long-absent Adam Cartwright, with a young girl in tow, set tongues wagging and the gossip-mongers had the juiciest subject they’d had to enjoy in a long while. Is this why Adam Cartwright left? To claim a daughter from an illicit affair? Did he get married and this was his step-daughter? So where was the wife? The child couldn’t be yet another Cartwright stray, surely, that was way too dull.
And now, five weeks after Adam had returned home with a child whom the Virginia City gossipers would be disappointed to learn was a stray, Clara stood taller, her eyes shining as bright as the gloss that had come to her white-blonde hair. She had even filled out a little with help from Hop Sing who loved nothing more than feeding the ‘little Missy’ all his favourite meals. Truth be told, Hoss was starting to fill out a little more, too, as Joe endlessly teased him.
Adam ignored his father’s comment about his sling and turned back to the corral. “Time to call it a day, Clara.”
Clara stayed on her course. “Oh, Adam, just a little longer.”
Adam hung his head.
“Yeah, Adam, don’t be a spoilsport.”
Adam looked up to see Joe’s lips pursed in amusement. He still couldn’t believe how different his little brother looked now. The grey mop of hair, the larger frame. If Adam didn’t know better, he’d say he was a different person to the slight boy he’d left behind.
“Okay, one more turn and then take Holly to the barn for a rub down. And then it’ll be your turn for a scrub down before dinner.” His raised eyebrows and slightly cocked head had the desired effect. Clara seldom refused anything Adam asked of her.
Ben grinned. “You’re a natural, Adam, you know that.”
Adam’s eyes followed Clara as she circled the corral. “She’s a good kid; she makes it easy for me.”
Ben frowned. “Don’t put your abilities down, Adam. She responds to you because you know how to talk to children; how to talk to her. You treat her with kindness, respect. And you listen.” He chuckled and leaned his back against the fence. “I learned the hard way, with you, that listening to what you were saying, what you were really saying, was the most important thing I could do. You wanted me to hear you.”
“And you did, Pa. Even when I didn’t want to open up.”
“It became a lot harder when you were grown.”
Adam dropped his head. “I told you I was sorry, Pa, about the last year, before I left.”
Ben twisted to face him. “I know, son, and I’m not criticising.”
It had been a long and difficult conversation. The two men had sat up late into the night, long after the rest of the house had turned in, and Adam had confessed to his father why he had left: how the Laura affair had rocked the foundations of his life, making him believe he would only find what he wanted if he left the secure boundaries of the Ponderosa and branched out on his own. How he felt he would always be second fiddle if he stayed. He shamefully apologised for his behaviour that year, admitting he had intentionally caused friction so his departure would be easier for everyone. But he was unable to look at his father when he admitted he had been a fool to not share his concerns with him.
“Just more of that damn Adam Cartwright pride, I guess. Don’t admit to what’s hurting, else you’ll look like a weak fool.” And he had looked up into the anxious eyes of his father. “But better a weak fool than someone who runs away from their problems.”
His father had lent forward and rested a hand on his knee. “But it takes a strong man to face up to his past mistakes.” And Adam knew then he was forgiven, and that he had made the right decision to come home.
Ben watched Clara approach the end of her final lap, bringing the mare to a stop by the barn doors.
“You’ll make a good father, son.”
“Doesn’t look like I’ll get the chance to find out.”
Ben looked from Clara to Adam.
“A child doesn’t have to be one’s own flesh and blood for a man to be a father…or grandfather…to her.”
Adam leaned back against the fence, staring at his boot as he kicked his heel into the dusty earth. “I know.” He paused. “I’ve grown very fond of her.”
“Fond?” Ben’s tone was one of disbelief.
Adam flicked his father a look. “Okay, more than fond. I…” Adam looked up to see his father’s head cocked, breath held. “Look, I’m more than fond, okay?”
Ben smiled and drew in closer to his son.
“That child already heeds your words as though you were her father. So what’s stopping you?”
Adam sighed and kicked at the ground once more. “Pa, she’s a twelve-year old girl, for goodness sake. What do I know about raising a twelve-year old girl?”
Ben angled his head so he had Adam’s attention.
“Adam, being a father is not something you instantly know how to be once your child is placed in your arms; it’s learned through hard knocks and experience. It’s learned through doing it. Yes, things won’t be easy for you, especially with a girl of her age and all that will soon entail. But in the last few weeks alone you’ve shown more paternal instinct and wisdom than a lot of fathers show in a lifetime. You can do this, son.”
Adam met his father’s dark intense gaze.
“She needs a woman in her life, to help with…” Adam shrugged, “…womanly things.”
“What that child needs is you.”
“But, what? Are you saying you’d rather pack her off to a home somewhere, an orphanage where who knows what will become of her?”
Adam winced. “No, of course not, but…”
“Adam, we can give her a life here. No, we don’t have a woman around the house to help her, but she’ll have us, all of us, you, me, Hoss, Little Joe. We’ll face each obstacle as it comes.” Ben’s voice softened. “I’ve lived with three women, son; I think I can remember a bit of what’s required.”
Adam’s smile was rueful. He didn’t respond.
“But there’s something else troubling you?”
Adam turned to his father.
“It’s not only a question of me being a father to her.” He bowed his head. “Pa, we’re gonna have to leave.”
Ben’s face dropped. “What do you mean, leave? You’ve just come home. You went through hell and high water to get here, in some cases literally.”
“I know that.” Adam snapped. “And believe me, I don’t want to go. But Pa, Clara’s not safe here. Her father is obviously rich. He paid for a team of men to track his wife and child down for nearly a year. If he can do that, then he’s not going to give up. He’ll send someone else. All they have to do is find one of Cordell’s gang, hear the name Cartwright, and…”
His words trailed off as he looked to his father.
Ben recalled the day after the incident at the lake. Joe and Hoss, along with Deputy Clem Foster and a small posse, had ridden out to where they had left Cordell’s gang. The young drunk was gone, along with the entire remuda, but the gang were still tied up and hadn’t moved from where they had been left the previous day. They were in a sorry state: hungry, cold and angry at their treatment at the hands of the Cartwrights and, ‘that traitor, Corky Wood’, who had left them without a by-your-leave at the first opportunity. Their plight was not to improve though. For after a few days spent in the cells of the Virginia City sheriff’s office, they were charged with aiding and abetting in a kidnapping and incarcerated in the Nevada Penitentiary.
“But Adam, where would you go?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know. All I know is staying here puts Clara and everyone else in danger. I have to take Clara to somewhere no one will find us. We’ll change our names, stay hidden, until her father is no longer a threat.”
The expression on Ben’s face changed to one Adam had seen many times before. It was the face he wore when he wouldn’t take no for an answer; when his back straightened and he seemed to grow several inches in height and a finger rose to point in Adam’s face.
“And when will that be? Adam, you’ve spent six years traipsing all over the country doing goodness knows what. I can’t just let you walk away again.”
Adam pushed away from the fence and whirled to face his father. “Pa, this isn’t about me, can’t you see that?”
Ben took a step closer to his son. “No, you’re right. It’s about that little girl over there who’s just lost her mother and has spent the last year running from one place to the next. She needs a firm ground beneath her feet, not to be constantly on the move.”
Adam dropped his head, his hands rising to his hips.
“Son, if you run, if you take Clara and leave, then you’ll spend your whole life looking over your shoulder, not trusting a soul. The stranger who stops at your door asking for help, the new family in town, the school-teacher, I don’t know.” Ben paused, shaking his head. “And when a few years go by and you let your guard down and something happens. What then? We won’t be there to help you.”
Adam looked away. His face was a mass of contradicting emotions. “Pa, I’ve…” He took a breath. “I’ve never felt this way before. It’s as though my one reason for living is to protect her. Nothing else is important anymore. All I want to do is keep her safe.” He looked up at Ben with pleading eyes. “But, Pa, I don’t know how to do it.”
A firm hand gripped his shoulder. “Welcome to fatherhood, son. The most wonderful, painful, fulfilling thing you’ll ever do. And you’ve jumped in head first.”
There was the sound of the barn door banging and then Clara raced past them on her way to the house.
“Slow down!” hollered Adam. “You’re a young lady, remember.”
Clara ground to a halt, spun around to grin at Adam, and then turning back walked as fast as she could into the house.
The two men’s eyes met and they both shook their heads, smiling.
“Son,” Ben’s smile faded. “Stay. You said yourself Clara’s father will stop at nothing to get her back, and if that is so then he’ll find you, no matter how hard you try to hide. Here you have me, you have your brothers, and together we can take on anything. We’ve done it before, and no doubt we’ll do it again.” He angled his head to catch Adam’s eye. “Do you really want to go?”
Adam flicked his head towards the comfortable old ranch house and a smile dimpled the side of his face. “No.”
“Then we’re agreed. You’ll stay?”
Adam looked down at the ground, and slotted his hands into his rear pockets. After a moment he met his father’s eyes. “We’re agreed.”
He didn’t show it but relief flooded through Ben. He slapped Adam’s back, and began to steer him across the yard.
It had been six long years without his oldest son, and Ben wasn’t going to let him go without a fight. He knew exactly what Adam was feeling. He had felt it himself every day since the doctor had placed Elizabeth’s squalling newborn into his arms. And it didn’t matter how big they got, the need to protect, to keep them safe and close, never went away. Adam was home and Ben could sleep easier at night. But for Adam, with a child he had grown to love, the sleepless nights were about to begin. The unseen spectre of the child’s father would linger over their lives until it was settled once and for all, whenever that might be. But together they were stronger and they could face, square on, anything that was thrown at them.
As Adam walked across the yard in that familiar slow and steady gait Ben had missed so much, he paused and smiled. And throwing a glance of thanks upwards, he rejoiced. His family was complete once more.
The Ponderosa, Nev.,
Aug. 12, 1871.
The Count Friedrich von Falkeberg
Sir,— It is with regret I write to inform you of the death of your wife. Johanna, Countess von Falkeberg, was killed while trying to escape from the men hired at your behest to track down both her and your daughter. Such was your wife’s dread of turning custody of your daughter over to you that she spent the last year running from her pursuers. I was privileged to know her in the final days of her life. I found her to be a loving and protective mother, whose sole reason for living was to provide happiness and security for her daughter. She died a courageous death, and I was proud to have known her for the short time that I did.
The men hired by your New York agent to find your wife are also dead or incarcerated, having failed in their mission to return your daughter to you.
With regards to Clara, I can report that despite the ordeal your hired men subjected her to, she is safe and well and in my care.
Sir, I have grown to love your daughter as though she was my own, and I am happy to impart that my feelings for her are reciprocated. My greatest wish is to legally adopt her, and as a first step towards this goal, I have become her guardian ad interim. To this end, I beseech you to give up your claim on the daughter that you have not seen in over ten years. The child has no wish to return to a father she does not know and to a land that she no longer recognises as her own.
I fear, however, that my plea will be dismissed, and so, understand this. If you want your daughter back, then you and you alone must come to Nevada and claim her. Do not send proxies or bounty hunters. I will not hide her from you. I will not evade any future search. Clara will reside with me on the Ponderosa ranch, near Virginia City in the state of Nevada. I will feed her, educate her, and be a father to her. Do not think I am interested in your money or your title. It is Clara I am invested in. I love your daughter as though she were my own flesh and blood.
I recognize that legally I may have no claim over her, but know this. I will fight for her until there is no fight left in me, or until one of us is dead.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Protector II – The Solitaire’s Song (by Sierra Girl)
- Shepherds (by Sierra Girl)
- Sunrise (by Sierra Girl)
- The Friendship Game (by Sierra Girl)
- The Gingerbread Man (by Sierra Girl)