Summary: This is a blast from the past. This tale was on BonanzaWorld back in 2009, and appeared in The Best of BonanzaWorld book, but it hasn’t been posted anywhere else, ever. A follow-up to Death at Dawn, this story focuses on what happens to a man of action (the guy who does what needs to be done) once the action is over.
Word Count: 9435
For Love and Honor
“Walk faster, damn you!” Sam Bryant said under his breath, yanking the rope that bound Ben Cartwright’s hands behind him.
“I’m not a calf to be branded,” Ben replied quietly, making no attempt to pick up his pace. “And if you wanted me to be in better shape for my return, you shouldn’t have had your thugs pound me so hard.”
Bryant ignored him, intent on the crowd ahead, but Ben smiled, feeling sweat on the hand that held his arm as Bryant called out, “Listen to me—all of you! Look! I brought Ben Cartwright back! I didn’t do nothin’! And…an’ you done right, hangin’ Farmer Perkins!” Hastily, he began to untie the knots, and Ben felt the man’s fear in the way his hands fumbled uncertainly with the rope. Ben suppressed the smile he felt…everything would be all right now, of that he was sure. There was a crowd in front of the jail, but he had eyes only for three men—his sons.
Things happened fast then—dimly Ben recognized that wild-eyed kid McNeill, pushing through the crowd with a rifle, shouting something about how Bryant had let them all down, had let the Farmer down, and then the kid was shooting. It was more weakness and the suddenness of Bryant’s letting go than Ben’s own common sense, but whatever it was he found himself lying in the middle of the street with bullets whizzing over his head as McNeill took his indignation out on Bryant. Then there was a hail of gunfire in return, and he realized it was his three boys, all with deadly accuracy pouring lead into McNeill with such force that the kid was knocked from one part of the porch to another, landing on the ground already dead. Ben glanced back, the movement hurting his rope-burned neck and taxing his back where the men had kicked him, but he had to be sure. Sam Bryant would terrorize Virginia City no more; he was dead.
When Ben managed to turn his head back, all three of his sons were with him. Joe, murmuring, “Papa!” like a child, and Hoss, with tears in his eyes, were pulling him to his feet; Adam circled Hoss and came up from behind almost timidly, reaching his hand out—but drew back as if burned as soon as he touched his father’s jacket.
Ben cast a brief, puzzled glance at Adam. He felt a little crazy and dizzy and elated all at the same time as Joe asked if he was all right. “Yeah, I’m all right,” he said with a grin. “I’m fine…you know something?”
“What?” Hoss asked, and as he turned Ben vaguely noticed Adam’s hand, still in mid-air, almost touching him but a world away.
“You boys look awful good to me,” Ben said, his voice catching involuntarily.
“Dear God, let’s get out of here—let’s go home,” Joe muttered fiercely.
They headed down the street together toward the stable to pick up their wagon. Out of the blue, there was a dragging stumble and Adam disappeared. They stopped in surprise and turned to see him on his knees on the ground. Hoss reached over to help him up, but Adam avoided his touch. “I tripped,” he muttered angrily, managing to get up alone, and he looked at them all as if defying anyone to disagree, even though there was nothing in the street for him to trip over.
“No lollygagging, son,” Ben tried to joke. “We need to get home.”
“No,” Adam replied, his voice hoarse but still commanding. “Pa, you need to see Dr. Martin first.”
“I don’t, Adam,” Ben replied. “I told you, I’m fine. And I really want to go home.”
“You’re not. There’s dried blood on you and you have some bad rope burns on your wrists and…” his voice trailed off.
“Your neck,” Hoss whispered. “Pa, he was really gonna do it, wasn’t he?”
“No,” Ben said evenly. “He was just trying to bully me. None of this matters. I can’t wait to get home.”
“He was braggin’,” Joe said suddenly. “That kid was braggin’ before about how they beat you when they caught you. You might have something busted inside, Pa. We need to go to the doctor’s. Adam’s right…again.”
“He always is,” Hoss agreed with a sad kind of smile, and he looked at Adam, but Adam refused to meet his eyes, and stepped away from them.
Ben had a strange feeling that there was more being said than what he was hearing, but he let it go and allowed them—Joe and Hoss—to tug him over to the doctor’s office.
Adam went over to fetch the doc out of the crowd still gathered, all talking and whistling and making ooh’s and ahh’s over the shot group in McNeill’s body; they set up a cheer as Adam approached. He ignored them and grabbed Paul Martin by the arm. “Can you examine my father; make sure it’s all right for him to come home?”
“Of course,” the doctor replied, and they crossed the street together. “You’re a very popular man in town this morning, Adam—in fact I think the whole Cartwright family is pretty popular today.”
“Sure—until next week. Then we’ll be those damned high-falootin’ Cartwrights again, the ones who ‘own the town’ and need a good butt whippin’,” Adam replied bitterly. “Paul, take good care of him; I’m goin’ over to the livery for the wagon and our horses. Back in a little while.”
Funny; after the events just transpired, Paul Martin wouldn’t have thought Adam would let his father out of his sight. But practicality was always good, he told himself as he mounted the steps to his examining room. By the time the wagon was brought around, he was done. Ben had some tender spots in the places Paul prodded, but with a little rest and lots of good nursing—never a shortage of good care when a Cartwright was injured—he’d be all right. Based on the assurances of all three that Ben would be quiet and careful, he’d given Ben a mostly clean bill of health. Of course, that had been a certainty from the time he saw Ben’s face. There was a man who wanted to go home.
They all helped Ben back outside afterward, somehow managing to make it look as if they were not helping at all, and found the wagon, Sport and Cochise. Only 24 hours ago the four had come into town, Adam and Joe riding, Ben and Hoss in the wagon, ready to pick up supplies and quaff a few brews before heading home again. Funny, it seemed a lifetime ago.
Paul looked at Adam, who had just walked up from a nearby alley. “You need a lookover as well, son?” he asked kindly, and realized immediately that he’d made a mistake. It didn’t take a doctor to recognize the white face and wet, red-rimmed eyes of a man who’d just puked his insides out, and now he’d drawn everyone’s attention to it. Adam sent him a loaded glare and turned wordlessly to his horse.
It took two bounces before Adam managed to pull himself into the saddle. Ben and Hoss were already in the wagon; Joe swung easily aboard Cochise. Paul sighed as he watched them depart. Someday, he’d have to see if, among the updated medical classes being offered, there was anything for “being tactful.”
It was a quiet ride. Weak and tired, Ben still tried to make conversation about how the spring runoff was affecting their low pasture, but all he got from Hoss was “Pa, you need to save your strength. You heard Doc Martin; you need to rest.”
Joe and Adam were completely silent. A couple of times Adam muttered something about needing to check Sport’s shoes, and pulled up, insisting that the others go ahead. Ben could only wonder what was going on, but Hoss quietly overrode his arguments about leaving Adam behind, murmuring that Sport was a fast horse and Adam would have no problem catching up. But as he said it, he looked over at Joe’s grim face, and shook his head.
Only once before had they ever seen Adam look like this: right after the bullet he’d intended for a wolf had hit Little Joe instead. Oh, he’d stayed calm enough—except for threatening the life of that extortionist Dowd, perhaps, but that was understandable. A couple of days afterwards, though, when Joe was awake and moving about, when Pa was home to take over and things were looking up again, Adam had started disappearing for hours at a time, and when he was around he was white-faced and sick looking, not to mention bad-tempered and non-communicative. Then they’d found a note in shaky writing on the kitchen table, with some nonsense about fence repair. He’d been gone four days then, and Hoss had wondered if he was really heading back East to civilization. But on the fifth day Adam had returned, with not a word said to anyone of where he’d been, what he’d been doing, or why. Even Pa’s taking him aside for a talk had not brought forth any information. Right now Pa was dizzy and sleepy, not noticing the signals, but Hoss and Joe could see them, and while Joe didn’t know what they meant, Hoss was reading them as easily as Adam would read off a quote of Thoreau.
“Take Pa inside and put him to bed…get Hop Sing to give him some beef broth.” Adam took the reins of the nearest horse on the buckboard, holding them up close to the bit. “I’ll take care of the horses and supplies. Don’t wait supper for me.”
“I don’t need beef broth; I’m no invalid,” Ben protested. “And you need help with all that.”
“Just once, Pa, will you not give me an argument when I’m trying to get things done?” Adam shouted, and all three Cartwrights looked at him as if he were a stranger.
And maybe I am, Adam thought. “Pa, please,” he continued a little more softly before Ben could explode back at him, “I’ve got a little too much energy right now. I couldn’t sit down if I tried. I just want to work it off—and you promised Paul you’d be quiet, remember?” The pleading worked where the explosion had not. Hoss and Pa disappeared inside. Joe appeared at Adam’s side though, and holding his hat nervously in his hands, he said, “Adam, I’m not askin’ for me. If you’re mad at me I understand. But don’t—”
Adam walked away, and began to unload the wagon. Joe tossed his hat to the ground and began, wordlessly, to help. When the wagon was empty and the horses unharnessed, Joe took them for water, and Adam began un-tacking the saddle horses. Joe came to his side as he led Cochise into his stall. “I’ll take him. You always rub his hair the wrong direction. Kinda like me and you, Adam, we’re always rubbin’ each other the wrong way.”
Adam turned away without replying and took Sport by the reins, only to find Joe by his side again. “Adam…look, I was wrong before. I swear to you, I just didn’t—couldn’t—understand the thinking you were doin’. And I still think you could’ve guessed wrong…and I don’t know if I could’ve lived with that.” With that, he returned to Cochise, never hearing Adam’s whispered, “I know.” Joe finished currying and feeding his horse, and finally, Adam was left alone.
It didn’t take long to take care of Sport. But his saddle he had put to one side, and now he led out a black mare and replaced the saddle on her.
Hoss walked in while he was tightening the cinch. “Don’t,” he said quietly but urgently. “Please.”
“I just need to think for a while, that’s all,” Adam replied. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Easy for you to say,” Hoss returned. “What are we gonna tell Pa? You know he’ll want the whole story of what happened while he was gone. I’ll face up to it, Adam; I know I was wrong. But you got no call to run away when he wants answers.”
“No,” Adam said, turning to look up at his brother. “He’ll sleep for a long time, anyway. Besides, the beauty of Pa is that no matter what he’s thinkin’, he won’t ask until he thinks we’re ready to talk. I can’t talk about this right now, Hoss. I don’t know if I ever can. Feel like I got a grizzly bear on my chest…”
“Because me and Joe let you down? We tried to tell you—”
There was a world of hurt in those summer-sky blue eyes. Adam shook his head forlornly, wishing he could put a hand on his brother’s shoulder, but right now it was hard enough just to saddle a horse. He was pretty sure he’d break in pieces if he tried to touch Hoss. “Can you really ask that? Do you think I blame you? No, Hoss. Never. I just…I just can’t think straight right now. I have to get out of here.”
“And do what? Where will you go? What’ll you do that’s gonna get all this out of your head? If you know, then please tell the rest of us, ‘cause we’d like to go there too.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go hunting. Or fishing. Or just ride till I run out of road. I don’t know, dammit! I just…I can’t stay here right now. How can I look him in the eye without seeing those burns on his neck and knowing I put them there?”
Without waiting for an answer he translated his raw nerves into action and jumped into the saddle. Surprised, and sensing his tension, the mare shook her head and plunged straight ahead.
“Adam!” Hoss cried, to no avail. Adam slapped the mare’s flanks with the reins, and she tore off, leaving Hoss in the dusty barn trying to breathe…and formulate some believable excuse that would satisfy his father.
It was a routine Thursday night at Bella’s; the piano was tinkling tinnily in the background, and the specialty of the house—nothing more than rotgut with a fancy label on the bottle—was flowing freely despite the especially sparse population of the house on this night.
One of the main customers was a good-looking stranger who had grabbed a corner table early that day. After beating the living daylights out of a couple of young punks who had come in determined to get both booze and girls without paying, he had anchored himself at that table and slowly but steadily been poisoning himself ever since. He had no interest in any of the card games, and less than no interest in any of the painted ladies roving the place and trying to catch his eye. His one true love seemed to be Bella—the name of the “specialty liquor” (as well as the name of the house).
Liz knew with that special intuition common to her profession that the stranger wasn’t after a roll—of dice or a turn of any other kind—one of the hermit types, she would have thought. But she couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing there. This little one-horse town had grown up around a swing station for the stage line, but few people ever came in and stayed. Now and then a miner passed through, or a few cowboys looking for a fancy lady to spend some time with. But this fellow wasn’t a stage passenger. He wasn’t a miner, either, though he seemed richer than one. He was dressed like a cowboy or even a gunslinger, wearing black from head to foot and carrying a Colt low on his hip but covering it all with a yellow barn jacket that seemed to say “no, really, I’m harmless.” He had ridden into town that morning slowly and deliberately; she’d gotten up to pull her shade down so she could sleep a couple more hours when she saw him. He’d headed right into Bella’s, and one of the day girls told her he’d planted himself purposely in that dark corner and looked daggers at anyone who came near him without a refill for his glass.
It was 9 p.m. and while nobody minded the fellow drinking the night away there—he paid cash after all—there were better and more lucrative ways to pass the time, especially when the cowboy was halfway decent looking and free with his gold. Liz grabbed a full bottle of Bella’s and ambled over to the stranger.
“Looks like your glass just plumb stays low,” she said quietly. “It’s cheaper by the bottle, and it’ll do the job faster.”
The cowboy looked at her through glassy hazel eyes. “Don’ wanna get drunk,” he slurred. “’s why I am slinking it drolly.”
“You hold it very well,” she said with a straight face. “I’m Liz. What’s your name?”
That was funny, the way his face changed when she told him her name. She wondered if his wife’s name was Liz, too. But there was another quick change when she asked for his. He thought sullenly for a minute, and finally mumbled, “Stoddard.”
“Guess so.” He refilled his glass and looked up, surprised to see her still there. Something like manners possessed him then, and he nodded toward the bottle. “You wanna drink?”
“Just happens I do,” she smiled. “Even happen to have a glass with me.” She sat down with him. “Gonna be in town long?”
No reply. She tried again. “Funny you picked this town to pass through. People like to say Bella’s is right next door to nothing.”
He snorted and looked around, seeming suddenly to realize where he was. He looked back at her, pushing his hat back to reveal a high forehead and black, wavy hair.
“Can we go somewhere ’n’…talk?” he asked.
If it had been anyone else she would have acted coy. But there was something about those eyes—even bleary and drunk—that commanded honesty. “Five dollars a throw.” Hardly Virginia City prices, but then this wasn’t Virginia City.
“How about for a whole night?” he asked, pushing his hat back to expose a high forehead and black wavy hair.
She’d never had anyone for a whole night, but managed not to look surprised. “Twenty.”
“Okay. ’s yer room clean?”
“For twenty dollars, it will be,” she replied, grabbing another girl by the arm as she passed by. “Change the sheets, okay?” Annie shrugged and kept going. Liz mustered her best smile for the prospective customer.
Even better than a card game.
Ben had nodded off over the beef broth they had tried to feed him, and had not awakened since. Although he was resting quietly enough now, eventually he’d wake up and then they would have to explain Adam’s absence—whereupon both boys knew all hell would break loose.
“We gotta go after him,” Joe announced.
Hoss had his forehead wrinkled in worry. “I know it. But there’s no point in doin’ it now. You saw him; he was ready to fall apart. I doubt he got ten miles before he made camp.”
“Then we can catch him at his camp.”
“And do what? Make him more outta sorts than he already is?” Hoss sighed explosively. “We’ll wait’ll morning. You know how things are, Joe; everything always looks better come morning. He may even come back on his own.”
“You don’t believe that any more’n I do,” Little Joe retorted.
It took the combined efforts of Liz and Annie to pull “Stoddard” up to number three. He managed to sway to the only chair in the room, and sighing, poured himself into it. Liz shut the door and went over to him, aiming to pull off his boots.
“Don’t,” he said quietly when she touched him.
“Look,” she replied, “I know you cowboys always wanna die with your boots on, but you gotta sleep sometime.”
“I don’…I don’t wanna sleep,” Stoddard proclaimed.
“Me neither, cowboy, not for a while yet,” said Liz with a grin. “But we have to get your clothes off first.”
“No, you don’ get it…I wanna tell you a story.”
Oh dear Lord, she thought, not another “I wanna tell you a story.” Those guys invariably spent half the time whining and crying and the other half puking, usually on the bed.
“You ever been to Vir—Virzhin—Virgina Szitty?”
At Bella’s, the rule of the house was that the customer was always right. This guy was paying for the booze, so she smoothly glossed over his pronunciation and said, “Once. Thought it would be a big fancy place like my home in San Francisco, but all it was, was overpriced.”
“Yeah…you ever hear any news from there?”
“Not since Sam Bryant took over the town a couple months back. He likes people to come into town but doesn’t seem too keen on givin’ em back. Are you one of his pals?”
“Not by a long shot. So you didn’t hear about him dyin’, or his shindy…cindy…sinnacut getting’ shut down.”
“Lord, no, Mr. Stoddard!” Hey, she thought, maybe this would be a decent story after all.
“Ever hear of the Carrots…Carrits…Carrytes?”
It took a minute. “Oh, yes, the Cartwrights. Sure, who hasn’t? They make up a lot of the entertainment we get out here, or at least they did until news stopped coming out of Virginia City. Ben Cartwright, he owns half the country around Virginia City. Hacked it out of the wilderness. Adam, the oldest—the brains of the outfit, the one who holds everything together. Hoss—right up there with Goliath from the Bible, only nicer, and a little bit shy. Little Joe. The romantic one. Kisses every girl he sees and fights every man. Only there’s a rumor he got his initiation here just a couple years ago, and—”
“They are friends of mine,” Stoddard intoned gravely. “These are real people, lady, not legends, so get all that pigswill outta your head. Two of them walked in on one of Brant…Bryant’s…men, killin’ another fellow. Th’ guy got arrested and sennanced—sentenced—to hangin’.”
“Hah. Bryant wouldn’t let that happen.”
“Well, thass what I’m trine to tell you about. Lady, you talk too much.”
Gee, Bella’s rules made life difficult sometimes. “Sorry, Mr. Stoddard, I won’t interrupt again.”
“So the sherf…” he paused, went cross-eyed for a minute, and finally continued, “SHERIFF…deputized all four of the Carrots. Nobody else would help. They’re all scared of Brant. But the Carrots did it. Only then Pa…uhm, Pa Carrot, thass what they call him, he…he went to walk the judge to the stage. An’ he din’t come back cuz Brant’s men got ’im.” He peered closely at her. “You keepin’ up with me? You’re not sayin’ nothin’.”
“I’m following your story, Mr. Stoddard. You mean Ben Cartwright, is that it?”
Stoddard gave an exaggerated nod. “Yeah. Him.”
“Was he killed?”
“I’m comin’ to that!” he replied sharply. “So Brant’s—Bryant’s—men got ’im and kicked the sh…shtuffing…outta him and took him and hid him somewhere. And my friends, they din’t know whereta look. An’ Bryant sent a note to the sherff that he had Ben Carrot and was gonna hang him if they hanged Parmer Ferkins…” He went cross-eyed again and squinted, finally shutting his eyes and trying again, very slowly. “Farmer…Perkins.”
“Farmer Perkins?” she leaned forward, a gleam of genuine interest in her eye. “That sorry, no good—I’m sorry, Mr. Stoddard, but I know that man, he’s been here before and he should be hanged ten times over. Did you see my roommate Annie, the one who helped bring you up here? What he did to her alone was worth a hanging. Shame your friends had to let him go.”
“Who said they…lemgo?” Stoddard replied blearily, focusing on her again but with difficulty. “Anybody else would’ve let him go. Anybody normal. But not Ad’m Carrot.”
“Adam…if he says he’ll do something, you can bank on it. You know him very well?”
“I know him VERY well. Donchu listen to rumors. He’s an ass.”
The loathing in his voice made her sit up straight. “I thought the Cartwrights were friends of yours.”
“Not that Carro-CARTwright,” he said fuzzily. “Not him. You know what happened out there? He said he could read Sam Bra—Bryant’s—mind. Said Bryant was only bluffin’. His own brothers told him he was crazy. But he was acting sherff—sheriff. He went out in public and told everybody that he was gonna hang Perkins, and if Bryant wanted to hang Old Man Cartwright, it was just fine with him. Only thing, he said—if you hang Ben Cartwright the next hangin’ will be YOU, Mr. Bryant. Lord, can you imagine…if he and Bryant had both followed through, half of Virginia City would be strung up from the rafters by now.”
“You lost me, Mr. Stoddard. Who didn’t follow through? And what happened?”
“Cartwright’s own brothers told him he was wrong,” Stoddard repeated, his head in his hands. “They said he was power drunk on accoun’ of the badge. Said he was gambling with their pa’s life. He never even denied it. He just said this was how it was gonna be. And come the dawn, he marched Perkins out to the gallows and hung him like a slab of bacon in a smokehouse.”
She knew she wasn’t supposed to say anything, so she managed not to say “Good!” aloud. But the way he looked at her, he seemed to know she was thinking it.
“Sure, he d’served to die,” he mumbled, wiping his eyes and nose on his sleeve before putting his head back in his hands. “But did Pa?—I mean, Ben?”
“Of course not, but—did he die? You said ‘if they both followed through’ as if they didn’t. But Adam did. So did Bryant also follow through, or not?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he insisted with the absolute moral conviction always exhibited by the very intoxicated during an argument. “What kind of son—what kind of son puts his father’s life up against anybody else’s, much less a no-count like Perkins? Even if he didn’t like the old man, shouldn’ he have been a better son than that?”
“You’re sayin’ Adam didn’t like his father?”
“No, dammit! I’m sayin’ Adam Cartwright is a conceited, self-centered jackass. He’s always so sure he’s right. Gets a notion in his head and will risk anything rather than back down from it. Pa could’ve just as easily died right then and there. You should’ve seen the marks on him…you should’ve seen—a neckerchief can only hide so much.” His voice faded to a whisper and he looked out the window with wet, sightless eyes. “It was my fault. He damn near died, and it was my fault.”
“But Ben Cartwright didn’t die,” Liz said softly. “He didn’t, did he? Bryant backed down, went to jail and was hanged himself. Right?”
“Wrong. Ben Cartwright didn’t die, no thanks to his darlin’ eldest boy. Bryant did back down, and one of his own men got mad about it and shot him down. So then Joe, Hoss and I shot him. Joe had killed one of them the night before, so that made four of the main members of the, um, synnacut—syndicate—down for good. The others started leaving town, and fast. And of course right now bein’ a Cartwright in Virginia City is enough to buy your weight in steak ’n’ beer…but that’s only right now. Next week, there’ll be another, more popular flavor again.”
Liz sat very still, not too surprised about Sam Bryant, but the growing realization that she was talking to Adam Cartwright himself had crystallized. And, having talked his head off for the past two hours, he seemed to be starting to come out of his alcoholic stupor as well.
“So that’s why you’re not in Virginia City,” she said. “Can’t abide the honor. You don’t feel worthy of it.”
“Nor th’ h’pocrisy,” he replied evenly. “Sticks to your boots worse’n what you pick up in a pasture.”
“But why are you so angry at yourself? It sounds to me like things worked out well for all the decent people. Taking Bryant’s power and hanging Perkins will make some of the best news ever to come out of Virginia City. And your father didn’t die…I mean, your friend’s father didn’t die.”
“Sheesh,” he muttered. “You lie worse’n I do.”
“All right—Mr. Cartwright. Back to the point here. Everybody else in Virginia City is celebrating. Why aren’t you?”
“Because I gambled with my own father’s life!” he shouted. “Isn’t that obvious?”
“Not really, no. Even if your father had died, it would’ve been Bryant that did it, not you. And for what it’s worth, I think you’re probably right about Bryant. He was a bully, and if you’d given in to him he likely would have killed your pa anyway. But standing up to him and showing him he couldn’t scare you, I think you saved your father’s life.”
He looked hard at her, and had opened his mouth to reply when she reached up and put her finger to his lips. “I listened to you. Now you listen to me—gentlemen don’t interrupt.”
He raised an eyebrow and then bowed his head exaggeratedly, with a bit of a smirk.
“We’re taught when we’re little that we’re supposed to lay down our lives for our friends. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes,” he replied grimly. “That is what we’re taught—but that’s not reality.”
“Maybe, but it’s a principle your father lives by, right?”
“So, seems to me like he would’ve been glad to lay his life down for a whole town full of people, if it would actually stop the killings and all. Your father’s that kind of man. Tell me, was he mad at you when it was over?”
“Don’t know. Couldn’t look at him without seein’ those red marks on his neck. Ever look at somebody an’ no matter how hard you try, you just can’t look away from one part? I couldn’t see my own Pa without seein’ his neck instead of his face. An’ I knew I was the reason he had those inzzurrs…INJURIES. It was easier…not to look at all. So…I left.”
“Hmph.” She thought a minute. “What about your brothers—are they still mad?”
“I…don’t think so. But they don’t know why they’re not mad; they just know Pa’s alive.”
“Well, suppose things had played out different, Mr. Cartwright. Suppose you let Farmer Perkins go, and Bryant gave back your Pa. What would’ve happened then?”
The question brought about almost instant sobriety. “My father would never have spoken to me again, that’s certain. I would’ve let him down, him and his cursed principles….”
“Forget him for a minute.”
“As if I ever could,” he said with a smile.
“What about Bryant and Perkins? What would they have done?”
Adam shrugged. “They would’ve gone on as before. Human life in Virginia City would be worth less than dirt. When men like that are uncontrolled, they’ll go as far as they think they can, and then further still.”
“So you saved the town, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Then it sounds to me like your story had a happy ending, Mr. Cartwright, and I honestly don’t know what you’re bustin’ a gut about now. If your father’s safe, the guilty parties were taken care of, and nobody’s mad at you, why on earth are you 40 miles from home, right next door to nothing, and sittin’ up at midnight with a second-rate—”
“No.” Adam Cartwright looked at the floor. “Liz, you’ve been a real first-rate lady about this whole thing. Thanks for listening—I just wanted someone to talk to. Someone who didn’t know me. Who didn’t already have expectations; who could help me get the grizzly bear off my chest. I wish you had been that person; I had no idea the stories came out this far.”
“Mr. Cartwright, I came here from California. The Cartwrights are known even there. So I don’t think you’ll find somebody around here who’s never heard of you.”
“Well, since you seem…to know all about me, then you ought to know I can’t live up to my own publicity. Nobody could. I can’t talk to my brothers about it. They think I’m nothing but a walking abacus.”
“I don’t know what those things are, abacuses. They don’t sound very good.”
“Oh, they’re great, if you want a job done. They’re just functional summing machines, that’s all. And that’s all my brothers think I am. Now do you see why I can’t talk to them? And Pa…oh, he’ll say I did exactly what he would’ve done, but I know better. I just wanted someone who would listen—and be honest. And…I think you did listen, and you were honest, and I appreciate that. Thank you.”
“And how’d you happen to pick me to talk to, and not Annie or Gemma or Florrie? Did you think I was the prettiest?”
He chuckled as a deep red blush suffused him, from the tips of his ears right down to his throat. “No. And don’t get insulted…I picked you because you look a little bit like a picture of my mother—and you also have her name. She died when I was born, and I always used to pretend she was listening, whenever I needed someone to talk to. Only today, it wasn’t working, so when I stopped in here, it didn’t take long to figure I’d be bending your ear for a while, soon as I got up my nerve to do it. And, it’ll also tell you why I’m not gonna partake of your charms. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Well, I’m a bit disappointed I reckon,” she shrugged, with a demure smile. “But only ’cause I’m gettin’ off pretty light for the money you put up.”
“Worth it…” he mumbled, and wiped a dirty hand across his face. “Boy, I could sure use a bath and a shave right now…” And with that, the last 48 hours caught up with him and he slowly slid down the chair to land on the floor.
Liz quickly checked his pulse. Normal as anything. The guy was sound asleep.
Liz tried to drag him to her bed, but he was too heavy. Sighing, she called Annie, and with some difficulty they managed to remove his boots and get him on the bed.
“Now what do we do with him?” Annie asked.
“I dunno,” Liz replied. “I guess he can stay here.”
“Well, Liz, you may like him, but come daylight, it’s my time and I want him gone. That’s where we sleep, in case you forgot.”
“True, but I thought you might make an exception this time.” She pointed to down. “You’re lookin’ at your redeemer, girl. That’s the man who hung Farmer Perkins.”
“I’m tellin’ you, I got it right from his lips. He was actin’ sheriff in Virginia City the last two days, and yesterday mornin’ he hung Perkins by his very own self.”
“My shoulder still pains me, and that scar on my stomach ain’t ever gonna go away. Damn that Farmer, I hope Satan’s makin’ him stick his pecker in boiling oil this very minute.” Annie looked appraisingly at the limp, dirty figure on the bed. “And this fella sent him to his reward, huh?”
“He did. Annie, that’s Adam Cartwright.”
“I don’t care who he is, if he took the Farmer outta this world, he’s a friend of mine.”
Liz and Annie ended up taking the rest of the night off. They slept on the floor, but then since they had both slept in worse places, and under worse circumstances, it wasn’t too bad.
“Blast it all, I don’t want any more beef broth!” Ben Cartwright shouted. “I am fine, and I want bacon and eggs just like any normal person.”
“Pa, you ain’t even been home 24 hours,” Hoss pleaded. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I’ve been saying ever since yesterday that I feel fine, and I do.”
“You’ve been asleep most of the time, Pa,” Joe said. “How do you even know how you feel? You ain’t been awake long enough to know anything.”
“You might as well ask how a horse knows how it feels.” Against the appalled looks of his sons, Ben placed his feet tentatively on the floor and stood up. “There. I’m not dizzy, I’m not sick. All I’ve got is some bumps and bruises, and they’ll heal on their own.”
He put on his robe carefully. “Where’s Adam? I’m surprised I haven’t seen him fussing over me all night like you two, but thank goodness he at least seems to understand I mean what I say.”
Neither son responded, looking in different directions but away from him.
“All right,” Ben said, in dangerously quiet tones, “where is he?”
“There was a cow calvin’—”
“He had to fix a fence—”
Hoss and Joe stopped as their words overlapped, and looked at each other.
In town, it was said that Ben Cartwright’s glare could set fire to a haystack at forty feet. It was that look that Hoss and Joe now faced. “Perhaps the two of you would like to hold a meeting first to come up with a SINGLE lie that doesn’t contradict another one!”
“He left last night, Pa, right after we got home,” Joe said. “He never even came in the house.”
“We don’t know, exactly,” Hoss replied softly.
“He was mad at me.” Joe shook his head. “I gave him a pretty hard time after Bryant grabbed you, Pa.”
“No more’n I did,” Hoss added. “But he said before he left that he wasn’t mad at neither of us. Pa, he was mad at himself. I think it shook him up pretty bad, seein’ what happened to you and thinkin’ about what could’ve happened.”
“Balderdash,” Ben replied. “Has anybody even looked for him?” The words were spoken as he headed to his bureau for a shirt.
“I sent a hand into Virginia City and one to Carson City last night, but they didn’t find anything,” Hoss replied. “I didn’t much expect ’em to.”
“Well, there’s only four directions to pick from,” Joe retorted impatiently. “And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t go to either Virginia City or Carson. Too much…what’s that word he uses, ‘adulation.’”
“Yeah, but there’s a real dearth of places besides them two.”
“I know.” Joe scratched his head.
“He mentioned hunting or fishing…” Hoss suggested.
“But we’re pretty sure he didn’t do that either,” Joe stated. “So we were gonna go look for him as soon as we got you situated, Pa.”
“Me, situated?” Ben bellowed. “Situate yourselves! I’m not going to be treated like a five-year-old here.” By now he had his trousers and socks on as well, and had reached for his boots.
“Pa, please, we’ll find him,” Hoss promised. “Just let us go. We gotta settle things between us anyway.”
Ben took a deep breath. “I don’t know what happened among you three while I was gone, and I don’t much care. What I care about is right now. Right now, Adam is gone, and you two look like you couldn’t find an elephant in a bathtub if it was wearing a pink nightgown and a couple of cowbells! Get the horses saddled—that means Buck, too—and be ready to leave in five minutes. We are going to find my son and bring him home.”
“He’s our brother, too,” Joe muttered, turning on his heel and stamping out. And Ben smiled.
“He took Pepper Nell,” Hoss announced as they headed to the barn. “She was the only second stringer put up when we came in.”
“Well, at least she’s got feet the size of buckets,” Joe nodded. “Shouldn’t be that hard to track.”
“Wait a minute.” A look of revelation came to Hoss. “He said maybe he’d ride till he ran out of road…”
“Bella’s,” they said in unison.
“He wouldn’t dare,” Ben retorted.
Hoss shook his head. “Everybody who wants to ride till they run out of road goes to Bella’s.”
“Yup,” Joe seconded. “Pa, it’s the place that’s right next door to nothing.”
Adam Cartwright woke up just before noon, with a bit of a hangover, but still ravenously hungry and dying for a bath. There was no restaurant in this hole; Bella’s place served as restaurant, hotel, and bath house, so he was on his own. But the ladies had a large tub in their room, and since they were already awake, he asked for some hot water and a razor while he got a change of clothes from his saddlebags. Annie, who had introduced herself quite warmly for reasons unknown to him, promised she would shave him herself. Liz, thankfully, ushered her downstairs to help get some breakfast together while he bathed. He didn’t feel that all was right with the world just yet, but maybe it would come over time. Of course, he’d have to see Pa first, not something he was looking forward to. He should never have left without at least talking to him first; he knew that now. But they would have that talk, and however bad things were on this side of it, he was pretty sure things would—one way or another—be better after. And he’d never seen anything so bad that a little bit of singing wouldn’t help…
And so it was that when Ben, Joe and Hoss Cartwright arrived at Bella’s just a little after noon, they heard their brother’s pleasant baritone from the upstairs window above the street, trumpeting “Farewell and adieu to you dear Spanish ladies…” Joe and Hoss exchanged a triumphant glance. For once, they had figured their brother out. Boy, would he get a shock. Although, as they sneaked a peek at their father’s face, they reflected it was probably not as big as the shock Adam would get on finding out who else had come along with them.
Adam barely had time to get his pants on before the two girls had trooped in, one bearing a shaving cup and a straight razor with a pitcher of steaming water, and the other carrying a cup of coffee and a plate of eggs and ham. He smirked a little. “I’m good, but not that good. I can’t eat and shave at the same time.”
“Don’t be silly,” Annie said. “She’ll feed you; I’ll shave you. Plenty of time between bitin’ and scrapin.”
Dubiously, he nodded.
“You can’t go up there,” a man shouted when Ben, Joe and Hoss came through the door and headed toward the stairs. He was ignored until he tried to grab Ben by the arm, whereupon Hoss turned and slugged him.
“You should’ve let me do that,” Ben grumbled, following Hoss.
“Faster my way,” Hoss replied.
The slowdown was just enough that Little Joe arrived alone at the top of the staircase and opened the door to find Adam, dressed in trousers and boots, with at a towel round his neck, alternating between bites of breakfast being hand-fed to him by one girl, while another carefully scraped the third-day beard from his jaw.
“Adam?” Joe squeaked, and quickly slammed the door behind him, leaning back against it with all his weight. A second later he flew across the room when the door burst open on Hoss’s second try, and it was Hoss and Ben whose jaws dropped.
“Um…morning, fellas,” Adam said, manfully forbidding himself to blush while his brothers exchanged shocked glances, although he was fairly certain the blood had just drained out of his body and into the floor on his recognition of his father. Toujours de l’audace, he thought, and lifted his chin defiantly. “How are you, Pa? Anybody want breakfast?”
“Uh—no, thanks, Adam,” Joe stammered. “We were just—just—um….”
“I couldn’t eat a thing,” Hoss lied sincerely. “Like Joe said, we just wanted to, um….”
“It’s past noon,” Ben said, very quietly.
“I just woke up,” Adam replied. “Ladies, these are my brothers, Hoss and Joe,” Adam gestured vaguely, seeing as how there was no way a sighted person could mistake the two. “And this gentleman here is the lord and master of the Ponderosa, Ben Cartwright. Hoss, Joe, Pa, this lady barber here is Annie, and my own personal chef is Liz.”
“Morning, ladies,” the two brothers mumbled, and Ben made no sound while Annie and Liz graciously nodded at him and then returned their attention to Adam. Courteously, he waved the girls back and rose from his chair to put his shirt on. “Duty calls, ladies, but I do thank you for making me feel so welcome. Now, it would seem I have a legend to live up to. Again.”
He would’ve bolted out the door; but behind his back Liz had glanced over at Joe and Hoss and then grinned at Annie, who winked back.
“Well, we’ll sure miss you, Adam,” Annie said, and planted a kiss on him before he caught on. “If you’re ever back at Bella’s….”
“That goes double for me,” Liz said, grabbing his chin and kissing him to seal the bargain. “You make a great abacus as far as I’m concerned. That means I can count on you.”
Somehow, Adam managed to smile at his two unexpected friends before turning and bolting down the stairs.
“Adam, have I ever told you how much I admire you?” Joe whispered fervently as Adam grabbed the door handle and ushered his brothers out.
“No, I don’t believe you have,” Adam whispered back. “But feel free at any time.”
Well, at least he’d gotten one laugh out of all this, as he was pretty certain there would be hell to pay for the rest of the trip.
They all mounted up and turned their backs on Bella’s; after a glare from Ben, Hoss and Joe moved up to take the lead and Ben reined in Buck, despite the horse’s head-tossing protests. Adam likewise slowed down Pepper Nell, who danced a little before settling into a walk beside Buck.
“Care to explain anything to me?” Ben asked, one eyebrow cocked.
“Not really, Pa,” Adam replied.
Ben slowed his horse still more. “All right,” Ben ground out. “Just tell me this: was it worth it, waking up hung-over and reeking of…of…”
“Oh, Pa, for the love of…” Thank heaven they had created such a distance between them and Hoss and Joe, or his near-wail would have reached their tender ears. “Pa, really, you’re not that gullible, are you?”
“I’m not sure how gullible I am, at this point,” Ben replied. “Adam, you’re a grown man; you can do what you want. If it’s your desire to spend all your nights at a place like Bella’s, I can’t and won’t do anything about it. But it’s not how you were raised.”
“And if I spent every night doing what I did last night, I would be getting drunk and whining like a whipped puppy, no more and no less, Pa.”
“Well,” Ben said hesitantly, “in that case, may I ask what you were looking for at that place?”
Adam shrugged. “Absolution. Forgiveness. Comfort. I don’t know.”
An explosive sigh. “Nope.”
“What did you find, then, if not what Little Joe thinks?”
“Understanding, I guess. That’s all.”
“Maybe you didn’t need the forgiveness,” Ben suggested. “And I’m sorry I went to sleep after we got home, but if you had stayed around long enough for me to wake up, you might have found your understanding and your comfort without having to pay for it.”
“I couldn’t have asked, Pa. I couldn’t even look at you. That’s why I left.”
“I’m not that blasted ugly. And running away is not the act of a grown man.”
“I was a grown man long enough to do what needed to be done,” Adam said through clenched teeth.
“And just what needed to be done?”
“Hanging Farmer Perkins. It needed to be done. I did it. Leave it there, Pa.”
“Adam, I can’t. I’m proud of you for that, at least. It’s just what I would’ve done.”
“That’s a lotta bull, Pa!” again Adam restrained his voice. “Tell me you would’ve done it if Bryant had Joe or Hoss, or even me, held hostage. Ben Cartwright would walk into hell barefoot and offer himself up to the devil on a spit just to keep any one of his boys alive for one extra hour. Tell me your principles mean more to you than your children. Tell me and convince me, damn it, because I know better!”
A very long, strained silence followed.
“You’re right,” Ben finally said, quietly and with some chagrin. “But if it matters, I told Bryant you were doing what I would’ve done. At least we presented a unified front.”
“You know, don’t you,” Adam replied, “that if you had died there, I couldn’t have lived with that. Hoss and Joe would have blamed me, but no more than I’d have blamed myself.”
“Hoss and Joe would have realized the truth eventually, and I would have thought you’d know—that if I had died, it would have been Bryant’s fault and Bryant’s doing. Not yours. I know your brothers didn’t understand your reasoning. And don’t think they didn’t get an earful from me, Adam. I spent the whole ride out here telling them how wrong they were.”
“But Pa, don’t you see, they weren’t wrong! It doesn’t matter if it was Bryant’s doing or not. Principles don’t mean anything without the people those principles are supposed to protect. All the principles in the world couldn’t have comforted them—or me—if you died because I held the law dearer than you.”
“Maybe not, at first. We both have reason to know that nothing is comforting in the first days after someone you love dies. But it would’ve dawned on you all, bit by bit. And son, I couldn’t have lived with myself if you had let that murderous Perkins loose on Virginia City again.
“Adam, here’s why I couldn’t have done what you did. The situations don’t even closely resemble each other. It’s part of the settled order of things that a parent not outlive his children. You and Joe and Hoss would be sad if I died—but it would kill me if I lost one of you. It’s a physical law, not just something we’re used to. Out in the wild, the most timid deer will fight a cougar to protect its fawn. A bird will feign a broken wing to lure the fox away from the nest full of chicks, and if it dies, it dies happy, knowing the young will survive. And that’s the way it should be—the world itself would end otherwise.” Ben looked over at Adam. “But that doesn’t mean that what you did was wrong. It was as right as…well, Adam, you’re the literary one. Don’t make me quote Richard Lovelace to you.”
Adam thought about that for a while as Pepper Nell and Buck plodded solemnly along. “Don’t tell me you’ve read Lucasta. I don’t think I’ve read it since college.”
Ben shrugged. “I have been known to pick up an occasional book, you know. Even yours.”
“Which poem are you talking about?”
“I don’t know the name. Your mother was the Lovelace devotee, not me. But what he said about honor—I can’t remember it all, just the last two lines. About love and honor, and not having one without the other. That’s the thing I have loved most about you for years, son. I’ve never seen it so strong before in anyone, not even your brothers, and certainly not me.”
“Who do you think I learned it from?” Adam said dryly.
Ben shook his head. “I’ve always wondered. Maybe it was from your mother. She had a fine sense of honor. I’m just a fellow who does what needs to be done…most of the time. But I couldn’t have done what you did, and I’ll thank God daily for the rest of my life that I wasn’t put in that position, just as I’ll also thank him daily that just as he promised, he put the right person in the right place at the right time. And that person was you, son.”
“Oh, Pa…” Adam swallowed. “Pa, if you just knew…”
“I do. Leave it with the Lord, Adam. I told you, no forgiveness was ever necessary.”
Adam sighed long and hard.
“Reckon we better catch up with your brothers before they come back looking for us,” Ben said.
The ride back probably didn’t feel as long as it was, just because the 900-pound grizzly bear on Adam’s chest had gone away. He was still very quiet on the way home, not joining in with his brothers’ banter. They accepted this, figuring it was a result of whatever chastisement he’d gotten. And little more was said between him and his father, but then there was nothing else to say.
They reached home, and Ben dropped any pretense that he wasn’t tired; he could barely stay awake long enough to make it to his room.
“That’ll teach you to go leaving your sickbed to look for the wandering boy,” Adam chided.
“That’ll teach you to go running off, wandering boy,” Ben replied sternly. Then he smiled, and Adam looked down at the floor, blushing, and smiled back. His father squeezed his shoulder briefly and then trudged slowly into his room.
Hoss and Joe, however, seemed determined not to leave Adam, even following him to his door.
“We just wanted to tell you again,” Hoss began, but Adam shook his head. “Don’t. I’m not mad at you; I never was. I’d just as soon not talk about it, ever again.”
“But Adam,” Joe whispered in clandestine tones. “What was it like?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Nothing ever lives up to its publicity, Joseph, not ever.”
“Oh,” Joe sighed. Then he brightened, and a gleam came into his eyes. “Does all this mean you’re not gonna have any more hissy fits and wun away fwom home? Or make us come and rescue you outta some saloon?”
“Yeah, that was sure not run-of-the-mill,” Hoss added. “Joe’s supposed to be the one havin’ hissy fits, Adam, not you—and it’s supposed to be you rescuin’ us, not t’other way around.”
“I never had a hissy fit in my life,” Adam retorted in mock outrage. “And don’t be too sure I appreciated that rescue. Besides, that wasn’t just any saloon.”
“Hey Adam—is it true they got paintings on the walls of Greek ladies wearin’ sheets? We were in and out so fast I didn’t get to look!”
“Sorry, Joe. You saw more of Adah Menken in Mazeppa than you would’ve seen in there. It’s a pretty tame place, you know—after all, it’s right next door to nothin’.”
The forlorn look returned to Little Joe’s face, and he walked away, shoulders slumped.
Hoss chuckled. “You din’t do a thing with them women, did you?”
Adam shrugged. “I let ’em feed me and shave me, and kept one of ’em up half the night, talking. Satisfied?”
“Yeah, but I don’t imagine younger brother’s gonna be, once he catches on.”
“True, but it’s gonna be a lot of fun watching him try to figure it out,” Adam chuckled.
Alone at last, he went in his room and searched among the rows of books. It was in the middle of the bottom shelf: The Poems of Richard Lovelace. Without hesitation he turned to the Lucasta poems and found “To Lucasta, Going to the Warres.”
True: a new Mistresse now I chase
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith imbrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, deare, so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Angst, APM, Family, SAS
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