“A Very Present Help”


    Bill Peters leaned up negligently against the bar and took a large pull at his beer. A tall man dressed in black entered the barroom and paused at the doorway, looking around.  He looks mighty peeved about something,  Bill thought, as the man caught his eye. The man in black caught sight of the men in one corner playing poker. He frowned as he strode swiftly over to them, stopping behind a handsome young man, not much more than a boy-couldn't be more than 16 or 17, mused Bill, still watching with interest. The stranger put his hand on the boy's shoulder and said something quietly in his ear. The boy looked up at him and gave him a dirty look. Bill was amused. If looks could kill..., he chuckled to himself. The boy shook off the man's hand and continued to play. The man replaced his hand on the boy's shoulder and spoke again. This time when the boy looked up at him something like fear flicked briefly across his face; so briefly that Bill wasn't even sure he'd seen it. Then, shrugging off the man's hand, he rose, said something to the other players and stalked out of the bar, not even looking back at the other man. The man in black folded his arms across his chest and smiled sardonically as he watched the boy stalked out, very much on his dignity. He shook his head and crossed the room to the bar where Bill was standing. Bill was intrigued. The man in black didn't look old enough to be the boy's father, but the boy, while not happy about it, had clearly accepted the man's authority. An interesting by-play. He'd like to know more.

    The man in black spoke to the bartender. He had a pleasant, deep voice, and he was well spoken.

“Evening, Tom,” he said, nodding at the barkeep. “Give me a beer please. It’s been a long day.”  

Tom grinned. “Mr. Cartwright looking for Little Joe, is he?”

The man in black sighed. “Not yet. Do me a favour, Tom. Don't tell my father what Little Joe's been up to today. He's mad enough with him for 'getting distracted' as it is. He was supposed to be home with those supplies hours ago. And I have better things to do than go chasing around the countryside looking for him. We're shorthanded as it is. I'll settle him my own way.”

 “Sure thing, Adam” Tom agreed. He had no doubts that Adam would do as he said. He had seen Adam 'settle' Little Joe on other occasions.

    The man called Adam finished his beer and turned to go. Bill approached him.

“Umm excuse me, Mister,” he said to Adam. Adam looked at him inquringly.

“You said you were shorthanded. I don't suppose you're hiring are you?” he asked hopefully.

 Adam looked him up and down, carefully. He was older than the usual men he hired – perhaps about the same age as Pa, or maybe a bit older, but he looked strong and healthy. “Had any experience with cattle?” he asked.

 Bill nodded. “Yeah, I worked on a spread in Arizona for a while.”

Adam raised an eyebrow at him. “Why did you leave?”

 Bill looked sad. “The girl I wanted to marry found someone else. I didn't see any reason to stick around.” It was almost true. It just wasn't in Arizona that it had happened.

 “Fair enough,” said Adam. “We pay a dollar a day and bed and beans. Do you have a name?”

“My name's Bill Peters.”

Adam extended his hand. “Adam Cartwright. You can either come back with me now, or get yourself out to the Ponderosa in the morning.”

Bill said, “ I don't have much. Just about what's on my horse's back, so I’ll come out with you. But I havta settle up at the boarding house.” Bill had heard about the Ponderosa. The largest spread in this part of Nevada, built up by Ben Cartwright and his three sons.

“Fine. I've got something I need to do. I'll see you back here in an hour.” And Adam left. Bill went to say goodbye and thanks to Mrs. Magee, who ran the boarding house where he'd been staying.

    He was early at the bar, so he figured he'd have another beer.

 “Back again are you?” Tom said pleasantly. Tom was in a chatty mood, and the bar was quiet tonight. “I'll tell you something about those Cartwrights. They're good people, but you don't want to get on their wrong side. Specially the wrong side of Adam. Smart man, Adam Cartwright. When Little Joe gets on the wrong side of Adam, he especially regrets it. Adam doesn't like having his time wasted.”

Tom laughed. Bill thought this was a good opportunity to find out about the little scene he'd watched before. He still wondered about that momentary flash of fear.
“But he's not the boy's father, is he? He doesn't look old enough.”

 “No, Adam's his older brother. He's about twenty-eight, I think. There's the old man, Ben Cartwright, and his three sons. Adam, that's the oldest, then Hoss, and then Little Joe. There's about 6 years between each of them. The two older ones keep a sharp eye out on Little Joe.” Tom chuckled. “I expect Adam told Little Joe that if he didn't get himself home he'd tell their Pa where he found him.”

Bill found this interesting. “Father keeps the boys on a tight rein?”

 Tom shook his head. “No, it’s not like that. He really cares for those boys. Keeps a firm hand on young Joe though.” Tom grinned. “Last time he caught Joe gambling he was restricted to the ranch for a month!”

“Oh, he doesn't approve of gambling then?” Bill asked.

 “Not for 17 year old boys, he doesn't. He's been mother and father to those boys for most of their lives and he's brought those boys up right.” Tom replied. There was no time to hear more. Adam returned and Bill went out to join him for the long ride out to the Ponderosa.

    On the ride out to the Ponderosa, Adam talked idly with Bill. The second time Bill called him “Mr. Cartwright” Adam shook his head.

“Sorry, Bill,” he grinned. “You'll just have to get used to calling me Adam. The only Mr. Cartwright on the Ponderosa is my father!”

In spite of his serious expression he has a nice smile. Seems like a pretty friendly fella, too, even though he is the boss, or at least the boss' son.  He wondered how much authority the young man had. He didn't want to take this long ride only to be sent packing by the old man. He said as much to Adam, but Adam reassured him.

 “My father and my brothers and I own the Ponderosa jointly. I'm what you might call the second-in-command, but hiring and firing,” he paused and grinned at Bill,  “are my responsibility. Don't worry.”

Adam’s interest was piqued by the older man. He'd made a casual comment about the time, and his companion had replied, unexpectedly,  “And in today already walks tomorrow”.

Adam stared at him in surprise. “You like poetry? That's Coleridge, isn't it?”

Bill agreed. The rest of the journey was whiled away with a discussion about poetry, a rare treat indeed for Adam, whose brothers did not share his literary bent. But even Adam was aware that a liking for poetry didn't make a good ranch hand.

    They arrived at the ranch house to be greeted by Ben Cartwright's angry face. “Where have you been, boy?” he demanded of Adam. “Supper was an hour ago.
It’s bad enough Joe took so long getting back with the supplies, without you disappearing too.”

Adam smiled wryly. “Sometimes my father forgets I'm twenty-eight,” he said in a quiet, affectionate tone. Adam's tone of voice clearly told Bill that Adam liked and respected his father, and didn't mind his quirks.

“Sorry Pa,” he excused himself. “I had something to do in town.”

I really don't need to make excuses to Pa about my whereabouts – I am a grown man,  he thought, but he knew that he would keep right on doing it just as Ben would continue to call him 'boy'! Then he smiled to himself as he introduced Bill. That would distract Pa's attention from his lateness and defuse his anger.

“Pa, this is Bill Peters. I've hired him.”

Ben looked him over. He liked what he saw, but the man was no youngster. Much older than the usual hands they hired. Why had Adam hired him? They weren't that shorthanded.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright,” Bill said, as he shook Ben's offered hand.

 “Adam will show you the bunk house and where to stable your horse. Adam, come in when you've finished. I'd like to discuss something with you.” Ben said crisply.

Adam raised an eyebrow, and simply nodded. He had a fairly good idea of what Pa wanted to say to him. Ben rarely interfered in Adam's decisions about hiring, but he was going to say something about this man's age. In fairness, though, he wouldn't do it in front of the new hand.

    Adam was right. Ben was concerned about the age of the hand he had just hired but as Adam said, it was only fair to see how he did. If it turned out he couldn't do a full day's work then they could let him go.

“After all, Pa,” Adam said wickedly, “we haven't put you out to pasture yet...”

Hoss, poking idly at the fire, snorted, attracting his father's attention.

“Leave the fire alone, Hoss,” he snapped.

Ben glared at his two elder sons who were chortling at his response. Then his mood lightened and he grinned.

“OK you two, that's enough impertinence from you,” he said, with mock severity. “As if I didn't have enough nonsense from that young brother of yours. It shouldn't take him all afternoon to fetch the supplies. Ogling girls again, I expect. Hop Sing needed those supplies.”

Adam glanced around but Little Joe, wisely for once had made himself scarce. He didn't want to prompt any investigation by Pa of his lateness. Adam didn’t say anything. Little Joe is  going to find himself rounding up strays in the canyons tomorrow, and it will  do him no good to complain, thought Adam caustically. I have better things to do with my time than go hunting for Little Joe.

He told Little Joe this the following morning and  added, “Next time, younger brother, I won't save your hide. I'll let Pa find out for himself what you get up to when he sends you into town.”

When Joe protested about Adam's punishment, for such the task he'd been set was, Adam merely folded his arms across his chest. “Would you'd prefer to tell Pa about it this time?” he asked.

 Joe gave up. He knew when he was beaten. The hands hid their smiles. You'd think Little Joe would have learned by now not to cross his older brother. Adam usually won those encounters. Bill Peters watched this episode with interest. He thought Adam had handled the situation very well, and he'd let Little Joe keep his dignity, always a tender spot in a youngster of that age.

    Over the next few weeks, Bill Peters did prove his worth as a ranch hand, and both Adam and Ben grew to like him a great deal. He was well read and well travelled and he played a mean game of chess. Adam really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss literature with someone new and Ben enjoyed reminiscing with someone his own age about the pleasures of sailing, as Bill had also been a sailor. He'd become so well read on board ship if his free time. They had even invited him to join them for Sunday dinner, occasionally. Ben had been surprised when, on Bill's first Sunday on the Ponderosa, he had appeared early in his Sunday best and  had asked Adam, rather shyly, if he could direct him to the nearest church. Ben had insisted that he go to church with them since there was room in the buggy. Usually the hands spent Sunday resting or playing cards or going into town. It was rare that any of them wanted to pray. Ben felt that such devotion deserved some reward, although there was nothing wrong with the food the hands got. Bill smiled and had explained to the surprised men,

 “I was in love with a girl, once. She taught me to love God, and I promised her that I would try. She didn't love me though. She loved another man but she was my very good friend. So I keep my promise and it has helped me through many dark times.”

Ben nodded. He understood. He too had loved a girl who had taught him to keep his faith in God, and have His help through dark times. Her son was settling into the driving seat of the buggy.

 “Come on, Pa,” said Adam. “We're going to be late.”

    It was over that Sunday dinner and many others after that, that the Cartwrights learned of Bill's extraordinary experiences over his life. He'd not only been a sailor, and visited many exotic places, but before that he'd been a shipwright. He had left shipbuilding and gone to sea when he had been disappointed in love. Although Bill seemed like a good man, and in spite of the fact that he liked him, Ben was mildly concerned at the way he had integrated himself into the family. Even Little Joe liked him, although he had little in common with the much older man. Ben's concern wasn't that of many other ranchers that his hired hand “didn't know his place”. Ben's values were based on honesty and integrity. How much money a man had was unimportant as long as he had those values. Bill's obvious interest in Adam puzzled Ben the most. The man was his age, old enough to be Adam's father, and it seemed to Ben that there was something more than just an appreciation for literature in Bill's interest. There wasn't anything really that he could put his finger on, so, as long as no harm seemed to come from their unlikely friendship, he would merely keep an eye on it. However, his uneasy feeling prompted Ben to have him checked out, so he got Roy Coffee, the sheriff, to make some enquiries for him. Those enquiries turned up blank. Bill seemed to be exactly who he said he was.

     Bill was fond of the Cartwrights too. He liked and respected Ben and he thought Adam was a fine young man. Ben had done a good job of raising him. The boy had a good head on his shoulders and deserved the respect that he had earned both from the hands and the townspeople. Hoss and Little Joe were turning out to be fine boys too. He admired how close they were. Tom the bartender had been mostly right about the Cartwrights, but he was wrong about one thing. Ben did keep the boys on a tight rein, but that rein was love, not fear, as Bill had at first thought. Ben's private face was just the same as his public face. But he had been right about the most important thing – the Cartwrights were good people.

    “Morning, Pa, Hoss,” Adam said as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table. Ben glanced up from his breakfast.

 “Morning, Adam. Got much  planned for today?”

Adam rubbed his chin. “I thought I'd go out to the north pasture  this morning to see how the cattle we brought down from the high country are,” he said. “Why? Something you want me to do?”

“Yes. I need you to go out to the sawmill and check on that consignment of lumber for the shipyards. I've had a letter from them asking if we can move the delivery date up. I know you've been keeping an eye on it. Hoss and Joe can check the cattle.”

 Hoss nodded, his mouth full of bacon.

 Adam considered for a moment. “I think it’s under control. How soon do they want it? I've got that order for Pete Barron at the Lucky Star mine to get out first. That contract's due by Monday.” Then Adam laughed and caught Hoss' eye. “Of course, we could always tell our younger brother that it can't be done...”

Hoss grinned and Ben laughed too. One thing was certain; if you told Little Joe something couldn't be done, he would move mountains if he had to, to prove you wrong.

 “No, he doesn't really have the experience for either the mine job, or the ship yards. Joe can stick to the cattle.”

“Cattle?” said Little Joe in disgust as he came in for breakfast. “How come I get all the boring jobs? I was going to work with the horses this morning.”

“Sorry, Joe. Adam needs to get out to the sawmill, and I want you and Hoss to check on the cattle Adam brought down yesterday.” Ben said sternly.

Joe pulled a face. “Yeah, sure Pa,” he said resignedly. He knew there was no use arguing with Ben when he used that tone. Even Adam didn't often argue with that tone.

“Pa?” said Adam. “The shipyard contract? When do they want it?” Adam returned the conversation to the lumber contracts. “If I'm going out to the sawmill I'll have to get going. I think I'll take Bill Peters out with me. Keep me company.” He smirked at his father, waiting for the inevitable response. Ben gave it to him.

“You may take Bill with you only if you promise not to spend more time talking about poetry than talking about timber,” his father frowned. Adam's smirk widened to a grin. Ben glared at him although his lips twitched. He knew when he'd been had. He brought Adam down to earth with a thud. “They want to move that shipyard contract up a month,” he said dourly.

Adam raised an eyebrow and shook his head, all levity forgotten. “A month, Pa? You have to be joking. I can maybe give them two weeks, but I don't know about a month.” He rose. “I'll see what Charlie thinks about it. He’s a good foreman – he’ll know if it’s possible.”

    He did take Bill out to the sawmill. Not just because he enjoyed Bill's company but because he thought he could use Bill's expertise as a sailor and shipwright. True, Pa had been a sailor too, but that had been before Adam had been born. Bill had experience that Adam could use. He wanted Bill to share what he knew with the foreman of the sawmill. It may not speed the job up but it would ensure that the shipyard received the best quality. As far as Adam was concerned, the Ponderosa's reputation for fine quality was much more important that hurrying the job. It was his timber, with his name on it, and he wasn't going to tarnish his reputation. He told this to Bill on the way out to the sawmill. Bill agreed.

 “A man's got to keep his good name. And once you lose it, it’s too hard to get it back.” Then he grinned and quoted “Worth makes the man and want of it the fellow.”

 Adam looked blank, frowning a little. “I don't think I recognise ...” Then his face cleared. “Oh. Pope's ‘Essay on Man’. Don't like Pope all that much. But I agree with the point.” His smile was faintly malicious as he added, “I can just see Pa's face at this precise moment.”

    Once at the sawmill he had a long discussion with the foreman and some of the more experienced workers on the progress of the mine job. Adam was pleased when they told him they could have it ready to go three days early. When Adam told the foreman that the shipyard wanted their timber a month early he was dismayed.

“I just can't see how we can do it. It’s going to be hard enough to get it in on time as it is. We've got no experience in the kind of timber they're asking for. That's why I was pushing on the mine job, to give us a bit of extra leeway.”

He was a bit happier when Adam introduced Bill. “Bill's got shipbuilding experience. He says he'll be able to help you select the right wood for shipbuilding.”

“Yes,” said Bill, “but I must warn you, it was a long time ago.”

The foreman nodded. “Doesn't matter. It’s more than we've got.” He glanced at Adam. “I'll need him for a while, out here at the mill. Not at the house.”

 Bill's response was one that Adam had come to think was characteristic. “If it’s OK with Adam here I'll come back tomorrow with my bedroll early and I can stay with you until you don't need me anymore.”

 Both Adam and the foreman thought this a fine idea, so the next morning Bill rode out to the sawmill to stay. He was there nearly a week before he returned. The mine contract had been filled and gone out; the shipyard contract had been started. The foreman told Adam that Bill's help had been invaluable, so Bill stayed at the sawmill while they worked on the contract.

    Adam surveyed the work at the sawmill with satisfaction. All the timber for the shipyard was cut and stacked, and most of it loaded. And it was two weeks early.
The men have worked really hard. I'll give them a day off when the job's done. They deserve it, Adam decided. He had brought Little Joe out with him today in spite of his protests. Little Joe much preferred to work with the horses but Adam believed that Little Joe ought to have a good working knowledge of all aspects of the Ponderosa's operations. Ben had agreed with Adam's suggestion this morning that Joe come with him so Joe was up at the sawmill with Adam despite not wanting to be there. He stood politely listening while Charlie and Adam discussed the arrangements for the shipment for a while, but when he saw the men bringing the horses to get them ready to be hitched to the wagons he went to check them out. That was much more interesting than staying where he was, listening to Adam and Charlie.

    Adam finished his conversation with Charlie. He took the worksheet that Charlie gave him, and turned to lean against the nearest wagon to sign it. Concentrating hard on what he was doing, he didn’t see that one of the men loading the wagons dropped his load, knocking a pile of trimmed but uncut logs. They began to roll, heading straight for the oblivious Adam as they picked up speed. Joe looked up at the shouts. He went cold at what he saw.

“Adam look out”, Joe yelled, running as fast as he could towards his brother. He was too far away. Adam couldn't hear him over the noise of the mill, but Bill did. He saw the logs rolling straight towards Adam and  he leaped straight into their path. He shoved Adam roughly out of the way, yelling “No!” as he did so. Adam went flying. Joe watched in horror as the hurtling logs crashed into the side of the wagon crushing Bill where Adam had been standing just a moment ago. He raced down the hill to help the men pull the timber from the injured man. Adam got to his feet, blood flowing from a cut to his head.

“Adam, Adam,” gasped Joe, pale and shaken, unable to say more.

“I'm fine, Joe,” Adam reassured him, putting a comforting arm round his little brother. Looking at the chaos around him, he asked, “Where's Bill?”

 “Over there,” said Joe, pointing. He leaned into Adam's hug for a moment, taking strength from it, then said, “Adam, he saved your life. If it hadn't been for Bill you would have been under there.”

“Yes, I know,” said Adam very softly. He joined the men who had pulled Bill out, kneeling at the injured man’s side. Bill was bruised and bleeding but he was determinedly holding onto consciousness. He looked up at Adam and whispered, “Are you all right? Tell me you're all right.”
Adam smiled at him. “I'm fine. Just a cut.”

 “Good.” Bill’s face twisted in pain and he slid into unconsciousness.

    Ben Cartwright heard the rattle of an unexpected wagon and emerged from the barn. He looked appalled at the scene. Adam's face was covered in blood, Little Joe was pale and shaking and someone was lying in the wagon. He rushed to them.

 “What's happened? Adam, are you all right?”

 “Yeah, Pa, I'm fine. Little Joe's a bit shocked. And Bill, Bill's badly injured. We've sent for the doctor,” Adam replied as he helped Little Joe down from the wagon.

“There was an accident up at the sawmill. Some logs rolled down the hill....”

“Yeah, Pa,” interrupted Joe, feeling he had to talk about it. “Bill saved Adam's life. He pushed him out of the way. He's a hero, Pa.” Ben looked slightly stunned for a moment. Then he pulled himself together.

“Let's get Bill into the downstairs bedroom.” As they carried the injured man inside, Paul Martin, the doctor arrived. He started to go to Adam, who held up his hand to stop him and said, “I'm fine, Paul. Just see to Bill. He's unconscious at the moment but he was in a lot of pain.”

“The hands told me what happened. I'll see what I can do. No, don't come, Ben. You clean Adam up. And see to Little Joe. He could do with something hot and sweet.” Paul Martin went into the injured man and was there for a very long time.

    Ben turned to his sons. “Tell me what happened,” he demanded as he gently pushed Adam into a chair and began to wash away the blood. The cut wasn't too deep and seemed to have stopped bleeding.

“I don't know, exactly. I didn't see,” said Adam attempting to avoid his father's ministrations.

 “Sit still, Adam,” said his father severely, as though he were six. It was a sign of how shaken Adam was that he did as he was told.

 “I saw it.” Joe perched on the arm of Adam's chair, sipping the cup of hot tea sweetened with honey that Hop Sing brought him. He wanted to be close to his big brother. He was still pale. “I was so scared for you, Adam. I couldn't get there in time.”

Adam smiled at Joe and patted his leg. “Thanks to Bill I'm still around to annoy you, younger brother. Tell us what happened.”

 Joe told the story. When he had finished he looked thoughtful for a moment. “Pa, why do you suppose he yelled “no”, and not “look out?”

 Ben shook his head. “I don't know son. We'll ask him when he recovers.”
    Paul Martin closed the door of the guest bedroom quietly. “I've done all I can for him,” he said to the anxiously waiting family, “but it’s not much. All I can really do is ease the pain. He's regained consciousness but I don't think he's going to make it. There's too much internal bleeding. Adam, he wants to see you. And Ben too.”
Ben and Adam went into the room where Bill lay. He looked gray under his tan.

Ben spoke first. “Bill, you saved my son's life. I can't even begin to thank you. But to risk your own...”

Bill shook his head slightly. “Not... necessary to thank me,” he managed. “I ...had...to. Least...I could...do.” He smiled inwardly as both men raised one eyebrow in identical expressions. “I have to tell you a story.”

Each word was an effort, and Ben said,  “Just rest, Bill. There'll be time later.”

Bill shook his head slightly and moistened his lips. “No. Help me sit up, please. The pain stuff the doctor gave me seems to be working.”

 Adam pulled him up so he was leaning against his shoulder, and gave him a drink.

 “Bill, I am so sorry this happened. I am so grateful to you, but I'm so sorry I let it happen,” Adam said.

Bill patted his hand. “Not your fault, Adam. You can't take on the burdens of the world.” He smiled wryly. “Everyone's gotta go sometime. Not everyone gets to choose the way they go. And this is my gift to you. Remember me, but don't blame yourself. It was an accident.” He stopped, and took another sip of the water Adam held for him.

“I know I'm going to die. I need to tell you this. It’s important. You remember that girl I told you about, the one I loved?”

“Yes?” said Adam.

“I went back to Boston after sailing all over the world for all those years. I went back three years ago and wanted to see her, thought I’d look her up. I found her all right”. He looked sad. “I found her in a churchyard. She'd died giving birth to a son. Twenty five years earlier.”

Ben's eyes met Adam's, with dawning comprehension. “Elizabeth,” he breathed.

 Bill nodded. “Yeah. That's right. The girl I loved was Elizabeth Stoddard – your mother, Adam. I loved her but I was too old for her. She chose a younger man. I heard he'd taken the baby out west and I didn't have any reason to stay in Boston. I thought I'd find Elizabeth's son and see what kind of a man he was. It took me three years to track him down and make my way here. I had something to give him if he deserved it.” He grasped Adam's arm in a surprisingly hard grip. “I think you do deserve it. I'd like to think that if I had a son he would have turned out like you.”

Adam was touched. “Thank you” he said, squeezing the man's hand gently. “You saved my life. What more could you give me?”

Bill returned the smile, painfully. “It was the least I could do for Elizabeth. But there's something else. In my things. Before I left she gave me a small silver inlaid Bible to remind me about God. It's the only thing of value I ever had. I've got no family so I wanted to give it to Elizabeth's son.”

He moistened his lips again, and closed his eyes. Then he opened them and looked directly at Adam. “I was going to give it to you for Christmas, but I think you'll have to have it early.” A ghost of a smile played on his lips. He was silent for a long moment. Adam moved to lie him down, but Bill spoke again. “I like you, Adam. You're the son I never had. I've enjoyed my time here on the Ponderosa. I've enjoyed getting to know you. I want you to have the Bible. Not just Elizabeth's son. I'm giving the Bible to Adam Cartwright. I came to find Elizabeth's son, but I found Adam Cartwright. The man he is. You understand?” he asked urgently, again gripping Adam's hand.

Adam closed his eyes, fighting back the tears, then he nodded. “I understand, Bill. Thank you,” he said thickly, as those tears choked his voice.

 “I knew you would,” was Bill's almost inaudible reply.

Then Bill turned to Ben. “I'm sure you made Elizabeth a good husband, Ben. Seeing you here on the Ponderosa and seeing what you've done, I'm sure she would have been happy. You would have given her a good life. You've raised those boys well. She would have been so proud of Adam. You deserve what you've got. I couldn't have Elizabeth, but at least now I understand why...” His voice trailed away into silence as he lost consciousness.

    Adam sat with Bill all through the long night, bathing his face, giving him water and laudanum when the pain was too great. Bill never regained consciousness fully and some time in the early hours of the morning, he died. Ben came in later to see Adam, sitting very still, holding Bill's hand. He didn't look up as his father entered the room. There was a stillness in the room. Ben reached out and gently closed the man's eyes but he watched Adam anxiously. There was a bleakness in his eyes; such pain. The boy had experienced the pain of death so many times...he had been so young the first time. He had to find the right words to comfort his suddenly vulnerable oldest son.

“Pa” Adam began, “Pa...” and then he shook his head. He could find no words to express what he was feeling. His father put his arm gently round Adam’s shoulder and squeezed it.

“Adam, Bill was right about one thing. You mustn’t blame yourself. It wasn’t your fault. It was an accident. How could you have prevented it?” Adam’s gaze moved from Bill’s face to his father’s.

“I don’t know. I should have done something. The sawmill was my responsibility. Bill risked his life, lost his life...”

Ben interrupted. “That’s the point, son. He loved you enough to risk his life for you. He chose his way, Adam. That’s what each person has to do in life. He was a good man. I hope you truly value the gift he gave you – as I do the gift he gave me.” He embraced his cherished eldest son – Elizabeth’s son – and his. Adam relaxed a little with the pressure and  allowed himself to cry. He knew his Pa wasn’t talking about the little silver Bible.
    Adam looked down at the small silver inlaid Bible in his hand. He opened the flyleaf to see his mother's neat handwriting. He read the inscription again.

“To my very dear friend William,
Always remember, my dear:
God is our refuge and our strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Psalms XLVI 1
With sincerest Affection
Elizabeth Stoddard   January, 1834”

When they buried William Peters Adam insisted on having a tombstone engraved for him. Hoss and Little Joe stood on either side of their oldest brother as Bill Peters was laid to rest. Hoss shook his head as he looked at the tombstone.

“It was mighty nice of you, Adam, to get Bill a tombstone, but why them fancy words?” Adam gave his brother a twisted grin.

 “It’s Latin. I think he would have liked it”.

“Well maybe he would,” retorted Little Joe, “but only if he knew what it meant! What does it mean, Adam?”
Adam regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “It means 'Always faithful', younger brother”, he said,  “always faithful.” He looked up to see his father's eyes on him, looking worried, as he had so often recently. He gave his father a reassuring smile. He draped his arms round his brothers’ shoulders, and added to Joe,

“There are many ways to keep faith, little brother. Bill found his way. Pa's way is the Ponderosa... and his sons. And mine is to stick around to annoy you!” Hoss grinned.

Little Joe scowled, but the return hug he gave Adam said more than enough.

The tombstone read:

William Peters
Semper Fides.

Adam put the little silver Bible away with his mother’s music box.

October 2000