Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, except for the obvious ones of my own creation. This story was simply written for pleasure and

absolutely no money was made from it.

 

Written by: Sylvie L.

 

 

You live, You learn, You lose, You learn

 

 

††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††~ ~ ~ Chapter I ~ ~ ~

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

 

Warm sunrays filtrating through his officeís elongated and narrow window contentedly reached the manís grateful body whom remained seated behind the desk.

Even with a fire blazing like an untamed lion in the large living roomís hearth nearby, his body still shivered as a cold winter day could be seen outside. Sparing a

quick glance through the slightly steamed window, he could see the sunlight glistening on the snow, which made him instinctively squint. Benjamin Cartwright, a tall,

broad shouldered man with dark brown hair and matching eyes, shifted in his seat as he rummaged through the various papers haphazardly resting on top of his large, dark wooden desk. His present task was what he dreaded the most about running a ranch. The month of January always represented a fresh new beginning, but for Ben, it also meant that he had to balance the previous yearís books and therefore see how well that year had truly be!en. Numbers and figures bounced in his head as he unconsciously scratched his head, which made the roomís only other occupant grin despite her best efforts to do otherwise.

 

Marie Cartwright, with an amused smile on her beautiful and youthful face, was gently rocking, as her husband remained deep in thought only a few feet away. She

had never seen him more engross that he was right now as she silently knitted a blanket by the warm fire. With both of her stepsons still at school and her nearly one

year-old son quietly sleeping upstairs, Marie truly enjoyed these quiet times, which were becoming less and less frequent with three young boys living under the roof.

Lifting her eyes back to her husband, she almost laughed out loud as she saw her husband scratch his head again. Unable to keep it inside any longer, Marie quietly

asked, "A penny for your thoughts?"

 

After a few seconds, Ben met his wifeís green eyes. He slightly shrugged before replying amidst a nervous laugh, "Frankly, I donít know if I can even afford giving

any pennies away."

 

Marieís smile slightly left her face as an impulsive thought invaded her conscious. Her playful attitude suddenly a mere memory. "Ben... I thought that everything was

fine after the sale of the steers."

 

Realizing his wrong choice of words, Ben raised his right hand in order to appease his wife, "Marie, thatís not what I meant." It wasnít until he saw some of Marieís

pessimism leave her face that he continued, "What I meant is that I havenít got the figures all straighten out yet. I know itís been a good year..." Smiling he spared a

quick glance up the stairs, "in more ways than one." Marie imitated her husband and she let a smile cross the face at the mere thought of their young son, Joseph

Francis, whom innocently slept upstairs.

 

"Yes, I have to agree."

 

"Good!" Ben said pleased that his wifeís good mood had returned. He never wanted to fuel Marieís well renowned, quick to stir up, Creole temper. Scratching his

head once again, he then went back to work.

 

The room was once again filled with only the crackling of the fire as noise as Marie went back to her knitting and Ben to his books. They spend a couple of hours

intensively occupied in their own endeavours until suddenly a human tornado entered the house opening the entrance door in a flash. Marie squirmed under her own

blanket and the unfinished one as soon as cold outside air entered the house and immediately made goose bumps appear on her soft, pale skin.

 

"Pa... Mama... I saw..."

 

"Eric, close the door!" Ben sternly said to the young six-year-old that had excitedly entered the house. Unbeknownst to the boy, a brisk, bitter draft had followed

him inside.

 

The young boyís face swiftly lost its enthusiasm as soon as his father reprimanded him. He knew that his father meant business as he had called him by his given

name instead of his most used nickname, Hoss. Silently and quickly, the lad closed the door and started to get undressed.

 

Marie sighed upon seeing snow that once clung to her youngest stepsonís attire, now slowly melting on the wooden entrance floor. After placing her knitting in its

basket, she got up and approached him. "Hoss," she softly said, "why donít you go and get the mop from Hop Sing so you could help me clean this up?"

 

kay," Hoss replied as his good humour slightly resurfaced. After sparing a nervous glance at his father whom was once again totally lost in his work, the young boy

did as he was asked and headed for the kitchen. It wasnít long before Hoss came back with mop in hand.

 

"Thanks, honey," Marie softly said as she took the mop from Hossí chubby hands and went to work. Knowing that another boy would soon leave his own snowy

footprints on the floor, Marie rested the mop against the wall in anticipation. Upon seeing Hossí disorganized and wet blondish hair, Marie smiled and she

meticulously smoothed it with her hands. She was rewarded by one of Hossí many charismatic smiles as she did so. Finally satisfied with the young boyís

appearance, she then stood up straight and asked, "so, what was so important that you couldnít wait to tell us?"

 

Marieís interest was suddenly rewarded with a beaming smile across Hossí red cheeked face and a twinkle spark in his pale blue eyes. "I saw sum footprints in the

snow."

 

"What kind of footprints?" Marie inquired with a curious frown.

 

"Rabbit!" The young lad enthusiastically replied.

 

Marie let her stepsonís eagerness reached her face as she imitated Hoss and let a small giggle of delight escape her lips. She knew so well of Benís middle sonís

sheer love of animals. It was so much a part of his loving and caring nature. It always made her remember the first day that they had met as mother and son. He had

welcomed her into his life with open arms and unconditional love unlike her husbandís firstborn son whom was reserved at best in the beginning. "Well, thatís nice,

Hoss. How was school?"

 

kay," Hoss replied with much less enthusiasm. He never liked school as he was always teased because of his bigger frame and his slower learning skills. Even

though he was a little more than half a decade old, he physically seemed to be more than his age and other kids seemed to enjoy poking fun at him. Luckily, Adam,

his older brother, always had been there to defend him when need be.

 

Marie joyfully smirked at her stepsonís usual response.

 

"What did you today? Did you learn anything new, son?" Ben asked as he inconspicuously approached them leaving his work for a few minutes. He needed the fresh

air and the change of pace.

 

"Nuthin," Hoss hesitantly replied as he shrugged.

 

Benís eyebrows slightly narrowed at his sonís answer, but decided to let it go for now. He knew that his middle son didnít enjoy school and had a hard time making

friends. So, he decided to change the subject as a thought suddenly occurred to him, "Whereís your brother? Didnít he come home with you?"

 

"Nuh...uh!" Hoss negatively and nervously replied with his eyes suddenly downcast, unable to meet neither his father nor his stepmotherís eyes.

 

Benís mood became suddenly sour. "What do you mean no? He knows very well that he has to come home with you." Sparing a glance at his wife whose own face

displayed both anger and confusion, Ben met his young sonís eyes again as he quickly questioned, "Do you know where he is?"

 

"He wuz kept at school. I came home with Paul and Ross," Hoss replied trying to defend his brother. He hadnít come home alone and didnít want his father to get

mad at Adam.

 

"Kept at school?" Ben unbelievably asked, making sure that he had heard well. Hoss simply nodded not trusting his voice at the present time. Shaking his head in

astonishment, Ben let out a deep sigh escape his mouth before turning his attention back to his wife. Unfortunately, he found no answers to his question in Marieís

eyes. She too was dumbfounded as for the reason for Adamís being kept at school. He was a straight A student whom loved school more than anything else.

 

"Do you know what for? Why was he kept at school?" Marie asked the young boy thinking that Hoss held the answer to the mystery. In the corner of her eyes, she

could see her husbandís face twist into an angry frown.

 

"Dunno," Hoss answered in a whisper.

 

For several seconds, all three Cartwrights simply stood in silence; all three caught in their own thoughts. It was Marie whom broke the ice as he kneeled down to

Hoss and said, "Why donít you go and wash up for supper?" Hoss, without verbally replying, respected Marieís wishes and headed back to the kitchen.

 

"Wait until he gets home!"

 

"Ben!" Marie quickly reprimanded the angry tone in her husbandís voice as she could tell that he was starting to believe that Adam was probably kept at school

because of mischievous behaviour. "We canít assume anything," she said trying to rationalize the whole situation and consequently appeased Benís brewing temper.

 

"Then, what else could it be?" Ben asked as he placed his hands on his hips. Looking back, he noticed the time of day. Even though it was still mid-afternoon, he

knew that sundown would soon be at their feet as they were full blast into winter. For a split second, his eyes betrayed his mean demeanour by showing concern for

his sonís welfare in the cold winter day.

 

"Mr. Wilson wouldnít let Adam come home in the dark. Heíll be home soon. Iím sure that heíll have an explanation for all of this," Marie stated as she read her

husbandís eyes with a smile in hopes of making her husband do the same. But, it wasnít to be as Benís irritable manner swiftly resurfaced as he went back to his

desk.

 

"He better have a good one!" Ben said trough an angry huff.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter II ~ ~ ~

 

 

With a quick glance upward, Adam knew that sunset was merely a few minutes away as he quicken his ponyís pace. As he glanced at the darkening sky, he

suddenly became mesmerized by the orange coloured radiance displayed, which beautifully reflected across the nearby snow-covered plains. It took Adam a few

seconds to finally break the sunís hypnotic hold on him. Straight ahead, Adam could see the ranchís stable , where the familyís horses were kept year round. He

could also sense that his pony, Lady, was getting tired not too mention cold as the temperature was drastically plunging down several degrees every second. He

patted Ladyís neck with affection and understanding as his own body also ached for rest and warmth.

 

Seeing a misty cloud leaving his mouth at the end of every breath, Adam could only imagine how his cheeks looked like as he could now hardly feel them. In fact, the cold dampened down all of his physical pains. He felt almost numb. He tried to convince himself that it was for the best as memories of what put him in this situation in the first place suddenly flooded his mind once more. If not for the frosty temperature, he knew that his right eye would have been swollen shut due to his own stupidity. Not to mention the deep cut on his lip which originated from a physical contact with another school boyís right fist. He cursed himself for his imprudence as he could only imagine what his father would say upon seeing the letter that his teacher had so carefully written for him and adamantly given Adam orders to deliver it first thing.

 

After a cold sharp wind figuratively slapped his face, Adam, with one hand, pulled down his wool hat lower across his head. At least, my ears will be ready and

warm for the scolding that Iím going to get from Pa, Adam mockingly thought to himself. Finally arriving at the familyís stable, Adam, despite himself, became

anxious of entering the warm house, which was adjacent to the stable. His body was sluggish as he slowly dismounted Lady. "Itís Ďkay, Lady. Weíre almost there,"

he softly told his pony as he led her gently into the barn.

 

Unbeknownst to Adam, green eyes, originating from the house, had been glued on him since he first came into view around the barn. It wasnít until the boy entered

the barn that the figure behind the windowpane breathed a sigh of relief and let the kitchenís red checker patterned curtains fall back into place.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter III ~ ~ ~

 

 

At the front door, Adam hesitated for a split second before entering but was before long brought to quick action as his cold body urged him forward. As soon as he

walked inside, all of his senses tickled their gratitude as they gratefully welcomed the hearthís emitting heat. On his left, in the corner of his eyes, he could see that his

family was in the midst of supper. Sparing a quick and casual glance at the Grand Father clock next to the door, Adam could see that they hadnít waited for him,

which could only mean one thing: his father was indeed not too pleased with his tardiness.

 

Quietly, Adam removed his winter outerwear. Seeing the seemingly patiently awaiting mop resting against the plastered wall, he decided to rid the entrance floor of

its snow. It wasnít until he finished the chore that his father had acknowledged his presence for the first time. In his booming, deep voice, he sternly stated, "Glad that youíve made it for supper, Adam." The sarcasm tone wasnít lost to the eldest son.

 

Seconds after his fatherís words registered in his brain, Adam simply winced on the inside and secretly hoped for a quick resolution to this whole mess. Knowing

that his father wasnít expecting a retort from him, Adam simply lowered in head. He was cold, hungry, and miserable and had no spare energy to be defiant. It was

better if he simply didnít make the situation worse than it already was by answering back. Slowly and wordlessly, he walked towards the dining roomís large table

avoiding any eye contact with anyone and headed for his usual seating place on his fatherís left.

 

However, before he reached it, his fatherís voice once again broke the tensed silence that had engulfed the house since Adamís entrance. "Go wash up in the

kitchen," he stated, seated at the head of the table, not bothering to lift his eyes above his plate, "At the same time, you can get your supper. Hop Singís not here to

serve tardy people."

 

With his head low, Adam lifted his eyes towards his stepmother, who was seated on his fatherís right, in hopes of some emotional support. However, as soon as he

did, Adam became quickly disappointed as she ferociously kept herself busy with feeding Joe, whom seemed the least interested in food as he tried to wiggle himself free of his high chair. His last hope was his younger brother Hoss, whom was seated on her immediate right, but he also didnít bother to look up at Adam. Seeing his brother feed his stomach of roast beef, carrots, and potatoes made Adamís own stomach growl in hunger. Feeling once again all alone, he sadly headed for the kitchen as ordered by his father in a slow, sluggish stride.

 

After making the turn around the dining room table, a hand abruptly grasped his arm as the other one lifted his head. Adam was now all of a sudden forced to meet

Marieís worried eyes as she gently brushed some of his short black hair away from his face. Adam deduced by his stepmotherís compassionate look that his bruises where worse that he had first thought. Since his whole face was still numb from the cold, he could only imagine how he looked.

 

After meticulously taking into account all of her stepsonís injuries, she quickly turned her head towards her husband, whom was still looking down at his plate deep

in thought. "Ben?"

 

The worried tone in Marieís voice made Ben abruptly looked up at her, not knowing what could be the reason behind his wifeís sudden anxiousness. Without a

second thought, he followed her eyes as she gazed back to Adam.

 

Lines of apprehension instantly creased Benís face as soon as his brain registered the image before him. "What... what happened to you?" he asked his oldest son as

he immediately dropped his fork on the table and quickly rose from his chair. He walked around his still seated wife in order to get a closer look.

 

With one knee on the wooden floor, Ben took his firstborn sonís face between his hands and closely examined it. Adamís right eye socket was noticeably swollen

and had turned numerous shades of black and blue. Several other bruises randomly marked the twelve-year-old boyís otherwise unblemished skin. Glancing

downwards, Ben also noticed dry, coagulated blood on Adamís lower lip above a noticeable cut. "I asked you a question, son! What happened?" Ben asked trying

to control his anger towards whomever was responsible for his sonís injuries.

 

Adam simply mumbled an answer, which neither his father nor his stepmother, even with strained ears, understood.

 

"What?" his father asked again, getting impatient. His sonís reluctance of setting the score straight could only make Ben wonder of Adamís true innocence in this

whole mess.

 

Fetching deep into his pant pocket, Adam retrieved his teacherís infamous letter, which had been burning a hole into his conscious since he had first step foot into the house. Swallowing the lump that mysteriously appeared in his throat, he managed to say a little louder, "I got into a fight at school."

 

It took a few seconds for Adam to be rewarded by a response from either one of his parents. It seemed to be like an eternity before Benís facial expression turned

sour as he stood back up. Now with a considerable height advantage over his son, Ben took the letter from Adamís hands. "Is that what this letterís going to tell

me?" he asked with an angry frown as he waived the letter in front of his sonís face.

 

Not able to meet his fatherís dark intense eyes and incensed stare any longer, Adam kept his chin low, almost resting on his chest. However, in the corner of his

chestnut eyes, he could see astonishment in Little Joeís and Hossí own eyes, and disapproval in Marieís. As feared, he was soon going to be on the other end of a

firm father-son discussion. Once again, he stared at his socked feet as he reluctantly answered in a whisper, "Yes, Pa."

 

Ben nodded his head in mock understanding. "Well, that does explain why you were kept at school... now, doesnít it?" he harshly reprimanded trying desperately to

keep most of his anger in check as he saw Hossí innocent eyes simply gazed at both of them. Not trusting his voice, Adam merely nodded. Sharing a look with his

wife, Ben let out a deep sigh before stating with an arm pointed to the staircase, "Go to your room! Iíll be up shortly."

 

Adam didnít have to be told twice as he bolted for the stairs.

 

"Adam fighting?" said a confused Marie once the oldest Cartwright son was out of earshot. "I just... I just donít understand."

 

Ben stared at the white envelope in his hands with his name written on it for several seconds. He too, despite appearances, was astonished to hear that his oldest son

had been in a fight at school. Adam had always been a shy, reserved boy whom never attracted trouble. He had no other choice but to wait for the explanation.

Taking a deep breath, Ben sat back down as he placed the letter next to his plate. "Well, Marie," he casually said as he picked up his fork, "like you said before,

there must be an explanation to all of this... well I have a feeling that itís not going to be good one!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter IV ~ ~ ~

 

 

Resting flat on his bed with eyes intently staring at the ceiling, Adam could feel the onset of tears creeping up despite his utmost efforts not to cry. He had been alone

in his room for what seemed to be an eternity, but knew otherwise. How he dreaded these types of father and son discussions. How he wished that he could turn

back time. Shaking his head to clear it of any more futile thoughts, Adam delicately rubbed the beginning of sobs around his eyes trying not to instigate any additional

pain in the process. With the warmth came sensation and his injuries cried out loud and clear now in the comfort of his own room. To make matters worse, his

stomach hurt out of hunger and knowledge that it may not receive any food before bed. Suddenly, he jumped as he heard footsteps coming up the staircase and by

its intonation, Adam could tell that it was his father. Bracing himself for the worse, he quickly got up from his bed and impatiently waited for his punishment.

 

After a short knock, his bedroom door opened to reveal Ben whom immediately closed the door behind him. For a few silent seconds, Ben simply stood as he

examined his sonís seemingly miserable deportment. Sighing, he retrieved his sonís desk chair and placed it adjacent to the bed. "Sit down, Adam," he said as he,

himself, took a seat.

 

Adam managed to spare a glance at his father as he sat back down on his bedís feather mattress. Unfortunately, he wasnít able to read Benís composure or train of

thoughts. With eyes downcast, he nervously awaited for doomsday.

 

Seeing on how nervous his son looked, Ben decided to spare no more time and get this over with. Taking out the dreaded letter out from his own pocket, he

showed it to Adam as he asked, "So, whatís this letter going to tell me? Why were you in a fight and with who?"

 

Adam shot up a look to his father, realizing that his father first wanted to hear his version of the story before reading the letter from Mr. Wilson. Gratefully, he obliged his fatherís simple request and said, "Johnny and David started it..."

 

"Adam, as I recall thatís not what I asked you," Ben said in a frown, "now, why did you get into a fight?"

 

"They wuz calling me names," Adam replied in a low ashamed voice.

 

"Who were calling you names?" Ben urgently demanded ignoring his sonís poor grammar. Seeing that his son was suddenly clamming up, Ben leaned forward with

his elbows on his knees. "Was it Johnny and David Blackburn?" It took some time, but Adam slowly nodded. "Okay," he patiently said, "now tell me what were they calling you?"

 

Adam simply shrugged. Ben suddenly leaned back into the chair clearly losing his patience. Any information that he was going to get from Adam was going to be by

tooth and nail. He had given his word to Marie that he would be reasonable, but Adamís reluctance and unforthcoming attitude was making his patience run thin.

"Look son," Ben calmly said as he folded his arms around his broad chest while keeping constant eye contact with his son, "Iím giving you a chance to explain

yourself before I open this letter. Iím trying to help you. I canít do that if you donít tell whatís the matter. Are these boys bothering you?"

 

Adam lowered his head as he carefully thought of his answer. How to explain to his father was had been the cause of his school fight? How was he going to tell him

that what his father had so fiercely enforced, throughout his life, in him was the actual reason for his clash with two older boys? Adam let out a sigh in sign of inner

turmoil as he debated what to do say to his father. His heart was telling him to open up like a blooming flower, while his head directed him to clam up like a scared

turtle. Being the rational and logical boy that he was, Adam decided to do the latter.

 

After meeting Benís eyes for just a brief second, Adam simply shook his head. As soon as he did, he could instantly hear the disappointment arising from his father,

which made Adam almost regret his decision. But he remained focus and determined nonetheless, as he twiddled his fingers against his laps.

 

In a slow yet swift motion, Ben stood up and hung his fingers against his pantís belt. Slight gusts of wind hitting the small bedroomís lone window was the only noise

reverberating against the four plastered walls for several seconds, understandably making the tension becoming unbearable. "Okay, Adam, if thatís what you want,"

Ben stated with discontentment perfectly detected in his voice.

 

Without any hesitation, Ben opened Adamís teacherís letter and carefully read it through, lifting annoyed eyes over the letter towards his anxious son a few times in

the process. He then folded the letter and placed it back in his pocket. "Let me make myself clear, Adam... you never solve your problems with violence," the

Cartwright patriarch sternly stated as he pointed an accusatory finger at his oldest son. It was only after he made his sonís meet his gaze that he continued, "I do not

want this to happen again! Is that understood?"

 

"Yes, Pa," Adam managed to say just before letting his gaze draw back to his feet.

 

"Never forget that you have two brothers who follow your examples and need your guidance," Ben explained to his son. However, his eyes suddenly hardened upon seeing Adamís seemingly lack of interest. "Adam! I expect that you to look at me when Iím talking to you!" he loudly stated in hopes of getting his sonís stare off of the floor. It was immediately successful as Adam quickly looked up at his father with attentive, startled eyes. "This kind of behaviourís completely unacceptable."

 

"Yes, Pa," Adam managed to say once more.

 

"As for your punishment," Ben started right before being rewarded with a pleading look from Adam. Seeing the bruised skin, cut lip, and the darkening shiner on his

sonís face made Ben take a deep breath. "youíll be restricted to the ranch for a week with exception of school and church on Sunday, of course."

 

"But Ross, Paul, and me were going sleighiní tomorrow."

 

"No buts, Adam," Ben replied shaking his head, "You should have thought of that before. You simply will have to go another time."

 

Adam sadly hung his head evidently not too pleased with the turn of events. He had been looking forward to their sleighing adventure all week and now it was

ruined. Tomorrow was Saturday and now he would be stuck babysitting his brothers and doing extra chores. How he wished he could erase the past.

 

"Adam... is that understood?"

 

Meeting his fatherís gaze, Adam sighed as she nodded his head in defeat. "Yes, Pa, I understand."

 

"Good! Marie will be bring you up some food and medicine in a few moments," Ben said a little more softly with his right hand on the doorís latch ready to leave.

 

"Yes, Pa." With that his father left leaving Adam to his own conflicting thoughts.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter V ~ ~ ~

 

 

The following week seemed more to be, in Adamís eyes, a month long. Unbeknownst to his father, Adamís punishment had only made things worse for the oldest

Cartwright son at school. John and David Blackburn and their gang had vengefully gone back to their teasing, bullying, and stalking since the fight incidence. The only good thing about the passing time was that all of his physical injuries were mere faint memories, even though his emotional ones were still fresh and hurting.

 

Presently in school, Adam was trying to keep his eyes open as he vaguely heard Mr. Wilson talk about English grammar. Abnormally, he wasnít really paying

attention as he had other things swimming in his mind. Trying to solve his problem with the Blackburn brothers was what keeping him up most nights and

daydreaming during daylight. Suddenly, he heard snickering laughter all around him as he noticed that the teacher was directly looking at him. "Er... Yes, Mr.

Wilson," Adam managed to say amidst a cough.

 

"Well, Mr. Cartwright, nice to have you back," Wilson annoyingly stated before another round of laughter circulating across the small classroom, which was quickly

muted by the teacherís disapproval glare.

 

Adam ashamedly lowered his head in hopes of a quick end to his humiliation. It wasnít to be. The rest of the session had been a nightmare for him as he had a

difficult time concentrating and keeping focus. Finally, Wilson announced the end of the school day and Adam slowly arose while picking up his books. Ross and

Paul, Adamís two good friends, silently waited at the doorway as they let other students pass by. Just as Adam was about to join them, a voice made him stop in his

tracks.

 

"Adam, I would like a moment with you," Wilson said as he ushered the boy towards his desk.

 

Adam gestured with a nod of his head for his friends to wait for him outside. They complied. Letting out a deep sigh in anticipation, he then approached his patiently

awaiting teacher.

 

"Adam, I canít help but noticed that youíve been distracted these last few weeks. I wasnít bothered by any of it until I graded your last two tests," Wilson mentioned seating on the edge of his desk as he continued, "Two Cís is not what exactly I expected from my top student."

 

Adam simply shrugged.

 

"Thatís another thing, the Adam that I know wouldnít shrug away school. The Adam that I know reads more books than all my other students do combine. The

Adam that I know wants to go to university," Wilson stated as he folded his arms across his chest. Seeing that his pupil wasnít going to add anything, he felt the need to let Adam know of his intentions. Without moving from his location, he then took a piece of paper off from his desk and handed it to his student.

 

"Whatís this?" Adam asked as he curiously scrutinized the paper.

 

"That is your assignment!"

 

"Assignment?"

 

"Yes, I want to you to write a four-page essay about Moby Dick."

 

"What? This is not fair. I donít see anybody else having to do this," Adam agitatedly stated as his face clearly showed his disbelief.

 

"Thatís because nobody else read the book as I know you did," Wilson replied not relenting on his words. He wanted to help his young pupil to get back on track.

He didnít want to see such scholastic potential be ruined because of growing pains. Wilson cared about all of his students, but Adam was different. He was always

willingly to go that extra foot farther, never afraid of a challenge and open to a range of literary books.

 

"You canít do this!" Adam quickly protested.

 

"Oh, yes, I can and I am!," Wilson stated as he rose from the desk before continuing on, "Iíll expect it on my desk by Monday."

 

The young Cartwright was about to voice his objections again until he saw the determination in his teacherís eyes. There was no way of getting out of it.

Begrudgingly, Adam said a quick goodbye to Wilson and went to get his winter attire with paper in hand.

 

As expected, Ross Marquette, Paul Livingston and Hoss were patiently waiting for him near the school play area. All three boys looked nervous as Adam

approached them. It was Paul, a short brown hair boy with lanky body extensions, who was the one that spoke first. "So, what did you do?" he asked in a teasing

demeanour.

 

"None of your business," Adam curtly replied as his mood was darkening as the minutes past. Both Paul and Ross simply shrugged at their friendís response, while

Hoss kept curious eyes at his older brother.

 

"So, what do we do now?" Ross asked changing subject and hopefully the mood as well. Ross Marquette was less than a year younger than the oldest Cartwright

son, which showed slightly in height. He was physically similar to Adam, been slim and tall. Unlike Adamís dark features, Ross was fairer with light brown hair and

blue eyes.

 

Paul shrugged before eyeing the brooding Adam, whom simply remained silent. After a few awkward seconds, it was Hoss who spoke up with exuberance, "I want

to go sleighiní!"

 

Adam gave his younger brother a harsh look. "No! you ainít. Itís too late," he said as he glanced up at the darkening sky, "besides it looks like a stormís cuminí."

 

"Mister Know-it-all speaks again!" came a voice from behind them with following sinister laughter. Neither one of the four boys had to turn around to determine who spoke. Out of the corner of Adamís eyes, three other boys appeared before the foursome. Johnny Blackburn, the oldest, teased Adam once more with a malicious grin on his face, "Ya morons, donít listen to this boy?"

 

"Why donít you just shut up?" Adam menacingly stated as he could feel anger start to boil through his veins.

 

"Why donít ya make me?" Johnny replied with his arms inviting a fight. Johnny was the oldest Blackburn brother and the most dangerous one. David, the younger

one, and another schoolmate named Lou, simply followed in Johnnyís footsteps and added to the catalyst. Alone, a member of the Blackburn gang acted like a soft

breeze. Together, they acted like a merciless hurricane.

 

"Leave my brother alone!" Hoss angrily screamed as he attempted to approach them only to be stopped by Adamís long protective arms. Hoss didnít like the way

the boy was talking to his brother as it was making his good nature suddenly vanished with the wind.

 

Laughter was the response from all three harrying boys.

 

"Oh, I guess that means that weíve got to go, boys," Johnny mockingly stated as he backed up with his two friends in tow. "See ya leeches, later!" With that, the

hurricane left, not without leaving its ravages.

 

"Come on, letís get goiní," Ross said not truly understanding how his good friend had put himself in such a mess. Shaking his head in incredulity, Ross led the pack

away from the schoolhouse and towards their respective ponies, while Adam instinctively followed despite his crushed self-esteem.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter VI ~ ~ ~

 

 

"Ben?" Marie said as she searched for him in the ranchís house. Taking the stairs two at a time, she reached the downstairsí main room and found her husband once

again in his office, which was a small alcove to the right of the entranceís door.

 

"What is it, Marie?"

 

"Ben! Look at what I found in Adamís pocket!" she said after catching her breath. In her hands, she held a small crumpled white piece of paper. After getting her

husbandís attention from his books, Marie passed it over to him.

 

In his hands, Ben scrutinized the paper and carefully smoothed it out. Once the written words reached his brain, his eyes became suddenly wide. It was his oldest

sonís report card that Adam had claimed to have lost along the way from school a few days earlier. To Benís disbelief, Adamís grades comprised of two Cís and a

B-, not typical of the boyís scholastic accomplishment, which usually comprised of straight Aís since he could first remember.

 

"Whatís happening, Ben? Adamís never been one to due poorly in school," Marie said voicing her own similar concerns out loud.

 

"I know," he agreed as he laid back in his chair, "maybe it has to do with that school fight of his."

 

Marie shook her head in disagreement. "Heís been acting very unlike himself these last few weeks, Ben. I havenít seen him smile for a very long time or actually had

a conversation with anyone of us..." she stated as her eyes suddenly went back to the report card that her husbandís now held. "I donít believe that the fight was the

cause of his present mood, but more like a consequence of it."

 

Ben couldnít help but smile at his wifeís statement. Knowing how Adam had been quite reserved when he first met his second stepmother, it was funny yet

reassuring to see how well she understood him now. "Maybe," Ben shrugged as he opened his deskís top drawer and placed the report card inside. Sighing, he

rubbed his eyes in hopes of getting a clearer view of his sonís problems. Since birth, Adam had a hard childhood, which made Ben feel extremely guilty, always

wanting to make it up for it. If only he could reach his son, but it was going to be hard considering the emotional wall that Adam carried most of the time.

 

"What are we going to do?" Marie sadly asked knowing that Adam was on a path of self-destruction if not stop soon.

 

"I know one thing for sure!"

 

"Whatís that?"

 

"Iím going to have a little discussion with him when he comes home from school," Ben stated determined to reach his son. He could see uncertainty in his wifeís eyes

and thought best to reassure her. "Donít worry, my dear. Weíll get to the bottom of this."

 

Letting a soft smile cross her face, Marie agreed with a slight nod. She remained at her husbandís side for a few minutes more until her ten-month-old son cried for

her from his crib upstairs.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter VII ~ ~ ~

 

 

On the Eastern edge of the Ponderosa land, Adam, Hoss, and Paul rode through one of the many well-used trails, which was beautifully bordered by immense pine

trees, numerous shrubs, and several decideous trees. Every inch along the way back home from school was encassed in a blanket of snow, which made the day

seemed brighter as the sunís bright rays reflected against the white powdered blanket. In certain areas, the snow was so heavy against the treeís branches that they

slumped several inches downwards. All in all, it made the trip back home that much less tiredsome and more breathtaking. Globlets of condensed air escaped the

poniesí nostrils in the low degree winter weather, as the three boys inched them forward. For several minutes, after Ross left the trio in order to head on his way

home, the trip was done in complete silence. It wasnít until they reached a bifurcation on the trail that they stopped. A large river was to the left, which see!med to

be frozen in time as ice and snow now covered the once rapid currents of the blue magical waves.

 

Placing his gloved hand under his wool hat in hopes of subduing a growing itch, Paul sighed before he broke the forrestís whimsical silence. "Iím goiní to take a

shortcut, guys!" he stated to the other two boysí disbelief.

 

"Where?" Adam asked with a v-shaped creasing his forehead. Meeting his good friendís eyes, he then suddenly understood what Paul was referring to. Quickly,

Adam adamantly shook his head as he spoke again, "Not across the river, Paul. You know that itís too dangerous. My Pa told..."

 

"Adam!" Paul interrupted, "I ainít goiní down that trail. Ya can go without me. I can save a least a half-hour goiní this way."

 

"But, Paul, it ainít safe. That..." Adam repeated as he pointed towards the seemingly harmless body of water, "is a rapid river. The ice ainít strong enough to hold

your weight, let alone your ponyís too!"

 

Paulís face without notice turned sour as he shifted in his saddle. Patting the neck of his anxious honey coloured pony, Paul voiced his discontentment of his friendís

attitude. "Adam, ya ain't my Pa. Ya ainít goiní to tell me what to do!"

 

Adam let out a sigh of amazement emerged through his tight-lipped mouth as he tried to understand what had happen to see such hostility in Paulís behaviour. Not

only did he had to deal with the Blackburn gangís teasing and harassment, now one of his best friends was turning against him.

 

With Adam at a lost of words, Hoss curiously looked at the conflict arising between the two friends, not too sure of what to make of it. He knew that his brother

was correct when it concerned the river, as he had been warned at several occasions by his father of the dangerous thin ice that skimmed the raging blue waters

below. Wiping his running nose against his mitten, he simply awaited for a quick resolution to the tiff, not wanting to get involved. Hoss could only hope that it would

be soon as his sudden mobile state wasnít helping him getting home any faster.

 

"Paul! how many times do I have to tell ya that it ainít safe?" Adam felt the need to repeat his warning hoping that he would get through his friendís wall of

stubbornness.

 

"Ya know something, Adam. Johnnyís right... yaíre too bossy!" Paul angrily stated as he ignored Adamís wishes and headed for the icy river. For several eerie

seconds, all that could be heard was the crutching sounds as Paul meticulously started to cross the virgin icy snow that skimmed the river.

 

Throwing his arms up in despair, Adam gave up. "Fine, do what you want! I donít care!" he heatedly retorted as he nudged Lady towards the right trail ahead of him with Hoss reluctantly and silently in tow.

 

Seeing the ravaging hurt in his older brotherís eyes, Hossí heart sank. How he hated fights! Trying to console Adam, he hurried his own pony to match Ladyís

slightly faster pace. "Adam?" he softly said hoping to give some comfort to his hurting brother.

 

"Leave me alone!" Adam vehemently interrupted not wanting any sympathy, especially from a six-year-old. Innately, his emotional barren mask had resurfaced.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter VIII ~ ~ ~

 

 

As soon as he heard the arrival of his two sons, Ben quickly immersed from the house with his winter coat partially open despite a stern warning from Marie. His

face droop somewhat upon seeing his two oldest sonsí brooding faces. He accurately deduced that they had a fight somewhere between the school and here. Ben

approached Adam first, who simply headed for the barn with his head low. Seeing through his sonís brown eyes that well-know emotional barrier, Ben cursed inside as it was going to make him open up that much harder. He silently followed them inside the barn.

 

"Hi! Pa," Hoss cheerfully said, his black mood immediately forgotten at the sight of his father.

 

"Hi! son, how was your day at school?" Ben inquired as he approached his middle son.

 

kay!" came the answer as Hoss kept himself busy patting down his well-loved pony.

 

Ben couldnít help but frown at his sonís ever so often used answer to his question about school. Keeping his hands warm in his coat pockets, he then turned to his

oldest son, whom was busy in the adjacent stall. Adam groomed Lady with meticulous care, while keeping his head downcast. With silent feet, Ben approached his

moping son and tried to pick up a conversation.

 

"Adam, how was your day at school?"

 

Adam stopped his tending of Lady for a split second as if noticing his fatherís presence for the first time. "Fine," he harshly mumbled.

 

Ben frowned as his sonís rude behaviour. Marie was definitely right, he wasnít exactly acting like himself. "Adam, I asked you a perfectly polite question. I expect a

polite answer, is that understood?"

 

For a split second, Ben could almost have sworn that he saw through Adamís barrier and seen the unfathomable hurt swimming in his sonís dark pupils. However,

as quickly as it had slipped, Adamís protective wall resurfaced leaving deep-rooted facial lines of acrimony. "Sorry, Pa," he almost whispered as he patted Lady

once more and hurriedly left the barn, wanting desperately some fresh air as he felt, all of sudden, that his whole world suddenly collapsing around him.

 

His sonís abrupt departure caught Ben immediately off guard. How could he have left it go on for so long? How could he have not seen his sonís inner turmoil

before? Despite the questions that kept on invading his mind, no answers came forward. Ben would need to have a heart to heart with his aloof son about more than

his simple poor report card. In the corner of his eyes, he could see his other son silently squirm in discomfort with teary eyes .

 

"Whatís wrong, son?" Ben softly asked Hoss as he kneeled on the frosty barn floor in front to him, placing his comforting hands on the boyís quivering shoulders.

 

"Nuthin," Hoss lied in a trembling voice followed by several sniffs.

 

"Now, Hoss! Tell me whatís bothering you... is it about Adam?"

 

"Heís always... crossed! He yells at me for no good reason!" Hoss sadly admitted to his father. He hated to tell on his brother, but the wounds hurt too much for the

emotional gifted child. Hoss wanted his big brother back so much that it physically pained him. "He had a fight with Paul too!" he added with more ease.

 

"When?"

 

"Tíday... cominí home from school," Hoss replied as he wiped his runny nose against his coatís sleeve, making his father frown in slight annoyance at that gesture.

"Johnny and them are mean to him, Pa. Call Adam names," Hoss stated despite his older brotherís stern warning not to tell tales. "Why, Pa? Why?"

 

Ben sighed deeply as he shifted in his crouching position. Finally, after weeks of being in the dark, he could now see light at the end of tunnel. He mentally punished

himself for his lack of hindsight. Some father I am! I canít even protect my son from bullies, he reprimanded himself.

 

Wiping a tear away from Hossí rosy cheek, Ben gave his son a comforting pat on the shoulder as he said, "Your brotherís just going through a hard time right now,

son." Simply seeing glistening, attentive eyes stare back at him, Ben let out a slight smile crease his face before adding, "Donít worry, Hoss. Iíll have a talk with him...you did good by telling me all of this. Youíre a good brother, Hoss!" The last part of Benís statement made the young boyís face slightly gleamed with pride. "Come on, we better get inside. Supperís almost ready." With that said, Ben gave another tender pat on Hossí right shoulder leading him towards the barnís entrance door.

 

Hoss simply gave a short nod as he sniffed away his remaining tears.

 

Upon seeing his sonís still emotional state, Ben quickly brought him up in his arms, underestimated his growing sonís weight. With a large smile, he joked through a

grunt, "Hoss, you either are growing up too fast or Iím getting too old!" The last statement made the young boy show a shy grin before he nestled his face into his

fatherís neck.

 

As both father and son exited the stableís warmth, the cool breeze that brushed against them dampened neither their closeness nor their comfort ease. Ben glanced

up at the sky for a brief second as he slowly walked towards the house. Deep grey clouds could be seen slowly crawling towards the Ponderosa ranch and its

neighbouring areas. A storm was unmistakably growing as seconds past. He reflexively let out a small sigh of relief as he quickly gave thanks to the lord that his

family was already safe at home. Reflexively, Ben quickened his pace.

 

Just as he was about to walked through the small entrance way, which led to the main door, he heard his name being called several times from behind him. Turning

around, he recognized his ranchís foreman approached him in a accelerated pace. Jake, a man of Benís age, had been working on the Ponderosa ranch since its first day of existence. His true devotion and loyalty to the Cartwrights was what made him a honorary part of the family. By Jakeís demeanour, Ben could see that

something was on the manís mind. "Jake? What is it?"

 

"Ben, can I have a moment with you?" Jake said as he politely nodded towards the young boy enveloped in his fatherís arms. It was obvious that he wanted to

speak with the Cartwright patriarch alone.

 

A curious frown creased Benís face for a split second as he didnít want to yet break the emotional bond that he presently shared with his middle son, but

nonetheless respected his loyal foremanís wishes and gently put down his son. "Hoss, go and get wash up for supper. Iíll be in a few minutes... go!" Hoss gently

nodded before he ventured towards the door and walked inside alone.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter IX ~ ~ ~

 

 

After a few minutes of discussion with Jake, Ben could finally come inside craving the warmth of both his family and the living roomís large hearth. Surprisingly, no

one was there to physically welcome his return even though the dining room table was still set for the eventual supper feast. Shrugging it off, he quickly rid of his cold

coat and hastened towards the hearth. Closing his eyes, Ben imagined himself in total peace of mind and body as he silently stood in front of the glowing and inviting

fire. How he enjoyed these silent moments of inner serenity.

 

"Well, there you are! Hop Singís getting impatient. He thinks that the supper will be ruined if we donít eat soon."

 

Ben let an amused smile show on his face as he heard the accentuated English words being spoken. As soon as he opened his eyes, the beautiful face of his

cherished wife came into view. "He probably also mentioned a few Chinese words too," he teased as he turned to face his wife. Hop Sing was an excellent cook, but an emotional one as well. Ben would never dare to fire the small man as he was as much part of this family as anybody by blood was. The Chinese cook had help Ben raised his two older sons before Cartwrightís eventful business trip to New Orleans, where he met and married Marie.

 

"As usual..." she said as she wrapped a loving arm around his waist, "I swear one day, Iíll finally understand what heís saying." Ben mimicked his wife by wrapping

one of his arms around her slender waist. After a few seconds of complete silence and contentment, Marie reluctantly broke the pleasant and romantic spell that

engulfed them. Clearing her throat, she broached a topic, which had been on her conscious for a few minutes, "Hoss said that Jake wanted to talk to you... is

everything alright?"

 

"Jake just told me that he found a brake in the South pasture fence," Ben stated as he released his hold on Marie and walked towards the small alcove where his

office was located.

 

"Did we lose any cattle?" Marie said with a frown on her face as she followed him.

 

Ben slightly shook his head as he sat behind his desk. "Jake doesnít think so... but weíll really know that answer in the spring." After making a few adjustments into

one of his accounting books, he closed it and added, "Jake fixed it as best as he could. Hopefully, it will hold off the storm thatís brewing outside right now. It will

have to be checked on more often from now on." Marie simply nodded in understanding. Pushing himself up from his chair, Ben glanced once more around the large

living area before asking, "Itís so quiet! Whereís everybody anyway?"

 

"Adam stormed inside. He went to his room without saying anything. I havenít seen him since. Did you have a talk with him yet?"

 

Ben sadly shook his head in response. "No, it will have to wait until after supper. Hoss told me that the Blackburnís sons have been bullying Adam for some time

now."

 

"Those boys..." Marie said in disgust, "it doesnít surprise me. They have neither a father nor a mother." Benís left eyebrow raised in surprise at her statement. "Ben,

you know as well as me what kind of man Frank Blackburn is..." Marie started again. Her husband slowly nodded in agreement as he also knew that their neighbour

was a jack of all trade but a master of none, which include fatherhood. Ben put his hands in his pockets as his wife continued, "and... and Emmy, sheís as cold as

ice. I know that I have only met her a couple of times but I swear that... that chair" she said as she pointed to a dining room wooden chair, "as more charisma and

warmth than that woman will ever have. Iím sorry, but itís the truth!"

 

"I know, I know, Marie," Ben reluctantly agreed, "but it doesnít change the fact that their sons are directly responsible for our sonís misery."

 

Marie sighed heavily as she folded her arms across her chest. She treated and loved both Adam and Hoss like they were her own blood and it only hurt that much

more to see either one of them be the recipient of bully intimidation. Concentrating on her breathing, Marie let some of her frustration leave her tensed body. She

quickly deduced that her energies would be better wasted on something constructive to help Adam rather than pure anger. After a second or two of silence, she

asked the question that she knew was swirling in her husbandís mind at the present time, "What are we going to do? What can we do?"

 

"Itís hard to say," Ben managed to say after a moment of deep thought. Even though the reason for his firstborn sonís withdrawn attitude was finally in the open, it

still didnít make the solution that much simpler. Passing a hand over his forehead, he continued, "One thingís for sure is that Adam and I will have that talk."

 

Marie nodded in agreement. Just then, a horrible crash could be heard arising from the kitchen followed by a tirade of Chinese words and exclamations.

 

"What the..." Ben stuttered as he shared a confused look with his wife.

 

"Oh, no! I left Hoss with Little Joe in the kitchen. They were supposed to be good and do as Hop Sing said," Marie exclaimed as she hurried towards the kitchen

with Ben not far behind.

 

"I swear those sons of mine are giving me white hairs!" Ben sarcastically replied as he turned the corner towards the kitchen.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter X ~ ~ ~

 

 

After calming their cookís tirade and cleaning up the mess that the two younger Cartwright sons had indisputably made in Hop Singís sanctuary, both Ben and Marie breathed sighs of relief as they, with the rest of their family, enjoyed some peace and quiet around the dining room table as they silently relished their cookís

sumptuous meal.

 

Ben spared several quick glances at Adam, but every single time, it made his heart squeeze in pain upon seeing his sonís emotionally detached looking eyes. Marie,

also, could see the hurt in Adamís demeanour as burned anger arising from her for the boys responsible grew every minute. However, despite her good intentions,

every attempt of small talk had been a failure when it came to her oldest stepson. In fact, it seems to take the opposite effect and made Hoss answer every question

with great ease and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, with Hoss in a chatty mood and Little Joe refusing to eat all of his food, Marie had little time to concentrate her

conversational efforts on Adam. After dessert was served and enthusiastically gobbled down, Marie picked up all of the dirty plates and brought them into the

kitchen, while Ben went to a nearby table and took out some tobacco along with his pipe.

 

Lighting it by the growing fire, Ben placed a foot atop of the stone hearthís base and relished in the familiarity of it all. Letting out a few puffs, he then turned back his

attention to his sons. Little Joe was the first one that he noticed due to his uncommon quietness. Slumped against his high chair with his thick brown hair in disarray,

the toddler was fast asleep as his day of mischievousness finally caught up with him. Smiling, Ben thanked the lord that bedtime was going to be much more bearable

tonight. Shifting his glance a little to his left, he noticed a yawning Hoss, whom ferociously fought his own need for sleep as he quietly sat on the living roomís settee.

To catch a glimpse at his oldest son, Ben had to turn himself 180 degrees as he saw Adam, with legs nestled against his torso, sitting in the blue chair behind him. As

ever, Adam kept himself secluded from the rest of the family with his face deep into a well-read book. Benís shoulders s!lightly slumped upon seeing his son, whom

seemed to have the Ďme against the worldí complexion. He definitely needed to have a pep talk with his son; the sooner, the better.

 

The silence, which seemed to be like a trapped animal inside the room, was finally set free by Marieís return from the kitchen. Smiling to herself, she carefully picked up her sleeping son from his chair. After making sure that she hadnít awoken the youngest Cartwright, she then approached the next in line. "Hoss," she almost whispered, "itís time for bed. Iíll read you a short story, okay?"

 

Hoss attempted to voice his objections as he, like Joe, hated bedtime, but before he could even utter a single word another large yawn took his body prisoner once

again. Knowing that he was fighting a losing cause, he grudgingly nodded. Getting up from his comfortable seat, Hoss walked by his father. "íNight, Pa!" he

sluggishly said.

 

"Goodnight, son..." Ben replied as he lovingly passed his hand over his sonís thin, silky dark blond hair, "sweet dreams!"

 

"íNight, Adam!" Hoss then said as he stood in front of his brother. Adam didnít seem to have heard anything as he never once shifted his eyes away from his book.

It wasnít until his fatherís grunted his disapproval that Adam came out of his dazed state.

 

"Wha... What?" Adam stumbled. Seeing his brother amidst a yawn and patiently awaiting a response made him instantly realize what was required of him. "Oh...

ĎNight, Hoss!" he half-heartily stated as he, without any hesitation, went back to his book.

 

Ben let out a small puff of smoke escape his mouth as he frowningly stared at Adam. Luckily, Hoss was too tired to notice his older brotherís, at best, lukewarm

response as he walked up the stairs ahead of his stepmother.

 

Marie shifted Little Joe in her arms as she gave a brisk nod towards Adam to Ben. She had purposely given her husband the possibility to talk with their oldest child.Ben slowly nodded his understanding of the situation as she carried Joe upstairs to dreamland. It was now or never.

 

Approaching his son, Ben took a few more puffs of his pipe before saying, "Adam... Adam!"

 

Moving his eyes only, Adam stared back at his father cautiously wondering what was on his mind. The sound of his fatherís voice didnít seem promising and it

secretly frightened the boy. What have I done now? he asked himself.

 

"Put down that book, son... we need to have a talk."

 

Oh, no! reverberated in Adamís brain as soon as it registered Benís dreaded words. After hesitating a few seconds, he did as he was asked and closed his book,

then tucking it between the chairís armrest and his right leg. "Whatís wrong?" Adam asked through a nervous, thick vocal fog.

 

"Itís about your recent..." Ben tried to find the best word that explained the situation, but found none. So, he settled on the following, "problems."

 

"What problems?"

 

"Adam, thereís no need to deny it. I found out about your poor grades and your..."

 

"Hoss told you, didnít he? Wait until..."

 

"Adam, thatís enough!" Ben angrily and quickly interrupted, "Hoss has nothing to do with this. Marie found your report card in your pant pocket when she was

preparing to do the laundry. You know for a smart boy, you could have found a better way to get rid of it. Not to mention that you lied to me!"

 

At that statement, Adam remained silent as he hugged his knees knowing that his father never tolerated being lied to, especially by his own sons. Stupid... stupid...

Adam told himself as he completely forgot about his recent report card and his stark lie about losing it on his way from school. Everybody and everything was turning against him... his grades... his friends... and now his own family.

 

Seeing that his son wasnít going to add anything, Ben sighed before taking a seat on the coffee table, which faced the blue chair. With his arms resting on his

respective laps, Ben continued, "Look, son. I know about the Blackburn brothers and what theyíve been doing." At that, Adamís face perked up. "I can already

imagine how hurtful what theyíre saying as I see you turning inside yourself more each passing day. Please Adam... I can only help you if you tell whatís wrong."

 

"You canít help me! Nobody can! So just leave me alone!" Adam sadly replied despite himself. He didnít want his fatherís sympathy even though a creeping feeling

of needing security and comfort made its presence. He didnít want to live like this anymore, but couldnít see any way out.

 

"Adam..." Benís voice as well as his deportment became even softer as he spoke, "youíre not alone. You can never hide from your fears... you have to face them or

they will hang over your head for the rest of your life. Youíre a strong, intelligent young man who has the world at his fingertips." Placing his pipe on the table, he then leaned forward to be closer to his son as he stated, "Ever since you took your first baby step, youíve always been resilient and independent. Never one to complain.Always kept your emotions to yourself... in fact, you still do. A part of me beams with pride of your accomplishments, while another part of me is sad that you never truly enjoyed a carefree early childhood like your younger brothers have. I guess... I guess what I am trying to say to you, Adam, is that no matter what happens, I-"

 

Suddenly, both Ben and Adam jumped in surprise as they were caught off guard by sudden, thunderous knocks upon the wooden front door. Ben slightly cursed,

under his breath, the bad timing of the incoming visitor as he abruptly stood up and went to see who was calling. Adam, on the other hand, simply remained seated in the chair unable to move.

 

As soon as he had the door opened, Ben was instantly startled by the sharp, brisk, cold wind that stroke his whole body. A shiver ran down his back as he

recognized one of his neighbour on the other side of the doorframe. Immediately, he let the man walked inside as blowing snow swirled in the background and

threatened to enter the house. "Come on in, Jack," Ben stated as he let the man walked past him. With the door finally closed and the roomís serenity back again,

Ben asked a little perplexed, "What made you come all this way especially in this appalling weather?"

 

Rubbing his gloved hands together in attempt to regain sensation in them, Jack Livingston remained silent for a split second as he noticed Adamís curious eyes staring at him. Jack physically, even though he was only a few years older than Ben, looked to be twice the age of the Cartwright patriarch, it being the obvious

consequence of a harder life and a struggling ranch. "Ben, Iím afraid that thisís not a social call," Jack sadly stated as continued to shake off the cold from his skin.

 

"Jack, come by the fire," Ben stated as he gently led the man towards the large hearth, showing good hospitality.

 

"Thanks, Ben."

 

"Whatís wrong, Jack. Is there anything I can do for a good neighbour?"

 

"My son, Paul, hasnít come home from school yet," At that statement, Benís eyebrows raised into a worried frown, while Adamís eyes opened wide in utter dread.

Jack urgently continued, almost in a panic, "Iíve looked around the usual path that he takes, but I still ainít find him or his pony, Daisy. Ben... Iím gettiní worried, not too mention my poor wife. He never done this before and with this storm, Iím scared to think what happened to him."

 

"Calm down, Jack..." Ben said in an attempt to calm the poor father. Looking gratefully to his safe and sound son, Ben asked, "Adam! You came home from school

with him. Is there anything that you can add that may help find Paul?"

 

Now, all eyes were on the insecure twelve-year-old. Despising the sudden attention paid to him, Adam swallowed the painful lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat as he secretly dread what he would have to tell the two impatiently awaiting men. How could he tell them that he let Paul cross that dangerous river? How

could he start to explain why he, at that time, didnít care of the consequences of his friendís actions?

 

With his fatherís dark eyes burrowing into his soul, Adam knew that he couldnít remain silent any longer. Nervously clearing his throat, he psychologically braced

himself for the ramifications of what he was about to say. "Hum... Paul took... took a short cut home," Adam replied as his first words came out slowly and

hesitantly. However, with sudden wind behind his sails, he blurted out the rest as his emotions suddenly got the better of him. "I tried to stop him, but he wouldnít

listen. I swear!... I told him that it was dangerous... I... I..."

 

"Calm down, Adam. Start from the beginning," Ben stated as he approached his son and a place a comforting hand on his sonís trembling shoulder. The gesture by

Ben was meant primarily to calm Adam down, but also to gather his own doubts concerning Paulís welfare. Upon seeing the burst of emotions from the usually quiet, reserved young man that his firstborn son was and had always been, Ben knew that something wasnít as it should be and that fact made his skin crawl.

 

"Paul... took a short cut across the Truckee river!" he replied keeping his eyes downcast, unable to face them at the present time. There I said it! Adam told himself

as he uttered the last word.

 

"What!?" Both older men stated in disbelief after a few dreaded seconds of thick silence.

 

"I told him not to do it... Pa! You do believe me, Pa?" a panic-stricken Adam demanded with puppy looking eyes desperately looking for a sign of understanding

from his father. Despite everything that had happened between them, Adam still needed his fatherís support, guidance, and most of all trust. However, Benís eyes

remain unreadable.

 

"Ya let Paul walk over that river... how could ya?" Jack angrily reprimanded the boy as he transmuted his anxiousness into anger. Unable to talk or move, Adam

simply squirmed in his chair as the living room walls slowly started to close on him; the air suddenly becoming stuffy with Adam fighting for every breath that he took.

 

"Now, Jack, this isnít the time..."

 

"Ben, the ice on that river ainít safe!" Jack exclaimed as he now directed his attention to the older Cartwright. Ben simply nodded in agreement as he moved away

from Adam in order to give his support to his friend. Suddenly, Jackís face twisted into a gasping grimace as the rational part of his brain resurfaced. "Oh, God! I got to go and get him," he said as he jerked himself free from Benís hand and hurriedly headed for the exit.

 

"Iím coming with you, Jack," Ben stated as he followed the grieving man and fetch his winterized garments, "Donít worry, weíll find Paul." Just then, a creak of the

stairs was heard, which made Ben instinctively look up. Seeing a bewildered Marie standing on the stairsí landing, he said, "Marie! Jackís son is missing..." Marieís

eyes grew larger in horror placing a hand over her mouth as her husband continued, "I donít know how long Iíll be."

 

"Thatís okay, Ben. You go!" Marie replied after finally regaining control over her vocal cords. She passionately hoped for young Paulís safe return upon seeing Ben

follow a visibly distraught Jack out the door.

 

At the sound of door closing, Marie continued her slow descent down the last remaining steps. Her mind raced everywhere while her heart became heavier with

every beat. She could only sympathize with the Livingstones and share their anxiousness and prayers. Being totally lost in her own thoughts, the sudden realization

that she wasnít alone came to her as a surprise as soon as she heard muffled sniffles behind her. "Adam!" she whispered turning around to see her stepson huddled in his chair with his black hair clad head hidden between his quivering hands. "Adam?" she softly repeated. When he didnít respond, she tentatively walked towards

him. However, as she was about to gently touch his head, he bolted and ran up towards his bedroom. Marie visibly cringed at the sound of a door slamming closed a few seconds later. Relieved that the sudden noise hadnít apparently awaken the sleeping boys upstairs, she let out a sorr!owful sigh escape her lips. Trying to find

comfort, she then sat down by the fire and started to recite a prayer, "Notre pŤre qui est au cieux, que ton nom was sanctifiť et que ta rŤgne vienne, que ta

volontť soit ..."

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XI ~ ~ ~

 

 

The following day came along bringing a bright sun and puffy clouds with it. Remnants of the previous nightís storm were non-existent as sunrays filtrated between

tree branches and reflected against the sparkling white blanket that indiscriminately covered everything. Melting snow made translucent, cold droplets of water

plummet off every building in a rhythmic cadence. Sucking on a medium sized icicle that had once clung above one of the barnís windows, Hoss nonchalantly walked on top of the hard, icy snow behind the house. Despite the crunching noise emitting from every one of his steps, he could still hear the sound of someone chopping wood a little farther away. He knew that it was Adam whom was responsible for the noise.

 

Earlier that day, when he had found out that his father wasnít home and hadnít even spent the night, Hoss became very curious. After many minutes of pestering, his

ma had finally told him about Paul. His sensitive heart had taken an immediate brutal beating upon hearing the words that Adamís good friend was no where to be

found, undoubtedly in danger. Looking back, he knew that his brother had done everything to stop Paul from crossing that river and purposely told his mother that

fact as he wanted neither Adam nor him to get in trouble because of it. It was Marie that had given him the idea of talking to Adam as she hoped that he could reach

the distressed young man. Hoss had eagerly agreed to the idea as he hated to see anyone hurt, especially one of his brothers.

 

With his heart on his sleeves, Hoss advanced towards his disheartened brother, whom seemed too busy or caught in his own thoughts to notice his approach.

"Adam, how are ya duiní?"

 

Adam cringed at the thought of company as he was caught by surprise. "How do you think Iím doiní?" He vehemently replied between strokes with its sarcastic

intonation clearly apparent.

 

Hoss easily dismissed his brotherís response as he somewhat expected it. He knew that Adam wouldnít be in a good mood. "Dunno," stated the shrugging

six-year-old.

 

With axe above his head, Adam allowed himself to spare a quick glance at his brother whom nervously shifted from foot to foot with a nature-made icicle between

his lips. "Marie sent you, didnít she?... and donít lie to me!" he said just before going back to his task.

 

Adam rolled his eyes at his brotherís sudden silence knowing exactly what it meant and who it really implicated. It wasnít Hossí idea to come and see him. Marie

had tried at a few occasions to talk to him, but Adam wouldnít let it. He let everyone down, especially Paul and still couldnít imagine why it was taking so long for

his father to return, not that he wanted to face him at the moment. Adam physically quivered at the simple thought of what it implied. The two brothers simply

remained silent for several minutes, both indulging in their own thoughts and actions. It lasted for several minutes until Adam finished the chopping of the firewood

and rested the axe against a stack of previously chopped timber. Sighing, he then sat down on the stump and slumped his shoulders forward.

 

"Whatís wrong?" Hoss softly asked upon seeing his brother stare straight ahead at no particular object. It scared the young lad to see Adam in such a state of

disarray. Growing up, Adam had always been a shoulder to lean on, a patient teacher, and a great big brother for Hoss. Secretly, he admired his older brother,

wishing sometimes that he was as intellectually smart as Adam was. Also, for a curious Hoss, Adam was a onslaught of vital information when it concerned his own

mother, whom had died when he was merely a baby. Despite his father forthcoming answers to Hossí questions concerning Inger, he liked talking to Adam better,

since the faint memories that his brother had were those of mother and child and not wife and husband.

 

"Why donít ya leave me alone, Hoss?" Adam stated, not out of anger but out of defeat.

 

Hoss simply shook his head. He hated seeing his brother look so emotionally crushed that he was determined to make him feel better. "Mattís dog had puppies...

told me that I could have one if Pa said it was okay!" To Hossí dismay, no response came from his brother. Not giving up, he nonetheless continued with more

enthusiasm, "Matt said that their gold coloured... I think that Iíll named mine Goldie."

 

"You donít even know if Pa will let ya get one and youíre already naming it!" Adam mockingly announced.

 

"He will let me!" Hoss replied defiantly.

 

"I wouldnít hold your breath if I were you, Hoss," Adam said looking at his brother, "Pa still remembers what your last dog did in the kitchen, not to mention to his

favourite slippers."

 

At that, Hoss had no reply as he suddenly remembered how mad his father was upon seeing the mess that a loose Spot had done in the kitchen a little more than a

year ago. Not to mention, how Hop Sing had yelled that no dog was allowed in his kitchen and some other words in Chinese that Hoss didnít quite understand.

 

Seeing the disappointed look on his younger brotherís face made Adam slightly smile despite himself. Hossí love for animals held by no boundary. "Look, if ya get

Little Joe to say that he wants a dog, maybe Pa will say yes... after all, adults have a hard time saying no to babies."

 

Hossí gloomy mouth immediately turned into a grin upon hearing his brotherís words of advice. Finally, a sign of his old brother had resurfaced. Maybe, there was

hope after all. Before he could even make a comment on Adamís secretive instructions, a horse neighing could be heard coming from the front of the house. "Must

be Pa," Hoss deduced out loud as he followed a nervous Adam who immediately, upon hearing the noise, arose from the stump and hurriedly headed towards its

origin.

 

After a few seconds of running, Hoss suddenly bumped into the back of his brotherís back as Adam abruptly stopped in his tracks wanting to stay hidden from the

visitorís view. Looking at his now broken icicle, Hossí face turned slightly sour. "Ya broke my Ďcicle!" he huffed just before dropping it on the snow covered ground.

 

"Will ya keep quiet!" Adam angrily reprimanded as he spared a quick glance towards his brother. With his feet firmly planted in the snow against the side of the

house and his eyes glued on the stableís door, he could feel his heart start to beat at a faster pace. Adam didnít want to show his presence just yet as he had doubts

of what could have kept his father so long... if this was his father, of course.

 

Finally, after a few seconds that seemed to last an eternity for Adam, the stableís door at last opened letting a human form exit. Adam almost gasped upon seeing his father solemnly walked towards the house. Every one of his body extremities, all of sudden, felt numb as he silently stared at his fatherís movements unable to move or utter a single word. It wasnít until he saw in his peripheral view Hoss making a move to meet his father that he regained control over his body functions. Placing an arm in front of his brother, Adam prevented Hoss to make his presence known. Hoss was about to argue the decision with his big brother, but immediately reconsidered it upon seeing dark, anguish eyes meet his own blue ones.

 

It wasnít until the front door closed behind Ben that Adam made a move forward as he slowly crossed the front yard and approached the kitchenís exterior door.

Way back, he had made the conscious decision to simply eavesdrop on his parentsí conversation first before making both of them aware of his presence. He needed to know Paulís fate first and foremost. With his little brother mimicking his every move, Adam noiselessly walked inside the vast kitchen, thankful to see it devoid of Hop Singís presence. Brave enough to catch a quick glimpse inside the living room, he could see his stepmother with rag in hand cleaning various furniture along with Little Joe who wobbly stood with hands firmly planted on a low table.

 

He could hear his fatherís voice coming from the doorway, which grew louder until he became visible to both Adam and Hoss. Picking a giggling Little Joe up in his

arms, Ben then approached his wife and planted a sweet kiss on her lips. "Were you okay last night? Didnít have any problems?" Ben could be heard saying as he

lovingly placed an arm around her waist.

 

Being a woman who was more than a head shorter than Ben, Marie gently rested her head on her husband shoulder as she shook her head in response. She seemed

to have whispered something that Adam couldnít register as he was out of earshot. Fearing being discovered at that point as his parents walked towards the hearthís blazing fire, Adam backed away from the kitchen entrance, yet not too far so he could still overhear their conversation, but enough that he lost visible contact with them. With head against the wall and Hoss quietly at his side, Adam mentally prepared himself for the eventual.

 

Ben was heard glumly declaring, "we were too late."

 

Marie gasped in shock upon hearing those dreadful words uttered by her husband. "Oh, no! This has to be a mistake!"

 

"Iím sorry, Marie. Doc Martin said that there was nothing we could have done for Paul."

 

Quiet, heartfelt sobs could be heard coming from the living room before Marie sadly asked with some hesitation, "did... did he?"

 

It took a few seconds for her husband to answer as he seemed himself to be emotionally affected as well by what he was saying. "Yes, the ice was too thin for him

and his pony. He didnít have a chance."

 

Visibly distraught by what he was hearing, Adam closed his eyes in a futile effort to ward off the pain. He felt like someone had kicked him in his stomach as he

gasped for breath. Itís all my fault, kept ringing in the young manís head. Suddenly feeling claustrophobic, the need for fresh air was commanding and becoming

unbearable. With a sudden surge of energy, Adam fled the kitchen. He bumped hard against his brother as he ran towards the door in which he had entered only a

few minutes earlier.

 

Caught by surprise by his older brotherís actions, Hoss remained motionless as his own body had become numb upon seeing Adamís abrupt exodus and hearing his

fatherís words. "Adam!" Hoss sensitively pleaded for his brother to remain with him. Sadly, Adam ignored him as he exited leaving the door ajar. With teary eyes,

Hoss repeated in a small, distressed voice, "Adam?" It was to no avail, his brother wasnít coming back.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XII ~ ~ ~

 

 

Adam truthfully wasnít paying any attention to where he was actually running as the landscape passed through his peripheral view in an out-and-out blur. The second that he had left the sanctity of the kitchen, his body had taken control of his brain and had made a quick, instinctive get-a-way. His world, irrepressibly, seemed to be crumbling like an unstable house of cards at every taken step. He felt so helpless and alone.

 

Adam ran until the last ounce of his energy was completely exhausted, without having any idea how long or how far he had ventured from the ranch. As he stopped,

he saw a large snow covered rock on his immediate left. After clearing the majority of the snow for it, Adam sat down on the cool, hard surface. His shoulders

swiftly rose and fell along with his chest as he slowly regained his breath. Closing his eyes, Adam tried feverishly to rid of the thoughts and images relating to Paul that savagely tried to burst their way into his conscious. It was at that moment that he soon came to the awful realization that whatever he did, his guilt over Paulís death would always tag along. His fatherís words of wisdom about never being able to run away from our fears resurfaced in his thoughts. Adam knew that he would have to face the fact that he not only did he let down his friend, but also his whole family as well as himself. Nothing would make him able to correct his mi!stakes now and the very thought of living with that heavy burden on his shoulders for the rest of his life made Adamís stomach churn in defeat. How will he ever be able to look into his fatherís eyes and tell him how he could have prevented the tragic accident but didnít.

 

Thoughts of his mother, whom had died during childbirth, and of Inger, whom also had also been taken from his life at a very young age, swept into his mind as

Adam buried his face in his mitten clad hands. The more he thought about it, the more he illogically believed that his life was forever cursed. Letting his so ever-used

emotional barrier unceremoniously tumbled down, Adam quietly sobbed away his sorrows. After a few seconds, the tears abruptly stopped falling down his cheeks

as soon as something cold roughly hit his face with dire force. It made him instantly caressed his abused cheek, which was now covered with snow. It was then that

Adam came to the realization that a snowball had been the culprit of the stunning pain growing in intensity on the left side of his face.

 

"Look what we got here... a crying baby!"

 

The cynical tone in the preceding statement was clearly unmistaken as Adam abruptly lifted his head in order to face his attacker. His brown eyes quickly turned into

dark ones full of rage upon seeing the three young men standing on his right with predator-looking eyes. Secretly wondering how they had found him, Adam rose

from the rock after wiping the snow from his face and winter coat. "What do you want, Johnny? What are you doiní here?" he intensely demanded with predator

eyes as his ire suddenly doubled.

 

"Well...well, Cartwright, itís so nice of ya to join us!" Johnny Blackburn sardonically stated without bothering to offer an answer to Adamís questions. David and

Lou simply snickered.

 

"Why donít you just leave me alone?" Adam angrily stated as he stood his ground defiantly, letting his emotions get the better of him.

 

"Donít ya start giving us orders, now!" Johnny replied as he mockingly waved his index finger in front of Adam.

 

Anger quickly grew inside the young Cartwright as he found it harder and harder to restrain it. Clenching his fists against his pants, he fought an inner battle as his

brain was telling him to return home while his heart ached for sweet revenge. Under normal circumstances, Adam would have followed his brainís advice and simply

walked away from this obviously provoked confrontation, but today wasnít a normal day.

 

After a few seconds of tensed silence, it became quite unbearable for Adam to control his emotions any longer. His feelings of insecurity and hurt were hastily turning into ones of anger and acrimony. In a swift and abrupt action, Adam rammed into the ring leader making them both tumble to the ground upon impact. Like an untamed and enraged animal, Adam gave his blows as a caught off guard Johnny tried his best to divert them while he attempted to give out some of his own.

 

For several seconds, both David and Lou simply stared at the two fighting balls of human flesh. It was David whom intervened first as he grabbed the collar of

Adamís winter coat and pulled. Unexpectedly to David, it took most of his energy to remove the young Cartwright from atop of his brother. Once he was

successful, Lou helped him push Adam to the ground.

 

Taken by surprise, Adam landed hard against his back. Thankfully, the snow slightly cushioned his fall. Catching his breath, he noticed that Johnny was now back on

his feet flanked, on either side, by Lou and David. Cursing his bad luck, Adam quickly scrambled to his feet as they approached him.

 

"Ya shouldnít have done that, Cartwright!" Johnny fumed, "Yaíre goiní to regret ever wakiní up this morniní!"

 

"Ya donít scare me, Johnny!" Adam retorted despite feeling the opposite.

 

Johnny simply gnawed his teeth and squinted his eyes in anger. Lifting his arms into a fighting position, he invited the younger man to fight their differences away.

 

Adam wasnít about to back down now as he mimicked Johnny and prepared for an out and out brawl. His fatherís stern warning about fighting was quickly

dismissed into the back of his mind. Images of Paul glazed over his eyes for a brief moment making his anger and confidence double in strength.

 

"Come on, Cartwright! Come on!" Johnny urged on as David and Lou kept to the sides.

 

Wanting to take the first move, Adam made a spurt advance towards Johnny. However just as his fist was about to connect with flesh, an abrupt and sharp pain in

his back made him wince and stumble to his knees. To his surprise, either Lou or David had in a sneaky fashion joined into the fight, doubling the odds against

Adam. With his opponent at a disadvantage, Johnny took the occasion to kick him in the chest making Cartwright fall back in the process and hitting his head,

sideways, against the spiky boulder. The impact was hard leading Adam into immediate unconsciousness.

 

Johnny laughed at Adamís fall, while both David and Lou looked aghast at the turn of events. "Yaíve killed him!" David stated in horror as his eyes fixated on the

inert human form only a few feet away.

 

"Nah, I ainít that lucky!" Johnny sardonically stated with eyes devoid of any warmth or compassion as he gave another kick in Adamís mid-section.

 

Sharing a horrified look with Lou, David approached Adamís limp body, pushing his brother out of the way, in hopes of feeling a pulse. He let a sigh of relief escape

his mouth as he felt a pulsate beat from Cartwrightís neck. "He needs a doctor!" he stated to no one in particular.

 

"Adam thinks heís so smart... let him figure that out. Iím outta here!" Johnny replied as he shrugged his own brotherís concerned words off. He instinctively turned

on his heels and headed for his fatherís ranch.

 

"We canít just leave him here!" David avowed as remorse quickly swelled up inside him. He didnít mind his older brotherís torments as long as it didnít involve

seriously hurting someone. With the earlier news of Paul Livingstoneís tragic death, David felt compelled not to allow another one that same faith. Growing up, he

had always looked up at this brother, Johnny, as he was more a father to him than their own was, but this was the breaking point of that relationship.

 

"Johnny! Johnny!" David yelled. But his brother didnít respond as he kept walking away not bothering to look back. Shifting his glance to Lou, whom had remained

quiet and still, David hoped to convince at least him of getting some help. "Lou," he started, "we need to get the doctor. We canít leave him here alone! Adamís

badly hurt, let alone heíll freeze to death if we donít move him from here."

 

Lou looked back and forth from David to Johnny, confused as what to do next. For what seemed to be an eternity, Lou simply stood still. "Iím sorry, David," he

sorrowfully stated before running away in the same direction as Johnny had taken.

 

Completely taken by surprise, David, with mouth open, simply stared back at the other deserterís fleeting form. He couldnít believe what was happening. He was

now alone with Adam. Knowing that he wasnít strong enough to drag Adamís limp body very far, David had to make a conscious decision. After a few seconds of

debating all of the possibilities in his mind, he now knew what he had to do.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††~ ~ ~ Chapter XIII ~ ~ ~

 

 

After enjoying a few moments of inner peace while taking a warm soothing bath, Ben felt rejuvenated. The previous night ordeal as well as the morningís had made

him both emotionally and physically exhausted. Dealing with young Paulís tragic death and helping his good neighbours deal with their sudden loss was merely to

much to bare for the Cartwright patriarch. Being widowed twice before his marriage to Marie, Ben knew how it felt of losing someone that he dearly loved. But, lose a son? "May for the grace of God, go I," he murmured to himself in a silent prayer. Fortunately, faith had prevented him the agony of losing one of his sons as Jack had lost his only one. Parents should never bury their children; it just wasnít meant to be that way!

 

After a change of clothes, Ben ventured downstairs, knowing that he would have to be the bearer of bad news for his two oldest sons. It wasnít something that he

was comfortable with, but he knew that it had to be done. Iím their father. Best it to be from me than anyone else, Ben quickly deduced as he slowly descended

the stairs. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of Marie seating in a rocking chair next to his officeís alcove with one eye on her knitting and the other on her young

son, Little Joe, whom was playing with wooden building blocks at her feet.

 

"Where are Adam and Hoss?" Ben asked his wife, whom upon his entrance into the large living area, put her knitting down and gave him her full attention.

 

Amongst a sad shrug, Marie honestly answered, "I donít know! Havenít seen them since you came back! Theyíre supposed to be doing their Ďbefore supperí

chores before you arrived. Theyíre probably still outside."

 

Ben simply nodded in agreement. Kneeling down unto one knee, he affectionately messed Little Joeís mass of brown hair. "At least, one of my sons is keeping out of trouble," he jokingly stated sparing an amused look up at Marie.

 

"Heís been an angel so far today, I must say," Marie agreed with a large engaging smile. As Joe looked up at both of them in confusion, the innocent face on their

youngest son made them both laugh despite themselves. "Youíve been a good boy. Havenít you Little Joe?" she stated leaning forward in her chair.

 

"Me gook!" Joe firmly stated to his mother with a nod of the head.

 

Giggling, Marie once again agreed. "Yes, youíve been a good boy. Letís just hope that youíll be good tonight at the supper table and at bedtime too!" To that, the

young toddler remained silent as he nonchalantly went back to his blocks.

 

Raising from his crouching position, Ben decided that it was best not to delay his unfortunate chat with his sons any longer. After taking a deep breath and sharing a

loving, supportive glance with his wife, he then ventured towards the kitchen. In order to save some time, he had come to the conclusion that maybe Hop Sing would know where Adam or Hoss where hiding.

 

As soon as he had entered the warm room, Ben quickly located Hop Sing, whom appeared to be tending over the large cooking stove. Taking a few steps forward,

he now stood beside the short Chinese man. "Hop Sing, have you by any chance seen Adam and Hoss lately?"

 

"Havenít seen Mista Adam," Hop Sing stated with a slight shake of the head.

 

"What about Hoss?"

 

To this question, the Chinese cook nodded only once before shifting his head to his left, making Ben swing his own head in that direction as well. To Benís surprise,

there on a small stool with a cookie half eaten his hands, sat his middle son. After mouthing his thanks to Hop Sing, Ben slowly approached Hoss. Upon closer

examination of his son, he noticed long, wet eyelashes flash back at him and glistening streaks arising from puffy eyes. It was obvious that Hoss had been crying.

"Whatís wrong, son?" Ben softly asked as he stooped down in front of the stool.

 

At first, Hoss remained silent as he continued to chew on his oatmeal cookie. Knowing that he should best give his father an answer soon, he nervously cleared his

throat. If he wanted to help his brother, Hoss knew that he would have to tell his father everything. "Adam and me heard ya talk about Paul," he stated in a low

voice. Waiting for a retort from Ben, Hoss lifted his gaze up and hesitantly met his fatherís dark eyes. "Is... is he really gone to heaven, Pa?"

 

Completely taking by surprise at his sons knowledge of Paulís death, Ben remained aghast for a few seconds as he gathered his thoughts. His disapproval of his

sonsí eavesdropping was quickly replaced by parental protectiveness. It took some time before he found his voice again. "Yes... Iím sorry, son!"

 

Hoss sadly lowered his eyes as he nervously transferred the remaining of his cookie from one hand to another. His appetite suddenly gone. Everything didnít seem

real to him, it felt more like a terrible nightmare.

 

"Hoss... whereís Adam?"

 

Hoss shrugged.

 

"Son, if you know where your brother is, please tell me! I want to help him! I need to talk to him!" Ben compassionately declared while placing a hand on the boyís

shoulder. He could only imagine how his oldest son was coping with the news of Paulís death. Ben needed to be there for him, to be a shoulder to cry on, to be an

ear to talk to.

 

"Donít know! He ran away!" Hoss whispered, secretly ashamed of his inaction concerning his brotherís departure from the ranch.

 

"When was this?" Ben asked, face drawn with concern.

 

Hoss shrugged again before uttering, "After ya talked to Ma!"

 

"Do you know in which direction he went?"

 

This time, Hoss shook his head in a slow calculate motion.

 

Ben gathered his thoughts. He needed to find Adam as soon as possible. His oldest son had seen too much grief for one person in his short time on this planet. Like

any parent, Ben wished that there could be a way to take away his childrenís pains. A sniff brought him back to the present as he lifted his eyes up to meet his sons.

His heart felt like it was being physically squeezed upon seeing the sadness in Hossí ice blue eyes. No matter what circumstances or passage of time, this type of

situation never became any easier.

 

Letting a small sigh escaped, Ben rose and extended his hand forward inviting his son to follow him. "Come on, son. Donít worry, everything will be alright."

 

 

††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††~ ~ ~ Chapter XIV ~ ~ ~

 

 

On top of his horse, Ben Cartwright uncomfortably shifted in his saddle. He been riding in the damp air and cold wind for what seemed to be a lifetime and yet he

hadnít see any sign of Adam. Due to the previous night snowfall, luckily, it hadnít been hard to find and follow Adamís tracks. It surprised him to see how far his son had apparently ran as the Ponderosa border wasnít that far ahead. The more Ben edged his horse forward, the more his stomach made somersaults. With Jackís loss still fresh in his mind, Ben secretly uttered a prayer for his own son.

 

Whisking a sharp branch away from his face, Ben advanced down the path. An inner voice kept putting irrational doubts in his mind. It took all of his energy to keep

his outlook positive. However, the more time passed, the more he started to listen to the voice. After a few more minutes of infertile search, Ben halted his horse for

a breather. The sun was hastily pulling a disappearing act behind him and he could feel the air become brisker at every breath. The knowledge of an incoming, brisk

night made Ben grow unnerved about his oldest sonís safety. Pulling his scarf closer to his neck, he edged his horse forward again, not wanting to waste anymore

time.

 

As his horse passed a small furrow, which contained knee-deep snow, Ben let out a deep sigh of both frustration and dread. The voice in his head was starting to get much louder and Ben couldnít be sure that his sanity would be safe if Adam wasnít found soon. After what seemed to be an eternity, something to his immediate

right caught his attention. It was a dark figure awkwardly positioned against a small boulder. It took a few seconds for Benís brain to register what he was seeing

and a few seconds more for his muscles to spur into action.

 

Quickly dismounting, he then ran towards the still unidentified form, which was stretched out on its stomach. Kneeling down, Ben carefully turned the immobile

person over. His heart skipped a beat as soon as he recognized his sonís ashen, blemished face. "Adam!... Adam?" Ben whispered as he fought for words.

 

Relief swept through Benís entire body like a flood as he found Adamís pulse, even though it appeared to be weak. Brushing away snow from his oldest sonís

temple, he noticed dark purple discolorations and some traces of coagulated blood. Rubbing a gloved hand against the rock on which his son was resting, Ben came

to the conclusion that Adam had undoubtedly fallen and hit his head against it. What puzzled him was the numerous fresh footprints leading away from where he

stood. Knowing that he needed to get his son to a doctor as soon as possible, Ben let his multiple questions about Adamís state to another more appropriate time.

Besides, at the present time, Adam was in no condition to answer them. In a swift yet gentile motion, Ben swept up his son and walked towards his awaiting horse.

"Please, God! Save my son!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XV ~ ~ ~

 

 

"Please sit down, Ben. Youíre making me nervous," Marie softly stated as her understandably anxious husband walked, for the umpteenth time, by the living room

chair in which she was seated. Doctor Paul Martin had been alone with Adam for several minutes as he accessed the boyís medical injuries. She could sympathize

with Benís edginess as she was feeling the same way, but knew that this was a moment where they had to be strong... for Adamís sake as well as for their own.

 

"Sorry," Ben replied absently as he took a seat adjacent to hers. Staring into the fire, he couldnít stop thinking about his sonís face when he first found him. It was an image, which he wished that he could have been spared. After he glanced at the grand father clock, Ben impatiently rubbed his eyes. Doc Martin had been upstairs for over twenty-five minutes. God only knew what kind of physical injury that Adam had sustained considering that it took more than two hours before Martin was able to make his appearance at the ranch. This was every parentís nightmare.

 

"Ben? Whatís taking so long?" Marie asked after a few moments of tensed silence, unable to keep her brewing emotions in check any longer. She loved and treated

Adam like her own flesh and blood and it pained her to see him in such a state. Adam hadnít awaken since Ben brought him back to the ranch. At first, upon seeing

Ben carry the limp body of her oldest stepson, Marie thought the worse as tears had furiously leaked down her cheeks. The only thing that she was thankful about

was that at least both Hoss and Little Joe were peacefully sleeping through this whole ordeal.

 

Just as Ben was about to respond to his wife question, Doc Martin slowly appeared at the top of the staircase. Without speaking a single word, he motioned for

them to meet him in Adamís room. Seconds later, all three adults stood around the bed where Adam, all bandaged up, seemingly slept.

 

"Paul?" Ben asked in a hush voice as he kept eye contact with the doctor.

 

Martin looked at his patient before speaking. "Heís got a nasty bump on the head, Ben," Paul stated, "I wonít lie to you, it doesnít look good. Due to the fact that

Adam is still unconscious is troubling. There no doubt that he has a concussion."

 

Marieís eyes began to swell up upon hearing the doctor news, while Benís simply stared back at the doctor refusing to acknowledge the implications of the spoken

words. Wanting more information, Ben quickly asked, "when will he wake up?"

 

The doctorís stance shifted, visibly hesitant. "Iím sorry, Ben, but only time will tell." Knowing the Cartwrights for a little over a year, Martin knew that both Ben and

Marie werenít going to satisfied until every detail hadnít been addressed, whether good or bad. He sighed before adding, "Unfortunately, the greater time it takes for young Adam to awaken, the more severe this injury will be."

 

"Whatís... whatís the worse scenario, Paul?" Ben nervously asked as he shifted his gaze back to his son.

 

"As in any injury, Ben, concussions can lead to... death," Martin honestly and carefully replied. Seeing that both Ben and Marie were visibly shaken by his words,

Paul desperately wanted to remedy that as he quickly added, "Concussions are unpredictable. They vary depending on circumstances as well as the individual. Itís

not an exact science. Like I said, in Adamís case, only time will tell. Fortunately, your sonís a healthy and strong boy. The odds arenít against him."

 

Despite his inner turmoil, Ben nodded his understanding of the situation. Adamís fate, whether he like it or not, was beyond his intervention and help. It physically

pained him to feel such helplessness. He wished beyond anything that he could be in Adamís position, sparing his son of any pain. But, it was futile to think that way.

Right now, he needed to be strong for Adam and for the rest of the family. Shifting his gaze, once again, this time to his visibly distraught wife, Ben offered her a

weak, encouraging smile.

 

"About Adamís other injuries..."

 

"What other injuries?" Ben quickly interrupted the doctor, taken by surprise.

 

Paul met both Marie and Benís quizzical eyes for a brief moment before offering an answer. "As I was doing a physical examination on your son, I noticed several

bruises..." the doctor explained as he glanced down at Adamís sleeping form, "and a cracked rib."

 

"A cracked rib?" Ben questioned meeting his wifeís puzzled stare, before returning it to Martinís direction.

 

"I donít believe that it was sustained during Adamís fall. My best guest, upon closer examination, is that he was in a fight of some sort."

 

"Who could have...?" Ben asked out loud, but soon found an explanation to his own question. Everything added up to one answer: the Blackburnís sons. The

numerous footprints near where he found Adam and the locationís proximity to the Blackburn ranch, not to mention Adamís previous fight made perfect sense.

Without any further delay, he would need to have a little talk with Frank Blackburn and his sons.

 

"Also, due to the unknown hours of Adamís exposure outside, his body temperature is below normal. Youíll need to keep him warm for the next few days," Paul

stated as he picked up his medical black bag in order to close it. After he did just so, he continued, "Iím sorry, but I have to go back into town. Another patient is

awaiting. Iíll be back to check on him tomorrow. Immediately call for me if Adamís status changes either way. Iíll like to see him as soon as he awakens."

 

"Thanks, I appreciate you coming as soon as you did, Paul. Iíll see you out," Ben stated as he genially offered his hand. After they share a hand shake, Ben and

Martin both headed for Adamís bedroom door.

 

"Thank you," Marie stated as she stepped aside in order to let Martin and her husband exit the room. Now alone in the room, Marie took Adamís desk chair and

placed it near the bed. Taking a seat, she leaned forward and instinctively brushed away some of her older stepsonís raven hair away from his bandage and his pasty white face. It was such a contrast of colour that it made Adam appear even more sickly. "Oh, Adam!" Marie softly stated as she tenderly rubbed his cheek. Feeling tears creep up once more, she furiously rubbed her eyes with her free hand, not wanting to give into them. No matter what, she needed to be strong as both Little Joe and Hoss would be awaking from their night sleep in a few hours.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XVI ~ ~ ~

 

 

It was only by her stomachís gurgle due to hunger that Marie knew that it was probably near noontime. She had been at Adamís bedside for most of the morning.

Marie passed a warm cloth over her stepsonís face while avoiding his bandages. He hadnít awaken yet since the incident, which worried Marie even more so as the

doctorís words resurfaced into her thoughts. "Wake up, Adam!" she softly urged hoping that he could hear, "Please, everyone canít wait to see those beautiful

brown eyes of yours again."

 

"Did... did he woke up?" a young, tentative voice asked behind her. The sudden interruption made Marie slightly jumped before turning to see Hoss, chin low and

pleading eyes, look up at her.

 

With a sad smile, Marie urged her younger stepson to join her. Making room for the little boy to sit with her in the rocking chair, she gave him a warm hug as she

stated, "Iím sorry, honey, but Adamís still sleeping."

 

With that said, Hoss remained silent, not able to voice his worries out loud as he simply stared at his older brother. Together, both Marie and Hoss gently rocked as

the fixated their gazes on the rhythmic, almost hypnotizing, movement of Adamís chest rising and falling at every shaky taken breath.

 

Despite his best efforts, Hoss couldnít keep his brewing questions unanswered any longer. Always one to express his emotions on his face like an open book, he

needed the reassurance that his beloved older brother would be alright. "Ma?"

 

"Yes, Hoss?"

 

"Why ainít he woken up yet?"

 

Ruffling her stepsonís dark blond hair, she offered him a loving smile. "Hoss, your brother hurt his head. Heíll wake up soon enough, youíll see. His body just needs

more time to heal, thatís all."

 

Hoss nodded. Even though he didnít quite understand everything that was happening to his brother, he felt assure that his stepmother was telling him the truth.

However, there was still another question he needed to ask. "Ma? whereís pa?"

 

Marie wrapped her right arm around Hossí shoulders and gave him a slight, loving squeeze as she gently replied, "Heís probably outside. Itís my turn to watch over

your brother. Your father should be back soon."

 

Once again satisfied with Marieís answer, Hoss slightly nodded.

 

"Do you know if Hop Sing has dinner ready by any chance? I imagine that Little Joe's keeping him busy through it all."

 

A hesitant shrug was the response.

 

"Why donít you go see? Iím sure that youíre getting hungry. My own stomach is starting to growl, imagine one of a growing six-year-old," Marie stated with a grin.

To her delight, Hossí own lips twisted into a small, fleeting smile. A smile nonetheless,

 

"What about Adam?" Hoss uncertainly inquired as he slid off of the rocking chair and approached the bed. Seeing his brother in his present condition made Hoss

heavyhearted. With Paul gone to heaven, he feared that his brother would leave him too.

 

"Iíll stay with him until your father takes my place. Donít worry, youíll be one of the first to know when Adam awakens. Iím sure that, just like you, he canít wait to

see you again. We just have to patient."

 

With worried eyes, Hoss glanced at his stepmother before resting them once more on his brother for a few seconds. He then lifted his chubby left hand and lovingly

brushed it against Adamís right one. "Iíll be waitiní Adam!"

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XVII ~ ~ ~

 

 

With worried eyes downcast gawking at his oldest sonís pale face, Ben silently stood at the end of the bed. He had just taken Marieís place by Adamís side and

instructed her to get some rest. The image that was now plaguing his eyes made his heart feel heavy. How he wished that he could physically do something to speed

up Adamís healing process. How he wished that he could get his hands around the neck of whoever was responsible right now. But Ben tried to reason with his

conflicting emotions, as he knew that he needed to be patient for Adam and to be strong for the rest of the family.

 

In a slow movement, Ben approached one of Adamís tables and immediately sought after two specific objects from atop of it. The first one was a small silver frame,

which held a photograph of Adamís deceased mother, Elizabeth. Delicately picking it up, he softly brushed some fingers over the image of his first wife smiling up at

him. "Oh, Liz!" Ben tenderly murmured with tears threatening to stroll down his cheeks, "Our son needs our help. Please help me watch over him." Just as softly, he

then returned the frame back onto the dark wooden chest.

 

The second object that caught Benís attention was a beautiful music box that he had bought in Amsterdam during one of his sea voyages for Elizabeth prior to their

marriage. A music box that Liz had loved so dearly and listened during the last few moments of her short life. With careful hands, Ben opened the lid and suddenly

the room was embraced by melodious hands. Soft tears finally broke the barrier and consequently descended down Benís cheeks as he moved a chair close to the

bed and took a seat. Placing the music box atop the bed linen, Ben quickly grasped Adamís right hand and gently squeezed. Adamís physical resemblance to his

mother, from dark raven hair to a slow rising temper, made Ben double over in pain as he remembered what he had lost almost thirteen years ago. Soft music was

now the only noise reverberating against the walls as Ben closed his eyes in order to be immersed by memories.

 

After several hours, Ben slowly leaned back against his chair and slowly opened his eyes. Across the bedroom and through the window, he could see the

disseminating light reflecting across the Sierra Nevada mountains. Dusk was merely an hour away and still Adam hadnít awoken. Ben was quickly becoming restless. Just as he was about to get up in order to retrieve some circulation in his legs, something in the corner of Benís dark eyes suddenly caught his attention. He could have sworn that he had seen some type of movement on his immediate left. Without blinking, Ben stare at his son for several seconds with evident hopefulness

flashing across his overwrought face.

 

Just as Ben was about to dismiss it to his imagination, he saw Adamís left hand slowly and briefly twitch. In a brisk and sudden movement, Ben jumped out of his

seat and leaned over his son. With a hand gently rubbing Adamís left cheek, Ben quickly spoke, "Come on, Adam! Wake up!... Wake up!" While trying to transfer

some his energy to his firstborn through his hands by osmosis, Ben urged on his son to wake up. After a few seconds of uncertainty, Adam finally became, to his

fatherís utmost delight, more responsive as his eyes began to flicker.

 

"Marie!" Ben yelled in order to summon his wife, "Marie!"

 

Within seconds, a very flustered woman scampered inside the bedroom. Her faceís worried scowl quickly turned into a gaping smile upon seeing her husbandís

jubilant eyes. "Heís waking up?" Marie hesitantly asked wanting desperately some validation.

 

Ben gave her an exuberant nod before letting his eyes fall back down onto his sonís. As Adamís eyes flicker at quicker intervals, his father and stepmotherís

enthusiasm grew in equivalent intensity.

 

A thick fog seemed to surround Adam as he painfully fought for consciousness. All of his senses were dulled, but somehow he could hear someone call out his name

at an apparently far away place. He felt suddenly very upset as he awkwardly balanced between the cognizant and dream states. It physically pained him as he

fought for control of his own body. Luckily, at each passing moment, Adam felt himself gain more and more lucidity as he now physically felt some hands on his

shoulders shaking his still limp body. After a few seconds of dread, Adam was finally able to slowly squint his eyes open as the light on the other side of his pupils

blinded him. It was at that moment that he recognized the person behind the voice that was urging him on to consciousness. "Pa?" Adam meekly croaked.

 

"Yes, son! Itís me," Ben answered after sparing a relieved glance with Marie. Once again, his eyes became filled with tears, but this time, ones of sheer joy.

 

"Pa?" Adam, with eyes once again closed, asked again after a painful swallow in order to help lubricate his dry and rough throat. Adamís mind raced to comprehend his situation, as he had no knowledge of how long he had been sleeping. All he knew was that his head felt like someone was chopping wood inside the perimeter of his skull as sharp pains reverberate in a rhythmic cadence. He could feel a bandage around his temple and raised a hand in order to touch it. His face immediately frowned into a painful scowl upon doing so. "My head hurts, Pa!"

 

"Yes, I know son. You have a nasty bump," Ben soothingly explained as he gently pushed back Adamís hand towards the bed. "Try to lie still, Adam."

 

Adam remained silent as he scrunched his face in concentration. Even though it hurt to think clearly, a vital need for information quickly overwhelmed him. In a

distance, he heard his father repeat his need to relax and lie still. But, Adam needed to know what had happened and his stubbornness wasnít about to let him

renounce. Suddenly, an image of laughing fellow classmates invaded his train of thought making Adam remember most of the details relating to the cause of his

predicament. "Johnny Blackb-"

 

"Adam, try to relax. We can talk about this later," Ben pleaded as he silenced his son. Adam needed his rest and Ben, as any father would do, wasnít about to

jeopardize his childís convalescence.

 

Marie, whom had been silent since Adamís awareness, finally found her voice. "Iíll get Jake to fetch Doc Martin."

 

"Good."

 

Marie reciprocated her husbandís nod. She felt like a ton of weight had been brushed off of her shoulders upon seeing her older stepson open his eyes. The uplifting

emotion that she presently felt across her whole body was one that she wouldnít soon forget. It was one of absolute happiness and relief. After reluctantly braking

the optic spell that Adamís had on her, Marie let her face contorted into an ear-to-ear grin before quietly exiting the room. Her prayers had been answered.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XVIII ~ ~ ~

 

 

"So, Paul, how is he?" Ben asked as soon as the doctor walked out of Adamís bedroom. Ben and Marie had been impatiently waiting in the hallway for Martinís

exit. Martinís physical examination of their oldest childís seemed to be in both of their opinion taking too long. Illogical doubts started to creep between slight cracks

in their confidence as time went by.

 

"Heís doing well considering," Martin said after carefully closing the door behind him. With a wave of his hand, he urged for both Cartwright parents to descend

downstairs; the hallway wasnít an appropriate location to discuss their sonís welfare. Without comment, both Ben and Marie complied with the doctorís wishes and

slowly led him downstairs into the main living room area.

 

Taking a seat beside his wife on the settee, Ben leaned forward anticipating the diagnosis, resting his elbows on his knees in the process. He watched as Martin

simply remain standing with his back to the heat emitting fireplace. "So, how is Adam?"

 

"Like I said, heís doing well," Martin repeated. "His body temperature is good. You did a good job keeping him warm. I replace his bandages. His head wound is

healing as expected. The swelling is going down. His breathing is slightly laboured due to his cracked rib. So, he needs to have complete bed rest for the next few

days." To that said, both Ben and Marie eagerly nodded in agreement. They were going to do everything in their power to make Adamís recovery an absolute and

speedy one. "All in all, your sonís youth and health were significant in his recuperation. I expect him to make a full recovery in due time of course."

 

"Thatís great news, doctor," Ben stated with glee. After sharing a quick glance with a jubilant Marie, he then addressed Martin once more. "How is he now?"

 

"I gave him some powder for the pain, so heís resting now. I left some extra medication with careful instructions on his bedside table for later use."

 

"Thank you, Paul. I really appreciate you coming here so soon."

 

"No problem, Ben. Do you know who did this to Adam?" Martin casually asked as he headed for the door, knowing that his physician duty was over for the day.

Ben and Marie both politely followed suite.

 

Ben, once again, glanced at his wife before meeting the doctorís eyes. "Adam did mumbled something odd about Johnny Blackburn," he replied with a touch of

deep-rooted anger detected in his resonant voice, "I wouldnít be surprised to find out that he was involved somehow. Adam and him were having some...

differences these past few days."

 

"Blackburn! Thatís strange," Martin said as his left eyebrow raised in stupefaction.

 

"How so?" Ben asked as his own face twisted into a bewildered frown.

 

"When I came back into town after visiting Adam for the first time, my assistant gave me the strangest message," Martin explained with a shake of the head as he

rested his hand on the door latch, not bothering to open the door just yet, "She told me that one of Frank Blackburnís sons had been at the office stating that I had to help a friend who had been hurt. When she mentioned that the reason for my absence was Adam, the young boy simply sighed in relief before asking her how your son was doing. Of course, she couldnít tell him anything, as she didnít know. He then told her to forget about giving me the message and left."

 

Upon hearing Martinís spoken explanation, in Benís mind now, there was no doubt that the Blackburn boys were responsible for Adamís injuries. With Adamís

health no longer in jeopardy, Ben felt that he could now act on his brewing emotions and consequently no longer delay a meeting with the Blackburns. This

information irrevocably fortified his need to have a father to father talk with Frank Blackburn. He also knew that the sheriff would have to present along with him.

Ben wasnít about to let his guard down. The person or persons responsible for Adamís injuries were going to get their retribution, no matter what. It was a promise.

"Thank you Paul for that information. Iím sure that it will help me find out whose responsible," Ben diplomatically stated with a quick nod.

 

"I hope so too," Martin genially replied just before opening the door. However, just before walking under the door frame, he quickly added, "Iíll be back later during the week to check on Adam. Make sure that he gets complete bed rest."

 

"We will, doctor." Ben and Marie replied in unison.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XIX ~ ~ ~

 

 

The next day, with Sheriff William Samuels at his side, Ben Cartwright, atop of his horse, approached the Blackburnsí cattle ranch with barely controlled emotions.

Despite the knowledge that Adam would fully recover from his injuries, Ben still felt uncontrollable anger passed through his veins. He knew that Frankís sons were

directly responsible and was going to prove it. Just a few feet from the ranch house, Ben quickly dismounted, then loosely tied the reins around a nearby post.

Without a word, Samuels mimicked Cartwrightís actions and followed him to the front door.

 

The Blackburn home barely defined as being a house with old, washed out wood planks as walls and small, dirty windowpanes substituting for windows. Heavy

black smoke seeped out the small stone chimney. Since day one, Frank Blackburn had struggled with the daily hardships of ranching. Unfortunately, the West wasnít meant for everyone. Ben counted his blessing that he wasnít as unfortunate as his neighbour. Strangely, no one seemed to be in yard as they had approach. With ten kids, Ben would have thought that at least one would have be roaming or playing around in the snow.

 

Slightly on edge, Ben let out a heavy sigh, leaving a cloud of mist around his face as he did so. The cool air filtrated through his lungs making his chest feel clean. It

was turning into a typical, yet beautiful January day. Standing on a planked, railing deprived porch, Ben made the first move and knocked several times. It took a

few seconds for anyone to open the door despite the fact that noise could clearly be heard through the wooden door. A child of about seven years old sheepishly

opened the door. Her eyes displayed curiosity as her mother ordered her to let both visitors enter.

 

The house was even smaller inside than it appeared from the exterior. Ben knew that it comprised of only two bedrooms and a small living area where the kitchen

was separated by a sheet posing as a makeshift wall. Mrs. Blackburn seemed to busy baking in the kitchen as both Benís and Willís olfactory senses were

bombarded by the pleasant smell of fresh baked bread. To their right, they saw Frank busying himself by refilling his pipe with tobacco while four young children

played Cowboys and Indians throughout the house. The chaotic display of energy didnít seem to bother neither parent as both Ben and the sheriff felt uneasy. And I

complain about my sons, Ben reprimanded himself. Taking their respective hats off in sign of politeness, both visitors slowly approached Frank.

 

"Sheriff... Cartwright. To what I owe this pleasure?" Frank asked as he looked up from his busy task, seated behind a small table.

 

It was the sheriff whom spoke first as he shifted his short and skinny frame. "We need to have a talk with your older boys, Johnny and David."

 

Frank, once again, lifted his brown eyes. This time they showed annoyance. "What about?"

 

"Itís about Adam Cartwright," Samuels replied as he passed a hand through his dark brown, thinning hair. As the Blackburn patriarch still seemed to be at a lost, the

sheriff quickly filled in the gaps. "Young Cartwright was in a fight late last Saturday and-"

 

"Boys have fights all of the time. Boys will be boys. Whatís the problem?"

 

"Whatís the problem?!" Ben quickly asked in disbelief as he was unable to keep silent anymore, "The problem is... that your sons were responsible for giving my son a concussion, a cracked rib, no to mention several bruises! Adam was left in the cold for several hours. He could have died!"

 

"Who says that it wuz my sons that did this to yar boy, Cartwright?" Blackburn placidly replied, seemingly not bothered in the least by the harsh accusations.

 

Frank laissez-faire attitude was making Benís blood start to boil. In a heavy sigh, Benís eyes became downcast in anger. Knowing that Cartwright was about to

explode like ten tonnes of dynamite, the sheriff was the one who continued the conversation, in hopes of keeping it civilized. "Look, Frank! We just wanta talk to

your boys. It wonít take too long."

 

Blackburn examined both men tentatively as well as suspiciously for several seconds. He wasnít convince that their visit was out of good intentions. The room

suddenly became even more stuffy as time went by; the tension becoming almost unbearable. "Well, theyíre not here," Frank replied after a moment while scratching

his scalp.

 

"Where are they then?" Ben quickly asked not too pleased with the answer.

 

"Out!"

 

"Out where?" Ben huffed.

 

"Come on, men!" Samuels broke in, physically separating the two men by moving between them. He knew that a serious verbal fight would ensue if didnít step in

soon enough. "We can be at this until tomorrow morning. Now, Frank! Go and get your boys. We need to have a talk with them."

 

As if summoned by supernatural powers, both Johnny and David Blackburn entered the house at that exact moment. The sheriff, Ben, as well as Frank quickly

turned their attention to the new arrivals. At that moment, Ben and Samuelsí faces showed respectively resentment and relief, while on the other end, Frankís

displayed regret. Johnnyís expression immediately soured upon his entrance as he noticed the two visitors, while David slightly shuddered in uneasiness.

 

The sheriff took a step towards the two young men. It was best to get this over with. "We need to talk!" He stated with conviction, with no room for suspension.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XX ~ ~ ~

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

 

"Adam! Adam!" Hoss yelled in glee as he pushed through his oldest brotherís bedroom door and rushed to the bedside. Having spent most of the day in school,

Hoss was finally relieved to be back home. He had dearly missed his brother during the day.

 

"Not so loud, Hoss," Marie, while seating in a rocking chair next to the bed, slightly reprimanded the visibly happy young boy as soon as she saw Adamís wince in

pain at the excessive noise level. "Your brother needs his rest and that includes no yelling. Is that understood?"

 

Hossí lower lip covered his upper one in its entirety for a split second as his good mood suddenly deflated like a burst balloon. However, seeing that his stepmother

wasnít totally mad at him, his smile slowly resurfaced over his chubby face. "Sorry," Hoss mumbled just before approaching more closely to the bed. "Adam!," he

once again exclaimed however in a much lower voice this time, "Iíve missed ya!"

 

Adam couldnít help but smile despite the pain upon hearing his brotherís caring words. Never one to incite attention or pity, Adam nonetheless appreciated Hossí

obvious concern. Shifting in his bed in order to get more comfortable, he replied, "Iíve missed ya too, buddy!"

 

Creeping closer to his brother, Hoss passed by a grinning Marie. "How are ya feeliní?"

 

"Okay."

 

"Iíve been takiní care of your pony for ya," Hoss suddenly declared with pride.

 

"Thanks, Hoss. Iím sure that Lady appreciated it," Adam honestly stated as he truly esteemed his brotherís help. Lifting his right hand, he then affectionately patted

Hossí forearm in order to show his true appreciation. Hoss, bashfully, smiled in response.

 

Seeing the interaction between brothers made Marieís heart swell up with pride and love. How grown up they sound, she amusingly thought to herself. Thanks to

an exuberant Hoss, her older stepson seemed so different. He was content. It almost felt like nothing had previously occurred. She drifted in pleasant thoughts until a

voice broke the spell.

 

"Mama? Whereís pa?" Hoss asked as he diverted his attention back to his stepmother.

 

Seeing similar inquisitiveness in Adamís eyes, Marie knew that she had to step around the question carefully as Benís absence if not addressed probably would

undoubtedly made both boys quite upset. "Heís out busy doing an errand, Hoss. Heíll be back before supper." Thankfully, her answer seemed to have satisfied a

curious Hoss, although Marie had a hard time deciphering what was rambling behind Adamís pupils. Knowing that her husband had brought the sheriff with him to

the Blackburnís ranch made Marie slightly on edge. Luckily, no one, even Adam, had yet to brooch the subject of young Paulís death. It was something that would

have to wait until Ben was back home. Hoping that her uneasiness was left unnoticed, she quickly changed the subject, "Do you want me to read you two a story?"

 

Hoss immediately smiled at Marieís request. "Can I pick the book? Can I? Pleeeaaazzze?"

 

Marie giggled softly at her middle sonís endless energy. Not wanting to disappoint a thrilled Hoss, she quickly agreed. "Sure, Hoss."

 

"Yippee," Hoss exclaimed as he walked towards a bookshelf where his big brother kept the majority of his booming collection of books. After a quick search, he

took a brown, hard cover book and handing it to his stepmother.

 

Looking at the book, Marie smiled as soon as she read its title. It was an old childrenís book that she had heard Adam read to both of his brothers at numerous

times. With a constant smile on her lips, Marie made herself more comfortable in her chair as Hoss gently got on the bed and quietly laid down beside his welcoming

brother.

 

With a pair of impatiently awaiting eyes glued to her every move, Marie quickly opened the book and began to read.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XXI ~ ~ ~

 

 

"We ainít done nuthiní wrong!" Johnny barked.

 

"Listen, boy!" Samuels said heatedly, getting impatient with the young manís lack of forwardness, "The footprints in the snow around where Mr. Cartwright found

Adam unconscious lead to this ranch. Adam, himself, points the finger at you for his assault, and most of all, your brotherís little trip to see Doc Martin is very

suspicious." At the last statement, Johnny gave his brother a livid look. If looks could kill, David would have not seen another second of life. Seeing a break in the

bond between brothers, Samuels felt that victory was soon at hand.

 

"Now, sheriff! My boys have done nuthiní wrong. Cartwrightís sonís probably all mixed up. A concussion can do that to a man, ya know!"

 

"My son is not mixed up!" Ben fumed as he pointed an accusatory finger at Frank, whom had remaining seated since the beginning of the conversation. "When will

you fess up to the idea that your sons have been bullying my son for weeks now and are responsible for his injuries?!"

 

"Come on, Ben! My boys tell me that yar boy, Adam's nuthiní but a know-it-all, bossy, teacherís pet. It ainít surprisiní that heís been teased."

 

If the sheriff hadnít been there to physically stop him, Ben would have gave Frank Blackburn a black eye for his uttered words. No one talked about his eldest son

that way, no one! Adam was a sensitive, caring, and smart young man whom deserved much more than the likings of the Blackburns.

 

Still holding a visibly upset Cartwright at bay, Sheriff Samuels turned his head towards Frank. "This ainít helpiní, Frank. We ainít come here to fight."

 

"Then, what did ya come here fer exactly anyway?" Frank replied in defence of his two sons, whom remained quietly standing nearby, both with visibly conflicting

emotions showing on their young faces.

 

"We came for answers!" Samuels angrily stated as he finally let go of a emotionally under controlled Ben Cartwright. Turning his attention back to Johnny and David, the sheriff continued, "Listen boys! We can finish this little conversation in town where youíll both be spendiní some time thinkiní about your actions or we can settle this here and now! Do I make myself clear!"

 

Nail-biting and unsettling silence filled the room for several seconds as each person was caught in their own, respective thoughts and emotions. Without surprise, it

was David who broke first. "It was Johnny! He was the one that kicked and threw Adam against that rock! He..."

 

"Shut up!" Johnny hissed in rage as he physically tried to silence his younger brother.

 

Once again, it was the sheriff who became mediator as he walked between a distraught David and a furious Johnny. With direct eye contact with the eldest

Blackburn child, Samuels put a free hand on the butt of his gun and gave a threat of his own. "Now, donít make me use this, Ďcause I will if ya donít cool your

pants!" The threat worked as Johnny backed down. "Good choice, Johnny!" With a nod of his head, he urged David to continue.

 

"Start from the beginning," Ben added as he folded his arms around his broad chest. Finally, he was going to get some answers.

 

With a hesitant, near tears, voice, David did just that. He explained that they had a found a crying Adam near where they were playing and that it was Johnnyís

decision to throw him a snowball. David also mentioned all of the details leading to the ensuing fight, which led to Adamís fall against the rock.

 

"So, thatís when you went to fetch Doc Martin," Samuels asked.

 

"Yeah, I didnít want him to die! We had already lost Paul, but Johnny wouldnít listen to me and Lou was too scared. So, I went into town myself."

 

"Despite everything, you did good boy!" the sheriff gratefully stated.

 

"Whatíre ya gonna do now, sheriff?" Frank hesitantly asked as he looked back and forth between his sons.

 

"What do ya have to say for yourself?" Samuels asked Johnny as he completely ignored the older Blackburn family memberís question.

 

After sparing a quick glance at his brother, Johnny replied with spite, "Nuthin!"

 

"Well, maybe youíll have sumthiní to say back in town," the sheriff menacingly stated as he approached the much younger man.

 

"You ainít goiní to take my boy to jail, sheriff!"

 

"Oh, no!" Samuels mockingly repeated as he grabed the young man's arm, reluctantly leading him towards the exit.

 

 

 

††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††~ ~ ~ Chapter XXII ~ ~ ~

 

 

It was slightly passed normal supper time when Ben arrived back home. The last few hours had been quite an emotional roller coaster. Despite now knowing the

truth, he strangely still didnít feel quite complete. There was still something that kept on gnawing on his conscious as he walked through the door and into the large,

warm living room. He needed to have a heart-to-heart talk with Adam.

 

His wife, whom carried their youngest son in the arms, quickly greeted Ben. After giving them both a loving kiss, he took off his winter coat off and directly headed

for the welcoming fire just ahead. The cold weather had taken a toll on his body during the last few minutes of his ride back home. Vigorously rubbing his hands

together just inches away from the raging flames, Ben felt himself drift into his deepest thoughts.

 

"How did it go?" Marie asked with slight hesitance as she stood by the settee. There was a side of her that wasnít sure if she wanted to hear what Ben had found

out, while another side needed to know.

 

"The sheriff arrested Johnny Blackburn for assault," Ben softly replied.

 

"I donít understand?"

 

"Itís over, Marie. David turned in his own brother. Johnny left Adam there to die without even blinking an eyelash."

 

"Oh, my!" Marie softly exclaimed as disbelief crawled under her skin. The news made her cradle her toddler son a little more closely. After a few seconds, she lifted

her gaze back at her husband whom hadnít moved. "Whatís going to happen to him?"

 

Ben shook his head. "I donít know! And frankly my dear, I donít care!"

 

A surprised grimace became evident on Marieís face upon hearing her husbandís words. Before she even the chance to push out more information about the arrest,

a joyous Hoss came running down the stairs. "Pa! Pa! Youíre home. We can eat supper now, right Mama?"

 

Despite herself, Marie smiled. Hossí exuberance about food made her forget all of her troubles for that moment. "Yes, Hoss. Why donít you go and tell Hop Sing

that weíre ready." Hoss gave a short nod before hurrying his feet towards the kitchen.

 

"Howís Adam?" Ben questioned as he spared a glance towards the stairs before turning to face Marie still holding a squirming Little Joe in her arms.

 

"Better," Marie honestly replied, "Hossí been keeping him company since coming back from school." Her voice slightly lowered as she continued, "he hasnít

mentioned anything about Paul. Iím worried about him, Ben. I can seem to be able to reach him."

 

"Heís been like that since he was a toddler. Been through a lot, I can understand why." Ben stated as he pinched the bridge of his nose. A headache was starting to

make an unwanted appearance and Ben wasnít about to let it win. After a soft sigh, he continued, "However, I think that the father-son discussion has been delayed

long enough."

 

Marie slowly nodded just as Hoss quickly returned from the kitchen. "Supper is ready!!" he hungrily exclaimed as he skipped back to his parents.

 

"Good, then." Marie said as she walked towards the already set living room table. After placing Little Joe in his high chair, she headed for the kitchen. Hop Sing

would undoubtedly need some help bringing out the food.

 

"Is Adam eatiní with us?" Hoss hesitantly asked his father as he followed him to their respective seat around the table.

 

"No, not tonight, Hoss. Your brother needs to stay in bed for a few more days. Hop Sing will be bringing his supper upstairs." Ben hated to disappoint a happy son,

but his eldest one needed his rest and a trip downstairs was simply out the question at this time.

 

"Oh!" Hoss replied sad with his fatherís answer.

 

"Heíll be alright, son. Adam will be eating around this table soon enough. Donít you worry!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XXIII ~ ~ ~

 

 

Making sure that Hoss and Little Joe were both in Marieís well experienced and capable hands as bedtime for them had very much arrived, Ben decided that this

was the moment to have his little pep talk with Adam. Ben found his firstborn son turned to his side, seemingly staring through his bedroom window at the darkness

of night. Wondering what could be going through his sonís mind, Ben slowly approached the bed.

 

Adam, moving his eyes only, spared a glance at his visitor. Seeing his father enter and take a seat by the bed, he felt himself on the verge of crying as memories of the previous days quickly overwhelmed his mind. Fighting them, he bit his lower lip and patiently awaited for his father to speak first.

 

"How are you feeling, son?" Ben affectionately asked as he brushed a hand against Adamís left forearm. How he wished that he could switch places with his son?

 

"Iím Ďkay," Adam replied before letting his gaze drift back outside.

 

The room became silent for several seconds as Ben fought to find the proper words to appease his sonís inner turmoil and explain that things would get better in

time. Clearly his throat, Ben then swallowed the large lump that had mysteriously appeared there. Somehow, he felt like a kid again, at a lost for words. "Adam!," he

finally said, "do you want to talk about it?"

 

Without blinking an eyelash, Adam simply continued to stare ahead. After what seemed to be an eternity for his father, a response slowly came. "No, thereís nuthiní

to talk about. I just want to be left alone, Pa."

 

"I canít do that, Adam and you know that. Bottling it up inside is not the answer," Ben countered as sadness grew inside him like dry land soaked up rain.

"Remember when we were on the trail, you used to tell me everything. We were best buddies... remember? It can be that way again, Adam. Just tell me whatís

bothering you. All I want to do is help you, son."

 

Adam remained silent although his expression changed as his lips trembled slightly upon hearing his fatherís uttered words. Not able to meet his fatherís eyes, he

slowly closed them shut and lifted his blanket up closer to his cheeks.

 

"Okay then, Adam. Iíll talk and youíll listen," Ben stated in defeat. If he wasnít going to talk, at least he was going to listen to what I have to say, he told

himself. Leaning forward in his chair in order to be closer to his visibly distraught son, Ben started to talk. "When I wasnít much older than you are right now, Adam,

my father past away. Being the oldest, the responsibility of taking care of the rest of the family was on my young and inexperienced shoulders. So, I lied about my

age and went to work around the Boston shipyard and then eventually on ships. Early on, I had always thought that... that my fatherís death had made me a prisoner

of the past. But it wasnít until I met your mother that I found out the truth...

 

The truth, son, is that life will always be a winding and bumpy road. Itís how you act upon those hardships that matters. You must take the good along with the bad

Ďcause everything has meaning and importance. I wonít lie, my fatherís death was a devastating moment in my life, but it also gave me an opportunity to grow as a

man and live out my dream. If he hadnít died at that moment in my life, I would have never gone to work for Stoddard Shipyards and consequently never met your

mother. It was fate, Adam. Despite the great sorrows, I would never change the past even if I could because it is what made me who I am today," Ben let out a soft

sigh before adding, "When your mother died... I really thought that my world had ended. But I was wrong Adam, it hadnít ended... it just evolved... changed. Your

mother gave me a most precious gift that made me realized that she will always live in my heart... that gift is you, !Adam. Yes, you! It was your mother that made me

promise to her that I wouldnít give up on my dream of coming West. She knew that she was dying yet she still wanted me to live on. She had always told me that I

deserved sons as tall as its trees. I guess what Iím trying to say to you is that thereís always light at the end of the tunnel, Adam. You just have to look for it."

 

A sad smile crept up on his face as he remembered his dear first wife. It was hard for Ben to talk about Lizís death to their son, but it was necessary. His heart

swelled up slightly upon seeing tears in Adamís attentive eyes. It was hard for him too. Wanting to say so much more, Ben did just that. "Adam, youíre an intelligent

young man who has so much potential that it makes me proud to call you my son. Youíre growing up so fast that I canít seem to see the time go by. You have your

life ahead of you and your own dream to live out. Thereís no doubt in my mind that youíll do just that. Unfortunately, there will always be people who will be jealous of what you accomplished and will do almost anything to steal the rewards of your hard work and determination away from you. Keeping your dream alive is real hard work, but it is also extremely rewarding. People may lie to you, call you names, or steal from you... but there!ís one thing that they can never do... and that is take away your integrity or your will. That is something that is sacred...

 

In life, sadly, there will always be people who wonít like you as much as there will be people that you donít like. Itís a fact of life. You canít please everyone nor

should you try, Adam. You simply have to be true to yourself." Ben closed his eyes after his pseudo-soliloquy as he let out a large sigh escape through his tight lips.

At last, it was said and done. However, despite everything, he wasnít sure that what he had said had made an impact on his son. He could only wait.

 

Adam couldnít look at his father as he fidgeted with the edge of his coverlet with eyes downcast. His brain was suddenly being bombarded by emotions and

thoughts that he had tried to ignore for such a long time. He quickly knew that his father was no only trying to ease his pain, but that he also was right. However, a

sense of failure concerning Paulís death kept creeping up and making him doubt these new feelings. When youíve been down a destructive path for the many weeks

that Adam had been, itís not that easy to get back on track. Finally mustering enough courage to meet his fatherís eyes, Adam quickly broke down upon seeing the

compassion and love reflecting back at him.

 

"Pa? I told Paul not to cross that river... I told him!" Adam stated before slow tears snaked down his cheeks. "Why didnít he listen? I should have done somethiní to stop him!"

 

"Oh, Adam! Paul made his own decision. You shouldnít blame yourself. Itís not your fault," Ben pleaded as he affectionately wiped his sonís tears away.

"Remember a few months ago when Hoss fell off his bed after he was jumping on it." Adam slowly nodded. "I told him many times not to do it, but he did anyway

despite my warnings. Do you blame me for your brotherís fall?"

 

"No," Adam replied in a small, quivering voice.

 

"Then, you shouldnít blame yourself for Paulís death. Every man or child is responsible for their own actions, whether the consequences should be."

 

Adam thought about what his fatherís had mentioned for a second or two. "He said that I was too bossy... everybody thinks that. At school, most of my classmates

donít like me. They say that Iím too smart... that Mr. Wilson spends too much time with me."

 

"Adam!" Ben softly whispered as he brushed some hair away from his sonís face. It had been something that he hadnít done in such a long time. His son was

growing up so fast, yet still needed that much more guidance. "People often say awful things to other people because theyíre simply envious. Those kids are just

jealous of your accomplishments. Iím not saying to youíre smarter than them. Youíre just more dedicated to school than most of your classmates. Since day one,

youíve always been a curious little boy who would drive me crazy some days with your constant questions." Ben grinned as he remembered those days. "Just look at all of these books that you have," he stated as he nodded towards that bookshelf behind him, "you collected them all. Some where gifts, but some ones you bought yourself. While Hoss spends his money on candy, you spend it on books. Ada!m! Thatís just the way you are in here," Ben stated as he softly poked Adamís chest where his heart was located, "Youíre just like your mother, Adam. She had a thirst of knowledge that all of the water on this earth would have never quench."

 

While his father talked, Adam sniffed a couple of times as he wiped his nose with the sleeve of his nightshirt.

 

"To make a world, it takes many different types of people, Adam. Just looked at all of the different trees on the Ponderosa. All are different, yet all are beautiful as

well as indispensable. I guess what Iím trying to say to you son is that no matter what people may say or do, be true to yourself. You should never try to please

someone at the expenses of your own beliefs. Life is too precious to waste."

 

Unsure what would be his soon to be thirteen sonís response, Ben nonetheless sat down on the bed and opened his arms wide. It wasnít long before Adam slowly

arose from his position despite the pain and became immediately wrapped between his fatherís loving arms. Arm in arm is the way that father and son remained for

several minutes as Ben gently soothes his firstborn sonís sorrows away.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~ ~ ~ Chapter XXIV ~ ~ ~

 

 

It had been more than two weeks since that faithful night and Adam was starting to become restless. Under strict doctorís orders, he had been prevented of doing

any horseback riding meaning that he had yet been back at school. Luckily, his father had promised him that he would be able to regain classes next Monday.

Finally, the countdown was on. Two days and heíll be back to normal. Luckily, Hoss had been able to take some homework back and forth for him during the past

few days. If it hadnít been for that, Adam would have surely lost his mind looking at four walls every minute of the day. It was then that he truly realized how

accurate his father had been. Knowledge was his thirst in life.

 

He had found out through his father about Johnny Blackburnís arrest for assault the day after his heartfelt talk and consequent breakdown. Even though, Adam was

glad to hear a resolution to the whole situation, he didnít feel that it was the proper one. It was something that he wished he could erase it completely from his

memory.

 

Dressed up warmly, Adam had ventured outside just a few minutes before and had taken a seat on one of the porchís chairs. Taking deep refreshing breaths with his now fully healed ribs, he scanned the snow covered horizon. How snow made everything looks so clean and fresh. Somehow, it made his mind wander to the smiling face of Paul. Unwillingly, it made his mood become sadder as he remembered the tragic death of his good friend. Time will heal all wounds, his father had told him, you never forget, you just learn how to live with the loss. Knowing from experience how losing somewhere dear could hurt more than a physical injury itself, Adam was fully prepared to keep a place for Paul in his heart and to move on with life. It just demanded time and effort.

 

"What are you thinking about?" a concerned voice stated from behind Adam, making him slightly jump in surprise. "Oh, Iím sorry! I didnít mean to scare you."

 

Turning his upper body around to face the person behind the voice, Adam shrugged away his stepmotherís concern. "Thatís okay. I was just got caught in my own

thoughts, thatís all."

 

"Oh!" Marie replied as her eyebrow lifted in an inquiring fashion.

 

Reading between the lines, he knew that Marie wanted him to open up to her. After a split second of debating, Adam decided to indulge her needs. "I was thinking

of school and my... friends."

 

A soft smile crept on Marieís beautiful face as she wrapped her coat around her shoulders tightly due to the brisk wind. "Of all things that thereís to think about,

youíre thinking about school. If only Hoss could hear you now, he would think that you hit your head a little too hard," Marie jokingly stated. She was pleased that a

slight grin appeared on her oldest stepsonís face as well.

 

"Talking about Hoss and school," she started immediately changing the subject upon seeing beneath the smile, a touch of uneasiness in Adam. Glancing around the

yard, she continued, "he should be home from school in a few minutes."

 

"Yeah, I guess so," Adam replied with a slight nod, suddenly realizing the time of day.

 

"Itís good that youíll be here to welcome him home. Iím sure that he misses riding with you and Iíll be glad when you both be going to school together." Adam

nodded his agreement. Sudden silence enveloped both of them as they both stared straight ahead into the cold, winter wind. "I guess I should check on Little Joe, he

should be waking up from his nap soon. Donít stay out too long, Adam. Itís going to get a lot colder once the sunís sets."

 

"Yeah, I wonít be too long."

 

"Good, Iíll see you then." With that said, Marie hurried inside the ranch house in desperate need of its warmth, leaving Adam, once again, to his own thoughts.

 

As predicted by Marie, it was only a matter of a few minutes before Hoss made his appearance in the front yard. However, to Adamís surprise, he wasnít alone as

another pony followed suite in Hossí footsteps. Rising from his chair, Adam walked down the porchís couple of steps before landing on solid snow, which crackled

under his weight. Folding his arms around his winter coat, Adam awaited for an explanation to this surprised visit.

 

Adamís eyes slightly widened before squinting in annoyance upon his discovery of the visitorís identity. It was David Blackburn. A thunderous conflict of emotions

swept through every inch of Adamís body as he watched both Hoss and David dismounted from their respective ponies. Why is he here? was a question that kept

echoing against the inside of his skull.

 

"Hiya! Adam," Hoss pleasantly said as he approached his big brother. With a huge smile, he then introduced their visitor. "David rode with me all of the way home.

He said that he wanted to talk to ya."

 

David gave a hesitant nod of greeting to Adam as he remained silent while waiting for the other young manís first move. It wasnít long before he got it.

 

"Hi! David, what do ya want?" Adam hesitantly asked without masking his doubts about Davidís true reason for this impromptu visit. With dark eyes fixated on

Davidís, Adam simply waited.

 

"Hey! Adam, he came here to apologize. Donít be mean with him!" Hoss quickly intervened in Davidís defence not too pleased with his older brotherís rude

welcoming.

 

Upon hearing Hossí words, Adamís eyes showed a flicker of surprise before resuming his stern, cynical look. Adam had known for a few days now of Davidís

implication in Johnny Blackburnís arrest and subsequent jail time. He understood that it must have been hard for the other young man to betray his brother and

divulged everything to the sheriff and at trial. However, Adam still felt hesitant when in his presence, not sure how to accept or to acknowledge what had been done.

So, in an attempt to trust is own feelings, Adam remained silent as he awaited for David to do just as Hoss implied.

 

Noticing that Adam wasnít about to welcome him with open arms, not that he had truly expected that, David understood by the silence between them that it would

be his first move. With a nervous touch, Blackburn cleared his throat. "Hi! Adam, like your brother said, Iím here to apologize for my brotherís actions... and my

own." After a slight hesitation, he continued, "We... I mean I shouldnít have done the things that Iíve done to you and to the others. It was wrong. I should have

known of Johnnyís true intentions. You know... it was hard for me to see how it must have hurt you. I never wanted it to go that far. Iím sorry!"

 

Adam glanced at his feet for a split second as his brain registered the spoken words. The more he thought about it, the more he could feel rising emotions creep up

on him. With a sudden grasp on his conflicting feelings, Adam let his eyes rest on his visitorís face. Through Davidís blue eyes, Adam saw something that he had

never seen in a Blackburn before... remorsefulness and honesty. Immediately, a heavy burden lifted from his shoulders as if it had been evaporated by a scorching

sun. Adam felt suddenly more at ease. "Apology accepted, David."

 

Davidís response was a genuine grin that reached ear to ear. "Thank you, Adam. I hope that we can forget about the past and be friends."

 

Friends? Adam debated for a split second of the implications of Davidís honest request. Could he now suddenly trust a schoolmate whom had emotionally

tormented him during the past hellish weeks? That was a question that presently stumped Adam. As his father had drilled in him so many times during his life, trust

must be earned. Maybe, David deserved a try. Adam knew that everyone made mistakes in life, the point is that they learned from them and never repeated them.

Was David worthy of his trust? Only time would tell. Glancing at Hoss, Adam could see hopeful anticipation in his perpetual optimist brotherís blue eyes. It made a

small grin reached Adamís mouth before he finally made his decision.

 

"I hope so too!"

 

 

The End

 

 

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