My most grateful thanks must go to all those without whose assistance this story would never have been finished-especially Gwynne, who chases those errant commas for me, and Brenda, who lets me bombard her with emails. Also, to those people whose constant encouragement keeps me going.  And to Irish, for the title. 
The ship, tossed by the waves, pitched and rolled as the storm grew worse. The Captain, a silver haired man in his prime, was gripping the wheel firmly, trying to keep the ship on course. A dark haired younger man was up in the rigging, tying down the topsail where the storm had broken its lashings.

“All secure, Captain,” he called.

A large young man, sandy haired, anchored the rope securing a much younger man-not much more than a boy–as he tried nervously to climb to the masthead.

 “We’ve still got too much sail, Joe,” yelled the captain. “Reef that jib, boy.”

“Let me take the helm, Captain,” the darkhaired man joined the Captain. “I can help you.”

Another man he seemed to recognise but couldn’t quite remember came up behind the dark haired one. “ That’s my job, Cartwright. You ain’t gettin’ in my way again.” He shouldered the dark haired man aside and made a grab for the wheel.
“Go below,” the Captain ordered. “I don’t need you. I have my sons.”

“I can fix that,” the other responded. He pulled a knife and lunged towards the young man, but the younger man grabbed for his knife hand. The Captain couldn’t see what was happening as they grappled, but finally the younger man rose unsteadily to his feet, blood running down his arm.

“Adam!” the Captain exclaimed in fear. “Adam! You’re hurt.”

“I’m all right, Captain,” he said. “Take care of the ship.”

 A wave took the ship and swept Adam overboard. He vanished beneath the waves. “No!!!” the Captain shouted.
“Nooooo!” The cry woke Ben Cartwright suddenly. He shot up, heart pounding, tangled in his bed linen, not sure for a moment just where he was, or who had cried out. He stared around the room and relaxed as he realised he was in his bed in the hotel where he’d been for the last two weeks. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was a long time since he’d been on board a ship and even longer since he’d had only a sailor’s berth to call his own. He’d woken himself with his own cry. Ben’s heart slowly stopped racing. It was the third night in a row that he’d had a dream about his time at sea. He’d loved being a sailor, but it hadn’t been easy work and there had been some unpleasant times aboard ship. But this was the first time his sons had appeared in his dream. No, not a dream – a nightmare. Ben shook his head to clear the cobwebs. It was almost dawn. Too late to go back to sleep, he decided. He’d get up and see if perhaps he could find an early morning cup of coffee.

The manager of the hotel, one of San Francisco’s best, looked unsurprised but pleased as he saw Mr Cartwright appear in the lobby. Mr Cartwright was frequently an early riser, and they had developed a polite acquaintanceship over early morning coffee during Mr Cartwright’s many sojourns at the hotel.

“Good morning, Mr Cartwright. I’ve just had a fresh pot of coffee made. Won’t you join me?” he asked, knowing that what Ben Cartwright wanted most just now was a cup of strong black coffee.

Ben smiled. “Morning, Mr Judd. Just what I wanted. I’d be most happy to join you.”  Sipping gratefully at the coffee, he began to relax. He sighed.

The hotel manager heard the sigh and looked at him with concern. He liked the Cartwrights. There was a member of the family here at least every couple of months. They were polite, respectable guests with good reputations and deep pockets. Clients like that were worth keeping. Usually it was Mr Cartwright, or the oldest son, Adam, but occasionally the two younger ones were also guests at the hotel.

“Is something wrong, Mr Cartwright? Is there anything I can do?”

Ben shook his head. “No, I just woke myself up and couldn’t get back to sleep. Had a strange dream about my boys.”

“And how are they?” Mr Judd asked. “It seems like some time since we’ve had the pleasure of their company here.”

They were nice boys. Adam was suave and sophisticated, well educated and very comfortable in the city. The younger two were obviously country lads, without their brother’s sophistication, but enjoyable to have around. The kitchen staff loved feeding Hoss, and Joseph, the youngest one, was always brimming over with infectious excitement and mischief. It was no wonder his father and brothers watched him like a hawk.

“They are fine, thank you. It’s always busy on a ranch.” Ben finished his coffee and rose. “Thank you for the coffee,” he said as he left. “I’d best get myself ready for my meetings.”

In between his meetings with the army and the shipyards, Ben liked to stroll along the seashore to stretch his legs. Much as he loved the Ponderosa and the wide expanses of the Sierras and Nevada territory itself, he sometimes missed the salt tang of the sea in his nostrils. Ben Cartwright came from a long line of seafarers. He smiled to himself as he thought of his first trip at sea. He had been fifteen when he had signed on as cabin boy on the Starlight. He had liked Captain Darren, who had been strict but fair. Oh, he had landed himself into trouble more than once, as cabin boys regularly do, but there had only been once that he thought the Captain had been unfair.

Ben Cartwright moved stiffly as he carried the captain’s hot water into his cabin. The Captain eyed him with some amusement and a little compassion. His fifteen-year-old cabin boy was undoubtedly still smarting from the sound thrashing the first mate had given him at the captain’s orders.

“I trust you have learned your lesson, young Cartwright,” Captain Darren said. “You have to keep that temper of yours under control.”

 “Yes, sir,” the boy replied. He didn’t look at the captain but spoke to his feet instead as he put the bowl down with exaggerated care.
The Captain stared at the boy’s sour expression in surprise. It wasn’t like Ben to be sullen. The boy usually accepted his punishment and moved on.

“Do you have a problem with your punishment, young man?” the Captain asked him.

Ben pulled a face. “No sir, not exactly, but …”


Ben hesitated a moment. “Jeb Holloway started it,” he burst out. “He was cheating. It wasn’t fair…”

The Captain frowned at him. “Fair has nothing to do with your behaviour. I am concerned with you. There will be no repetitions. Is that clear?”

Ben nodded. “Aye sir.”

“And Ben, keep in mind, Holloway is five years older than you and is entitled to the respect you owe your elders.”

Ben Cartwright braced himself for an argument. “No, sir,” he said. “He’s not. No man gets my respect until he earns it. And Mr Holloway hasn’t earned it.”

The Captain sighed. He liked his young cabin boy very much, but sometimes he was a trial. “That stubborn streak of yours will either get you hanged or into a Captain’s chair, one day.” He smiled affectionately at the boy. “ Just beware of him, Ben. He will make an uncomfortable enemy.”

Now what, he wondered, had made him think of Holloway? He hadn’t thought about Holloway for years. The Captain had been right – Jeb Holloway had been an uncomfortable enemy. He had done his best to make Ben’s life a misery, but the Captain had kept him safe. Perhaps it had been his visit to the shore that had reminded him of it. A visit to the sea usually gave him comfort and refreshment but not this time. This time he seemed to be haunted by it.

Four days ago, he had been walking through the shipyards discussing the timber needed for the contract when he had been suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of anxiety. He had been plagued by nightmares since then, and he didn’t seem to be able to shake off that anxiety. That last dream must be some kind of warning. There was some threat hanging over his sons or his land. He could send a wire, he mused, but it wouldn’t be any good. By the time the wire got out to the ranch and a reply was sent, he could be half way home. Besides, Adam would just say, “Everything’s fine, Pa,” which would leave him none the wiser anyway. Even if the ranch were falling about his ears, Adam would never send him a wire that would worry him unless it was absolutely unavoidable. No. He needed to go home.

 “I’d like my bill, please. I’m checking out,” Ben told the desk clerk at his hotel later that day.

The desk clerk was startled. “I trust there isn’t anything wrong, Mr Cartwright?” He signalled the manager who came rushing up in time to hear the reply.

“No, there’s nothing wrong. I’ve finished my work here, and I want to go home. I will catch the afternoon ferry to Sacramento.” He glanced up pointedly at the clock.

“If there is anything…” the manager said. The Cartwrights were valuable clients, too good to lose because of some error by an employee. Mr Cartwright hadn’t said anything about leaving this morning when they’d had coffee together.

Ben smiled, shaking his head. “No, no, everything’s fine. I just want to go home.”

His reassurance seemed to comfort the manager, who offered, “May I have your bag taken to the depot?”
Ben picked up his carpetbag. “No, I’ll manage. Thank you for a most pleasant stay,” he said as the manager hastened to hold the door open for him.

The wind, the last remnant of a storm that had dogged Ben’s trip, whistled around his ears as he rode swiftly towards home. It had been a long and tiresome journey, especially for a man in a hurry. The trip had gone smoothly enough, although the unseasonable storm had made the trip a lot more unpleasant than it ought to have been. The ferry to Sacramento had run on time, and then he had taken the stage to Marysville. It had lost a wheel just outside the town, and rather than wait for it to be fixed and to make its laborious way to Virginia City, he had gone to the livery stable to hire a horse. The owner had been reluctant to hire out a horse to go all the way to Virginia City, so Ben had bought it. Unaccountably, the feeling of anxiety was even greater in this little town than it had been in San Francisco, so he didn’t quibble about the cost. Horse and saddle had only cost twice their value, but his urgency would have made him buy a horse at almost any price. He went cross country to get home as quickly as he could. The feeling of unease grew stronger and stronger as he rode towards his boys and his home.

He arrived in the yard, looking about him for any sign that something was wrong. There didn’t seem to be – he could hear the usual noises around the place – but there was no sign of his sons. He started towards the house, hurriedly, leaving the horse standing. The horse snuffled, protesting a little at this cavalier treatment.

Ben turned back to him, patting the horse’s neck gently. “I’m sorry;  I’ll just be a minute. I want to check inside. Then I’ll take care of you.” He’d ridden him hard today.

The feeling of unease settled into the pit of his stomach like a stone as he approached the house. Opening the door slowly, he peered inside. Everything seemed to be normal. The room was as he expected; clean and quiet except for the slight crackle of flames in the fireplace. There were the sounds Hop Sing made as he worked in his domain, but other than that – nothing. He frowned to himself. He knew it was irrational to expect the boys to be here to meet him since he wasn’t due back for a couple of days yet, but he was disappointed all the same.
“Hop Sing!” he called, going toward the kitchen. “Hop Sing!”

Hop Sing came out of the kitchen, surprised to see his employer. “Mista Cartwright. You home early. Boys be very glad to see you.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Ben demanded, certain that Hop Sing was about to tell him of some disaster.

Hop Sing looked puzzled. “Nothing wrong. Boys always happy to see father home.”

“Where are the boys?”

Hop Sing looked even more mystified. “Boys working. You want coffee?”

“No, later thanks. I’ll bed the horse down.” He went out to the barn.

A horse trotted into the yard. Ben listened for a moment then smiled with the pleasure of recognition. Not Joseph – far too sedate for Joe! Not Hoss either – Chub was a heavy horse, built for a big rider, but stolid.  It was Sport – a big horse too but more skittish, capable of carrying a big man, and Adam was a big man. Not as big as Hoss, but big all the same. He came out into the yard to greet his son. Adam saw the silver-haired man as he dismounted. His usually serious face lit with the swift smile that passed over it as he hurried over to his father.

“Pa! You’re early! Welcome home! Did you have a successful trip?”

Business associates sometimes seemed intimidated by Adam’s cool, hardheaded style. He kept his feelings and beliefs to himself, and they thought him emotionless. Just showed how little they knew of him. Adam Cartwright didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but his passions ran as strong as his brothers’. They were just held firmly in check most of the time. He adored his father. That didn’t mean he didn’t butt heads with him about all sorts of matters, but, deep inside, the love and respect he bore for the man standing in front of him, his hand outstretched in warm greeting, was as unshakeable as the land on which they walked.

Ben’s pleasure was as palpable as Adam’s. A special bond these two had, born from the terrible hardships and pain the two had suffered on their long trip out west; Adam travelling by Ben’s side, not just his son but his confidant and fellow traveller, even as a toddler.

“Adam!” Ben exclaimed. He grasped his son’s arms eagerly, and Adam returned the clasp with equal enthusiasm. “Adam, is everything all right?”

“Sure, Pa, why?” Adam took in Ben’s worried face. “Honestly, Pa, as far as I know, everything is just fine. Hoss and Joe are finishing up the fence out by the East meadow.” “They didn’t really want to do it today,” he said, his lips quirking. “I suggested it would be better if they did.”

Ben smiled back. Just as he’d expected – “Everything’s fine, Pa.” He didn’t know how Adam had coerced Joe into doing a task that was very low on his favorite job list – in fact about the only thing Joe hated more was paperwork – and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, either. Adam could be very persuasive when he chose.

“Pa? What’s wrong?” Adam asked, made uncomfortable by Ben’s anxiety.

“Nothing, “his father replied. “At least I think nothing. I’ve been feeling uneasy about you boys for the last few days. That’s why I came home early.” He paused for a moment. “I think I’ll go meet your brothers. Let them knock off early and we can have a pleasant evening together.”

“I’ll come with you.”

They rode in silence for some time, then as Ben began to relax again, he started to ask questions about what had been going on while he had been away. Adam was used to this. He always gave his father a clear and concise report, having been taught to do so by his father very early. A sailor didn’t have time for drawing out or embellishing his report, and Ben had always expected Adam to give the clearest and most concise answers he could to questions he was asked. Ben smiled a little, remembering those early lessons.

Adam came carefully down the little hill. Pa had sent the four year old up to the top to see if there was a creek somewhere. In fact Ben knew there was one, but he thought it important for Adam to learn the signs of water nearby.

“Well, son?” Ben asked.
“There’s water over there,” the little boy said, pointing.

Ben smiled. “Remember you have to tell me which way to go?”

The little boy nodded. “Just like a sailor, Pa?” He looked up towards the sun, then turned towards the water. “West, Pa,” he hazarded, a little doubtfully.

“Close enough,” Ben smiled. It was actually southwest, but the child was only four. “How do you know there’s water, Adam?”

“There’s trees and things.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t tell me much, does it, son?” he asked. “There are trees here.”

Adam bit his lip. “The trees are growing in a line, and I can see the sun shining on something. The little boy looked up at his father, waiting for the verdict. Had he told Pa enough? Pa had told him that sailors had to tell the Captain enough or he couldn’t work out what to do. Pa was the captain of their wagon-ship, and he had to give a proper report.

“A good report, Sailor!” Ben said and swung the boy up onto his shoulder. “Come on, let’s go find it,” he said. The little boy beamed with pride.

Adam raised an eyebrow, and his lips lifted into a quizzical smile. “Did I say something funny, Pa?”

Ben smiled back. “No, I just remembered when you first learned to give me directions. You could give a proper report before you could climb on a horse without help.”

 Adam grinned, the memories alive in his mind. “Aye Aye, captain!”

 Ben chuckled in reply. “What made you think of that, Pa?”

Ben shook his head. “I don’t really know,” he replied, a little puzzled himself. Memories seemed to be crowding his mind lately.

Ben was surprised by the strength of the wave of relief that washed over him as he saw Hoss and Joe working on the fence.

“They’re all right!” he murmured.

Adam raised an eyebrow. Something was really worrying his father, that was for sure. “See, Pa, they’re fine.”

“Pa!” Joe yelled; his face lit with pleasure. “You’re early!” He rushed over to greet his father, followed at a more sedate pace by his older brother.

 “It’s good to see you boys,” Ben said, uncharacteristically effusive. “I thought you might like to finish early, and we could catch up.”

Joe and Hoss needed no second invitation. In less than ten minutes they had packed up their gear and were headed towards home.

“I want you all to stay around the house today,” Ben announced to his sons over breakfast the next morning.

His brothers stared first at their father and then at Adam, leaving him to ask the question that was on all their minds. He didn’t disappoint them.

“Why, Pa? I have to go into Virginia City today anyway. And Joe and Hoss have to finish the fences.”

“I just want you boys close to home. Why do you always insist on questioning my decisions?” his father snapped querulously.

“Sorry,” Adam replied automatically. “I just wanted to know why.”

It was a reasonable question, Ben thought. It was a pity he didn’t have a reasonable answer. “I’d just be happier if you three stayed close to home.” Ben took in their puzzled faces. “I’d count it as a favor, boys.”

Joe and Hoss glanced at each other. Hoss shrugged slightly. “Sure, Pa. I wanted to check on that little filly anyways.”

Ben caught Joe’s expression and smiled. “Don’t worry, Joseph, you won’t be bored. There’s plenty of wood that needs chopping, and I’m sure Hop Sing would appreciate some help.”

Before Joe could reply, Adam said, “I’m sorry, Pa, I can’t. I’ve got an appointment with the railroad people in Virginia City today.” He cocked his head to one side as an idea occurred to him. “Why don’t you come with me?”

Ben frowned. “I need to …” he stopped himself. How could he tell his sons about the nebulous fear that plagued him? How could he tell them he wanted them all close under his eye? He was torn, but then he decided. Joe and Hoss would be safe at home with Hop Sing and the ranch hands nearby. If he stayed with Adam then he could watch out for him. “All right. I’ll come with you. I have a few things I need to do in town, too.”

The ride into town was uneventful, but it was a good opportunity for father and son to talk; an opportunity both relished. They arrived in Virginia City content with their conversation.

“Adam,” Ben said as they left the livery stable, “I don’t expect your meeting will take much more than an hour. Why don’t you meet me at the saloon for a quick drink before we head for home?”

“I’d like that.” Adam considered his father for a moment; unsure whether he should make some comment about getting home quickly. He decided against it. No need to stir Pa up again. “I’ll see you later,” he said, tugging his suit jacket straight and touching his hat to his father as he strode away.

Ben watched him with a mixture of pride and anxiety. Surely he would be all right at a business meeting. They’d known the railroad agents for years now.

A touch on his shoulder startled him. “Ben! Good to see you again!” his friend Roy Coffee exclaimed.

Ben reluctantly dragged his eyes from the retreating form of his son and turned to Roy.

Roy grinned at him as they shook hands. “You can’t have missed the boy so much that you can’t take your eyes off him,” he laughed. He knew Ben Cartwright very well indeed, which gave him the right to poke gentle fun at his old friend.

Ben’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Oh, hello, Roy. I did miss the boys, as you well know. Roy, has there been anything strange or unusual happening around here?”

Roy shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of, Ben. Why?”

“Any strangers? Anyone new in town?” he pressed.

Roy stared at him. “Nup. At least none that I’ve heard about. What’s got into you, Ben? You’re as jumpy as a cat.”

“I don’t know, Roy,” Ben confessed. “I just have this feeling that there’s some problem that I don’t know about.”

”An’ Adam won’t tell ya, huh? Typical.” Roy smiled.

“I’m not sure that there’s anything to tell,” Ben said. “Adam just says…”

“…Everything’s fine, Pa,” Roy chimed in with Ben, repeating Adam’s favourite expression. “I ain’t seen nothing unusual, Ben, but if I do, I’ll let you know,” he promised as he shook hands with Ben and went on his way.

Unsatisfied, but unable to say why, Ben went to do the various errands he had and was at the saloon long before Adam. He had started to worry afresh when Adam came in. Adam greeted his father enthusiastically.

“I can see your meeting went well,” Ben teased him gently.

“It certainly did, Pa. They agreed to everything! I’ve signed the contract, and we should have no trouble fulfilling it. It’s what I wanted,” Adam confided, “an on-going contract that will give us a guaranteed income.”

Ben clapped him on the back. “I’m proud of you, son. Any particular reason for wanting the guaranteed income?”
His son grinned. “I do have an idea, but I’ll tell you about it on the way home. Mind taking a little detour with me? We can skip the beer,” he offered.

“I think we can take ten minutes to celebrate your success, “ Ben said, not wanting to spoil Adam’s moment, “but I am curious about your detour.”

Halfway along the road home, Adam led his father to an area of the Ponderosa that was too dry for any ordinary use. “I want to try out a new irrigation scheme, but the upkeep will require an on-going commitment of funds. If we use the money from the railroad, then it won’t be a drain on the ranch’s operating costs.”

He looked hopefully at his father. Ben smiled. When Adam desperately wanted something now, the expression on his face was little different from that on the face of a much smaller Adam when he desperately wanted a new book. “It seems like a good idea,” he said, not wanting to squash Adam’s excitement, “but have you done any sums yet?”

“Some. I don’t have a firm proposal yet. I wanted to see if we got the contract first.”

“Then do your calculations, and I’ll see about it.” Ben saw the brief flash of disappointment, hastily hidden. “I’m not rejecting the notion, Adam;  I just want to be certain it’s the right thing to do.” He patted Adam’s arm reassuringly.  Adam just nodded. He hadn’t expected his father to react any differently, but he was still disappointed.

They were just turning back onto the road when there was a sudden loud crack. A tree branch fell, missing Adam by inches. Sport reared, spooked by the sudden movement, and took off. It was only by Adam’s efforts that the horse was brought under control some distance down the road. He reined the horse in and waited as Ben rode up, Buck sweating almost as much as his rider.

“Adam! Are you all right?”

“Sure,” Adam said, unbothered by Sport’s panic. “Sport was scared by the branch. Nothing to worry about.”

 “I’d like to have a look at that branch,” Ben frowned. “It’s rare for tree branches to come down like that. Did the storm come through here while I’ve been away?”

Adam shook his head. “No. It was just an accident, Pa. Don’t worry about it.”

Ben wasn’t convinced. The knot of unease settled more firmly into his stomach. He didn’t say anymore. Adam had already turned the horse for home. And perhaps Adam was right. No one had known about the proposed detour. Any suggestion that it was anything other than an accident was absurd. Wasn’t it?

Nothing untoward happened for the next few days, and even patient Adam was beginning to go stir-crazy. Ben came downstairs one morning to find an all out brawl going on between his sons.

“Adam! Hoss! Joe!” he bellowed. “Stop this at once!”

The sheer volume of his voice stopped them in their tracks. He took advantage of their surprise to separate them, pulling Adam roughly to his feet.

“What’s going on here?” he demanded. There was silence. “Well?”

“Well…er…we were…er…just rough housing,” Adam said. He gave his father an embarrassed grin and turned to help his little brother up too. Hoss was straightening the furniture, careful not to catch his father’s eye. Much better to leave this to Adam, he thought.

Ben raised an eyebrow. “I would have thought you’d have more useful things to do with that energy than to act like children,” he scolded.

“That’s just it, Pa,” Adam said, taking advantage of the opening his father had given him. “We don’t. We’ve been hanging around the house and yard for the last few days. The books are up to date; we’ve whitewashed the cellar; we’ve done all the chores we can think of around the house and barn and yard. Even Hop Sing has run out of things for us to do. There’s so much to do on the rest of the ranch. I need to get some of that work done.”

“Yeah, Pa,” Joe chimed in. “I’m so bored I’m even lookin’ forward to going back to the fences. It’s worse than when I got restricted as a kid. At least then I knew what I’d done. Even deserved it sometimes.”

“Only sometimes?” Adam asked, amused. Joe grinned at his older brother’s question.

“Why do you want us ta stay here?” asked Hoss. “What’s worryin’ ya, Pa?” he added, displaying once again his uncanny perception regarding his father.

Adam looked thoughtful for a minute, an idea triggered by Hoss’ words. He should have realised what was bothering his father.

 “Pa, whatever you thought was wrong when you came home obviously wasn’t, so can we get back to normal life, please? Or at least what passes for normal…?” He waited for his father to glare at him and grinned when he did. That was better.
Ben considered what the boys had said. Certainly everything seemed to be all right.

He nodded. “Very well. But please don’t go anywhere without letting someone know where you are going. And try not to be alone.” He paused and smiled just a little, watching their faces. “What are you hanging around here for? I thought you were in a hurry to get to work?” His sons were out of the door before he could change his mind.

Later that week Ben decided to check out the logging operation. Although Ben mostly left Adam’s running of the timber operation alone, he wanted to make sure the contracts for the shipyards were well under way. He asked the boys to come with him. While Ben spoke to the foreman, Adam took his brothers over to his newly built flume to show off his handiwork. They were just about to climb up to the top when Ben called, “Adam! Come over here for a moment, would you?”

“Aw, shoot,” Hoss muttered. “Now we’ll never be finished and get back in time for lunch.”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed.

Adam grinned at them. “I’ll just be a minute, Hoss.” Adam squeezed his brother’s shoulder gently in passing. Hoss wasn’t convinced. Those ‘minutes’ of Pa’s and Adam’s sometimes seemed to go on for hours.

“You go have a look at the construction work, and I’ll be with you soon.”

Hoss nodded as Adam headed over to join his father, standing near a pile of logs ready to be shipped. He was almost there when there was a sudden rumble as a log fell from its place on the top of the pile. The log headed straight for where his father had been standing, but before Adam could even yell, “look out!” Ben was already out of its path as he checked over the worksheets. He looked up surprised at the sudden eruption of noise and activity swirling around him as the log rolled harmlessly on.

His sons ran over to him. “Pa! Are you all right?”

“Of course I am,” he replied. “It was just an accident.”

“Yeah,” Hoss sighed with relief. “It’s a good thing Adam stopped to show me the best way up to the top of that there flume, or he would have been squashed flat!”

“Always knew that being helpful would have its benefits,” Adam laughed.

Ben paled. There was nothing funny about it. Hoss’ words rang in his head. “Adam would have been squashed flat”….another accident? With Adam as a possible target? He decided he was going to make a detour to check out that branch that had fallen.

“Check out the branch?” Adam echoed. “Why?”

“Because that’s two accidents too many in less than a week,” Ben said, “and I want to be sure that they are accidents. Are you sure nothing unusual happened while I was away?” he asked, probably for the fiftieth time.

“I’m certain,” Adam repeated. “Why would I keep anything like that from you anyway?”

Ben’s brown eyes were fixed unwaveringly on his son. “To stop me from worrying. And it wouldn’t be the first time either. So tell me the truth.”

“I…am…telling…you…the…truth,…Pa.” Every word was clear and distinct, delivered in a tight, level tone. Adam felt like a little boy again under that steely gaze. But he wasn’t a small boy trying to cover up a misdemeanour. “There isn’t anything to tell. Is there, Hoss?” He turned to his brother for confirmation, knowing that the whole family knew how bad Hoss was at covering things up.

“No, Pa, Adam ain’t tryin’ ta hide anythin’ from ya.” Hoss said, his open countenance reassuring his father.

Ben let it go. If both Adam and Hoss said there was nothing wrong, then he had to accept that. “I still want to check out that branch,” he said.

Adam rolled his eyes at his brother behind Ben’s back but followed Ben down the road. It didn’t take long to get to the place where the branch had fallen, but to their surprise it wasn’t there.

 “Guess someone picked it up for firewood or somethin’,” Hoss suggested.

“I suppose so, although this road isn’t very well travelled.”  Ben was doubtful. He looked up at the tree where the branch had fallen. The stump of the branch showed clear signs of having been partially cut.

“I was right. I told you that was no accident. Someone cut that branch.”

“But that doesn’t mean it was aimed at me, Pa,” Adam argued. “How do you know we didn’t just come past when they were taking a break or something and then came back to finish the job?”

 “I suppose it’s possible,” was Ben’s grudging reply, “but what about that log?”

“That was purely an accident-and anyway, I was nowhere near it. You were closer than I was.” Ben scowled at him. Adam was making a good point, but that didn’t eliminate the anxiety he felt.

Adam refused to allow his father to keep him close to home, but he couldn’t stop Ben appointing escorts for him wherever he went. As far as Ben was concerned Adam was to be accompanied by his family wherever and whenever possible. Even ranch hands weren’t deemed sufficient protection. Things came to a head one day.

“I’m going out to that stand of trees to start marking the ones to be felled,” he remarked at breakfast one morning.
“Joe, you go with him,” Ben ordered immediately.

Joe sighed. He had planned to go into Virginia City today. Adam caught his little brother’s expression. He sympathised. And he didn’t want company. He needed his space.

“This is ridiculous, Pa!” Adam’s annoyed voice rose in protest. “I don’t need a nursemaid every time I go out. And I’m sure everyone else has better things to do than tag around after me!”

Ben stared him down. “Don’t raise your voice to me, Adam. I have only your welfare at heart.”

Adam flushed. “I know. I’m sorry, Pa, but I really don’t believe I am under any kind of threat. You’ve been home for two weeks now, and apart from those two accidents, nothing’s happened.”

“That’s why I want you to be with someone. I wanted to look at those trees myself. Why don’t you all come, and we’ll have a picnic at the lake? We can go fishing,” he offered. Adam wanted to yell, loudly, that he wasn’t a child and he didn’t need to be placated by the offer of a picnic as a treat. But he didn’t. Both his brothers had brightened at the idea of a bit of time off, so he kept silent. He didn’t seem to be able to convince his father anyway.

Only Hoss and Joe were talkative that morning. Ben was on the alert, watching for any possible sources of danger. Adam was silent. Joe considered making some remark about Adam sulking, but he decided against it. A mid-week picnic and afternoon spent fishing was worth putting up with Adam’s bad mood, and at least Adam wasn’t snarling at him. They spent the morning marking trees and made good progress with the four of them working, so Adam didn’t argue as they headed off for their favorite spot at Lake Tahoe. He had simmered down by now and he was looking forward to the picnic just as much as his brothers were. He still thought it was unnecessary, but it was a pleasant day, and it wasn’t, he’d decided, a bit of use spoiling the day by brooding about something he couldn’t change. At least not now. By the time he got there with Ben, Joe and Hoss had unpacked the picnic and Joe was taking his shirt off in preparation for going swimming.

“Are you crazy?” Adam asked. “It’s too cold for swimming. That water will be freezing!”
Joe grinned. “Not for me,’ he bragged.

“Don’t be silly, Joseph,” Ben said. “It’s too cold for swimming.” Joe pulled a face but did his shirt up again. There was no point arguing with Pa when he used that tone.

“Yeah, it’s time to eat,” Hoss said, already tucking into a thick and juicy roast beef sandwich.

Lunch over, they sorted out fishing poles and lines and lay back in the sunshine fishing. Ben drifted off to sleep while the boys fished. He was woken sometime later by a whoop from Joe.

 “I won,” he crowed, displaying his huge fish.

“I caught more than you did, though,” Hoss protested. “Didn’t I, Adam?”

Adam laughed. “Don’t bring me into this,” he said, holding up his solitary fish. “I’m not in the game.

Still laughing they packed up and started for home, Adam and Joe in the lead, Hoss and Ben just following a little way behind. Adam was feeling much more relaxed and happy this afternoon. It had been a pleasant interlude. They were just under the canopy of the trees when Joe suddenly grinned at his brother and leaned over and slapped Sport’s rump.

“Race ya!” he yelled and took off. Even if Adam hadn’t wanted to, Sport had other ideas, and they took off after Cochise. Joe didn’t have much of a lead on Adam, so with Sport fast coming up behind, he urged Cochise to go faster. The race was on in earnest. Ben and Hoss watched indulgently as the two disappeared down the path and out of sight.

“Who’s gonna win?” Hoss asked his father.

Ben shook his head, smiling. “I don’t know, but one thing’s certain – neither of them will let the other win if they can help it! We’d better keep up with them – they are sure to want a referee.”

Hoss laughed and they sped up a little. They rounded the bend to see Joe, still ahead of Adam, turn, laughing, to see where his older brother was. Cochise was maybe fifty yards ahead of Sport when to the family’s consternation he slipped on something. The damp leaves underfoot made the horse stumble and Joe went flying.

Adam reined Sport in, so quickly that Sport had difficulty keeping to his feet. Adam almost fell from his horse in his haste to get to Joe.

“Joe! Are you hurt?”

“I’m ok; gonna be a bit bruised though.” Joe rubbed his shoulder ruefully.

“You’re hurt. Let me look at it.”

Ben hurried over to his sons. “Joe, are you all right?” He didn’t wait for Joe to reply but was checking him out even as he spoke. Joe twisted away from him.

“I’m ok, “he repeated, not wanting his father to fuss over him, “but is Cochise all right? What did he trip on?”

“He’s fine,” Hoss reassured him, having checked the horse over. He and Adam were poking about trying to find the cause of the accident. “It looks like he slipped on them leaves over there.” Hoss pointed.

“Cochise is usually more sure-footed than that.” Ben frowned a little, his anxiety making him suspicious. He helped Joe to his feet and came over to the scuffed up leaves. His poking around in the leaves revealed a piece of old wood. “That’s not a log-that’s a fence post, and it’s been moved.” He sounded as apprehensive as he looked.

Adam stared at him, astonished and troubled. Surely his father didn’t really think that someone had deliberately set a trap?

“That’s right, Pa, it’s just an old fence post. It must have moved when Cochise stumbled. It’s probably left over from that time you wanted to try building a temporary corral up here.” He spoke soothingly, as if to a child.

Ben wasn’t soothed. “You could both have been hurt,” he snapped, his worry making him edgy. “It would be very easy for someone to set up a booby-trap like that. If you’d been out here by yourself you could have been killed. You can’t tell me someone isn’t out to get you. That’s it. We’re going to see Roy.”

“ Oh, come on, Pa. You can’t be serious. There’s no need to bother Roy. Joe was the one that was injured, not me. And I don’t see why someone would go to such peculiar lengths to cause accidents. If they wanted to hurt me – all they need is a rifle.” It wasn’t at all a helpful thing to say, he mused as he saw his father’s sudden pallor. “It was just an accident, Pa,” he said, trying to reassure his worried father. “There wouldn’t have been a problem if we hadn’t been racing. Come on, Joe, let’s get you home.” He held Cochise while Joe mounted.

Roy Coffee looked from one Cartwright to the other. “Now come on, Adam, you must have some idea of who is after you.”
“No, I haven’t. And I don’t believe that there is anyone after me. I think Pa is overreacting.”  He faced his father, arms folded across his chest, his back rigid, clearly showing his annoyance.

“I am not overreacting,” Ben snapped. “There have been two, possibly three, attempts on your life, and I want to find out who is at the bottom of it. Who knew you were planning to go out that way today?”

“Everyone. No one. Oh, come on, Pa.” Adam was tired of having this argument with his father. “You came back from San Francisco jumpy, and now you’re making mountains out of molehills. All the ranch hands and most of the loggers knew about the tree-marking. You don’t think it was one of them, surely? And they didn’t know we were going to go to the lake. How could they? Those accidents were just accidents. Any threat is all your imagination.”

Ben glared at his oldest son. “It is not my imagination,” he retorted. “I…”

Roy intervened before the argument between the two became acrimonious. “I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, but I don’t want you going off half-cocked, Ben. I’m the law around here, and it’s up to me to see that justice is done.”

“Of course, Roy,” Ben said. “I want my sons safe, but I want to see justice done too.” He suddenly remembered another man who had told him to leave justice to him.

Ben Cartwright glared at Jeb Holloway. “Cut it out, Holloway,” he ordered.

“Mind your own business, Cartwright,” the other snarled. “You ain’t got no right ta tell me what ta do, and I reckon Grives here has got it comin’.”

“If Grives has been into your stuff, then it’s up to the Captain to decide what should happen, not you. You can’t take the law into your own hands, and you’ve got no proof it was Grives, anyway,” Ben doubled his hands into fists, ready to take Holloway on. Holloway dropped Grives and squared up to Ben. He wasn’t worried; he was both bigger and older than young Cartwright. It wasn’t the first time he’d fought with him, either.

“Ok, then, Cartwright, I’ll give you the thumping you’re lookin’ for,  an then I’ll teach Grives not to touch my stuff.” He pulled back his fist.

 “Cartwright, Holloway, report to the Captain’s quarters immediately,” roared the first mate, Mr Bond, standing at the top of the gangway.

Ben and Holloway stood facing the Captain. “You know I have forbidden fighting on board my ship,” he said, mildly, after hearing their story. Neither man took comfort from his tone of voice – the Captain rarely shouted. He looked from one to the other. “Well?”

“Yes, sir,” they said. There was nothing else to say.

“Cartwright, you will take the masthead watch for the next three days,” the Captain told Ben, “and if it happens again you’ll miss out on your next liberty. Understood?”

“Aye, sir,” Ben said. It wasn’t too harsh a punishment, on the whole. He exhaled softly with relief. The first mate would have been much tougher. Holloway didn’t get off so lightly.

 “Holloway, you have already been logged several times this voyage. You will spend forty-eight hours in irons, and you will miss your next two liberties. If it happens again you will be flogged.”

Holloway was led away, cursing Ben under his breath. Ben was left facing the captain. “The only reason you aren’t spending time in irons, sailor,” the Captain said, “is that I admire a man who is prepared to stand up for justice and right. But on this ship I am justice, and you will leave it to me in future. Understood?”

“Aye, sir,” Ben said.

 “And Ben?” Ben was surprised. He hadn’t even known the Captain knew his first name – he’d only been on board the Heron a short time.

“I think you have the makings of a fine sailor – possibly even the Captain of your own ship. But you must learn to follow orders before you can give them. I’ll be watching you, young man.”

Captain Ingleton had watched him, uncomfortably closely sometimes. So did the first mate. When the second mate took ill, the Captain appointed Ben to take his place, but left him to find his own way. Ben was only nineteen, but he had a strength of character that had impressed the Captain and his martinet of a first mate.  Holloway resented Ben’s appointment bitterly. He was older and more experienced than Cartwright. He thought the Captain should have appointed him. Holloway had not been a pleasant shipmate during the rest of that voyage either.

Holloway again? Why was he suddenly thinking about Holloway again? Neither of them had enjoyed their punishments, but Holloway had made a lot of noise about it and had blamed Ben, publicly and often, for being the cause of his hardship.

“Pa?”  Adam touched the older man on the arm to attract his attention. Ben looked up, startled. “Oh, sorry, son. Did you say something?”

“Yeah. I asked you if we were going to go home, or if you were planning to stay here all night.”

Ben snorted as he turned towards the livery stables. They were almost there when he suddenly started and, to Adam’s astonishment, ran partway down an alley. He stopped and stared around for a moment then came back sheepishly to his puzzled son.

“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked.

“I thought I saw someone I recognised,” Ben said. “I must have been imagining things.” The two men mounted up and rode rapidly out of town.

Adam couldn’t resist the opportunity. He broke the silence. “I told you you were imagining things,” he said, a touch of malice in his voice.

 “There’s no need for that, young man.” Ben rebuked his son. He remembered another grievance he had with Adam. “I don’t need you to challenge me in front of Roy, either.” His dark eyes were hard. Adam knew that his father wasn’t pleased.

“I’m sorry if I embarrassed you, but I still believe you’re wrong. And, I might add, I’m getting very, very tired of you treating me like a child. I don’t need a baby-sitter.”

Ben was indignant. Adam may be a grown man, but he was still entitled to the respect due to him as his father. “That is quite…” he started. There was a bang –  the sound of a shot  and suddenly something zipped past them, missing Adam by inches. Both men reacted almost instinctively, diving from their saddles to the ground. They took advantage of the cover some nearby bushes gave them. They lay there for a few minutes, guns drawn, searching for any signs of their attacker, but they could see no one. There was no more gunfire.

“Adam? Are you all right?”

Adam nodded. “Hurt my knee as I hit the ground, but no bullet holes in my hide. What about you?”

“I’m not hurt. I suppose you think that gunshot was my imagination too?” Ben asked sarcastically as they cautiously got to their feet.

Adam reddened, recalling his flippant remark about a rifle. “I’ll accept that it was a gunshot, but if it was an attempt on my life, it wasn’t a very good one, was it? One shot and then nothing. And,” he added, “I don’t know for sure that it was a bullet that came near us. Or that someone was actually shooting at us.”

“You heard the shot,” Ben retorted.

“I heard a shot. I don’t know that it was aimed at us,” Adam insisted.

Adam was sitting in his robe in his favorite chair in front of the fire, with his feet up and a cold compress on his badly bruised knee. In spite of his protests, his father and Hop Sing had insisted that he take the rest of the day off. He had agreed provided they doctored him in the living room – he had no desire to go to bed, he told them.  So he was lying back in his favorite chair, with his feet up on the table. Ben paced about the room. The gunshot today had brought that overwhelming wave of anxiety back in full force. It almost made him sick. Adam watched him, trying to think of something, anything, to say to relieve his father’s mind.

 His brothers’ entry created a welcome diversion. “Hi, Joe, Hoss,” he greeted his brothers with a smile. “Did you see Betty Sue?” he asked Hoss.

“Yeah,” the other replied, blushing a little. “She says howdy. Did ya see Roy?” he asked, masking his embarrassment by changing the subject. He grabbed an apple off the table and crunched into it.

Adam nodded. “Roy says he’ll keep an eye open, but since I can’t give him any information about these so-called attempts on my life,” he glanced at his father and was rewarded by a scowl, which made him smile just a little, “he can’t do much about it.”

 “Hey, Pa, how come Adam gets to put his feet up on the furniture?” Joe demanded.

Adam smirked. He had been waiting for Joe to protest about his feet on the furniture. Hardly a day went by without Pa yelling, “Joseph, take your feet off the furniture!”

Joe came across the room ready to stir Adam up a bit when he took a proper look at his brother. ”How come you’ve got a bandage on your knee?” Joe asked, peering at the bandage with interest.

“I jumped off my horse because we heard a gunshot,” Adam said. His voice was entirely devoid of any expression.

“Yeah? Who was shooting?”

“Someone was taking a pot shot at your brother,” Ben informed Joe, before Adam could answer.

“I’m still not convinced that someone was shooting at me,” Adam said.  “The only injury I’ve got is a bruised knee from leaping off my horse. And the only other injury is Joe’s sore shoulder from when he fell off HIS horse.”

Hoss’ face was scrunched thoughtfully as he finished his apple. Suddenly he said, “Pa? Adam? I bin thinkin’. None o’ them accidents happened when Adam was alone. Maybe someone else was the target?”

There was a surprised silence. Adam nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a really good point, Hoss. The accidents have been when I’ve been with someone. In fact, each time there’s been what you call an attempt on my life – I’ve been with you, Pa.”

The silence deepened, broken by a soft exclamation from Joe. “He’s right, you know, Pa.”

“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss agreed.

Ben stared from one to another of the three young men staring back at him with a mixture of surprise and worry on their faces. “You’re just jumping to conclusions,” he said, finally.

“So were you,” Adam retorted. “You were quick enough to assume all those accidents were threats to me. It makes just as much sense, if they were attempts, to assume you were the target, not me. Possibly even more.”

Ben sat down heavily in his chair. “Why?”

“You came home from San Francisco early because you were worried about something. There must have been something that happened there to worry you so. What was it, Pa? If you can work that out, maybe we can work out who might have it in for you.”

“I don’t know exactly. All I was doing was walking down by the shore and through the shipyards.”

“Shipyards? Maybe ya saw someone you used to know?” Hoss suggested.

Ben shook his head firmly. “No, I don’t recall seeing anything. Just suddenly feeling really uneasy about something. It was almost physical – as though something was sitting in my stomach like a lead weight.”

“Sounds like indigestion to me,” Joe grinned.

Adam managed to suppress his grin, but Hoss didn’t. They knew better than to say they agreed. Pa didn’t look at all amused.
“Something funny, Hoss?” he demanded, eyes flinty.

“Uh, nossir,” Hoss stammered.

He was saved by a knock on the door. Nick Johnson, one of the ranch hands, came in. “Uh, Mr Cartwright, I’m sorry ta bother you, but we thought you oughta know. The other day Bill and me, we found a campsite out near that stand of trees you was marking. I wouldn’ta thought anythin’ about it, but we found another one out near that place you an’ Mr Adam heard the gunshot today.”

“News sure travels fast around here,” Adam remarked sourly. “Who told you about the gunfire?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t remember. Does it matter?”

“Probably not,” Adam replied, “but if you do think of who it was let us know.”

“Thanks, Nick,” Ben said, “Ask the others to let me know if they find anything else unusual. And make sure you all keep an eye open. I don’t want anyone hurt.”

“Sure, boss,” Nick said as he left.

Ben raised an eyebrow at his oldest son. “Well? Are you convinced now?”

Adam rubbed his chin. “All right, Pa, I admit that the camps throw a different light on the possibility that there is someone out there. But you have to admit that it’s just as likely that you are the target
“But there haven’t been any attempts on me,” Ben argued.

 “All of those so-called attempts on me could just as easily have been aimed at you. You’ve been so busy nursemaiding me that you haven’t been out alone since you got back from San Francisco.” He gave his father a wry grin. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Jeb Holloway swigged back his whiskey, slammed the glass back onto the bar and turned to face Ben. “You picked the wrong time ta come into the wrong place today, Cartwright!” a drunk Holloway yelled at Ben. “You stole my job, an’ I aim ta see ya pay!” he spat, as he swung at Ben. Ben sidestepped the wild blow.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, as calmly as he could. “Captain Stoddard gave me the job-you were never in the running.”

“I’ve got years more experience than a whippersnapper like you. You turned Ingleton against me, and now you turned Stoddard against me. I shoulda bin the mate, not you.”

Ben put his hands on his hips; it made him look even bigger than he was. “Holloway, you’ve got two choices. You don’t have to sail with the Wanderer. I’ll clear it with the captain – I’ll tear up your papers, and you can sail with someone else. Or you can just shut up and accept that I’m the Mate and be prepared to accept my orders.” His voice was not loud, but the tone made more than one man shiver.

Holloway glowered. He took a step closer to Ben. “There’s one other choice. I can beat you to a pulp and send you back to your mama.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. He’d known it was going to come to this just as soon as he’d come into the bar. He couldn’t back down. There were too many of his men here, and they’d lose all respect for his authority if he backed down. He smiled at his opponent. “You’re welcome to try.” His reply was a challenge.

Holloway needed no further invitation, but he was too drunk to fight effectively, and Ben wasn’t planning to lose this fight. There was too much riding on it.

Holloway again! Ben thought. “The wrong place at the wrong time,” he repeated. “I wonder…”

“What, Pa?”

Ben considered his sons a moment, then came to a decision. “I don’t know if this has anything to do with it or not, but ever since I got this feeling I’ve been thinking about a man who sailed with me on many of my voyages. I don’t know why, but maybe he has something to do with all this.”

“What about him?” Adam asked.

“He didn’t like me very much – he thought I got the job as mate on The Wanderer when he should have. He wasn’t mate material, but he thought he was. In fact he was a poor sailor and a poor excuse for a man too. And stupid. I suppose it’s possible I might have seen him at the Shipyards. It does sound far-fetched, doesn’t it?”

Adam shrugged. “You feeling like there was something wrong was far-fetched also. At least now we have something to tell Roy. I think you should stay home for a few days, Pa. If it is this guy-do you remember his name? He hasn’t succeeded with any attempts yet, but he might get lucky.”

“His name was Holloway. I’m not going to be kept a prisoner in my own home by a scoundrel like him!”

“But, Pa,” Hoss said. “You made us stay home when ya thought it was us. It’s only sensible for ya ta stay home if the target is you.”

“More,” Adam said. “It seems like he’s had at least two tries, and he’s getting more reckless. I don’t know why he stopped with only one shot if it was you, but he might try something worse.”

“Please, Pa?” Joe begged.

The three of them were definitely ganged up on him with this one. Even through his irritation he felt the warmth that came from knowing how much his boys cared for him.

He hesitated, then reluctantly he agreed. “Oh, all right. But only for a few days.”
Ben stayed home for a few days as his sons had requested. But, just like his sons, he too began to chafe at the restriction. In spite of all their efforts, they had not come up with any leads to the whereabouts of Holloway or any other signs of any threat. If it hadn’t been for the two campsites, Ben might have started to believe it was just his imagination. He chuckled to himself. Adam had been so sure he’d been imagining things. The only real change was that the sense of unease that had been bothering him seemed to have gone.

“I’m going into Virginia City to see Roy,” he announced at breakfast.

“But, Pa,” Joe protested. “What about Holloway?”

“I’ve changed my mind. Adam was right. It was just my overactive imagination or perhaps indigestion,” he replied, with a smile at Joe.

“Maybe so, but I’m going with you,” Adam said.

Ben was tempted to tell Adam to stay home, but he recognised the obstinate expression on Adam’s face. Even if he ordered Adam to stay home, Adam wouldn’t. And it was a sensible precaution anyway.

He grinned at his son. “I’d be delighted to have your company,” he said blandly, taking the wind out of Adam’s sails.

“It sure ain’t much to go on,” Roy told Ben. “Ya ain’t seen this guy– Jeb Holloway, did ya say? – for nigh on thirty years. How do ya know you’d even recognise him even if ya saw him?”

“I don’t. I don’t even know if it is him or if it is just my imagination as Adam insists.”

 “Oh, come on. I agreed that those campsites put a different light on things.” Adam changed the subject quickly to hide his embarrassment. “I just remembered something. Didn’t you see someone down an alley the other day?”

“It was his walk I thought I recognised. I didn’t see his face.”

“Well, if we find anyone who walks funny you can come see if it’s him,” Roy chuckled.

Ben glared at him. Roy sobered immediately. “If I see anythin’ I’ll let ya know.”

They rode home in relative silence, each busy with his own thoughts. Just as they neared home, Adam broke the silence. “Pa? Do you think you should stay in town for a few days? You’d be safer in town.”

Ben shook his head. “No. I’ve been confined to my home by Holloway. I’m not going to be driven out of it.” He saw Adam’s anxious expression. “I’ll be fine, son. Don’t worry.”

Adam’s smile was half-hearted at best. “At least don’t go out alone,” he pleaded, his hand on his father’s arm.
Ben nodded. He’d insisted on that precaution for Adam. It was only sensible that he did this himself.

Ben stretched his stiff back as he straightened up from planting another little pine tree. Many of his friends thought his devotion to replacing the trees he cut was silly. There was so much timber up here in the high country. Adam caught his eye and grinned as he too straightened up. “Gotta have something for my grandchildren to harvest,” he quipped. Ben smiled proudly. His sons at least understood that you had to give back to the land. You couldn’t just take all the time. He had instilled this into the boys ever since he and Adam had arrived on the Ponderosa.

“Hey Pa,” Hoss’ voice broke into his thoughts. “there’s someone comin’.”

Adam moved closer to his father, buckling on his gun belt as he did so. He glanced over at Joe and Hoss, who also moved in closer to their father.

“Can you see who it is, Joe?” Adam asked. Joe had pretty sharp eyes.

“It’s…it’s the Sheriff,” he said, puzzled. The Cartwright boys all relaxed a little.
“Roy, what brings you out here?” Ben asked.

“I wanted you to know, I got this old guy in custody. Tried to grab Mrs Jenson’s purse. He’s an old sailor. You wanna come in and see if it’s your Holloway? He says his name is Josiah Hall, but I figured – same initials – he coulda changed his name.”

“I don’t know if he’d think of that,” Ben said, “but he might have. You want me to come in today?”

Roy shrugged. “There’s no rush, Ben. We got him on theft charges anyway.”

“Then I’ll come in tomorrow. I’d like to finish this today…”

“Pa, it would be better if you went in today. Joe and Hoss can finish up here, and I’ll come in with you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Adam. Whoever it is will still be there tomorrow.”

“True,” Adam replied, “but wouldn’t you like to know for certain? I’d sleep better tonight.”

Ben met his eldest son’s eyes and saw how worried he was. If he could set Adam’s mind at rest he wouldn’t have to contend with his sons following him about as self appointed body guards. He conceded. “Hoss, Joe, you two finish up here. Adam and I will see you at home.”

The three rode as quickly as they could towards Virginia City and went straight to the Sheriff’s office. Ben swiftly went through to the cells and looked at the man sitting on the cot in one of them.

“Whadda ya starin’ at, mister?” he snarled.

“Well, Ben?” Roy asked hopefully. He didn’t like mysteries in his town, and he was hoping that this was the person threatening his old friend.

 “No. It’s not Holloway.”

“Did you two finish planting those trees?” Ben asked Hoss and Joe over breakfast.

“Nearly,” Joe replied with one of his best smiles.

“How nearly is ‘nearly’?” Ben asked. He’d heard Joe’s ‘nearlies’ before. They could mean anything, and frequently did.
“We got about three fourths the way through,” Hoss said, before Joe could get them into trouble.

“I’ll go out to finish them up. You three can go move the cattle down into the East pasture today.”

“No.” The bald statement shocked Ben.

 “I mean, I don’t think you should go out there alone,” Adam hastily explained before his father could reprimand him for his manners. He might be grown, but his father still expected polite behaviour.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. And I do want that herd moved.”

“Joe and Hoss can do it,” Adam said. “I’m not letting you go out alone.” He leant on his hands, placed firmly on the table, and stared belligerently at his father, daring him to forbid him.

Hard brown eyes met challenging hazel ones, but Adam didn’t look away. Ben was strongly tempted to order Adam to do as he was told, but he recognised the look on Adam’s face. Adam wasn’t going to give in on this one. “As soon as we’ve finished planting you help them move the herd.”

“See? We finished the planting and nothing happened,” Ben gloated a little as they rode back towards the house.

“I know, and I’m pleased that nothing happened. But it makes me worry about you less when I’m with you.” Nothing had happened since that one gunshot, and he was beginning to wonder himself if it was just a tempest in a teacup. They rode down along a narrow, twisting track between the trees, with room for only one rider at a time, when suddenly Buck stopped dead, almost sitting back on his haunches. Ben was flung backwards.

“What’s the matter?” Adam had hastily dismounted and rushed to his father’s side. He helped his father up and together they looked carefully among the leaf litter and tree debris to see what had spooked the horse. Adam picked up a stick and prodded the ground.

“Maybe he saw a snake?” Ben suggested.

“Unlikely,” Adam decided. “He would have reared, not stopped. Anyway, I can’t see one, and with all the noise we’re making…” He shrugged.

“Whatever it is, we can’t stay here all day. There’s work to be done. Maybe I’ll just lead him for a bit,” Ben said, taking Buck’s reins in his hand. He started forward. Buck took two hesitant steps and refused to move further. Ben tugged on the reins, bracing himself on his back foot as he did so. Buck pulled backwards, neighing in fear, and as Ben pulled harder he suddenly found himself dangling precariously on the edge of a deep pit. Only the horse’s reins stopped him falling in.

 “Pa!” Adam yelled.

Ben hauled himself to safety by pulling on the horse’s bridle then leaned up against the horse, his heart racing, breathing heavily. He patted the horse.

“Thanks, Buck,” he said, as his breathing slowly returned to normal.

Adam poked carefully around the edge, making sure that all was safe. There were sharpened stakes down the bottom of the pit. He shuddered as he thought of the near miss his father had had.

 “You’d be dead if you’d landed in that. Just as well Buck didn’t like it.” Adam’s jaw was set and his eyes were hard. “There’s no way this could have been an accident.”

“We have to do something!” Joe yelled at his older brothers.

“What, exactly?” Adam asked. “He won’t stay in town. He won’t even stay home. What do you want us to do, Joe?”
“I dunno, but there must be something! I don’t want my pa hurt.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance. “We don’t want Pa hurt either. And we don’t want you hurt by running off who knows where and getting yourself into trouble. All we can do is stay as close to him and hope we can protect him until we track down this Holloway person. Got me, Joe?”

Joe’s shoulders drooped, but he nodded.

“Did ya have any luck?” Hoss asked Adam.

“No. There isn’t anyone registered at any of the hotels with the initials J.H. Smart thinking on Roy’s part that. Or anyone who is an old sailor type. I checked in Carson City too when I was there last week. If it is Holloway, he’s not coming out in public.”

Adam was worried, and there was nothing he could do. He tried again to ask his father to stay in town, but Ben again refused.

Nick and his buddy Bill rode as fast as they could into the yard of the Ponderosa. “Mr Adam, we can’t find Mr Cartwright,” Nick yelled.

“What do you mean, you can’t find Mr Cartwright? He was with you when you went this morning.” Adam‘s face was hard.
Ben had gone out with some hands to check on the waterholes in their best pasture. Adam had planned to go, but an unexpected timber buyer had turned up. He was too good a customer to put off or offend in anyway, so Adam had stayed at home.

“It’ll be all right, Adam,” Ben had said. “I’ll take a couple of hands with me. Don’t worry, son. You just concentrate on Mr Webb.”

“We went out there, me an’ Bill, with Mr Cartwright. He said he thought he heard somethin’ in the woods there, and went in to check.”

“You let him go alone?” Adam’s face darkened with anger.

“We didn’t wanna, but Mr Cartwright, he tol’ us to finish clearing the waterhole and he’d check it out. He didn’t come back, and we started to get worried, but when we looked for him-well, it was just like he’d disappeared,” Nick explained.

Adam already had his horse saddled by the time the hand had finished his breathless explanation. “You go find Hoss and Joe and tell them to get to the waterholes as soon as they can, Nick. Bill, you come with me,” he said as he rode out of the yard. He couldn’t blame the hands. Pa was their boss. They could hardly insist on following him if he told them not to. The only person he could blame was himself.

Ben stirred slightly and realised he was tied up very firmly. The knots were sailor’s knots – ones he used himself, frequently. He opened his eyes and looked into the face of the man he’d seen in his dream. “Holloway.”

“Yeah, me. I told ya I’d get ya one day. I been in the Chinas.  Coulda knocked me over with a feather when I saw you at the San Francisco shipyards. First time I set foot back in my own country and I see you. You ruined my life, Cartwright, and now I’m gonna ruin yours.” Holloway sat back looking very pleased with himself.

“Exactly how did I ruin your life?” Ben asked. “I’ve been a rancher for twenty years. You’ve had plenty of opportunity to make your way as a sailor.”

“You turned them all against me. I never had a chance. You got my job; you made me look like a fool in front of the rest of the crew – turned them against me; you got my girl…”

Ben stared at him. “What do you mean, I got your girl?”

“Elizabeth Stoddard would have gone for me if you hadn’t been there. She wouldn’t look twice at me with you there all the time,” Holloway snapped. “You turned her father against me too. He invited you to visit, and you stole my girl, right under my nose.” Ben shook his head. That wasn’t how he remembered it.

Ben had been a little worried about his reception by the old hands on that first voyage, but those men who had not witnessed the thorough beating their new First Mate had given Holloway had heard about it, and it didn’t do his reputation any harm. Holloway’s efforts to stir up trouble fell on deaf ears, and Captain Stoddard was delighted with his new first mate.

“Well, lad,” he said as they tied up at the dock, “ Come and have dinner with me. You can stay at the Inn until we ship out again. It’ll be easier for us to prepare for the next voyage-and that’ll be a long one. We’re heading for the ports of Europe.”

“Thank you, sir, I accept with pleasure,” Ben said, the idea of seeing Miss Stoddard again filling him with a familiar and pleasant warmth.

There were many young men who courted Elizabeth, but he was often there in her home, and she liked talking to him. He accepted his role as confidant and friend, hoping that he might one day make her his wife. The only thing that put a damper on his plans for the future was Holloway. Holloway had decided that he fancied Elizabeth, not least because of Ben’s interest, and laid all out siege to her. But she didn’t like Holloway and made it clear to him in no uncertain terms that her choice was Ben.

Holloway blamed Ben for that too. He added that to his list of grudges, shared at length with his cronies when he was drunk. That voyage was the last time Ben saw Holloway. He heard about him on and off while he was in Boston, always blaming “that Cartwright” for his woes  and swearing revenge. He heard that Holloway had headed for the South China seas when Ben and Liz married, but there had been nothing since then.

And now it looked like Holloway was going to have his opportunity for revenge. Ben was worried. No one knew where he was. He didn’t know where he was. The boys would come and look for him, so he needed to know more. Were his sons in danger? “How did you know where I was?” Ben asked.

“”When I saw you in San Francisco, I asked around. They told me you owned a big ranch in Nevada. Followed ya. I was gonna kill ya at first, but now I got a better idea.”

“So it was you who took a shot at us the other day.” Ben nodded thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you finish the job?”
“I didn’t want that young ranch hand with you to get hurt. Same as when I dug that pit. Took me all night to dig that. It ain’t his fault he works for a weasel like you. Today was the first time I been able to get near ya without that boy around. Favorite of yours, is he?”

Hope grew in Ben. Maybe the boys weren’t in any danger. He’d thought he’d been protecting Adam, but Adam’s presence had been protecting him. His lips quirked. This was really going to amuse Adam if he ever got the chance to tell him.

“He’s my…my… right hand man,” Ben produced. “I couldn’t run this place without him.”

“I thought so. Well, I guess he’ll come looking for you. When he does, he can be my messenger. I ain’t gonna kill ya – I’m gonna take Liz from ya.”

Ben was stunned. Holloway hadn’t even bothered to find out about his family. He didn’t know that he couldn’t ever take Liz from him. She may have died, but she was always with him – just as he’d told Adam all those years ago.

“Pa?” Three-year-old Adam was snuggled on his father’s lap in front of the campfire. Ben had just finished telling him a fairytale-The Three Bears.

“What is it, son? I thought you were asleep.”

“I was finkin’.”

Ben smiled. He might only be three but this little boy did a lot of ‘finkin’. A lot of question-asking, too. “What were you thinking, Adam?”

 “Pa, why don’t I have a Ma?”

The smile faded and Ben’s heart sank. He’d been hoping this day wouldn’t come for a while yet. He still wasn’t sure what to say. “You do have a Ma, son. It’s just that she isn’t with us anymore.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s in heaven, son, with God. You remember I told you about God?”

Adam wasn’t quite clear on the concept of God, except it was somebody important that Pa said was always around and helped people when they needed Him, but he nodded. “Why’s she in Heaven, Pa?”

“Because her time on Earth was finished,  and God needed her.” Ben’s voice caught. He couldn’t even speak of his lost love without waves of sadness overwhelming him. And little Adam knew it too.

“Oh,” came the little voice. “But we need her too, Pa. It always makes you sad ‘cos she’s not here. Can’t we ask God to let her come back? I don’t like it when you’re sad.

“I’d like very much for her to come back, Adam, but once God calls you, you have to go. But she is always in heaven watching out for us.”

Watch out for our son now, Liz, he thought.

“You got any kids?” Holloway’s sudden question broke into his thoughts.

“Liz and I have one son. He went away east to college,” Ben said, carefully. Holloway didn’t want to kill the ranch hand, so he felt no qualms about editing the truth to protect Adam.

“Just as well. It ain’t his fault neither. And I wouldn’t want to upset his mama by hurting him. It don’t matter about you.”

It was getting late by the time Adam got to the waterhole. “Where did my father go into the woods?” he asked.

“He went in there,” Bill pointed, “but we couldn’t find him.”

 Adam sighed. If there were any signs, then the hands in their eagerness to help had probably obliterated them. “Come on, let’s go.”

They hadn’t gone more than fifty yards in when Adam picked up a hoof print. He dismounted, looking hard to find the trail. He followed the faint trail, blurred as it was by gravel and fallen leaves, until he came to an area where there had obviously been a scuffle of some sort. On one particularly scuffed up bit was a patch of something. Adam touched it gingerly, afraid of what he might find. Just as he’d feared. Blood! He looked up at Bill. “Go get the sheriff, please Bill, I think we might need him.”


 “I’ll be fine. I’m going to look for my father. When you’ve got the sheriff, bring him out here. Hoss and Joe should be here with Nick by then.”

Adam followed the trail carefully in the dim light. It was dark enough under the trees in the daylight, but it would be impossible to follow that trail once night fell. He wondered if he should have waited for Hoss. Hoss was a good tracker, better than he was. No, he decided. If he lost the trail he could go back for Hoss. Then he grinned briefly. He wouldn’t need to. Hoss would pick up his trail without any trouble. He hadn’t exactly been trying to hide his tracks. Whoever had his father hadn’t really been trying to hide his tracks, either. That patch of blood worried him. He hoped Pa was still alive; then his commonsense kicked in. Whoever it was wouldn’t have dragged his father’s body off if he was dead, so he had to assume that his father was still alive. How badly injured was another matter entirely. He stopped for a moment to do what he did best – think. The choices were clear, but what he didn’t know was his father’s condition. He could keep going in the hopes that this trail, faint as it was, would lead him to his father. Or he could stop and wait until either his brothers or the dawn came, bringing its light to help him find his way. He felt almost sick with worry for his father. Was this how Pa had felt? He wished he’d had a little more sympathy for Pa when he had been so worried.

He decided. His father might die if he left the search till morning, so he kept going, following the trail shown only by broken branches on the bushes and the occasionally scuffed leaves. It was almost full dark before he came to a small cabin tucked deep away almost out of sight. Adam hadn’t known of this cabin. He wasn’t even sure he was still on the Ponderosa. He crept close and cautiously tried to peer in at the one small window, but it was covered over with an old sack. Adam pressed up against the wall and listened. He heard, with relief, a familiar, much loved voice. At least Pa was well enough to talk. There was someone else in there with him. He didn’t recognise the voice. He could wait out here until the others came to join him, but more people wouldn’t really help. That cabin was small. Any shooting could just as easily injure his father, and he didn’t know how badly Pa was hurt
“I wouldn’t want to hurt his mama by hurting him. It don’t matter about you,” he heard. He wondered what they were talking about. He didn’t know what the first part of the sentence meant, but that second part was a clear threat against his father. He considered his options. The stranger was doing a lot of talking, but how much longer he would talk was anybody’s guess.

Flinging open the cabin door, Adam barged in, gun in hand. He was met by a rifle pointing straight at his face.

“I thought you’d get here sooner or later. Now look sonny, your boss is just fine, and he’ll stay that way as long as you do as you’re told.”

Adam glanced quickly at his father. There was enough light from the open door and the one small lantern to show him that his father was tied tightly to a post on one side of the cabin, and there was a trickle of blood down his neck. He was very pale. There was a message in his father’s eyes, warning him of something. ‘Your boss,’ the man had said. He’d play along and see what happened.

 “You ok, boss?” he asked. The relief in his father’s eyes told him that he’d picked the right cue.

Ben managed a weary smile. “I’m fine. This is Mr Holloway.” Adam raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

Holloway said, “I guess you like your boss, sonny?”

“Sure,” Adam nodded. “Treats all his hands well. Pays us well too.”

“Yeah, well, I want something he’s got, and you’re gonna take the message if you want to still have that well paying boss,” Holloway sneered. “I want you to ride back to the ranch and tell Mrs Cartwright to come here. He,”  Holloway jerked his chin at Ben, “stole my girl and I want her back. I’m sure she’ll see my point when she sees it’s either him or me. She chose wrong all those years ago, and I aim to help her choose right.”

Adam was reeling. What was this man talking about? There was no Mrs Cartwright. He looked at his father desperately seeking help. Ben’s lips turned upwards in the slightest of smiles. “He wants you to take a message to Mrs Elizabeth, to tell her to meet him here,” he said. “I suppose it’s just as well my son is still at college in the east, or he’d come along half-cocked and cause trouble.”

Adam’s mind was working. Pa had given him all the information he needed. Now how was he going to use it? He thought quickly. “Uh, boss, Mrs Elizabeth ain’t going to come just on my say-so. She wouldn’t believe me.”

Ben shook his head, wincing at the pain that caused him. “You’re right. Maybe you should write her a note,” he told Holloway.

“Uh, Boss, Mrs Elizabeth won’t come if she don’t recognise the writing,” Adam pointed out.

 “He’s right, you know,” Ben told Holloway. “Liz would know better than that. How would she know it wasn’t a trick?”

“He could tell her,” Holloway replied. “Or, he can write the note.”

Adam’s face fell. “I’m sorry, I can’t write. Mr Cartwright said he’d teach me this winter if there’s time,” Adam’s face brightened at the thought. Ben was hard pressed not to laugh. Adam should have been on the stage!

Then Adam became serious again. “And even if I could, Mrs Elizabeth would only come if the boss wrote it. If he writes it I’ll take it back to the ranch.”

Wide-eyed, with his best innocent expression, he watched Holloway. Pa had said he was stupid. How stupid was he?

“You get over there,” Holloway said, “and give me that gun.” He took Adam’s gun, and with the rifle trained on them he said, “Now you untie his hands an’ tie them back up in front, so’s he can write the note. And no funny stuff!” he warned. “I don’t want to hurt you, sonny, but I will if I have to.” Not that stupid, then.

Adam untied his father’s hands. “You ok?” he whispered. He was rewarded with a quick smile and a small nod. He hesitated a moment before he retied his father’s hands, but a quick prod with the rifle made him carry out his orders. He tied them as loosely as he could, but Holloway peered over his shoulder, the rifle uncomfortably close to Ben’s head.

“Tie ‘em tighter,” he ordered.

Adam obeyed. It had been worth a try, but even if Ben could get his hands loose the ropes around his chest would hold him.

“I need something to write a note on,” Ben said, trying to distract Holloway. He knew there was a tally book in his pocket, and probably one in Adam’s but Holloway wasn’t a rancher. He wouldn’t know about tally books. Maybe that would give Adam an opportunity.

“Yeah,” Holloway said. It didn’t occur to him that Ben might have paper in his pocket.

He turned slightly, and Adam took advantage of his momentary lapse of attention. He leaped onto their adversary. A shot rang out as the two grappled for the rifle. Adam didn’t have time to see where the shot had gone. He had the advantage of surprise, but he needed it. Holloway wasn’t a big man, but he was wiry and strong, the legacy of a lifetime’s physical labour. Adam grabbed the rifle barrel and wrenched it out of Holloway’s hand, sending it skittering across the floor. Holloway swung at him, but Adam blocked the blow. The shock coursed through Adam’s arm, jarring his shoulder. He didn’t let it stop him though. He threw a solid punch at Holloway with the other hand, landing in his midriff. There was a grunt of pain but Holloway didn’t give up easily. He came at Adam again. A well-aimed punch landed on Adam’s stomach, swiftly followed by an upper cut under his jaw. The force of the blow sent Adam reeling. Holloway took advantage of his pain, landing a good right hook. Adam drew a painful breath and retaliated, landing a series of hard, fast punches onto Holloway’s jaw and face. Holloway backed off under the attack, but then came charging at Adam head-down. His shoulder caught Adam and speared him backwards through the rickety table that stood in the corner. The table disintegrated; both men fell heavily to the floor, Holloway on top of Adam in a mess of splintered wood. As Holloway grabbed a piece of broken table Adam rolled over taking Holloway with him. Adam’s greater size and weight proved an asset. Holloway’s head bounced on the floor as they rolled. Adam followed through with a knockout blow. The sailor lay on the floor not moving.

Ben couldn’t see clearly what was happening in the gloom. All he could see was two bodies rolling about on the floor, and he could hear the sound of flesh hitting flesh and a grunt or gasp as the blows connected, but that was all. He strained to see what was happening. Then silence. A figure rose to its feet. The man stood, silhouetted against the light. He swiped his hand across a split lip, wiping the blood off his face. Ben breathed a sigh of relief. He’d recognise that graceful economy of movement anywhere. “Adam?”

“I’m fine, Pa. Let’s get you untied,” Adam said as he moved across to undo the ropes.
“Look out!” Ben yelled.

Instinctively Adam ducked as the rifle butt swished by his head. Turning, he threw a punch at Holloway that would have felled his brother Hoss, but it missed its target, glancing off Holloway’s shoulder. Adam began to hit the still groggy Holloway; all the pent-up frustration from the last few weeks flowing through his fists as he repeatedly pounded the other man. Holloway backed away, trying to escape the onslaught. Adam was relentless, each blow forcing Holloway back to the cabin wall. The blows took their toll – by the time Holloway reached the wall it was the only thing keeping him upright. Bracing himself against it he took one last desperate swing at Adam. Adam staggered, but before Holloway could take advantage, Adam punched him –  good solid punch. Holloway dropped and Adam was on top of him.

“Adam!” Ben shouted. “Adam! Stop!”

Years of obedience to that voice was probably the only thing that saved Holloway from further punishment. It wasn’t like Adam to continue to hit a man when he was down. Adam sat back on his haunches and looked down at the battered man.

 “Thanks for stopping me. I guess I lost my temper,” he said, embarrassed,  as he bound Holloway firmly. He rubbed gingerly at his bruised jaw with an even more bruised hand. “Got a bit careless there,” he said as he released his father. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Ben untied his feet. “I’m fine. He caught me by surprise. He jumped me, and I hit my head while we were fighting. Are you all right, son?” He reached up to rub his head. “Where are the others?”

“I’m fine – just a bit bruised. I sent Nick for the boys, and Bill for the Sheriff. Are you sure you’re all right?”

Ben nodded. Holloway was glaring at him through an already purpling eye, but being tied up that was all he could do.
Ben couldn’t resist it. This man had made the last few weeks of his life miserable. He could return the favor to some small extent.

“Holloway, I’d like to introduce someone to you.” He put his hand proudly on Adam’s shoulder. “This is my oldest son, Adam. Looks a lot like his mother, doesn’t he?” Ben’s smile was malicious.

Holloway gaped at him. “You lied to me,” he accused. “You said he was a ranch hand.”

Ben chuckled “He is. That’s what I pay him for.” He caught Adam’s eye and added, “He is also my right hand man, and I couldn’t do without him.” Adam didn’t miss the pride in his father’s voice.

Holloway thought of something else. “You got more kids? You said you and Liz only had one son. I s’pose ya lied about that too.” Ben was about to speak when Adam put one hand gently on his father’s arm.

“Let me, Pa, please.”
Ben nodded. This man had made Adam’s life miserable too. Let the boy have his own small revenge.

Adam turned from his father and looked Holloway up and down with clear distaste on his face. “My father told me you were a poor excuse for a man, and he was right. I never got the chance to know my mother, but I do know she had excellent taste in men. I know she would have never entertained the thought of you as her husband for a moment,” he told the other man.

Holloway stared at him. “What do you mean, you didn’t know your mother?”

“My mother died when I was born.”

“Liz is dead?”

“She died shortly after Adam was born,” Ben told him. There was such shock on Holloway’s face that Ben felt a very brief pang of sympathy for him. It vanished in the next second.

“It’s your fault Liz is dead. I shoulda killed ya when I had the chance,” he snarled at Ben, “and the boy too. He’s just like you – too big for his britches.”

“Thank you,” Adam replied politely. “That’s the best compliment I ever had. If I can be half the man my father is, then I’ll be happy with that.” He smiled with deep affection at his father, and Ben smiled back.

They heard the sound of horses.

“Pa!” yelled Joe. “Pa!”

Adam caught his father’s eye and grinned. “Shame they didn’t turn up sooner,” he said as he went out to meet his brothers and the Sheriff, pushing Holloway in front of him.

“Should have known you’d turn up after all the work was done,” he teased his brothers.

“Where’s Pa?” Joe demanded.

“I’m here, Joe, and I’m fine. Holloway, I’d like you to meet my other sons, Joe and Hoss.”

 “But...but... you said Liz died in childbirth,” Holloway spluttered.

“She did. Hoss and Joe are my half-brothers. A fact I forget most of the time.” Adam’s grin was matched by the grins on his brothers’ faces.

“I suppose they’re as uppity as this one,” Holloway snarled.

“I am very proud of all my sons. No man could ask for better.”

“That’s good. I was beginning to wonder why you’d disowned me for a while there.” Adam chuckled.

“Disowned you?” Hoss looked worried. Surely Adam and Pa hadn’t been fighting with each other when Pa had been in danger?

“It’s all right , Hoss,” Ben reassured him. “We’ll tell you all about it when we get home. In the meantime, let’s get him to jail, and ourselves home. It’s been a long trying day.”

They sat in front of the fire, just enjoying the peace of the evening. Adam and Ben’s bruises had been doctored, and then Ben, with a little assistance from Adam, told the other two the story of his day, over Hop Sing’s delicious supper. Ben was just sitting back in his chair enjoying the presence of his sons. Hoss and Joe were playing yet another game of checkers, and Hoss was winning, for a change. Adam sat on the low table, his back to his father, staring into the fire. Ben watched him. He was slumped with his elbows resting on his thighs, hands hanging loosely. It didn’t take much to know that Adam was worried about something.

“A penny for them, son?”

“I was just thinking,” Adam said, turning slightly to see his father’s face. “I didn’t take your concerns about a threat seriously, and you could have been killed. And it would have been my fault.” Adam was overwhelmed with guilt for not protecting his father properly.

Ben smiled. “I meant to tell you – you know how I thought I was protecting you when I insisted on accompanying you?”
Adam nodded. “What about it?”

“It seems Holloway didn’t want to hurt my ‘young ranch hand’, so he didn’t keep shooting at me because you were there.”
He pursed his lips and watched while his words sank in. The weight on Adam’s shoulders seemed to lift a little.

Adam looked up at him. “Are you saying that it was only because of me that Holloway didn’t kill you?”

“That’s right, son. Your presence protected me. I’m fine, and Holloway is behind bars. So stop blaming yourself.” He leaned over and squeezed Adam’s arm affectionately.

Adam smiled then returned to staring into the fire. Silence reigned again. Then, abruptly, Adam asked, “Did you mean what you said today about me being your right hand man?”

 Adam’s unexpected question surprised his father. “Of course. I wouldn’t have said it otherwise. Why?”

 “That irrigation scheme I was working on,” Adam stopped for a moment and scratched at his eyebrow, as if he were reluctant to get to the point.

“What is it, son?” Ben encouraged him.

 Adam licked his lips and ran his hand through the back of his hair. Unmistakably nervous about something, Ben thought, but what? “I’d like to make the decision whether or not to proceed with it myself. Without my requiring your consent or approval, I mean.” He fixed anxious eyes on his father’s face, again reminding Ben of the small boy he had been.


Adam rose and stood in front of the fire, hands in his back pockets. “Because it’s important to me, Pa. I need to know…I want to be sure…I don’t know whether… ” He hesitated. He didn’t want to hurt his father; the right words just wouldn’t come.

Ben put his hand gently on Adam’s shoulder, surprised at his normally articulate son’s unusual reluctance to speak his mind, but all at once he understood. “You want to know that I trust your judgement?”
 Adam nodded, but said nothing.

“I don’t know why you should think otherwise, but if it’s that important to you, Adam, then all right. I’ll leave the decision up to you.” Ben smiled slightly. “If you do go ahead with it and it needs extra funds you’ll have to find them on your own,” he warned.

 “Of course. If it’s my responsibility, then it’s all my responsibility. Thank you.”

The light in Adam’s eyes was sufficient reward, Ben thought, and anyway, there was no chance Adam would make a poor decision. He was a smart young man.

“Oh, Boss, there’s one more thing,” Adam said, turning into the ranch hand he’d been that afternoon but with a gleam in his eye a ranch hand would never have.

Ben raised an eyebrow, wondering what was coming. That gleam usually meant trouble!

“Since you don’t actually have to take time out over winter to teach me to write, can I have some time off instead?” Adam tried to keep his face straight but he couldn’t. He joined in with his father’s laughter.

February 2002