The first rays of the early morning sun fell across Adam Cartwright's sleeping face. He stirred and woke, slightly disoriented by the unfamiliar feeling. Then he woke fully and remembered. He was home! Home at the Ponderosa. He wasn't at college anymore. He should have remembered, he thought as he stretched lazily. His bed was so much more comfortable than the one he'd had for the last three years. It wasn't surprising that he was still a bit disoriented on first waking; he'd been back for less than a month. He was comfortable, but he'd better get up, he could hear Pa already making the first of what would be many attempts to get Little Joe out of
bed. Little Joe had always been difficult to wake in the morning, he grinned to himself, especially, for some strange reason, on school mornings. He yawned and hauled himself out of bed. Good. He wasn't stiff this morning. Getting used to the sheer physical labour necessary to run a ranch had reminded him about muscles he'd forgotten he had. He was still feeling them, but every day was an improvement. Dressing quickly, he went downstairs to breakfast. He was hungry. Studying didn't take anywhere near as much energy.

"Good morning, Pa" he said, greeting his father with pleasure. His father returned the greeting with equal pleasure. They had missed each other enormously while Adam had been away. Father and son were very close, although that didn't stop them arguing with each other. They were so very much alike.

Ben Cartwright observed his son. "You look rested this morning, Adam. How are you feeling?"

Adam grinned at him. "Fine, thanks, Pa. You might even be able to get a whole day's work out of me."

Adam's younger brother Hoss came in at that moment. "That'd be good. All that studyin' has made you soft, older brother." He grinned at Adam, who grinned back.

"Good morning to you, too, Hoss. Ready for breakfast?" Hoss might only be 16 years old, but he was already bigger than his father and his older brother. A gentle giant with an appetite to match.

"Course I am. Where's Little Joe?"

Ben frowned. "He hasn't managed to get himself down here yet. Hoss, please go and get him."

As Hoss went, Ben caught Adam's momentarily sad expression. Before Adam had gone to college, Adam would have been the one to fetch him. Little Joe had adored being with his big brother. It had always been Adam he had turned to in those dark times in the night when nightmares had beset the little boy. But 10 year old Joe was still a bit wary of this tall unknown stranger who had come home in place of his beloved Adam.

Adam sighed. "I wish he wasn’t quite so uncertain of me," he said sadly.

"Don't worry, Adam," said Ben comfortingly. "He'll come round. Small boys adapt quickly. Just give him time." He grinned at his son. "Well, some of them do anyway." Adam grinned back; knowing his father was referring to the battles he'd had with Little Joe's mother. He had adapted, eventually. He hoped Little Joe wasn't going to take that long! The youngest member of the Cartwright family came down the stairs just then with Hoss on his tail.

"Morning, Pa, Adam" he said, as he slipped into his seat. Hoss sat down too, and they began breakfast.

Over breakfast, Ben assigned the day's tasks. Adam found this particular ritual comforting. He was glad to be home, but he hadn't quite settled down yet. Only the relationship with Hoss seemed unchanged and comfortable. He had always got on well with Hoss. Adam admired Hoss' abilities, and Hoss admired Adam's. They genuinely liked each other, and very rarely quarrelled. His relationship with Little Joe was strained. Adam had tried to talk to him, but where he had been a confiding, loving little bundle of mischief, who was as ready with a tantrum as with a cuddle, all Adam found now was a stiff young man who didn't seem to recognise him. Pa was probably right. After all, he'd been away for almost a third of Little Joe's life, and before that when Ben had been lost in grief over Marie's death, Adam had spent long hours running the ranch. He'd just give it time. As for his relationship with Pa? Well, that was difficult too. They were pleased to be with each other, but Adam had changed while he'd been away. He'd been in charge of himself for three years, without having anyone to tell him what to do. It was difficult to
come home and become a child again, and fit into the family. He wasn't sure that Ben was going to remember that he was an adult, the first time they disagreed about something. Orders regarding work on the ranch were different; any hand had to take the boss' orders. Adam had no problem with that. He was still sufficiently out of touch with what was going on at the ranch that he wasn't ready to question Ben's orders, but he could see that there would be conflict as soon as he did so.

"Adam. Adam." Pa's voice penetrated his reverie. "Are you actually listening to me? Is that how you spent your time during your lectures at college?" Ben demanded with asperity. Adam grinned. He knew Ben's question was a rhetorical one, since he had graduated with honours, but he hadn't heard a word Pa had said.

"Sorry, Pa," he said sheepishly. "I was wool-gathering."

"Obviously" his father said dryly. "I said, I want you and Hoss to go out to those new cattle I bought and do a head count on them. It'll be a good opportunity for you to shake down that new horse of yours." He shook his head, amused. "I still don't know why you called it Sport!"

Adam grinned. There was a story behind his choice of name, but it had to do with a girl and a special day and he certainly wasn't telling his father. When Hoss was older he might tell him, but the name suited the horse, a handsome chestnut. He wasn't looking forward to a long day in the saddle. Just as well Hop Sing, their housekeeper and cook was good about putting on lots of hot water for baths. He'd need one after today.

Little Joe was assigned the tack room to clean up. He pouted at his father. "Aw, Pa," he whined, as only a small boy can. "Do I gotta? Why can't I go out with Adam and Hoss?"

Ben glared at him. "Adam and Hoss have work to do. They can't work and keep any eye on you too."

Little Joe looked indignant. "They don't need to keep an eye on me. I can check on the cattle too.
I'm not a baby who needs watching all the time."

"Watch your tone, young man." Ben snapped.

"Sorry, Pa" Little Joe gulped.

Adam broke the tension. "Pa, maybe Little Joe could come with us. We're not going to be doing anything that he could get hurt doing. He might even be able to help-he can count!" Little Joe looked surprised. He hadn't expected Adam to take his part. But then, he didn't really know what to expect of Adam. He didn't really recognise this Adam. He looked so grown up-just like Pa, only younger.

"Yeah, Pa" Hoss chimed in with a grin. "The hardest part will be the long ride, an' Adam here will find that harder than Joe."

Ben looked at the three hopeful faces, with almost identical expressions. They must have inherited that from him, since they all had different mothers. He almost laughed. Oh well. Perhaps a chance for the three of them to spend the day together would help Little Joe feel more comfortable with Adam.

"All right, then" he said. "Little Joe may go with you today, but, Joseph," and he looked fiercely at his youngest son, "You must do as Adam and Hoss tell you. If I hear that you've misbehaved and made things hard for them, you'll be in a lot of trouble. Understand?"
"Yes sir" said Little Joe, giving his father a radiant smile.

They set off towards the north pasture. Little Joe brought his horse alongside Adam. "Um Adam" he said. "Thanks. I hate cleaning the tack room."

Adam grinned at him. "You're welcome, Little Joe, but I don't think you're going to get out of cleaning the tack room. It'll still be there tomorrow," Adam pointed out.

"Yeah," said Little Joe, suddenly gloomy. "I hadn't thought of that."

Hoss laughed. "I bet Pa did though. There ain't much Pa misses." Adam grinned too. Hoss was quite right. There wasn't much Ben Cartwright missed, and even if he did, he somehow managed to find out eventually. And when he'd been younger, that 'eventually' had resulted in some pretty uncomfortable times. Perhaps, Adam thought, that was because he'd raised them alone for so long. His thoughts wandered along those lines until he was interrupted by Hoss poking his ribs.

"Hey Adam" said Hoss "Wake up! Ya know what Pa says about not thinkin' about what you're doing."

Adam grinned at him. "Not exactly. He doesn't like me reading when I'm riding. He didn't say anything about daydreaming-and don't either of you two tell him." Both his brothers shook their  heads. It wasn't hard to find something that annoyed Pa. Why buy trouble? They began the tally. To Adam's pleasure, Little Joe was quite a help. About noon, Hoss said,

"Hey Adam. I'm starving. How about we have lunch?"

"Sounds good to me" said Adam as he dismounted. He was stiff again. "Lets sit by that creek." Little Joe, not usually a big eater, ate what for him was a big lunch, then ran off to play by the water.

Hoss turned to Adam. "It was a nice idea to bring Little Joe out with us today How come you suggested it?"

Adam shrugged. "I don't know exactly. I just thought maybe Little Joe would talk to me as though I was his brother, not some visitor. He's relaxed a bit around me, but its not like it used to be. I guess Pa was right. I just need to give it time" he said sadly. He looked up to see Little Joe sneaking up behind Hoss with a large wet bullfrog in his hands. Adam's lips twitched as Little Joe dropped the frog down Hoss' shirt. Joe ran away to a safe distance, laughing his head off, while Hoss danced around, yelling and trying to remove the cold wet creature without hurting it.

"Little Joe, just wait till I get my hands on you. I'm gonna kill ya, boy!" he shouted, not really meaning it. Adam couldn't help it. Hoss' face and Little Joe's infectious laughter were just too much. He collapsed with laughter, too.

Little Joe was astonished. He hadn't thought much about what Adam's response would be, but he certainly hadn't expected Adam to laugh like that. If anything, he'd thought Adam would be mad. Hoss managed to extract the frog unhurt and went to the creek to return it to safety. Adam was still laughing. He wiped his eyes and grinned at his little brother.

"You'd better watch out, Little Joe. Hoss is certain to want his revenge on you, you know." Joe grinned back.

Hoss turned from the water. "I'll pay you back for that," he yelled. Little Joe was startled by Hoss' sudden rush towards him, and without stopping to think leaped for the nearest safe haven. He jumped into Adam's lap and clung to him, giggling

"Save me Adam, save me" he begged through his laughter. Adam put his arms protectively around the little boy.

"Sorry, Hoss, you can't have him, he's mine." said Adam, still laughing. Hoss threw himself down full length on the grass, with a grin.

"Ok, Adam" he said. "He's safe for now-but he'd just better watch out." Hoss could quite easily have pulled Little Joe out of Adam's arms, but he was so pleased to see Little Joe turn to Adam instinctively that he thought he'd just leave well enough alone. Suddenly Little Joe realised where he was. He looked up at Adam's face, still alight with laughter, and grinned at him.

"Thanks Adam" he gave his brother a quick hug. Adam grinned back.

"That's OK. Can't have my chief assistant injured! Help me up. Let's get this job finished so I can go home and have a nice hot bath." Joe helped Adam up wondering as he did so about his older brother's peculiar liking for baths. He only had a bath when Pa made him!

Adam finished relaxing in the bath and got dressed. He wasn't as tired as he'd thought. Maybe he'd go in to town to see his friends. He hadn't been into town since he'd returned home. He went into the house to see Ben frowning. He looked at his father.

"Something wrong, Pa?" he asked. Ben's face cleared and he shook his head.

"No, not really. I'm just tired. Its been a long day. Let's sit down or Hop Sing will start yelling." Ben said grace and they settled down to eat. After a pleasant meal, Ben asked Adam if he'd like a game of chess.

"No, thanks, Pa" said Adam, totally unsuspecting of the storm that lay ahead. "I think I'll go into town."

Ben shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea, Adam" he replied.

Adam looked surprised. "Why not?"

"Because its mid-week and there's a lot of work to do tomorrow. It is our busy time, in case you'd forgotten." responded Ben, dryly.

"I hadn't forgotten, Pa." replied Adam quietly. "But I am capable of both going into town and doing a good day's work. I think it’s my decision as to what I do with my time." Adam was getting slightly annoyed.

Ben frowned. "I told you I don't think it's a good idea, Adam. I think it would be better if you didn't go into town tonight. You haven't really been home long enough to manage both. You stay home." he said bluntly.

Adam glared at him. "Pa, I've been making my own decisions for the last three years." he said, trying hard to keep his tone even.

Ben was getting angry now. "You were staying with your grandfather. I sincerely hope you didn't choose to ignore his wishes as you are arguing with mine." he said in the clipped tones that told his sons they were skating on thin ice.

Adam shook his head. "No Pa. I didn't need to. Grandfather treated me as an adult, not as a child. He let me make my own choices." Adam was really trying hard to control his temper.

"Well, I am not your grandfather" snapped Ben, "and I'm telling you I don't want you to go."

Adam's temper was rising now. "Pa, I wasn't really asking your permission. I don't need it." he informed his father curtly.

"Don't take that tone with me, boy," retorted his father angrily. It was the worst possible thing Ben could have said. He'd laid down the gauntlet, as far as Adam was concerned. Adam picked it up. Slamming both hands down on the table he rose and snapped

"Pa, I am not a boy. I am a grown man. I can make my own decisions. I've been doing so quite adequately for the last three years. I am going into Virginia City tonight. I'll be home when I'm home." And Adam stalked out of the room.

Ben rose to his feet. "Adam" he shouted angrily. Adam paused at the door. The habit of obedience was long instilled into him, but he was too angry to stop.

"Pa, I don't want to talk about it. I'm going. Don't wait up for me" he snarled, and then he left, shutting the door behind him with unnecessary force.

He left Ben standing there, staring after him. How on earth had that happened? he asked himself. A simple suggestion somehow escalated into a major confrontation. What am I going to do? I can’t go after the boy. I can’t force him to stay. I can’t force him to obey me, either. In spite of his anger Ben was bewildered.

Hoss and Little Joe sat there very quietly. It was never a good idea to draw attention to yourself when Pa was angry, and he was very angry, Hoss thought. He cleared his throat. The argument between his father and his brother had ruined even his legendary appetite.

"Um Pa, I think I'll go to bed, if you'll excuse me" he said as he rose from the table. "Yeah, me too" piped up Little Joe. Ben looked at them, and automatically checked Little Joe's plate. The boy had eaten hardly anything, but that was hardly surprising considering the entertainment he and Adam had provided him with.

Ben sighed. "No, you two finish up your meal. I'm going to the barn for a while."

"Yes, sir" said Hoss, surprised. Pa was a stickler for eating meals together. Adam must really have upset him. As soon as Ben left the room, Hoss turned to Little Joe.

"Listen little brother, Pa's gonna be really mad with Adam when he comes home, so I'm warnin' ya-don't do anything to get on his goat or you'll really catch it. You hear me good now."

Little Joe nodded. "I'm not stupid" he said indignantly. "I don't want Pa mad at me. What do you think Pa's gonna do to Adam when he comes home?"

Hoss shook his head. "I dunno. If it was you or me Pa'd drag us home from Virginia City, and ya know what we'd get. They haven't had a fight like that since Adam was my age. I don't understand what's goin' on between them. I thought they were happy now that Adam was home." He sighed. "I don't feel like eatin' anymore. I'm goin' to bed. An' I think you should too."

Ben stood outside in the moonlight and stared up at the stars. He had very briefly considered doing just what Hoss had said, going into Virginia City and dragging Adam back home, but he had instantly rejected this notion. If Adam chose not to come there would be a very ugly scene, and he didn't want to drive the boy away. He paused. Adam wasn't a boy. That was part of the problem, he realised. He still saw Adam as the 17 year-old-boy who'd gone off to college. He hadn't really expected the mature young man who'd come home in his place. Adam had always been the sensible, responsible one, although there had been the occasional prank and misdemeanours that all boys seem to get involved in. It was a good thing for him that Adam hadn't been like Joe, impetuous and excitable, or the Ponderosa would be nothing like it was. He had always been able to rely on Adam. He smiled. His anger was rapidly cooling, as he reflected on the boy now turned into a man. He hoped Adam had enough respect for him that they could work through this. Adam would have to choose to accept his authority. That was something that
couldn't be forced. At least he hadn’t told Adam that he had to do as he said while he lived under his roof, although he had thought it. That would have been fatal. He'd have to think of something. If this wasn't handled right he could very well lose his son. Adam was too astute to be taken in by mere words.

Adam rode into Virginia City. He had plenty of time to cool down on his ride, but although his temper had gone, he wasn't simply going to go back home. He simply wanted to spend an evening in town with his friends. Pa was going to be really mad with him, but that didn't matter, well not all that much, he tried to convince himself. It was like he'd told Pa. He'd been making his own decisions for three years and he wasn't going to be relegated to the status of a child. He was a grown man, and Pa had just better get used to it, and to him being able to make his own decisions. He wandered into the newly opened saloon, the Bucket of Blood. He shook his head.
That really was a weird name for a saloon! Still thinking about the saloon's name, he didn't notice where he was going until he bumped into a miner standing at the bar.

"Watch it, sonny" the man said. Adam glanced at him.

"Oh sorry" he said, automatically. The man grunted but Adam continued to stare at him, as he thought.

"Who d'ja think your starin' at?" the man demanded. Adam didn't reply. He just kept staring. He didn't even see the miner. The miner turned to see what Adam was staring at and laughed.

"She's outta your reach sonny" he said roughly, but with amusement in his voice. Adam was staring at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He was transfixed by the vision he saw. The most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Long dark hair rippled down her back, almost to her waist. Her skin was a warm cream colour, and her eyes were dark and smouldering. Adam sighed. He couldn't take his eyes off her. He sank down into a chair, still watching her. She was standing by the piano, just finishing a song. She has, Adam thought, a voice like velvet, warm and dark and mysterious. She glanced around the room. Most of the men were rough miners,
but she liked the look of the handsome young man who was staring at her. He looked like he bathed occasionally. His obvious adoration amused her. She crossed to his table.

"May I join you? I do not disturb you?" she asked. She had an accent, he noticed. Not French, he'd recognise that. Italian? Spanish? He rose awkwardly to his feet.

"No. not at all, ma'am. May I get you a drink?"

She smiled. "Only if they have wine. I do not think they have this." Adam continued to stand. He loved her voice, and that accent. She was so beautiful, but older than he'd first thought. "Please, do sit down." She chuckled. Everyone was staring at him. He blushed and sat down hurriedly. "My name is Adelina." she told him.

"Oh, Adam, Adam Cartwright." he stuttered. So much for that smooth Cartwright address, he thought to himself.

"I am very pleased to meet you, Adam Cartwright," she said, still with that smile in her voice. I have to keep her talking, thought Adam. He searched around for a topic of conversation.

"May I ask where you are from, ma'am?" he asked. Terrific, he thought in disgust. That'll really get her attention. She smiled again.

"I am from Italy, from Napoli-how do you say-Naples. You have been, perhaps, to Italy?"

Adam shook his head. "No," he said regretfully. 'The furthest I've travelled has been to Boston. I've just come back from college there. I've seen pictures..." Oh for God's sake, he thought, now I sound like Little Joe. Stop prattling, he told himself firmly. He changed the subject. "What are you doing in Virginia City," he searched his memory for the Italian form of address. Maybe that would impress her. "...signorina?" he asked. She chuckled again. I really like that chuckle. Its very attractive.

"I am looking for my brother. He came out here to make his fortune. He sends me a letter and money for me to join him, but I do not find him yet. I will find him soon."

Adam smiled back at her. "Perhaps I can help you find him" he offered. "What is his name?" Adelina's smile was sufficient reward.

"His name is Giovanni Marchetti, but he change it to sound more American. I would like to see you again, Adam Cartwright. I go to sing another song. Perhaps you will walk me home later? It is not good for a lady to walk alone." She smiled at him again , and left to sing some more. Close to eleven she finished singing. Adam stayed listening and watching her. When she'd finished she returned to him.

"Now you will walk me home" she reminded him. As if he could have forgotten. He escorted her to her door wishing he could kiss her. She surprised him. She stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. She smelt of roses.

"Buona sera, Adam Cartwright. I will see you again." she said, and whisked herself inside.

Adam stood in the street stunned for just a moment, with a smile from ear to ear. Then he realised just how late it was. He'd better get himself home and face the music. The grandfather clock struck one as Adam let himself quietly into the house. Boots off, he crept up the stairs, counting to make sure he missed the creaky ones. He tiptoed past his brothers' rooms, and paused outside Pa's. No sound. He breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't really wanted a confrontation with Pa tonight, but he was surprised Pa wasn't waiting up for him. He didn't know if this meant he was in more or less trouble. He slipped into his room and into bed, and fell asleep
with a dreamy smile on his face. Lying in his bed, Ben Cartwright also breathed a sigh of relief. Adam had been wrong about Ben sleeping. He also hadn't wanted a confrontation, but he wouldn't sleep until Adam was safely home. He had been lying awake for some time, trying to work out the best way to deal with his rebellious son that wouldn't permanently mar their relationship. He sighed. Getting through the teenage years with Adam had been hard enough. He didn't want to fight those battles again. He would have to say something to Adam about the way he had spoken to him, though. He was setting a very bad example for his brothers. As for the
rest, well, he would ask Adam to let him know when he was going out, but for the time being he would just let the boy run with the bit. Let him have his head. With a bit of luck things would sort themselves out. And they would have too, if it hadn't been for Adelina.

Morning came far too early for Adam's liking. Four hours sleep just wasn't enough, he decided, as he washed and dressed. He'd better shave properly. Pa wouldn't hesitate to send him back upstairs to shave properly; not 'looking like a saddle tramp' was how he put it, in spite of being twenty-two. Or perhaps not. He didn't know how his father was going to react to his tantrum of the previous night. He went quietly downstairs. Even Little Joe had beaten him downstairs this morning. Adam paused behind his chair, and ran his hand through the back of his hair. Ben smiled to himself. Adam only did that when he was nervous.

"Morning Pa" he said. I've got something to say" he added . He licked suddenly dry lips. "Pa, I'd like to apologise to you for speaking so disrespectfully to you last night." There were three cardinal sins that Ben Cartwright did not tolerate in his sons; disobedience, dishonesty and disrespect. "I behaved very badly. I'm sorry, sir."

Ben considered him silently for a moment. "Sit down, Adam" he said. "Your behaviour was out of line, but I accept your apology." There was a pause. "Eat your breakfast. You'll need your energy for your work today. You'll be out with the fencing team today."

"Yes sir" said Adam, mentally pulling a face. Adam hated splitting fence posts, and Ben knew it.

"Joe, I want you to do the tack room today. Hoss will be riding up to the lumber camp for me." Both boys said "Yes sir" quietly. They weren't going to antagonise their father. Then Ben, to everyone's total bewilderment changed the subject completely. In a conversational tone he said "Did you enjoy your evening out, Adam?"

Adam gaped at him. "Um Yes, I did." he replied, disconcerted by Ben's unusual attitude. He'd expected to be yelled at.

Ben smiled. "I'm pleased to hear it. Perhaps you might tell me about it sometime." he said. He turned to his two younger sons.

"If you two have finished its time to get to work." They rose to go. So did Adam.

"Just a moment, Adam. Sit down." said Ben. Uh-oh, thought Adam. Here it comes. Adam sat down again. Ben waited till Hoss and Joe had left the room. He looked levelly at Adam. Adam squirmed uncomfortably. He hated being on the receiving end of Ben's lectures. When Ben spoke, Adam was surprised at what he said.

"I'm glad you apologised for speaking to me as you did. I would like to think that you haven't forgotten everything I taught you. And I would like you to make it clear to your brothers that such behaviour is unacceptable. Understood?"

"Yes sir" Adam nodded.

Ben continued, "However, I also owe you an apology. You are an adult, and I realise you have to make your own mistakes. I was treating you as a child." He raised an eyebrow at Adam. "If you were a child, you'd be standing up to eat for a week after last night's performance." If I were a child" Adam thought rebelliously "we wouldn’t even be having this conversation." But he didn’t say it. Adam was torn. He wanted his father’s approval, but he wanted his independence too. He turned his attention back to what his father was saying.

"I will try to remember you are an adult, but please remember that not only am I your father, I am your boss. And I expect you to behave in an appropriate manner. Do you understand what I am saying?" Ben continued.

"Yes, sir, I do. I really am sorry, Pa." Adam said. But both Ben and Adam knew that the path ahead was going to be stormy.

Adam straightened up and stretched the kinks out of his back. He knew why he'd been assigned fence repair today. It was his punishment for his rudeness. He couldn't even complain since he'd said he could manage late nights and a full day's work, and he couldn't have it both ways. He glanced up at the sky. He and the three hands with him had been at this all day. A hot bath and then he could go to town to see Adelina. He smiled to himself, and tackled the last log. He wondered what Pa would say when he told him he was going into town again. Not that it mattered. He was going anyway. He met Little Joe in the barn, just finishing up his chores.

"Come see the tack room, Adam" he demanded. "Haven't I done a great job?" he said proudly. Adam grinned at him.

"You sure have, little brother. Well done" Little Joe beamed. Praise from Adam only came if it was deserved. "Hey Adam, how come Pa didn't get mad with you for yelling at him last night?" he asked. He'd been puzzling over this question all day, and after the fun he'd shared with Adam the previous day, was beginning to feel that maybe this man was his Adam, the one who had gone away. Adam pulled a wry face. Joe's question made it easier to do as he'd been instructed.

"He did, Little Joe. That's why I got to do fencing today. It’s my punishment. It’s my least favourite job-and Pa knows it. And I wouldn't advise you to copy my behaviour either. I doubt that you'd get off with anything less than a spanking."

Joe shook his head. He remembered quite clearly what had happened the last time he had been disrespectful. Hoss came in just at that moment.

"Who's getting a spankin'?" he asked.

"No one, I hope" said Adam. "I was just telling Joe here that he'd better not speak to Pa the way I did last night, if he knows what's good for him."

Hoss grinned. "Had fun fencing today, didya?" He knew how their father's mind worked. Adam glared at him. "Very funny" he growled.

They walked into the ranch house together, and Adam yelled out

"Hop Sing! Is there any hot water, yet?" Hop Sing bustled out of the kitchen. "Cartwrights all time yell, yell, yell." he scolded. "Bath water ready." Adam smiled at him, as he took the buckets of hot water.

"Thanks, Hop Sing. I appreciate it." Hop Sing went back into the kitchen muttering incomprehensible things in Chinese. Adam really needed that bath. He was exhausted. If it wasn't that he was going to see Adelina he would just as happily have collapsed into bed. Then he smiled dreamily. Adelina. Such a beautiful name, for a beautiful woman...he shook himself mentally. It was just as well his family couldn't read his mind! He'd never hear the end of it. He joined his family for supper. After the usual reports and discussions of the day's activities were over, Adam announced politely, but with just a touch of bravado,  "Pa, I'm going into Virginia City tonight." He waited for his father's reaction. To his astonishment, Ben simply smiled and said,  "I hope you have a good time. Don't be home too late." Ben laughed inwardly at the look on Adam's face. He'd certainly taken the wind out of Adam's sails. His plan was based on the idea that Adam hadn't been simply looking for a fight, but was trying to assert his independence.

"Oh" said Adam, "Th..thanks I will. G'night, boys" and he left both relieved and confused.

For the next week Adam went into town every night after supper. He spent all the time he could with Adelina. Ben began to worry a little. Letting him have his head was one thing, but the full days' work and the late nights were beginning to affect his eldest son. He was for one thing, inattentive. Several times he'd had to speak to Adam more than once, and he seemed to be spending a lot of time daydreaming. If he didn't settle down soon, he was going to have to tighten the reins a little, and he didn't want to have to do that. He was hoping that Adam would settle down himself. He decided he needed to go into town to see for himself what Adam was up to.
One evening Ben went into town to talk with his old friend Roy Coffee the sheriff. Roy Coffee greeted him with pleasure. Over a drink Roy teased his friend.

"Seems like we might be attending a wedding soon, huh, Ben" he grinned.

Ben looked at him. "What are you talking about, Roy?"

"Young Adam seems to have been spending a lot of time with that Italian girl down at the saloon" he said. "He's been there every night this week. Kept out of trouble-just spends all evening mooning over her and then walks her back to her lodging."

Ben stared at him in astonishment.

"What Italian girl? He's said nothing to me. What do you know about her?" He'd been trying so hard to leave Adam alone, but he hadn't expected this.

Roy was surprised "You didn't know?"

Ben shook his head. "No, we had a fight. He took offence at me telling him what to do, and then I made it worse by calling him 'boy'."

Roy chuckled. "I thought he'd grown out of that!"

Ben grinned. "I think he's just asserting his independence. He'll settle down, I hope. I have to remember he's not a boy any more. Tell me about this woman."

"I don't really know much about her-but I can tell you, she is beautiful. And she seems to like spending time with Adam."

"Do me a favour, Roy. Do some checking on her for me. See if you can find out about her. I think I'll go down to the saloon to see her for myself."

"I'll come with you," said Roy. As they walked toward the saloon Roy said

"Actually, Ben, I'm glad you came into town. Saved me a trip. Do you remember that outlaw I sent to jail for gun-running with the Indians? Johnny March? Well, seems he's out, and I've heard he's heading back here. He's said to be looking for something or someone, but I don't know who. I think you and the boys should be a bit careful about travelling alone."

"Thanks Roy, I'll tell the boys." They walked into the saloon just then.

"There she is" whispered Roy to Ben. Ben almost gaped. He was astonished by the lady's beauty. He was equally astonished and not a little concerned by the look of devotion on Adam's face. He went over to them. Adam looked up at his father and greeted him with a with a proud smile.

"Oh, Hi Pa." he said. "Allow me to introduce Signorina Marchetti. Adelina, my father, Ben Cartwright. And our sheriff, Roy Coffee." She smiled and shook Ben's hand. "I am pleased to meet you, Mr Cartwright, Sheriff. Please join us." Ben glanced at Adam. He didn't seem perturbed by his father's presence. If anything he looked pleased.

"I'd be delighted to join you," he said as he sat down.

Adelina smiled. "Adam and I were just talking about going on a picnic on Sunday."

Ben frowned, but he didn't say anything. It would come better from Roy.

Roy shook his head. "Adam, there's a bit of a problem. There's an outlaw running around in the area. It's probably not a good idea to be out alone. Maybe you should postpone your picnic. And you'd be safer not riding to town alone. Its a good thing its summer vacation-I'd have to suggest those students from out of town didn't attend." Adam looked from his father to the sheriff suspiciously. Was his father trying to interfere? He didn't even know Adelina.

"What outlaw?" he demanded. Adelina patted his hand.

"If it is not safe then we will not go. Perhaps you will join me for lunch instead on Sunday?" Adam smiled, relaxing, and nodded. Ben, tempted to intervene, remained silent until Adelina went to sing. Then he said,

"I hope you won't mind, Adam, but I'd rather wait and ride home with you."

"That's fine, Pa, but I'm not going till I've seen Adelina home," he said, just a little belligerently.

"Of course, you must take the lady home. It would be rude of you not to do so." So Ben waited in the saloon until Adelina finished and he could ride home with his son.

On the way home all Adam could talk about was Adelina. Ben let him talk. He chuckled to himself. 'Let' probably wasn't the right word. Trying to stop him would be impossible. It was so unlike Adam too. Usually getting Adam to talk took much hard effort on his part. The boy was clearly besotted. He'd just go along with him. He was glad he'd gone into town tonight. Some time on the way home, the spate of words slowed.

"Pa, which outlaw was Roy talking about?" Adam asked.

"Johnny March. You weren't here when he was arrested." Ben said. He paused for a moment before continuing. "Adam, I understand how much you want to be with Adelina, but do be careful, son. I'd be happy if you wouldn't come to town by yourself for the next little while." Adam started to frown, but Ben forestalled him.

"I'm not trying to tell you what to do, Adam. I'm simply concerned for your safety. Take one of the hands when you come into town, please. This will apply to everyone, not just you."

Adam recognised that his father was trying to meet him half way. "All right, Pa." was all he said.

For the next couple of weeks Adam continued to visit Adelina, with a ranch hand in tow. The ranch hands didn't mind; Ben had offered them extra in their pay if they went in with Adam. The edict about not travelling alone was imposed on his workers too. The younger hands leaped at the offer-a night out at the boss' expense; you'd be mad to turn it down. As far as Ben was concerned it was money well spent. It seemed to be safe enough in town. Adam's arrangement with the hands was that he would meet them back at the stable to go home, an arrangement everyone seemed happy with. Everything seems to be going smoothly, Ben thought. His
relationship with Adam seemed to have settled down a bit, but in many ways Ben still felt he was walking on eggshells with his eldest son. He was never sure that Adam wouldn't take offence at something he said, and he was bending over backwards to treat him as an adult. Adam for his part worked very hard, even though he was tired. Late nights and long days were taking their toll on him.

One evening Adam went into town with one of the younger hands, Andy, in tow. Andy was happy to go into town; he was courting the barber's eldest daughter. The arrangement was as usual; Adam would meet Andy at the livery stable at eleven o'clock.

"Sure thing, Adam. See ya'" said Andy with a jaunty wave, as he headed off to see Sally Ann. Adam went off to see Adelina. On the evening he rode in with Andy, he was hoping that she would let him kiss her. She hadn't apart from the very first evening, when she'd kissed his cheek. The evening passed pleasantly enough. He just wished she would spend more time with him and less time singing. He escorted her to her door, and taking his courage into both hands put his arms around her and bent to kiss her. As he did so he heard the unmistakable sound of the hammer of a gun being pulled back, and a hard hand gripped his arm, while another man took his gun. He tried to turn, but the man holding him was strong.

"You dishonour my wife," the man said in a strong Italian accent. Adelina's face lit up. "Giovanni, caro mio" she cried joyfully. "At last you have come for me." She flung her arms around his neck. He held her closely to him with one arm, the other hand still holding Adam.

"This man dishonours you." he repeated. "I will kill him."

"Giovanni, no" cried Adelina. "He is not a man, he is a boy. He did not know I was your wife, and he has done nothing." Adam was struggling to free himself, but he was held too firmly. He stopped struggling for a moment.

"Your wife? Adelina, you told me he was your brother," he said, in shock. Adelina smiled at him, but the smile cut him to the heart.

"It was better this way, easier, safer for me," she said to Adam. She put her hand on her husband's arm in entreaty. "Giovanni, please, do not kill him. He has done nothing but admire me. He is just a boy. I needed an escort, and I knew I would be safe with this boy. This boy would not harm me. He is a nice boy. Please do not kill him. I do not want you to be arrested again. We have spent so little time together." She looked at him pleadingly. Each time she called him a boy stung Adam like a whiplash, but he still struggled to get out of the outlaws' hold.

Her husband nodded. "Are you sure he did nothing, cara mia? These Americans do not understand honour. For you, I will not kill him. But I will teach him not to interfere with another man's woman." Adam did what he could, but he was no match for two strong men. By the time they had finished he was left bruised and battered and only semi-conscious in the darkness of an alleyway near Adelina's door. The last thing Adam heard as they left was "Just remember, boy, no man touches Johnny March’s woman."

It was after midnight when Andy started to get worried and went to look for Adam. He checked the saloon, but the bartender told him Adelina had left with Adam at the usual time. Andy grinned to himself. Maybe Adam had got lucky, but he'd better go check. Mr Cartwright wouldn't be happy if he didn't bring Adam back safe and well. Andy knocked on Adelina's door.

"Miss Marchetti" he called. There was no answer. The house was in darkness. He knocked again and as he waited for a response he thought he heard a faint groan He stood, quietly listening. There it was again. Looking down the alleyway, he could see a darker shape moving in the shadows. He pulled his gun and went towards it. It was Adam. He knelt down by him.

"Adam? Are you OK?" he asked. Adam struggled up.

"Yeah. I'm fine. Let's go home."

"Maybe I should get Doc Martin or the Sheriff." Andy said anxiously.

"No. No doctor. Just get me home." So Andy did. The ride home was long and worrying for poor Andy, but Adam, slumped into his saddle, remained almost vertical until he rode into the yard.

"Mr Cartwright" yelled Andy. Ben rushed out to catch his eldest son as he slid off his horse into his father's arms.

"What's happened here?" he demanded. Andy shook his head.

"I don't know. I found him like that near Miss Marchetti's door but he refused either the doctor or the sheriff. Said he wanted to go home." Andy was worried. He didn't know if he'd done the right thing or not. Ben reassured him.

"You get off to bed now Andy. I'll take care of him."

Ben and Hop Sing checked him over thoroughly and as far as they could see the boy had been badly beaten, but otherwise not injured. They would send for both the doctor and the sheriff in  the morning, but all it seemed Adam needed was rest. By the time he woke, both Paul Martin and Roy Coffee had arrived. In spite of Adam's protests, Paul examined him. He agreed with Ben that Adam was mostly bruised and there was no real damage, but his face was a mess. Adam peered up at the men through his one unswollen eye.

"Oh Pa" was all he said.

"Adam," said his father, "Are you able to tell me what happened? Do you know who did this to you?"

Adam gave his father a painful smile. " Yeah. Johnny March."

Ben looked astonished. If Adam hadn't been feeling so bad he would have laughed at his father's face.

"Did you say Johnny March?" demanded Roy in surprise. "Why would he do this? Adam, what have you been doing to attract Johnny March's attention?"

Adam shook his head slightly, then winced. His head ached. "I haven't been doing anything, at least not intentionally. Turned out Adelina is married to Giovanni Marchetti. Johnny March. He thought I'd dishonoured his wife. She lied to me. She told me she was waiting for her brother. And I was just a convenient escort," he added bitterly. He looked up at his father. "I guess Adelina must have liked me a bit. She persuaded him not to kill me. So he beat me instead, " And he closed his eyes again. Roy and Ben stared at each other in consternation. Neither of them had expected anything like this. As he rose to go, Roy said

"Ben, I'm sorry. I had no idea. I'll get onto it immediately. I assume you'll want to press charges."

"Yes, of course" Ben said. Adam opened his eyes again.

"No" he said flatly. Roy looked from one to the other.

"Adam..." began Ben. Adam struggled to sit up. Paul pushed him flat again.

"Pa, I don't want to press charges. It's not your decision. Its mine." Ben frowned, but chose to say nothing more for the moment. Adam was right; it was his decision, legally, at any rate. He was over 21. But it didn't need to be discussed while he was in pain. Both Roy and Paul were a little relieved. Neither of them wanted to be around when Adam and Ben argued with each other.

Adam spent the next few days resting. He didn't want to stay in bed, but he didn't have the energy to argue with the doctor, his father and Hop Sing. And it was nice to be pampered a bit. Being an adult wasn't necessarily easy. On the fourth day, after Paul had checked him out and given him permission to get up, he bathed and dressed, and settled himself downstairs in his favourite chair. He was still sore, but healing rapidly, and he'd been bored silly at the sight of his bedroom. Little Joe came in and Adam was delighted to see how pleased he was.

"Hi Adam" said Little Joe. "Are you feeling better? I wanted to come and see you but Pa wouldn't let me." Adam smiled to himself. There was good reason for Ben to keep Little Joe out of a sick room. In his efforts to help, he invariably caused either chaos or pain for the invalid.

"Do you want to play checkers with me?" he asked his big brother hopefully. There was no way Adam would have turned down his little brother's request, although he had really wanted to read the new book that Pa had brought him. His little brother's overture meant a great deal to him.

"Sure, Little Joe. Set 'em up" he smiled. Ben came in just as Little Joe won the third game. "That's two to me," he said with satisfaction. "Pa, me and Adam are playing checkers, and I'm winning" he said importantly.

Ben smiled. "That's good, son, but you do have barn chores waiting. Off you go. I want to talk to Adam." Ben sat in his big leather chair and smiled at his eldest son.

"I'm glad to see you and Little Joe are getting on better," was his opening remark. Adam smiled. If Pa wanted to talk about Little Joe he was perfectly happy. He didn't really want to talk about Adelina, but he knew his father too well.

"Yes, we are. He seems to believe I really am Adam, not some total stranger."

Ben nodded. "That's good, Adam, but you know I don't want to discuss Little Joe just now."

"I know, Pa," said Adam uncomfortably, "but I really don't want to talk about Adelina either."

Ben sighed. "I didn't think you did. But can you tell me just one thing? Why don't you want to press charges? I'd really like to see the men who did this to you punished."

Adam squirmed a little. He looked anywhere but at his father. Ben sat and watched him. Ben knew Adam. If he could get Adam talking, he might confide in him. The silence grew longer. Finally, Adam gave up. In an almost inaudible, embarrassed voice he said,  "I don't want to press charges because I don't want everyone to know what a fool I made of myself."

"I thought that might be the reason, son. How exactly did you make a fool of yourself?" Ben asked gently. Adam looked at him in surprise.

"Need you ask? I thought I was in love. I thought she loved me too. And all the time she was just using me." He looked at his father. "You know what hurt the most, Pa? When she was asking Giovanni not to kill me she kept telling him I was just a boy. Just a boy that she'd picked because I was harmless." Adam's tone was one of disgust. His pride was hurting as much as his body.

"Son, we all make fools of ourselves over women at some time or other. Love makes us behave foolishly. Look at it like this. The most beautiful woman in Virginia City chose you to spend her spare time with for a couple of weeks. You had pleasure in her company. Besides, how do you know that she didn't tell Giovanni that to protect you?" He raised his hand to stop Adam's protest. "Don't tell me you don't need to hide behind a woman's skirts. I know you don't. But Roy told me
something that might interest you about Johnny March. He is responsible for killing at least five men, and at least one of them was a total stranger who only smiled at his wife."

Adam looked up and met his father's eyes. He didn't look quite so embarrassed.

"I guess I should be grateful to Adelina, then." Adam muttered.

"Maybe you should," replied his father. " But whatever you feel about it, learn from it. And keep the good parts of the memories." Ben rose and patted Adam's shoulder.

Adam reached up and grasped his father's hand.

"Thanks, Pa...for everything." he said.

Ben smiled "You're welcome, son. I know you feel you're not a child. You may not be a child, Adam, but you are my child. No matter how old you get; and I will always be here for you. No matter what you do, or what happens in life. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes Pa. I know." He fidgeted with the book on his lap. "I wish none of this had ever happened. If I hadn't been so wrapped up in myself I wouldn't have put you through all this worry. I'm sorry, Pa."

Ben nodded. "I know. I’m sorry you got hurt, son, but I’m not sorry it happened if you’ve learned something from it. I do understand your need to be independent, Adam. I was your age once myself." He smiled. "It’s just that it’s my duty to be concerned for you. The responsibilities of fatherhood don’t end just because you turn twenty-one." And Ben left the room, leaving Adam to think over what he’d said.

Paul Martin finished checking Adam over. "I think you can go back to work tomorrow, Adam," he said. "But those bruises will take a little while to go."

Adam smiled. "That’s good. I’m tired of sitting around." he said. Ben smiled too. Adam was not the world’s best patient, and he had been champing at the bit for a few days. "I’m looking forward to payday too. I’ve hardly got any money left." Adam added.

Ben raised an eyebrow. "What did you do with your last pay?" he asked.

"Pa." Adam said, crossly, tempted to tell his father to mind his own business-politely, of course.

Ben shook his head. "Sorry Adam," he said. " That’s your business. I don’t have any right to ask you that-but old habits die hard."

Adam still felt bad about being such a fool, and Pa had been very understanding, so he told him. "I spent most of it on Adelina." he admitted.

"I thought as much" said Ben, but he didn’t say any more. Adam’s words had given him an idea.

The following Saturday Adam went over to his father's desk to collect his pay. Ben looked up from the paybook.

"I'll give you your pay in a minute, Adam, but there is something I have to say to you first."

Ben sounded very serious, and Adam looked a little worried.

"There are always consequences for the actions we take, Adam." He reached out and gently touched Adam’s still bruised face. Adam was puzzled. Where was Pa going with this?

"I'm speaking now as your boss, rather than your father. Your injuries were the result of your own actions, on your own time. You've missed a week's work. That being the case, as your employer, I feel it’s within my rights to dock your pay for the days you were unable to work."

Adam opened his mouth to protest.

"Do you have a problem with that?" Ben asked him.

Adam closed his mouth again. What could he possibly say? He knew that his father expected him to work as hard as any ranch hand, and he was used to that. But he hadn’t expected him to treat him just like any other ranch hand in relation to his time off. He'd wanted to be treated as a grown man, but this wasn't quite what he'd had in mind. He should have known Pa would find a way to show him the disadvantages.

He shook his head. "No sir," he sighed.

Ben handed him his pay. Adam looked down at it and up again to see his father leaning back in his big chair regarding him with a slight smile on his face.

"OK Pa, you win. You’ve made your point."

Ben raised an eyebrow. He rose and walked around the desk to put his arm round Adam’s shoulders. "Its not a question of winning, son. I just want to be absolutely certain that you know who’s in charge around here."

"Oh I do, Pa, I do." And Adam held up the money in his hand.

The End