The Protector II – The Solitaire’s Song (by Sierra Girl)

Summary: It’s been a year since Adam returned to the Ponderosa together with a 12-year old girl that he rescued on his journey. Life is good, but troubles don’t stay away for long. Not only does an old acquaintance cause trouble for Adam, but the presence of Clara’s father still lingers like a black cloud. This is the sequel to ‘The Protector’ but can be read as a stand-alone story.

Rated: K+  (64,572 words)

The Protector Series:

The Protector
The Protector II – The Solitaire’s Song

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

The Protector II – The Solitaire’s Song

He’d been away from home for two weeks, but still Adam slowed his horse to a walk as he approached the big ranch house. A short distance from the yard, he reined his mount to a stop, crossed his wrists over the saddle horn and smiled at the scene before him.

His middle brother, Hoss, attired in an old leather apron, was battling with a gelding that obstinately refused to let Hoss lift its hind leg. Hoss’s gruff one-sided conversation elicited no response other than an occasional flick of the animal’s ears.

Little Joe—though, Adam would argue he wasn’t so little these days, not judging by the developed shoulders and defined forearms made evident by his still-narrow waist—was at the top of a ladder propped against the porch roof. A spring thunderstorm had passed through the region the night before Adam left, bringing gusty winds that had tugged and plucked at the house, leaving a mess of the shingles. Joe was balanced precariously on the top rung, one leg swung out for balance, as he reached across to grab a damaged tile. He was assisted by their father, Ben, who kept forgetting he was meant to be holding the ladder. Instead, he would stand back and point out where Joe should direct his attention. Joe’s exasperated, breathless retorts: “I got it, Pa, I know what I’m doing, Pa, the ladder! Hold the ladder!” reached Adam on the breeze. He glanced away and shook his head as a grin widened his smile.

His eyes found a slender, narrow-shouldered figure scattering seeds among the chickens that clucked around the yard. Dressed in pants, boots and an old cotton shirt, the figure’s face was hidden by a floppy hat, but Adam knew her immediately. It was Clara, the child he had taken under his wing in the spring of the previous year.

Adam hadn’t meant to get involved, but when he witnessed the attempted abduction of twelve-year-old Clara and her mother, Adam’s Cartwright principles meant he couldn’t sit back and let it happen, and then live with himself after. The abduction, arranged by Clara’s aged father, had failed, but not before her mother, Johanna, was killed during an attempt to flee. Adam and Clara had escaped into the Nevada wilderness where he’d fought to keep Clara alive in untamed lands, at the same time as trying to soothe her unbearable grief. But Clara had shown mettle and a grit that surprised, and delighted, Adam, and in the last year had developed into a young lady worthy of carrying the Cartwright name.

Although, to look at her now . . .  Adam raised an eyebrow. She looked every inch the tomboy she would be if Adam didn’t insist she wear a dress occasionally. Her boyish attire, however, couldn’t disguise the signs she had started to throw off the last vestiges of childhood and blossom into a young woman. Her tight-waisted pants revealed expanding hips and her oversized shirt failed to hide what was developing beneath. She had tied her long white-blonde hair back into a loose ponytail which displayed a face shedding its baby fat. And was it possible she had grown taller in the two weeks he’d been away? Adam pulled in a breath. There would be boys hanging around the ranch soon, of that he had no doubt. He wasn’t her natural father, but the paternal desire for her to remain a child for as long as possible reared its head. He may not be able to stop the march of time, but he would sure as hell keep the boys from her door as long as he could.

Though, up to now, Clara hadn’t shown any interest in the boys from school or those she met at church socials. She was too interested in emulating Adam and her two ‘uncles’. Little Joe had taught her to ride during her first weeks on the ranch while Adam was recovering from a gunshot wound, and she had proved a natural on horseback. In the spring, after watching the brothers branding the year’s new calves, Clara had pleaded for a chance to rope cattle. Adam had given in, and though not yet strong enough to bring down a full-grown steer, she had soon displayed an aptitude for roping calves. And she was quick to learn, demonstrating an astonishing ability with mechanics, probably not unexpected on a ranch full of men and equipment. When one of the wagons had developed an annoying rattle, Clara had pinpointed the offending part of the axis causing the issue, much to the embarrassment of the four men scratching their heads as they tried to work out the cause. And after watching her dismantle and reassemble his revolver with ease, Adam had reluctantly given her shooting lessons. He would take her out of earshot of the ranch house and let her practice on a row of tin cans. As she stood with her feet braced, taking aim with Adam’s revolver held fast within her hands, he would wonder whether he’d made a mistake in becoming her guardian—she clearly lacked a woman’s influence in a household of men. But she had given him a new lease of life and instilled an invigorated vitality into the Cartwright home, and, selfish it may be, but he’d not give that up for the world.

There was a shout, a clatter, as Joe’s ladder slipped under his feet, and a flurry of movement as Hoss began to lumber across the yard and Ben grabbed at the fallen apparatus. Joe clung to the edge of the porch, his legs scissoring as he attempted to heave himself up. The sight of Hoss grabbing at Joe’s kicking feet—“Hoss, whaddya doing? Push me up, don’t pull me down!”—and Ben trying to manoeuvre the ladder where Joe could get a foothold—made Adam laugh out loud.

His laughter must have carried across the yard, as Clara, who was also giggling at the scene before her, looked around and spied Adam. She dropped her bowl of seed and ran to the rough track, coming to a breathless halt at his side.

“Adam! You’re home! How long have you been here?”

“Long enough to see my little brother doing what he likes to do best—hanging about.”

Clara grinned and twisted round to watch Joe, now safely back on solid ground, arguing with his pa about the merits of holding a ladder when someone was standing on top of one. There was a lot of pointing and gesturing with Hoss between the two trying his best, and failing, to keep the peace. She turned back to squint up at Adam, his head silhouetted against the May sun.

“How’s my girl?”

Clara fingered one of the trailing reins which hung loosely in Adam’s palm. “Alright.” She kept her gaze fixed on the thin strip of braided leather. “Only . . .” Her voice tailed off.

A frown creased Adam’s brow and he leaned further over the saddle horn. “Only what? Did something happen when I away?”

Clara threw him a glance. “No, nothing happened. It’s just . . .” She looked down. “I missed you. You’ve not been away so long before.”

Straightening up with a long drawn-in breath, the frown eased from Adam’s face. He held out his arm. “Come on, jump up.”

Clara grasped his forearm and let him swing her up behind him into the saddle. And as she hugged her arms around his waist, he twisted to look at her. “Don’t tell my brothers, but I missed you too.” He ducked under her hat to drop a quick kiss in her hair. As his mount started to walk slowly up the track to the yard, Adam could feel the warmth of her smile behind him.

“Adam!” Joe stopped remonstrating with his father and strode over to meet his brother, reaching to shake Adam’s hand. “Good to see you, brother. How was your trip to High Valley?”

Adam’s grip was firm and his smile wide as he greeted Joe. “Productive.” He looked up at the porch roof. “Finally fixing the shingles, huh?”

Joe followed his gaze. “We did the roof the day you left, but today’s the first chance we’ve had to do the porch.” He slapped Adam’s thigh. “But tell us about your trip. How’d it go?”

His query was met with a grin. “Better than any of us could’ve imagined. Not only do they need timber for the mines, but it’s a tent city up there. Men are flooding there to work. I met with Dan Starr, one of the owners of what they are now calling the Holme and Starr mine, and he not only wants a big house for himself but lodging for all his workers.”

Clara had jumped down to the ground while Adam was speaking, and Adam soon followed suit. “We’ve got the contract to provide timber for Starr’s house, the mine, and, to start with, five boarding houses, a saloon and a mercantile.’

Joe whopped and grabbed Adam’s hand, pumping it up and down. “Well done, brother, that’ll bring us enough business to last until next winter. Did you hear, Pa?”

The lines around their father’s eyes crinkled as he stepped forward to greet Adam. “Oh, I heard.” He slapped Adam’s back. “Good work, son, I never doubted you for a moment.”

“I saw the plans for Starr’s house. It’s going to be twice as big as the mansion Annie and the Swede built back in ’63.” Adam began to untie the thongs holding his saddlebags in place. “I reckon it’ll be the grandest home in these parts.”

Hoss’s cheeks bunched. “What? Even grander than the Ponderosa?”

Resting his arms on the saddle, Adam turned to his middle brother. “Hoss, the whole of this ranch would fit six times over in what they’ve got planned.” He pulled the saddlebags free and let them drop to the ground. “I would have been home earlier, Pa, but I took a detour up to Virginia City to see Hiram. He was in court all day, though. I’ll go back tomorrow.”

A swift glance between Ben and Joe wasn’t lost on Adam, but he thought nothing of it as he concentrated on freeing the carpetbag tied around the saddle horn. He turned to see his father’s hands stuffed deep into his pockets.

“Was, er, everything okay in town, son? No trouble?”

Adam’s eyes narrowed in a frown. “It was fine. Why? Shouldn’t it be?”

If it was possible to straighten his arms any further and to bury his hands any deeper into his pockets, then Ben succeeded. He shook his head and stared at the ground but refused to meet Adam’s questioning stare. “No, no, it’s just, you know, what with the new seam they’ve found at Crown Point, the miners are feeling rather, um, flush and have been more troublesome than usual.” He laughed. “You know what miners are like once they’ve got money in their pockets. Lo betide any cowboys who get in their way.”

Adam’s eyes grew narrower as he looked from one man to the next. “Everything was fine. As it usually is.” After witnessing another glance between his brothers, he turned to Clara who stood watching the conversation with an amused expression.

“Clara, take my bag to my room, would you? And take a look inside, there’s a package in there, just for you.” Adam handed her the well-worn travelling bag.

“For me?” Her face lit up with excitement.

“Go on, inside with you.”

With Clara out of earshot, Adam wrapped his arms around his torso and faced his father and brothers.

“Now, what’s it all about? What aren’t you telling me?”

A brief glance fired between Joe and Hoss.

“And enough with the looks.”

Adam felt a spark of satisfaction as his brothers withered beneath his glare, but then a sigh drew his attention to his father. Ben ran his tongue over his lower lip as he stepped forward. “Finn Tullivan’s back.”

Adam stared hard at his father, who met his penetrating gaze with one of his own.

“Tully?”

There was a slight nod from his father.

“That’s what you’re all worried about?” Adam turned his back to release his bedroll from the saddle, but his father wouldn’t let him go so easily, and moved to the other side of the horse to face him.

“Adam, you mustn’t take this so lightly. He’s been telling everyone exactly what he’s going to do when he comes face-to-face with you again.”

The bedroll came loose. Retrieving his saddlebags from the ground, Adam flung them over his shoulder and took a step towards the house. “Tully’s a washed-up old soak.”

Ben blocked his way. “Adam, listen to me. He threatened to kill you all those years ago—”

“I know, Pa. I was there, remember?” Adam’s tone was sharp, but the look of concern in his father’s eyes made him soften. “Don’t worry, Pa. He had plenty of opportunities back then, and I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“Adam, he’s threatened to—”

The front door banged open, and Clara burst through, a pale cream dress clutched to her front. “Oh, Adam, it’s beautiful. But when will I wear it? It’s too good for going into town, or—”

“You’ll wear it to the party.”

“Party?” Four voices echoed the same word.

Adam looked around at the puzzled faces staring back at him. “Yeah, we haven’t had a party since I returned home. And that means Clara’s been with us over a year. It’s time to celebrate, don’t ya think?”

“That’s a great idea, Adam.” Hoss and Joe grinned like Cheshire cats.

Clara spun on the spot, her new dress whirling about her as she turned. “A party.” She came to an abrupt stop. “I’ve never been to a party before.” Her hands softly stroked the soft material as her voice softened. “Mama never had parties.”

“Well, it’s time you had one. Now take the dress inside, you don’t want it to get dirty, do you?”

She reached up to peck Adam’s cheek before running back inside the house. Adam followed with a laugh on his breath.

“Adam, what about Tully?”

“Don’t worry, Pa. He won’t do anything.”

“Promise me you won’t go looking for him.”

Adam settled a heavy-lidded gaze on his father. “I promise I won’t go looking for him.”

The next morning, Adam went looking for Finn Tullivan.

***

The Ponderosa was a household that rose with the sun, so Adam had risen, splashed water over his face and was riding across the pasture as the golden land grew warm, his shadow stretched out behind him. He was so early he sat under a tree for half an hour watching a white-tailed jackrabbit tearing at the grass, the animal’s ears alert to any sound. As Adam took a loud bite out of an apple, the animal bounded away out of sight.

A search for Tully at this time of the morning would be a complete waste of time, so Adam decided to head straight for the Cartwright family lawyer’s office instead. He arrived at the building as the town’s stores were starting to open up for the day; storekeepers were applying spit and polish to their windows and bringing out their wares onto the boardwalk.

Adam tried the office door, but it was locked, so he rapped briskly on the wood. The entrance stayed firmly closed to him, so Adam tried again. A faint voice called out, “We’re not open for business yet, come back later.” With pursed lips, Adam knocked again, with more pressure this time. There was silence and then the sound of a key in the lock and a young clerk, wearing an exasperated frown opened the door a few inches.

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright. Good morning. We’re not yet open, not for—” the clerk glanced over his shoulder, “not for at least twenty minutes. Please come back then.” He began to close the door but was startled when Adam thrust his foot into the gap.

“Mr. Cartwright!” The lad blustered. “What do you think you’re doing?” He tried to push on the door to close it, but Adam’s foot wasn’t budging.

Adam rested his shoulder on the door frame. “I only need five minutes of Hiram’s time.”

“Mr. Wood is an extremely busy man. He’s due in court this morning and doesn’t have time to see anyone. And in any case, I don’t think he’s here yet.”

Cocking his head to one side, Adam gave the young clerk an impatient look. “Boy, I’ve known Hiram for longer than you’ve been alive. He’s in. Just ask him if he can spare a few minutes.”

The clerk tried to push against the door again. “Mr. Cartwright, I must insist.”

With a casual movement, Adam pulled his arm back and his coat fell open to reveal the gun holstered on his thigh. “And so must I.”

The boy swallowed.

Adam didn’t blink. “Ask him, please.”

The boy’s tongue flickered over suddenly dry lips. “Well, alright then. You stay right where you are.”

He backed away and then walked with rapid steps to an office at the rear of the room separated by a half-windowed partition. Adam followed the clerk into the room, a smile edged on his lips: making the little upstart jump had been a guilty pleasure. He watched the boy knock on the door and chuckled as Hiram, his attention on the papers spread over his desk, barked a clear instruction to leave him alone. The boy looked at Adam, swallowed, and then knocked again, this time opening the door a crack. After a brief exchange, Hiram looked up, and followed the boy’s pointed finger to where Adam was standing. Straightaway, Hiram was on his feet, gesticulating at the boy to let Adam in, and what was he doing keeping Mr. Cartwright waiting, and get his guest a coffee. Adam sauntered past the flustered clerk. “Black. Strong,” he said, as he passed and entered Hiram’s inner sanctum.

“Adam, my boy, come in, come in, take a seat. You must have been up with the lark, you’re here so early.” The two men shook hands.

“I’ve got business in town, and missed you yesterday, so figured I might catch you at this time.” He took the seat Hiram indicated to him. “I wasn’t sure I’d get past your guard dog.”

“John Piper. He can be a stickler for the rules and an overbearing little runt, but the boy is as sharp as a needle. He’ll be doing my job in a couple of years, mark my words. But let me guess, you’re here about Clara? It’s been, what, five weeks since you last visited me, and that was four weeks after the previous time.” Hiram peered down his nose at Adam, a smile creasing the skin around his eyes.

Adam’s cheek quirked as he leaned forward. “You told me to be patient, and I know it’s not quite a year since I wrote to Clara’s father, but I’ve still heard nothing. No letter, no wires, no strange characters hanging around the ranch. How long do we have to wait until we can safely presume Clara’s father has given up his claim to her?”

His head lowered in thought and his fingers steepled against his lips, Hiram sat back in his leather chair. “You wrote to her father in August last year.”

Adam’s brows crawled up his forehead. “You know I did,” he replied, and slumped heavily back in his seat.

“Humour me, Adam. I know I ask you to go over the same details each time, but I’d rather hear it straight from you than rummage through my notes. Remind my old lawyer’s brain of what you’ve done and when.”

A long sigh escaped Adam’s lips. He pulled himself upright. “I wrote to the count last August, that was about five weeks after we got home.”

“You couldn’t write before?”

“The injury in my right shoulder put my arm out of action for a while. But you know all this already.”

Hiram didn’t reply but settled his wise gaze on Adam who fidgeted in his seat. “I couldn’t even write my name for several weeks. And, well, it took a few home truths from Pa to convince me to not hightail it outta there with Clara so that her father’s men couldn’t find her.” Adam flicked a sheepish glance at Hiram. “And Pa also made me recognise what had been staring me in the face: that she had come to mean a lot to me, that I wanted to be more than her interim guardian.”

“A wise man, your father.”

Adam shifted forward. “Umm. Only, don’t tell him that.”

There was a knock on the door, and the clerk entered with a tray of coffee. “Sir, don’t forget, the judge wants to see you as soon as the courtroom opens in ten minutes’ time.”

Hiram waved him out. “Judge Crocker can wait. Now leave us be.”

The boy’s lips puckered as he shook his head and threw a scowl at Adam. The door closed softly behind him.

“I don’t want to hold you up, Hiram.”

“Don’t worry, my boy, I’ll be on time. I like to put the wind up that young whippersnapper occasionally.” He poured Adam a cup of thick black coffee. “Now, where were we?”

Adam took the proffered cup. “I wrote to the count through his agent in New York. Cordell, the man who kidnapped Clara and her mother—”

“And you too as I recall.”

Adam’s brows rose. “And me. Among the papers in his belongings was correspondence between him and the count’s agent. So, I sent the letter to the agent, figuring it would be more likely to get there safely than if I addressed it to simply to the Count von Falkeberg, Germany.” He took a mouthful of coffee and winced at the bitterness. “At first, I kept going over and over in my mind how long it would take for a letter to get to him. Now the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads have met, it should only have taken a week for the letter to reach New York. Then another ten days to cross the ocean. I’ve guessed at a week on the road in Germany. That’s a month. Clara’s father should have received my letter by the end of September last year at the latest. But I’ve heard nothing.”

Abandoning the coffee cup, Adam’s fingers began to toy with the elaborate ink well that sat between Hiram and his clients. Adam wondered whether Hiram had placed it there to act as a barrier between him and any undesirables he had to represent. His long fingers curved over the figure of a golden lion, the tip of a nail seeking out the indentations in the lion’s mane.

Hiram took a long look at him and then moved out from behind his desk, perching on a corner of the table.

“Adam, my boy, you are one of the coolest men I’ve ever known. I’ve seen you face down gunslingers with barely a blink; watched you negotiate with hard-nosed blue bloods from the east and get the better of them. But this girl, Adam, this girl gets to you like nothing I’ve ever known. You’re like a squirrel with a burr in its tail, hopping about, unable to settle, rattled.”

Adam scratched the back of his neck. “Pa said this is what being a father is like. A constant nagging worry about whether she’s safe, happy, eating the right food, learning enough in school.”

“The anxieties of fatherhood, Adam, I know them well. What remains of my hair is a little thinner and a little greyer after what my Betty May went through all those years ago.”

“I remember it well.”

“Of course, Little Joe was unfortunately caught up in the whole sorry business. No, Adam, this is different. That girl has got right under your skin.”

There was silence in the room as Adam contemplated the lawyer’s words, and as Adam pondered, Hiram moved back behind his desk, gently squeezing his friend’s shoulder as he passed.

“You waited six months and then wrote to the agent again, didn’t you?”

A distracted Adam looked up. “Yes, I sent him another letter in January this year to be certain he’d received the first one. He confirmed he had received it and had forwarded it on in a packet of other correspondence. He also confirmed he’d received a reply from the count to a matter he’d raised in the first packet. There’s no question, my letter did reach Clara’s father.”

Picking up his pencil, Hiram began to tap it gently against a ledger on his desk. “So, you’ve written twice, we know at least one letter reached its destination, and yet there’s been no response.”

There was no need for Adam to reply.

“Adam, my boy, when you came to me a year ago and told me you wanted to adopt Clara, I said come back in a year. You waited for six months and have been back every few weeks since.” He drew his chin back and peered over his spectacles at Adam. “You’re like a moth fluttering against a pane of glass to get to the light. You won’t give up, no matter how often your wings get burnt. But we needed to give it time, because of the distances involved.” He paused. “It’s not been a year, it’s only the end of May, but I think we’re done with waiting.”

Adam pulled out of his slump, shifting forward to the edge of his seat. “You mean—”

“I mean, I’m going to file a petition of adoption with the court, requesting that you become the legal father of Clara von Falkeberg.”

Adam was a patient man, nonetheless the last year had been interminably long. But now, at last, he had heard the words he had been so impatient to hear, and he could fulfil the promise he’d made to a scared and lonely Clara on the shores of Lake Tahoe all those months ago. “You’ve got me,” Adam had whispered to her. “For as long as I breathe, you’ve got me.” After they’d both recovered from their experiences, he had taken her to a high spot that overlooked the rolling hills of the Ponderosa and asked her whether she’d like to formally become his daughter. She had thrown her arms around his neck and said she had dreamed of it every night, ever since he’d whispered those words to her. And now, at last, the promise was about to become a reality.

With unexpectedly shaky legs, Adam rose to his feet and grasped Hiram’s hand.

“I . . .” Adam lowered his gaze, a smile curling his lips that were suddenly lost for words.

“You don’t need to say anything.” Hiram stood; his hand still grasped firmly around Adam’s. “Now go home and tell that little girl of yours the news.”

A face hovered over the office curtains, clearly attracted by the movement within. Hiram released his grip and began to gather documents from his desk. “I’d better go see Judge Crocker before young Piper has a conniption fit. Leave all the paperwork with me. I’ll send word when I need you back to conclude the formalities.”

Adam found the power of speech once more. “Bring it out to the Ponderosa, we’re having a party in a few days. I’ll make sure you get an invite.” He nodded towards the clerk. “And bring the pup. He looks like he could do with letting his hair down.”

Hiram grinned. “I’ll do that.” He gestured towards the door and followed Adam into the street. With a last shake of Hiram’s hand, Adam watched as Hiram walked briskly in the direction of the courthouse with his two-legged terrier, John Piper, scurrying closely at his heels.

***

Adam felt complete. He hadn’t felt this sure of his place in the world for years. The Ponderosa’s fortunes were going from strength to strength, and Clara was about to become his legal daughter. He stepped out of the morning shadows that darkened the boardwalk and took a long breath. His chest expanded as the air filled his lungs and with his eyes closed, he raised his face to the sun. Life was good. All he needed now was to rid himself of the itch that was Finn Tullivan and he’d be a very contented man.

With his hands on his hips, Adam looked down the street, first in one direction, then the other. It was still too early to look for Tully, and he didn’t even know where to start. He would have guessed one of the saloons, but surely not even Tully would be downing a whiskey at this time of the morning. The door of the sheriff’s office banged open, catching Adam’s attention. Sheriff Clem Foster stepped onto the boardwalk, propped the door open behind a chair and stretched. He surveyed his surroundings and raised a hand in greeting to Adam before retreating within. Shaking off this coat—it was going to be another warm day—Adam crossed the street towards the jail. On stepping inside, he blinked to let his eyes adjust after the bright glare bouncing off the buildings.

“Morning, Clem.”

“Howdy, Adam. What brings you to town this early in the day? You look like the cat who swallowed the canary.”

“I had some business with Hiram Wood.’

“Good news I take it, judging by the expression on your face?”

Adam smiled. “Good news.”

Clem eyed him with curiosity, but Adam ignored the sheriff’s apparent interest. This was one piece of news he’d keep close to his chest for the time being.

“I was about to pour myself a cup of coffee. Fancy one?” Clem lifted the coffee pot.

Adam shook his head. “Not for me. Hiram’s assistant made me one and it’s still repeating slightly.”

“That bad, huh?”

Adam’s eyebrows rose in agreement as he placed his fist in front of his mouth to suppress a sudden exhalation of air.

The smell of coffee filled the room as Clem poured the liquid into his cup. “What can I do ya for, Adam?”

“I heard Finn Tullivan was back.”

Clem levelled the pot and twisted to look hard at Adam.

“Yeah, he’s back. And he doesn’t have a good word to say about you.”

“So I heard.”

“He still blames you for what happened, you know. He’s going around telling the town what he’s going to do when you and he come face-to-face.”

“That’s old news, Clem, same old grievances.” He scratched the top of his ear. “Have you seen him?”

“I have.”

Adam waited then shrugged. “And?”

Clem walked to the front of his desk and leaned back against it, coffee cup in hand. “Years in the hills eating berries and rabbits have taken their toll. I’d swear creatures were living in his beard.” He took a sip of his drink. “He’s even more bad-tempered than I remember, and he’s got old. He’s near your age, isn’t he? Well, looking at him you would think he had twenty years on you.”

“Where can I find him?”

At his question, Clem dropped his cup to the desk and stood. “Now, Adam, don’t you go looking for him.”

Adam raised his palms. “Why does everyone keep warning me away? The last time I saw him he spent every second of every day drowning his sorrows at the bottom of a whiskey glass. He spent most of his time under a table.”

“It’s not what he’ll do that concerns me, it’s what you’ll do.”

Adam pulled a face. “Clem, you know me. Why do you think I wanna hurt him?”

“Because of what he’s been saying.”

Adam’s hands found his hips. “And what exactly has he been saying?” It was impossible to keep the sharpness out of his tone.

With one eye on Adam, Clem walked behind his desk. A veritable barrier, thought Adam. “Oh, you know, all the choice things he’s going to do to various parts of your body, the usual stuff.”

It was clear to Adam that Clem hadn’t told him the whole truth, but he was in no mood to pursue it. His hands dropped from his hips. “Like I said, old news. So where can I find him?”

The sheriff sighed. “The Sazerac. Silver Dollar. Delta.”

“In other words, at the bottom of a liquor glass.”

“You got it.”

Adam nodded. “Well, I’ll be seeing you, Clem.” As he reached the open door he turned. “Oh, I nearly forgot, we’re having a party at the Ponderosa. It’ll be good to see you there.”

Clem’s face lit up. “When?”

“The end of the week, or the weekend, we haven’t decided yet.”

“You Cartwrights like to do things the hard way: a few days to organise a shindig. I doubt I’ll be there. I’ve got one deputy on his way to Nevada State Prison with a prisoner, and another down with pleurisy. It’s only me minding the fort.”

“Well, next time then. See ya, Clem.”

***

Adam let Sport amble down Virginia City’s main thoroughfare.

Since leaving the jail, he had walked the length and breadth of C Street, peering over the batwing doors of every saloon he passed. But it was early, even by Finn Tullivan’s standards, and only a handful of patrons could be seen frequenting the shadowy interiors. Where Tully had dug in was a mystery, but one that would have to wait for another day.

He had barely left the last building behind him when two riders came into view. Two very familiar riders. He reined Sport to a stop and let Hoss and Joe catch up to him, exchanging looks as they did.

“I didn’t think you two had any business in town today.”

Hoss whipped his hat off his head and ran the back of his hand over his brow. “Er, well, Adam, we didn’t, but—”

“But Pa sent you out after me?” Adam stared at them; his head cocked to one side.

“Pa didn’t send us.” Joe sounded irritated at the implication. “We made excuses for you and then came looking.”

“So, if it’s not Pa babysitting me, it’s you two.”

“Well, what do you expect, Adam,” said Joe. “We told you yesterday the man who swore an oath to kill you was back in town, and you’re gone by the time even Hop Sing was up.”

“An’ he’s up when it’s blacker than tar outside,” chipped in Hoss.

“You figured I’d gone looking for him.”

The top of Hoss’s lip curled up. “Well, didn’t you?”

Sport pranced causing Adam to tighten his grip on the rein. Once the animal had settled, Adam sat back in his saddle.

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“I didn’t find him.”

Both Joe and Hoss visibly relaxed.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop looking.”

Joe dismounted and walked to Adam’s horse. With his hands on his hips, he stared up at his older brother. “You gotta leave it alone, Adam. Pa warned you about Tully so you wouldn’t be surprised if you ran into him, not so’s you can go looking for him and start even more trouble.” He took a quick step back when Adam suddenly jumped down to face him.

“I don’t want trouble, Joe, I want this finished.” He spat the word violently, his eyes burning into Joe’s. “Tully and I were friends, we were partners, but then . . .” He stopped, expelled a long breath, and hung his head. “I don’t need to tell you; you know what happened. He blames me and will always blame me. When he left, I thought that was the end of it, that we’d never see him again, I’d not thought about Tully since. But now he’s back and from what Pa said, and what Clem told me this morning, he hasn’t forgotten a thing. It’s still as fresh with him as it was back then.” He reached out a hand and squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “I’ve got to settle this, Joe.” Adam looked up at Hoss. “Especially now.”

Hoss’s eyes narrowed. “Why especially now?”

“I went to see Hiram this morning.” Despite his suddenly dark mood, Adam couldn’t keep the smile from his face. “He’s going to begin formal adoption proceedings. Clara will legally be my daughter. No more waiting.”

Joe’s face broke out into a smile, and he grasped Adam’s hand still resting on his shoulder. “Adam, I don’t know what to say, that’s, that’s wonderful news.”

Hoss was off his horse in seconds and pulled Adam into a bear hug. “Oh, brother, we’ve been waitin’ to hear that fer months.” He grinned. “It’s a good thing we’re havin’ a party, we’ve got somethin’ to celebrate now.” He stopped and frowned. “Hey, did you know that’s what Hiram was goin’ to say?”

Adam laughed. “No, I went in there fully expecting to hear I’d need to wait another six months.” His eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to him. “We won’t tell Clara, not yet. I’ll tell Pa when we get home, but I wanna tell Clara at the party. Announce it to everyone.”

“Whatever you say, Adam, it’s your party,” said Joe.

“It’s Clara’s party,” replied Adam with a smile. But then his smile faded. “And this is why I need to deal with Tully. He’s like an obstinate black cloud threatening to cast a shadow over a bright day.”

“What you gonna do?”

Adam met Hoss’s enquiring look. “I don’t know. But the first thing is to find him and talk to him.”

Joe nodded. “Well, we’re with you, brother, whatever you do, we’ve got your back.”

***

“Hey, Pa!” Adam strode through the front door, tossed his hat on to the sideboard and reached down to untie his gun belt. “I’ve got news.” He peered around the clock to the alcove which housed his father’s desk. “Where are you, you old pirate?” Placing the gun belt next to his hat, he stepped deeper into the room but stopped abruptly at the sight of Clara staring at him from the dining room table, her schoolbooks spread in front of her and the widow McCready at her side.

Clara beamed a smile. “Hi, Adam.”

“Mr. Cartwright.’ Mrs. McCready’s strong Irish brogue sang across the room.

“What are you—”

Ben’s boots sounded on the stairs as he rapidly descended and Adam twisted to face him, confusion writ large on his face. “Pa? What’s going on? Why’s Clara not in school?”

Ben steered Adam towards the front door. “I didn’t have a chance to talk to you yesterday, what with all the excitement about the party.”

“Tell me what?” Adam pulled his arm free of his father’s grip. “What’s going on?”

“Outside, son.”

Wearing a scowl, and his good mood fast evaporating, Adam led the way onto the porch. He swung around to face his father; his arms crossed high on his chest.

“Now, Adam, I want you to stay calm.”

Adam squeezed his hands under his armpits. “Pa, I am calm, but if you don’t tell me what’s going on, there’s a strong chance I won’t be.”

Ben took a deep breath. “I took Clara out of school as soon as Tully started making threats.”

“Why? It’s me he’s got a—”

“Because he wasn’t only threatening you.” Ben took a slow breath. “Someone must have told him about Clara, and—”

Adam didn’t let him finish. He pushed past his father and was in the house, strapping his gun belt on, by the time Ben had caught up with him. “Adam, don’t do anything foolish.”

Forcing his hat down hard on his head, Adam bent to retie his holster tie. “You should have told me this yesterday, Pa.” His long legs strode back to where Sport was tied to the hitching post. “I went looking for him this morning, but he was nowhere to be found.” With one foot in the stirrup, he had yanked Sport around before he even had his leg over the animal’s back. “This time I’m not leaving town until I’ve had it out with him.”

“Adam, come back!” Ben shouted as he ran after him. But it was no good. Adam was gone. Horse and rider were galloping away from the house with a cloud of dust billowing in their wake.

The shouts and pounding hooves drew Hoss and Joe out of the barn where they’d been putting up their horses. Running to their father’s side, the three men watched as Adam disappeared out of sight.

“I take it you told ‘im about Tully?”

Ben glanced towards Hoss and nodded.

“Shouldn’t we go after him?”

With a sigh, Ben shook his head. “No, this is something your brother has to take care of himself.”

“But when Adam catches up with Tully, he might kill ‘im.”

A pair of angry brown eyes flashed darkly as they looked at Hoss. “If that’s what you think your brother will do, then you don’t know him very well.” And with a fierce glare at first Hoss, then Joe, he turned on his heel and strode back to the house.

***

Adam’s fury had waned by the time he arrived in town.

Poor Sport had been ridden hard down the track away from the ranch. Across low-lying yellow hills, he flew, up inclines and down though scrubby brush. Once more on the level, the animal had to garner what energy remained when Adam urged him into a flat-out run. It was only when Sport’s puffy, laboured breathing interrupted his master’s rage, did Adam realise, with shame, that he had been abusing his animal. He gradually slowed the run into a lope then walked the rest of the way into town. Sport deserved some attention after three long rides in one day, so he paid Ed at the livery to rub him down, water him and feed him his best oats.

As Adam walked out into the street, he deliberated where to start his search for Tully. Most of the saloons could be found along this stretch of road, it was only a case of which end to start. He poked into his pocket for a dime and flipped it into the air, slapping it hard on the back of his hand. Decision made, he began his search.

It was as he approached the Silver Dollar that he knew, without even entering, he’d found his man. Tully’s loud, strident tones could be heard on the street, berating the double-crossing, conceited, backstabbing son of a flea-bitten dog that was Adam Cartwright. Adam paused and took a long sigh, shaking his head at the words that reached his ears. He then pushed on the doors and took a step inside.

Finn Tullivan was holding court to anyone that would listen, which was no one, at least not willingly. Slumped over a table with his hand gripped tightly round the neck of a whiskey bottle, he was ogling the liquid that sloshed within the confines of his shot glass. Any patron unlucky enough to be passing was pulled down to his level for Tully to repeat over and again his complaints.

It didn’t take long before he noticed Adam standing at the entrance. His glass came to a halt in front of his mouth, and he gaped at the man he was denigrating, his eyes wide with surprise. He looked back at the liquor, contemplated his drink for a moment, and then tipped the firewater down his throat. Banging the empty glass down hard on the table, he grabbed the bottle, and pushed himself to his feet.

“Well, if it ain’t my old pal, Adam Cartwright.” He opened his arms wide to encompass the saloon’s congregation. “Let’s give him a good ol’ rousing Virginia City welcome, boys!” The bottle was discarded onto a nearby table. Tully lurched forward clapping one sharp clap at a time. His audience turned away and melted into the dark corners of the saloon. Turning their backs at the bar, they hunched low over their drinks.

Tully came to a swaying halt in front of Adam and looked around at his, now silent, fellow drinkers. “What, no welcome for the great Adam Cartwright?”

Adam said nothing. Despite Tully’s threats to Clara, seeing him now, Adam felt nothing but pity for the wretch of a man stood before him. A pair of bloodshot eyes blinked at him over sun-aged skin and a beard that had taken on a life of its own. A bedraggled coonskin hat sat on the table behind him. It was in as filthy a condition as Tully’s fringed buckskin jacket that reeked of carrion and blood. It was proving tough for Adam to keep the contempt from his face. So he didn’t try, and as he stood loosely in front of Tully, he stared down his nose, unblinking, at his former friend.

Tully sniffed and took an unsteady step back and with a bowed head stumbled to his table, one hand grabbing the bottle on the way. “You always did know how to make a man feel that small,” he muttered, pressing his thumb and index finger together. He fell into his seat and roughly poured a fresh shot of whiskey. The drink slopped onto the table. Tully stared at the spillage for a moment and then brushed his hand through it in anger, sprinkling droplets across the floor.

The chatter in the saloon began to grow as the patrons turned away, suddenly bored when the anticipated brawl didn’t happen.

For a moment Adam didn’t move but watched the crowd withdraw into their own lives and affairs. But then he walked to where Tully was slumped, pulled over a chair and lowered himself down.

“I heard you were back.”

Tully met his gaze. “It ain’t the first time. I been back from the hills afore.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

With a thud, Tully dropped his glass to the table and leaned toward Adam. “And how in hell would you know, you being away all this time?” He sat back in his chair so brusquely the seatback complained with an alarming creak. “I bet you think I came back ’cause of you.” Tully sneered. “That’s it, ain’t it? You think I’m back ’cause of you?”

“Well, aren’t you?”

Tully leaned back over the table. “Doggonit, Cartwright, your head is bigger than a pregnant sow’s belly.”

A smile tugged at Adam’s lips. “I’ve had worse things said about me. And maybe it’s true.” He cocked his head. “But it’s also true the only reason you’re here is you heard I’d returned.”

The smell of sour whiskey drifted across the table as Tully blew out a long breath. He glowered at Adam, his nostrils flared over narrowed lips, but then pulled his gaze away and snatched up the bottle. It was empty. “Barkeep!” He waved the bottle in the direction of the bar. “Another!”

The barman didn’t move from where he was polishing the mirror behind the bar. “Tully, I already let you put two on your tab,” he said to Tully’s reflection in the glass. “Unless you pay what you owe, I’m not inclined to extend your credit.”

Tully stumbled to his feet, his hands probing deeply into his pockets. “Credit, what are you saying about credit? I ain’t never owed a cent to anyone my whole life. I’ll pay you.” He sat back down. “Just as soon as I’ve sorted out my financial situation,” he mumbled, still patting down his clothing for hidden pockets of cash. Adam twisted in his chair. “Sam, I’ll cover his bill. And the extra bottle.”

“If you’re sure?” came Sam’s reply as he lay down his polishing cloth.

“Hell! No! I don’t want nothing from you,” spat Tully, once again fumbling to stand.

Sam appeared at the table. He pulled the cork on a fresh bottle, placed it on the table and returned to his position behind the bar.

The bottle sat between them—a test of Tully’s endurance. Neither man touched it. Tully eyed the clear copper liquid, his tongue flickering over his lips as he tried to avoid giving into temptation. But this was one test Tully didn’t care to win. A slug of whiskey was but moments in his glass before it was swallowed down.

“Don’t you think because I let you buy this liquor that everything’s square between us, ‘cause it ain’t. I still hate your guts.”

Adam shifted back to face Tully. “Understood.” He watched as Tully poured another shot, lifted it to his mouth but then let the untouched spirit drop to the table.

“What do you want, Cartwright? Why are you buying me drinks and acting like there’s nothing between us?”

Adam leaned forward. “Because I want this over with, Tully. You blame me for everything gone wrong in your life. What happened wasn’t my fault.”

With a violent slap, Tully brought his hand down hard on the table. His glass jumped in protest.

“Not your fault? Not your fault?” Tully looked around him at the suddenly quiet saloon. “He says it’s not his fault.” He glared at Adam. “My boy died because of you. My wife left me. I ended up with nothing but a tired old mule and the clothes on my back.”

Adam took a long breath. “Caroline leaving was not down to me. Nor was losing your job and home. It was because of this.” He picked up the shot glass and slammed it down on the table in front of Tully, spilling the contents in the process. “Richie’s death was an accident. A sad, tragic accident. No one could have prevented it.”

Tears formed in Tully’s eyes. “If you hadn’t . . .” He dropped his head on to his arms and when he spoke his words were muffled. “My boy, my only boy.” He wiped his eyes across his sleeve. But when he lifted his head, the anger he felt for Adam was still hard in his eyes.

“We was friends once, Cartwright. You ate at my table, taught my boy how to play checkers. Caroline looked forward to your visits; said you brought elegant conversation into our home. But then you told me about the mine on your land, and everything changed.”

“If I could turn back time—”

“Well, you cain’t. No one can. If only . . . If only, you’d let Richie come in with us to see that seam of silver—”

“It wasn’t safe, and you know it. The whole place needed shoring up before we could do any proper work in there. And a mine is no place for a ten-year-old boy—”

“A ten-year-old boy who took it upon his self to go back, when no one was lookin’. You’d gone off to the assay office, clutching them sparkly rocks you’d picked up in there, and I’d gone to my shift at the Ophir. And I thought, God almighty, I thought he’d gone home to his ma.” Tully’s voice shook as he rested his head on his hand. “It was only when he never came home, and I found Caroline waitin’ for me, wringing her hands and wet-eyed and we found his pony, still tied up outside that damn mine.”

Adam looked away. It was a struggle to hear Tully speak about his son, and Adam couldn’t look at this man still so lost in his grief.

Tully thumped his hand on the table. “If you’d only let him come in with us, he’d never have gone back by himself. He’d never have . . .”

The room was deathly quiet as Tully whispered. “He’s still in there, my Richie, buried under a mountain of rock.” His eyes flashed at Adam. “Along with your precious silver.”

Adam sighed and bowed his head. After a moment he twisted in his seat and raised a finger to the barkeeper. Sam wasted no time in reaching under the bar for a new glass, polishing it vigorously as he brought it over to the table. After he’d poured himself a slug, Adam gulped it back in one. His fingers cradled the glass. “I’m sorry about Richie—”

“I don’t want your sympathy.”

“At least let me help you. Come back with me to the Ponderosa, we’ll get you cleaned up—”

“I don’t want your help!” Tully stood so sharply his seat crashed to the floor. “I don’t want nothing from you. Nothing!”

Adam took a long breath. “I’m sorry about your son. But blaming me isn’t going to bring him back.”

“It’s all I got left.”

Adam shook his head and rose to his feet, picking up his hat as he stood. He walked to the bar counter and laid a few coins down for Sam, then turned to look at Tully. Whatever sympathy he had for his former friend had faded fast. He couldn’t keep the impatience from his voice.

“I came here to tell you to stay away from my family, to quit your threats. But it’s clear you’re not capable of doing anything but feel sorry for yourself. You’re all talk. You were all talk then and it’s no different now. But the offer still stands, Tully. I’ll help you get back on your feet again. But if all you want to do is wallow in self-pity, then do us all a favour: take your mule, and your threats and ride out of here.”

He bowed his head to don his hat and threw the swaying Tully one last look before he exited onto the boardwalk. A glass smashed against the swinging doors behind him, and Adam raised an eyebrow at the shattered splinters scattered around his feet. Then, after a slow exhalation of air, he walked down the street to retrieve his horse.

***

Adam felt relieved as he headed away from the saloon. Tully was no threat. The man was as ineffectual now as he’d been when his son had let curiosity outweigh common-sense and wandered into a mine that groaned and trembled with every step.

It was an episode in his life Adam was keen to forget; but it was embedded so deeply in his memory that every moment seemed like it happened yesterday. He and Tully had taken tentative, cautious steps as they approached the seam exposed in a recent rockfall. Careful to keep their hands and elbows away from the wet glistening walls, they had scarcely breathed as they tiptoed down the tunnel. And there, sparkling in the light from their lantern, was a line of crystals which told them there was silver in the mountain. Clutching several rocks that had lain strewn at their feet, they had grinned and retreated into the sun’s brilliance, shielding their eyes, and laughing at their find.

God only knew how Richie triggered the mine’s collapse. Perhaps he nudged one of the rotted timbers left there by previous silver-seekers, or maybe he had tried to clamber over the rockfall to get to the seam and the roof had come down on him.

The sight that greeted them changed Tully forever. The boy’s small pony was still tied a short distance away, its black pelt and saddle covered in a fine layer of white dust. But the mine entrance was no longer there, only a heap of rock and stone and earth, spilled out across the ground like a tidemark. The entire hill had caved in.

Adam had watched Tully try desperately to bury down through the rubble with his bare hands. But it was no good, anyone could see that. His attempt to talk Tully down had fallen on deaf ears; his friend’s mind and hands were fixed only on what was buried beneath. Adam had clambered up the rock pile to Tully’s side and pleaded with him to stop, but Tully had not taken his eyes from his task and pushed Adam away. Adam had to grab him around the waist and pull him backwards off the pile to make him cease his fruitless labour. They had both tumbled hard to the ground, Tully landing on top of Adam with a jolt. But neither of them had felt the hard stony rocks beneath their bodies. Tully rolled onto his side, curled into a ball, and cried open-mouthed into the dirt. And when Adam tried to help him up, Tully had thrown off his friend’s hands and hurled a look of such hatred at Adam that he’d physically recoiled.

And thus, it began.

Nothing Adam said would get through to him. Tully placed Richie’s death squarely on Adam’s shoulders. It was Adam’s mine; Adam should never have involved Tully; Adam should have let Richie go in the mine with them; Adam shouldn’t have stopped him from digging, his boy may have been alive under all that rock.

At first, Adam’s sympathy stayed his sharp tongue, but when Tully began to drown his sorrows at the bottom of a glass and badmouthed Adam to anyone who would listen, he could stay silent no longer. On a visit to the cabin Tully shared with his wife on the Ponderosa’s border, Adam found Tully sat amongst the wreckage of his once immaculate home, and Caroline nowhere to be found. She’d upped and left Tully to his self-pity. Adam’s patience snapped, his sympathies worn thin by a man unable to see his own actions had driven everyone away who cared for him.

For a long time afterwards, Adam wondered whether he’d been too blunt with the man, whether he should have ignored the self-inflicted misery and the hurtful words flung at him and physically put him on the back of a horse and taken him home to the Ponderosa to mend. But Adam’s patience wasn’t limitless. Tully had sat in what remained of the furniture he’d smashed to a thousand pieces and spat at Adam with bile, screaming he would kill Adam if it were the last thing he ever did. Adam had turned on his heel and walked out, and not seen Tully again until today.

But now he felt as though a weight had been lifted. He’d offered the man help, which had been thrown back in his face. What else could he do? And so, Tully was banished from his mind and wouldn’t warrant another crease on his brow.

As he headed towards the livery stables, greeting friends and acquaintances with a cheery disposition, Adam began to issue invitations to the Ponderosa’s gathering that coming weekend. The up-and-coming social drew willing acceptances and many a Virginia City resident carried on their way in anticipation for one of the Cartwrights’ celebrated parties. Virginia City was a happy place that day.

For all but one person.

***

Tully had listened to Adam’s pompous speech with a burning hatred flaming up inside. How dare he tell him to leave town and say he was wallowing in self-pity. And as for his help, he could take that and shove it down his britches. As the bat-wing doors swung together behind his former friend, Tully hurled his glass at Adam’s back. He eyed the liquor dripping to the floor, before turning to the bottle on the table in front of him—the bottle Cartwright had bought. Grabbing it with one hand, he lumbered over to the bar and slammed it on the bar top. “Feed it to the pigs. It’s tainted.” Then, just about managing to put one foot in front of the other, and clinging to every available chair, post and passing patron, he stumbled out of the saloon.

The dust raised by a passing wagon caught in his throat and eyes. He coughed and his eyes started to water. Wiping a dirty sleeve over his face, he staggered the short distance to the boarding house where he shared a room with three other men. His room was vacant, much to his relief, and as he collapsed back on his cot, his eyes began to water even more until the tears were flowing. Tully’s shoulders slumped and shook as he moaned, the memories of his boy too painful to contain. But Adam’s face kept creeping into his vision and his anguish was overshadowed by a festering hatred that burned beneath the surface. With a snort he abruptly stopped his tears and sat unmoving. Then, grabbing the nearest object to hand, he threw a boot across the room where it bounced off the opposite wall.

“God damn you, Adam Cartwright,” he cried, “God damn you!” His hat and a mug of water soon followed the boot. Saliva filled his mouth as he drove up to his feet and rested his hands on the windowsill, breathing hard as he tried to calm himself. A figure in black caught his eye on the street below: Adam was riding slowly up the centre of the road.

He turned his back on the window and ran a hand down his face. Adam had to be right, didn’t he? He always had to be right. But the frustrating thing was, this time, Adam was right.

Life in the hills was an endless trial, a constant struggle to catch enough quarry to make a living with whoever would pay the most for his hides. When he wasn’t setting traps or skinning pelts, he was simply trying to stay alive. In his years in the wilderness, he’d been bitten by snakes, contended with grizzlies, survived rainstorms which washed his camp out from under him, and even come face to face with an angry Shoshone or two. He never thought about his old life, of Caroline and his boy. The pain of their loss would remain forever raw; better to never let their faces surface in his memories. Tully existed, he survived, but that was it. There was no pleasure, no joy in his life. He sometimes wondered why he fought against the wild creatures he trapped. Why not let them kill him and be done with it? But it seemed there was still a tiny part of him that wanted to live. Unfinished business kept him breathing.

He seldom came down from the mountains, choosing instead to sell his skins at the yearly rendezvous held by whatever fur-trading company he hadn’t fallen out with. He would stay away from his fellow trappers, and they would stay away from the man who scowled at so much as a nod. It was at a rendezvous up near Carson City that a traveller recognised him and took great relish in informing him that Adam Cartwright was back on the Ponderosa; that he had been for nearly a year. Tully had watched the man walk away and look back to gauge his reaction. But Tully hadn’t given him the satisfaction, and only when he was alone, did he release the repressed hatred he felt for Cartwright and let it consume him once more. He bought himself a bottle of rotgut and drank himself senseless there and then. On waking, he purchased another bottle and turned his mule in the direction of Virginia City.

So, Adam was right, though he wouldn’t give that jumped-up bluebelly the satisfaction of knowing it. But it was true: the only reason Tully was back in this too-noisy, too-bustling town was because of Adam Cartwright.

He turned back to the window and wiped his clenched fist over the dirty glass, looking down on the black hat and straight back of the man he hated. Tully’s breathing slowed and his nostrils flared.

“You just wait, Adam Cartwright, I’m gonna shoot you dead and spit on your bones.” His eyes fixed on Adam’s back. “You just wait.”

 

***

Four Cartwrights, a thirteen-year-old girl and an already harried Chinaman gathered around the dining table, Hop Sing hovering anxiously at Ben’s shoulder.

“Hop Sing, would you sit down, you’re making me nervous.”

“You nervous? Hop Sing have three day to prepare food, clean house, sew up hole in Little Joe best shirt. No time to sit.”

Ben threw him an exasperated glance then turned to the amused faces around the table. “Right, well, as Hop Sing just told us, we have three days to prepare the best party the Ponderosa has ever laid on.”

He opened a journal and licked the end of a pencil in readiness.

“Pa, we’ve arranged lots of parties before, we know what to do.”

Ben peered down his nose at Joe. “Yes, but this is a special one, for Clara, so I don’t want anything to go wrong.”

Throwing a wink at Clara made her grin from ear to ear.

“Now, Joe, seeing as how you need no instructions, I’ll leave you in charge of decorations. I don’t need to tell you that the box of Chinese lanterns is in the attic, and they’ll need to be dusted, stretched into shape and hung up over the front of the house.”

“Er, Pa, you just told me. But why am I always the one who ends up in the attic?” Joe’s upper lip curled. “I’m sure there’s rats up there, I can hear tiny feet running across the ceiling at night.”

Ben pursed his lips and gave his youngest a pointed look. “Because I asked you to.” He made a note in his journal. “And while you’re up there, you can deal with the rats.”

A booming laugh from Hoss made the cups rattle in their saucers.

“Hoss, once we’ve decided on what we’ll serve, I want you to go to town and buy everything Hop Sing needs.”

Leaning over Ben’s shoulder, Hop Sing poked a finger at where Ben was writing a list in his journal. “How many people come? Hop Sing good, but not that good.”

Ben frowned. “Don’t worry, just cook what you’re good at—”

“Apple pie.”

“Fried chicken.”

“Potato salad.”

Hop Sing shook his head as everyone relayed their favourite foods. “You want feed five thousand, Hop Sing need help.” And grumbling under his breath, he trotted back into the kitchen.

“Poor Hop Sing,” said Clara.

Adam grinned. “This is simply Hop Sing being Hop Sing. He’s the same every time; works himself up into a frenzy, prepares far too much and then forgets every guest will bring a plate with them so he could have saved himself half the trouble.” He leaned back in his chair and threw one arm over the back. “We should get a side of beef from the smokehouse for a spit-roast.”

Hoss patted his stomach and licked his lips.

“Does it have to be beef?”

Four slightly shocked faces looked at Clara.

“I prefer pork.”

There was a moment of silence and then Hoss bellowed a laugh. “She lives on a cattle ranch an’ prefers pig.”

Ben smiled. “It’s your party and if a hog roast is what you’d prefer.” He knocked the pencil against his teeth. “Hoss, ride up to Matthew Wallace’s place tomorrow and see if he’ll sell you one of his. None of ours are big enough yet.”

“Yessir.”

“Now then, music.”

Adam sat forward. “I was thinking of asking the Ruddles.”

There was a whoop from Joe. “Hot diggidy, Adam, that’s a great idea. They’re so good they could even get the Ladies Temperance League up and dancing.”

He sat back and folded his arms at a stern frown from his father, but Joe’s lips couldn’t stop itching into a smile as he exchanged a sidelong look with his older brothers.

“I’m going to ride over tomorrow and see if they’ll do it,” said Adam.

“Can I come?” Clara stretched over the table towards Adam, a hopeful expression on her face.”

“You’ve got schooling, young lady.”

“Please?” Clara slouched over the table and stretched her arms towards Adam.

With eyebrows raised high, Adam looked at her and mouthed no.

Clara groaned and let her body collapse onto the table. Adam stood, empty cup in hand, and moved behind the chairs to where the coffee pot sat at his father’s elbow. As he passed Clara, he gently leaned over and pulled her upright. Clara wore a mock frown as she slumped back in her chair.

Laughing, Adam poured a fresh cup of coffee. “You let us do the organising. All you need to do is enjoy the party.”

Ben closed his journal. “That’s all settled. Hoss will get the hog and food, Joe’s in charge of decorations and Adam the music. On the morning itself we’ll push all the furniture back.” He looked at his family. “And then we, too, will enjoy the party.”

With a frown, Joe looked over at his father. “Uh, Pa, what’s your job?”

Ben stood up and pointed his pencil at him. “I’m in charge of the punch.” He winked, and as his boys laughed, tugged down his vest. “Now wish me luck as I tackle Hop Sing and the party menu.” He turned away from the table, squared his shoulders and headed for the kitchen.

The brothers sat back in their seats, drinking their coffee, and listened to the voices in the kitchen as they grew louder and crankier, though no one could tell who was winning the argument. But then the shouting started, and with a grin, they pushed their chairs back from the table and made a hasty departure to the safety of the yard.

***

Clara skipped down the path away from the big ranch house. She was too old to skip, she knew that, but when she was happy, she couldn’t help herself. And today, the day of the party, she was as happy as a kid goat bounding and leaping through the air at the sheer joy of being alive.

Having spent much of her childhood amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City, Mama had frowned upon any display of less-than-decorous behaviour. Young ladies did not dance and skip along the street; they walked with a measured gait looking directly ahead, with a straight back, lowered shoulders, and modest comportment. It was only when Clara had come to live on the Ponderosa that she had learned to run and jump. On her first day at school, she had observed the younger girls as they played hopscotch and skipped around the schoolyard. That night she had tried skipping across her bedroom, but there wasn’t enough space to move without knocking into furniture or walls. A few days later she had found herself alone in front of the house and, after she’d looked about to make sure no one was around, had skipped across to the barn and back, laughing out loud as she felt a looseness and abandonment of body for the first time in her life.

About four months after her arrival at the Ponderosa she had awoken to find what her mama referred to as her ‘flowering’ had begun. Living in the all-male Cartwright household, she had stayed hidden within her room until Adam had knocked at her door, concerned by her non-appearance at breakfast. He had discovered her sitting up in bed with her arms wrapped around her knees, enshrouded in a blanket, and a bedsheet scrunched up in her hands. After much persuasion she had disclosed what had occurred, and—Clara would always look back on this day with a smile—a faint look of panic had passed over Adam’s face. He had risen and backed away to the door, muttering he would take the buggy to Mrs. McCready and bring her straightaway.

Clara was growing up, her body changing, and childish pleasures no longer seemed so enticing. But the child in her lingered, and on a day like today, she would skip.

Over breakfast that morning, she had asked Adam if she could pick wildflowers to decorate the house. Adam had been hesitant, insisting Mrs. McCready would be with them before long to help her dress and do her hair and there was too much to do before their guests arrived to let Clara go gallivanting across the Ponderosa on a search for wildflowers. On her insistence that she knew the perfect place to find them, and that it was within view of the house, Adam had relented, but with the stipulation she go no further and be back within thirty minutes. She had flung her arms around his neck, given him a kiss on the cheek, and run out of the house before Adam had a chance to insist she take her plate and cutlery into the kitchen to help an exceedingly flustered Hop Sing.

She followed a path through the forest created by thirty years of Cartwright boots trooping down to the fishing pond at the foot of the hills which led to the high pasture. Wildflowers bloomed across the forest floor, but she let these be unless a particularly beautiful specimen caught her eye. No, her destination was a sun-dappled clearing in an aspen grove where the flowers grew in such abundance, she could pick a whole armful and appear not to have made a mark. The clearing shone like a hazy beacon as Clara approached, a basket swinging to and fro as she skipped. She broke through the trees to a sea of colour, where a cloud of tiny flies pirouetted in the rays from the sun, and a feeling of such peace washed over her that she closed her eyes and breathed in the warmth and fragrance from the flowers. The only sound to be heard was the tumbling song of a solitaire hidden at the top of a pine and the soft rustle of the leaves as the wind stirred the canopy high above.

Clara opened her eyes and looked down to her feet where delicate white phlox and crimson prairie fire spread in all directions. Swaying above them were blue star-like camas flowers and as Clara picked her way through the flora, she bent down to let her fingers brush against their tall undulating stems. It was Adam who had taught her the names of the flowers. She recalled their time alone in the wilderness and how delighted Adam had been at the sight of a meadow alive with Indian paintbrush. It had reminded him of the home he’d been away from for so long. Clara had been too miserable, and grief-stricken to take any pleasure in it. But once she had settled into her new home, Adam had made it his mission to educate her about the trees and plants that surrounded them. She smiled as she remembered. Reaching down, she ran her fingers over the spiky blooms of a mountain pennyroyal. The smell of mint drifted through the air. Taking a deep breath, she breathed it in, along with the verdant smell of grass and earth.

Clara suddenly noticed a single golden bloom standing proud of all the other flowers. It was an alpine lily, its petals wide open to the warming sunlight. She tiptoed gently through the wildflowers towards it, being careful not to crush too many beneath her feet. Dropping to her knees, she breathed in the lily’s scent that was stronger and more intoxicating than its fellows. It was her mama’s favourite flower, and suddenly Clara could smell her mother’s perfume on the air. Her fingers traced the delicate edge of the petals.

As she gazed upon the precious bloom, a breeze rustled the tips of the trees and she heard, over the whisper of the wind, the solitaire singing its song. What had once sounded so joyful now seemed imbued with melancholy as the bird sang out its heartfelt search for a mate and received no response. Clara lost her smile and sighed.

“Oh, Mama, I miss you so much.” She sat back on her heels, still touching the flower before her. “It’s been such a long time since I last spoke to you.”

Every night, for months after her arrival at the Ponderosa, Adam would lay a kiss on her brow, bid her goodnight, and close the door gently behind him. She would wait until she could no longer hear his tread in the hall then climb out of bed, pad to the windowsill, and kneel on the floor to stare up at the night sky. If the night were clear, she would fix her eyes on the brightest star in the firmament. If it were overcast, she would look for the brightness behind the clouds that told her where the moon could be found. And she would talk to her mother. She would speak of everything that happened that day, of the new things she had learned living on a ranch. She would tell her mother about Ben’s kindness and Hoss’s fluffy hair and Joe’s giggle, of learning to ride, and rope, and how she’d branded her first calf. But most of all she would talk about Adam and how he was the father she’d always dreamed of, how she loved him more with each passing day. But as she became more settled, and the shock of her mother’s death morphed from grief to numbness and then to acceptance, her nightly talks began to trail off. It had been two or three months now since she had sought the comfort of the moon and stars.

She looked down at the speckled red petals of the lily. “There’s going to be a party tonight. All our friends and neighbours will be coming, and we’re going to have a band and dancing and even a hog roast.” She smiled. “If you could only see Hop Sing. I don’t think he’s slept in three nights.” Her fingers traced a line down the stem. “I’m hoping Henry Milton will come. He’s new around here, and Mr. Cartwright says it’ll be a good chance for his mama and papa to meet everyone. His papa owns a feed store in town.” Clara’s cheeks blushed. “I really like him, Mama. He’s got a cute little dimple on his chin and red hair which stands up all spiky. I think he likes me too. I see him looking at me at school, but he gets shy when I look back.” Clara went silent for a few moments as she considered how, for the first time, she wanted to be near a boy, and not running away from them all the time. “Oh, Mama, if you hadn’t died, maybe you and Adam . . .” She sighed and leant over the flower. “I love you, Mama,” she whispered, and her fingers traced a line down the stem, digging into the soil to pull out the bud. But then she paused and sat back. No, she wouldn’t pick this flower, it would stay standing sentinel over the rest. Her mama’s flower.

Someone cleared their throat behind her.

She twisted on her heels. A man was crouched at the edge of the clearing watching her, a long blade of grass in his mouth. She jumped to her feet at the same time as the stranger slowly rose.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to startle yer.”

Clara froze on the spot and hurriedly looked around her to see if anyone else was in the clearing. As her head swung back to face him, Clara realised, with a jolt, that she was entirely alone in the aspen grove with this unknown stranger. All sorts of thoughts began to race through her mind. She’d heard about the bad things that men did to girls; she didn’t understand what, but these things were always whispered about behind raised hands, and not spoken of in company. Did this man want, what did they call it, his ‘way’ with her? He wasn’t making any move towards her, just standing there with his head cocked studying her like she was a Greek statue in a museum. But his scrutiny was making her jumpy.

All was quiet as the strange man and Clara stared at each other across the clearing. There was no sound except the thump, thump, thump of her heart that had begun to pound heavily in her chest. How long had he been there, listening to her talk?

And then another thought struck her with horror. Was this man one of her father’s men, sent to steal her away from the Ponderosa, to a life in a strange country, away from Adam? Then again, he didn’t look like the sort of man she imagined her real father would send. This man looked like a scruffy Davy Crockett. He even had the racoon hat and fringed jacket.

He took a step forward.

Thrusting the basket of flowers in front of her like a shield, she stumbled back a step. “Don’t come any closer. Who are you? What do you want?”

The man scratched his butt cheeks with his hands. “I was passing through and saw yer sittin’ there.”

Clara took another step back. “No one passes by here, not by the house.” She twisted a shoulder back to show her proximity to the ranch. It wasn’t in sight, but Clara was too unnerved to let that detail stop her. “You’re on private land, the Ponderosa. My father’s not far away.”

The man took a step forward. “Your father?” He squinted and angled his head to one side. “And who might that be?”

Clara’s mouth was dry, but she wasn’t going to show any fear. Wearing a mask of false bravado, she raised her chin. “Adam Cartwright, that’s who.”

For a few moments the man stared at Clara, his face unmoving and expressionless. But then he laughed. “Well, Adam Cartwright is an old pal of mine. Me and him go ways back.”

She blinked in surprise. “You do?”

“Well sure. Me and Adam was always sharing a beer down the Silver Dollar, and he would come by my cabin to share vittles and a little firewater I cooked up.” He sniggered.

Clara found it hard to believe Adam would call this scruffy, unkempt man a friend. She also couldn’t believe this man lived anywhere but under the open sky, with only the laden-down mare, standing a short distance behind him, for company.

The man edged forward. “I didn’t know Adam had a daughter.”

“Um, well, he’s not my real father. He’s my guardian.”

The man’s face quirked. “So, you’re the latest Cartwright stray.”

Clara’s forehead creased into a frown. “I’m no stray. Adam saved my life and brought me here to live with him ‘cause I had nowhere to go.”

One of the man’s eyebrows rose. “Sounds like a stray to me.” He moved towards Clara though the sea of flowers, but Clara in her anger and stubbornness stood her ground. He stopped in front of her.

“So, Adam’s got hisself a kid. A pretty one too.” The man peered at her, looking straight into her eyes. Clara’s head slid slowly back, away from the strange man. “You and my boy got the same colour eyes.”

Relaxing a little, Clara looked around her, suddenly hopeful this man may have a family nearby, that she wasn’t alone with this disquieting man. If there were children nearby, she wouldn’t feel so alarmed. “Oh, is he here?”

The man’s smile faded. “He’s dead.” The words were flat.

He took a step to the side, his eyes straying over every inch of her face and hair as he circled around her. Clara was pinned to the spot, her legs refusing to move, and as he appeared again within her vision, a dirty hand reached out to finger her hair. “I ain’t never seen hair that colour afore. Almost white.”

Clara’s heart hammered in her chest. She wanted to run, but her body wouldn’t move. The man’s eyes were fixed on her hair, studying the strands that separated as he rubbed them through his fingers.

“It don’t seem fair. My boy is dead, and all because of my ol’ pal Adam. And yet, he gets to play at being a daddy. No, it don’t seem right at all.”

Clara had no idea what he was talking about, but his proximity and the low tone of his voice was telling her to run. With a sudden burst of bravery, she pulled her hair out of his reach and flicked it over her shoulder. He looked at her and snorted a half-laugh as he took a step back. But then he stopped, his eyes lighting on the basket of flowers. Reaching in, he selected a small red blossom. Clara stood transfixed as he held it to his nose, inhaling the sweet scent. But then her breath caught in her throat when he leaned across and fixed it behind her ear.

“Yeah, you’re a pretty one, alright.”

His fingers trembled as they lingered past Clara’s cheek and he stared down at his shaking hand. He swiftly clutched it within his grip to hide the tremors.

Clara found her nerve.

“I’m late,” she stuttered, and turning, walked as fast as she could through the clearing, taking no notice of the blooms she trampled beneath her feet.

“Girlie?”

She had reached the path back to the house and paused at the sound of his voice.

“You tell my old pal, Adam, Tully sends his best regards.”

Clara looked over her shoulder and watched him walk unsteadily back to his mule, gripping and massaging his hand as he went. On reaching the animal, he pulled a flask from his pocket and took a long swig before mounting up.

And only when he had wheeled the mule around did Clara rip the flower from behind her ear, drop the basket of flowers, and run.

***

Clara threw open the ranch house door and rushed inside, her chest heaving up and down as she fought to catch her breath. She barely noticed the pushed-back furniture and the trestle tables overlaid with fresh linens, ready for Hop Sing’s refreshments and the expected contributions from guests. She didn’t even have a chance to gasp out Adam’s name when he appeared on the stairs, trotting down them in a clear hurry.

“Where have you been? I said half an hour and it’s—” He peered over her head at the grandfather clock. “You’ve been over an hour and a half. Mrs. McCready got here on time, and you’ve kept her waiting.”

“I’m sorry, but Adam, I need to talk to you.”

Adam moved past her, reaching for his hat and gun belt which he started to fix around his waist. “It’ll have to wait. I was about to send out a search party. People will start arriving soon.” He looked down at her. “Where are the flowers you went out to pick?”

Clara lowered her gaze. “I dropped them.”

“So, you went picking flowers, realised you were late and didn’t even bring back what you’d picked.”

Clara’s eyes widened. “No, Adam, it wasn’t like that.”

Her words were met with Adam’s raised palm held up to silence her. He bent down to fix the holster tie around his thigh.

“I don’t have time for this now. Jake Ruddle rode over to say his brother Matt, the fiddle player, has broken his wrist. I need to get over to the other side of the ranges to find Old Charlie and see if he’ll play. We can’t have a hoe-down without a fiddler.” Adam straightened up and donned his hat. “Now go. Mrs. McCready is waiting.” He raised a finger to her face. “And we’ll talk about this later.”

The door slammed behind him, leaving Clara staring at it in consternation. She released a long sigh before a crash and a quick burst of heated Cantonese drew her attention to the kitchen. She ran to find Hop Sing sweeping the remains of a plate into the corner of the room. The centre table was piled high with dishes in various stages of preparation; pots and pans covered every spare inch of the stove and Hop Sing’s face and hair were smeared with flour. He threw a glance at her as his broom swept hurriedly across the floor.

“Hop Sing have no time little missy now. Potatoes boil. Peas boil. Trout need dressing for table. Need make salad. Bread out of oven. Hop Sing forget to get pickles from cellar. Too much to do. No time.” He finished sweeping the broken dish into a heap. “No time even to clean up mess. You get ready. Go now.”

“Hop Sing, have you seen Hoss or Little Joe. Or Mister Ben?”

Hop Sing dug into the piles of food on to the table and withdrew a bowl of sliced apples which he began to lay in several pie dishes.

“Mister Hoss and Mister Joe have gone Leopard’s Pond for bath. No room on stove to heat water. Mister Ben gone to get spinster sisters, Miss Catherine and Miss Sarah, from their cabin. They too old to drive own buggy now.”

“Oh.” Clara traced a finger through the dusting of flour on the table.

“You go, no time to talk.” And clutching two slices of apple in his fingers, Hop Sing shooed Clara out of the kitchen.

It was with a heavy tread she climbed the stairs to where she knew Mrs. McCready was waiting in her bedroom. She had no one to talk to about her encounter with the man called Tully. He hadn’t harmed her; he hadn’t even said anything particularly untoward. But she couldn’t help but feel unsettled by their meeting. He had stood so close, touched her hair. And the way he had spoken about Adam. She didn’t believe he was Adam’s friend, any more than she was Adam’s blood daughter. It just wasn’t so.

***

It was clear to Mrs. McCready something was bothering her charge that morning. Clara let herself be tugged and tied into the dress Adam had bought for her, and it was only when Clara was seated in front of a mirror as Mrs. McCready pulled a brush through her long locks, that she broached the subject.

“You be awfully quiet this morning, macushla, what’s praying on your mind?”

Clara sighed. “Adam’s angry with me.”

“Aw, child, he’s got a lot on his mind. The gathering this afternoon, that new contract they all be talking about. Adam could never be angry with you.”

“I said I’d get wildflowers to decorate the house with for the celebration, but . . .”

“But what, child?”

Clara paused and took a breath.

“There was a man in the forest.”

Mary McCready’s hands came to a stop as she sought out Clara’s eyes in the mirror. “A man?” She moved around to Clara’s side, and with her hands on the girl’s shoulders, twisted her around to face her. “Did he do anything, Clara, did he hurt you, did he—”

Clara shook her head. “No, he just talked. But . . .”

“What, child, spit it out, for goodness’ sake.”

“I didn’t like what he said. He said he knew Adam, that it wasn’t fair Adam had got me, but his own son was dead.” She looked at the older woman whose face was lined with concern. “And he said it was Adam’s fault his son was dead.” Her hands twisted together in her lap as she looked down at them. “He touched my hair.”

Mary’s mouth opened in shock, “Oh, macushla, you’re safe now, that horrible man won’t come near you again.” Pulling a footstool out from under the dressing table, she lowered herself down, placing a soft hand on Clara’s knee. “Child, did that man be telling you his name?”

Clara nodded. “He said he was called Tully.”

Mary McCready managed to keep her face as expressionless as she could, but she, like everyone else in Virginia City, had heard the lies Tully had spread.

“Child, you need to be telling Mister Cartwright what occurred.”

Sitting bolt upright, Clara’s eyes flashed as she met Mrs. McCready’s concerned gaze. “No! I mean, I will, but not today, I don’t want to spoil the party.”

“Clara, this is important. If you won’t be telling Mister Cartwright, then I will.”

Clara leaned forward and grasped the older woman’s hands. “Please, Mrs. McCready, please don’t. Adam has worked so hard to get everything ready for today, and that man, Tully, he only scared me a bit. I’ll be fine now, and I promise I’ll tell Adam, but not until everyone has gone home.”

The older woman pursed her lips. “Will you promise me you’ll tell him tonight, after the party?”

“Yes, yes, oh, yes, I promise.”

With a heavy sigh, Mary McCready nodded. “Well, it goes against my better judgement, but, well, it’s not like you’ll be being all alone with all the people who’ll be coming, and you’ll be having Mister Cartwright and his pa, and his brothers.” She squeezed Clara’s hands still clutched within her own.

Clara pulled her hands free to wrap them around the older woman’s shoulders. “Oh, thank you, thank you. And I don’t feel so bad now. I think talking to you about it has made me realise it’s not as bad as I thought. He was nothing but a silly man trying to frighten me.” She turned back to the mirror as Mrs. McCready picked up the brush and resumed brushing her hair. “But I’m not frightened, not anymore. It’s going to be a wonderful party. I mean, what can possibly happen with so many people here?”

 

***

The floorboards were shaking.

Adam had planned to greet their guests as they arrived, share news and polite conversation, and then direct them towards the tables of food and his father’s famous punch. Then, after circulating amongst everyone for a short while, Adam would announce his impending adoption of Clara, to be followed by an afternoon and evening of dancing and tucking into the hog roast two hands were slowly turning on the spit outside.

It hadn’t gone to plan.

As soon as he had arrived back from collecting an enthusiastic Old Charlie, together with his fiddle, the old man had settled into the corner under the stairs and, with his foot tapping in time to his tune, played a spirited jingle to greet the arriving guests. When the Ruddles arrived, they settled around him: Jake with his accordion, Artie with his mandolin, Lester with his harmonica, and even Maxwell Burke, a ranch hand who had been on the Ponderosa a handful of weeks, surprised them all by sidling up to the players and twing-twanging away on his Jew’s Harp. Matt, the erstwhile fiddle player, sat with them, shaking a tin of beans in his good hand.

Before the guests had imbibed a sip of the punch or made a mark on the piles of food—much to the chagrin of Hop Sing who retired to the kitchen, complaining loudly in his native tongue—they had, one by one, grabbed a partner and begun to dance until the floorboards thrummed to the beat of a score of dancing couples whirling around the room to the tune of a lively polka.

Adam edged up to his father. Ben stood near his desk—which had forsaken its original purpose to take the weight of a growing number of pies, pickles and preserves—taping his foot and clapping in time to the music.

“I didn’t anticipate the dancing to start so soon,” Adam said into his father’s ear, loud enough to be heard above the music and whoops of the dancers.

Ben leant back to reply. “You know what they say: the best-laid plans . . .” He left the quote hanging and grinned as a couple spun by so close the woman’s dress brushed against his legs. “But look at them, Adam, what a glorious sight—it makes one feel invigorated, happy to be alive.”

Adam watched the dancers as they reeled in circles across the floor. He pointed. “There’s one man who’s looking very happy to be alive.” Joe had a young lady held firmly within his grip, one hand clasping hers, and the other secured around her waist, holding her as close to his body as propriety allowed. They twirled and laughed and wheeled from one side of the room to the other. As they passed the elderly spinsters and widows seated in a row by the hearth, a flutter of hankies was lifted to their mouths in shock at such forward behaviour. Adam laughed. “Joe had better watch out. Every father in Virginia City will be locking up his daughter to stop such scandalous behaviour from infecting his daughter.”

The musicians suddenly dropped a beat, but an instant later, and following the lead of Old Charlie, threw themselves back into the tune at a considerably faster tempo. The dancers whooped and picked up speed, spinning around at a dizzying pace. Several found it too much to take and within seconds, a handful of couples had dropped out, finding their breath as they collapsed into chairs laughing at the sheer joy of it all. Hoss and Bessie Sue Hightower spun out of the melee in front of Adam and Ben. Hoss laughed and gasped, bending over with his hands on his knees to suck in much-needed air. “Whooee, I ain’t had as much fun since Texas Willie let a sack of raccoons loose in the Sazarac.” He panted, his cheeks round and rosy as he craned his neck upwards, grinning his gap-toothed smile. “But my toes have sure taken a bashin’.”

Bessie Sue slapped Hoss on his back so hard he buckled under the force. “I only trod on you a couple of times, Hoss. And anyway, we’re just warming up; wait til they play the Scamperdown Double-Shuffle.”

Even above the music and the sound of countless boots stomping across the floor, Adam was sure he heard a groan from Hoss. Bessie Sue was oblivious. “My throat’s as dry as Peabald Flats in August. I’m gonna get me a beer. D’ya want a beer, Hoss? Pa’s got a couple of barrels of his home-brew outside.”

Straightening up with his hands in the small of his back, Hoss grinned. “Why, yes’m, a beer would be mighty appreciated ‘bout now.”

Bessie Sue looked over at Adam and Ben. “How about you fellas?”

Ben’s face had frozen into an expression of shock at the idea of a woman drinking beer. He shook himself. ‘Er, no, no, Bessie Sue, I’m fine, thank you.”

With his lips pursed in amusement, Adam raised a hand in the negative.

Hoss watched Bessie Sue retreat towards the front door as a hand crept around his shoulder. His older brother spoke in his ear. “You two have been nipping at each other’s hides for years now. When are you going to make an honest mama bear of her, settle down in a nice warm den and make pa some grand-cubs?”

Hoss’s nose crinkled. “Me an’—Bessie Sue?” He laughed nervously. “Me an’ Bessie Sue are jest friends.”

His comment was met with a long, eyebrow-raising look. “Sure, you are. If you can’t see it by now, then you never will.”

He loosened his grip on Hoss’s shoulder. “Talking of seeing, who is that, with Clara?” All the amusement had died from Adam’s voice.

Hoss peered through the mass of dancers, to the other side of the room, to where Adam was glaring with a frown darkening in his face. Clara, wearing her brand-new cream dress, was avoiding all attempts by a red-headed boy to pull her onto the dance floor. The lad had her hands tight within his own and Clara was pulling back as he edged towards the dancers.

Hoss grinned. “The boy? Why, that’s Henry, the son of Job Milton, owns the new feed store in town. He’s a right polite young man. He an’ his ma arrived to join their pa whiles you were up at High Valley.” Hoss’s cheeks bunched. “I think he’s taken a shine to Clara.”

Ignoring his brother, Adam took a step forward. “I don’t like the way he’s touching her, pulling her.”

“Aw, Adam, he don’t mean nothing by it.”

“She clearly doesn’t want to dance with him.”

Hoss stepped up next to his brother to get a better view of Clara and young Henry. “She’s doin’ what all girls do: playin’ hard to get.”

Adam’s head swung around to look at his brother. “Since when did you become an authority on the opposite sex? You, who can’t recognise the perfect woman, even when she’s treading on his toes?”

He looked back to where Clara was almost bent double to escape Charlie’s pull, and began to walk towards them. Hoss grabbed his shoulder before he had taken two paces and pulled him around to face him.

“I ain’t no expert, but I remember being fourteen years old an’ havin’ to get used to gettin’ the runaround by girls. Dadburnit, Adam, think back to when you was that age. You was all wrapped up in that, what was her name, Mary-Elizabeth . . . something. Ford. Mary-Elizabeth Ford.”

Adam turned his head slowly to look at Hoss. “How do you know about her? You were only, what, eight at the time.”

A hefty forearm came to rest on Adam’s shoulder. “Well, older brother, I did what any self-respecting younger brother always does.”

“And what’s that?”

“I read your diary.”

“You what?” And with a burst of speed, Adam had knocked Hoss’s arm off his shoulder and encircled his brother’s head within his arm, forcing him down into a head-hold. Hoss’s baying laughter was drowned out by the music. He managed to twist out of Adam’s hold and began to back away, a wide grin stretched across his face, as Adam began to roll up the sleeves on his shirt. But then Hoss stepped forward and spun Adam around to face the dancers.

“Look, brother, you don’t need worry none about Clara. Look.”

And Hoss was right, for Clara was now dancing in the circle of people, her arms on Henry Milton’s shoulders, his on her waist, as they kicked up their feet and danced in time to the music. Her eyes were fixed on her partner and, although Adam couldn’t hear her, he could see she was laughing with delight. He folded his arms high on his chest, and let Hoss use him as an armrest once more, and together they watched Clara’s first dance with a boy.

***

The music began to slow, and Adam nodded to his father. “I guess it’s time.” He had taken one step towards the musicians when he looked back and pointed at Hoss. “This isn’t over, brother,” he said, peering down his nose at him. “I’ll talk to you later about reading my diary.” And with a smile dimpling the side of his face, he edged his way around the circle of clapping and stamping bystanders and shouted in the fiddler’s ear.

There were cheers and applause as the reel drew to a close. But before the audience could disperse—as it was clear the musicians were laying their instruments aside for a deserved break—Adam had climbed a few steps of the stairs, raised his hands and bellowed across the heads of the guests.

“Everyone!” he clapped a few times, “Everyone, can I have your attention?”

The hubbub gradually diminished until a crowd of faces were looking up expectantly at Adam.

“Friends and neighbours, first of all, I want to say thanks to you all for coming out this afternoon. I don’t think I have to ask if you’re having a good time, judging by the state of our floorboards.”

Adam’s words were greeted with nods and laughter. He paused to collect his thoughts. “As most of you know, I returned home to the Ponderosa last summer after a few years away, travelling our magnificent continent.”

He looked to the floor, pausing for a moment as he remembered his failed search for a place to call his own, the search which ultimately led him back home to the Ponderosa. But that was a reality no one need know except himself and the one man he’d shared it with, his father. He’d let their friends believe his time away had been one long exhilarating adventure.

“The journey home was a little more . . . eventful than I had anticipated. I collected one or two knocks along the way.”

The guests responded to his words with another round of laughter, but it was a more subdued, knowing laugh this time. The Cartwrights’ penchant for being beaten up, shot at and wounded was a cause for much gossip amongst the townsfolk and neighbours.

“But it wasn’t only the odd bullet and black eye. I also found something . . . someone who has become very important to me.” Adam’s eyes scanned the crowd. “Clara, where are you hiding?”

The crowd gradually drew apart to reveal Clara at the back of the throng, standing next to young Henry. Her skin reddened as a roomful of faces turned to look at her. Adam held out his hand to her. “Come here, child.” She glanced at Henry and then walked nervously through the crowd to where Adam was standing. He took her hand and pulled her up beside him, and kept her hand locked in his as he spoke. “This young lady taught me a few truths about myself when we were fighting to stay alive in the wilderness, and she has been a daughter to me since she came to live with us.”

Clara’s eyes widened as she looked up at him. It had always been implied, but this was the first time Adam had said the words.

Lowering his gaze, Adam smiled, and when he looked up, he didn’t look at the guests who filled the Ponderosa’s large room, but at Clara. “This week I went to see Hiram Wood to find out whether I could, at last, formally adopt you.” There was an audible pulling in of many breaths, and heads turned to look at the Hiram who was standing beside Ben, a glass of punch in his hand. The room grew quiet as wide-eyed faces watched and waited for Adam’s next words. “He said yes.” The room erupted into noise. Men whooped and ladies turned to each other muttering words of delight and clutching their hands together in pleasure. Adam held his hands up to hush them and looked down at the young girl in front of him. Her jaw had dropped, and she was staring unblinking at Adam. He placed his hands on her shoulders and bent down to her level. “Clara von Falkeberg, how would you like to legally become Clara Cartwright?” There was silence in the room as all eyes trained upon the still blushing visage of the young girl. But then she found her voice and meeting Adam’s eye stammered, “Yes, please.” The crowd shouted and cheered, turning to each other to express their joy at the splendid news.

Adam drew Clara close, his hand stroking the back of her head as she pressed her cheek against his chest and wrapped her arms around his waist. Over the hubbub in the room, a voice shouted out, “Here’s to fatherhood, Adam, you’ll never have a night of sleep again,” and everyone who had a glass raised it to the soon-to-be legally recognised father and daughter. Adam laughed as Clara still hung on. He stroked a hand down her hair grinning as he looked back at the assembled throng. “Everyone, I’ve held you up long enough. Go, eat, before our cook packs his bags and boards the next boat to China. The hog roast is ready to eat and there’s plenty of my father’s punch to go around.”

His voice was drowned out by the noise of a hundred people moving away to fill their plates, and as they passed by, they called out their congratulations, and men leaned up to shake his hand. Clara kept her face hidden, still pressed tight against his chest. Adam looked down at the top of her head, and with a finger, raised her chin so she’d meet his gaze. Her eyes were glistening, and her lips wobbled, as she tried to subdue her emotions.

“Clara . . . daughter . . .” he smiled at the word “Why are you crying? I thought you would be happy.”

She sniffed. “Oh, Adam, I’m the happiest girl in the whole world.”

Adam laughed and wiped away her tears with his thumbs. “Clara Cartwright, it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

She sniffed, but then grinned and giggled, and together, Adam and the newest Cartwright left the stairs to join the party.

***

She wouldn’t leave his side. As Adam weaved amongst the revellers—Clara’s hand curled around his elbow—he would stop at each offer of congratulations, pat her hand and say, “may I present my daughter, Miss Clara Cartwright,” and Clara would grin and curtsy, much to the delight of whoever she was being introduced to. It didn’t matter she knew most of the people in the room; it was still a thrill to be called Miss Clara Cartwright.

She had never felt so happy: her dream had come true and her life was perfect, well, almost perfect. What would have made it complete was if her mama were still alive and if Adam and mama were married. But her mama was dead and thinking about it would only make Clara sad. She shook her head to dispel the thought and watched Adam as he greeted Hiram with a hearty handshake. She knew her mama would be happy if she knew how events had transpired. Of that Clara had no doubt.

There had been a night on the trail when they had been prisoners of that scary Mr. Cordell, and Adam had been tied up a few feet away, and Clara had been too anxious to sleep. Her mother had curled up behind her, tucking the itchy blanket that was their only shield against the cold night around her daughter’s body, and then enfolded her in her arms. Clara felt safe and warm within her mama’s embrace, but Mr. Cordell was not too far away, so her mother had whispered into her ear in their native German tongue.

“We will be alright, my darling. I have a feeling about this Adam Cartwright. I know he’s a prisoner, like us, but there is something about him I trust.”

And Clara had craned her neck back and asked, “How do you know to trust him?”

Clara’s mother had replied, “Because his eyes do not lie.” She had then kissed Clara’s hair and laid her head back on the hard earth to sleep.

Now, a million miles away from that chilly night on the trail, Clara watched Adam as he spoke to Mr. Wood and knew her mama had been right. Clara always knew from looking at those dark hazel eyes that they showed the truth: whether he was content, irritated, amused, tired, or any of a million other emotions. As she watched him now, she could see that besides feeling totally at ease with life, he was . . . something else. He glanced down at her and curved his hand around the nape of her neck and smiled. And she knew then what it was. He was proud. Proud of her. And Clara couldn’t help but puff out her chest with pride too.

There was a tap on her shoulder. She looked around but there was no one there. It happened again on the other shoulder, and this time she twisted around to see Little Joe. He was leaning slightly forward, his hands behind his back, grinning from ear to ear.

“How’s my favourite niece?”

“Little Joe, I’m not your—” She suddenly stopped. “You’ll be my real uncle now.” She looked around and noticed Hoss tucking into a plate of chicken, and Ben having an animated conversation with Hop Sing. “And Hoss too, and I guess Mr. Cartwright will be my grandpa. I never did know what to call him.” Joe pulled her a few steps away from Adam who was still talking to Hiram. “And what about older brother?” Clara looked over at the man soon to be her father. “Adam will always be Adam,” she said.

“Why don’t you come grab a hunk of that hog roast with me?”

Clara’s face looked hesitant. “Oh, I don’t know, I think I should stay—”

Adam overheard the exchange. “Miss Cartwright, I’m not going anywhere, go eat.” He turned back to Hiram as Clara beamed at being called Miss Cartwright. She followed Joe to where a queue of people was standing with plates at the ready to receive a freshly carved slice of pork and piece of crackling.

“Did you know?” she asked.

Joe grabbed a couple of plates from a table and handed one to Clara.

“About the adoption? Yeah, Adam told us a few days ago. But he wanted it to be a surprise for you.”

They shuffled a couple of steps forward. “He did it in front of everyone.”

The line moved in fits and starts towards the spit. “Adam’s not the same person he was when we were younger. Back then, as far as he was concerned his life was his own business and no one else’s. And he’d walk around with this almighty shield which stopped anyone, even us, getting too close.” Joe looked over his shoulder at his brother still engaged in conversation with Hiram and sighed gently. “When I think about it now, I think it was losing people close to him and everything he went through with Laura that made him that way. Does that make any sense to you?” Clara nodded. “And then, what happened to him in the desert didn’t help.”

Clara looked up sharply. “What happened to him in the desert?”

Joe’s mouth slowly opened. “Ah, well, um, that’s a whole other story, which he might tell you about one day.” He moved to stand in front of her. “Look, what I’m trying to say is Adam’s not like that anymore. Coming back to the Ponderosa the way he did, with you, well, it changed him. He’s not averse to giving you a hug in front of the rest of us.” Joe nudged her with his elbow. “Or in front of the whole town.” His mouth pursed in amusement. “But then again, my brother has been known to make a grand gesture in his time.”

“Like what?” asked Clara.

“Oh, well, er . . . he once stood on a table in a crowded saloon and made a speech when he was on one of his quests for justice.” He noticed Clara’s confused expression. “I’ll tell you about it another time. And it doesn’t get grander than building a house as a surprise for the woman he loved, or thought he loved.”

“Laura?”

“Uh-ha. So, when my brother feels the occasion warrants it, he’ll tell the world. And you,” he chucked her under the chin, “you are worth telling the world about.”

Clara blushed and looked down at her feet, and the two stood together for a few moments, thinking on Joe’s words. But then a voice interrupted their thoughts.

“Hey, Bessie Sue, looks like the queue for the hog roast ain’t as long as we’d been led to believe.” Hoss walked past them into the gap formed while Joe and Clara had talked, looking over his shoulder for a reaction.

“Hey, move it, you, join the end of the queue.” Joe waved his plate at Hoss who sniggered and took Bessie Sue’s hand to lead her away. “Little brother, why are you chatterin’ when there’s a great juicy piece of roast waitin’ to be eaten? You’re holdin’ everyone up.”

“I’ll hold you up in a minute, you great galoot!” But both brothers were laughing as they play argued. Bessie Sue moved up next to Clara and put her hands on her hips. “You ain’t never gonna have a dull moment in this house, honey. Come on, leave them be, it’s time to get us some hog.”

***

Clara squeezed onto the couch between Henry and the two spinster sisters Miss Catherine and Miss Sarah. It was pushed up against the dining table to clear space for dancing and the guests now milled around the improvised dance floor, chatting, and munching on a slice of the cake Hop Sing had spent the last day preparing.

She had neglected Henry since Adam’s announcement, but Joe had shooed her in his direction when he realised each time he looked around the boy was hovering nearby. Henry would look away whenever Joe caught his eye and start picking at whatever was at hand, be it a thread on his jacket or a notch on a table. Joe’s cheeks bunched in amusement. He decided to put the boy out of his misery when, all of a sudden he just happened to remember the young woman he had been dancing with earlier and, so as not to leave Clara alone, gently nudged her towards the young lad. Now they were seated with plates on their laps and icing on their lips, talking about inconsequential things.

The crowd in the room thinned out momentarily, and Clara happened to glance through the gossiping guests at the open window opposite.

The noise in the room dimmed.

She could no longer hear Henry telling her about his six aunts on his mother’s side and goodness knows how many on his father’s side because there, in the window, was a ragged, bearded wild man staring across the room, his hand like a claw on the window frame. He was staring at her, and only her, and when their eyes met, she felt a malevolence, a simmering rage which made her chest tighten with fear.

It was the man in the woods.

More revellers moved into the room between them, concealing him from view, but Clara couldn’t take her eyes from the window. The noise in the room rushed back with a whoosh and she became aware of the sound of her breathing loud in her ears. She rose onto unsteady feet, forgetting the plate on her lap which slipped to the floor and smashed into pieces. There was a hush in the room as everyone stopped at the sound and looked in her direction. She was vaguely aware of Henry saying her name, and the two old ladies fussing at the broken plate, but Clara’s only thought was to find the one person she needed most at this moment. She elbowed through the guests, knocking into bodies to exclamations of surprise. She had to find him, only he could take the fear away. There! Adam was walking into the room, talking with Mr. Hightower.

“Adam!” Her voice was shrill as she rushed up to him.

“What, what is it, child?”

Clara could feel her skin prickling as she looked up at him. “The reason I was late this morning . . . when I was in the woods . . .” She cast her eyes down. “There was a man.”

Adam grabbed her arms and bent to her level, drawing her eyes to his. “A man? Did he . . .  hurt you?”

She shook her head quickly. “No, nothing like that. He frightened me. Said things. He . . . touched my hair.”

Taking a deep breath, Adam dropped his head and squeezed her arms. It reassured her.

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“I saw him, outside,” she pointed to the window, “he was looking in.”

Adam straightened up, his hands trailing up to Clara’s shoulders and she watched as he looked towards the window.

“When he spoke to me in the woods, he said to give you a message.”

His face jerked back to Clara. “For me? What message?”

“He said Tully sends his regards.”

Adam ran.

***

Adam pushed through the press of people to reach the open window. With both hands on the sill, he looked first in one direction, then the other. Nothing. There was no sign of Tully. Spinning around, he pushed back through the crowd. People were everywhere, blocking his way. He heard the protests as he shoved his way past. Someone was in the doorway. It was Pa, talking to someone. Adam didn’t register who. “Get out of my way!” he shouted. He barged between them; his father’s exclamations lingering on the air behind.

His boots were heavy on the porch. He ran along the front, skidded around the corner into the open space between the house and bunkhouse and drove to a halt. There, coming into view, buttoning up his pants, sauntered Tully.

“Hey, old . . . friend. Jest needed to water yer plants.” Tully’s voice was a slur. He leant heavily against the side of the house, and slid down to the ground, half collapsing in one of Hop Sing’s flowerbeds. With his back against the rough-hewn wall, he groped to one side and found a nearly empty bottle of what looked like wine. Adam suspected the bottle had been swiped from the table set up to accept the offerings of home-brew and moonshine. But that was as far as Adam’s thoughts went.

He stomped up to him, leaned down and grasped Tully’s lapels, hauling him to his feet. Tully didn’t fight back as Adam dragged him towards the yard, but he was a deadweight and Adam lost his grip and dropped him. The bottle smashed to the ground and Tully’s hand ground into the broken glass, drawing blood. But Adam had him on his feet again, yanking him the rest of the way and threw him bodily onto the porch. He was aware of people, cries of surprise and shock, feet drawing back from the fallen man who scrabbled on his hands and knees. Adam pushed him over onto his back, leaned over and pointed his finger in Tully’s face.

“I don’t give a damn what you say about me, what lies you spread to get under my skin, but you do not . . .” he paused, taking a long, barely controlled breath, “you do not go anywhere near my daughter. Do you hear me?”

Adam’s finger continued to point in Tully’s face, and it stayed there until Tully nodded. Adam straightened up.

“Now get off of my place.”

He took a step back and looked around to find a ranch hand to throw Tully off the property.

That was a mistake.

Tully may have consumed half a bottle of questionable home-brew whiskey, and taken a few hard knocks at Adam’s hands, but he was far from defeated. As Adam looked away, Tully struggled to his feet and launched himself at Adam’s back and the two fell hard to the wooden deck. Adam took the worst of it as Tully’s weight forced him down on to his stomach, the heels of his hands scraping along the deck as he reached out to break his fall.

Adam levered up, pushing Tully off his back, but as Adam scrambled to find his feet, Tully climbed to his knees and grabbed Adam around the waist, hauling him back to the ground. Adam shook the man off, kicking at the obstacle that insisted on keeping him down. His boot hit Tully on the side of the head driving him off the porch and onto his back in the dirt yard. Now upright, Adam charged after him, but Tully drew back his knees and kicked out at Adam with both feet, catching Adam square in the stomach. Adam doubled over with a grunt as Tully stood and threw himself on top of his opponent with such force that Adam’s head cracked against the side of the decking. His face screwed up with pain and he lay there stunned as Tully pummelled his body with his fists. But Adam would not stay down, and soon the two men were rolling over each other in the dirt.

Adam was vaguely aware of a commotion, of a coach driving into the yard. The sound of hooves and jangling bridles broke through the blood that roared in his ears. But it wasn’t important. Beating Tully was. When his foe slammed back against the side of the coach’s wheel, Adam was able to get a purchase on Tully’s lapels. He hoisted him up, pulled his fist back, and slammed it into Tully’s jaw. Tully fell back, but Adam wasn’t through. He got to his feet, straddled the fallen man, and with one hand holding him up, continued to hit him across the face.

It was like a primordial instinct, conjured up from where it had been buried deep within; a need to protect, to defend. Adam couldn’t form coherent thoughts; his blood raged far too much. But he was overwhelmed with one driving certainty. Clara was in danger from this man, and it was up to Adam to stop him. He could hear nothing but the sound of his own hard breathing, the crack of knuckle against flesh and the grunts of Tully as he took the punishment. Hands grabbed at his arms, at his shoulders, tried to drag him off. But his purpose made him strong, and the hands stopped snatching.

But then a new sound began to penetrate the rage: a distant voice, but one that grew louder and increasingly insistent. And then he heard it clearly; his name being said over and over again. It was his father’s voice, firing his name like a bullet. Adam stopped; his fist drawn back.

He looked down at Tully and saw him properly for the first time. The man’s face was bloody, already swelling from the bashing it had taken. He let him fall from his grip and watched as Tully slumped against a shiny black coach wheel. His father said his name again, a sharp growl that finally drew Adam’s attention. With an unsteady step back, he looked to where his father stood, his arms wrapped tightly around Clara, shielding her eyes from the violence. But Ben wasn’t looking at him.

Adam followed his father’s gaze and there, standing by the newly arrived coach’s team of plumed horses was an elderly gentleman dressed from head to foot in black. His trousers, waistcoat and knee-length frock coat contrasted heavily with the bright colours of the people gathered on the Ponderosa that day, but they matched the black coach Adam now realised had delivered the stranger to the ranch. Reaching out a hand to steady himself against one of the coach’s rear wheels, Adam gazed blearily at an elaborate coat of arms painted on the side, then looked back to the old gentleman who regarded Adam through disdainful eyes.

The stranger’s hands clasped a silver-topped cane upon which he leaned heavily, an expression of revulsion evident beneath his top hat. A neatly trimmed grey moustache bristled above thin disapproving lips. Adam’s eyes fixed on the black bow tie sat stiffly beneath the man’s immaculately groomed beard. He then looked down at his own once clean attire. He was covered in dirt, and his white dress shirt was ripped at the shoulder.

The man twisted to look at Ben and then back at Adam. “You? You are Adam Cartwright?” His accent was strong. Germanic. Adam in his disorientation could only blink and sway. The stranger didn’t wait for a reply. “I am the Count Friedrich Von Falkeberg. I am here to claim my daughter.”

And all hell broke loose.

 

***

Adam could hear the shouts from his room. He stood before his mirror, a bowl of pink water on the washstand, and gingerly wiped away the blood and dirt from his wounds. He winced as he patted a deep cut on his temple but then paused as random words and phrases drifted up from the room below. ‘Lout’ was one, followed by ‘thug’ and ‘common hoodlum’ and . . . no, he couldn’t make out what he was described as after that. The count’s words were drowned out by his father’s boomed, “My son is not a hoodlum!” and then the volume dipped, and the words became unintelligible.

Bundling his ripped clothing into a ball, Adam threw it into a corner and, with caution, for Tully had clearly done more damage than he’d realised during the tussle judging by the pain in his knee, limped towards his dresser for a clean shirt. As he passed the window, he drew the curtain back. The last of the guests had departed, the gathering cut unexpectedly short by his scrap with Tully and then the arrival of the count. Adam knew it would be the talk of the town, heck, the whole state, by the time the sun set that night. The hands were clearing away the chairs and tables, taking down the Chinese lanterns, removing the evidence a celebration had ever taken place. A celebration for Clara, to announce to the world she would legally become his daughter. He grasped the curtain and closed his eyes, resting his head against the fabric. Clara.

The last time he’d seen her she was staring white-faced at the new arrival. Then she’d pulled out of his father’s grip and pushed through the onlookers into the house. He’d shouted after her, only she hadn’t looked back. But then he’d lost balance as his knee gave way and he’d collapsed on to his backside. A look of disgust had been painted across the count’s face. Adam could only lay in the dirt, watching his father step forward and direct the old man towards the interior before he was hoisted to his feet by his brothers.

He looked over to the wall between their rooms, and after a moment limped over to stand still with his head close to the stucco. It was quiet. Too quiet. He had expected to hear crying. With a sigh, he limped to his bed, and dropped clumsily to the mattress.

A common hoodlum fighting in the dirt. No! He had been protecting his daughter from someone who had threatened her. Adam sank forward, his elbows on his thighs, his head like a lead weight in his hands. No, she wasn’t his daughter. Not anymore. He had waited too long, should have insisted Hiram arrange the adoption earlier. But even Adam in his desperate state knew that would have done no good. At the appearance of the count, the lawyers and judges would have got involved and undone it all. After all, the old man downstairs was her legal father, not Adam.

He looked towards her room again. He should go to her, comfort her, tell her everything would be alright. Damn the count. He could wait downstairs until the fires burned out in hell, for all Adam cared.

With one hand on a bedpost, he pulled himself to a standing position, but a sharp piercing pain coursed through his knee, and he fell back on to the bed, his teeth clenched together to stop him from crying out. Wrapping his hand around the joint, he tried to knead the pain away. Goddamn Tully! He didn’t think any permanent damage had been done, but by heaven, it hurt!

He thought back to Tully as he lay bloodied and beaten by the grand carriage. Their guests had stepped around him as they’d headed towards their horses and wagons, looking down at the fallen man with contempt and pity as they passed. Hoss had curved an arm around Adam’s waist to help him inside, and as Adam hooked his arm over Hoss’s broad shoulders, a couple of ranch hands, on Joe’s orders, dragged Tully out of sight. What happened to him after that, Adam had no idea.

He cocked his head towards a sound coming from Clara’s room. The latch on her door opened and quiet steps could be heard in the hall, stopping outside Adam’s door. Adam waited; his breathing hushed. But then the footsteps retreated, and he heard the latch on her door softly close. Adam stared at the floor, and then kicked out at the first object to hand: a wooden chair piled high with a teetering column of books. The chair skidded across the floorboards and clattered against the wall, the books spilling over the floor. But he’d kicked with his injured leg, and he gasped down a cry as pain speared through his knee.

Within moments, feet pounded on the stairs, and someone banged on his door.

“Adam! You alright in there?” It was Hoss. Adam?”

“I’m okay, I caught my foot on my chair, twisted my knee.”

There was a momentary pause. “Well, um, as long as you’re okay.”

Adam watched the door, waiting.

“Well, you be sure to let me know iffun you need anythin’.”

Adam’s face dimpled. “I’ll be down in a few minutes. Oh, and Hoss . . .”

“Yeah?” Adam could hear the eagerness in Hoss’s voice.

“I’m a big boy, you don’t have to mind me. Bessie Sue’ll be wondering where you are.”

There was a long pause. “Okay, brother, I’ll see you downstairs.” Hoss’s footsteps moved slowly away from the door and then changed tempo as he stomped down the stairs to the room below.

A smile still dimpled Adam’s face but then it faded as he glanced towards Clara’s room. She hadn’t come to him. He hadn’t expected it to hurt as much as it did, but . . .

He shook his head. Enough of this. He’d go and face Clara’s father and then talk to her. They’d make this right.

Wearing a clean shirt, Adam ran his fingers through his hair and limped over to the bedroom door. Taking a moment to straighten his back and raise his chin, he headed out to face the coming storm.

***

The count was sitting in his father’s chair, pushed back into its customary position by the fireplace. The old man’s back was stiff, gnarled hands clenched around the round silver crest of his cane which stood upright between his knees. He still wore his top hat. As Adam hobbled down the stairs, one step at a time, his weight heavy on the handrail, he wondered that someone had gone to the bother of retrieving his father’s best leather chair from wherever it had been placed, when there was a myriad of dining chairs scattered about the room. Was the old man too good for a hard-backed chair? He had been given pride of place within a room destitute of its regular furnishings; bare except for chairs and trestle tables. Like the old man’s heart, he thought.

He stopped on the landing and observed his father pace from wall to wall behind the count. Joe was seated on the stone hearth, his hands dangling between his knees, while Hoss stood next to the gun cabinet running a finger distractedly over the wood grain. When Adam came into view, his brothers made a move towards the stairs, but he waved them away. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. The shouting was over; now they were waiting, waiting for him.

An elegant young man in a fashionable suit sat loosely on one of the displaced dining chairs, his legs crossed in front of him and a leather wallet on his lap. A lawyer, by the looks of him, thought Adam. His hair flopped over one eye and he had to keep brushing it away from his brow, but it was nothing more than an affectation as he’d shake his head as he did to ensure his hair would fall just so. He looked younger than Joe, at a guess in his mid-twenties, and Adam wondered whether he was a relative of the count as he wore the same disdainful expression for his surroundings.

As Adam crossed the room, the young man rose to his feet and held out his hand. “The name’s Bauer, Mr. Cartwright, I look after Count Friedrich’s legal affairs.” Adam recognised the same accent as the count. He ignored the outstretched hand, instead he eyed another man standing by the door. Bauer let his hand drop and turned to see where Adam was looking. “Our associate, Mr. Cobb.”

And there’s the hired gun, decided Adam. Mr. Cobb was a man of indeterminate age with a thickset body straining to escape his clothes. Small black eyes constantly roamed the room—narrowing whenever they passed over the equally intimidating-in-size Hoss. A long scar cut deep into his cheek gave his face a lopsided and menacing appearance. It was clear to anyone that the man was on his guard, despite his efforts to seem relaxed and at ease. Adam couldn’t help his top lip from curling in revulsion that the count felt a need to have such a man as part of his entourage. Was he here to protect the count on his travels, or was he the last option to be used in the count’s quest to reclaim Clara?

“No Hiram?” said Adam over the count’s head to his father.

Still pacing, Ben shook his head. “We thought it best to keep the lawyers out of it for the time being.”

A frown creased Adam’s face as he looked pointedly at the count’s associate, Bauer, and back to his father.

“We did, did we?” The sarcasm was thick in Adam’s voice.

Ben could only shrug.

Adam limped across the floor to the hearth trailing a vacant chair behind him. Keeping a good distance between himself and the count, he slammed the chair down and fell on to the seat, his injured leg thrust out before him. Ben came to an abrupt stop and Adam could feel his father’s eyes burn into him, but he refused to meet his gaze, concentrating instead on massaging his tender knee.

“You have hurt your leg,” stated the count, matter-of-factly, “from when you were tussling—”

“Like a thug? A hoodlum?” Adam looked up at him, unblinking.

The count’s eyes narrowed. “Umm.”

Ben marched over to the count’s chair. “I told you, my son is not a thug. He was trying to remove a troublemaker from our home.”

“By beating him senseless?”

Opening his mouth to reply, Ben was momentarily lost for words. He took a long breath. “Sometimes we have to use more force than we would like. And Adam asked him to leave, didn’t you, Adam?”

Adam’s eyebrows flicked up. “To a degree.”

His words were met with a frustrated frown from his father. “To a degree? What does that mean?”

“It means I asked him after I’d dragged him into the yard.”

Ben’s jaw dropped as he stared at his son and after a barely contained breath he moved away behind the count’s chair, shaking his head in evident despair.

“It is as I said.” The count thrust his chin out. “Now, where is my daughter?”

Adam cocked his head. “How do we know you are who you say you are?”

The old man bristled. “I am Count Friedrich Von—”

“Yes, yes, so you say. We only have your word for it.”

The stranger’s chest swelled. “A man’s word is his virtue. It is his integrity. You dare to besmirch the honour of my family name by implying—”

Ben was suddenly by his side. “Sir, my son doesn’t mean to dishonour you by doubting your word.” Adam snorted and was met with a black glare from his father. “But you must understand you are a stranger here, and Clara’s safety and well-being take priority over all else.”

The count took a long breath and then nodded towards the young lawyer, who nonchalantly unfolded his legs and rose to his feet, leafing through his leather wallet as he approached the count. A few moments passed but then he produced a packet, holding it out to the old man, who flicked his chin towards Ben still stood at his side. Ben took it and saw it was an envelope and letter. He scanned the contents before handing the document over to Adam. It was his own writing—the letter he had written the previous year with his ultimatum to the count. He held out his hand for the envelope and studied the heavily post-marked paper and stamps. “This only proves my letter passed through various post offices; it doesn’t prove it reached the right person.”

The old man’s hands tightened around his cane. He closed his eyes briefly and then nodded once more to the lawyer. This time Adam was handed a piece of rigid card starting to curl at the edges. He recognised it straightaway as a carte-de-visite, a photograph, and it showed a rigidly posed, stern-faced couple dressed in aristocratic finery. Staring out at him, with one hand behind his back, his chin held high, was the count, looking younger and more vigorous than the man seated in front of him today. Next to him was a younger woman. She was leaning away from him, an unreadable expression on her face. Adam knew her immediately. It was Clara’s mother, Johanna.

“I may be old, but I’m not averse to new technological developments. I had this image taken a few days after Johanna and I were married in Hannover. Perhaps, Mr. Cartwright, you will believe me when I say I am who I say I am.”

Adam handed the card to his father.

“Now, stop wasting my time, and let me see my daughter.”

Trying his best to suppress the ball of anger bubbling beneath his breastbone, Adam shifted his weight on to one hip, taking a long breath of exasperation. “Clara is in her room. She doesn’t want to see you.”

The count’s eyebrows rose as he fixed his eyes on Adam. “I will see her.”

“I said, she doesn’t want to see you.” Adam’s reply was sharp.

“What she wants is not important. I am her father and you do not have the right to keep her from me.”

“We are not keeping her from you. She knows her own mind.”

“An eleven-year-old girl knows nothing.”

“She’s thirteen!” Adam made to stand but forgot about his injured knee. He gasped at the sudden searing pain and fell back in the chair, clutching at his knee. “Good God, you don’t even know how old she is,” he growled through clenched teeth.

The old count’s gnarled knuckles were white as he raised his cane and slammed it hard against the floor. “I demand to see her.” He gestured at the tough who stepped forward, his arms falling to his side. But then Hoss was there, going chest to chest with the man to obstruct his way, and Joe was on his feet and in two steps had his hand on a rifle in the gun rack. Adam levered himself out of his chair and took a limping step towards the stairs.

But then a voice thundered across the room.

“Stop it! All of you,” roared Ben.

He glared at his boys who had all halted where they stood and then turned a long look on the count. After a few moments during which the count pretended he couldn’t feel the fierce gaze directed at him, the old man nodded and the tough returned to his spot by the front door, once again folding his hands in front of him. Adam flopped back down in his chair as his brothers cautiously resumed their former positions. When he was sure everyone in the room had calmed down, Ben turned to the count, his voice a simmering growl.

“You do not have the right to demand anything in my home, sir, and I would appreciate it if you would refrain from doing so.”

There was a slight, infinitesimal bow of the count’s head. Ben straightened up, glancing around the room. “Your arrival here has been a shock to us all, not least Clara. It’s going to take a little time—”

“Time is what I do not have, Mr. Cartwright. I am not a young man. I do not have many years to educate my daughter about her rightful station, about her obligations, her duties.”

“Her duties?” Adam’s brow furrowed as he angled his head towards the count.

“Of course. As my daughter, she cannot, of course, inherit my title, but she will inherit my fortune. She will become a very wealthy woman. I need to ensure that my . . .” the old man paused and spoke to the lawyer in a burst of German.

The young man rose to his feet. “The word you are looking for is legacy, onkel.”

Adam twisted to look at the lawyer. “Uncle? You’re related to him?”

“Indeed, sir, the count is my mother’s older brother. Though if you doubt my qualifications, I earned my doctorate in 1865 and was admitted to practice law in 1870.”

Adam turned away. “I don’t doubt your qualifications.”

“As I was staying,” the count paused until he had Adam’s attention, “I need to ensure my legacy stays within the Falkeberg estate, that my wealth remains within the immediate family. My daughter has a responsibility to her name and will need to be taught.”

Turning slowly to look at his brothers and father, Adam could see that they wore the same expressions on their faces as he wore on his. “And what about what she wants?” He pushed himself to his feet and limped towards the count, aware in the corner of his eye of the tough’s hands unfolding and falling to his side. “It seems to me the only reason you’ve come all this way is because of your property, your titles. You don’t want Clara, you want a successor.” The last word was a shout.

Ben raised his hands. “Adam, this isn’t helping.”

“No, it isn’t.” The count’s words were calm as he kept his eyes on Adam who glared at him from the centre of the room. “And it is of no mind. This conversation is a waste of time. I do not need to explain myself or my reasons to you. She is my daughter. You cannot keep her from me.”

“Clara.” Adam said her name softly, his gaze fixed on the floor.

A frown creased the count’s brow. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your daughter’s name is Clara. You’ve not said it once the whole time you’ve been here.”

The old man met his reproachful look. “I know what my daughter is called. It was I who named her for her grandmother.” He turned to Ben. “I will see her.”

Sighing, Ben pulled up a nearby chair and perched on the edge. “Sir—”

“The correct way to address me is Hochgeborener Herr.”

Ben threw a glance at Adam who shook his head and limped back to his seat.

“Your coming here today has been a great shock for Clara, she’s not seen you since she was a small child. You’re a stranger to her.”

“These things do not matter. She will come to know me as her father.”

Adam snorted. “A father who beat her mother—and her too—for the simple crime of being a child and doing childish things.”

Ben twisted around. “Adam!” he snarled.

“I will not stay here to be insulted by this . . . this . . .”

“Ruffian? Lout? Hoodlum?” Adam was on his feet again. “You, sir, do not deserve to be that child’s father. She remembers how you used to hit her if she spilt milk down her dress, or trod dirt into a room or, or made too much noise in your presence. She can still hear the sound of her mother crying out as you beat her.” Adam spun to his father. “Why are we even entertaining the idea of Clara going with him? I won’t allow it.”

“Allow it?” For the first time since Adam had come down the stairs, the old man rose to his feet. “You won’t allow it? I’m afraid, Mr. Cartwright, you have no choice in the matter.” He coughed, his fist rising to cover his mouth. “The child is my daughter,” he coughed again, his voice struggling to get past his throat. “She will be leaving with me.”

A racking cough consumed him, and he grabbed for a handkerchief in his suit pocket, waving Ben away when he tried to assist him back to the chair. When the coughing fit had ceased, he took a breath and turned watery eyes on Ben.

“I have travelled a great distance at your son’s behest and am tired after my journey.” His hand tightened around the handkerchief crushed in his palm. “I must concede defeat.” Turning his head towards the lawyer made the young man jump to his feet as the count switched his lofty gaze to Adam. “But for today only. For now, I feel it would be prudent for me to take my rest.”

“Sir, if you would care to stay here—” Ben started.

“No!” The count’s reply was a bark and he coughed lightly in his throat, holding his kerchief to his mouth. “I do not think that would be a good idea.” He was halfway to the door when he turned back to Adam. “I will see my daughter, Mr. Cartwright, and she will be leaving with me. I will expect her tomorrow at the International Hotel. Good day, gentlemen.”

The lawyer skipped ahead to open the door, and with his head held high, the old man walked stiffly out to his carriage. Ben stood in the doorway watching him leave. And as the sound of the horses and carriage left the yard, four Cartwrights breathed again.

***

Ben closed the door and marched over to where Adam had collapsed back on his chair. “You couldn’t help yourself, could you? You had to antagonise him.”

“Ah, Pa . . .”

“Don’t you Pa me. You baited him, picked away at his conceit. You told him he’s a bad father, for goodness’ sake”

“He is a bad father.”

“You didn’t need to tell him to his face!”

Ben sighed and put his hand to his brow, and after a few moments, turned to Hoss and Joe. “Boys, go outside, help clean up the yard, and when you’re done there, we’ll tackle this room.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged looks, happy to escape what could potentially be a barn-raising showdown between Adam and their pa.

When the door was closed behind them, Ben walked slowly over to where Adam stared into the empty fireplace. With a sigh, he lowered himself to the stone hearth.

“Adam, we need to think about Clara.”

“That’s all I am thinking about.”

Ben looked at the floor, gathering his thoughts.

“A man like the count thinks differently from you and me. His whole existence is centred around his pride, his honour. Children for someone such as he are more than simply a guarantee the name will live on, they can be a tool to be used in marriage, to spread the family’s tentacles amongst church and state. They are a means to grow the family’s reputation in the establishment.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about this, Pa,” said Adam with a raised eyebrow.

“You forget, I travelled widely as a young man. I met people like him far too frequently back in the old country.” He paused. “But Adam, chip away at the armour that surrounds a man like the count, reveal to the world—and to him—what lies beneath, and you’ll only make him dig his heels in and make it ten times harder for us, and for Clara.”

An expression of sadness and loss filled Adam’s eyes. “We’re gonna lose her, aren’t we?” He was no defeatist, but Adam could see no way forward, not when the count had the full force of the law behind him.

Ben gripped his son’s forearm. “The odds look slim, but we’re Cartwrights, and we’ll do what we always do—we’ll fight.”

A small smile lifted the corners of Adam’s lips, but it was fleeting. He pressed down on the chair arms, pushed himself to his feet, and began to limp towards the stairs.

“And where do you think you’re going? Traipsing up and down the stairs is not going to help your knee.”

Adam paused with his hand on the newel post and angled his head over his shoulder. “You’re fussing again, Pa.” He looked up towards the bedrooms. “I’m going to talk to Clara. She’s been on her own far too long since all this began.”

And one foot at a time, he began his arduous climb.

***

Clara had listened to the argument from the top of the stairs. Stood out of sight, the voices of Adam and Mr. Cartwright, and the stern old man who said he was her father, had risen and fallen as they argued about her. She had wanted to peep around the corner of the landing wall and take a good look at him, but she was too scared he might see her and call her down and ask her questions she didn’t have the answers to, questions about her mother, or her. She already knew he wouldn’t ask what she wanted to do. He was her father, he was taking her, that was all there was to it.

After listening to the carriage turn in the yard and jolt on to the track that led away from the house, she had listened to Mr. Cartwright berate Adam and then their voices had grown soft, and she had struggled to hear what was said. But then Adam’s limping tread could be heard heading for the stairs, and she had run on tiptoes to her room, closing the door behind her.

The last person she wanted to see right now was Adam. She knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the look of defeat from his eyes, the look that told her all was lost, that she wouldn’t be able to stay— the beautiful dream had become a nightmare. She leaned back against the door and let herself slide to the floor as she listened to Adam’s footsteps approach. There was a knock. She stayed where she was, holding her breath.

“Clara?” His voice was so close.

She opened her mouth to reply but her eyes filled with tears. Pulling her legs up to her chest, she hugged them close and laid her head on her knees.

“Clara, child, we need to talk about . . .” There was a pause. “We need to talk.”

Oh, how Clara wanted to jump to her feet, pull the door open and feel the strength and security of his arms. But that would only make it harder. She could see his face, knew he was standing with his ear to the door, gnawing at his thumb. It’s what he did when he was facing a dilemma.

“Clara, it’ll be alright, I promise. We’ll find a way.”

He didn’t sound sure. Adam always sounded so confident, so certain. But Clara could hear the doubt in his voice. And if Adam didn’t know what to do, then what hope was there.

The door handle turned, and the bedroom door pushed against her back. Clara pressed her feet hard against the floor to stop him from opening the door any farther. It would take no effort on his part to force the door open, but the pressure eased.

“Clara, please, don’t shut me out.”

Biting her bottom lip to keep from crying, Clara looked over her shoulder at the gap in the door, desperate to scramble off the floor and pull it open.

For a few moments, Adam was silent. But then she heard him take a long breath. “Okay. I’ll be in my room, resting my knee.” He laughed, though it sounded false to Clara. “I can’t take a kicking like I once could.”

He was hurt, had been cut and bruised fighting to defend her. And here she was turning her back on him. As she watched, the door gently closed, and she listened to Adam walk down the hallway to his room.

And when the latch fell behind him, Clara burst into tears.

***

She stayed hidden in her room for the rest of the day, not even coming down to share leftovers from the abandoned gathering. Hop Sing prepared a table of cold hog roast, potato salad, and slices of thick brown bread, to be followed by apple pie. But none of the Cartwrights had much of an appetite. Even Hoss failed to tuck in, and he’d never been known to pass up a chance to build a delicious sandwich of cold pork and apple sauce. He nibbled at the servings laid before him, his attention frequently wandering to his older brother who sat with one elbow on the table, fork in hand, nudging hunks of potato from one side of his plate to the other.

Adam’s mind was elsewhere, upstairs with Clara who refused to talk to him, leave her room or eat. Hop Sing had taken up a plate of sandwiches but reappeared a few minutes later, the untouched tray in his hands, shaking his head sadly as the men watched from the table. As Adam played with his food, all he could see was Clara’s stricken expression as the old man had announced who he was. And there had been something else. There had been fear in her eyes—she was scared of her father. The future, once charged with such optimism, now filled her with dread and apprehension.

The space between them suddenly seemed indefensible—what was he doing down here when she was alone upstairs with who-knows-what going through her mind? What sort of father was he if he wobbled at the first sign of trouble?

He let his fork drop with a clatter to the plate and slumped back in his chair.

“Adam?” His father had been about to place a bite of food into his mouth but stopped, letting his hand drop to the table.

“Why won’t she talk to me, Pa? Why won’t she let me help her?”

Ben picked up his napkin to wipe his lips. “And can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Help her.”

Adam pulled himself up in his chair. “Well, I . . .” He had no answer and met his father’s steady gaze. After a moment he shrugged his shoulders and looked down to his plate.

“Children are not as naïve as we tend to think. Clara knows there is little you can do, that there’s not a judge in the country who will deprive the count of his daughter.”

“But why shut herself away?” Adam’s voice was soft. “This might be the last day she . . .”

Ben rose from his seat and walked around the table to where Adam sat sucking his lips. He stood behind him, a warm consoling hand on Adam’s back.

“You’ve answered your own question, son. If you think losing her is hard, think what losing you feels like to her.” He squeezed Adam’s shoulder. “Having you comfort her now will only make leaving that much harder.”

With a final reassuring pat on Adam’s back, Ben pointed at the plates of food on the table. “Now eat up, all of you. We’ve wasted enough food today without all this ending up in the pigsty.”

Hoss and Joe picked up their forks, but Adam could not stomach any food right now. He swung his bad leg out from under the table and pushed himself up.

“I’ve lost my appetite,” he murmured and limped across the room to the front door.

Joe and Hoss looked to their father, but Ben shook his head. “Leave him be. He needs time to work things out for himself.” He waved a knife at their plates. “Now eat up.”

***

Clara regretted not eating any dinner.

She had heard the soft tones of Hop Sing speaking through the door. ‘Missy must eat, stay strong,” but she hadn’t been able to face any food. It was too normal, and everything was simply too upside down for normal activities. “Hop Sing bring Missy Clara’s favourite sandwich like Mister Hoss make—meat from pig belly with crispy skin; make special fried potato.” His voice was so gentle, so concerned, Clara couldn’t ignore him. She padded to the door in her stockinged feet and put her mouth close to the wood. “Thank you, Hop Sing. I— I’m just not hungry.” There had been a sigh, then, “okay, Missy,” and she could picture him turn away, shake his head, and shuffle down the hall to the stairs.

That was several hours ago, and now Clara’s tummy rumbled with hunger. She sat up from where she’d spent the last hours curled under a blanket on her bed and took a mouthful from the previous night’s glass of water. It was stale, and there wasn’t much left, but it helped to curb the hunger pangs.

She’d not noticed the night draw in around the house, so she lit her lamp to drive the darkness from her room. The breeze from the mountains teased at her lace curtains and she shivered with the surprising coolness of the air. Gathering her blanket around her shoulders, she padded over to the hooks by the door and reached for her red winter coat, the one Adam had taken her into Virginia City to purchase last winter.

She laid the coat on her bed, her fingers lightly touching the black buttons, and thought back to that day. They’d visited a handful of ladies’ emporiums, rejecting all the coats the sales ladies had pressed her to try, professing how this one, and well, if not this one, then that one was simply perfect for her. None had excited her. Adam was almost despairing, his lean becoming more pronounced in each store they entered, but then a flash of red had caught her eye. She had dragged Adam across the street and stared through the window at the mannequin wearing the flared red coat, and she had known instantly it was the one. Adam had leaned against a countertop, his arms crossed across his chest and a smile had played around his lips as she’d twirled on the spot and ran her hands over the beautiful fabric. And when Adam had winked in approval she’d run into his arms, and he’d squeezed her tight.

Clara’s eyes began to water.

“No!” She said out loud, brushing the tears away.

A carpet bag sat open on a chair and she lifted it over to the bed. It was filled with a few items of clothing, a brush, and the few possessions that belonged to her mother.

Clara had made her decision as she’d dried her tears earlier that day. Adam couldn’t help her—she knew the count had law and judges and courts on his side—and if Adam couldn’t, then no one could. It left her with only one choice. She’d have to run away, like she and her mother had fled when she was small. Back then they’d left a cold, turreted castle, a place she just happened to live in. This time she was leaving a home. And she would be alone. She had no plan other than to take her pony and ride in the opposite direction to Virginia City, away from the severe old man who called himself her father. Away from . . . oh, how could she leave Hoss and Joe and Hop Sing and Mr. Cartwright, and Elmer and Jed and Sam and all the other boys in the bunkhouse, and Sport and Chubb and Buck, and the pigs and chickens, and Mrs. McCready and Henry, the first boy she’d ever liked. Life was so unfair. She had to leave all this because of an old man who didn’t even love her.

But hardest of all was leaving Adam. She loved him, wholly, entirely, with no limits. Life without him would be a life not worth living. He had saved her when her mother died, given her a home, and entrusted her with his heart. But he couldn’t save her this time. And she had to break that trust.

Her eyes growing wet once more, she looked down at a small cloth doll he’d brought back for her after a night away in Carson City. It was a small girl’s toy, and Clara wasn’t a baby anymore, but she had treasured it from the moment he had tossed it through the air to her as he’d stepped off his horse. She picked up the doll, straightened its dress and placed it carefully in her carpetbag. Then, after she’d closed and fastened the bag, she sat in a chair by the window. All she had to do now was wait.

***

Adam sat on a stool in the barn as the light dimmed and the high alpine air cooled the warmth of the day. His thoughts went round in circles, always beginning and ending with Clara. The horses shifted in their stalls, but Adam’s eyes were fixed on one place only. Through the open double doors of the barn, he could see Clara’s room. Her light had been on for a couple of hours and occasionally her shadow would cross behind the curtains. Once he was certain the lace curtain had twitched back, but her face had been hidden from view.

He picked up a piece of straw near his foot and absent-mindedly began to chew on the end. And his thoughts, as they had done all evening, began to mull over all the options open to him. And they were but few.

He could petition a judge, enlist the help of the law. But what hope would he have against the girl’s own flesh and blood? He could escape with her into the wilds. He had contemplated this same idea exactly a year before but had been talked out of it by his father. Ben was right of course, it would be no life for the child to be constantly on the run, on the look-out, never able to settle down. Perhaps he could appeal to the old man’s sensibilities, go down on bended knee and plead. Adam snorted. Even if he were to degrade himself, he’d never get up again, the state he was in. Or perhaps he could turn bandit, thought Adam, pretend to be an outlaw, hold the grand carriage up, and shoot the lot of them. That would solve the problem of her father. Adam closed his eyes as he smiled, leaned forward on his elbows, and ran his fingers through his hair. He must be more tired than he realised if such outlandish thoughts were forming in his mind.

He leaned back against the wall, wondering what the time was. It was completely dark downstairs, so his family must have gone up to bed by now, and the bunkhouse had been quiet for an hour or so. He noticed Clara’s light dim and decided it was time he turned in too. But he’d sit for a moment longer. He found a sense of peace in the barn he couldn’t get in the house.

The sound of a faint click reached his ears. Adam raised his head and stayed perfectly still as he looked out into the dark yard. A slight figure came into view. Adam narrowed his eyes as he recognised Clara tiptoe out of the door, peering furtively around her. She was back in her pants and boots, a thick cotton work jacket keeping her warm against the cool air.

Adam climbed to his feet and sidestepped into the darkest shadow of the barn, watching as she ran on light feet across the yard, a carpetbag in one hand, and pause at the open barn door. She was right to be hesitant, thought Adam, the barn should have been safely secured by this time of night. Her pony, Holly, nickered at her arrival and Clara took a step in, looking around her before heading to Holly’s stall.

“And so she runs . . .”

Clara screamed and dropped the carpetbag as Adam moved out of the shadows.

“. . . like a thief in the night.”

Adam pursed his lips as he moved into the moonlight. Clara was shaking, taking deep gulps of air to calm herself after the fright Adam had given her.

“Adam, I—” But she stopped speaking when Adam reached down to the floor to pick up the bag and handed it back to her.

“Where’s your canteen?”

“I . . . forgot.”

“Open your bag.”

Clara hesitated but then prized open the catches. Adam peered in. “Where are your provisions? We have a larder full of food, smoked meat, bread. You could at least have grabbed an apple from the bowl as you passed.” He shook his head. “I taught you better than this.”

“I didn’t plan to run away. But I heard you talking to the count, and then arguing.”

But Adam wasn’t listening. “You’ll need Holly’s saddle.” He limped to the side of the barn and opened the door to the tack room. Feeling in the darkness he knew exactly where he’d find the smaller saddle for Clara’s pony. He hoisted it up into his arms and walked back into the barn. Clara was in the same spot he had left her.

“You know what,” Adam threw the saddle to the packed-earth floor. “Do it yourself.” He limped out of the barn. “You’ve clearly decided you don’t need my help anymore.”

And as he hobbled towards the house, he suddenly realised how his father had felt when he had been a boy and rejected a lifetime of teachings to go running around with the Bonner brothers or Carl Reagan. It was as though the past year had been one long lesson and this had been the test. And Clara had failed it. Or had he been the one to fail? She evidently didn’t have enough trust in him to let him at least try and help her. Instead, she chose to run, and without even a last goodbye. His fingers were lifting the front door latch as this thought hit him like a rampaging bull. He paused, his head falling against the door. But then all the bitten-down anger and hurt of the last few hours barrelled out of him and he drove his fist into the door frame. He felt no pain on his already red and swollen knuckles.

***

Adam sat hunched over his breakfast plate. His stomach felt empty as he had eaten little since yesterday lunchtime, but in the mood he was in, nothing was appetising, and even Hop Sing’s always exceptional scrambled eggs tasted like sawdust.

He stifled a yawn. Sleep had come eventually but it had been fitful, interrupted by the pain in his knee, a growing headache and worry over Clara.

After he’d left Clara in the barn the night before, and lost his temper on the door frame, Adam had heaved himself up the stairs, one laborious step at a time. As he reached the top, he heard the latch of the front door lift and turned to see Clara edging through the door, softly closing it behind her. He’d released a sigh of relief and limped on to his room before she had a chance to see him. Standing behind his door, he’d waited until he heard her door close. Only then did he fall, fully clothed, onto his bed and attempt to sleep. And he did, even though it was in fits and starts.

Hoss and Joe were absent from the breakfast table when he came downstairs, and his father had asked how his knee was this morning, that Adam seemed to be walking better on it, and Adam had replied the swelling had gone down and it didn’t hurt so much. But then he’d bent over his plate and not said another word. He could feel his father’s gaze burn into the top of his head.

Soft feet sounded on the stairs and then Clara crept into view. She stood at his side, trying to gauge his mood. He looked up at her with one eyebrow arched in query.

“I’m sorry, Adam.” She dropped her head, her blue eyes looking up at him under a furrowed brow. She opened her mouth, closed it, looked down at the floor. “I was just so scared.”

Adam had thought long and hard over Clara’s actions of the night before and concluded he was as much to blame for what had happened as she was. After the count’s departure, he had given up almost immediately, seeing no way out of their quandary. And he was sure his voice would have given him away. As a result, she had seen no future for herself beyond returning to Germany with a father who only wanted her for her bloodline, and she had, therefore, opted to run. Adam decided he would have done the same thing in her shoes. He had lain on his bed, staring at the ceiling, and forgiven her before finally succumbing to sleep. She didn’t need to know that too soon, though.

His chair creaked in protest as he sat back.

“What you did . . . it was foolish. Where were you going to go, how would you live?”

Clara opened her mouth to speak but Adam didn’t give her a chance to respond.

“It’s dangerous out there. There are all sorts of people you simply don’t want to run into, especially a girl on her own.”

“Adam, I . . . I got frightened. My father, he . . . he’s so stern, he scares me. Being eaten by a big old grizzly would be better than going with him.”

Adam’s eyes softened and Clara tentatively put out a hand to pick at a loose strand of cotton on his shirt.

“But child, no goodbye?”

Clara looked down to her feet. “That was the hardest part.”

Adam looked at the girl standing remorsefully by his side and with his arm around her waist pulled her close to his side.

“Clara, I know your whole world has been turned upside down, but don’t, don’t ever do that again. You come find me, and you talk to me. I promise, next time, I won’t run away on some silly errand.” He wondered suddenly if there would be opportunity for a next time but quickly brushed the thought from his mind. “And don’t shut me out.” He shook her as he spoke. “No matter how hopeless it all seems, we’ll find a way.” He must be turning into his father, he thought, always wanting to talk things through.

She snaked her arm around his back and whispered, “Sorry, Adam.” After a few moments Adam released her. “Sit, eat some breakfast, you had no dinner last night.” He patted her on the rump as she shifted her weight from where it was resting on him and slid onto a nearby chair.

“I am kinda hungry.” She picked up the milk jug and found it empty. “I’ll get some more.” Sliding off the other side of the chair with the jug in hand, she headed out to the kitchen.

Ben watched her go and then turned to look at Adam. “What was all that about?”

Adam leaned over his breakfast and spooned a forkful of eggs into his mouth. They suddenly seemed to have gained flavour. “She tried to run away last night. I caught her in the barn.”

“Run away?” Ben let his cup drop to the table.

“She’s desperate, Pa, she heard everything yesterday, and you said yourself, she’s no fool. She knows there’s little chance of her staying.”

“But still, running away.” The sound of Clara’s feet approaching made Ben turn back to his meal, but his eyes flicked to Clara as she took her seat.

Adam noticed the look. “Where are those brothers of mine?”

“They both wanted to stick around here today.” Ben threw another glance at Clara who was biting into a slice of toast, listening to the conversation. “But I sent them off to do some errands in Virginia City. They left about half an hour ago. We need more woodcutters and men for the timber yard if we’re going to fulfil the contract for the Holme and Starr mine. Joe’s going to put out some feelers.”

Adam filled his coffee cup and smiled. “I still forget my little brother is old enough to take care of hiring by himself now. What about Hoss?”

“Well, we don’t need two men to do the hiring, so Hoss, um, Hoss said he’ll help Bessie Sue load up timber at the lumber yard. She said yesterday she’ll be there this morning, so Hoss is going to, er, surprise her.”

Adam frowned. “Help? Bessie Sue? Has he seen her hauling timber?” Adam’s eyebrows arched. “Anyhow, I’ll probably catch up with them. I’m going to see Hiram.” He looked over at Clara. “I’ve not given up, yet.”

Clara lay down her fork and rested her hands in her lap. “I’d like to come too.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” said Adam.

“Me neither,” chipped in Ben. “You’ll be riding into the hornet’s nest. Your father is staying at the International Hotel, don’t forget.”

Clara looked from Ben to Adam. “Well, I was thinking. I’d like to put my side across, what it is I want.”

“You mean a legal statement, like a deposition?”

“I guess. I want it to be recorded, legally, what I remember about living with my father, what he did to Mama and me. It’s not much but it might help.” Her eyes fixed on Adam. “I want people to know I don’t want to live with him, that I want to stay here, with you.”

Adam rested his elbows on the table, his back hunched and his hands clasped in front of his mouth.

“It’s not such a bad idea, son,” said Ben. “But perhaps we should ask Hiram to come out here. I can send one of the boys.”

Adam was already shaking his head. “No, Pa, Hiram’s busy enough.” He looked long and hard at Clara. “Okay, you can come but we’ll stick to the back streets; I don’t want to run into any of the count’s people.”

He rose from his seat. Clara was pushing back her chair when Ben, too, suddenly stood.

“Adam, what about Tully?”

Adam snorted. He had forgotten all about him with the arrival of the count. “I don’t think we need worry about him anymore, Pa, he’ll have learnt his lesson yesterday.”

And with his father’s eyes fixed worriedly on the two of them, Adam grabbed his hat and gun belt and followed Clara out of the house.

***

“Everyone’s looking at us.”

Clara’s hand was hooked around Adam’s arm as they made their way to Hiram’s office. As Adam had said they would, they’d stuck to the back roads, but even in these quieter, less crowded thoroughfares, they encountered stares from gawking onlookers.

“Ignore them. We’ll be yesterday’s news soon enough.”

But despite the clear and obvious rubbernecking, Adam couldn’t help feeling as though it wasn’t only the gossipy inhabitants of Virginia City watching him. They sidled down alleyways and kept in the shade of the buildings, but still, the feeling persisted, until, with the back entrance to Hiram’s office in sight, a man stepped out from a doorway and blocked his path. It was the count’s heavy, Mr. Cobb.

Adam stepped to the side to move past, at the same time pushing Clara behind him. With her hand firmly in his, he attempted to move past the big tough guy, but Cobb side-stepped and blocked his path again. Adam went in the other direction, only to be met with the same obstruction. With a gusty exhalation of air, Adam cocked his head and looked up at Cobb. The man stood a head taller than he did, and Adam knew he stood little chance of knocking him down. But it wasn’t in Adam’s nature to show fear.

“Are you gonna get outta my way, or am I gonna have to make you move?”

Cobb grinned, his scarred face suddenly grotesque. He looked down at Adam. “Please, try.”

He should have expected such a response. A tiny part of Adam itched to knock that eager expression off the man’s face, no matter the consequences, but he’d be no good to Clara once Cobb had finished pounding him into the boardwalk.

“Have it your way,” he muttered, and tugging Clara around with him, turned to walk back the way they’d come. Another figure pushed away from where he had been leaning on a nearby column and stood waiting for them in the centre of the boardwalk—it was the count’s young lawyer. Adam came to a halt, Clara bunched up tightly behind him, and this time there was no doubt in Adam’s mind. He could easily take him, even bruised and beaten as he was after his run-in with Tully. But a glance to his right showed another man across the street watching proceedings, his hand uncomfortably near his six-shooter.

“Okay, what it’s all about?”

The lawyer began to walk towards him, his hands folded behind his back. “We have been looking out for your arrival, Mr. Cartwright.”

How could a man’s accent be that clipped, yet so smooth at the same time, wondered Adam. He tilted his head to one side. “You’re the lawyer, the count’s your uncle?”

“That is correct, sir. My name is Oskar Bauer, and not only am I Count Friedrich’s nephew and lawyer, but also his personal secretary.” He took a step forward and held out his hand. As he had done the day before, Adam ignored it, instead, he glanced at the man across the street and twisted to look over his shoulder at Cobb standing close behind.

“What do you want?”

Bauer’s outstretched hand hung between them before he pointedly formed a fist and placed it behind his back. “Count Friedrich has been awaiting your arrival, Mr. Cartwright, and he will be gratified to know you’ve brought his daughter to him.”

“Adam?” Clara pressed herself even closer to his body, and her face was white as she looked up at him. He squeezed her hand tightly, trying to impart to her a confidence he didn’t necessarily feel, before raising his chin at the young lawyer. “I didn’t come to hand Clara over to the count.”

“Oh? Why else would you be here?”

“That’s none of your concern. Now, will you let us pass?”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. The count gave us explicit instructions that as soon as you arrived in town, you were to be taken to him.”

Adam squared his shoulders. “And if I don’t want to see the count?”

Oskar glanced at the two heavies. “You would not be the victor in this particular fight.”

It was true, especially in his condition. There was no way he could take on the two toughs and keep Clara from this weak-wristed fop at the same time. “Then you’d better lead the way.”

Clara tugged hard on Adam’s arm. “I don’t wanna go.”

“You have nothing to be frightened of, Clara. I won’t let you out of my sight, I promise.” And Clara breathed a little easier, for when Adam made a promise, he always kept it.

Oskar whipped the hat from his head. “Where are my manners?” He bowed deeply. “It is a great honour to, at last, meet my cousin, the Lady Clara von Falkeberg.”

Her cheeks blushing red, Clara stepped out sharply from behind Adam’s shoulder and glared up at Oskar. “Don’t you dare call me that. That’s not my name, not anymore.”

Wearing an amused smile, Oskar bowed again and swept his hat before him, indicating the way to go. “As you wish, my lady.”

They walked out to C Street. Mr. Cobb led the way and his sheer size made passers-by scurry to let him through. Adam, directly behind, kept Clara’s hand within his strong grip, aware of the other heavy following with Bauer. He and Clara were well and truly fenced in.

A familiar laugh reached him. It was Hoss guffawing at something Bessie Sue said as they walked out on to C Street from a side road. Adam caught his eye, noticed his brother’s face drop with concern but quickly shook his head.

Hoss hung back, message received, and as Adam and Clara were led into the lobby of the International Hotel, he left Bessie Sue standing as he raced off to find his little brother.

***

Adam would have expected nothing less than being ushered into the grandest suite in the hotel. The parlour was lit by a bank of windows that lined one entire wall of the room illuminating well-made, plush furnishings. As he and Clara sat where they were directed, on a couch in the centre of the room, Adam looked around him and counted at least four side doors off the main room, including what appeared to be a private bathroom. The door of this room was slightly ajar, and Adam could see a well-dressed, portly man in attendance on a partially obscured figure, hidden except for the tip of a polished shoe and the point of a cane. As Adam watched, the man looked up and reached out a hand to nudge the door closed.

Having removed his gloves and hat, Oskar took a seat on a nearby armchair, once more crossing his legs as he eased back into the cushions. Mr. Cobb took a position near the door, standing with his legs apart and his hands crossed across his belly. He looked like a prison guard, thought Adam. The other man stood near the bathroom. This was the first time Adam had a chance to get a proper look at him, and Adam’s first thought was he’d seen his type a hundred times before. A forgettable man trying his best to be unforgettable and failing dismally. He glanced over at Cobb. At least he had presence, Adam decided. He turned his attention away from the room’s occupants and started to toy with his hat which dangled between his knees, as he grew more impatient and irritated with every passing minute.

He looked down at Clara, who had tucked herself as close as she could to his side and was staring around the room at the opulent splendour of the heavy brocade curtains tied back with golden tassels, and what looked like printed damask wallpaper and elaborate lions-foot cabinets. Her fingers skimmed over the soft padding of the couch and she stared at the numerous vases of elaborate flower arrangements.

No one spoke for about five minutes and Adam’s mounting impatience at being kept waiting was displayed in a rapidly tapping foot. But then the bathroom door opened, and the old count walked into the parlour, his cane beating the way one step ahead of him. He was followed by the portly gentleman who was tucking a stethoscope away into a doctor’s medical bag.

The count didn’t look at anyone until he had sat down in a high-backed armchair, and only then did he settle his eyes on Adam and Clara.

“I will confess, Mr. Cartwright, I did not expect you to relinquish Clara so willingly.”

Adam pursed his lips. “I haven’t. I am not here of my own accord.”

“I see.” The old man coughed, his eyes screwing up with discomfort, and the man whom Adam assumed was a doctor appeared by his side with a cloth into which the count coughed and spat. Clara recoiled at the appearance of a pink stain on the fabric. With a weak wave, Count Friedrich introduced the man who was infolding the contents of the cloth into a bundle. “My personal physician, Doctor William Buxton.”

The doctor nodded in Adam’s direction. “And an impossible task it is too.” He looked back to the count. “You need to rest, sir. You hire the best doctor in the East, but you continue to ignore my advice.”

The old man waved his hand dismissively. “It can wait.”

Clenching his jaw, the doctor shook his head and took a seat at a table next to one of the windows, his attention soon lost in a large leather-bound tome.

The count’s eyes alighted on Clara. “Let me look at you.”

Clara’s hand curled around Adam’s elbow and she edged in closer to him.

A frown formed on the count’s face and his fingers began to tap impatiently on the armrests. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come here, girl.”

Adam looked down at Clara, rolled his eyes and gestured towards the old man. Clara stood slowly and with small steps moved to stand in front of him.

The count looked her up and down. “Turn around.”

Clara eyes widened. “What?”

“You heard me, turn around.”

She looked over her shoulder at Adam who shrugged and nodded his head.

Clara looked back at the count and slowly turned on the spot, and when she faced him once more his face wore a disapproving expression.

“Your attire does not befit someone of your standing.” He flicked at her shirt with a finger, his nose wrinkling at sight of her scuffed boots and cotton pants. “Young ladies do not wear . . . drawers.”

Clara couldn’t keep the frown from her face.

“Come closer, girl.”

She edged in and was startled when he grasped her arms and lifted them out to the side. Releasing his grip, he peered up inquisitively into her face. “Yes, you have the look of my mother in you: the same hair colour, the same shape eyes. But there is a vulgarity around the set of your mouth. No doubt that comes from Johanna.”

Clara suddenly found her voice. “Don’t you be mean about Mama. She was beautiful, she wasn’t . . . vulgar.” Spinning on her heel, she threw herself back on the couch next to Adam.

The count laughed lightly. “You have pluck, that is apparent. Most like your mother. It will be . . . educated . . . out of you.”

Adam sat forward. “And how are you going to do that? With a belt, a rod? Are you going to beat her until she conforms to your ideal of what the perfect young lady should be?”

“Just as you beat a man to insensibility because he happened to be a, how did you describe him, a trouble-maker?”

Adam shook his head. “That man had scared Clara half to death. He deserved what he got.”

“You justify your use of physical violence yet castigate me for using a switch on a palm to punish bad manners. Who is the bully in this room, Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam looked pointedly at the two hired guns standing against the wall and raised an eyebrow. “And you call me a bully?”

The two men eyed each other with equal measures of contempt, until the count pulled in a sharp breath. “All this to and fro is getting us nowhere. It is nothing more than a feint on your part. But I have been in battle before, Mr. Cartwright, and I seldom lose. The child is my legal heir, she carries my blood in her veins, and as such she will be leaving with me. You cannot win, so you might as well give up this fight.” His head moved slightly in Mr. Cobb’s direction. “While you still can.”

Adam was struggling to keep his temper in check and the count’s calm control only served to rile him further. He stood up sharply, pulling Clara up with him. “One thing you need to realise about me, Count, is I am a Cartwright, and we don’t give up easily, not while there’s any strength left in us.” He looked down at Clara. “And I’ve got every reason in the world to fight.” With his hand tight around Clara’s, they started to move towards the door. “We’re leaving.”

They reached it to find Cobb blocking their way. Adam turned back to the count, his hand hovering over the grip of his pistol. “I suggest you let us go.”

The young lawyer, Oskar Bauer, twisted around in his seat to face Adam. “Or you’ll do what, Mr. Cartwright, shoot one of us dead? You can’t kill us all, and there are plenty of witnesses. You’ll end up in jail or at the end of a rope for an unprovoked attack. Or perhaps you’ll be killed as we act to defend ourselves. Either way, what will happen to the Lady Clara then?”

The second heavy began to move away from his spot by the bathroom, massaging his fists as he approached the door. But suddenly, Clara was there, pressing her back against Adam’s chest and glaring fiercely at the men in the room. “No, you won’t hurt him, I won’t let you.”

As Adam looked in stunned surprise at the top of Clara’s head, the count started to laugh. “She really is like her mother.” He raised a hand towards the door. “You may leave, but I will see you again, Mr. Cartwright.” His eyes did not blink as he stared at Adam. “In a court of law.”

The door was opened for them and Adam propelled Clara out of the room and down three flights of stairs to the street level. And it was only as they reached the lobby did he slow down and draw in a long-needed breath.

***

Hoss and Joe were leaning against the railings outside the lobby entrance when Adam and Clara appeared. Joe’s eyes were on the traffic as it passed by, but he straightened up when Hoss swatted his arm with the back of his hand. One look at Adam’s face revealed the simmering anger that boiled beneath the surface.

“What was all that about?” said Hoss.

“We were invited into the count’s rooms for an intimate heart-to-heart,” replied Adam through gritted teeth. “He wanted to take a good look at Clara. Good grief, he inspected her like she was a piece of—” He stopped suddenly, looking down at the girl standing morosely by his side. “I need a drink.”

“The Silver Dollar’s within spitting distance, brother,” said Joe, gesturing over his shoulder.

“There’s nothing I’d like more, but . . .” He nodded down at Clara.

They stood in silence, their heads hanging low, but then Hoss glanced down the street and a gap-toothed smile lit his face. “Why don’ I take Clara down to Miss Matilda’s Cafe. They do the best doughnuts this side o’ the Ponderosa.” He raised an eyebrow at Clara. “Jest don’ tell Hop Sing I said that.”

Clara managed a weak smile.

“An’ you two can get yourselves a beer. We’ll come find you in a half-hour.”

Adam took a heavy breath. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I’ve still gotta see Hiram and Clara wants to make her statement. And it’s not even noon yet—drinking so early in the day? I don’t want to give the count any more ammunition than I have to.”

“It’s just a beer, Adam,” said Joe, stepping back to let a young lady pass. His eyes lingered on her as she sashayed along the boardwalk. Hoss cleared his throat and Joe’s head snapped back. “As I was saying, it’s only a beer, and after the last twenty-four hours, I reckon you could do with one to help loosen you up. Besides,” a cheeky grin puffed out his cheeks, “a glass of beer aids the thinking. I’ve come up with my best ideas after an hour in a saloon.”

Adam and Hoss’s eyes met, and their eyebrows rose. Even Clara grinned. She looked up at Adam. “Go on, I’ll be okay.”

She slipped over next to Hoss who picked up her hand and tucked it over his arm. “A date with my favourite little lady, an’ doughnuts too, what could be better.”

And with a wink, Hoss led her away down the street. “Don’t forget,” he called back over his shoulder, “half an hour.”

Joe’s lips pursed. “We can get a lot of thinking done in half an hour.”

And with a shake of his head, Adam led the way to the Silver Dollar Saloon.

***

“Grab a table, I’ll get us a couple of beers,” said Joe, rooting into his pants’ pocket for his money. The coins had barely hit the counter before the drinks were poured and Joe was carrying them to a table on the far side of the saloon. He could see from the slumped pose that Adam was only just reining in his temper. Placing the beer in his brother’s line of vision, he sat down opposite, and watched Adam’s fingers reach to slide the glass towards him.

“So, the private chat didn’t go well?”

Meeting his gaze with a shake of his head, Adam lifted his glass. Joe did the same and together they poured half the contents down their throats. Adam let the glass drop to the table with a clunk as Joe licked the foam off his top lip.

“He treated her like she was a piece of prime grazing stock. Turn around, let me see you from behind. Raise your arms. He had that look Pa gets when he’s inspecting a new bull for breeding potential.” Adam took another long draught of beer. “Because that’s all she is to him, breeding stock. As a girl she won’t carry on the family name, but he can marry her off, have her breed the next generation of lords and ladies.” He upended the glass. “That didn’t even touch the sides.” Twisting around in his chair, Adam gestured to the barkeep for two more beers.

“What can we do?”

Adam covered his mouth with his hand for a moment before letting it drop. “I’ll go see Hiram with Clara, get her statement down on paper. But other than that, I’m not sure there’s anything we can do.”

Two more beers appeared at their table and both men picked up their fresh glasses to drink.

There was a sudden commotion at the entrance. One half of the batwing doors was flung back with such force it crashed into the wall behind it. A man staggered through, reaching out for the bar with one hand to keep himself from falling. Heads craned around to see, including Joe and Adam. “I don’t believe it,” murmured Joe. Adam cursed under his breath, and together the two brothers sank low in their seats.

It was Tully.

“Cartwright, where are you, Cartwright? I was told you was in here. Show yerself.”

A hush settled over the saloon.

“I ain’t hiding, Tully.”

Tully swung around to where Joe and Adam were seated. As he lumbered towards them, Joe noticed a man slink into the saloon and position himself by the door. It was one of the count’s men.

On reaching the end of the counter, Tully leaned back on the bar for support. “Come ta finish me off, huh Cartwright?”

Adam’s beer was suspended in front of him. “Looks to me like you’re the one who came looking. I’m just minding my own business.”

Tully sneered. “Shame you couldn’t’ve minded yer own business yesterday.” He wrapped an arm around his waist. “I got bruises where I didn’t think a man could get bruises.”

It was true. Tully’s face was badly discoloured, and his top lip swollen from when Adam’s fists had pummelled into him.

“Tully, you gave as good as you got.” Adam dragged his sore leg out from beneath the table. “You’re not the only one in a sorry state today. Anyway, you brought it upon yourself. You had no call to have been anywhere near the Ponderosa with your lies and threats.”

Heaving himself off the bar, Tully staggered over to the table, leaning down on outstretched arms. “And who did I threaten?”

Adam’s chair scraped back against the floor as he slowly rose to his full height, never taking his eyes from the man in front of him. Settling his weight on one hip, he stared down at Tully with an unblinking look. Tully staggered back a step.

“Clara.”

The saloon hushed and a couple of nearby patrons took their drinks and scurried away from the two men eying each other across the table. But then Tully twisted around and trudged back to the bar. “Gah, I only gave her a little message, is all.”

“She was terrified.” Adam’s shout silenced the already muted saloon. He became aware of the sidelong glances and lowered heads as the patrons eavesdropped on the exchange. Turning his back on the listening crowd, he limped over to the bar and spoke with a lowered voice.

“Do you think I like what happened yesterday? You were once my friend, Tully. How did it come to this?”

Tully remained slouched over the counter. “You know how.”

With a sigh, Adam hung his head. “You’re never gonna give this up, are you?” His fingers tapped lightly on the counter as he looked down at the broken man in front of him. Then, shaking his head, he pushed away from the bar and returned to where Joe was standing, ready for any trouble. “Let’s go, Joe.”

Joe led the way towards the saloon doors, but as Adam passed the crumpled figure of his former friend, Tully heaved himself out of his slump and grabbed hold of Adam’s shirt front. “This ain’t over, Cartwright.” Adam tried to free himself from Tully’s grip, but the man’s hold on him was fast. “This ain’t ever gonna be over, not till—”

Tully grunted and doubled over, caught by Adam’s fist in his stomach. Adam grabbed Tully by his lapels and hoisted him upright so they were face to face. “I didn’t kill your boy,” he snarled, “I didn’t kill Richie.”

Sudden tears sprang to Tully’s eyes. “I know.” His head lolled forward on his neck.

A flicker of a frown creased Adam’s brow and he tightened his grip on Tully’s coat, forcing the man’s head up. “What did you say?”

A look of deep stabbing pain scared Tully’s face. “I said, I know.”

Adam released his grip and Tully sagged back against the bar. “Then . . . what’s this all about?”

Tully’s head rocked up to face Adam, and for a split-second Adam saw the man he remembered all those years ago, the man whose face was made for laughing, who could draw anyone from a dark mood with his enthusiasm and exuberance. But as quickly as the old Tully had returned, an expression of overwhelming, unbearable sadness formed in his eyes. He lashed out with a yell, his fist striking Adam’s chin, sending Adam spinning over the bar. Before Adam could react, Tully had heaved him up and slammed him against the bar causing Adam to gasp in pain. Tully leaned in close. “I gotta see it through, cain’t you see? I lived with this hate inside o’ me fer so long, it won’t let go. It’s the only thing I got left.” Adam tried to push him away, but Tully tightened his hold. “Don’t you see? My hating you, it’s a part of me now. When I saw that little girlie o’ yours, I knew straight away who she was, and I hated you even more for having what I ain’t got.” Adam attempted to push Tully off again, but Tully seemed to have found an unexpected strength, fuelled by his bitterness and loathing, and he kept Adam pinned against the bar.

It took Joe and Sam, the barman, to prize them apart. Falling forward, Tully slumped over the bar, as Joe bundled Adam away from him.

“Adam, you gotta stop this. You’re playing right into the count’s hands.” He nodded over his shoulder and Adam saw the count’s man leaning against the wall by the saloon doors, his arms crossed in front of him. Adam took a long breath and nodded to his younger brother, swinging down to retrieve his hat that had fallen to the floor.

“You’re a fool, Tully,” said Adam. “You lost everything because of this hatred that’s eating away at you. Well, I’m not going anywhere so you either get used to it, or you get outta town.” He turned and walked away, aware of Tully’s sidelong eyes on him as he left the saloon.

Joe stood for a moment taking a hard look at Tully, then followed his brother out into the morning light. Adam was already on the road, standing with his hands on his hips, staring at the ground. He had that look about him, one Joe recognised well. Adam’s anger was one wrong word away from busting out and Joe didn’t wish to be the person it was aimed at. He wandered over to the railings and gripped the wood with outstretched arms, letting his brother have the space he needed.

A movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and what he saw pulled him up and out of his lean in an instant. A man was exiting the saloon with his arm extended, holding a six-shooter. And it was pointed directly at Adam.

Did Joe cry out Adam’s name? He had no idea, but he must have done. All he knew was as he went for his own weapon, Adam was twisting around to face the saloon. There was a gunshot. Adam’s head rocked back, and he began to fall, his legs twisting on the dry-packed earth. The shooter stepped out of the saloon and fired again. It was Tully. Adam’s back arched. Joe didn’t aim but fired instinctively. Tully dropped, dead before he hit the ground. And Joe could only watch as his brother sank to his knees and flopped forward into the dirt.

***

Hoss had powdered sugar around his mouth, his tongue stretched to its fullest as he probed around his lips for the out-of-reach sweetening. Clara didn’t want to laugh but she couldn’t help but giggle as his face contorted with the effort of licking the sugar off his face. She knew he had done it on purpose, to make her forget her troubles, if only for a few minutes. It had worked.

“What did I tell ya, Miss Matilda makes the best darn doughnuts in these here parts.” He took a huge bite out of a second helping, almost consuming it whole.

Clara grinned and picked up her doughnut, taking a careful nibble at the side. Hoss had dared her to eat it without licking her lips.

Above the quiet chatter and clinking of cutlery on china plates, sounded three distant gunshots. The talk hushed, and several people rose to their feet to peer through the windows in the direction of the gunfire.

But for Clara it was as though the temperature in the room had plunged. She dropped her doughnut and turned her head towards the windows, feeling the blood in her veins turn ice-cold. Climbing slowly to her feet, goosebumps prickled along her arms and she didn’t hear Hoss’s querying words. A sense of foreboding drove her on, and she stumbled through the tables, her hands rubbing up and down her skin. Somehow, she knew without being told it was Adam, that he was hurt, maybe dead; the invisible tie binding them had suddenly frayed to a single tenuous thread.

The street had come to a halt, a stillness hanging over the generally bustling central thoroughfare of the town. Townsfolk were starting to emerge from behind wagons and buckboards; standing up from where they had been crouched behind barrels on the boardwalks. They all looked in the same direction, down the street away from the café. Clara tried to see what they were looking at, but it was no good.

She ran to the cafe’s entrance and yanked open the door, running down the steps into the road, half aware of Hoss’s questioning voice as he plodded along behind her. She stopped. There was a body lying in the road and someone crouched down beside it. Her view was blocked by curious onlookers walking cautiously towards the scene. She took a few steps farther into the road and immediately recognised Little Joe. Her heart started to patter in her chest as she watched him reach out and gently touch the back of the person lying in the street. A person wearing black, like . . .

“Papa!” The cry became a scream.

She had never run so fast in her life, her feet flicking up the dust on the road. People tried to stop her, but she didn’t see them—they were obstacles to be avoided. She had to get to him, to help him. Her eyes didn’t leave his unmoving body. It was as though she was staring down the lens of Grandpa Ben’s telescope; everything but that still figure was out-of-focus, shrouded from view. As she grew nearer, she could see blood on his head and reached out to him. But then Joe was there, snaring her in his grasp, stopping her from getting close.

She struggled to free herself. Wriggling to loosen Joe’s hold on her, she pressed down on his hands.  “Let me go! I need to—” She twisted around in his arms, pushing against his chest with her hands. “Please, Joe, let me go.” But Joe’s grip was fast. She half-turned to look at the still, unmoving body of Adam. “Oh Adam, please don’t be . . .”

Joe wrapped his arms even tighter around her and bent down to speak in her ear. “He’s not dead, Clara. He’s badly hurt. But he’s not dead.”

Such relief flooded through Clara that her legs suddenly seemed unable to hold her weight and she slumped against Joe. He held her as Hoss lumbered past, out of breath and panting. Kneeling at his brother’s head, he carefully plucked the hair away from the bloody wound on Adam’s temple. “What happened?”

Clara looked up at Joe when he didn’t answer. He was peering all around him until he spotted Bessie Sue crossing the street towards them. “Take her, would you?”

A pair of strong hands grasped Clara’s arms and she was tugged back against Bessie Sue’s body. “I’ll look after, Joe. She’ll be okay with me.”

Joe knelt by Adam’s side, and after a quick look at Clara, lowered his voice. “It was Tully. Adam had a run-in with him in the saloon. I thought he was nothing but mouth and fists.”

“Where’s he now?”

Joe nodded behind him as he placed a careful hand on Adam’s back and showed bloody fingers to his brother. “Dead.”

Hoss threw a glance at Tully’s body sprawled on the boardwalk. “We need to get Adam to the docs.”

A wagon pulled up beside them. It was a local rancher, offering his buckboard to transport Adam down to Doc Martin’s office.

Clara watched Adam being lifted into the back of the buckboard, his body limp and floppy. That wasn’t her pa. Papa was strong and solid. He could pull her up behind him on a horse with a single arm; once when she’d come down with a fever, he’d lifted her off the couch and carried her upstairs to her bed as though she weighed nothing more than a rag doll. But now, he was nothing more than bone and flesh, sagging between his two brothers as they hoisted him into the back of the wagon.

Hoss and Joe climbed aboard and crouched down on either side of him. As it moved away down the street Clara kept her eyes on the buckboard until it had turned a corner, not moving from the spot where she stood. Bessie Sue released her tight grip, placing an arm over the girl’s shoulder as she tried to propel her away from the road. But Clara wouldn’t move. She watched as Deputy Clem rode up swiftly with another deputy, jumped off his horse and stood over the shooter’s body. There was chatter amongst the sheriff and a couple of onlookers, then two men, dressed head to foot in black, began to lift the body off the boardwalk.

“No!” Clara tugged herself free of Bessie Sue’s hold and ran up the steps to where the men had stopped, staring at her in surprise. She dropped to her heels to look at the man who had shot Adam. She knew him instantly. But this wasn’t the worn down, disconcerting man she’d encountered in the woods. No, this man wore an expression of calm. The lines on his face had smoothed, and he appeared at least ten years younger. She slowly cocked her head and saw the corners of his mouth were curved upwards. Finn Tullivan had died with a smile on his face.

She rose slowly to her feet and took a step back. As the men lifted Tully’s body and carried him to a waiting horse, her eyes fixed on the bloody spot in the road where Adam had fallen. Someone was asking her questions, but she had no words with which to respond. All she could do was stand and stare at that red mark in the dirt.

Gradually the onlookers started to drift away. Wagons began to rattle past, and riders mounted and continued their journeys. A piano began to tinkle in the saloon behind her. It took the gentle pressure of Bessie Sue’s arm around her shoulders to bring her back to the present. She felt herself steered away from the saloon and towards the doctor’s office. And as she walked past that patch of bright blood on the dusty earth, a horse and wagon drove straight over it, churning up the ground, and it was gone. All the evidence of the shooting of Adam Cartwright had vanished before her eyes.

***

The door to Doctor Martin’s waiting room banged open. Ben stood in the doorway, his gloved hand gripping the knob. His youngest son leaned against the wall with his arms and ankles crossed, his head lowered. Hoss, seated on a hard wooden chair, pushed himself up at sight of his father. Sat closest to the doctor’s consulting room was Clara, her eyes staring at the closed door. She didn’t look away, even at Ben’s dramatic entrance.

Ben strode across the room, but Joe pushed away from the wall and intercepted his father before he could reach the surgery door, his hand firm on Ben’s chest.

“Pa, wait a moment.”

Ben took a deep breath. “Joseph, please don’t stop me.” His voice was quiet, but his eyes burned as they looked at Little Joe.

“Please, Pa, there’s things you need to know, before you go in.”

As though willing himself to see beyond, Ben stared at the entrance to the doctor’s inner sanctum, but he allowed himself to be steered away from the door with a gentle but unyielding hand on his arm. Hoss joined them in a huddle by the window.

“What happened?”

Joe sighed. “Finn Tullivan happened.”

“Tully.” Ben clenched his fists. “Didn’t I warn Adam he was capable of this, didn’t I?” He glanced at Clara for a moment and then dropped his voice. “What of Adam? I was told nothing more than he’d been shot.”

Joe hung his head for a moment then look steadily at his father. “He took a bullet to the side of the head, and another in the back.”

All the blood drained from Ben’s face. “My God.”

Hoss took hold of his father’s arm, fearful he was about to wobble, but Ben squeezed his big son’s arm in return. “I’m okay, son, I’m okay.”

“It was like the time he got shot by Red Twilight. Knocked him out cold. Only, when he came to in the wagon on the way here, he was . . .” He broke off.

Ben’s eyebrows knitted together. “He was what?”

Joe looked over at Hoss, recalling the journey from the saloon. They’d both climbed in the back of the buckboard next to Adam. He’d been out cold, unresponsive to their persistent appeals for him to wake up, his head bouncing so heavily against the floor of the fast-moving wagon that Hoss cushioned it with his open palm. Joe had his bandanna pressed against the bleeding wound in Adam’s head when, without warning, Adam came round with a jolt, his head springing up to stare wild-eyed at his brothers.

Joe had grinned. “Hey, brother.” But Adam had only stared about frantically as he tried to push himself upright.

“Hey, hey, take it easy, Adam.” Hoss had pressed down on Adam’s shoulders to keep him flat, but then Adam had gritted his teeth and gasped and twisted his torso to one side, grinding his brow into the rough wood of the wagon bed.

“My back . . .  Oh God . . .”

He tried to twist one hand behind him to where the bullet had entered, but Hoss grabbed it, stopping him from reaching his wound. Joe could do nothing to alleviate his brother’s pain. All he could do was clasp his brother’s shoulder to let him know he was there, to offer what little comfort he could through the weight of his touch.

Adam’s body was rigid; his grip on Hoss’s hand all that was keeping him from drowning in a mire of agony.

But then came a moment of respite. He had let out a huge gasp of air and his body had grown slack. The blood from his head wound began to trickle down his brow and nose so Hoss tugged a fresh handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the deep gash.

“You, you, don’t worry none, Adam, we’ll have you at docs in no time.”

Adam had managed a thin smile.

“I fell, Hoss. Shouldn’t have been so . . . stubborn. Should’ve asked for help.”

His eyebrows pinched together in puzzlement, Hoss leaned lower over his brother. “Help you with what, Adam?”

“The house. I slipped. Fell.”

Hoss had patted Adam’s hand within his grasp. “It’s okay, Adam, don’t, don’t you think about that.” But Joe had seen the puzzled look on his brother’s face that matched his own.

Adam had been quiet for the rest of the way, but he’d begun to groan again as they lifted him from the back of the wagon, his moans becoming louder as they took him through the waiting room and into the room Doc Martin used as his surgery.

Thank goodness the doctor was not out visiting a patient. They had exchanged a few, loudly spoken words over Adam’s moans, and then been hustled out the door which was shut firmly behind them. Joe was too riled up to sit and, by the looks of things, so was Hoss. They’d both stood in the middle of the waiting room, turning their hats round and round in their hands, listening to the muffled sounds of their brother’s anguish.

But suddenly Adam’s groans had stopped. They simply died away and the room was filled with a heavy agonising silence. Hoss and Joe had stared at each other, and at the door separating them from Adam, too afraid to know why they could no longer hear the signs their brother was still alive. Joe waited for the door to slowly open and for the doc to appear with that head-bowed, pity-eyed, I-did-everything-I-could air about him. But the door stayed shut, and only then did Joe let himself breathe again.

He looked back to Ben. “Adam was confused, not himself.” He looked down to his feet. “Scared the hell out of me.” He glanced at Hoss, not able to tell his father about the gut-churning moments after they’d arrived at the surgery. He turned away, shaking his head.

Hoss watched his brother struggling with his emotions but then turned to his father. “Paul came out when he had settled Adam down a bit. Said his head looks worse than it is. Somethin’ about blood vessels in the scalp. I don’t know what exactly. He said Adam’s confusion was down to the bullet hittin’ him like it did. Like having a hard knock on the head.”

The door opened behind them, and Doc Martin poked his face into the room. “I thought I heard you, Ben. Come in when you’re ready.” He peered down at Clara and at Hoss and Joe. “And come in alone. I don’t want my patient more disturbed than he has to be.”

Joe had lifted his head at the sound of the doctor’s voice, hopeful at the idea of seeing his brother. The dismissal brought a shrug of the shoulders. He walked back to his father’s side.

“Doc pretty much kicked us out the room when we brought Adam in. Said we were getting under his feet.”

Ben looked over at Clara. “And what about her?”

Folding his arms high on his chest, Hoss raised his eyebrows. “She ain’t said a word since Bessie Sue brought her here, just stares at the door.”

Ben nodded and headed towards the surgery. He paused on reaching Clara, and, after a moment’s thought, sat down next to her.

“Clara?”

She didn’t respond.

“Clara, I don’t want you to worry, Adam will be fine, you’ll see.” He brushed aside the voice inside his head that said he had no right to tell her what he wasn’t certain of himself. “You know Paul, he’ll have Adam back on his feet again in no time.”

Again, she didn’t react. Her gaze remained fixed on the door separating her from Adam.

Ben sighed and slipped his arm around her shoulder, squeezing her gently, then he rose to his feet and, after a deep breath, entered the surgery.

***

Adam’s face was white. If his dark sun-browned skin could be so bleached of colour, then it was. He lay on his side on a padded leather examination bed with his eyes closed, his face half-obscured by a pillow. A thin bandage was tied around his head, holding in place a dressing over the head wound.

Standing over a bowl, washing his hands in pink-stained water, was Paul.

Ben walked as quietly as he could to Adam’s side and reached out to touch his son’s shoulder. But he stopped before making contact, his hand hovering over the still figure, afraid to disturb him. Instead, he leaned across to gaze at Adam’s pain-marked face, observing the prominent veins beneath his eyelids which made his face appear strained and tired. But on studying the dressing and the bandage, he managed to find a smile. “Your bandaging skills appear to have come on in leaps and bounds, Paul.”

Doctor Martin twisted around; one eyebrow raised. “What can I say, my interest in Egyptology has passed. I no longer practice my mummification skills on patients.”

Ben nodded at Adam. “Is he—”

“Asleep?”

Adam’s voice made Ben jump. His eyes were still firmly closed but his head had shifted against the pillow.

“Comatose?” Adam’s voice was slurred as though he had been drinking. “Neither, Pa. Just . . . need to keep my eyes shut.” He spoke each word sluggishly as though it was hard to string a full sentence together.

Ben’s hand came to rest on Adam’s shoulder.

“How are you feeling, son?”

A cheek quirked as Adam half-smiled. “Like a hundred miners are hammering at the same rockface—in my skull.” He lifted his arm and pressed the heel of his palm against the dressing.

Ben began to stop him, but Paul spoke. “Let him. It won’t do any harm.”

With a nod to Paul, Ben turned his attention back to Adam. “Do you know why you’re here? What happened?”

There was no response from Adam, but then, “I fell. Hurt my back.”

“You fell? From what?”

“The house.”

Wearing an increasingly concerned frown, Ben glanced up at Paul who had come to stand by the bed. “What house?”

Adam’s head rocked back slightly into the pillow. “The house I’m building for Laura. I overstretched. Stupid of me.”

Ben looked at his son’s bruised face. He didn’t know what to say. How could he tell Adam it had been seven years since he’d fallen from the house, seven years since Laura had ridden out of his life? He applied a gentle pressure to Adam’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, son, don’t think about it. Rest now.”

Walking around the bed, he steered his friend to the far side of the room.

“Paul?”

The doctor kept his voice low. “I’m not going to lie to you, Ben, Adam is not in good shape.”

“He’s talking about something that happened years ago.”

“That’s the head wound. He may as well have run headfirst into a wall. The bullet did the same damage.”

Ben ran his fingers through his hair, disbelief at the situation expressed in every fresh line on his face.

“He’ll recover, Ben.” Paul’s calming voice brought Ben back to himself. “I’ve seen this a hundred times before. A severe knock to the head, confusion, forgetfulness, but they always come back to how they were before.”

Ben looked over at Adam, lying so still on the bed. “How long?”

Paul took a deep breath. “Could be tomorrow, could be a couple of days, could be a week. There’s no way of knowing. But Adam’s strong, Ben, he’s lucid, he knows you, me, his brothers. His memory is like a book—to us all the pages are in the wrong order, yet to him, it makes perfect sense. Pretty soon we’ll all be reading from the same page, I guarantee it.”

Without taking his eyes from his son, Ben nodded anxiously. “What about the bullet in his back?”

“Your boys told you?”

“Only that, nothing more. Paul, he’s talking about the last time his back was injured.”

“I suspect that’s why his memory is playing tricks on him. His body remembers the injury from when he fell, how his back was damaged, the pain it caused.” Paul hesitated and drew Ben closer to him, lowering his voice even further. “But this is more serious, Ben. From what I can tell, the bullet is lodged near his spine. It’s in a . . . an unfortunate position.”

“Unfortunate? What does that mean? You can remove the bullet, can’t you?”

There was no answer. “Paul?”

Paul opened his mouth to speak but there was a quiet knock on the door and Hoss’s head peered through the gap. “Pa, Clem’s here. Wants ta talk to you about what happened.”

Ben was too preoccupied to acknowledge Hoss’s words at first, but then they registered. “Okay, tell him I’ll be out in a minute.”

Leaving the door ajar, Hoss withdrew into the waiting room.

“Paul, what aren’t you telling me? You’ve patched up more broken bones and taken out more bullets than I care to remember. Why the reluctance?”

Paul sighed. “Ben, I’m a small-town doctor. I can take a bullet out of a shoulder, set a broken limb, suture a wound. I’ve done it a thousand times, and I’ll do it another thousand times. But this, this is beyond my capabilities.”

Ben was lost for words, his head shaking slightly from side to side. “Paul?”

Hanging his head for a moment, Paul scratched the back of his neck before looking back at his friend. “If I go poking around in there, I could do more damage than if I simply let it alone. A simple mistake and I could deprive Adam of the ability to use his legs. He may never walk again, worse, he could be paralysed in such a way that he needs help just to . . .” He ran his tongue over his lips. “Adam won’t be able to do those things we take for granted. He’d need help, constant help.”

“But Paul, you’re a first-class doctor, I’d trust you with my life, with my boys’ lives. Why this sudden doubt?”

“It’s not doubt.” Paul spoke more sharply than he had intended and the sight of Adam stirring, made him steer Ben towards the door, and away from Adam. “It’s not doubt, Ben, but I know my capabilities.”

Ben stared at his wounded boy. “But if you don’t operate, what then?”

“He’s starting to experience shooting pains in his legs.”

“So, he’s just been gunned down in the street!”

“No, this is different. I believe the bullet is in a position by his spinal cord that its causing problems lower down. It’s not enough to stop him walking, but it’s enough to cause intense pain.” He paused. “Unless it’s removed, it’s likely Adam will have to endure this pain for the rest of his life.”

Ben took a step closer to Paul, drawing himself up to his tallest height. “Then take the darned bullet out.”

Paul had endured enough angry relatives in his time not to be fazed by Ben’s temper. “I can’t risk it. And I won’t.”

“Is there no other doctor who can do it?”

“Not in Virginia City. And even if there was, we’d have to wait until Adam’s head is no longer full of gaping holes.”

The sound of voices drifted in through the open door. “This discussion isn’t over, Paul.” And turning on his heel, Ben left the room.

Paul took a steadying breath then followed Ben to the doorway. “Boys, Clara, you can come in and see Adam now.”

***

Clara didn’t move as Hoss and Joe said their goodbyes to Clem and headed to Adam’s bedside. She stayed in her chair, too afraid to see her once strong protector lying fractured on the doctor’s couch.

Doctor Martin looked down at her and cocked his head to one side. “Clara? Don’t you want to see Adam?”

Everyone was looking at her. She pushed up slowly from her chair and stood in the doorway. Adam was skewed on the bed, his legs limp and his torso twisted slightly to one side. He looked so . . . broken. As she watched, his eyes fluttered open, and he looked across at her. But before he’d even had a chance to blink, his eyes closed, and he slipped into unconsciousness. Clara’s breath caught in her throat. He looked so still. Too still.

The doctor stood by his side for a moment but then moved away, nodding at Ben who pulled a blanket up to Adam’s waist.

Clara breathed again. But she’d heard what they’d said behind the surgery door. That Adam may not walk again or would have to live with pain all his life. She stared at his limp and damaged body. Why did bad things happen to the people she loved? First her mama and now Adam. She wanted to go back to before, to any time before. To when he would hold her hand strongly within his own, instilling in her all the love and protection and strength that he could in that single touch.

One of Adam’s hands was tucked beneath the blanket but the other lay loosely over his belly. She walked to his side and lifted his hand between both of hers. His flesh was warm, but his limb felt heavy and lifeless. She laced her fingers between his.

“Adam?”

There was no response. She squeezed his fingers and smoothed her palm over his knuckles.

“Adam, please wake up.”

But he didn’t squeeze back, or open his eyes, and Clara’s heart ached. She let go of his hand and watched as his arm slipped off the side of the bed and hung at an angle. And after staring at his unmoving fingers, Clara spun on her heel and ran.

***

Ben knew Clara would come back to them.

He had followed her as she fled the surgery but stopped himself on the porch, watching as she tore down the road, her white-blonde hair streaming out behind her. Roaring her name was to no avail. Joe had appeared by his side. “I’ll get her, Pa.” But Ben put out his arm, holding Joe fast where he was. “No, let her go. After what happened to her mother this is probably too much for her. She knows where we are.”

It was only several hours later, as the sun was starting to dip behind Mount Davidson, that Hoss found her in her usual chair behind the door. She sat in the growing gloom, staring at nothing. Hoss startled backwards.

“Dagnammit, Clara, you jest aged me ten years!” He scrunched up his nose. “What ya doin’ sitting out here alone in the dark?” He rummaged in his pockets for a match and lit a wall-mounted kerosene lamp. She didn’t move or even acknowledge his presence, so Hoss leaned down, his hands on his knees to get face to face with her. “Don’t ya wanna see Adam? He’s a little scatter-minded, but he’s awake. Come on.” Without even waiting for an answer, he wrapped a meaty hand around her upper arm and gently pulled her up from the seat. “Go on in now, it’ll do you both good to see each other.” He pressed her gently towards the open door. “I’m goin’ to see if one of them stores is still open to get Adam a nightshirt. He’s clean fussy about what he sleeps in, an’ the one Doc’s got ‘im in is as rough as a bear’s behind.” And leaving Clara standing in the open doorway he stomped off towards the nearest mercantile.

Adam was still propped up on the leather examination bed, but his face looked more relaxed than it had done earlier. The heavy vertical line between his eyebrows was less defined and his lips weren’t drawn as tight. Doctor Martin wasn’t in the room, but Ben was sitting next to Adam in a pulled-up chair while Joe was sitting sidelong on a windowsill, one foot resting on the edge of the frame. Ben rose when he saw Clara.

“Come, don’t be scared.” He held out his arm and slowly Clara approached the bed, her face as still and expressionless as before.

“Adam, look who’s here.” Ben stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders.

A pair of weary eyes opened a crack, and a smile dimpled half his face. “Hey. I was wondering where you were.” His words were slow, still a little slurred. “You been riding Traveller?”

“Traveller?”

“Your pony.”

“But my horse is call—”

“Your horse is back on the Ponderosa,” Ben caught her eye with a pointed look. “You didn’t bring him into town today.”

“Yes, I, I’ve not been riding today.”

Adam smiled again, his eyes closing as he spoke. “When I’m better, we’ll ride out to Leopard’s Pond again, like we did that first time. You remember?”

Clara looked up to Ben and shrugged, but at a nod from Ben she turned back to Adam.

“Uh, yes, I’d like that.”

She felt herself being moved to one side as Ben took her position leaning over Adam’s body. “Son, it’s getting late, you need to sleep.”

“Sure, Pa.” Adam’s voice was becoming softer and more slurred. “Whatever you say, Pa.”

After a quick glance at Ben, and without another word, Clara walked out into the waiting room. Ben watched her go and then moved to where Joe was leaning against the window. “Did you hear him?”

“He thought she was Peggy.”

Ben dropped his head, his palm finding his brow. “I know Paul said he’d come through this, but every time he says something like that, it scares me.”

Joe shifted his weight off the windowsill and squeezed his father’s shoulder. “He’ll be okay, Pa. You heard what the doc said.” He looked through the open door into the waiting room where Clara was standing, staring out of a window. “It’s her I’m worried about. She’s hardly spoken since this all began. She’s not cried, she just stares at nothing.”

“She’s seen and experienced too much for a child of her age. Don’t forget it was less than a year ago when she lost her mother, and now this.”

Ben gestured towards the waiting room and Joe followed him to where Clara was watching the sun’s last blazes die behind the mount, her face lit with an orange glow.

“Joe, find your brother and take Clara back to the ranch. We don’t all need to stay.”

“But, Pa, what if something happens? We should be here.”

Tired eyes met Joe’s. “Joe, please do as I ask.”

Joe suppressed a sigh. “Sure, Pa. We’ll see you in the morning.”

He led the silent Clara away, and as Ben watched them walk along the boardwalk, he was joined on the porch by the doctor.

“I don’t understand her, Paul. I thought, at the least, she would have protested being sent home, but there was nothing, no reaction. She just let Joe take her, as though she was a pack mule to be led.”

“Ben, you know as well as I do people react to shock in different ways. Perhaps she doesn’t know how to talk about it, so she’s keeping it bottled up inside.”

“Maybe. It’s so different to when she lost her mother, though. Adam, well, all of us, had to contend with many tearful nights when she first came to us. This is different.”

And with one last glance at Joe and Clara fading into the growing twilight, he went back to his vigil. Clara was a concern, but it was Adam who needed his attention now.

***

The sound of a heavy thud in the back of the buckboard drew Hoss’s attention from where he was checking the traces on the horses. Clara had lobbed a leather carpetbag into the space behind the seats.

“Wotcha got there?” he called.

“Clothes.”

“Huh?

“Clothes for Adam.” She couldn’t keep the irritation from her voice. “For when he’s better.”

It was the most she had said since leaving Doc Martin’s the night before.

Hoss ran his hand along the trace until he stood opposite her. “Well, I got him a new nightshirt and Hop Sing said he’d get some things together—”

“I’ve done it now!” She fired the words at Hoss like a cannonball, and stalked back into the house, knocking into Joe as she went.

“Woah! Slow down,” laughed Joe. He pulled back. “You’re wearing a dress. Why the dress?”

Clara took a long sigh. “Because I felt like it.” And without another word she continued into the house.

The quick smile faded from Joe’s face. “She still in a grump?”

“Yep, no change there.”

It had been an uncomfortable journey home the previous evening. Clara had hung back behind them, her eyes fixed on Adam’s horse being led by Hoss, unwilling to talk, or be talked to. And what with a consuming worry for their brother, having a moody child to contend with was a conversation killer.

She had run straight to her room, ignoring the calls that followed her up the stairs that she needed to eat, and Hop Sing was going to rustle up warm pork and mustard sandwiches. They had not seen her again until her appearance next to the buckboard.

After a few minutes she was back, wearing her red coat over her dress. Joe straightened up from where he’d been checking over one of the wagon’s wheels and watched her climb into the buckboard seat where she sat with her back rigid, staring straight ahead. He looked up at her, his hands on his hips. “Clara, it’s gonna be hotter than Hop Sing’s kitchen on baking day later on. You don’t need your coat.”

Clara kept her eyes on a spot above the horses’ heads. “I’m cold.”

“You’re cold?”

“Yes.”

There was nothing to say to that. “Have you had anything to eat. You skipped supper last night—”

“I’m not hungry.”

Joe let his head droop for a second. “You’re cold and you’re not hungry.”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” A pair of narrow, angry eyes glared down at him.

“Ah, leave it, Joe.” Hoss climbed into the seat next to her. “There ain’t no talkin’ to her at the moment. At least you can get away from the silent treatment.” And he looked with envious eyes at where the saddled Cochise was tied, patiently awaiting his master. Gathering up the reins, Hoss released the brake. “And as for you missy, we’re all of us hurtin’ and worryin’ about Adam, but there ain’t no call to take your hurt out on the rest of us.” With a frown darkening his eyes, he steered the wagon to the track that led away from the ranch. Then slapping the reins over the animals’ backs he fired them up into an anger-burning run.

***

“He’s asleep, Joe, I don’t reckon we should wake him, d’you?”

The voice was quiet but loud enough to rouse Ben from the light doze he’d fallen into. He lifted his head from where his neck was resting on the back of the chair, closed his mouth which had fallen open and blinked open his eyes. Hoss was standing in the doorway, his hand still on the handle, peering behind him at the out-of-view Joe.

“I’m not asleep.” Ben’s voice was a low grumble. He sat up in the chair and pushed a hand through his hair.

“Bad night?”

Ben climbed slowly to his feet and pressed his hands into the small of his back, expanding his chest into a stretch. “Not as bad as his.” He looked over at Adam who was asleep on the bed, a blanket pulled over his legs. “He slept, but when he didn’t . . .” Ben shook his head and let out a long breath. “The pain in his legs would wake him and he’d start flailing about. He nearly fell off the bed a couple of times, so we had to hold him down. And then he’d be garbling all sorts of nonsense.”

Ben recalled Adam crying out that he’d fallen, that he’d hurt his back, over and over throughout the night. And Ben would hold him down and say it was okay, he was being taken care of, but his words were never heard, and each time Adam would collapse back on the bed, exhausted, his words fading as sleep once more claimed him. Until the next time, that is.

Carefully, Ben lifted the blanket up to Adam’s chest, and, with a nod of his head, signalled to Joe and Hoss to follow him away from his eldest’s motionless form.

“Paul’s worried.” Ben voice was low. “These attacks are becoming more frequent and lasting longer each time. And he’s running a temperature. There may be infection in the wound.”

“What’s the doc gonna do about it?”

Ben threw a glance at Joe. “Paul and I discussed long and hard last night what the best plan of action is. I won’t lie when I say the discussion became . . . heated on occasion.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “He’s going to clean the wound out, but he’s still opposed to operating.”

“But if he doesn’t—”

“It won’t come to that. We’ve decided to let Adam decide.”

“Adam?” Hoss’s voice was loud in the previously subdued room.

“Keep your voice down!” whispered Ben, shooing his boys out of the room. “When your brother’s got his senses back, he’ll make the decision. And I know he’ll make the right one.”

“But we cain’t make Paul do somethin’ he ain’t happy doin’.”

The conversation in the darkest hours had been long and furious, a whispered barrage of pros and cons, emotion versus logic. In the end, Ben got the victory he had been seeking. “You promise me, Paul, if this is what Adam wants, you’ll honour his wishes.” And Paul had rested his elbows on his knees, leaned forward and wearily nodded his head. “I promise.”

Ben’s gaze was sure as he looked hard at Hoss. “He’ll do it.”

It was then Ben noticed Clara for the first time. She was standing by the front door, her hands clasped in front of her, staring out of the window.

“Clara, what are you doing standing over there? And why are you wearing a coat in this weather?” The room was already warm despite the early hour.

She turned at his voice and frowned. “I was cold.” And with a pout, she sat down heavily in a chair, and crossed her arms across her chest.

Ben’s face rocked back to look at Hoss and Joe. Hoss snorted. “Don’t look at me, Pa, she’s bin like a rattler with a sore tooth all mornin’.”

A long groan from Adam broke into the huddle. Ben twisted on the spot and saw Adam gripping his legs. “Here we go again. Hoss, help me hold him down. Joe, get Paul, he’s in his kitchen getting something to eat.” In a few steps he was at Adam’s side. “Hold his ankles.” Hoss did as he was instructed as Ben leaned down on Adam’s shoulders. Adam’s head was turned into the pillow, his skin shiny with sweat as he squeezed his eyes tight against the pain. Another long groan escaped him as his body tensed. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the pains faded and he sank back onto the bed, panting to get his breath back. Ben leaned over him.

“Adam?”

Two hazel eyes blinked open and stared up at him. “Pa?” He swallowed. “Can I have some water?” The croaked words were said on a breath.

A pitcher sat on a table by the bed. After decanting an inch of water into a glass, Hoss raised Adam’s head and let his brother drink, a dribble of water escaping down his chin. Adam lay back, his breath slowing back to normal.

“How do you feel, son?”

“Like I’ve been wrestling a grizzly.”

Hoss couldn’t stop himself from smiling. He’d heard those same words after they’d found a battered and unconscious Adam in a remote trapper’s camp after his horse had returned home without him. He looked over to the door as Paul arrived with Joe behind him.

“How’s my patient this morning?”

Ben placed his palm over Adam’s forehead. “He’s hot.”

Paul did the same. “There’s infection in the wound.” He pointed to a long narrow worktable by the wall. “Pass me that bowl and cloth, would you, Joe?”

Before long Paul was cleaning the sweat gently off Adam’s face and neck. “You’ve had a rough night, and you’re not out of the woods yet, but I need to ask you a few questions.” He dipped the cloth into the bowl and rung it out. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Adam’s heavy eyelids dropped as he thought. “There was a gunshot.”

His father and brothers exchanged a look.

“What about before that?” prompted the doctor. “Do you remember where you were?”

Adam raised the back of his hand to his brow. “I was in the Silver Dollar.” He looked towards his youngest brother; his lips quirked into a half-smile. “With Joe.” The smile faded. “Tully was there. We had a fight.” A line formed between his eyes, as he frowned in concentration. “Someone shouted my name. I was shot.” He looked around at the faces all staring at him. “Tully shot me.”

Ben let out a breath and a smile spread across his face. “Yes, son, Tully shot you.” He squeezed Adam’s arm which was still resting on his brow. Hoss and Joe couldn’t keep the smiles from their faces.

“You don’t have to look so happy,” grumbled Adam.

Ben laughed. “It’s good to have you back, son.” He twisted around. “Where’s that child? Clara?’ He called out. “Come and see Adam. He’s got his memory back.”

There was no response, so Hoss pulled the door open. “Doggonit, Pa, she’s done run off agin.”

Adam noticed the look in his father’s eyes and let his arm fall back across his belly. “What is it?”

“Ah, it’s that child. She’s struggling with you being like this. She’ll come round; don’t you worry.”

Instinctively, Adam began to pull himself up the bed but found himself restrained by several firm hands. He winced.

“Careful, son.” Ben pressed down on Adam’s shoulders. “You have a bullet in your back.”

“You don’t have to tell me; I can feel it.”

Paul peered down at his patient. “How bad is the pain?”

Weary eyes met his. “Bad. But my legs hurt more.” He frowned. “How many times did Tully shoot me?” Coughing, he reached for the glass still in Hoss’s hand.

Hoss batted away the groping hand, and lifted Adam’s head to the glass, paying no mind to the look of irritation in his brother’s eyes. “Critter shot you twice. One hit your head, the other’s in yer back.”

Adam lay back. “So why the pain in my legs?” None of his family would look at him. “What aren’t you telling me?”

He saw the glances between his brothers and father but then Paul leaned over him. “The bullet in your back is resting too close to your spine. It’s interfering with your nerves.”

Adam stared up at him and shrugged. “So, take it out.” He noticed his father hugging his body and turning away from the bed. The room was heavy with knowledge he wasn’t party to. “Well?”

“Adam, if I start poking around in there, I could do even more damage. You could end up in a chair for the rest of your life.”

“But if you don’t operate, what then?

“You’ll live with constant pain.” Ben’s voice was accusatory, and he looked pointedly at Paul.

Looking down the length of his body, Adam studied the outline of his legs beneath the blanket, but after a moment, he looked back up the doctor. “I trust you, Paul,” he said softly.

The doctor hung his head. “I appreciate you saying so. Unfortunately, I don’t know that I trust myself. However . . .” he took a long breath. “If you decide you want to risk the operation, I will honour your wishes.”

Ben’s arms dropped to his side as he raised his head, his eyes suddenly filled with hope.

But Adam seemed to sink even further into the bed. “Paralysis or perpetual pain. Not much of a choice.” He turned his head into the pillow. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone.”

Paul looked at the trio of men huddled by the bed. “Gentlemen, my patient needs rest and quiet.” He herded them out of the room, his arms a barrier between his patient and a concerned father who was always disinclined to leave his son’s side.

And the door was closed firmly behind them.

***

He knew who he was once more. He was Adam Cartwright, but not the Adam Cartwright he’d believed himself to be during an endless day and night of bewilderment, confusion, and pain. The memory had been so real, it was as though he had been back in those dark days after he’d fallen and damaged his back while building a home for himself and Laura, and all the years that followed had ceased to exist. Over and over the same words had repeated in his mind, spilling out on his lips in moments of wakefulness. “I fell, hurt my back. I fell . . .” It had been a recurring torment he’d not been able to free himself from.

No, this Adam Cartwright was several years older, free of a woman who’d deserted him for another, and who was finally comfortable with his place in the world. He was his father’s right-hand, a valued older brother and, at last, a father himself.

He felt someone touching him and opened his eyes a crack to see Paul unwinding the bandage from his head.

“Where’s Pa?”

“He’s outside in the waiting room, along with your brothers.”

“Is Clara with them? She must be scared out of her wits.”

Paul continued to unravel the cloth that held a thick dressing against his wound. “I believe she ran away again.” He stopped at Adam’s worried look. “Don’t worry—she always comes back.” Leaning low, he studied the deep gash. “Have you made a decision? About the operation?”

Adam closed his eyes and lightly shook his head. It was too much to think about.

Paul picked up a fresh dressing. “Hold this.” He lifted Adam’s hand to hold the new dressing in place over his wound and began to wind a fresh strip of bandage around Adam’s head. “You don’t have to decide immediately. I might need time myself to read up on the latest surgical developments. But you should also know people have been known to live perfectly well with a bullet inside them. I once had a patient with a bullet lodged in his brain, just behind his ear. He swore he could hear the flap of a bird’s wings but couldn’t hear his own wife calling from the next room.” Paul laughed. “The bullet eventually made its way out through his . . .” He looked up and frowned. “What in blazes . . .”

There were raised voices in the waiting room. “You can’t just burst in . . .” Ben’s words carried through the door. There was the sound of scuffling feet, a thump against the door, and the door handle rattled.

“It appears you have another visitor.”

“Perhaps it’s Tully come to finish the job.”

Paul paused what he was doing. “No one’s told you?” Adam’s questioning gaze answered that question. “Tully’s dead.”

“How?”

“Little Joe shot him. Probably saved your life.”

Adam stopped the doctor’s hand as another swathe of cloth was about to be wrapped around his skull. “How so?”

“Tullivan was shooting to kill.” He tied off the bandage and looked down at his patient. “From what other people have told me, Joe saw the gun, shouted out, and because you then turned, the bullet only grazed you, rather than, well . . .”

Slumping back on the bed, Adam grimaced. “I had no idea he hated me that much, not enough to try and kill me. I thought he was full of hot air.”

The doctor patted Adam’s arm. “It’s over now, Adam, in the past.”

The voices outside the door grew louder. An unknown, and irritated, voice rang out. “If you want your brother to walk again, I suggest you let me pass.” And suddenly the door flew open.

A grey-haired gentleman of stout disposition stood with his hand on the door handle, and a case in the other, ignoring the huffing and puffing of Ben and the annoyed expressions of Joe and Hoss. Clara lingered by the open front door.

“Gentlemen. I understand you have a patient here who may need my skill and expertise.”

Paul drew himself up to his, not especially, full height. “I’m Doctor Paul Martin and this is my surgery. Who might you be you, sir?”

The stranger ignored Paul and strode behind Adam’s sick bed, raising the blanket only to be confronted with a clean nightshirt obstructing his view of Adam’s gunshot wound. A pair of bushy eyebrows thrust together.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Paul wrenched the blanket out of the stranger’s hand and covered Adam up.

“I know you.” Adam tried to crane his neck around to see the newcomer. “You’re the count’s doctor—Buxton.”

The doctor narrowed his eyes at Adam. “For someone with a bad head injury, your memory is remarkably good. Doctor William Buxton at your service.”

Paul cocked his head to one side. “William Buxton. I’ve read about the work of a William Buxton in the medical journals. He was a pioneering surgeon during the war, saved limbs other doctors would have amputated.” He looked over at Ben standing in the doorway. “He removed bullets from soldier’s brains, operated on the . . .” Paul’s mouth gaped open. “He operated on the spine.”

Buxton was still standing behind Adam, his fingers touching the new bandage and dressing around Adam’s head.

“I see my reputation has preceded me. I find that often to be the case.”

He straightened up and looked at his audience expectantly, his eyebrows high on his forehead.

Paul took a step forward, his hand outstretched. “It’s a privilege to meet you, doctor.” Buxton took his hand. “But what are you doing here in Virginia City?”

“Well, as Mr. Cartwright said, I’m travelling with the Count Friedrich Von Falkeberg as his private physician. I retired after the war but occasionally can be tempted back to service.” He snorted. “Though as a medical man, one never really stops.”

He strolled over to a glass-fronted cabinet against the wall, bending down to investigate the medical instruments and medicines on display, before turning back to Paul. “The count offered me a substantial stipend for the duration of his stay, and a chance to come out West, something I had always wanted to do. But enough of this chitter-chatter. If you would permit me, I would like to examine your patient. He has a bullet near his spine, I understand.”

Ben, who had been watching the exchange with curiosity, took a step forward and looked with a questioning expression at his friend. “Paul?”

“Ben, Providence is looking kindly on us this day. You couldn’t have asked for a better physician in a case like this.”

“Surgeon, sir. I am a surgeon first and foremost.” Doctor Buxton resumed his position behind Adam and once more lifted the blanket away from his back. “Now, I would be grateful if everyone save the good doctor here would kindly leave the room.” Stern eyes picked out Ben, Hoss and Joe.

As Hoss and Joe left the room, Ben hesitated. But then Adam caught his eye and nodded. Ben immediately looked encouraged. He returned a small smile and followed his boys out, closing the door behind him.

“And now, Mr. Cartwright, let’s take a look at you.”

***

The hours dragged. Despite Paul’s insistence the operation to remove the bullet would last several hours, and they should all leave, have a meal, take a drink in the saloon, the three Cartwrights and a silent Clara stayed in the vicinity of the surgery.

Ben spent the time slumped sideways in a chair. He would occasionally stand, stretch, and wander over to the closed door to try and hear what was happening beyond. But no sounds came from behind that impenetrable barrier, and so he’d return to the chair, sink down and once more slouch to the side, his head heavy in his hand.

Joe couldn’t sit still. After half an hour of sitting on a windowsill, picking at his fingernails, he pulled a foot up, stripped off his boot and sock and started picking at a tough callus on his sole. It was only a revolted look from his father that made him stop. At that point he volunteered to get some food as it was nearing midday and he could hear his middle brother’s stomach rumbling.

Said middle brother found himself thumbing through a large medical tome Paul had left in the room. He hefted it up and carried it to a chair where he poured over diagrams of bone and muscle and how they connected. Unsurprisingly for a man used to butchering the occasional livestock, he wasn’t in the least repelled by the detailed illustrations of his heart or liver and something called an appendix which was a mystery to even the most eminent doctors. Hoss became so engrossed in the book he wasn’t even aware of time passing. It was better that way.

As for Clara, the waiting room was too confining for her. She sat outside on the porch steps, her arms wrapped around her knees, and stared down the street. She didn’t see the buildings lining the highway, or the passing riders, or wagons loaded with goods and people. She was deaf to the distant clanking of machinery at the mines, or the horns signalling a change of shift. Friendly and concerned greetings from passers-by were not heeded. Clara was consumed by her own contemplations. Her physical presence was there, but her thoughts were far, far away.

After what seemed an eternity of waiting, at an unknown hour in the afternoon, the door finally opened. The two doctors looked weary about the eyes, but with puffed-up chests and chins held high, Ben felt a wave of hope wash through him as he jumped to his feet.

“Doctors?”

“The operation was a success.” Doctor Buxton held out his palm to reveal a compacted bullet.

Ben looked around him to where Adam was lying on his stomach—a swathe of bandages around his middle—unconscious to the world.

“How do you know? How do you know he’ll walk, that he won’t suffer any more pain?”

Two haughty eyes fixed on Ben as Doctor Buxton raised his chin even further. “Because, sir, I was the surgeon.”

Paul suppressed a smile. “And what an honour to have been able to assist. You should have been there, Ben, this man is an artist in his field.”

“What of the fever?”

Paul patted Ben’s arm. “There was dirt in the wound, which his body was starting to fight. But it’s been dealt with. He’ll be alright, Ben.”

“Can I see him?”

“Of course, sir.” Doctor Buxton stood to one side to let Ben pass. “And now, young lady, it’s time for you and I to be moving along.”

Ben drove to a halt and spun to look at the doctor and then Clara who, on hearing the chatter within, had risen from the porch steps and was standing in the open doorway. She looked away from Ben’s searching look.

“What?” Ben took a step towards her but then twisted back to the doctor. “What do you mean? Moving along?” He looked at the girl. “Clara?”

“She made a deal, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben shook his head. “A deal?”

“She agreed to go back with her father,” Buxton paused, “her rightful father . . .  if I operated on your son.”

“Now, you jest wait a minute.” Hoss looked bigger than ever as he stepped between the doctor and Clara. “You cain’t jest take her away from Adam when he’s like that.” He pointed over the doctor’s head at his sleeping brother.

“What sort of a deal is that?” Joe’s voice was sharp. “He offers to help my brother, but in return steals the person most precious to him.”

Ben drew himself up as he stepped close to the doctor. “Does your employer have any scruples left in him?” His head flicked to Paul. “Did you know anything about this?

Paul raised his palms. “It’s the first I’ve heard about it, Ben.”

And then another voice was heard above the clamour. “Stop it! Everyone! Please, stop it! It was my idea!”

The small room was filled with a shocked silence as everyone turned to look in the direction of the voice. Clara hadn’t moved from the doorway. She stood with her shoulders squared and her fists clenched as she took several deep breaths. “You don’t understand. It was my idea. I went to him, to the . . . to my father. I said I’d go with him if the doctor would help Adam.”

Ben moved towards her, his hands rising to grasp her shoulders, but she flinched away. Sighing, he let his arms drop to his side. “Clara, think about what you’re doing, what this’ll do to Adam. He’ll find a way to keep you here. He’ll—”

“I made a promise.” She brushed away unshed tears. “And Adam taught me to always keep a promise.”

Pushing through the huddle of men, Clara stopped at the surgery door so she could see Adam as he slept. After a few moments, she swallowed back a shaky gulp, turned on her heels and walked past the people who had once been her family.

She didn’t look back.

***

Twenty-four hours earlier

Clara didn’t see where she ran, didn’t see who she knocked into, didn’t hear the exclamations of surprise that followed her down the street. All she knew was she needed to be as far away as possible from the doctor’s surgery, away from where Adam lay so crumpled, so like . . . so like her mother after she’d been shot in the back.

Exhausted, and panting for air, she flung herself down a dark alley and behind a stack of barrels from a nearby saloon. Her body sank down the wall and she hugged her legs close to her, burying her head in her knees. And she cried. She didn’t care who heard or saw her. She cried until her skin was red, her eyes were bloated, and her face ached. One word was repeated over and over through saliva-thick lips—Papa, Papa, Papa. How long until she quietened, she had no idea. She sat in the dusty dirt, not thinking about anything, a finger picking at a loose thread on the sleeve of her shirt. It was only when a man emerged from a back door into the alley and saw her there, shouting at her to ‘git’, did she scramble to her feet and return to the main street. It was then she saw where she was. She was standing opposite the corner of Union and B Street, and there, on the other side of the road, was the International Hotel.

Her gaze followed the steep slope up Union and to the high four-storey building where the count had his rooms. She stared long and hard at the windows behind which the old man had made his temporary home, recalling how weak he was, how feeble, and the blood on his handkerchief. And as she watched the windows, Clara felt a resolve come over her that calmed her troubled soul. Because Adam wasn’t dead, he was alive. And all that mattered was that he walk again and had a life; not one crippled by agony which confined him to a chair, gradually losing all pleasure in living.

She looked down at her shirt and pants and slapped away as much of the dust as she could. A shop window provided a reflection so she could smooth back her hair and tidy the loose strands from her face. Then, with a courage summoned from a need to do what was right, she crossed the street and entered the hotel lobby.

***

“Whoever is at the door, Mr. Cobb, send them away. I told you, I do not want visitors.”

The big man with the scarred cheek spoke over his shoulder. “I’ll think you’ll wanna see this one.”

The tough, Mr. Cobb, opened the door all the way and gestured for Clara to enter. She stood for a moment looking into the room, wondering if it were too late to change her mind, to turn and run, but she’d already run away once today, she wouldn’t do it again. She couldn’t see Oskar Bauer, and the only guard present was Mr. Cobb. The doctor was seated in an easy chair next to a window, a thick volume in his hands. He glanced up at the sight of Clara and laid down his book, settling back in his chair to watch.

The count, her father, was in the same chair he’d been seated in earlier that day. She wondered whether he’d even moved. A blanket rested over his knees and several small bottles of what looked like medicine were on a side table, within easy reach. His eyes were closed as he leaned back, his head resting on a fancy antimacassar. For a moment he didn’t look as frightening as she remembered. His skin was smoothed across his brow, his lips relaxed. But then he lifted his head, his lips pulled back into a tight thin line, and when he opened his eyes, the same steely, cold gaze looked out at her. He squinted for a moment then fumbled on his chest for a pair of pince-nez suspended on a chain that he pinched across the bridge of his nose.

“Well . . .” A raised eyebrow caused a rainbow of lines to radiate up his forehead. “Of all the people I expected to see, you were certainly not one of them.”

Clara said nothing, not moving from where she stood in the doorway.

The count frowned and waved at her in an irritated way. “Come here, girl. I won’t talk to you whilst you are in the hall.”

Clara moved cautiously into the room, the old man gesturing to her as she approached. “Come, come, hurry.” As she reached his chair, he seized her wrist with a surprisingly firm grip, pulling her closer to him. She gasped and tried to pull free, but his hand held her fast.

“You’re hurting me!”

The doctor sat forward. “You’ll break her arm if you continue like that.”

The old man didn’t take his eyes off Clara and ignored the doctor’s admonition. “Why are you here?” He shook her arm, peering up at her. “Should you not be at the bedside of your . . .” There was a long-protracted pause. “Your protector.” One side of his mouth sneered. “Although, if he cannot protect himself, then how can he be expected to protect you.”

Clara pulled out of his grip, rubbing her sore wrist. “You know about my . . . you know about Adam?”

With a lift of his eyebrows, the pince-nez slipped from the count’s nose. “One of my men happened to be in the vicinity of the shooting when it happened. A most . . . unfortunate occurrence.”

The suite door opened.

“Well, well, well, what a pleasant surprise.”

Clara turned to see the young man, Oskar, enter the room. He closed the door behind him and walked up to Clara, a wide smile on his face. “Two visits in one day, how unexpected.” His gaze flicked down to her feet and up again. “And alone? No Mr. Cartwright?”

“You have not heard, Oskar, Mr. Cartwright has been gunned down on the street.”

Oskar’s smile vanished and his chin dropped, though his eyes still sparkled. “Goodness gracious. They said this wild country could be dangerous, but I did not expect to encounter it. I trust he’s not too badly hurt?”

Clara had wanted to be strong, but at Oskar’s words she flopped down on the couch and buried her face in her hands, sobbing through her fingers. The couch dipped next to her and an arm wrapped itself around her shoulder. “Come, come, Lady Clara, it cannot be as bad as all that.” Oskar rubbed his hand up and down her sleeve and she let her head drop against his shoulder as she cried. He smelled of eau de cologne, of lavender and rosemary. Men weren’t supposed to smell like perfumed women. Adam smelled of horses and leather, unless he was dressed in his finery, in which case he smelled of bergamot and lemon. It was comforting having Oskar’s arm around her shoulder, listening to his soft murmurings in her ear. But then he fondled her knee with his free hand and Clara’s body tensed. She lifted her head from his shoulder and stood, wiping her eyes with the heels of her hands.

Stepping away from the couch, she faced the count.  “Adam’s been shot in the head and the back. Doctor Martin said unless he has an operation to remove the bullet in his spine that he’ll live in pain for the rest of his life. He’ll be crippled.”

The count coughed lightly into his handkerchief and looked up at Clara. “Then your Doctor Martin should operate.”

“He won’t.”

There was a loud protesting squeak from the doctor’s chair as he sat back heavily. “Why ever not?”

With a heavy sigh, Clara turned to him. “He said if he did, he might hurt him more. Adam might not walk again.”

The doctor peered over his reading glasses and shook his head. “These provincial doctors. I’m surprised anyone even survives a head cold in this town.” He leaned forward over the book he was reading.

“You could do it.”

The doctor kept his eyes on the book. “Yes, I could. But I can’t.”

“But why not?” Clara ran to stand in front of him. “You’re a big city doctor, the best you said. You could take away his pain and he’d walk, I know he would. Please, you’ve got to help him.”

Looking over his glasses at her, the doctor laid his book aside and took Clara’s hands in his own. “My dear young lady, I could do as you ask,” he paused and ran his tongue over his bottom lip, “but I’m afraid it’s not up to me.” He patted the top of her hands. “I work for your father, the Count von Falkeberg, and unless he directs me otherwise, I’m unable to tend to other patients.”

Clara’s mouth dropped open, and she pulled her hands free from his. “But you’re a doctor, you’re meant to help people.”

Doctor Buxton met her gaze but said nothing. Clara spun around to face the count. “You can make him. Please. This is Adam’s life.”

The old man blinked slowly. “And why should I do that? Adam Cartwright is the one man who seeks to prevent me from claiming what is rightfully mine. I have more reason than most to see him incapacitated.”

Clara dropped to her knees next to the count’s chair. “Because he saved me. He kept me alive. You owe him.”

“I owe him nothing!” The count gripped the sides of his chair. “If he hadn’t interfered, I would have had you back a year ago. I would not have needed to travel all this way to claim a silly, spoiled . . .” He stopped and took a hard breath. “You would not have needed saving if Adam Cartwright had stayed out of my business.” He looked at Clara, who was staring up at him with shining eyes. “My men made enquiries, they found out the story of your escape. I know it all.” He looked away, fixing his gaze on the opposite wall. “I will not do anything to help that man.”

Clara sat back on her heels and lowered her head. She pressed her lips together to stop them from quivering, fighting back the threatening tears. This man, her father, was cruel and vindictive, and tears would only anger him further.

She had tried reason and begging. There was only one option left.

“I’ll go with you.” Her voice was muffled against her chest.

All the sound in the room dropped into a deep silence.

“What did you say?”

She raised her head to look the old man in the eye. He was frowning, not sure he had heard her right.

“I said I’ll go with you. But only if you help Adam.”

The count looked at Oskar and then across to the doctor. “Did I hear the girl correctly? She will come with me?”

Oskar had half-risen to his feet. “You heard right, Onkel.” He started to move towards where Clara was still kneeling next to the count’s chair, but she jumped to her feet and took a step away from him.

“I said I’d come. But you have to operate on Adam first.” She turned to the doctor. “And I have to know it worked, that he’ll walk, he won’t have any pain.”

The doctor looked past her to the count who still wore a look of wide-eyed surprise.

The old man bowed his head. “We have an agreement, daughter.”

For the first time the doctor looked enthusiastic. “I’ll fetch my medical bag.”

“No!” Clara took several breaths. “No, Doctor Martin said even if he could, he wouldn’t operate on Adam yet. Because his head is hurt, he’s confused and—”

“He has a concussion.”

Clara sighed. “I don’t know what that means.”

The doctor smiled. “It means exactly as you say. We have to wait until he’s no longer confused before I can remove the bullet.” His eyebrows rose. “Perhaps the doctors in this town aren’t as inept as I had presumed them to be.”

There was a movement behind them as the count shifted in his seat. “Why must we wait? The sooner you operate, the sooner we can leave.”

The doctor bristled. “I will not use chloroform on a patient with a head injury. What sort of doctor do you think I am?” He took a deep calming breath. “We must wait until Mr. Cartwright has recovered enough from his concussion. Then I operate, and not before.”

Tapping his gnarled fingers on the seat of the chair, the count’s eyes narrowed. “Only in this country am I spoken to with such disrespect. Do as you like. And you, daughter,” he turned his eyes on Clara, “you may leave. But you will return when Mr. Cartwright can be operated on, and you will be ready to leave once the doctor has carried out his duty. And you will also wear something more befitting your place.” He looked down at her pants. “No trousers and boy’s boots, do you understand me?”

Clara nodded. She threw the doctor a small smile and then began to move towards the door. Oskar leapt to his feet. “Let me escort you out.”

With his hand in the small of her back, he guided her to the door. “You’ve made the right decision, my lady.” He looked at the count and then lowered his voice, a smile on his lips. “And you’ll find that my uncle’s bark is more often worse than his bite.”

Clara put her hand on the door handle, but Oskar stopped her, one finger tapping the top of her hand. “And I so look forward to getting to know my young cousin better.”

She kept her eyes fixed on the handle and pulled open the door, squeezing past him into the hallway. Without looking back, she ran down the four flights of stairs to the ground.

***

She’d made a deal with the devil. One she couldn’t break, not if Adam were to live a full life. It was the hardest decision she’d ever made, but to dwell on it would only drive her mad with misery. She couldn’t endure another loss like her mother, and next to her, Adam was the person she cared for most in the world. So, there was only one thing for it. She’d have to cut the ties that bound her to the Cartwrights. They weren’t her family, so she had to stop thinking of them in that way. The Ponderosa was nothing more than a house in the wilderness, and the Cartwrights were nothing more than the family who’d taken her in.

Okay, so, they’d given her somewhere to live, but that was nothing more than a roof to sleep under. And a room of her own where Adam would sit on the edge of her bed as the sun dropped behind the mountain and ask about her day, and then kiss her goodnight. A room where he’d comforted her, held her hand and brushed his hand over her hair as she’d cried for the mother she’d lost.

And they’d made sure she hadn’t gone hungry. On learning her favourite dessert was Boston Cream Pie, Grandpa Ben had sent for a recipe from a friend back east, and together she and Hop Sing had spent a happy afternoon mixing and baking, and she’d carried it out from the kitchen and unveiled it to warm laughter and applause.

Of course, they’d kept her clothed. The party dress which had made her feel pretty and made Henry Milton blush when he saw her. Clara squeezed her eyes closed and recalled the dress she’d worn on that fateful day. The dress Adam had found for her.

No, no, these were only material things, that’s all the Cartwrights had given her. And she did not doubt the count would provide her with a grand room, and fine clothes, and much more.

As Clara tried to convince herself of these untruths, she dawdled back to Doctor Martin’s house and crept in the front door. And as she sat in her usual chair, she told herself the lie that she was only here because she had nowhere else to go.

***

Despite not having eaten for much of the day, on her arrival back at the Ponderosa that night, Clara had run straight to her room, ignoring the offers of warm sandwiches. She slammed the door behind her, and leaned back against it, staring around her at the room she’d made her own. It had once been a guest room, so she’d inherited the bed, wardrobe, and dresser. But gradually, over the months, she had accumulated items that made the room reflect who she was: a brightly coloured Indian blanket for her bed, a painting of a white stallion on her wall, a vase for fresh cut flowers, a matching mirror and brush. She shook her head. It was only a room. She’d have another room when she reached her new home in Germany, and it’d be bigger and finer, befitting the daughter of a count.

The carpetbag she’d packed the night before was where she’d left it, on a chair by the window. She unclasped it and saw the small cloth doll still lying on the top of her clothing. She took it out of her bag, straightening the doll’s dress and placed it on her pillow.

Was this the last night she was ever going to spend here? Adam’s head might be better tomorrow, and the count’s doctor would operate on his back, and she would leave. Forever.

She undressed, washed, turned down the wick on her bedside lamp and climbed under the covers, tucking the doll close beside her. The moon was bright that night, casting a white light over the room, and a soft breeze gently shivered the lace curtains. Her head sank into her plump pillow and, despite her best efforts, her mind immediately turned to Adam. She thought of him lying on that uncomfortable couch, with only a single blanket to keep him warm. But at least he wasn’t alone. His pa was there, as his pa was always there when Adam was ill or injured. As Adam had always been there for her. Would the count give up his bed for a hard-backed chair if she had a fever? She didn’t think so. But that was the way it was going to be from now on. She turned over on her side, closing her eyes to sleep. But her mind was racing between what was now and what would be, and sleep was a long time coming.

***

She hoped no one would notice her tossing her carpetbag into the back of the buckboard, but she wasn’t that lucky. She had shouted at poor dear Hoss, annoyed he’d seen the bag, annoyed he was making it difficult for her to leave. And then she had banged into Joe on her way back into the house. She’d forgotten her winter coat. She’d need a coat on the crossing home. How to explain it though. Maybe they wouldn’t notice. Of course, they did. As they drove out of the yard, and Hoss’s admonishments had rung in her ears, she had sat rigid on the wagon, praying Hop Sing wouldn’t come out to wave them off.

She would have cried if she’d seen him.

 

***

Today

Hoss couldn’t sit back and watch Clara walk out the door, and out of their lives forever. His expression grew dark, and he stood for a moment, stunned by what had happened. Then, a look of determination drawing his brows low, he stalked out behind her.

“Hoss! Wait!”

He heard his father’s voice but paid it no mind.

Clara and the doctor were a few steps from the house.

“You cain’t jest take her away from us like that. What sort of people are you?”

The doctor turned. “People who honour an arrangement, Mr. Cartwright. An agreement was made. Young Clara here has chosen to stick to her side of it. You should learn from the child.”

Hoss’s lips pursed as his anger threatened to overwhelm him.

But then he realised Clara and the doctor were no longer alone. The count’s two toughs had been hanging around a nearby mercantile and were striding across the road towards them. Folding their arms across their chests, they positioned themselves between Hoss and Clara creating a formidable barrier.

“You see, Mr. Cartwright,” said the doctor, “we thought of all eventualities, including the likely scenario which was one or other of you would not let the Lady Clara go without a fight.”

The two toughs lifted their chins, eyeing Hoss hungrily.

“I instructed Mr. Cobb and Mr. Fox to make their way here in the early afternoon and await my exit with the child.” He angled his head towards the two men. “I trust you didn’t have to wait too long, gentlemen?”

Without taking his eyes from Hoss, the one known as Cobb replied. “It weren’t no time at all, Doc. Happy to oblige when there’s sport to be had.”

Hoss’s hands rose to his hips. “So, this is how yer wanna play it?” He hung his head and then quickly attempted to sidestep around the men, but it wasn’t enough, and Cobb lashed out, connecting with Hoss’s jaw. Hoss staggered back, raising his hand to the trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.

“Hoss, leave it!” It was his pa’s voice. But Hoss couldn’t turn, he couldn’t afford to take his eyes off the heavy. “Cain’t do that, Pa. I won’t let them take her away like this.”

“Hoss, we’ll get the law, we’ll talk to Hiram.”

But Hoss couldn’t hear his father’s words. Staring at the smear of blood on the tip of his finger, he narrowed his eyes and charged at Cobb.

“Joe, stop him.”

Little Joe had been standing next to his father on the surgery porch, itching to get to his brother, but prevented by a firm hand splayed across his chest. He jumped off the porch towards the fighting men, but the sound of a hammer being cocked stopped him before he’d even regained his balance. He froze in place as Cobb’s companion casually pointed his pistol at him. Joe, desperate to stand side by side with his brother, could only stand and watch.

Hoss and Cobb came together like two grizzlies fighting over territory. With an almighty crash that made the onlookers wince, their arms wrapped around the other in a wrestle for supremacy. Their legs scissored to stay upright, kicking up dust, as they circled in a violent embrace, grunting and grimacing with the effort. In a movement that caught Hoss unawares, Cobb released his grip and forced his arms up between Hoss’s. Hoss staggered backwards but maintained his balance. He lowered his head and charged like a bull into Cobb’s stomach. The two men stumbled backwards and hit the ground with a crash. They rolled, once, twice, three times, but then Hoss was on top, his fists swinging. Cobb took several hits to the chin and jaw. But Hoss hesitated a second too long as he sat up to gulp in much-needed air. Cobb kicked up with his knee, sending Hoss tumbling over his head. He landed hard, the wind knocked out of him. Climbing wearily to his feet, Cobb stared down at his foe. He made a move towards Hoss, but the doctor’s sharp voice stayed him.

Clara had watched the fight with an expression close to tears, and as Hoss lay on his back in the dirt, the doctor steered her away. Cobb and his companion followed, looking back and jeering at the fallen man.

Joe ran to his brother’s side. “Hoss, you okay?”

Hoss rolled on to his side and heaved himself on to his backside. “Yeah, nothing much hurt but my pride.” He took Joe’s proffered hand and let himself be pulled to his feet.

“Unlike you to lose a fight.”

Hoss rubbed at his shoulder, wincing as he did. “I caught a glimpse of Clara’s face.” He shook his head.

Ben had watched the fight play out from the steps of the surgery. His shoulders rose and fell in a long-frustrated sigh as he joined his sons in the street.

“Hoss, I know you’re looking out for your brother, but fighting in the street is only going to give the count more ammunition to use against him.”

“That Cobb fella started it—”

“I don’t care who started it.” Ben clenched his fists. “There’s a time and a place for this sort of thing, and it isn’t now.”

Ben’s eyes bore into Hoss, and for good measure, they took in Joe as well. Hoss stared down at his hands, picking at his fingers.

“Go home.”

Joe’s face shot up.

“What? Pa, no.”

“Yes. We still have a ranch to run. I’ll stay here with Adam. And I’ll pay a visit to Hiram too. You’re both too fired up and liable to find yourselves in jail if you’re not careful. Home, now, both of you.”

And with an expression that broached no response, he turned on his heel and returned to his eldest son.

***

“She mighta made a promise, but we cain’t jest let her walk out like that. I know she’s in there and I’m of a mind to go up there right now and pull her out by her pigtails.”

Hoss’s brows were hunched down so low, his blue eyes looked like dark gashes as he stared up at the windows of the International Hotel.

They had obeyed their father the day before and returned to the Ponderosa. But on rising that morning, and without a word being said, both men had consumed an early breakfast, saddled their horses, and turned their mounts in the direction of Virginia City. They rode straight to the hotel and only when they’d dismounted, did they pause for a moment before going any further.

“Clara doesn’t wear her hair in pigtails.”

“You know what I mean, little brother.”

Hoss turned his back on the hotel and wrapped his hands around the hitching post. His cut and bruised knuckles blanched as he clasped and unclasped the hard wood. With his back against the railing, Joe crossed his arms and looked over at Hoss.

“I know what you mean. She did this for Adam. Yet when he wakes up and finds out she’s gone.” He hung his head.

“He’s really loves that little gal, don’ he?”

“Like she was his own.”

Hoss turned to stare up at the highest windows of the hotel.

“We cain’t let them take her away like this. It’s sneaky, that’s what it is, sneaky to do this when Adam ain’t in a fit state to fight it.”

“Pa may have got somewhere with Hiram.”

“You don’t believe that any more than I do, Joe. The law cain’t help us, not this time.”

Joe sighed and nudged the dirt at his feet with the tip of his boot. “Then what are we going to do? We can’t just walk in there and take her.”

Hoss’s eyes narrowed. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do.” He pushed off the rail and started to walk purposely across the street.

“What? Hoss, come on, don’t be a fool.” Joe ran to catch up with Hoss’s long strides. “Look what happened last time you tried that.”

Hoss was sporting a large yellowing bruise on his jaw and an angry cut lip.

“Pa’ll have our hides and we’ll end up as non-paying guests of the finest cell Clem can offer us. And we’ll be no closer to getting Clara back. Hoss, would you stop!”

Hoss came to a halt halfway up the stairs to the hotel entrance and turned to look down at his younger brother. “Do you remember when I got hit over the head an’ forgot who I was?”

“Pretty hard to forget that, brother. For everyone but you, anyway.”

Hoss smirked but then grew serious. “You an’ Adam an’ Pa, you were all strangers to me. But Pa was willing to let me walk right outta your lives, even though it must’ve sure-fire killed him inside. An’ why? Because it was the right to do.”

Joe squinted up at Hoss. “That’s not the same thing. You were a grown man. This is about taking a girl from her own father who has the legal right to her.”

“Yes, it is. Listen to me, Joe. Pa didn’t want me to leave with the Vandervorts, but he would’ve let me go, no matter how much it hurt. He would’ve let me go because it was the right thing. Fer me. Clara don’t belong with that old man in there, no matter he’s her lawful pa. Adam’s been more a father to her in the last year than that man’s been in her whole life. She don’ want to be with him, she wants to be with Adam. An’ you heard what the count said. He only wants her because of some ol’ family tree an’ money an’ inheritance. Pa was letting me go because it was right fer me. So, I reckon gettin’ Clara outta there is the right thing fer her. Don’t you see, Joe?”

The expression bearing down on Joe was so intense, so impassioned Joe couldn’t help but smile. “Well, when you put it like that, brother, what are we waiting for?”

Hoss’s blue eyes lit up and as Joe passed him on the steps, he slapped his little brother hard on the back and followed him with a wide smile on his face.

***

Hoss made sure the lobby was clear of the count’s men before he marched up to the concierge behind the front desk. Joe stood in the archway to the dining hall, his head slowly scanning the meagre number of guests present at this time of the morning.

“Hey Hoss, hey Little Joe.” The young man on the desk looked over to both men in turn as he filled the key racks with mail and messages.

“Bill.” Hoss’s grin from moments before was superseded with a dark serious look.

Joe appeared by Hoss’s side and with a quick shake of his head, leaned an elbow on the counter. One finger slowly rotated the guest ledger in his direction. He was none too subtle about it, and with a narrowing of the eyes, Bill abandoned his mail and pulled the ledger back towards him.

“What can I do you fellas for?”

Hoss took another look around the lobby before turning back to Bill. “We need to visit with that German fella who’s staying here, the Count von Falkeberg. We’ve got business with him.”

Blinking rapidly through his spectacles, Bill stared at him. “Well, Hoss, I can’t tell you where he is.”

Hoss straightened up to his full height. “Bill, you and me’ve known each other a long time, an’ you know I ain’t foolin’ when I say it’s important me an’ Joe know where to find ‘im.”

“And I ain’t fooling when I say I can’t tell you—”

“Bill, this could be a matter of life and death.”

“Life and death ain’t gonna swing it, Hoss, I can’t tell you where he is.”

Two deep lines were scoring the skin between Hoss’s eyes. “I’m gonna ask you one more time—”

“Hoss,” Joe laid a hand on his brother’s arm. “Let me try.” He winked and patted his brother’s arm before taking Hoss’s place in front of the stubborn concierge.

“You’ll have to forgive my brother, he’s upset over what happened to Adam and—”

Bill’s eyes widened. “Oh my, I forgot, how is Adam?”

Joe sighed and shrugged. The last thing he wanted to do was tell the town what state his brother was in. It’d be fodder for the gossips, and Bill, who knew everyone and everything that happened in Virginia City, would have a field day. Joe flashed a quick smile. “He’s alive. But you see, we need to talk to the count about a family matter, and one that’d make Adam feel a whole lot better, so, if you could see your way to telling us what room he’s in—”

“But Joe, it’s like I said I can’t tell you—”

“Goddammit Bill!” Joe didn’t intend to blaspheme but he was starting to get as frustrated as Hoss. He didn’t want to resort to fists, but if he had to. He swung away from the counter, dropping his head to scratch the back of his neck. Hoss let his elbows settle on the counter, his head dropping like Joe’s.

Bill stood and watched the two Cartwright brothers. They sure seemed riled up about something, but it was as he said.

“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you where he is, but I can’t. He and his party checked out yesterday. They rolled off in that grand old coach of his around dusk.”

Joe and Hoss both lifted their heads and stared at Bill. “Well, why in tarnation didn’t you say so before?” cried Hoss.

“You didn’t give me a chance.”

Joe joined Hoss at the counter. “Was Clara with them, you know, Adam’s . . .” He stopped. “The girl who being staying with us?”

Staring down at his ledger, Bill’s brow furrowed in concentration. “Now you say so, I think there was someone else with them. I didn’t take much notice as I was dealing with that slimy lawyer fella who settled the account while the rest of them went out to the carriage. But now I come to think of it, I do remember someone else got in the carriage who wasn’t a guest.”

“Was it Clara? Very fair hair, about so high?” Hoss held his hand up to his chest.

Bill walked out from behind the desk and went to stand at the window beside the door. “I walked over here as they were leaving. It’s not every day you get nobility staying here, y’know. I watched those two goons who went everywhere with him climb up on the coach. And . . .” he paused, looking out into the street. “Yes, yes, a girl was with them. Now I think on it, it was Clara. Her face appeared in the window looking all about and then she disappeared out of sight.”

“And this was late afternoon, you say?”

The concierge looked up into Hoss’s fierce blue eyes and nodded.

Joe’s hand unconsciously caressed the grip of his holstered weapon. “Did they say where they were headed?”

Striding back to the counter, Bill studied the guest ledger. He turned back a page. “Here we are. San Francisco by way of Sacramento.”

Joe slapped the back of his hand against Hoss’s vest. “They’d have made it to Carson City last night. But we can catch ‘em before they reach Placerville if we cross country.”

Hoss jerked open the door and headed down the steps with Joe two steps behind him. Before the door had closed behind him, Joe poked his head back into where Bill was standing behind the counter, his mouth hanging open. “Thanks, Bill. We’ll see ya.” Bill watched them until they were out of sight and then shook his head. “Those darn Cartwrights.” And picking up the mail he’d discarded earlier, he pushed his glasses back up his nose and carried on filling the key racks.

***

A tune circled Adam’s mind, and wouldn’t go away. The same two bars of the same tune, over and over. He had heard it before, that was plain, otherwise how would it have wheedled its way into his head. But where? That’s what had Adam stumped. And then an image of feet began to accompany the tune: numerous pairs of feet pounding on a wooden floor in time with the music, and they moved in circles around the floor, raising puffs of dust as they flew. Adam felt his brow tense as he tried to dig deep into his befuddled memories. Just as he thought he had a handle on it, the memory would slip away and the music would start all over again, with the feet and the floor and the dust. It was starting to slowly drive him mad. There was only one thing for it.

Adam opened his eyes.

The music faded as he blinked to focus on his whereabouts. He was lying on his back in a darkened room, a gap between two drawn curtains threw a blinding strip of light across his body. He looked down to see a blanket covering him, his feet a pair of shapeless mounds at the end of the bed. Dust motes danced across the light and Adam stared at them for a moment, frowning as he tried to recall where he was. This wasn’t his room at the Ponderosa, that was for sure. He appeared to be alone as the shadows before him were still and silent. He moved his head to one side and saw a long bench against a wall. The semi-darkness obscured the objects on top except where the band of light illuminated a metal kidney-shaped dish and a pile of bandages, before winding its way up the wall.

A memory returned with a jolt. Of sudden blinding pain in his head, and then something hard striking him in the small of his back. Then nothing. There were flashes of faces, concern colouring their eyes, lining their skin. He recalled a mask being held over his nose and mouth and a sickly-sweet scent filling his lungs. Then he remembered. He had been shot. Tully. There was a bullet in his back. He stared down the length of his body to his feet. Doc Martin had been worried about the bullet next to his spine, worried if he operated and something went wrong, he’d never walk again. Adam closed his eyes and laid his head back, suddenly afraid to move his feet. What if . . .

“Adam?”

He opened his eyes and turned towards the voice. A shadow had moved in front of the light, casting the face into darkness, but he’d know that voice anywhere.

“Pa?”

His father lent over him, a warm hand coming to rest on his.

“You’re okay, son, everything’s okay.”

“Why’s it so dark?”

Straightening up, Ben moved to the windows. “I hadn’t noticed,” he said, as he drew apart the curtains, flooding the room with daylight.

Adam squinted and lifted his arm to shield his eyes. “What time is it?”

Settling himself down in the chair at Adam’s side, Ben smiled. “Early.”

“It’s a new day.” Adam craned his neck to see the light through the window. “I wondered if I’d see another one.”

His father’s hand squeezed his arm. “Are you hurting anywhere, son? I can get Paul . . .” His words trailed off and Adam heard the question his pa was too afraid to ask. That made two of them.

On waking, Adam had felt no pain, but as he considered his father’s question, he gradually became sensitive to the aches and discomforts in his body. “My back hurts, but not like it did. It’s more . . . concentrated.”

His father smiled and shook his head.

“Why the smile?”

“Because only my eldest son would come out with such a description after enduring an operation like yours.”

Adam’s cheek quirked, but then he frowned. “Shouldn’t I be lying on my stomach?”

“Ah well, the two doctors felt it would be safer if you were on your back. For your breathing.” Adam stared blankly at him. “They gave you chloroform.”

“Oh. Come to think of it, I do feel a little nauseous.” He looked down at his feet. “Pa . . .” His mouth opened and shut as he contemplated what he wanted to say. “Pa, I’m . . .”

Ben shifted to the edge of his seat, his hand steady on Adam’s arm. “I know.”

Adam swallowed. “What if something went wrong in the operation, what if the doctors made a mistake?” Adam’s dark lashes closed over his eyes, and he felt his father’s grip tighten around his forearm.

“Adam, you’re strong. You inherited your mother’s stubborn temperament and your grandfather’s pig-headedness. No matter what the outcome, you’ll get through this.” He found a smile. “Remember the last time you injured your back, you were so optimistic and certain. You told yourself you’d walk again, and you did.”

“But that’s just it, Pa, it’s my back. Again. What if this is . . . one injury too many?”

Ben took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Adam, look at me.”

Adam opened his eyes and met his father’s certain gaze.

“Not only did you inherit the Stoddard stubbornness; you also have a hefty dose of Cartwright courage.” He patted Adam’s arm. “You’ll get through this, boy, good or bad, you’ll get through it.”

Adam stared at his father and then nodded. His father was right. No matter what, he mustn’t let himself be defeated. He’d beaten a back injury once; he’d do it again. Only, thinking brave and determined thoughts wasn’t enough to drive away the fear that lingered at the back of his mind—the fear that the operation had left him unable to walk. And he was scared, there was no doubt about that. His father’s optimistic face shone in the new day’s light and Adam knew he couldn’t take that hope away from him, so he smiled and cleared his throat, enthusing his voice with a strength he didn’t necessarily feel.

“It’s quiet out there,” he said, nodding towards the waiting room. “Where are those brothers of mine?”

“I sent them home,” said Ben as he stood and stretched. He paced towards the door, his hands in the small of his back as he puffed out his chest. “They didn’t want to go, but they were getting under my feet.” He winked. “Plus, the ranch can’t run itself.”

“And Clara? Where’s my girl?”

Ben turned back to Adam, his body folding out of its stretch. Licking his lips, he returned to Adam’s side, but wouldn’t meet his son’s gaze.

“She’s gone.”

“Gone where? Back to the Ponderosa? It’s probably best, this isn’t a place for—”

“No, Adam.”

Ben’s voice was sharp, and Adam knew before he heard the words what his father was about to say.

“She left with the count, with her . . . father. She made a—”

“You let her go?” Adam’s voice was flat.

“It wasn’t as simple as that. She made a deal with the count that she’d leave with him in return for his doctor operating on you. She made a promise.”

Adam’s nostrils flared as he shot a fierce look at his father. “And you did nothing to stop her? Pa, I trusted you to keep her safe.”

Ben flinched. “The law was not on our side, Adam. You know that, and she knew that. She made a deal to help you walk, to live a full life. She did this for you.”

Adam glared up at his father. “I would rather be crippled with Clara by my side, than not have her here at all.” He turned his head away. “Please go, Pa.”

“Adam—”

“Just go!” The words echoed around the room. Adam closed his eyes and listened to his father’s soft tread cross the room and the door close behind him. Once alone, he stared up at the ceiling.

It was happening again. A child he loved as his own had been taken away. First Peggy, now Clara.

Peggy had been a light in his life despite his struggling relationship with Laura. Her cheeky grin would never fail to cheer him and had proved to be a welcome tonic after the duress of dealing with her mother. In hindsight, he wondered if he had stayed with Laura so long because of the joy Peggy gave him. But she had left, taken away to live in San Francisco with Laura and her new beau, Adam’s cousin Will. There had been no goodbye. Peggy had been at school when Laura and Will rolled out of the Ponderosa.

Adam closed his eyes. He wanted to bury his face in the pillow, but his body wouldn’t let him even turn on to his side. He lifted a shoulder but his back protested, firing a sweat-inducing pain down his spine. He collapsed back, grimaced, and instead laid an arm over his eyes.

What did they say about history repeating itself? Because here he was again, unable to walk, and a child he loved had been removed from his life without even a farewell.

His hand dropped to his chest as self-pity threatened to envelope him. But then Adam’s face darkened. He groped out to one side and seized the first thing his hand encountered—a glass of water—and with what little strength he had, hurled it across the room. It smashed against the door with a satisfying crash showering glass and water down the wood and across the floor. He collapsed back, his breath tight in his throat, and embraced the anger. It was preferable to tears.

 

***

The wind whistled across the flat desert scrub, stirring up the sand into Joe’s eyes as he hunkered down in front of a boulder, seeking but failing to get shelter from the hot air.

“If we didn’t need to rest the horses, I’d have carried on to Carson City.” He lifted the bandanna he’d wrapped over his nose and mouth to take a bite out of a warm ham sandwich. After chewing for a few moments, he swallowed quickly and then spat. “Darn sand is getting up my nose, in my mouth.”  He split apart his sandwich. “Heck, it’s even in my food.”

Sitting across from him with his saddle blanket over his head, Hoss chewed hard on his meal. “Well, if you’d stop playin’ with your food, an’ jest eat it, you wouldn’t be gettin’ sand in it, would ya?”

Joe smirked at Hoss, and after a last disdainful look at the limp bread in his hands, roughly enfolded it in its paper wrapping and let it drop to the ground beside him.

“We’d have made faster time and reached Carson by now if it weren’t for this blasted wind. Keeping Cochise under control is taking every ounce of strength I have. I mean, we’ve only been on the trail for, what, three hours?”

Hoss had a mouthful of food, his cheeks puffed out with roast beef and pickle. “Good thing we visited . . .” His lips puckered, “Miss Matilda’s Cafe fer provisions.” He swallowed. “I wouldn’t have made it to Carson City.”  Uncorking his canteen, he took a swig of water to wash down his sandwich. “I say we stop here for a while’s longer to give the horses more of a breather. Looks like that wind is dyin’ down anyhow. We should make better time after we’ve rested some.”

Joe stretched himself out with his head against the boulder. “Whatever you say, older brother.” Pulling his hat over his face, he crossed his arms across his chest and closed his eyes. “Wake me when it’s time to go.”

The only sound in Joe’s ears was the wind blowing across the hard desert surface and the rustle of the scrub as the wind shook the brittle stems. It was having a soporific effect on him, and Joe’s head began to roll gently to one side. A vision of the dark-haired lovely he’d been dancing with at the party began to form in his mind. He could see his hands on her slim waist as he pulled her towards him, her arms wrapping around . . .

“Pa’ll skin us alive when he finds out what we’ve done.”

Joe jumped, his head rocking up, and he grabbed at his hat which threatened to take off in the wind. Hoss was in the same position as when Joe had dozed off. “What? How long have I been asleep?”

“About all o’ thirty seconds.”

With a long sigh, Joe pulled himself up. “I was dreaming about that girl I was dancing with at Clara’s party.” At mention of her name, Joe dropped his head and ran his hand over his mouth. He looked up at Hoss. “Pa’ll understand. Eventually. Once we’ve got Clara back.”

“Sure.” Hoss lay down on his side and curled his arms around his belly. “And then he’ll skin us alive.”

***

Ben lost count of how often he rose from his chair and walked to the door behind which Adam lay on the leather bed. Each time he had gripped the handle but been powerless to turn it and enter the room. He would sit back down, letting his hands dangle between his knees, but moments later be back at the door, his hand reaching out once more. He could hear Doctor Martin’s low relaxing tones as he tended to his patient, and Adam’s muffled replies, but he was unable to discern exactly what was said. Nor did he need to. It was enough to know Adam was awake and coherent.

He took to pacing the small room, unconsciously pressing his palms together. At the sound of the interconnecting door between Adam’s room and the doctor’s quarters open and close, he squared his shoulders and walked purposely to the door. Once more he gripped the handle, and once again he couldn’t turn it. He sighed deeply and rested his brow on the cool wood, his eyes closed.

Ben was so consumed by his cowardice he didn’t hear the inner door open again, and it was only when the handle in his grip turned and the door moved away from him, did he jump and blink several times at the amused doctor facing him.

“You’re a little old to be listening at doors, Ben,” said Paul with a smile toying around his lips.

Ben frowned and turned back into the waiting room, grunting a dismissive response as he did. Paul followed, closing the door behind him.

“I’ve been called away. Young Jacob Sweet came to the back door to say his father has fallen from a ladder and might have broken his ankle.”

It was then that Ben caught sight of the medical bag in Paul’s hand, but he was too distracted to acknowledge the doctor’s words.

“By the way, I ran a pin down the soles of Adam’s feet.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in but then he moved to face Paul. “And?”

“He could feel it. It’s a good sign. And he’s not had any pain in his legs since he came around. He’s going to be alright, Ben.” Paul walked to the front door. “Now go in and talk to your son. I shouldn’t be too long. An hour, two at most.”

Paul left Ben standing in the middle of the room, staring at the door to the surgery. He took a step but could go no further. Feeling ashamed of his lack of courage, he found a chair and eased himself down.

***

Ben woke with such a start it drove him to the edge of his chair. He had fallen asleep—unsurprising, as he had hardly slept for two nights. A noise had awoken him, but he was alone in the waiting room and as he sat perfectly still, the only sounds he could hear were those of another day in the life of Virginia City as it went about its business outside the surgery’s quiet walls.

The noise sounded again—a scuffling noise coming from the room where Adam lay. And once more, louder this time.

Ben rose to his feet and this time there was no hesitation as he turned the handle and entered the room.

Adam was on his feet. Just. His bare feet were scratching at the floor, his backside resting against the high examination bed as he gripped the leather to hold himself up.

Ben crossed the distance between them in seconds. “Adam, what are you doing?” He grasped his son’s arms, steadying him.

“I’m going to get Clara.” The words were snarled through gritted teeth.

“It’s too soon for you to be out of bed, you’ll break open your wound.”

“Pa.” Angry eyes bore into Ben’s. “You let her go.” He grimaced as he let more weight shift onto his feet. “It’s up to me to get her back.”

Ben dropped his eyes as Adam’s words cut into him, but then he shook away the anger and looked back at the sweat-flecked face of his eldest son. He tightened his grip on Adam’s arms. “We’ll all go, but not yet. You need to get well, Adam. Please . . .” His words were lost as Adam gathered what little strength he had, and, releasing one hand from his tight grip on the bed, shoved his father away.

“Adam . . .”

Ben watched in dismay as Adam pushed away from the bed, his nightshirt falling loose around his body. With his arms outstretched to either side he looked down at his feet. For a moment he seemed to forget his anger and he grinned at his father. “You see, Pa, I can do this, I can.” He slid one foot out in front of him, dragging the other behind. But his limited reserves of strength ran out and he began to topple forward. Ben caught him in his arms, Adam’s head coming to rest on his shoulder.

His moan broke Ben’s heart. “Pa, I can do this, I know I can.” The jubilant tone of before was gone.

“Enough!” Ben hoisted Adam as carefully as he could back on to the bed, lifted his legs and pulled a blanket over him.

“Adam Cartwright, you listen to me, and you listen good. You’ve been shot in the back. You’ve been shot in the head. We were all scared witless as you blathered on about the house you were building for Laura.”

Adam’s cheek twitched.

“And to top all of that, you were knocked out with chloroform so Paul and that other doctor could perform surgery on you. And now, one day later, you want to go charging off in pursuit of Clara. You can barely walk!”

Ben’s voice was reaching a level comparable with the horns which summoned the workers to the town’s mines. He took a long breath and hung his head but when he looked up, he found Adam’s chastened face watching him.

“Gee, Pa, you sure know how to make a man feel like a kid again.”

A smile broke out on Ben’s face as his body relaxed. “Well, if you will act like one.” He shook his head as he patted Adam’s arm. “I know you want to go after Clara, but, son, you shouldn’t even be out of bed. You’ll be no good to her, or anyone, unless you get your strength back.”

Adam let his head fall back on his pillow. “And by then it’ll be too late. They’ll be halfway across the country or even on a boat back to Hamburg.” He looked at Ben. “Don’t you see, Pa, I’ve lost her.”

And Ben could only watch in dismay as Adam turned away and buried his head in the pillow.

***

Clara never made it far as Placerville.

After rolling out of Virginia City, she had to endure several uncomfortable hours of silence in the carriage before they arrived in Carson City as the light was fading in the night sky. The old man had spent the entire journey with his cane between his knees, his head held upright, a heavy vertical line creased into his skin between closed eyes. Not a word was said to the daughter he’d newly regained. The doctor also closed his eyes and let the soporific rocking of the carriage send him to sleep. Seated next to the count, Clara stared out of the window at every opportunity, especially since the count’s nephew, Oskar, seemed to glean enjoyment from studying her. His eyes wandered over her face and hair and if she caught his eye, he would beam at her, his tongue flicking between his lips. It made her shiver inside.

At their hotel that night, Clara noticed the count seemed less invigorated than usual, to the extent even his critical tongue was suppressed. He had been disparaging of every aspect of the International Hotel: it lacked refinement, grace, quality. Virginia City had no history, and it showed in the décor. His eyes scorned the fabric wallpaper, the livery of the doormen, the floral arrangements that had so impressed Clara. Nothing lived up to his usual standard. And yet, here, in the arguably less plush St. Charles, he had merely glanced at the suite before retiring, without a word, to his room; there was no strength left in Count Friedrich to even comment.

The doctor bustled in after the count with his medical bag and on his return to the lounge, raised an eyebrow at Oskar and shook his head. It was then he realised Clara was watching him.

“He’s exhausted from the journey, my dear. There’s no need to worry.”

Clara didn’t respond. It was a horrible thing to admit, but the count was the last person she was worried about.

The doctor dropped his medical bag on the couch and peered down his nose at her. “He’s travelled a long way to find you, young lady. I expect now his mission has been a success, he’s laid himself a little more open to exhaustion. Once he’s on the boat back to New York he’ll get a chance to refill his sails, so to speak. He’s a stubborn man. If he hadn’t insisted on bringing that infernal carriage with him, he could have easily taken the railroad.” The doctor shrugged and no more was said on the subject.

The count didn’t come out of his room again that night. Oskar entered with a full tray of food but an hour later collected the tray, the plate cold and untouched.

Clara avoided talking to either the doctor or Oskar. Part of her wanted to ask the doctor about Adam’s prognosis, but she couldn’t trust herself not to burst into tears if she mentioned his name. He settled himself in an easy chair and so Clara had no choice but to sit next to Oskar on the couch. He sat twisted towards her, his knee brushing up against Clara’s. She would move away, and he would apologise and move his leg. But before long, his knee would be back against hers. She jumped at the chance to visit the restaurant for supper, if only to be on the opposite side of a table from him.

That night she lay in a small room off the main suite, with her blanket pulled up to her chin, her hands clutching the bedclothes. She watched a shadow cut across the light that shone under the door. It paused and moved away but a few moments later, the light was obstructed once more. After the shadow’s third visit, she jumped out of bed and pushed a chair under the door handle. She went back to bed and felt secure enough to attempt sleep.

But her thoughts kept returning to Adam and the last time she’d seen him when he’d been asleep after the operation. His skin had looked as white as the bandages wrapped around his torso. His eyebrows were pulled so low that an inverted V puckered the space above his nose. He had looked beaten. And then an image had come to her of Adam mounted on his horse, holding his hand out to her to swing her up behind him. Of a smile that creased the corners of his eyes and dimpled his cheeks. And when her bottom lip began to wobble, she could hold it in no longer. Clara turned to her side and sobbed silently into the pillow.

The following day they left Carson City early and followed the road down the eastern side of Tahoe. Clara sat forward in the seat, staring out the window, absorbing every pine, every sparkling glimpse of azure water, and the low mountains that lined the lake, topped with the last traces of winter snow. She never wanted to forget what she might never see again. The beauty of the lake had once soothed her. Now it was painful to move ever farther from the land she had grown to love, and the people who had made it their home.

“Sit back, girl. Do not gawp like a common tourist.”

She sighed, dragged her eyes from the lake and sat back opposite the count. Folding her arms across her chest, she felt her lower lip start to protrude.

The old man pursed his lips. “And do not sulk.”

“I’m not sulking.” Her retort was fiercer than she had intended.

Suddenly, the count sat forward and pulled Clara’s arms away from her chest and thrust them down by her sides. Then, with a gloved hand, he grabbed her jaw. “You will sit like a young lady.” His fingers squeezed her chin. “And you will never use that tone again. Do you understand me?”

Clara nodded at which the count released her and sat back in his seat. She placed her hands in her lap and tried to keep her jerky breathing under control.

The exertion seemed to have exhausted the count, however. He began to cough violently, and scrabbled for his handkerchief. The doctor swiftly opened his medical bag and found a small vial of clear brown liquid which the old man swallowed down quickly. He sat back, his eyes closed, his chest heaving.

“Onkel?”

The old man’s eyes fluttered open. “I am well. Do not fuss.”

Oskar and the doctor exchanged glances before sitting back in their seats. The count’s coughing ceased, but the doctor kept his medical bag within easy reach.

As the day progressed, the count found it increasingly difficult to control his coughing. At first, it was a suppressed wheeze in his throat, but before long it had developed into a full-blown hacking cough which brought tears to his eyes. The blood in his handkerchief could no longer be hidden as he would fall back exhausted, his hand dropping open with the smear of red apparent to all.

They’d not long left the way station at Echo Pass when the count started to struggle to fill his lungs with air and the doctor made the decision to turn the carriage around and return to the way station for the night.

And as Clara watched the old man being lifted out of the carriage and carried up the steps to a waiting bed, she began to wonder how sick her father really was.

 

***

Clara sat in a hard-backed chair next to an open window. The curtains were drawn, shutting out the harsh desert light which flickered beneath the fluttering fabric.

The only sound was that of the count’s shallow breathing as it rattled in his throat. Clara’s mind was blank. She’d been sat here for so long she had grown bored. Her eyelids were beginning to droop and her head rock forward on her neck as she sat in the dark, quiet room.

“You do not like me, do you?”

The voice broke into her lethargy and Clara lifted her head, blinking open her eyes. The count stared at her from his bed.

“No.” There was nothing more to say than that.

“I’ve given you little reason to.”

Clara straightened up, easing her numb backside away from the hard chair surface and looked at the other side of the room where a dresser covered in china dolls and tiny enamel boxes sat in the shadows. The way station managers, an emigrant English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Pitts, had given up their room for the care of the count, insisting he sleep there while incapacitated.

Ignoring her father, Clara stood and wandered over to look at the paraphernalia. The dolls’ shiny eyes, staring at nothing, unnerved her.

“I was 65 when I married your mother. She was my second wife, and much younger than I.”

Clara stopped fingering the items on the dresser as he spoke and looked up to see his reflection in the dusty mirror.

“The marriage was a mistake from the start. We were too different, your mother and I. Before we were married, she would spend every season in Vienna, did you know that?”

Clara shook her head, meeting the count’s gaze in the mirror.

“She loved the grand balls, the opera, the concerts. It’s where we were introduced for the first time. She was wearing a golden silk taffeta ballgown. You wonder that I remember what she wore?” He coughed lightly. “She turned every man’s head in the room. But it was I her father wanted her to meet.”

Her interest piqued, Clara turned from the mirror and moved to the end of the bed. “My grandfather, Bernhard?”

“Yes. He knew a marriage would benefit both families. I had wealth and position. Bernhard was minor gentry. He aspired to move beyond his class.” The count’s bushy eyebrows rose as he remembered. “She had little choice, though I do believe there was love at the start. I still had verve in those days. I was not as you see me now.”

Clara gingerly lowered herself to the side of the bed by the count’s feet and when the count did not object, turned towards him. “So, what happened?

The old man drew in a long breath. “Johanna believed we would reside in Hannover or Berlin, even spend part of the year in Vienna.” The count’s tired eyes blinked slowly. “But I had no intention of leaving my lands for months at a time. Your mother hated Falkeberg the moment she arrived. In her eyes, it was full of stuffed creatures, long-dead ancestors that watched her from the walls. She craved light and youth. She wanted to be admired by more than one old man.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you deserve to know the truth.” He coughed, squeezed his eyes closed, and dabbed his handkerchief over his mouth. “Any fondness between us soon faded. We started to fight, with words and then with our fists.” He caught Clara’s eye. “Both of us.”

Clara’s eyes widened. She had always believed her father had hurt her mother, but to hear her mama had fought back . . .

“You believe she defended herself against me, don’t you? It was not so. Your mother was fierce when she felt her words were not heard.”

Clara jumped off the bed. “I don’t believe you,” she cried. “I saw Mama’s bruises from when you beat her—”

“But you never saw mine.”

A silence hung between them.

“It does not matter now, who is to blame. It is all in the past.”

Clara’s eyes darkened. “But it isn’t, is it? Because you’re here, taking me away from—” She stopped and flopped back on to the side of the bed.

“Taking you away from Adam Cartwright?”

She could feel her eyes grow wet and turned away from the old man, unwilling to let him see her cry.

No one spoke. The silence broken only by the count’s harsh breaths.

“When your mother was carrying you, I suspected you weren’t my child.”

Clara kept her head turned away, but her eyes flickered in his direction.

“She had spent much of her time riding with one of my groomsmen. But when you were born, and I saw your face for the first time, I knew you were mine. I could see generations of my family in you. I loved you, though you may not believe it.” A rare smile crossed the count’s face. “You looked so defiant, so angry, at what you had experienced. At being born. I knew then, you could be no one else’s child.”

There was a long sigh.

“Until now.”

Clara’s head turned sharply to look at him.

He raised his hand. “Come closer to me, daughter.” She paused but then slipped off the bed and walked to where the old man was huddled beneath the bedclothes. Taking his hand, she felt his weak, cool flesh in her own. He gazed at her for several long moments. “You are free to go, Clara. I will have Oskar draw up papers turning over guardianship to Adam Cartwright.”

Her breath caught in her throat and as she looked down at the count, she saw he spoke the truth, and her face lit up with a smile so wide the room seemed to lighten. She threw herself over him, her hands on his thin shoulders, burying herself in his neck. “Oh, thank you, thank you.” His hands patted her back. But then she pulled away. “I don’t understand. Why have you changed your mind?”

For the first time, the count smiled. “You are so like your mother. Every time I look at you, I see her. And seeing you has brought back memories I thought I had dispelled a long time ago.” The count took Clara’s hand once more. “I have remembered much while lying here. I was so consumed with hatred at what Johanna did in taking you from me that I had forgotten why it was she hated me in the first place. If I take you back, history will repeat itself. You will come to hate me too, like your mother did.”

Clara hugged him once more. “I don’t hate you, Father,” she whispered, “not anymore.”

The count looked up at her and lifted his palm to her cheek. “So like your mother.” He nodded. “Now, go, get Oskar, and the doctor, we will need a witness.”

Clara slipped off the bed and circling it, found herself at the door when the count spoke again.

“You called me Father.”

She smiled and after a moment’s hesitation, returned to the bed. She leaned over the old man and kissed him gently on his cheek. And with a lightness to her step, she was gone.

***

Clara was standing next to Mrs. Pitts peeling potatoes for the evening’s meal when the bedroom door opened. They both watched as Oskar walked stiffly into the room and slammed his wallet of papers onto a nearby chair, clenched his fists and stalked out to the porch. The door slammed behind him.

Mrs. Pitts nudged Clara with her elbow. “Looks like someone’s got their knickers in a twist.” She carried on gutting a chicken which lay half disembowelled on the table in front of her.

The door to the bedroom opened again, and Doctor Buxton appeared, quietly closing it behind him.

“What’s wrong with cousin Oskar?

Placing his medical bag on the rough wooden dining table, the doctor wandered over to the kitchen area. “Your father has drawn up papers assigning Adam Cartwright as your legal guardian.” He glanced at Clara who was struggling to keep a smile from breaking out on her face. Picking up a carrot from a pile of vegetables, he pointed it at her. “But you knew that.”

Clara bounced around the table and spun on the spot. “Oh, Doctor Buxton, I’m so happy. I can’t believe I can go home.”

Mrs. Pitts, who was chopping the feet off the chicken, paused mid-chop. “I knew there was something up with you, little madam.” She frowned, the cleaver in her hand dropping to the table surface. “But hold on, your father’s giving you over to the Cartwrights.” She cocked her head as she deliberated. “But then, I suppose he is getting on a bit in years, and the Cartwrights are good people. Everyone knows the Cartwrights ‘round here.”

Clara bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. “It’s a long story.” She caught sight of Oskar on the porch. “But why’s he so angry?”

Buxton took a bite of his carrot and came to stand next to Clara. “Your father has also changed his will.”

Clara’s eyebrows rose. “Oh?”

“He’s decided to leave his entire estate and all his assets and holdings—a substantial amount of money—to one Wilhelm Bauer.”

“Bauer?” She moved a step closer to the window. “That’s Oskar’s name.”

“Exactly. Wilhelm is Oskar’s oldest brother, the first child of the count’s only sibling, Maria.”

“Oh.”

The doctor leaned against the back of a well-worn couch, staring at the stiff figure of Oskar through the window. “Oh, indeed. But that’s not all. Wilhelm will only be able to claim his inheritance if you choose not to claim what is rightfully yours by your eighteenth birthday.”

Clara’s mouth gaped open. She became aware Mrs. Pitts had stopped hacking at the chicken and was hanging on every word being said. She turned to the doctor. “But I don’t want it. He can have it all, I don’t care about the money.”

The sound of a cleaver thwacking into the chopping board drew her attention. “That’s the spirit, girl. Money causes nothing but trouble. That’s why me and Mr. Pitts left the goldfields back in ‘54. Mr. Pitts had himself a small claim up at the Feather River, worked night and day prospecting. The first nuggets we found were stolen, then we found a few more that weren’t worth more than the clothes we were standing in. So, we decided to give it all up and get honest work instead. And money is why we left London in the first place. We—”

“Mrs. Pitts.” The doctor’s voice cut into her ramblings.

“Oh sorry, pet.” Much frantic chopping ensued.

Clara sighed. “I don’t need a big castle, and hundreds of servants and a big black carriage with gold lettering. I just want Adam, and my horse, and Grandpa Ben, and the Ponderosa, and . . .” She looked up and looked towards the bedroom. “My father’s not going to die though. He’ll still be alive when I’m eighteen. Won’t he?”

The doctor straightened and walked to stand in front of her. “Your father is an old man. And he’s not in the best of health. That’s why I’m here.” He smiled. “Now, why don’t you go and see the horses. The stage will be here soon, and Mr. Pitts has started to ready the team for the changeover.”

Clara chewed the inside of her lip. “I think I’ll go and sit with my father.” And lowering her head, she opened the door to the darkened bedroom and disappeared within.

***

She had fallen asleep across his bed, her face buried in her arms; it was a pair of hands gently touching her shoulders that had awoken her. As she straightened up, she realised a blanket had been draped over her during the night but that sometime later it had slipped and was now dangling over her knees. She gathered it up and then looked behind her to find the doctor standing behind her.

“He’s gone, Clara.”

She turned slowly back to the bed, to the still figure beneath the bedsheets. He looked like he was sleeping, his eyes closed, the lines on his face faded in death.

“He knew, didn’t he?”

The doctor nodded as he looked down at the count’s body. “He went the way we all want to. One last breath, and then no more.” He glanced at Clara. “And with someone who cared for him at his side.”

“Can I have a moment alone?”

The doctor nodded. “Of course.” His eyebrows rose and lines furrowed in his brow. “And I need to tell Oskar.” With a slight shake of his head, he left the room.

Clara pulled the chair nearer to the head of the bed and sat down.

She wanted to say something profound, something meaningful, but no suitable words came to mind. In truth, she had spent too long despising her father to have the memory of the conversation they had shared eradicate the anguish he had caused. But Clara no longer felt the hatred that had once burned at her insides. The count had known he was going to die and had made amends, revealing a less stern, and more human side to him. She wished he had done it sooner.

His bed cover was crumpled, so rising from her chair, Clara pulled it up to his neck and smoothed out the creases. Then, leaning over, she laid a gentle kiss on his forehead. “Thank you, Father.” She pushed the chair up against the wall. “Oskar will take you home now.”

***

Hoss and Joe had slowed their horses, and now Hoss was yawning—a large, jaw-cracking yawn that made his eyes squint and the skin stretch around his mouth. Moments later, Joe yawned too.

“Thanks.”

Hoss wiped the moisture from his eyes. “What fer?”

“Making me yawn.”

“Well, if you will wake me up while it’s still dark.”

They’d been on the move for a couple of hours, veering off the road wherever possible to save precious time. Leaving the trail had taken them into a pine forest where the morning sun slanted down through the trees, casting mottled shadows across their path.

Hoss pointed towards a gap in the tree line. “There’s the road. Hey, Joe, ain’t there a way station or swing station up ahead? We could get a decent meal if they’d be willin’ to let us pay fer one.”

“Can’t you wait until we’re a few more miles down the road?”

Hoss’s nose scrunched, his top lip rising. “I’m wastin’ away, Joe. If I don’t get a good meal inside o’ me soon, they’ll be nothing left o’ me.”

“Yeah, nothing left but a 230-pound carcass.” Joe shook his head. “Come on, it’s over that hill there.”

They urged their horses into a gallop to reach the top of the rise. But as quickly as they arrived, they were wheeling their animals around and back below the crest, jumping off and returning at a crouch to gaze down at the view below them. The way station sat in a sleepy haze, the barn between it and the rise. Behind the buildings was the corral, a number of horses standing in the shade thrown by the barn. There was no movement, everything was sleepy and still. But what had drawn their attention was the fancy black carriage with its four plumed horses in front of the main building.

“That’s the count’s carriage alright,” murmured Hoss. He pointed towards the house where two men were lounging on the porch. “There’s those two goons.” He flexed one of his fists. “Me and that Cobb fella have some unfinished business.”

Joe pulled his weight up on to his forearms to examine the scene. “And that must be the station manager,” he said, nodding towards the carriage as a third man came into view by the horses.

“Let’s go get our little gal,” And Hoss was halfway down the slope before Joe had even got to his feet.

***

Oskar was not his usual cheery self. He paced back and forth in front of the hearth, his arms crossed high across his chest, teeth gnawing at his thumb.

“Oskar, please, I’m getting a bellyache watching you.” The doctor was seated at the large table consuming a bowl of porridge, Clara beside him. Both watched as Oskar moved to and fro in front of them.

Mrs. Pitts carried a fresh pot of coffee over to the table. “Don’t you want something to eat, young man? It’s a long drive back to Virginia City.”

Oskar came to an abrupt halt. “I’m not hungry. I don’t want to eat. I want . . .” With a sudden speed, he swept around the table and dropped to his knees in front of Clara. Taking her hands within his own, he gazed into her eyes.

Clara shook her head, a frown forming on her face. “Oskar, what are you—”

“Marry me.”

“What?” Clara laughed and twisted in her chair to see a stunned expression on the doctor’s face. She glanced at Mrs. Pitts who had stopped in the centre of the room with the coffee pot in her hand, her mouth fallen open. Clara looked back to the hopeful face of Oskar staring up at her. “What do you mean, marry you?”

“Just what I said, come back with me to Falkeberg, to your rightful home, marry me and, together, we can set society on fire.”

Oskar’s eyes shone with fervent enthusiasm. His former glumness replaced with a zealous passion as he stared into Clara’s eyes.

“I don’t want to set anything on fire, I want to—”

“If you don’t want to live at the castle, we can, yes, we can sell it. You can live in Berlin or London, or Paris, or wherever you want. Think of it, liebste.”

Clara tried to pull her hands from his grip. “I am thinking of it. It’s madness.” She stopped pulling and leaned towards him. “Oskar, I’m thirteen years old.”

Her words were met with a shake of his head. “So, I’ll wait. When you come of age, we can be wed.”

“Oskar, I do not want to marry you,” cried Clara. And with a tug that nearly knocked her out of her seat, Clara yanked her hands free of Oskar’s firm hold on her. She stood and pushed out of the way of her chair, and the young man kneeling on the floor.

There was the sound of a scuffle on the porch, followed by a loud thud, and then the door swung open. Hoss stood in the doorway, rubbing his knuckles. Behind him, a wide grin on his face, was Joe.

“Hoss! Joe!” Clara ran across the room into Hoss’s arms and was lifted off her feet in a hug that took her breath away. After he’d set her back down, she threw her arms around Joe, resting her cheek on his chest.

There was a groan from the room. Oskar had watched the arrival of the Cartwrights and sunk to his backside, his shoulders slumped inwards.

“Seven years I worked for Count Friedrich. I jumped when he wanted me to jump, went wherever he sent me. I had to live in that cold castle, away from society, on hand at all times of the day or night. And believe me, I was woken in the small hours more times than you could possibly imagine to see to some piece of business he had thought of. My whole life was tending to his whims. I had no time for a wife, my university friends gave up on me. And how does he repay me? He gives his entire inheritance to my brother.” He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “The fortune you could inherit.” He glanced up at Clara. “We could have set the world alight, you and I.”

The doctor rose from his chair and, leaning down, patted the despondent Oskar’s arm. “Come on, young man, up.” And rolling his eyes, he helped Oskar to his feet, and out to the carriage.

“What on earth…?” started Joe with a laugh.

“Oh, it’s nothing of any consequence.” Clara grew serious. “Tell me about Adam.”

 

***

The room was dark. It was how Adam wanted it.

He lay on his bed, staring at nothing in particular. Paul had told him in a day or so he could try putting weight on his legs, and that he’d be up and walking in no time. But what was the point? He’d return to the Ponderosa and resume the same day-to-day existence he’d always had. Rise at dawn, breakfast, spend the day on the range, in the forest, at one of the mines, return home, eat, bed. And then do the same the next day. And the next. And the day after that. The light that had made every day worth getting up for had been dimmed forever. Her laughter was nothing but a dying breath on the air. The Ponderosa would be a place of routine once more. Lifeless. Dull.

The sound of the inner door opening drew his eye. He watched as it swung open a few inches, and then a backside pushed the door further into the room. Paul Martin entered with a tray of food in both hands.

“I brought you some lunch.” He placed the tray on the table by Adam’s bed. “This is,” he lifted an upturned plate to reveal the meal beneath, “ah yes, fried salt pork with gravy and potatoes, courtesy of Mrs. Long from her boarding house on B Street.” Unfurling a napkin, he revealed a knife and fork within. “You won’t believe how many meals have been delivered since you arrived. I’ve had to refuse some.” He patted his belly. “Though, perhaps not as many as I should’ve.”

Adam turned his head away. “I’m not hungry.” His voice was flat and lethargic.

Paul walked to the window and pulled the curtains apart, making Adam wince at the unwelcome light.

“Come now, Adam, you’ve hardly eaten since you’ve been here—you’re starting to look thin in the face.” He folded his arms as he looked down at his patient. “You need to eat, to build up your strength.”

“I said I’m not hungry.” He frowned up at Paul, then closed his eyes and sighed. “Give it to Pa. I’m sure he’ll eat it.”

“Your father isn’t here. I sent him away to get some proper rest. He’s lodging with Clementine Hawkins, of all people.”

If Adam had been in a brighter mood, he would have found his father’s choice of accommodation amusing. Ben had enjoyed an unusual friendship with Mrs. Hawkins ever since the incident with the emerald. And some folks hadn’t entirely ruled out whether Clementine still saw herself as the fourth Mrs. Cartwright or not.

Today, his father’s lodgings didn’t even raise a smile.

He craned his head to look at the meal. It didn’t look unappetising, but Adam wanted nothing more than to lie in bed and wallow in his misery.

“I just, I don’t want to eat, Paul. I don’t care about . . .” His words died on his tongue.

Paul rested his fists on the bed, leaning over Adam. “I heard some interesting news today.”

Adam kept his head turned away from the doctor.

“According to Bill at the International Hotel, your brothers were in town yesterday.”

“So?”

“So, I was here when Ben told them in no uncertain terms to get back to the Ponderosa and stay there.”

“You know my brothers,” murmured Adam. “Never could do anything they were told.”

“They were seen riding out, with provisions for a few days, heading towards Placerville.”

Adam turned to look at him, his eyes dark.

“Spit it out, Paul, whatever it is you trying to tell me.”

The doctor’s brows rose. “They were apparently in pursuit of a large black carriage.”

Adam met his gaze and the frown faded from his face. He began to pull himself into a seated position.

“Perhaps I can manage some food, after all.”

***

Mr. Cobb sat on the way station steps as the doctor tended to a newly cut lip. There was activity behind them, at which the doctor indicated to the bruised heavy to stand and move out of the way. Carefully manoeuvring sideways through the doorway was Hoss, in his arms a figure shrouded within a white bedsheet. Clara followed him out. At sight of Hoss, Mr. Cobb stumbled back a few steps and then whipped off his hat after a pointed look from the doctor. Mr. and Mrs. Pitts were seated on the porch swing and as Hoss passed, the couple rose to their feet. Cobb’s associate, Fox, was seated on the top of the carriage and stood as the tiny possession approached. All was quiet as Hoss took one step at a time with his precious burden.

The doctor moved ahead of him and opened the carriage door. “Place the count on the seat. Careful now.”

Hoss did as he was bid, turning to place his hand on Clara’s shoulder. He half-smiled and she reassured him with a sad smile in return.

“So, what’s next, doc?”

Doctor Buxton indicated to Cobb to resume his seat on the stairs, and he bent over with his liniment bottle to dab at a nasty cut on Cobb’s ear. “We will continue to Placerville. The count will be okay until we get there, and then I will have the unpleasant duty of finding an undertaker who can embalm him in preparation for his journey back to Germany.”

Joe nodded at Oskar, who had stepped out onto the porch. “And what about him?”

The doctor looked at the unhappy figure staring down at the ground with wide dazed eyes. “I’ll accompany him back to New York and ensure he gets on the ship back to Germany. It’s time for him to make his own way, now his uncle is dead.” He smiled at Clara. “He had a moment of madness, but shock and, perhaps even grief, can affect people in strange ways.” He turned to Cobb. “You’ll live.” And giving Hoss a wide berth, Cobb climbed up next to Fox on the carriage. “And you,” he called up to Oskar, “on the carriage with you.”

Clara met Oskar at the bottom of the steps. “Do you promise to take my father’s body home, back to his castle?”

Two defeated eyes met hers. He raised his hand. “I solemnly promise. He will be buried in the family crypt alongside the dusty remains of all his ancestors.”

“And do you promise never to come looking for me, or send any men after me?”

Oskar sighed. “You have my word.” He climbed into the carriage and leaned out of the window. “Clara, please understand that I’m sorry for my indiscretion earlier. But would you permit me to write to you? You are my cousin after all, and I would like to know about life on your grand Ponderosa.”

She glanced over at Hoss and Joe before looking back at Oskar. “As long as you promise not to propose again, then yes, you can write to me.” She turned to Hoss and Joe and whispered, “not sure I’ll reply though.”

The doctor paused in the carriage door and looked across at Clara. “I’m sorry for the part I played in all this. I have a sense of loyalty to whoever my employer happens to be, but perhaps this time my loyalty was misplaced.”

Clara reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “My papa will walk again because of you. And I know you’ll take care of . . . my father and make sure he gets home.”

The doctor climbed aboard the carriage and waved as it rattled out onto the road to Placerville.

Hoss, Joe and Clara stood by the way station steps, watching, as it drove away.

“You’re free.” Hoss patted his pocket. “I’ve got the papers to prove it.”

Clara drew her eyes from the dust hanging in the air and looked up at Hoss and Joe. “Take me home.”

***

Adam was dressed for the first time in four days. And standing. Only just.

Ben was insistent it was too soon, that Adam should stay in bed longer, but his stubborn eldest son overruled him, as did a doctor keen to get his surgery back.

“There’s a school of thought that argues a patient should be up and moving as soon as possible after an operation.”

Ben had narrowed his eyes. “And what do you think?”

“I read the medical journals, I keep up to date with developments, and I’ve seen the benefits of such a course of action with my own eyes.”

The two men were on the porch, coffee in hand, watching the town come alive in the early morning.

“But he’s only just been operated on.”

“Ben, the bullet wasn’t deep, the problem was where it was sited. Buxton had to extricate it from a difficult position but it’s not like he was delving into major organs and all that entails. And there’s been no sign of infection.”

“Hmmm.”

“The best thing you can do for Adam now is to take him home, let him recuperate in his own surroundings. Get him up and walking for a short while each day so he can build up his strength. His back will hurt, of course it will, it’s bruised from being hit with a bullet and then having two doctors poking around.”

“But what if—”

“Ben.” Paul Martin reached out to squeeze Ben’s arm. “Stop worrying and take your boy home.”

And so, that morning, Adam suffered the indignity of having his father help him into his clothes for the first time since he was a small boy. It took both Ben and Paul to swing his legs off the bed and onto the floor, taking his weight as he stood upright. With one arm around each man’s shoulder, he was assisted to the front door of the building, but then insisted he walk alone to the waiting buckboard.

Getting to the top of the steps was comparatively easy, but as he took each grating step one at a time, he had to clench his teeth together to stop gasping with pain. He was aware of several townsfolk standing and watching from a distance, but even Adam had to admit defeat when it came to the wagon. Feeling woozy and exhausted from his exertions, he allowed his father to push him up into the wagon’s seat where he collapsed and took several deep breaths.

Paul appeared at his side and reached up with his hand. Adam shook it warmly.

“Thanks, Doc.”

“I’ll be out in a few days to see how you’re getting on. Your father’s got laudanum, should you need it, and he knows to check your wound and change the bandage once a day.”

The wagon seat juddered as Ben climbed up beside Adam and took the reins. He leaned forward to talk to Paul. “I’ll have Hop Sing ready a jar of his gooseberry jelly that you like.”

And with a cluck of his tongue, he moved the team out into the road with his horse, Buck, tied to the rig and trotting on behind.

Paul Martin stood and watched them go. He waved to their backs then returned to tidy up his surgery. A doctor’s work was never done.

***

The track home to the Ponderosa skirted the southern end of Washoe Lake. The water appeared so close it would have been of no surprise to Adam if, leaning out of the buckboard, he could have trailed his fingers in the shallow waters. But that was the last thing he wanted to do; the jolting of the wagon over the rough ground jarred his wound and caused him to clench his teeth. Not too obviously, though, he didn’t want his father to worry any more than he usually did. To take his mind off his pains, he turned to a subject that had bothered him for the last two days.

“Pa, I’m sorry.”

Ben had been gazing out over the expanse of water, his hands loosely holding the reins, and for a moment didn’t register that Adam had spoken.

“What?”

“I said I’m sorry.”

Ben laughed lightly. “What for?”

His question was met with a sigh. “For blaming you . . . for Clara leaving.”

Ben’s eyebrows rose. “Oh.” He patted Adam’s knee. “S’okay.” He looked out over the lake again. “I have a sudden urge for Hop Sing’s fried catfish. We should come down here one day and—”

“Pa, I need to apologise to you. Properly.”

“No, you don’t.” Ben turned back to Adam, suddenly serious. “You never have to apologise for being a father.” He took a breath. “You’d been through a lot, what with Tully and the shooting, and the last thing you needed was me telling you she’d left.” He shook his head. “It was understandable.”

One of the buckboard’s wheels rolled over a large rock. The wagon bounced upward and landed hard, jolting Ben and Adam about like bucking broncos. The sudden jarring vibrated up Adam’s back and he cried out in pain, gripping the wooden seat until his knuckles paled. Ben pulled the horses to a halt. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

Adam’s eyes were squeezed shut. “I’m okay.” As the pain eased, he opened his eyes.

“Do you want to lie down in the back the rest of the way?”

Adam shook his head. “No, let’s just stop a while.”

Ben pulled the horses off the track, and they sat looking out over the silvery-blue water.

“I’m going to have words with Milt at the livery when I return this wagon and horses. If he maintained his gear with more care, we wouldn’t be thrown around so much.”

Adam said nothing, but threw a sidelong glance at his father, his lips toying with a smile.

Bubbles in the water drew Ben’s attention and he watched as a fish swam near to the surface, zigzagging in the weeds. He looked back to Adam.

“You know, son, you would have been proud of her.” He met Adam’s gaze. “She made a promise to the count to go with him in return for the doctor’s help. And she was determined to keep that promise because it’s what you taught her—you told her to never break your word, and she didn’t.” He patted Adam’s knee. “You taught her well, son.”

“What good was it if it means I lost her?”

“You don’t know that for sure. Those two brothers of yours blatantly disobeyed me to go after her. We don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Adam shook his head. “Be realistic, Pa. Even if Hoss and Joe caught up with them, what can they do? The full force of the law was on the count’s side.” He stared out over the lake. “She’s gone. I’ve gotta get on with my own life now. And that means I’ve got some thinking to do, about where I want to be.”

“You’re not thinking of leaving?”

He didn’t reply, just looked at his father, who couldn’t keep the sadness from his expression. Adam pulled himself up in the seat and conjured a smile. “Why don’t we come back here on Sunday, after church, get us some catfish for dinner?”

Wearing a reluctant half-smile, Ben nodded. “How’s your back? Shall we move along?”

“I think I can manage the rest of the journey now.”

Releasing the brake, Ben moved the horses back onto the track. They continued in silence, both lost in their thoughts, until the lake was behind them, and they began the climb up towards the Ponderosa.

“Pa?” Adam broke the silence, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. “I am proud of her. No matter what, I’ll always be proud of her.” He swallowed and blinked. And no more was said.

***

“Mister Adam!”

The buckboard was met in exuberant fashion by Hop Sing, who had run out of the house at the sound of horses and the jangling of the traces. He trotted around to where Number One Son was sitting, stiff and unbending in the seat. Adam managed a smile as he looked down at the stocky Chinaman.

“It’s good to be home, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing’s smile faded to be replaced with a frown. “You no go to Virginia City. It not safe. You stay here where bad man with guns no shoot.”

“It’s a little late for that.”

Ben, who had climbed down from the rig, circled around the wagon to Adam’s side. “Lend me a hand, would you,” he said to Hop Sing. Adam had to manoeuvre down the buckboard backwards, with able hands guiding where to put his feet and keeping him steady till he was safely on solid ground.

Hop Sing’s fingers picked at Adam’s shirt. “You too skinny. Hop Sing kill chicken for supper, cook Mister Adam’s favourite stew and dumpling.”

Adam grimaced. “I’m not that hungry.”

“You heard what Paul said.” Ben called over the wagon where he was untying Buck. “You need to eat to build up your strength.”

“I will.” Adam turned to Hop Sing. “Just not today.”

Hop Sing shook his head, sighed dramatically and then trotted back to the house, muttering in Cantonese all the way. The front door slammed shut behind him.

“It doesn’t pay to upset the person who feeds us.” Ben led Buck to a hitching post. “Let’s get you inside and to bed.”

Adam threw off his father’s hand which had crept under his arm. “No, Pa. I don’t need to lie down. I’ve had my fill of lying down.” He took several stiff steps along the wagon, one hand grasping the wooden structure. “I need to walk.” He looked over his shoulder at Ben. “I need to move.”

Adam knew his father was taking a long slow steadying breath behind him. He had seen it often enough and could picture the slight shake of his head, the frown, the expansion of the torso. Steps sounded behind him, and his father appeared at his side, hands on his hips.

“Will you at least have something to eat? It’s a long time since breakfast.”

One side of Adam’s face dimpled into a half-smile. “I think I can manage something.”

“And do you need a hand inside before I see to the wagon?”

“I’ll take it slow.”

Ben’s hands dropped to his side. “Stubborn”, he muttered as he mounted the buckboard. He looked down at Adam. “Just like your mother.” And with a flick of the reins. he steered the rig towards the barn.

***

A golden sheen reflected off the mountains in the early evening light. The air was warm, and a soft melodic whistle from one of the men floated across the yard from the bunkhouse. Yet despite the beautiful vista, Adam struggled to appreciate it.

After taking a light meal at midday, he had managed to walk unaided from the house to the barn and back again a couple of times before his legs felt weak and the scar on his back started to throb. Hobbling up the steps to the porch, he had collapsed into the first chair he’d come to, fully intending to resume his exercise after a few minutes of rest. But the will had escaped him. He’d been there ever since. Hop Sing had trotted out with coffee mid-afternoon and Ben had sat with him for a while in silence, later bringing out a book for Adam to read. But the book stayed unread on the table as Adam sat and stared, his thoughts wandering from one subject to the other: his frustration at being physically impaired . . . whether he should stay or go . . . Clara.

He limped into the house at the sound of Hop Sing’s call for dinner. By the time he reached the dining area, the serving dishes were on the table and his father was halfway out of his chair, a worried look painted on his face. It faded at sight of Adam walking stiffly towards him, and he resumed his seat without taking his eyes from his son. For the duration of the meal Adam sat straight-backed in his chair, his fork at the end of an outstretched arm, poking at his chicken stew.

At the sound of cutlery clattering sharply on a plate, Adam glanced over to see his father watching him across the tabletop. “Adam, please eat something.”

“It’s like I said before, Pa, I haven’t got much of an appetite.” He pushed back from the table. “I think I’ll turn in, get an early night.”

“I’ll help you up the—”

“No, Pa, I need to do this myself.”

And with a slow, stilted step, Adam walked away from the table, aware of a pair of concerned eyes burning into the back of his scalp.

His spine was throbbing by the time he reached the upper hallway. Closing his eyes, he leaned against the wall, taking several long breaths to fight the gnawing ache in his back. Feeling able to go on, he resumed his slow pace, but then noticed the door to Clara’s room was ajar. He continued past his own bedroom until he reached the open door and gently pushed it as far as it would go.

It was as she had left it. The wardrobe door was hanging open, clothes pulled from the shelves and discarded on the floor. A chest of drawers was in disarray and Adam couldn’t stop the smile and small shake of his head at the clothes littering the floor. Her mother’s powder-blue pendant that once hung over the corner of her mirror was gone, as was the Bible belonging to her mother. Adam stared into the mirror, noticing in the reflection the chaos of a life abandoned in a hurry. They’d need to sort through what was left. The church and orphanage would do well this year.

He closed one of the drawers and turned for one last look at the room, his eyes skimming over the bed. His breath caught in his throat when he saw that she’d left the cloth doll behind, the one he’d bought for her in Carson City. Its pale-yellow woollen hair had reminded him of her as soon as he saw it, even though it was the type of doll one bought a small girl. But she had treasured it, slept with it, loved it.

He sat down on the bed, pulling the doll towards him by one foot. Turning it over in his fingers he teased out the tangled woollen hair. And then his breath shuddered, and he covered his wet eyes.

***

“Can’t we go any faster?” Clara sat behind Hoss on his sturdy part-Morgan mount, her arms around his waist, as they walked ever onwards towards their home. “Haven’t the horses rested enough yet?”

“We’ll get nearer to home before getting them moving,” said Joe. “We’re only an hour away now.”

Hoss reached around and patted Clara’s knee. “And don’t forget ol’ Chubb here is carryin’ extra weight.”

Joe’s lipped puckered. “Yeah, Chubb’s not used to carrying a heavy load, is he?”

Hoss slapped his hand at Joe who swerved out of his way, laughing.

Clara was quiet, and Joe glanced over at her, seeing how she was staring out across the hills, her expression a million miles away. Catching Hoss’s eye, Joe nodded in Clara’s direction.

Hoss winked and conjured a smile. “I bet ol’ Adam’s gonna be sitting in his chair, readin’ one of them highfalutin’ books when we get back.”

There was no response from Clara but then she spied Joe watching her and cleared her throat. “We don’t know that for certain.”

Hoss looked out over Chubb’s head at the road ahead. “No, but I know Adam. He’s had some mighty hard knocks an’ always bounces right back up again.”

“Like what happened to him in the desert?”

Hoss turned his head to the side. “How do you know about that?”

“Uncle Joe said.”

Joe met Hoss’s stern frown with an embarrassed smile. “It sorta slipped out.”

“What did happen to Papa in the desert, and why won’t anyone tell me?”

Hoss let out a heavy breath. “It’s up to Adam to tell you cos he don’t much talk about it. But, what we do know is that he was mighty rattled by what happened. But that’s what I’m trying to tell ya, he’s been through it, an’ come out stronger. Mark my words, it’ll be the same this time.”

They carried on in silence before Clara signalled that she needed to visit the bushes, and they all took the opportunity for a rest and a drink of water before they carried on.

After a few minutes, Clara reappeared from a clump of trees. Kicking at stones and twigs underfoot, she ambled slowly back to where Hoss and Joe stood by the horses. “Maybe we should have gone to the doctor’s first.”

Joe handed her his canteen. “We already told you that would add hours to our journey.”

“But what if Papa’s still there, with Doctor Martin?”

Holding the canteen’s strap, she let it drop almost to the ground as she stared up at Joe, and it was only after he reached down to retrieve it and held it out to her again, that she took a gulp of water.

“That’s a chance we have to take. We’ll get you home, and if he’s not there, we’ll get cleaned up, have a good meal, and then tomorrow we’ll go see him.”

“Tomorrow? Can’t we go . . .” Her words petered off as she saw the firm look on Joe’s face. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “We’re all tired, we need a good night’s sleep before we spend another two hours on horseback. Besides, Hop Sing will know how Adam is. I’ve no doubt Pa will have sent a message.”

Clara looked at the ground. “What if he can’t walk anymore?” She gulped. “What if he’s . . .”

Joe looked over her at Hoss who shook his head and looked down at his feet.

“Don’t even think that.” Joe took back the canteen and wrapped the cord around his saddle horn. “Now come on, stop worrying, you can ride behind me for a time now.” Pulling himself up into his saddle he waited as Hoss lifted Clara onto the back of Cochise.

Once Hoss had mounted up, the two men exchanged a look and Joe gathered up his reins. “I think it’s time we showed Chubb who is the fastest horse on the Ponderosa. Hold on tight now.” And with a loud ‘yah’ that frightened a roost of birds into the sky, Joe leaned forward and let Cochise fly.

***

The horses skidded to a halt in the yard. Clara slid off the back before Cochise had even come to a full stop, causing Little Joe to grab one of her arms and lower her the rest of the way to the ground. She took off at speed, but then recalled what Grandpa Ben always said about running in the house and came to an abrupt stop at the front door. She opened the door gently, unable to keep the excited smile from her face.

The room was quiet. Too quiet. The usual sounds of hustle and bustle and Hop Sing talking to himself in the kitchen were absent.

She walked a few steps into the room and noticed Grandpa Ben in his chair. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw him. If he was here, then Papa should be too; Grandpa Ben wouldn’t have left his eldest son alone in the doctor’s house. But what if he was here alone because he didn’t need to be in the surgery, because . . .  As she drew closer to his chair, she saw his eyes were closed and his head rested on one of the chair’s wings. His chest rose and fell in sleep, so Clara backed away, looking around for any sign of Adam. There were no books on the table; the table was clear of crockery so she couldn’t count the number of place settings; his gun belt was curled up on the sideboard, but his hat was missing. Clara’s breathing began to quicken, but then her eyes turned to the upper level and without another thought she ran to the stairs, pulling herself up the banister as she ran. She paused outside his closed door and then knocked. There was no answer, no sound from within. Taking a steadying breath, she opened the door onto an empty room. The bed was made, and it looked as though no one had been there for several days. His books were stacked in tidy piles on the bureau, his guitar propped up in the corner. There was no sign that the room had been recently occupied.

Clara gulped back air and sat slowly on the bed, her hand smoothing over the blanket. She could sense her thoughts spinning out of control. But then footsteps sounded outside the door, and Grandpa Ben was there, his eyes wide with shock at seeing her. Throwing herself off the bed, she ran into his arms as the tears came.

“What’s this all about?” said Ben as he stroked her hair. “Hey?” He pushed her back to see her face. “Why the tears?”

“A . . .  A . . .  Adam, he’s . . .”

Ben’s face blossomed in understanding. “He’s okay, Clara, he’s outside.”

Clara stopped crying and wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “But he wasn’t there when we rode in.”

Ben laughed. “He’ll have gone for a walk somewhere. He’s trying to build up—”

But Clara was gone. Down the corridor and the stairs she ran, and out into the yard. She flew past Hoss and Joe who had put up their horses in the barn and were heading inside to face their father.

“Where’re you going?” shouted Joe after her.

“To find Adam!” she shouted back.

“Do you want help looking?”

But Clara was too occupied with seeking her Papa to bother shouting back. She tried behind the barn, the bunkhouse, the garden where she found Hop Sing up a ladder twisting ripe apples off their tree.

“Missy home!”

She waved but didn’t stop and only when she got back to the yard did she come to a halt, bending over with her hands on her knees to get some much needed air in her lungs. She paused to think, chewing on her bottom lip as she looked around for inspiration. There was nowhere she hadn’t looked. Where could he be?

Grandpa Ben and her two uncles were on the porch. She shouted over to them. “I can’t find him. What if he’s fallen and can’t get up, what if—”

“Have you tried the pond?” Ben cut into the increasingly frantic girl.

Clara’s eyes widened. Why hadn’t she thought of that? She ran to the porch and reached up to Ben. Bending down, he was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek. And then she was running towards the forest, the sound of laughter fading in her ears.

***

Adam had been sitting too long, his back grown stiff from lack of movement. Pushing himself up on the chair arms, he gripped the wood hard as he groaned himself to his feet. He stood there for a few moments contemplating where to go. He had already walked to the barn and back today, and circled the corral with one hand on the fence as he went. He needed to push himself, drive himself a little harder.

His father was inside the house, working at his desk. Steadying himself with one hand on the window ledge and then the wall, Adam winced as he took the steps down to the ground and peered through the open front door. Ben was in his chair, fast asleep. Adam’s cheek quirked into a half-smile. His father deserved a rest after everything he’d been put through recently. He closed the door quietly and walked out into the yard.

His eyes caught the gap in the trees that led down to the fishing pond. He wouldn’t go all that way, but it would be a pleasant walk amongst the pines.

It wasn’t long before he reached the aspen grove where the ground was blanketed in a sea of wildflowers. He circled the perimeter, listening to a solitaire singing its jumbling song somewhere high above him. But his back was starting to ache. He leaned against the trunk of the next tree he came to and let his eyes take in the beauty before him.

It rested and calmed him. His mind was consumed with thoughts of the child that had been so important in his life but who had now gone, headed back to the land of her birth with her real father. And he hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye. He sighed and shook his head, trying to banish the thoughts from his mind. But they were swiftly replaced with the perplexing subject of his future. He had returned to the Ponderosa, and his family, after several failed years away. He didn’t want to repeat that again. But the last year was so tied up with being a father, he feared the Ponderosa would hold too many inescapable memories for him. And all he wanted to do now was escape.

Something caught his eye on the edge of the clearing. He pushed away from the tree trunk and walked back to where the path led to the ranch. A few feet from the edge, almost lost amongst the blooms, was a basket. He stretched down to pick it up and found it was full of dead and wilted flowers. And then he realised. These were the flowers Clara had picked for the party, the flowers she had dropped when Tully scared her.

The dried blooms crumbled in his fingers and Adam knew what he needed to do, for now anyway. Clara had wanted to fill a few vases with flowers for the party, so he would finish what she had started. For her. For his girl.

Looking down at the profusion of flowers at his feet, he wondered whether he’d manage to get up again if he knelt amongst them. Well, there was only one thing for it. Gritting his teeth, he began to fold his knee beneath him.

Someone shouting his name pulled him up and around.

There, at the edge of the clearing, stood Clara. Her shoulders rose and fell as she gulped in air, her eyes bright as she observed him standing up to his knees in a wealth of wild blooms.

And then all of Adam’s doubts and hurt and pain of the last few days seem to evaporate, because running towards him was the daughter he thought he’d lost. The basket tumbled to his feet as he opened his arms wide and she threw herself into his embrace. Adam squeezed her and kissed her hair and was engulfed by an overwhelming joy which made his heart beat wildly in his chest.

They stayed locked together for several moments but then he pulled back and grinned. Clara was smiling back as Adam held her face in his hands and kissed her hair once more. “I thought I had lost you, child, and yet . . .” He shook his head in wonder.

“Hoss and Joe found me.”

“Those brothers of mine. They’ll get hell from pa, but I’ve never been so grateful for those two rascals in my whole life.” He laughed and held her close again, but then he grew serious. “But what of the count?”

Clara dropped her gaze. “He died.”

He didn’t know what to say. That was certainly the last thing he had expected, despite the count’s age and evident infirmities. He knew he should offer some form of condolence, but in all honesty, Adam wasn’t sure whether he was sorry at all. He took a breath to speak but Clara cut him off.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything.” She smiled. “He was different at the end. I even, sorta liked him.”

Adam placed a warm palm against her cheek. “I’m glad.”

Clara tucked her arms around Adam, closed her eyes and breathed in his warmth. “I missed you, Papa.”

Lines creased the sides of Adam’s eyes as a smile played around his mouth. “That’s the first time you’ve called me that.”

“Ah, can I call you both Adam and Papa,” Clara looked up at him through her lashes. “For a little while longer anyhow?”

Adam laughed and squeezed her close and they stood together in silence for a few moments. But then Clara spoke, her voice muffled and quiet against his chest.

“I thought you were dead when I saw you in the street. I got so scared. And then I thought you might never walk again.”

Pulling back, Adam raised her chin with his finger. “I was lucky. I had someone in my life who was willing to sacrifice their own happiness for me.” His face dimpled. “If it wasn’t for you, I might not be standing here right now.”

She smiled shyly, dropping her head.

“You’re very special—you know that don’t you?”

Clara couldn’t meet his gaze. “Aw Adam.”

He laughed. “And you know who else I owe my thanks too, and that’s your father’s surgeon. He’s quite a man.”

Showing relief that the conversation had moved away from her, Clara looked up at Adam. “He is. He tried to protect me from Oskar.” Her top lip curled in derision.

“Oskar? That fop of a lawyer? What did he do?” Adam’s face grew dark. “Did he hurt you?”

Shaking her head, Clara released herself from Adam’s hold. “I think I hurt him more.”

Adam’s frown faded as he laughed. “That’s my girl. Sounds like you have quite a story to tell.”

She ginned and then noticed the basket at Adam’s feet. “That’s the basket I dropped.” She stopped and picked it up.

“I thought I’d finish what you’d started and gather a few flowers for the house. And if we gather enough, we can encourage Hoss to start wooing Bessie Sue with them. He’ll have no excuse not to.” His brows rose. “Trouble is, once I’m down there, I’m not sure I’m getting up again.”

Treading carefully into the blooms, Clara looked back at Adam. “Then why don’t you let me. Which ones shall we pick?” She threw an expectant look at Adam.

He folded his arms and cocked his head to one side. “Well, Miss Clara Cartwright, why don’t we start with the lilies?”

As Clara leaned down to harvest the flowers Adam pointed out to her, the solitaire started to sing once more. And then a second solitaire answered the call, and the two birds trilled to each other across the canopy. Adam and Clara looked up at the treetops and then at each other. The birds were no longer alone.

And neither were they.

***

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Author: Sierra Girl

10 thoughts on “The Protector II – The Solitaire’s Song (by Sierra Girl)

  1. Denise, just finished reading parts 1 & 2 , I don’t know how I missed part 1. As usual your story was worth staying up half the night, just had to know how it would end. I could picture the location and the characters, and as usual you made our man suffer. The end was perfect, Adams back home and now is a father. Clara seems a very mature girl and Adam will make a brilliant father. Thanks for writing it really enjoy it

    1. Aw Chris, thanks so much for giving yourself a sleepless night to read my two stories! You know me, I can’t help making Adam suffer a little bit, but I don’t like to make things too easy for him. Adam’s got a proven track record with kids, so he’d make a great father… thank you!

  2. Adam has all the qualities to be a wonderful father and I’m glad you’ve given him this great chance to show what he can do. Clara is quite the mature young lady and has the qualities I imagine Adam had at that age. This is quite an exciting ride with emotional development of the characters and action and some SAS too. Thank you.

    1. Hi Betty, thanks so much for taking the time to read my story and comment. You know me, I can’t resist a bit of SAS and I like to make him suffer a bit before the end. I also tried to make Clara a worthy adopted daughter for him, ie. fiesty, spunky, and not in need of rescuing! Thanks again.

  3. Love this story just as much as the first
    Love how both Adam and Clara had to fight to
    To be able to achieve what they were looking for
    Great story thanks

    1. Thanks so much Sue for reading and commenting (and for reading the first story too). I left the first story with the little issue of Clara’s father hanging over their future happiness so I had to return to resolve that. I put them both through their paces, but hopefully the future will be bright for them both now. Thanks again! 🙂

  4. I’m so glad that you gave us a chance to watch this wonderful relationship between Adam and Clara grow even deeper. I felt I was on the same emotional rollercoaster that they were in wondering how it was all going to turn out in the end. Once again you’re beautiful imagery not only brought each character to life but also painted the world around them. The solitaire’s song made a fitting theme, and ending.

    1. Aw thanks AC. I work really hard on not only the characters but also the locations to try and conjure an image of Tahoe and Virginia City. It’s really hard for me, as I’ve not been to either, but luckily 14 years of Bonanza provides me with my inspiration. And thank YouTube too! LOL! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and review. 🙂

  5. This is a wonderful story. I am glad you wrote this to end this story. A lot of sadness , A Lot of love, and a real sweet ending. Adam makes a wonderful father. The little girl is adorable Thanks

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I was about to say thanks for reading my little story but it was far from little. LOL! Adam would have been a great father, so I took my inspiration from his interactions with Peggy and Jody. And I hope I made Clara worthy enough, and fiesty enough, to have a guardian like Adam. Thanks again!

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