Summary: This is a prequel to the Traci series of stories from several years ago. This story is to explain briefly Adam’s relationship with Traci and why it ended so abruptly.
Rating: T Word Count: 2637
First Love, and Tragedy (by BettyHT)
A Triangle (by BettyHT)
Another Angle (By BettyHT)
A New Angle (by BettyHT)
A Trust Broken and Fixed (by BettyHT)
I Still Love You (by BettyHT)
The Black Egg (by BettyHT)
Another Guise (by BettyHT)
Runaways (by BettyHT)
A Boy and His Horse (by BettyHT)
Frogs and Other Stuff (by BettyHT)
First Love, and Tragedy
With men traveling through to the gold fields a constant threat, it wasn’t often that Adam Cartwright rode home with a smile, but the sixteen-year-old was feeling almost giddy. An afternoon spent with Traci Maxim always had that effect on him. Sure that he was in love, he had assured her that if anything happened, they would marry. Although he knew his parents were opposed to him getting that serious about any girl at his age, if she was with child, he knew they would be forced to accept a union especially as her father would insist on it. He was already picturing the ceremony with Traci’s brother MJ standing at his side as best man. Life was so exciting and each time with Traci was an adventure.
It was gunfire that shook him from his reverie. Riding up a hill to a ridgeline, he saw the rustlers bold as can be slaughtering some of the Ponderosa cattle in broad daylight out in the open. He would have liked to do something about it, but there were six of them. Carefully and quietly, he had to withdraw and ride for home with the news knowing by the time he could return, they would be gone. He rode into the yard at home intent on telling his father, but Ben Cartwright had other concerns.
“Marie told me you went to spend the afternoon with Traci again. There were chores you could have been doing here. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to spend so much time with her. Son, she’s only fifteen. You’re sixteen. You don’t need to rush into things.”
“Pa, they’re rustling cattle in the southwest pasture.”
“Why didn’t you say that?”
Left unsaid was that he couldn’t with the greeting he had received. Ben and several men got their horses and prepared to ride out. Adam wanted to go with them, but his father told him his horse was already tired and he would rather have experienced men with him if any shooting started. As usual, Adam was disappointed because he was never going to be experienced if his father never let him go on any of these rides. It didn’t matter though because when they came back hours later, it was with the same as always report that the rustlers were long gone by the time they got there. They found bloody ground, the heads, and entrails and nothing else.
“Where are they taking it all, Pa?”
“Probably spotted another group of gold seekers heading through and went to sell them the beef. The hides they’ll cure and sell in California most likely. Between the cattle they rustle, the horses they steal, and the timber they cut for temporary corrals, they going to ruin us.”
“Do you think it’s just the six I saw?”
“Probably that’s the main group although there could be a few others working the area. If we could bring those six to justice, it would put a scare into the others though. Defeating the worst of them would have to put the others on notice.”
“Pa, what about what Mister Maxim said about hiring some men to hunt those rustlers down? Would that work?”
“It probably would, but men who do that kind of work are seldom much better than the ones they hunt down. We could start something we wouldn’t be able to stop. It’s like starting a fire to put out a fire. If it burns back on you, you can have a far worse mess than you started with.”
“Is it that you think they could turn on us?”
“That’s what I told Max. It’s happened elsewhere.”
“So we keep trying to catch them ourselves?”
“It’s about all we can do. Then we’ll have to hope to be able to take them to California to see if they will be able to try them and lock them up or worse.”
“It’s not unusual for rustlers especially those who steal horses to get the gallows.”
“So they probably know that. It makes them a lot more dangerous then, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. Any witness to what they do has to be eliminated. Don’t ever get too close to them unless you have our men with you. In fact, now that we know they’re operating so close to us here, no one should be out working except with someone preferable with two or three others. So, no more rides to the Maxim ranch unless someone rides with you.”
Only a tremendous strength of will kept Adam from an outburst then. He knew his father only said what was common sense, but the thought that his father enjoyed his son’s isolation from his girl irritated him immensely. Yes, and Ben did like that a solution presented itself to the dilemma of what to do about Adam and Traci. Marie had been saying for weeks that she thought the two were being intimate based on how they acted with each other when she saw them together. Ben didn’t want to believe it.
“Don’t you remember being sixteen and how your blood could boil when you first felt that attraction to another? How your thoughts were only of that one person?”
“Marie, I spent all my time working when I was sixteen. I don’t think I had time for any foolishness.”
“Ah, but if you think it only foolishness, that is what our son is hoping. He will be free to follow his desires, and I believe his desires are every bit as strong as his father’s.”
“Marie, he is only sixteen.”
“Have you really paid attention to him lately? Watch him when we are in town or after church services and see how the girls and even the young women look at him. They see it even if you do not.”
“You really think he and Traci have been, ah, close?”
“You can call it what you will, but we have talked of him going to school and other things. All of that ends if she gets in the family way.”
The two had that discussion in their bedroom and talked softly, but still they were careful what they said as their youngest sons were all too often tempted to eavesdrop. Ben agreed with his wife that it was time to talk with Adam about the situation and make some guidelines if necessary. It meant that Marie would not have to worry so much that the young couple would get in trouble and be forced to marry before they were ready. Like Ben, she liked Traci very much but simply thought the two young people were not ready for marriage. Now, with new work restrictions in place, they would not have to worry about that at least for a while.
For the next several days, work schedules were set up on the ranch to be sure that no hands were ever in a situation where they could be ambushed or left alone. Most of the time, work crews were made up of five or six men, but there were always at least two men for every task. Adam was in one of the larger groups near the end of the week when they saw MJ Maxim working on clearing some brush from a ravine near the property line of the two ranches.
“Adam, ain’t that your friend? Looks like he’s working alone.”
“Yeah, we’ve been working to clear brush from places where rustlers could hide cattle or hide out themselves, but he shouldn’t be there alone.”
“Maybe one or two of us should go help him, you know, so he doesn’t work alone.”
“That’s a good idea. To make him accept it better, I should be one. Who else do you think we should send?”
None of the men volunteered.
“Not keen on clearing brush on this nice hot summer day? All right, Pa said as long as we have two together, it would be all right. You go on ahead but swing by here at the end of the day, and I’ll ride back with you so none of us gets in trouble. We’ll stick by the rules.”
The men smiled and agreed it was a good plan. They did like how the young Cartwright could come up with a plan quickly and took what they thought into consideration. They watched him ride over to work with the young Maxim boy even as they wondered why Max had let his boy go work alone.
“Hey, MJ. I came to lend a hand.”
“Well, I suppose you could do some of the heavy lifting while I do the thinking part of the job.”
The two took the usual verbal jabs at each other as they got to work. At about noon, they stopped for a break sitting in the shade to have lunch and cool down. It was about that time that Adam thought he heard the sounds of some cattle moving their way.
“Are any of your hands moving cattle this way? I know none of ours are.”
“Adam, it’s got to be the rustlers.”
The two dropped everything and headed for their horses. Tightening the cinches was about all they got done before the rustlers came into view. Seeing the two young men, the rustlers conferred only a moment. These two couldn’t be allowed to escape. The cattle were abandoned, and the six men rode toward Adam and MJ.
“We need to head for cover, Adam. Let’s go up in these rocks.”
“No, MJ. There’s too many of them. We have to ride out of here.”
As Adam began to ride away, he saw MJ wheel around and head back toward the ridge and the rocks. He thought it a mistake but had three men chasing him by that time and couldn’t change his decision. Assuming the other three had gone after MJ, he headed to where the four men he had gone out with that morning were supposed to be working. If he could get to them, he could live. If not, he was dead. As he rode, he heard shots behind him. At first, they were well behind him and he knew they were firing on MJ. Then they were closer and he heard the bullets whiz by him. Leaning low over the saddle and into the horse’s neck, he did his best to be a small target. If the men racing after him wondered why he was riding away from the Ponderosa ranch house instead of toward it, they never showed it. They came after him as fast as they could and right into the guns of the four men Adam was seeking. The battle was short and all three men retreated.
“Three more are after MJ.”
They rode to help MJ, but the silence was ominous. When they got to the spot to see the three trying to get the cattle rounded up again. Those three had expected the riders coming in to be the other rustlers. Surprised, they too retreated. Adam raced up the rocks and boulders of the hillside to find MJ. He did, but his friend stared sightlessly at him. He didn’t cry. He had already seen too much death in his young life and had learned to hold the tears inside.
“Oh, MJ, I told you not to do this.”
MJ had been shot in the back. Two had probably kept him busy as the third got around behind him and shot him. Adam had told him there were too many. If he had ridden with Adam, he probably would have survived. A couple of the men came up with a blanket they had taken from a rustler’s horse. They rolled MJ’s body in it.
“I’ll take him home.”
“Adam, we have to get you to the Ponderosa and let your father make that call. We think your father is going to want to be there too.”
Although Adam wanted to bring MJ home, he understood the logic of what his men were telling him and agreed. Ben agreed too and had the men hitch up a wagon and placed MJ in the back. Adam sat there as Marie came along sitting beside Ben on the seat of the wagon. The reception at the Maxims was not what any had expected. MJ’s mother Naomi and his sister Traci were devastated as expected, but Max was furious when Adam told him what happened.
“You ran away and let my boy get murdered. You coward. How can you set foot on my ranch after you let those rustlers kill my son?”
Ben tried to reason with him. “Max, there were six rustlers. Adam couldn’t have stopped them. He told MJ to ride with him.”
“So he says. Why should I believe anything he says?”
“Our families have been friends for years. We would do anything for each other. Please, think about what you are saying.”
“I am thinking about it. I’m thinking I never want to see your coward of a son again. Don’t let him come over here and never let him near my daughter. The thought of the two of them together makes me sick to my stomach.”
MJ was buried, but no Cartwrights were allowed to attend. Max sold his ranch for a pittance and moved away. It would be eighteen years before Adam saw Traci again.
While that happened, Adam used his memory of that fateful day with the rustlers to draw pictures. He had gotten good looks at those men and drew as many views of them as he could. Eventually he had drawings suitable for wanted posters. The other drawings were given to the newspapers for stories about the lawlessness of the men traveling through to the gold fields. With the wanted posters and the generous rewards offered, four of the men were apprehended. When that news arrived, all the horror of the day MJ was murdered came back to haunt Adam especially in his dreams at night. Max had not been shy in making his accusations against Adam so the stories went around town again leaving the young man to face the stares and occasional taunts because of that. He met all of it with an icy demeanor and stone face. He testified in court about the murder of MJ Maxim. When he did it, he had sweat running down the back of his neck, but no one in the courtroom knew it. With a steady voice as he testified, he stared at the men who had killed MJ. Two of the men were sentenced to death. Two were so young that they got twenty years in prison at hard labor. The way that Adam had faced the hazing and then his performance in court did a lot to end the stories of him being a coward. The version told by the hands on the Ponderosa in and out of the courtroom backed up the story of the young man who did his best but couldn’t save his friend.
No one knew where the Maxim family had gone so no one could tell them the news that four of the rustlers had faced justice. Adam thought it probably wouldn’t matter even if they could be told because nothing could bring back the son Max had lost. His friend was dead and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help feeling guilty about it. His first love was lost to him, and again, he felt guilty about that blaming himself for losing her. If he had saved MJ, then he would still have Traci too. It began a pattern in his life of brooding over what went wrong and assuming the responsibility for it regardless of cause. It would take a long time for that burden to be lifted.
Other Stories by this Author
- I Still Love You (by BettyHT)
- A Trust Broken and Fixed (by BettyHT)
- A New Angle (by BettyHT)
- Another Angle (By BettyHT)
- A Triangle (by BettyHT)