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.

 

†††††

 

Early One Morning

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††Chapter 1

 

 

Adam Cartwright woke up in a shudder. It took his eyes several seconds to get used to the darkness that was now engulfing his bedroom, as it was devoid of any

light. It was yet another moonless and unseasonably cold fall night on the Ponderosa ranch. Rubbing his temple to clear his still dazed state, Adam couldnít

remember a colder night as goose bumps suddenly appeared on his forearms. If it wasnít for the lack of light, his heated breath could have easily been seen as he

slowly exhaled. Noticeably, Adam deduced that the smouldering fire downstairs in the large living room was now probably only a mere memory with ashes as the

sole evidence of its existence. He immediately resisted the urge to snuggle back into the warmth and coziness of his bed as he suddenly remembered what had

woken him up from his deep, restful sleep. It had been a loud bang arousing from the house. He couldnít be sure of its origin or its cause. However since his father

was out! of town on business, Adam felt the need to investigate the noise as visions of his two younger brothers appeared in his mind still peacefully sleeping in their

respective bedrooms. Even though he knew that both Hoss and Joe could very well take care of themselves when the situation required, especially Hoss, as he was

taller than him with a much bigger frame, he nonetheless felt the need to be the one in charge. That meant for better as well as for worse.

 

After a few blinded attempts, Adam found some wooden matches on his night table and quickly lit the oil lamp. Slowly, his room came into view. As soon as he

arose from the bed, he suddenly regretted the responsibility of being the eldest as his feet were rudely welcomed onto the bitterly cold wooden floor. Letting out his

annoyance with a slight whispered swear, he quickly walked towards his bureau in search of wool socks and his warm housecoat. After successfully finding both,

Adam then debated on whether or not he should bring his gun along with him, but decided against it stating that he was getting paranoid in his old age. After

wrapping his robe around his fit, muscled frame, he noiselessly ventured into the hallway while holding the oil lamp at shoulder height. Noticing no light filtering

through either one of his brothersí doors, he decided to keep it that way. There was no need to awaken them. Itís enough that one Cartwright wouldnít get a

good night sleep tonight, he thought. A small smile plastered on Adamís face upon hearing his brotherís slight snore as he walked by Hossí bedroom.

 

When Adam reached the stairsí platform, he noticed nothing amiss as he quickly glanced amidst the large room. The area containing his fatherís desk, among others,

was undisturbed. It was just like he had left it the previous night. Also as predicted, the fireplace was devoid of any fire. Being already up, he made the decision to

start it up again after his careful search throughout the house. Getting his mind back on track, his first instinct was to search the kitchen next. Maybe, he thought, Hop

Sing, their loyal Chinese cook, is already up and working on breakfast. It was plausible even if it was unlikely as Adam glanced at the grand father clock next to

the main door. It was merely 3 oíclock in the morning. Not even Hop Sing as devoted as he was, would have been up this early. Coming around the corner of the

dining room and into the kitchen, Adam through the idea of Hop Sing being the culprit out the window. The kitchen, as the rest of the house, was lacking any

illumination or any sign of disturbance. Retracing his steps, he quickly deduced that it was probably nothing more than the wind as he could hear it suddenly gust

outside. After careful deliberation, Adam unlocked the front door in order to sneak a peak in the yard. He immediately regretted his decision as the bitter cold hit him

in the face. It felt like someone had slapped him square in the jaw. Braving the fierce sudden wind, he glanced outside in direction of the barn as he lifted the edges of

his housecoat around his neck with his free hand and reflexively squinted due to the iciness in the air. The last thing he wanted now was to succumb to a cold; he had

enough to do now with his father away for a few days without being another man short. Unfortunately, besides the blowing flaming coloured leaves that nonchalantly

danced in the wind, everything seemed, as it should be. Frustrated, Adam quickly but quietly closed the front door and replaced the bolt. The noise that had woken

him was unfortunately destined to remain a mystery.

 

He let out a slight sigh of frustration escape his mouth as he slowly walked towards the small pile of wood that was neatly staked by the immense hearth. At least his

little excursion wasnít going to be a complete loss. Setting the lamp on the dark wood coffee table, which stood nearby, he started to methodically placed some

splinted wood inside the hearth until suddenly a male voice, which sounded younger that his own, called out his name to his right. It made him jump in surprise,

almost dropping the wood that he held. Turning around, it took a few seconds to recognise the intruder that had startled him. As the light emitted by the lamp

flickered as it swayed from the circulating air, Adam barely recognised the young man that stood on the stairís last step. The manís disorderly short brown curls and

bright green eyes were now visible to the older man. "Joe! What are you doing up?" Adam started at his youngest brother. Even though he! kept his voice low,

annoyance and slight anger was clearly detected in it. Without letting a reply come, he continued, "You nearly scared me to death! Donít ever sneak up on me like

that ever again!"

 

Joe simply shrugged in response. Luckily for Adam, he was too tired to notice any sign of hostility in his brotherís tone. Joeís volatile, but short live temper was

renowned in the Cartwright household. It was a trait that he had inherited from his Louisiana Creole mother and probably also from his father. Rubbing his eyes, he

simply said, "I heard a noise and saw some light." After a quick glance across the room, Joe added, "Whatíre you doing, Adam?"

 

Suddenly, all of the irritation that Adam had felt vanished as a small smile pleasantly creased his face. His brother, clad in a white night-shirt that barely reached the

bottom of his knees at this moment looked more like a young child than his 22 years of age. It made his mind become the victim of an onslaught of pleasant

memories: ones where Joe would adamantly request Adam to read him a book or make his bedroom ghosts vanish, basically any excuse to delay bedtime. "Iím

starting a fire," he casually replied as he came back to the present, "Why donít you go back to bed? Weíve got a lot of work to do before Pa comes back from San

Francisco the day after tomorrow."

 

Joe unsuccessfully tried to nod as a yawn sneak upon him. Wrapping his arms around his slim waist as a shiver merciless crawled down his back, he stated, "Is it

ever cold in here!"

 

"Thatís why Iím starting a fire, little brother," Adam pleasantly responded.

 

"Glad itís you and not me, older brother. Ďnight!"

 

"ínight, Joe," Adam reciprocated as he watched his brother run up the stairs two steps at a time. Shaking his head in amusement, he went back to the task at hand.

The fire wasnít going to start itself.

 

It wasnít long before the large room was once again becoming warm and inviting. While seated directly in front of the hearth on the coffee table, Adam unknowingly

became hypnotised as he continuously stared at the growing fire. He could have almost swore that itís arm-like extensions were dancing in front of his brown eyes to

a music that no else could hear. He remained unmoved for several minutes before finally braking the spell as he rubbed his eyes just before passing his hands through

his raven hair. It was only after he started to profusely yawn that he made the decision to head on back to his room. The warm air radiating from the fire was

becoming so tempting that he had to really force himself back on his feet. But, he still had a long day ahead of him and best was to get some sleep or he would be

unbearable to work with. Sleep deprivation brought up the worse in his temper and thought best to spare his brothers of that unfortunate consequence. Reaching !for

his oil lamp, Adam started for the stairs.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

 

"Come on, Liíl Joe! This ainít a good time to sleep in!"

 

Grunting, Joe simply ignored the older manís demand as he remained in bed. It couldnít be morning already, he told himself as rolled onto his back. He had never

been an early riser and wasnít about to start now. After a few seconds and still not having heard the manís departure from his room, Joe slightly opened his right eye.

His brother Hoss already dressed for the dayís work simply stood at the foot of his bed with his hands on his hips. Even though Hossí mere physical appearance

would have enticed a paralysed stranger to walk, Joe knew better. Under that large broad frame and strong muscular arms stood a kind and gentle man whom found

the true meaning of life in itís simplicity. To his brother, Hoss was a human paradox. There was no wonder that his nickname was ĎLittle Joeí as him being the

shortest member of the family stood a head shorter of Benjamin Cartwrightís second son. But as soon as he !caught the determined glare in his older brotherís blue

eyes, Joe knew that he meant business. But being true to himself, he decided to test Hossí limits as he always tried to do with success most of the time. "In a minute,

Hoss," he nonchalantly replied closing his eye back shut.

 

Hoss grunted in disapproval before saying with a little more urgency, "Joe! Ya war there last night when Adam gave our shores for the day. The last thing I want is

fer ya to make him cross."

 

"What else would be new?" Joe sarcastically whispered. Older brother Adam had always been a sucker for punishment in his opinion when it came to physical

work. Unfortunately, the two brothers had butted heads over the subject several times in the past. If only Adam could loosen up a little, Joe internally thought.

 

"Dadburnit, Joe! How manyÖ"

 

"Okay, okay, Iím up," Joe replied as he gave up the fight. Hoss was right. The day was already going to be long. There was no point in making it any more miserable

than by alienating Adam as well. It was only when Joe fetch his pants and started to put them on that Hoss silently left the room satisfied with his small victory.

 

In a matter of a few minutes, Joe was dressed and ready to present himself to the breakfast table. He had shaved and combed his tangled mess of hair. His father,

since day one, had always been a stickler when it came to personal hygiene at every meal saying that living out West didnít mean that they should act uncivilised

around the table. Even with his fatherís absence, it was expected. Before venturing downstairs, Joe took a few seconds and enjoyed seeing the sun slowly rise up

above a nearby mountain through his bedroom window. It was such a breathtaking scene that he remained mesmerised for a moment. It promised to be a nice sunny

and, hopefully, warm day. Since most of the dayís chores required being outdoors, Joe hoped that the weather would be cooperative.

 

Slowly but surely, Joe descended the stairs. At every step, the warm air in the room increasingly embraced him. A large fiery fire was raging in the living room stone

hearth. It was a welcoming sight. Glancing around the room as he approached the dining room area, Joe noticed that Hoss was already seated at the table. Hop Sing

had once again outdone himself as the youngest Cartwright glanced across the table seeing mouth-watering pancakes, sausages, and hot coffee among other things.

"Couldnít wait? Could you, Hoss?" Joe jokingly stated as he took his place beside him. Hossí reputable appetite was renown across the whole Carson Valley. He

would eat practically anything, except cheese that is.

 

"I have to keep my strength up, liíl brother. Iíve nearly fainted outta hunger," Hoss replied between bites. Over the years, he had gotten used to the casual jokes

made about his eating habits, which not surprisingly, primarily came from his baby brother. Hoss knew that no harm was intended on the part of Joe and deduced

that the teasing was simply an example of brotherly love.

 

Joe let out a soft giggle at his brotherís response. Hoss, Joe deduced, acted like clockwork, always predictable. It was only as he poured himself some coffee that

he saw the empty chair and untouched cutlery across the table. Glancing across the large living area, Joe asked, "Whereís Adam? Heís usually the first one up."

 

"Donít know! I ainít see him."

 

"Maybe heís in the barn already doing the morning chores," Joe said answering his own question, secretly hoping that it was true. The more that Adam did the better.

Not that Joe dislike work, on the contrary, he worked as hard as anyone else did. He, with his brothers, had helped their father build a family empire, which was

now known as the Ponderosa. He just thought that he could spend his morning doing something more pleasant and interesting, like sleeping in. His father always told

him that everything demands sweat and hard work; Joe now knew that it was literally true. Nodding towards the hearth, he added, "I can see that he put some more

wood in the fire."

 

"Wrong on that one, liíl brother!" Hoss nonchalantly corrected the last part.

 

"What do you mean by that?"

 

"I saw Hop Sing put some logs in the fire when I came downstairs."

 

Joeís face twisted into a disconcerted frown. Seeing neither hind nor hair of Adam in the morning was unusual, at least, without knowing where he was. Seeing Hop

Sing enter the dining room carrying some more hot biscuits in a napkin-clad basket, Joe took the opportunity to question him. "Hop Sing?" As soon as he got the

small Chinese manís attention, he continued, "Did you see Adam this morning? Do you know where he is?"

 

Hop Sing vigorously shook his head, as he replied, "No, not seen Mista Adam all morniní." With that said, he quickly went back to the kitchen with his hands

clasped behind his back.

 

This was getting stranger by the minute. Joe couldnít shake the irrational feeling that something wasnít right. He knew that he was probably overreacting, as it wasnít

the first time that Adam hadnít been present at the breakfast table. But, a voice in the back of his mind was telling him different. Decided to act on it, Joe quickly ate

a biscuit before rising from his chair.

 

"Where are ya going? Ya ainít finished your meal," Hoss confusingly said as he held his brotherís arm in a strong yet painless grip, not letting him leave without an

explanation.

 

"Iím just going to make sure that older brother didnít sleep in," Joe said as nonchalantly as possible. He didnít want to worry Hoss. As soon as he uttered his

spoken words, he could see Hossí expression change from confusion to worry. He knew as well as Joe did that Adam had never overslept in his entire life. Cursing

himself for his lack of hindsight, Joe forced a smile in order to lighten the tense mood that was now being felt across the room. He quickly added, "Adam was up

very early this morning. I think that he was having trouble sleeping. He told me to go back to bed, but I donít think that he did the same." After a few seconds, Joe

wasnít sure that Hoss had bought his act, as he remained unmoved. However, Hoss simply shrugged and let go of his grip and went back to his breakfast.

 

As his brother turned around and headed for the stairs, Hoss could have sworn that he heard Joe sigh in relief, but he couldnít be sure. He knew that his little brother

hadnít been completely forward with him. To outsiders, Adam and Joe seemed to never be on the best of terms considering their frequent spats and most of all their

age difference, which span a little more than a decade. But Hoss knew better. Under the gruff relationship were two men who loved one another very much and had

the deepest respect for each other. Joeís obvious concern for Adam at the moment was a pure example to that. Hoss let a small smile slip onto his face as he thought

about how fortunate he was, having such a caring and loving family. Caught in pleasant thoughts, he didnít hear Joe call for him from upstairs until the second yell.

Clearing detecting fear in his brotherís voice, Hoss quickly dropped his fork and rose from the table. "What?" !he yelled back.

 

"Come up here now!"

 

Hoss didnít need to be told twice. As fast as his legs could, he raced upstairs in search of Joe. He could only imagine what would entice his brother to yell for him in

the manner that he did. Suddenly, he felt tension grow in his gut as a thought that maybe something was wrong with Adam. After a few seconds of search, Hoss

found Joe in their older brotherís bedroom. Fearing what he would see, he quietly walked into the room. In his first glance, he noticed that Adamís bed contained no

occupant and that it was left unmade. Turning his head a few degrees to the right, he caught sight of Joe. Hoss couldnít be certain if it was fear or shock or both that

was plastered on the youngest Cartwrightís face. Shifting his eyes downward, Hoss noticed that Joe was holding something, which happened to be black clothing

and dark boots. Suddenly it registered in Hossí mind; the clothes belong to Adam. His mouth fell open, but no sound came out.

 

"I searched the whole upstairs, even País room," Joe started, "I couldnít find him."

 

"WhÖ where could he be?" Hoss managed to say as he slowly regained control of his emotions. They both knew that it was too cold for anyone to be outside

without proper clothing, besides wearing no boots. If Adam was not in the house, but still wearing his night-shirt, then where could he be?

 

"I donít know!" Joe sadly said while shaking his head and depositing what he held on a chair adjacent to Adamís large desk, which contained various architectural

plans among other things. "His gun belt is still here," Joe continued as he pointed to a bed post, "He couldnít have gone far."

 

Hoss desperately tried to figure out the mystery as he scratched his head. Besides Adamís unexplained absence, everything seems to be in order. Suddenly

something occurred to him as he stated, "Ya said that ya saw him early this morniní."

 

Joe nodded as he replied, "Yeah, it was sometime before sunup."

 

"How did he seem?"

 

Joeís face creased in confusion. He couldnít understand where his brotherís question was leading to, but felt the need to answer nonetheless as he tried to recall the

scene. "The same. He was putting some logs in the fireplace. Said that he was starting a fire," Joe finished saying in a slight trance. After shaking his head in order to

clear it, he quickly added, "I donít know about you, brother, but Iím not going to stand here and do nothing." With that said, he abruptly brushed against Hoss as he

left the room.

 

"Where are we goiní?" Hoss asked as he followed his brother downstairs deliberately including himself in Joeís scheme. He wasnít about to be excluded especially

when it came down to finding Adam. Growing up, his older brother had always been there as far as Hoss could remember; always lending a hand, reading him a

book, helping him with his homework, being a shoulder to cry on, and so on. There was simply no way that Hoss was going to let anything happen to his big brother.

No way.

 

"To find Adam!"

 

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

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 2

 

 

In a swift movement, Joe grabbed his green coat and Cowboy hat that hung by the door. Hossí face sagged a little when he noticed that Joe had also wrapped his

gun belt around his waist and consequently placed his gun securely inside. It was hard to tell whether or not that last action had been simply a reflex or was Joe really

expecting trouble. Instead of questioning his brotherís intentions, Hoss mimicked Joeís actions.

 

However, as soon as the younger Cartwright reached for the door latch, Hoss quickly grabbed Joeís left arm and held him back. Seeing brewing worry that was

slowly turning into anger in the green eyes which squarely stared back at him, Hoss thought best to immediately explain his abrupt action. "The door is unlocked," he

simply stated as he physically pointed to the opened latch.

 

Joeís face had moved swiftly with his brotherís hand as if it had been attached to it via puppet strings. At first, Joe nonchalantly dismissed his brotherís uttered

words. Then, suddenly it hit him. He precisely remembered Adam locking the door just before retiring for the night. Adam never liked having the door unlocked

during the night, especially when their father was absent. There was simply one explanation; Adam had ventured outside during the night and had never returned for

some unknown reasons. Joe started to visualise his brother clad only in his nightwear in the freezing cold night, alone, hurtÖ. He quickly mentally shook his head of

negative thoughts, which were starting to unfold like a terrible nightmare. He needed to have a clear mind in order to find out the location of his brother and Hossí

quick intervention proved him that wasnít the case.

 

Hoss was also experiencing ever changing emotions as they were being visibly displayed across his face. He had always been someone whom could be read like an

open book. He quickly closed his eyes for a few seconds in order to calm down as his emotions were suddenly getting the better of him. Then suddenly, without

uttering a single word, Hoss extending his long arm, touching Joeís chest in the process, as he reached for the door. Leading the way, he ventured outside with his

kid brother directly at his heels. Despite the increasing heat that the vibrant orange sun was now emitting as it slowly climbed the stairs to heaven, the air was yet

frosty as it caught both Cartwrights by surprise. Even though, the wind had considerably calmed down from the previous night, it was still crisp as well as unflinching.

Both of them tried to ignore their slight shivering as they had more important things on their mind. Unable to determine where to begin their search, it was Hoss

whom! took the initiative and headed for the large barn, which held the familyís horses. But as soon as he started to walk, he abruptly stopped in his tracks making

Joe bounced off his back like a ragged doll.

 

"What theÖ"

 

"Liíl JoeÖ ainít that one of our oil lamps?" Hoss carefully stated as he pointed with his head in the direction of the porch.

 

At first glance, Joe saw nothing out of the ordinary as he took sight of the two chairs and table that occupied the narrow area. It wasnít until he glanced at the

wooden floor that his heart skipped a beat. Near one of the legs of the farthermost chair lied a lopsided iron-cased oil lamp with a visible crack, which resemble a

haphazard spider web, on its glass chimney. After a few silent seconds and a shared glance, Joe slowly approached the lamp as if it was a dangerous rattlesnake

ready to strike, while Hoss remained back simply unable to move. Getting a closer view as he lowered a knee onto the ground, Joe could see that the wick had

thankfully been extinguish before impact, probably by the wind and that the lampís encasement displayed an inward bulge but no fissure leaking kerosene. Even

under the tense situation, Joe let out a soft sigh of relief as thoughts of burning wood popped into his head. Luckily the weather and durability of iron saved the

Ponderosa ranch as well as its sleeping occupants of an unavoidable doom. It wasnít until carefully cradling the lamp like a new-born baby that he suddenly came to

the realisation that Adamís welfare was proving to be more and more questionable. Quickly, he verbally displayed his doubts, "Hoss? Do you remember seeing an

oil lamp in Adamís room?"

 

After a few seconds of deep thought, a response came. "No."

 

"I know and I clearly remember seeing him using one earlier this morning," Joe said with conviction. Since most lamps in the house were similar in construction, it was

hard to determine where it was being used. However, everything pointed to it being Adamís.

 

In an instant, Hoss bolted for his intended goal before the interruption. He wasnít about to waste precious minutes while Adam was cold and probably hurt

somewhere on the ranch. It being the largest ranch in the whole Carson valley was a feat in itself, but Hoss wasnít one to let himself worry about odds or numbers.

He just wanted to find his brother.

 

As soon as Joe saw his brother hurried towards the barn, he placed the lamp onto the table and jumped down the porch, which thankfully lacked any type of

banister. Joe rushed to catch up with him. "Hoss?" Joe called, "Maybe, you should check around the house and Iíll ask the hands if any one saw him."

 

As quickly as he had started, Hoss abruptly stopped in his tracks. His little brother was right. Best to start inward then expand from there. It was the best and most

logical way to search for their elder brother. "Fine," he simply replied with intense blue eyes. Back tracking, he then headed for the house, while Joe hurried on

towards the bunkhouse where many of their hired men slept.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Hoss had been looking for what seemed the better part of an hour, but knew different. Looking at the yet rising sun, he determined it to have been barely a half an

hour. Suddenly, grief caught up with him as he choked back a tear. Adam had been the one whom had taught him how to tell time by the sun so many years ago.

How he long for that brotherly advice now! Before allowing grief get the better of him, he quickly moved on with his search. As he peered through and behind

anything that could keep a large man hidden, Hoss was caught by surprise as a clearly agitated Chinese man walked towards him from the nearby outside kitchen

door. "Hop Sing? Whatís wrong?" he automatically asked wondering what could have made the small man so crossed.

 

Hop Sing angrily said some few words in his native language, which Hoss believed to be Chinese swear words before finally saying in broken English, "You not eat

breakfast! Throw it away! Hop Sing cook for nothing! Will goÖ"

 

"Calm down, Hop Sing," Hoss quickly interrupted the manís tirade. It wasnít until after making sure that he had Hop Singís full attention that he continued, "Me and

Joe ainít hungry now. Adamís misÖ"

 

"Mista Hoss not hungry?" Hop Sing incredulously interrupted in turn not believing his ears. Having been the familyís cook for more than two decades, he had never

seen Benís middle son neither missed nor not finished one meal. Ever.

 

"We got to find Adam first. We donít know where he is."

 

Suddenly, Hop Singís face twisted from anger to surprise to fear. He wasnít sure that he had heard was correct. Adam is missing. He must have misunderstood. So,

he carefully asked, "Mista Adam missing?" Seeing that Hoss simply nodded in response, Hop Sing quickly added, "Hop Sing help search!"

 

Hossí quick reaction stopped the man in his tracks by grabbing onto his arm. "No, Hop Sing. Me and Joe can take care of that. Ya go back inside." Seeing

stubborn determination in the manís dark eyes, Hoss felt the need to be persuasive. Even though his heart felt warm realising the true devotion and compassion that

their servant felt towards the whole family, Hoss knew that it was best if Hop Sing held the fort and consequently remained inside. "Please!" Hoss lovingly

demanded. Even though he could still see refusal in Hop Singís eyes, he let out a deep satisfying sigh as the smaller man quickly turned back inside, flinging his long

pony tail in the process. The door was shut louder than usual.

 

"Whatís wrong with Hop Sing?" a voice suddenly asked from behind.

 

Hoss turned to see his brother standing directly in back of him with hands resting squarely on his hips barely above his gun belt, which hung loosely around it. Joeís

expression was one of a small child. "Nuthin," Hoss answered as he shrugged. He didnít have the energy to explain everything at the moment. Changing subjects, he

quickly continued on, "Find anythiní?"

 

It was Joeís turn to simply shrug, but this time in defeat. "None of the men have seen Adam since yesterday." With eyes of a young lost child, Joe simply looked at

his brother, hoping beyond hope that Hoss had found something, even though, he could tell through body language that wasnít the case.

 

"I looked everywhere and anywhere, liíl brother, except the barn area," Hoss answered knowing what was left unsaid. As he was about to head for his next target,

Joe swiftly but softly placed a hand on his older brotherís chest.

 

"No need."

 

Hoss violently pushed Joeís right hand away as he stated with anger detected in both his demeanour as well as his tone of voice, "Get outta my way, Joe." Hoss

couldnít understand why his brother wasnít allowing him to proceed.

 

Joe flinched slightly at Hossí harsh words. He knew that he was only seconds away of being on the receiving end of a blow if he didnít explain himself soon. He

should have know that Hoss would be as protective of Adam as he was. "Hoss, I already searched that whole area before I came to find you. Adamís horse is still

in the stable, butÖ still no sign of him."

 

Hoss lowered his head in defeat. Whereís Adam?, he kept on asking himself over and over. He couldnít have simply disappeared. There had to be an explanation

and Hoss was going to find it even if it meant looking behind every bush and under every rock in the whole state of Nevada. It was only Joeís unintelligible words

that brought him back to the present and consequently made him look up. "What?"

 

Joe exhaled deeply before repeating, "I said that we should go into town and talk to the Sheriff. Maybe Roy can help us."

 

"Yeah," was the only word that Hoss voiced just before starting to walk side by side with his brother towards the barn. With shoulders slumped forward, Hoss

silently followed Joe inside the large wooden building.

 

Joe, by reflex, lifted his hat in order to pass a hand through his thick hair as he walked towards his pinto horse named Cochise. He had welcomed the slight heat as

soon as he had entered the barn. It was slightly heated by a medium sized wood stove in the far right end corner in order to keep the horses warm and content. He

managed to affectionately pat the neck of Cochise before joining his brother and fetching his saddle, which hung on the shoulder height partition that separate his

horse with Adamís. Both Cartwright brothers prepared for their long and painful journey into town in total silence. Words escaped them both, as there was nothing

that could have been said, which would miraculously solve the mystery of Adamís sudden disappearance. Joe, especially, felt sorrowful as it occurred to him that he

had been the last person whom actually had seen the eldest Cartwright son. Sparing quick glances at Adamís own horse was like driving a knife into his !heart every

time. What made things even worse was the knowledge that their father was soon to arrive back from his trip in San Francisco and Joe couldnít think of any good

way of telling him Adamís fate. Benjamin Cartwright had been through enough grief throughout his lifetime as he had lost three wives, and Joe wasnít prepare to

witness his fatherís ultimate mental collapse if Adam wasnít to be found. They had barely a few days before they would have to face the Cartwright patriarch. So,

Joe knew that they had no other choice but to find Adam and soon.

 

Joe started to lead his horse outside, when he suddenly heard a painful grunt emitting from behind him. It made him immediately stop in his tracks just barely two feet

from the door. Looking back, he questioned his brother who had been quietly following him, "Hoss, whatís wrong?" Seeing blue eyes filled with confusion stare

back, he added, "Why did you make that grunting sound?"

 

"What the heck are ya talking about, liíl brother?" Hoss replied, "I ainít opÖ"

 

"ShhhÖ" Joe interrupted as he placed his left index finger on his lips.

 

After a few seconds, another grunt could be painfully heard over the neighing of the horses. This time, both of them had heard it coming from somewhere inside the

barn. Hossí eyes shot right wide as he came to the realisation that they werenít alone. Leading Chubb, his own horse, back into its stall, Hoss commenced his search

of the building with Joe not far behind. It wasnít until a more distinct groan had been heard that they had any substantiating knowledge of where it originated. Hoss

led the way with his hand freely on the butt of his gun in direction of their father horseís empty stall, where a large bundle hay started to move. As he slowly crept

one foot at a time inside the eerie stall, Hoss felt the back of his hairs rise up like a jackrabbitís ears upon hearing some strange noise. He could also feel his brother

tense up beside him as well. In a courageous act, Hoss kneeled down and brushed aside the hay. He knew that Joe was ready! to back him up if need be. It wasnít

until most of the hay was pushed aside that Hossí face lit up in recognition.

 

"Adam?" he immediately exclaimed as he, helped by Joe, removed most of the dry and prickly hay from their eldest brotherís seemingly immobile body.

 

Adam was lying on his side with his face facing towards the outside wall. His eyes were still closed shut, yet with no sign of a quick awakening as his eyelids didnít

flicker. Hoss carefully placed Adamís head on his knees as he and Joe rolled their brother onto his back. Besides being slightly dirty, Adamís robe and night-shirt

looked undisturbed. A colossal and broad bump, which colours resembling the one of stormy clouds, could be seen on his forehead; it had undoubtedly grown in

size since the original impact. Joe let his hands scrutinise every inch of Adamís body in search of any sign of possible wound. Luckily, he found none. However, his

smile quickly disappeared as he took notice of Hossí expression, which was one of dread. Frowning in confusion, it was only when he looked down onto Hossí

hands that his face dropped to the floor. Both of Hossí palms were covered in red substance that Joeís first reaction was to refuse to acknowledge it as blood.

 

For several seconds, Hoss and Joe remained completely speechless as both felt like they had been physically kicked in the gut. It was Joe whom broke the

awkward silence by stating, "Iíll go and get the Doc." Even though Joe didnít want to leave his wounded brotherís sight, he felt less assure of leaving the

responsibility of finding Doctor Martin to a hired hand. Without uttering another word, Joe bolted for Cochise and hurriedly left the barn for help. As he starting

losing sight of the ranchís house, Joe whispered a prayer for his brother.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 3

 

 

Seating slightly upright in his bed, Adam Cartwright rubbed his temple in a futile attempt to alleviate its growing pressure and increasing pain. Doctor Paul Martin had

been gone now for over two hours. This was the first time he had been somewhat lucidly awake since his ambush, which now was more than 14 hours ago. Adam

had assure Martin that he would religiously follow his instructions of bed rest and to later take the medication that the much older man had left at his bedside. Due to

close examination and medical expertise through experience, Martin had come to deduce that there was no fracture underneath the swelling. However, he was

mystified to learn that because of the now stitched up large gash behind Adamís head, the oldest Cartwright son had no recollection of what had occurred to him

during the early hours of the morning. His memory of his accident was a like a bottomless pit in which he could fetch no information. And to make matters worse was

the knowledge that the large bump emitting from his forehead would be the leading cause of two future black eyes as blood would slowly drain from it into his eye

sockets. He could only imagine how he would look like during the following days, probably like a monster fit for Halloween or worthy of Mary Shellyís

Frankenstein. There was no way he would be able to hide the incident from his father now, even though he had never made a decision to do so anyway.

 

Even though he hated to admit it, Adam was undoubtedly going be stuck in his bedroom for several more days, or at least until he could stand on his own two feet

without feeling either nausea or disorientation. He already felt like a caged animal now; he could imagine what his mood would be knowing that he wouldnít be able

to help with all the work that was still left to be done before winter. Already, he slightly pitied his brothers as well as his father. Joe was the only human being that

took bed rest worse than Adam. He couldnít help but smile through the pain as he saw two hurt puppy looks gazed at him across the room. Hoss and Joe had

nervously been silent since Martinís departure. "What wrong?" Adam asked as he unsuccessfully tried to scratch an itch behind his head bandage, which was

consequently wrapped around his head covering both of his injuries. He needed for his brothers to talk as Adam hated silence in moments just like these as much as

fingernails across a blackboard.

 

"Nuthin," Hoss finally replied as he scratched behind his right ear. He wanted to tell his brother how much he was happy to have him back, but couldnít find the right

words. Since his older brother was a university graduate, Hoss didnít feel to be on the same playing field as Adam was when it concerned words or school for that

matter. Adam seemed to consume books like dry desert ground would absorb first rainfall, while Hoss, on the other end, would have to reread pages several times

before finally understanding. But, to Hossí delight, Adam had never ever treated him like an inferior because of it, which made his heart swell up even more.

 

"Come on, will you two take those worried looks of your faces? Iíll be okay. You both heard the Doc, I just need some rest," Adam stated as he dropped his arms

by his side in a sign of impatience.

 

Joe nervously cleared his throat as he broached a still unanswered and slightly taboo question, "What about your memory, Adam? Will you ever be able to

remember anything?"

 

Adam was silent as he thought about the answer that he would eventually have to give his brother. Even though his stomach twisted into a knot at the very possibility

of never remembering the events that were responsible for his injuries, he was somewhat relieved of the darkness that presently engulfed them. Maybe it was best if

he didnít remember. But if they were to find whoever was responsible and give them their well deserved retribution, he had to regain his memory and soon. Seeing

that Joe was impatiently awaiting, Adam simply shrugged as he honestly answered, "I donít know, Joe."

 

"Donít you want to find out who was responsible for this?" Joe animatedly said, clearly not satisfied with the answer, "and why?"

 

Before Adam had an opportunity to answer, Hoss quickly stepped in, "Joe, if Adam could remember, I reckon he would. Like the Doc said, itís just goiní to take

some time."

 

"But how long?" Joe almost whispered back. He didnít like seeing Adam at a physical disadvantage. He couldnít wait to get his hands on whoever was responsible

for his big brotherís injuries. He would show them a little about Western hospitality.

 

Just as Adam was about to try to lessen his youngest brotherís worries, a loud knock could be heard downstairs. Looking at each other, all three Cartwright

brothers were perplexed as who could be making a visit to the Ponderosa. "I wonder who that could be," Adam replied as he self-cautiously touched the lump on his

forehead. It better not be a visitor of the female persuasion, Adam quickly thought.

 

"Iíll go and see," Joe volunteered as he left the room. He took the stairs two at a time as he quickly descended. Whoever it was he would have to politely but hastily

ask them to leave. Adam needed his rest and several chores where yet to be done before sundown. Joe let a small smile cross his face as soon as he realised that he

was thinking just like Adam. Who would have thought that he would be worried about work at a time like this? In a long swift move, Joe reached the door and

opened it. He was slightly caught by surprise as soon as he recognised the two callers coming into view. "SheriffÖ Deputy, how did you find out about Adam being

ambushed? I went to see you when I was in Virginia City to get the Doc, but you werenít in town," Joe blurted out as he let the two men walk inside.

 

"News travels fast," The sheriff nonchalantly replied as he took his hat off in sign of courtesy. Roy Coffee was a man of Benís age, slightly build with grey thinning

hair and a small matching moustache. He was deeply respected across town as a man of integrity, whom also happened to be a close personal friend of the

Cartwright family. Beside him stood his newly employed deputy named Andy Devin, who resembled Coffee in features, but nonetheless was fifteen years his junior.

Mimicking the sheriff, he had also taken his Cowboy hat off, which revealed his balding blond hair. "We were wondering if we could speak with Adam," Roy quickly

asked as he glanced across the large living space.

 

"Heís in his room right now. Doc told him to rest."

 

"Donít worry, Little Joe, I ainít going to keep him long," Roy persisted detecting slight reluctance in the young Cartwrightís voice, "Andy and I just want to ask him a

few questions."

 

"HumÖ okayÖ but you wonít like his answers," Joe responded as he led both men upstairs. Since Adamís bedroom door had been kept opened, Joe simply

walked inside with the two visitors in tow.

 

It was Roy whom spoke first, "Good-day AdamÖ Hoss," he politely stated as he acknowledged them both. Both of them simply nodded back, even though Adam

grimaced in pain immediately after doing so. Taking a seat adjacent to the bed, Roy quickly went on, "I heard from local folks that youíve taken a beaten. I can

clearly see that they werenít mincing words."

 

Adam slightly smirked at the sheriffís remark as he rubbed the side of his pounding head. "Yeah, itís definitely looks like it," he replied with a touch of sarcasm. With

his amnesia, that was about all he knew. He felt like a student being tested on a book, which he had never even read. It was unnerving.

 

"Do you have any idea who did this to you, boy?"

 

"I donít know, Roy."

 

"Did they take anythiní? Was it a robbery?"

 

Adam quickly glanced at Hoss and Joe, respectively, hoping that they would know if anything had been stolen from the house. But to his dismay, they simply

shrugged. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Adam repeated, "I donít know."

 

"How many jumped you?" This time the question came from the deputy, who casually leaned against the bedroom doorís frame with his arms folded across his

chest, temporary covering his badge in the process.

 

The answer was the same.

 

Hoss and Joe exchanged amused glances as they could see that the sheriff was getting disappointed with Adamís answers. He obviously knew nothing of Adamís

present condition. It wasnít often that they would see Roy get mad out of simple frustration; it was quite a scene to watch. They knew that if their father had been

present, this whole interrogation would have never gone this far.

 

Oblivious to the hidden smiles, Roy kept on with his interrogation, clearly getting agitated, "Do you know what time you were bushwhacked?" Before Adam even

had the opportunity to open his mouth, the sheriff quickly sarcastically added, "No, donít tell meÖ you donít know. Ainít it so?"

 

Adamís face remained unreadable. He didnít like the tone of voice in which the last question had been asked, but let it go by anyway. It was clear that the sheriff as

well as the deputy were still in the dark concerning the true extent of his injuries. Instead of feeling annoyed, he suddenly felt his eyes droop as his body was once

again losing a battle with persistent slumber. Quickly, he stated, "As a matter of fact Roy, I clearly remember that a loud noise woke me up at 3. But, thatís the last

and only thing. The rest of it is a total blank. The last thing I knew I was waking up here in my bed with Hoss looking over me."

 

Roy looked so confused that Joe felt the need to enlighten him. "Doc Martin said that Adam is experiencing some type of memory loss caused by the serious blow to

his head. Thereís simply no telling when his memory will come back."

 

Both the sheriff and the deputyís faces slightly dropped to the floor as soon as their brains registered the information. This was any lawmanís worst nightmare. How

would they be able to solve this crime with neither a witness nor any solid evidence? Getting over the shock, Roy decided to ask one final question to Adam before

going on with his business. But as soon as he turned his head towards the bedís occupant, he quickly let out a grunt in sign of annoyance. Adam was fast asleep,

being the victim of his own bodyís medicine - rest.

 

"I guess that Iíll have to come back later," Roy said as he slowly rose from the chair. Nodding to Devin, he quickly exited Adamís bedroom. Quietly closing the

door behind him, Hoss along with Joe followed suit, leaving their older brother to pleasant dreams and to well deserve quietude for now knowing that they would

have to keep a very close eye on him during the next few days.

 

It wasnít until Coffee and Devin were at the bottom of the stairs that Roy spoke again. "Tell me what you two know about the attack on your brother."

 

"Liíl Joe, ya know more about it than I do," Hoss replied after he spared a quick glance towards his younger brother. The consecutive incidences that eventually led

to the discovery of Adam were not something that Hoss like to think about, even less talk about.

 

Joe waited until all four men were facing each other near the ranchís entrance door before indulging the older manís wishes. Just like Adam, he knew practically

nothing that could possibly help the sheriff in the investigation, which consequently made him very angry with himself. After letting a loud sigh escape his mouth, he

answered as accurately as possible.

 

"WellÖ," he started, "before dawn, I found Adam putting wood in the hearth to start a fire. It must have been around 3 like he said, but I canít be sure. I didnít

really pay attention to the timeÖ Anyway, I went back to bed thinking that Adam did the same. It wasnít until Hoss and I were seating at the breakfast table that I

noticed his absence. Hop Sing hadnít seen him all morning too. So, I went upstairs thinking that he had simply overslept. I went to find his room empty, his bed

unmade and his day clothes were still hanging over his deskís chair. Thatís when we knew something was wrong," After taking a deep breath, he continued to a now

captivated audience, "It was then that we continued our search outside. Hoss noticed Adamís oil lamp dented and laying under one of the chairs on the porch. We

then decided to split up in our search. Hoss went to search around the house and stable while I asked our men if they had seen Adam. Both of us came out empty. It

wasnít until we were ready to give up and go into town to talk to you that we noticed Adam beaten and covered in hay in the corner of the barn. Thatís when I went

into town to fetch the doctor and Hoss brought Adam insideÖ Thatís it."

 

"So, he was bushwhacked sometime between 3 andÖ 6 or 7. Right?" Coffee asked as a thought had occurred to him.

 

"I guess so," Hoss answered with a slight shrug, not understanding the importance of time.

 

"He must have been led outside for some reasons. If it was a lone attacker, Adam was probably ambushed from behind, which would be supported by his injuries.

On the other end, he could have simply be outnumbered."

 

"Which leads us to what?" Joe impatiently asked the sheriff. If only he knew where Coffee was leading to with his hypothetical questions, then maybe he could help

him find clues to the identity of the culprit or culprits.

 

"It was probably robbery," Devin casually stated as he shared a look with Coffee, whom nodded in response. "Probably a horse or something that would help them

made a quicker get-a-way." Once again, Coffee agreed with his deputyís way of thinking. They spoke as if they were the only ones taking part in the discussion.

 

Both Joe and Hoss simply shared a confused glance. It was as if the two lawmen spoke a different language. Nothing that they were saying was making any sense to

either Cartwright men. "Roy? Whatís this all about?" Hoss asked as he frowned making his forehead wrinkle into wave-like lines.

 

Coffee suddenly stopped fidgeting with his hat that he held in his hands when he saw two men gazing at him. Noticing that he had lost two of them along the way, he

patiently explained it all as he said, "Mayor James Norton youngestí daughterís had disappeared. The mayor just reported it less than an hour ago."

 

"What?" Hoss quickly stated, not believing his ears. Looking at his brotherís shaken demeanour, he could tell that his brother was experiencing the same feelings,

ones of shock and confusion. "Miss Josieís missing?" He asked thinking that he had misunderstood.

 

Once again, Devin jumped into the conversation. "Yes. We believe that she was kidnapped."

 

"Kidnapped?" It was Joeís turn to interrupt. His voice had been slightly elevated as he suddenly realised the true seriousness of the incident. Who could have done

such a thing? Joe asked himself still under the shock. Then, it suddenly hit him. He was starting to understand bits and parts of the conversation that the sheriff and

the deputy had earlier had. The clouds hanging over his head were slowly starting to pull apart, letting sunlight break through. Without letting either lawman answer,

he quickly added in a more controlled and serious voice, "You think thatÖ that whoever kidnapped Josieís also responsible for Adamís attack."

 

Coffee slowly nodded in response. "Thatís what we think, but beliefs wonít hold up in court. We need evidence."

 

"Roy, whatíre ya planning on duiní now?" Hoss asked as his body started to tense up due to its inactivity. He needed to do something fastÖ anything that would

keep his mind off Adam recuperating upstairs and the injustice of it all. Whatever the sheriff had in mind, he wanted to be part of it, at any cost.

 

"Well, we have a posse waiting to follow a trail. We think that they are bringing Miss Norton to California through the Ponderosa. To be honest boys, we ainít got

much to go on."

 

Both of Hoss and Joeís shoulders slumped in slight defeat. This wasnít going to he easy to solve. With a human life hanging in the balance, they both knew that

something had to be done, but couldnít fathom what that was exactly. With determination emitting from his pale blue eyes, Hoss stated in a strong decisive voice,

"Roy, Iíll come with ya. Joe can stay here with Adam and wait until Pa gets back." He could see that his little brother was about to voice his disagreement over the

idea, but Hoss quickly stepped in to avoid any argument, "Joe, Iíve made my decision. Besides, Hop Sing canít be left alone. Theyíre still work to be done, liíl

brother and someone gonna have to take care of Adam."

 

Joe reluctantly nodded. Even though he hated to admit it, his brother was right. Someone would have to stay with Adam, as he would demand constant care and

attention during the next few hours due to his rickety physical status. Joe quickly came to conclusion that he might as well be him staying back since Hoss was the

best tracker that he had ever known. If someone was to find whoever was responsible for this chaos, it sure was to be his older brother. "Fine," was all that the

youngest Cartwright managed to say.

 

"Good, then itís settled," Hoss said as he rounded the corner in direction of the kitchen, "Iíll be right out, Roy."

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††********

 

All around him, vibrantly coloured leaves fell to the ground at what seemed to be at every breezeís whim. Some of them even reached his face as he slowly rode on

Chubb, just ahead of the posse, down a slightly used path in the south-western part of the Ponderosa. If it hadnít been for the true reason for his venture outdoors,

Hoss could have really enjoyed the majestic beauty that was now enfolding in front of his eyes just like a painting. In Hossí eyes, the contrast of colours was so

vibrant during this time of year that it made fall definitively one of his favourite seasons. It was serene and peaceful. Like his father has said at many different

occasions, heaven would have to come some to beat the thousands of square miles of the Ponderosa. His heart suddenly swelled up as he graciously thank God for

carrying the Cartwright surname. However, Hoss knew that he had to keep his mind on his tracking. He couldnít be swayed from his work as so much hanged in the

balance. Josieís safety. Adamís revenge. He needed to be focus and alert. Unfortunately, his stomach had started to growl a way back down the trail, but he

begrudgingly tried to ignore it for the time being. It was hard to do. Not knowing how long he would have to look for that needle in the haystack, he had wisely

asked Hop Sing to prepare a lunch for him. But, deciding against making a stop now, Hoss kept on as the other members of the posse silently followed suite.

 

As he glanced upwards, Hossí face twisted into a dubious frown. What lied ahead was making him regret even volunteering in this search for justice. In the northern

part of the sky stood a dark grey retching looking wall of clouds, which was slowly approaching the posse from a distance. It was eerie to watch as it ferociously

and indiscriminately swallowed the blue sky as it crept forward. He quickly calculated about two hours before doomsday. With his fingers sprayed open, Hoss lifted

his arm, bending it at the elbow with his hand lifted towards the sky. It was the automatic sign for stop.

 

Sheriff Coffee approached Hoss as he leered his own horse forward. "That sky donít look too good, Hoss."

 

Hoss simply nodded in response. Lifting his ten-gallon, light tan hat backwards, he passed a gloved hand over his sweaty brow. He should have know that a storm

was brewing at the first feeling of the temperature getting warmer. He cursed the timing of it all. Or maybe, itís was to their advantage. With a storm close by, it will

undoubtedly slow down the travels of whoever was responsible for Josieís capture. But, it was still a double-edged sword, as it would also stall their rescue efforts.

 

"I think we should find shelter before that storm hits," volunteered the deputy, whom had silently joined the two men ahead. The last thing he wanted was to get

drenched and get pneumonia.

 

"We canít stop now!" came of raised voice from behind them. The voice belonged to the mayor of Virginia City and consequently Josieís father. Seated upon a

black stallion, James Norton stood tall and distinguished. Norton, an ageing man in his late fifties, looked refined with a neatly trimmed greyish moustache and

piercing blue eyes. He mirrored dignity as well integrity.

 

Coffee didnít like insolence when he was in charge of a posse, even if it was coming from such a man as important as Norton. Quickly, he regained control of the

situation. "MayorÖ Iím in charge here and I happen to agree with Andy. Those clouds, over there, are mean looking. WeíveÖ"

 

"Youíre not going to stop the search, are you? Roy, this is my daughter t-"

 

"Mayor! Iím only goiní to say this once more. Iím in charge here! If yaíre not happy with the way itís done, then I suggest ya go back into town." Coffee waited for

Norton to get a grip on his emotions. Seeing that the mayor was angrily leaning back in his saddle in defeat, Roy felt the need to add in a calmer voice, "Iím not

sayiní to weíre stopping the search for your daughter. I just believe that if we intend on continuiní on, which I do, then we need to find some shelter before that

storms hits."

 

James Norton discontentedly agreed with the sheriff.

 

While the sheriff and the mayor were disagreeing on the next tactics of the posse, Hoss had taken the opportunity to inspect the surroundings more carefully. After

something caught the corner of his eye, he broke the silence that had suddenly tensely enveloped them. He had never been one that liked confrontations. His father

had always told him that he was a great mediator, especially since he had great practice being one during most of his brothersí everlasting arguments. "Roy, I think

that weíre on the right track. See those branchesÖ" Hoss stated as he pointed with his right hand towards the lower branches of a tall fir tree, "it looks like someone

been here lately." In fact, the branches had been snapped off at what seemed to be the right height of a horse riding through the area. Finally, a lead, Hoss told

himself in relief. Maybe the previous four hours and more of search wasnít a waste of time.

 

"What tells you that it ainít the wind?" Devin asked slightly dubious.

 

"It ainít the wind!" Hoss automatically replied as he quickly dismounted his horse with a touch of annoyance detected in his voice. If he needed to prove his ability,

then so be it. Squatting down under the broken branches, he pointed towards a small u-shaped burrow marking the ground like a scar would to the skin. Brushing

aside some debris around the edges, Hoss carefully examined the imprint with intense blue eyes. Looking back towards the sheriff, he carefully laid it out,

"Horseshoe printÖ no doubt. Fresh too."

 

Norton let a small grunt escape his mouth. Even though, he very much wanted to find his daughter. He still didnít want to follow a wild goose chase and the pit of his

stomach was saying it was just that. A wild goose chase. But to his surprise, neither the sheriff nor the deputy agreed with him.

 

"Letís go," Coffee stated having the outmost respect for Hoss Cartwrightís tracking ability. He was the best. If he couldnít find the ones responsible for Miss Norton

disappearance and Adamís injuries, then no one would, especially in his own backward. All four Cartwright men knew the Ponderosa like that back of their hands.

It was good to have them on their side. Always good.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 4

 

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

 

The axe, hanging in mid air, was above his head for a split second before Joe let it come down in a long swift movement, letting the shear gravity takes its toll on the

merciless piece of wood below. Splitting in two, the wood had stood no chance. Having been at it for close to two hours, Joeís back was starting to ache, but

continued on nonetheless. He felt a certain responsibility of keeping the ranch running as smoothly as possible. Thankfully, Hop Sing had graciously volunteered to

watch over Adam for a few hours while Joe executed his family duty.

 

Hard work and sweat. Whack. Sweat and pain. Whack. Pain and anger. Whack. Anger and Revenge. Whack. RevengeÖ. ĎJooossseeephhí he could almost hear

his father yell in his mind, as his subconscious wouldnít allow him to go down that destructive path. Letting the axe drop next to the tree stump, Joe rubbed a balled

fist into his lower back as he slowly walked towards a wooden barrel, which contained water, ever refreshing water. As he sipped some water from a long stemmed,

wooden ladle, Joe contemplated on the chores that were yet to be done. Considering the turn of events, it was best if he concentrated working around the house for

today. Venturing off towards the South pasture in order to fix the fence was simply out of the question. He needed to be nearby, besides that was a day job for at

least two. After quenching his thirst, Joe wiped his mouth with his gloved left hand. Even though the air was still cool, he had foregone his jacket due to his! increased

perspiration and his hat due to its awkwardness. Despite his present physical exhaustion, it felt good doing something constructive and physical, as it helped alleviate

some of his ever-growing frustration and brewing anger.

 

Having kept the entrance door slightly open, Joe simply backed into it in order to enter the large ranch house. Tired beyond words and aching everywhere, Joe

simply let his bundle dropped from his hands in a loud thundering noise next to the hearth. He had chopped enough firewood for the night. With what seemed to be

his last drop of energy, Joe sluggishly let himself fall into his fatherís favourite brown leather chair, which was located adjacent to the hearth, on its left. Eyes closed,

Joe simply let the warmth of the nearby smouldering fire caressed his face as sleep suddenly started to invade him. It was useless to attempt a defence against it, as

his heart was simply not in the fight as every muscles of his aching body had given him their walking papers. It had been a long day, emotionally as well as physically,

and all that Joe wanted to do now was rest.

 

Seconds after sleep won the battle, Joe was already amidst a dream, a pleasant restful one at that. He could see himself seating in a large canoe on an immense

lake between two other men with a fishing pole in his hands. Above him, the vibrant sun shined upon his head on a perfect cloudless blue sky. It seemed to

be summer as he could see the trees, in their full blossom, delicately move with the slight, warm Southern wind. He could even hear birds sing their love

songs in a distance. Smiling, he embraced the welcoming and soothing sight of both of his brotherís broad smiles as they talked about who would catch

the biggest fish. He heard a bet being put on the table: free beer for the winner during their next trip to Virginia City. Joe couldnít help but to mimic their

good mood as a smile crossed his face. Sharing a laugh with Hoss and Adam, he quickly threw his fishing pole in the calm mirror-like water that gently

whooshed under him in hopes of a great hooking. However, his smile suddenly ran away from his face as the canoe was being shaken from side to side.

After he shared a concerned look with both of his brothers, he still didnít know who was responsible for the canoeís brusque movement as he glanced at

the still calm water below. Yelling at whomever was responsible to stop before the canoe would capsize, splashing all three excited fishermen overboard

in the process, Joe was about to get really angry when suddenly he could feel someone physically shaken him awake. Big brown eyes were staring back at

him as soon as his vision improved and shadows disappeared to reveal actual forms. He automatically recognised the large living space of the Ponderosa ranch. He

hadnít moved from the leather chair. Blinking several times, Joe simply remained silent.

 

"Hop Sing cook supper. Mista Adam awake and asking for you," the Chinese man stated as he let go of Joeís shoulders and stood straight, putting his arms behind

his back waiting for a response from the youngest Cartwright.

 

Joe slightly grinned at the shorter man, as he suddenly realised that sitting down made him be at a height disadvantage with the small man. "YeahÖ okay, sure. Iíll go

upstairs."

 

Hop Sing slightly bowed showing his agreement and left in direction of the kitchen without speaking another word.

 

Begrudgingly leaving the comfort of the warm fire and comfortable chair, Joe lifted himself up, putting all of his weight onto the armrests. Rubbing his eyes back

awake, he half-blindly walked up the stairs as his handsome young face twisted into a large yawn. He couldnít tell how long he had been asleep. All that he knew

was that it hadnít been long enough. Standing just outside his oldest brotherís closed bedroom door, Joe stretched his arms before entering, not bothering to knock.

I never did, so why start now, he quickly told himself. As soon as he walked in, he noticed that Adam wasnít laying against a pillow like he should have been, but

instead was seating up on the side of his bed with both feet on the floor. Joe could clearly see that his brother wasnít feeling well as Adam held his head between his

hands with elbows solidly planted on his knees.

 

"Adam? Whatís wrong?" Joe worriedly asked as he sat down on the bed next to his still silent brother, whom hadnít even appeared to notice his entrance. It felt

strange for Joe to be the grown-up, the protector as it had always seemed to fall upon Adamís broad shoulders before today. Strangely, it also felt good to have the

roles reverse. He needed to show his gratitude for those times. Adam deserved that muchÖ and more.

 

"HumÖ nothing. My stomachís just dancing to the music playing in my head," Adam responded as he slowly straightened his back and removed his hands from his

head, "I think itís a waltz."

 

Joe let a small grin creased the side of his face. At least, he could see that Adamís dry sense of humour was still intact. "Well, brother. Letís just hope that they call it

a night soon." Surprisingly without any protest coming from Adam, Joe led his brother back into bed. After carefully tucking him in, he added, "Hop Sing said that

you were asking for me."

 

Adam rolled his eyes, in mock surprise, at his brotherís uttered words. Obviously, Hop Sing had subliminally enticed the younger man to check up on him. He could

have never been so pampered in his life, even if his father had been home. Every time that he had awakened from his light sleep, the caring cook had been at his side

with a glass of water in his hands. At first, Adam was reluctant to drink anything as his stomach was yet unsettled, but gave up the fight after a few fruitless tries as

Hop Sing was a stubborn as he was. "I was just wondering what you were doing all day?" he nonchalantly asked, knowing that his brother would have climbed the

walls if forced to stand still for two seconds. Joe had been like that since he took his first breath. It made him what he was now, always unpredictable, which made

Adam, at times, slightly envious of his youngest brotherís easier childhood and consequently his joyful life outlook. But, fate was fate and he had to accept it as is

was, because in life, unfortunately, thereís no dress rehearsal.

 

Under other circumstances, Joe would have thought that his brother wanted to keep record on his daily activities, making sure that his work was done as asked. But

he knew that this wasnít the case, as no sign of hostility was detected in Adamís tone of voice. Indulging his older brotherís wishes, he walked towards the

bedroomís lone window, which faced the bed. With thumbs hooked under his belt, he told him of his daily endeavours as he stared through the window seeing dark

clouds that slowly slithered towards the ranch swallowing what little light remaining outside. He gladly told him about completing the normal supper chores and fixing

the barnís roof small leak. To Joe, it sounded monotonous and boring, but he knew that to Adam it was a change of scene. Figuratively, a breath of fresh air, as it

surely beat looking at four walls all day.

 

"Is Hoss still not back?"

 

Turning only his upper body in Adamís direction, Joe released his left thumb from its leather shield in order to pat down his hair. Shrugging, he answered, "Not yet,

but I reckon that itís going to take time tracking-" Lifting his chin towards the window, he finished, "especially in this weather."

 

Adam lifted one eyebrow, questioning.

 

"The clouds look mighty dark across the Sierras, older brother," Joe quickly explained as he spared another glance through the window, "Looks like rainÖ maybe

even thunder and lightening. I just hope that the posse finds some shelter in time."

 

Adam simply nodded in agreement as he kept his eyes downcast suddenly finding his blanket of most interest. At the mere mention of the posse, Adam suddenly felt

his whole body tense up. Every moment that he lay awake in bed, his brain had kept on searching in the dark corners of his mind for the hidden memories, but

somehow, nothing could be found. Something was preventing him of unleashing the memories that seemed to be behind a lock door, a door in which he had lost the

key. The more time passed, the more it depressed him, as it was not under his control. Like Martin had carefully told him before, he may or may not fully regain his

memory and that very thought, now, frightened him. Unfortunately, the human brain was still very much an enigma for scientists and time would only tell if Adam

would be truly whole again.

 

Adam unconsciously pinched the bridge of his nose in a futile attempt to relieve the still ever present throbbing pressure radiating from his head. Even with the

medication, he still felt like hiding under a rock and never coming out. His selective memory lost was simply just the icing on the cake. He knew that he was walking

in uncharted territory and it scared him more than he wanted to admit to himself. But as he had done throughout his life, he wasnít about to burden his family with his

seesawed emotions. Even though Adam could feel sleep just around the corner, his body was unrelenting.

 

Noticing the sudden invisible wall that sharply materialised around his oldest brother, Joe carefully approached the bed determined to break through Adamís

emotional barrier.

 

In the corner of his eye, Adam saw his brother walked towards him with a face scarred by worry. Not wanting to broach any emotionally bountiful subject matter at

this time, Adam made the conscious decision to change the subject. "Joe?"

 

Joe gently pressed his hand on Adamís forehead just enough time to notice his brotherís skin was still warm but not feverish, before it was annoyingly swatted away.

"Yeah?" Joe answered as he crossed his arms across his chest.

 

"PaulÖ Paul shaved the back of my head in order to stitch me up. How bad is it? Do you know?" With a touch of feigned wounded pride, Adam knew that he

would have Joe wrapped around his little finger.

 

It took a few seconds for Adamís words to register in his mind. As soon as they did, Joe burst out giggling. This was truly unexpected. "OhÖ I donít know, Adam.

MaybeÖ maybe if you put a handkerchief over your head, but I donítÖ I donít think that will impress any of the girls," he painfully managed to say between laughs.

Seeing wounded complacency on his brotherís face was priceless for the youngest Cartwright.

 

"Very funny."

 

"Hey!" With a large grin plastered on his face, Joe lifted his hands in a mock sign of surrender and added, "Youíre the one that wanted to know, brother."

 

"Yeah, I should have expected that type of answer from you," Adam replied, shaking his head in feigned disbelief. However, his task had been a success.

 

"Supper is probably ready," he stated with a touch of grief detected in his voice. With Hoss and Pa both gone and Adam bedridden, Joe didnít have to be a math

whiz to know that he would have three empty chairs around the dining room table to keep him company for supper. Joe let his chin unceremoniously drop onto his

chest.

 

"Joe, I wouldÖ"

 

"No, itís okay, Adam. I wouldnít want to eat in front of you... you know with how you feel and all. I guess Iíll survive." Joe started for the door, but just before

reaching the latch, he turned back to face his brother as a thought had just occurred to him. Grinning from ear to ear, he said, "Maybe eating alone ainít such a bad

idea after all."

 

"What made you change your mind?"

 

"Well, Iíll finally have some peace and quiet. BesidesÖ with Hoss not here, I wonít have to fight for any seconds."

 

 

††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††********

 

A resounding, low-pitched gurgle was clearly heard coming from Hossí stomach as it voiced its gluttony necessity for what seemed to be the umpteenth time. The

lunch that Hop Sing had prepared for him was now only a mere faint memory. With only a small ration of beef jerky and tea remaining, Hoss knew that they would

have to find Josieís kidnapers soon. How he longed for Hop Singís dumplings or even his mouth-watering pork chops. His mouth salivated at the mere thought of it.

Unfortunately, it would have to wait. In fact, Hoss had other more important problems that kept his mind busy and body miserable. The previous nightís storm was

one of the worst that he had seen so far this year. Luckily, despite looks, the thunder and lightening lasted only a few minutes. Having found refuge in a small slightly

abandoned house nearby, Hoss and the rest of the posse, all seven of them, tried to keep warm despite numerous leaks in the rotted roof and shattered !windows.

The house, which once comprised of two small rooms, was now barely recognisable as been habitable. Being abandoned for several years now, itís four walls

barely withstood the violent wind that mercilessly shook trees from side to side and the cold raindrops that managed to seep through the gaps in the aged wood

boards. Frankly, Hoss had been pleasantly surprised that the shack had indeed survived the night.

 

Patting down his slightly damp light brown hair, Hoss let out a small grunt of frustration escape his mouth. With no functioning chimney or reasonably dry wood

available, all eight men had huddled together during the night in the centre of the largest room dreaming of a warm and dry night. Needless to say, Hossí clothes had

seen drier and cleaner days. Thankfully, the storm had finally withdrawn an hour before dawn fell across the mountains, leaving a beautiful blue sky and an inviting

sun behind. As soon as Hoss carefully exited the house, he felt somewhat rejuvenated as fresh air filled his lungs and warm air extirpated his goosebumps. Seeing the

sheriff and the deputy sharing a few words near the horses, Hoss decided to join them as he slowly approached them placing his hat on his head in the process.

 

"íMorning, Hoss," the sheriff said as soon as he saw the tall broad shoulder man in the corner of his eye.

 

"Nice day, ainít it sheriff?"

 

"Yeah, Hoss, nice day for tracking," Roy Coffee stated after glancing across the large valley to his right, "It finally looks like the weather will be cooperating."

 

Hoss nodded in agreement. He was confident that last nightís torrential rain and powerful wind had probably erased any old tracks but were going to leave new ones

stick out like sore thumbs. It was simply a matter of time before the posse was successful. Like he had mentioned to the sheriff, the now chaste land would make his

job that much easier. Just before the posse had to seek refuge due to the brewing storm, Hoss knew with certainty that they were not far behind their human prey,

whom would also have had to find a dry place to keep dry and warm. As his stomach hungrily and loudly protested once again, Hoss shyly smiled as both the sheriff

and the deputy looked at him with amused eyes.

 

"Weíre wasting time!" a gruff voice uttered behind them. No one had to turn to recognise it, as they had they had heard numerous times since their search began the

day before.

 

Deep irritation could be unequivocally seen in Roy Coffeeís eyes as he slowly turned to face the person who had just uttered another of his seemingly endless

complaints. Coffee could only imagine the powerful emotions that the man was going through with his daughterís disappearance, but the sheriffís own emotional

borders where being tested. Letting a sigh of frustration escape his mouth, Coffeeís blue eyes turned a little colder as he said, "Mr. Norton, like everyone else here,

youíre probably hungry, cold, and frustrated. Itís understandable. But, understand one other thing, Iím in charge of this posse. I donít want to rush anything, besides

Hossís the best tracker in the whole Carson valley," Hoss smirked another shy smile as Coffee continued on, "Weíll find your daughter, that I guarantee that."

 

Hossí smile suddenly vanished ever so slightly at the last remark. He knew that their chances of finding Miss Josie where good, but he didnít like the pressure that

the sheriff had unintentionally put on his shoulders.

 

"The sheriff is right, Pa!" another voice suddenly said coming from above and to the right. James Nortonís oldest son was a younger version of his father. He was a

twenty-six year old attractive man with blue eyes and blond hair, which Hoss had gone to school. A man of Little Joeís stature, medium height and thin but yet

muscular and of Adamís scholastic demeanour, also being a university graduate. As his father, James Norton Jr., known as Jimmy, displayed airs of a more fortunate

upbringing, dressed in a stylish long grey coat and a similar tinted Cowboy hat. Seeing that the older Norton was blankly staring at him in a sign of betrayal, Jimmy

cleared his throat as he uncomfortably shifted in his saddle before adding, "We need to keep our heads on straight, PaÖ For Josieís safety, we need to stay calm

and a step ahead."

 

"Listen to your boy there, Mayor," Coffee added in hopes of a truce.

 

After a tense moment of silence, Norton reluctantly agreed to let Coffee lead the posse as he saw fit. Without speaking a word, the mayor quickly arose onto his

horse.

 

"Good!" Coffee said at last as he mimicked Norton and prepared to lead the posse back on the kidnappersí tracks. "Hoss, lead the way," he said just before the

posse started where they had left off, hurriedly galloping towards a valley edged by two large powerful looking mountains.

 

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

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 5

 

 

"I look like a damn racoon!" Adam annoyingly whispered to himself as he looked into an oval mirror attached by two long wooden posts on a delicate table. Seating

on a chair, he firmly planted his elbows on the table that contained all of his toiletries and continued to stare at his reflecting image. Various blemishes marked his

handsome face. The most apparent ones were his two ever-darkening shiners caused, as predicted, by the drainage of blood by his bulging swelling branded on his

forehead. The black eyes look ten folds darker due to the unusual paleness of his skin. Carefully touching the soiled bandage covering the extruding lump, Adam

winced as he suddenly felt a shot of pain. "If it hurts when you touch itÖ then donít touch it!" he verbally reprimanded himself due to his lack of hindsight. Then, his

hands move southward as he gently rubbed his unaccustomed two-day-old beard that encased his long face. He knew that it! had to go. At least, it was something

about his image that he could immediately improve. Besides, he felt better today as he experienced resurgent energy travel throughout every muscle of his body. His

headache was merely a constant, but dull pain now, nothing that he hadnít dealt with before. As well, his nausea had disappeared as soon as he sat down.

 

Saturating his face with soapy water, he then gently grasped his narrow and sharp razor between his right index and thumb and carefully started to scratch away the

unwanted dark hairs. After a few seconds, his hand undesirably flinched as he pushed it down into his left cheek making the sharp blade pierce his skin releasing

warm oxygenated blood in the process. Suddenly, his eyes glazed over as a dark wall appeared before him without warning.

 

He couldnít understand it but he felt cold all of a sudden as his hairs arose on his neck. He could see a small lamp illuminating before him as he slowly

recognised trees tossing from side to side, but could neither hear the wind nor any other sound. He felt his body tense up as it realised its eerie

predicament, but kept on moving forward. That was mistake number one! Unexpectedly, a strong and unrelenting force was felt across his back, sending

him downward onto the quickly approaching wooden floor.

 

Then, as fast as it had occurred, Adam was once again back in his room with nothing but his disconcerted reflection keeping him company. Blinking several times, he

simply remained unmoved as he ferociously tried to grasp any logical meaning to his pseudo-dream. Was it a dream orÖ am I starting to remember? he asked

himself as he tried to reason with his conscious. Logic proved it to be more than simply a dream; it had to be a glimpse into his locked memories.

 

"AdamÖ Adam, are you all right?"

 

The worried foreign voice that reached his conscience made Adam come back to the present. Slightly shaking his head, he painfully attempted to control his brewing

emotions. It was only a matter of a split second before he was successful. He hadnít heard the several knocks on his bedroom door and consequently his visitorís

entrance. "Paul... Paul, what are you doing here?" Adam quickly asked after he nervously cleared his dry throat.

 

Doc Paul Martin had known the Cartwright family since their first arrival in Nevada. A man of Benís age, dressed in a grey suit and black tie, Paul looked

distinguished and noticeably commanded respect. His pale blue eyes intensely stared at his patientís own chestnut ones in hopes of seeing deep into Adamís train of

thought. Knowing the oldest Cartwright son since he was merely a young energetic lad, he could easily see that the younger man had, at this moment, established his

ever-used emotionally barren mask. He had seen it before, especially when he tried to mask his true painful feelings; the worse case was when Benís third wife and

Little Joeís mother had passed away so many years ago. Adam had kept his feelings to himself about Marieís tragic death then and he was hiding something now as

well. He knew that Adam was never openly truthful with his feelings, but if Martin was to help him, he needed to break down the emotional barrier. Placing his

medical bag on the bed, he then carefully approached his patient and softly asked, "You didnít answer my question, Adam? Is something wrong?"

 

Adam immediately shook his head.

 

Martin let out a soft sigh before changing his tactics. "Thatís a nasty cut," he said as he pointed towards the blood slowly zigzagging down Adamís right upper cheek,

"maybe Little Joe can help you shave."

 

Adam simply rolled his eyes in disapproval. No matter his predicament and unlike Hossí trusting soul, he would never let Joe come ten feet near him with a sharp

blade. He would rather go unshaved. "I would rather disturb a bee hive!" he jokingly answered as he automatically grabbed a nearby towel and absently cleaned the

stinging cut.

 

"Okay, I can help if you-"

 

"Itís okay, Doc. I can manage. IÖ I just gotÖ a little distracted."

 

"A little distracted?" Martin replied incredulously as he took a few steps forward. Raising a eyebrow, he continued, "I knocked and called out your name twice

before you even noticed that I was hereÖ I call that being more than a little distracted!" Adam simply remained silent as he innocently stared back. Knowing that his

patient wasnít going to let him win without a fight, the doctor frowned. A fight it will be! "You shouldnít be out of bed, Adam!" He reprimanded as he lifted the

younger man up by his left armpit.

 

Adam reluctantly stood as his head started to feel like it was on a boat bouncing amidst extreme waves in a horrendous storm. It wasnít until his head stop spinning

that he voiced his objections. "Paul! I have to finish shav-"

 

"Iíll do it. You just stay in bed!" Martin threatened as he pointed at him. He then carefully placed Adam under the covers. Satisfied that his patient wasnít going to

disobey any of his direct orders, he then brought the small water filled basin and Adamís shaving paraphernalia to the bedside.

 

"Did you see Joe or Hop Sing?"

 

Paul once again let his eyebrows twisted into a v-shape frown, as he didnít known where Adam was leading to with his question. "Yes, I did. Hop Sing opened the

door. Said that he was busy preparing lunch. Told me that you were feeling a little better this morningÖ" he carefully answered between strokes, "Your brother, on

the other end, was cleaning the barn when I arrived. He told me that you still haven't regained your memory. Heís worried about you." After that exchange of words,

the bedroom was once again filled by an awkward and strained silence, which span for several minutes. It wasnít until Adamís face was clean shaved and that the

basin and all were back where he found them, that Martin noticed the strange glare in the younger manís eyes. Paul suppressed growing shivers as he took notice of

Adamís unsettling, blink deficient stare. As he waved his hand before Adamís face, Paul stated, "AdamÖ Adam?"

 

It took, for what seemed to be an eternity to Martin, for Adam to respond to his physical cue, as he slowly lifted his eyes. Strangely, he hadnít heard what the doctor

had said, even though he knew that he had spoken. He had been simply caught up in a daze at the first utterance of his forgotten memories. Both men simply

remained mute as they respectively collected their thoughts and calculated their next actions. Adam knew that he would have to break through his innate emotional

defence system and tell the doctor about his eerie vision.

 

"Out with it, Adam! How can I help you if you donít tell me whatís wrong?" Martin stated as he took a seat on a nearby chair. Before any response came forward,

he hastily added as a thought had suddenly occurred to him, "Is it about your memory loss? It is, isnít it?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"I know itís hard, but you must have faith. The odds are that youíll-"

 

"Doc, I had a visionÖ more like a dream. IÖ I donít really know how to describe it," Adam interrupted as his emotions flooded outward, unable to keep them in

check any longer. Seeing that an intrigue Martin wanted him to continue, he did just that as he added more slowly, "It was dark andÖcold. I could tell that I was

outsideÖ The wind was blowing hard. I wasÖ was carrying some type of lightÖ must have been an oil lamp, I donít really remember. Anyway, I was suddenly hit

from behind. The last thing I remember isÖ is hitting the ground."

 

"Do you know what made you go outside?"

 

"ErrÖ no."

 

"Did you see anyone? Recognised anything around you?" Martin quickly asked as rubbed his chin.

 

Adam gently shook his head after a few seconds of internal questioning. "No, I thought that I was alone until someoneÖ or something hit me. But-"

 

"But?" Martin pushed.

 

"But I think that I was outside, here on the ranch."

 

Martin smiled at Adamís last sentence. It was true. His patient was regaining his memory, even though it seemed to be coming in dribbles. Beggars canít be

choosers, he told himself as he leaned forward in his chair. "Adam! Youíre remembering, thatís great!" Suddenly, an idea hit the doctor as he abruptly stood up and

approached Adamís desk. "Do you have some writing paper and a pen around here?" Martin asked as he moved architectural papers and plans amidst a nearby

desk in hopes of finding what he needed.

 

"Yes, in my top left drawer," Adam quickly replied not really understanding what the doctor was leading to with his quest.

 

After successfully acquiring what he needed, Paul then, with paper, ink, and pen in hands, approached the bed. It wasnít until he carefully place everything on

Adamís night table that he spoke, "AdamÖ do me a favour? Write everything that you remember about your flashback and any future ones that youíll have. You

see your memory of the other night is like a puzzle, Adam. Now, you finally got the first piece. Like any puzzle, itís never going to be clear until you have all of the

pieces. So this way, youíre helping yourself remember."

 

"I understand," Adam responded as his face lit up in acknowledgement, "Could you pass me one of my books?" He added pointing to a large collection of books,

which included numerous Shakespeare novels, poetry books, Plato discussions, and various other classics.

 

"Which one?"

 

"Any one. Just need it for support."

 

Doing as asked, Paul approached the dark wooded shelving unit and randomly picked out a hard volume of Hamlet. Astonished at Adamís impressive literary

collection, Paul let out a small whistle, to show his esteem, as he carefully passed the book to its owner. It had always astonished Martin that a son of a cattle

rancher would find anything in common with the more aristocratic part of the world.

 

"Thanks," Adam absently stated as he immediately did as Martin had suggested. He had only managed to write down a few sentences when they were interrupted by

a knock on the door. Without looking up, he simply said, "Come in."

 

The door quickly opened to reveal the ever-faithful cook. In his hands, Hop Sing carried a silver food tray with a tall glass of water and a large red-flowered motif

China bowl balancing on top of it. "Made famous broth for Number One Son!" he said as he passed the doctor and placed the tray at Adamís bedside.

 

"Thanks, Hop Sing," Adam enthusiastically replied even though he had no real initiative of eating. But he knew better than to disappoint the Chinese man, as he had a

feisty temper. Grinning to himself, Adam felt an uncanny feeling that the loving cook had read his mind as he simply stood next to the bed waiting for the

consummation of what he had prepared.

 

Martin took this opportunity to initiate his departure. After completing a slight medical check and replacing his patientís head bandage, he then carefully replaced

everything in his medical bag and heading for the door. Before closing it behind him, he turned one last time to both occupants. First, he addressed Adam as he said,

"Iíll be back in a few days to check on you. I have a few things to do in town."

 

"Sure, Doc."

 

Then, in a serious demeanour Paul Martin addressed the other man. "Hop Sing, I know that I can count on you and Little Joe of assuring that Adam follows doctorís

orders. He needs plenty of rest. Donít hesitate to come and get me if his condition doesnít get any better."

 

Hop Sing simply nodded in response. With that, Martin left as he closed the door and was heard going down the stairs. With a large grin, Hop Sing silently stared at

his bossí oldest son as he patiently waited for him to eat his lunch. Adam felt like a prey being stalked by its predator as he caught a glimpse into the cookís

determined dark eyes. Letting a resigned sigh escape, Adam took the tray in his hands and took a sip of his cool glass of water. With a watchful Hop Sing constantly

at his side, Adam reluctantly ate every bite of his lunch.

 

 

††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††********

 

Passing through a long narrow path bordered by dense brush and sharp twigs, Hoss Cartwright loudly swore as a thorny, leafless branch snapped back like a

boomerang and squarely hit him on his right cheek. How he wished there was a simpler and easier way of tracking down people. With the rest of the posse silently

following him like trained dogs, Hoss kept on going forward nonetheless. Adamís battered face was the only incentive he needed to keep on going down the trail.

Unfortunately, Hoss also knew that the awful memory of finding Adam in the stable would stay fresh in his memory for some time yet, resurfacing through nightmarish

flashbacks and restless sleep. Shaking his head in order to vanquish his distracting thoughts into oblivion, Hoss kept on ahead. It felt like his body was on automatic.

 

As soon as Hoss cleared the tumultuous path, something, on his farthest right, caught the corner of his eye, which made him simultaneously grin from ear to ear. At

last, he had found a clue. After quickly ordering his followers to stop in their tracks, Hoss then silently dismounted, letting his black horseís reins loosely hang in a

nearby sprouting bush. With his quietest feet, he slowly approached what had caught his attention. A few seconds of utmost silence past as the remaining men

anxiously watched Cartwrightís advancement. Hoss immediately let one knee fall to the cool, moisten ground as soon as he reached his target. There, at his feet, laid

a mixture of ash and incompletely burnt kindling surrounded by a circle of multiple size rocks. Wetness was still detected on the half-burned log, as he gently traced

its rough-edged contours, which made Hoss realise that this is where they had most likely cooked their breakfast meal. The black ash, between his fingers, warmly

stung his skin. "The ashís still hot!" Hoss excitingly exclaimed as he spared a quick glance up towards the other men.

 

In a flash, Roy Coffee, still mounted, joined Hoss at the makeshift cooking stove. "Boys, search the area," he ordered as the bigger man stood up. Without wasting

any split second, the remaining six men, including the deputy, separated and looked for a fresh trail.

 

"They canít be too far ahead, sheriff!" Hoss mentioned as he hurriedly walked towards Chubb. As soon as he sat down in his saddle, a small human-made whistle

caught his attention; it came from the deputyís direction.

 

"What did you find, Andy?" Coffee asked as a frown creased his face.

 

Off of his horse, Deputy Devin was stooped down next a muddy section of ground as he answered, not bothering to look up, "Thereís fresh horse shoe prints here.

Looks like two sets."

 

Hurriedly coming to his deputy side, Coffee dismounted and personally scrutinised the tracks as he crouched besides Devin. "Looks like theyíre headed that way,"

Roy stated as he pointed to where the sun hung in the sky. "South-west," he added, "Weíre right! Theyíre headed for California!"

 

Even before both Devin and Coffee had an opportunity to get back on their respective horses, a loud screeching scream was heard coming from a nearby area. It

was undoubtedly female in origin. It didnít take long before the posse galloping, as fast as their respective horses, fled to where the uneasy feeling sound emanated.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 6

 

 

After a few seemingly long minutes, each member of the posse, one by one, approached the small, enclosed clearing where the female shriek had been heard. Hoss,

in the lead, was the first to take in the sight laid out before them.

 

On bemired, rocky, and pale green grass, a young woman was awkwardly seated, alone, with her back towards them. She wore a navy blue split-skirt toped by a

plain white shirt covered by a long Gary wool coat. As soon as she heard the footsteps approaching her from behind, she abruptly turned her head in its direction.

Soil stains marked her beautiful face, as well as her clothes. Her long light brown hair loosely fell upon her shoulders in a tangled mess. Her face quickly twisted into

a confused frown. Looking nervously around, the young woman seemed to be searching for something or someone. She remained silent as the men carefully stared

at her.

 

It was Mayor James Norton whom dismounted first and slowly walked towards the young woman. "JosephineÖ Honey?" he said with caution as soon as he was

near his clearly distressed youngest daughter.

 

Josie didnít immediately respond to her fatherís heart-wrenching plea. Her face was a barren mask, displaying no visible emotions. After what seemed to be an

eternity to Norton and the rest of the posse, Josie finally broke her silence as she quickly got up and sluggishly ran into her fatherís open arms, saying amidst cries,

"Daddy! OhÖ. daddy!"

 

"Oh! Honey, did they hurt you? Who did this?" Norton quickly asked as he gently released the hug in order to have a closer look at her physical appearance at

armís length.

 

Josie didnít answer as a second burst of tears slid down her delicate face. Nesting her head on her fatherís shoulder, she simply cried out her sorrows.

 

"Boys, look around. Whoever did this, ainít far!" Coffee decreed as he silently broke the speechless spell that had seized the other men upon seeing the emotional

reunion of father and daughter. Everyone did as they were told, except for Jimmy, whom dismounted and silently joined his family.

 

Hoss hadnít realised how much tension he had been carrying during the last day and a half, until he saw Miss Josie safe and sound. His shoulders felt lighter as he

started his search through a nearby trail and bushes with his hand firmly on his gun. But he knew that his mission wasnít yet finished as a vision of his older brother

suddenly haunted him. Without much effort and atop Chubb, he could see fresh marks on the still moisten ground. In hindsight, Hoss knew that the previous

rainstorm had been a god sent.

 

Slowly strolling along on his horse, Hoss kept his eyes intense and alert as he peered through any possible human hiding places, amongst a large rock pile,

comprising stones of various sizes. Some of the crevasses are even big enough for me to hide in, he jokingly thought. After a few minutes of unsuccessfully

searching, Hoss was about to change his tactic and restart his hunt in a different area when suddenly he jerked at the sound of two consecutive gunshots wringing out

a short distance away. Without giving it a second thought, he urged Chubb to a thunderous gallop. Within seconds, Hoss had arrived to his destination. Surrounded

by five other members of the posse, which included both the sheriff and deputy, a tall, young man stood with his arms up above his shoulders. Hoss deduced by the

situation that the man had seemingly giving himself up without too much of a fight. The more Hoss looked at the soon-to-be jailbird, the more the man seemed

familiar. He could have! sworn he had seen the man before, probably in Virginia City.

 

"Well, wellÖ ainít it nice to see you again?" the sheriff sarcastically stated as he carefully dismounted and approached the man with his gun drawn and ready to fire

at the slightest movement.

 

"Sheriff, I ainít done nothing wrong!" the man simply replied.

 

"Yeah! and my nameís ainít Roy Coffee!" the sheriff replied as he urge for Devin to tie the manís wrist behind his back.

 

After doing as told, Devin held the prisoner by his now constrained hands and angrily addressed him, "So, tell me HarryÖ why did you kidnap Miss Josie Norton?"

 

"Iíve got nothing to say!" Harry bitterly replied.

 

"Then, letís go. Maybe some time in jail will get ya talking!" Coffee stated with as much bitterness detected in his voice.

 

"Harry WilkinsonÖ" Jimmy Norton said with tiger-like eyes, ready to strike an unexpected prey, "Josie told Pa and me what you did to herÖ Iím going to kill

youÖ"

 

"Thatís enough!" Coffee said as he stepped in front of the irate young man, blocking his access to their prisoner in the process. "Iím the law here, Jimmy and youíll

do no such thing. Heíll get a fair trial."

 

"He ainít worth spit. I say we hang him here and now!"

 

Roy was now furious as he grabbed the young Nortonís jacket and yelled, "Youíll do no such thing! Do you want to spend some time in jail too, Jimmy?" Seeing

that the rage in the manís eyes slightly died away, Coffee released his hold with a slight shove and quickly added to the rest of the posse but kept his ice cold eyes

still hammered on Jimmy, "Thanks for your help, boys. Me and Andy will take care of it now."

 

After a few seconds of silence and stillness, the remaining members of the posse slowly but surely dispersed and headed back home, to Virginia City. Hoss, on the

other hand, slightly held back as he had been silent since the arrest of Harry Wilkinson, which as he now remembered had been in jail previous times for petty thief

and saloon brawling. Approaching Coffee whom was retrieving Wilkinsonís gear and two horses, Hoss got off of his saddle and nervously cleared his throat to get

the sheriffís attention. It wasnít until Roy turned to face him that he spoke, "Roy, what about Adam?" He needed to know if what they suspected was true and that

Wilkinson had indeed ambushed his older brother. Because if he did, Hoss knew that he would have to be restrained like Jimmy had been. Even though Hoss was

gentle in nature, no one hurt his brother and got away with it. It was that simple.

 

"Donít worry, Hoss. Iíll let you know what I find out," Coffee honestly answered as he placed a supportive hand on the bigger manís shoulder. "You go back home

now to your brothers."

 

Hoss didnít have to be told twice.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Comfortably seated at the dining room table, Joe let a small smile wrinkle his face as his stomach gurgled at the sight of appealing food displayed across the red

checker tablecloth. Joe wasnít one whom had a big appetite, but today was different as he had work himself quite a hunger during the morning. He still hadnít dared

venture anywhere far from the ranch, as protectiveness guilt kept him close at hand. But he nonetheless accomplished quite a few painstaking chores, which his father

and Adam would deeply appreciate.

 

Digging a knife into his steak, he urgently sliced himself a reasonable piece and placed it in his impatiently awaiting salivated mouth. Savouring the delicious taste of

his meal, Joe closed his eyes as a thought of a jealous Hoss casually reached his mind. "Poor Hoss, I reckon that heís mighty hungry right now!" he jokingly said

aloud between bites, "On second thought, when ainít he?" Giggling to himself, Joe didnít notice Hop Singís entrance into the dining room carrying a small basket of

bread rolls. As soon as he did, he quickly turned his attention from the food to the cook. "Oh, Hop Sing?"

 

"Yes, Liíl Joe?"

 

"I was wonderingÖ" he started wiping the side of his mouth with his napkin before continuing on, "País scheduled to be arriving tomorrow from San Francisco. It

would be nice to have a great supper for his arrival andÖ"

 

"Hop Sing always cook great supper!" the cook angrily interrupted.

 

"WhoaÖ whoaÖ calm down, Hop Sing! Thatís not what I meant," Joe quickly said in an attempt to calm down the Chinese manís quick temper. Seeing that he

once again had an attentive audience, Joe went on, "As Hoss told you many times, youíre the best darn cook this side of San Francisco." He could see that his talk

had worked and Hop Sing was back to his jovial self. "What I was trying to say is that your delicious apple pies would be a great dessert. Donít you think?"

 

"Already save apple pie and roast beef for special occasion."

 

"Good!" Joe said with a grin. His face turned serious as he changed the subject before the cook had an opportunity to return to the kitchen. "Hop Sing? Howís

Adam? Did he eat his lunch?"

 

Hop Singís face beamed with pride as he answered Joe. "Made him eat two bowls of broth!"

 

Joe returned the smaller manís smile. Leave it to Hop Sing to make Adam do something that he probably didnít want to do. He once again giggled as a prankish

mood engulfed him. He was so glad that Adam was getting better, physically anyway, that Joe felt on top of the world. "Youíll make a great mother someday, Hop

Sing!" he jokingly teased.

 

Instead of replying, Hop Sing simply uttered a few irritated Chinese words and hurriedly for the kitchen, leaving Joe to his giggling again. He loved teasing the one he

cared for and Hop Sing was one of them. The small Chinese man had been faithful to the family for such a long time and he and Joe had developed a close

relationship. One may say that the youngest Cartwright was Hop Singís favourite. Smiling to himself, he went back to his meal with pleasant thoughts swimming in his

head.

 

A full stomach later, Joe arisen from the table and bounded for the stairs as he wanted to check on his oldest brother. However, before he even had an opportunity

to cross the living room, angry Chinese words could be heard coming from the kitchen. Curiously, Joe scurried towards them and soon found the familyís cook

angrily pacing back and back in the spacious kitchen. Throughout the years, Joe understood some Chinese and knew that the words escaping Hop Singís mouth

were foul. "Calm down, Hop Sing! Whatís wrong?" Joe said trying to appease the smaller manís brewing temper.

 

"No more apple pies! Somebody took them. Made them not more than two days ago. Bread and roast beef are missing too!"

 

"What?" Joe incredulously said, "I didnít touch them and Hoss wouldnít eat anything uncooked!" His brows were set in a downcast position until a thought popped

into his mind. "So, thatís what they stole!" he stated.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 7

 

 

It wasnít long before Hop Sing had settle down. Since food supplies were already running low at this time of the month, Joe had made the conscious decision that if

satisfied with Adamís condition, he would spare a trip into Virginia City in order to prepare for his fatherís arrival. If not, he would simply have to wait for Hossí

return. Everything seemed to fall into place, the more he thought about the stolen food, the more it made sense. So, one reason, if not the only, for Adamís ambush

was that he surprised them stealing food.

 

Shaking his head in order clear his mind of any previous angry, revengeful thoughts about Adamís situation which were coming back to taunt him, Joe slowly walked

up the stairs. Just outside Adamís bedroom door, he slightly hesitated. As usual, without bothering to knock, he slowly opened the door. His first sight of his eldest

brother was one of serenity as he seemed to be peacefully asleep with a book of poetry on his stomach, which was going up and down at every taken rhythmic

breath. Not wanting to wake him up, Joe silently gazed at Adamís battered face for a few seconds, thinking of happier moments.

 

Deciding not to disturb his sleeping brother any further, he headed back for the door. Just as he was about to cross the doorframe, a deep voice held him back.

"What do you want, Joe?"

 

"Iím sorry, Adam. I thought that youíre asleep," Joe remorsefully replied as he backed up into the room, "Did I wake you?"

 

Without bothering to open his eyes, Adamís mouth twisted into a small, almost unnoticeable grin, as he spoke again, "Donít worry, I wasnít sleeping. I was just

admiring the back of my eyelids."

 

"Well, thatís a relief," Joe stated as he involuntary smiled due to his brotherís quick retort.

 

"You didnít answer my question."

 

After he closed the door, Joe took a chair and sat down beside his brotherís bed. Sighing, he quickly asked, "How are you feeling, older brother?"

 

"As good as expected," Adam answered as he vigorously rubbed his eyes. Thanks to a full stomach and pain medication, he felt much better now. He even indulged

himself in some light reading to help past the time. But he knew that he couldnít over do it or he will be back where he started. Finally opening his eyes, he squinted

and asked, "How do I look?"

 

"As good as expected."

 

Adam permitted himself a light chuckle. "Thanks! That really boasted my self-esteem."

 

"Anytime, brother, anytime," Joe stated with added playfulness. It felt good to joke around with Adam, as he often hadnít the opportunity to do so. Unlike his easy

relationship with Hoss, Joe had always felt that there was an invisible barrier between him and Adam on most occasions. Their father had always stated that the

reason why his eldest and youngest sons so often disagreed was simple: They were too alike in nature, which included a sense of peer stubbornness.

 

"What was that yelling that I heard earlier?" Adam asked as he broke the silence that was suddenly reverberating throughout the room, "What could have possibly

made Hop Sing so madÖ except you, that is?"

 

Joe didnít reciprocate his big brotherís smile, as his face unexpectedly became serious. "WellÖ humÖ Hop Sing found some food missing in the pantry. WeÖ I

mean I think that it was probably stolen the other night," he finally explained. With his stomach twisted into knots, Joe impatiently awaited for his brother to respond

and to come to the logical conclusion. He didnít know how Adam would react knowing that he was almost killed for a few comestibles.

 

Surprisingly, Adam simply shrugged as he quickly stated, "I was almost killed before for worse and less meaningful reasons." The motive for the ambush held neither

importance nor any balance on his thoughts. It simply didnít matter. Whatever reason it was, Adam simply hold on to the idea that the person or persons responsible

for this cowardly attack would soon get what they deserved. Seeing that his brother wasnít satisfied with his answer, he continued on, "Joe? Canít you see that it

doesnít matter? No reason could ever validate what happened to meÖ Letís just forget about it."

 

But, Joe couldnít forget about it, even if Adam wanted him to. But something in the glare of his brotherís eyes made the youngest Cartwright respect his wishes.

Bringing up another subject, Joe reluctantly asked, "With País arrival tomorrow, you know that we had a special supper prepared to welcome him back home. So,

Hop Sing wants me to go into Virginia City to get our monthly supplies a few days early."

 

"Then, go. You-"

 

"But, I canít leave you aloneÖ" Joe interrupted as he leaned forward in his chair, "I canít leave all of the responsibility of taking care of you to Hop Sing. JeezÖ I

just wished Hoss would be back."

 

"JoeÖ Iím over thirty. Iíve been taking care of you and Hoss since I was six. I think that qualifies me to take care of myself."

 

"I knowÖ I know, but this is different. Youíre hurt."

 

"Thanks for reminding me," Adam replied sarcastically as he hated being treated like an invalid by his own family. Painfully straightening himself in his bed, he added,

"Look, Iíll make it real easy for everyone. Just help me get myself comfortable downstairs by the fire."

 

Joe immediately shook his head in disagreement. "No, no, the Doc said rest!"

 

"And thatís what Iíll get," Adam replied as he threw the blankets off of him and placed his feet on the chilly floor. Joe quickly stood up, ready to replace his brother

back in bed. But Adam was one step ahead of his younger brother. Gently he pushed Joe away as he stood up. "You either help me or get out of the way!"

 

After contemplating his options, it wasnít hard for Joe to make a choice. His brother could be extremely stubborn when he put his mind to it, and this was one of

these moments. Without any second thought, he gently supported Adam, with an arm around his ailing brotherís shoulders, as they descended the stairs, one step at

a time. Joe, then, helped him unto his favourite blue, velvety wing chair situated next to the living roomís imposing hearth. "Comfy?" Joe asked as he affectionately

stared at his recuperating brother.

 

"All I need now is a warm blanket and a book and Iíll be a content man!"

 

"Your wishís my command!" Joe replied without hesitation.

 

"Since when?" Adam wittingly whispered to himself with a half-smile plastered on his dumbfounded face as he saw his little brother hurriedly head back upstairs. He

was happily gazing into the warm welcoming fire when his brother came back a few minutes later with a wool blanket in one hand and a stack of books in the other.

 

"I didnít know which one you wanted, Adam. SoÖ I picked a few out off the shelf," Joe declared as he gave Adam the blanket and placed the hard cover,

well-read books on the coffee table nearby.

 

"Thatís fine, Joe. Thanks!" Adam replied after wrapping himself in his blanket.

 

Joe speechlessly stood next to the chair, still unsure that he had done the right thing. The doctor had been so adamant about his wishes that Adam stayed in bed for a

few more days, getting complete bed rest. Now, Joe didnít know what to do. Of course he knew that being downstairs would lift his older brotherís spirits, but he

didnít want it to be at the expense of his convalescence. After letting a deep sigh escape his tight lips, Joe finally inquired, "You sure that youíll be okay." He knew as

soon that he had uttered the words that his brother would give him a scorn look, which he did, but he somehow needed that reassurance. "Okay, then," Joe said as

he spared a quick glanced back at the grandfather clock behind him. It was a little past one oíclock in the afternoon. Even with the seasonís ever diminishing

daylight, he would have plenty of time to get what he needed and be back before nightfall.

 

As Joe was about to head for his warm clothing hanging next to the door, Adam held him back as he said, "Joe? I need you to do a few things in Virginia City while

youíre there."

 

"Sure?"

 

"Go check and see if thereís a telegram from Pa. I was going to go yesterday butÖ anyway, see if thereís any mail," Adam stated before slightly hesitating for a few

seconds. This action made Joe come to the wrong conclusion that he was finished, but soon turned his attention back to his seated brother, as Adam continued on,

"In País desk, thereís a draft from the sale of the army horses. It needs to be brought to the bank. Also, when youíre finished with that, drop by Territorial

Enterprises and pick up a newspaperÖ Iím sure that Pa would appreciate it, no less than I would, considering that I canít do anything else but read."

 

"Sure, Iíll be back as soon as I can. See ya later, brother." With that said, Joe put his warm clothing including his gun belt and rushed out the door.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

The ride to Virginia City took a little longer than usual for Joe. He had always been one to boast that his cherished black and white pinto horse was the fastest in the

whole valley, but this time, Cochise had to stay back on the ranch. Seated on the buckboardís hard and unyielding bench, the trip into town wasnít exactly what Joe

would call smooth, as the wheels despite his best efforts seemed to catch every merciless rut in the dirt road. Even though, at every blink, he was visually immersed

into the breathtaking beauty of the Ponderosa land, Joe felt somewhat miserable as he wished for a better way of getting into town. With both Hop Singís list and

money draft securely in his coat pocket and Adamís requests fresh in his mind, Joe slowly approached into the mining city. Virginia City, situated on the eastern

slope of the Sierra Nevada and north of Lake Tahoe, was presently engrossed in a mining boom thanks to the Comstock Lode discovery nearby a couple of years

back, which held extensive gold and silver ores.

 

Despite the cool sunny day, many city dwellers were busily strolling through the narrow streets. Joseph Cartwrightís first order of business was stopping into one of

the cityís dry food stores and immediately placing Hop Singís order. Stopping the buckboardís two strong horses with a gentle pull of the reins in front of

Hammonds, Joe quickly descended and headed inside. After a few minutes of inquiring and casual chitchatting, he left satisfied that the owner, a good friend of the

family, would have everything ready to be packed onto the buckboard within the hour.

 

With this free time, Joe went on to other businesses. With the bank draft in his pocket making him slightly nervous as he walked on the cityís wooden sidewalk, Joe

decided that his next stop would be the cityís bank. Pride suddenly engulfed him as he gave John, whom was the banker, the opulent bank draft knowing that he had

personally tamed the horses for the army contract as he had the bruises to prove it. It was part of his family duty and Joe really appreciate seeing the monetary

dividend of his hard work. It made it so much more rewarding.

 

"Howís your brother, Liíl Joe?" the clean-cut older man behind the counter asked, not bothering to look up, as soon as Joe handed him the draft.

 

Joe felt suddenly reluctant about expressing his worries about his oldest brotherís health. Something in Johnís voice just wanted to make him clam up. He had never

been able to put a finger on it, but John Matters had always made Joe feel uneasy. Maybe it was because he was the youngest Cartwright and not as serious as

either his father or Adam was. But luckily, the ranchís books were primarily his Pa and Adamís responsibility and consequently Joe had quasi-non existent contact

with the apathetic banker.

 

After a few seconds of doubt, Joe went on despite his secretive objections. "As good as expected. Heís moving around."

 

"Good, thatís good to hear. Doc Martin was in a short while ago. Told me that Adam was bushwhacked," Matters stated as he spared a quick glance towards his

customer, "I canít imagine anyone wanting to hurt your brother."

 

"Neither can I," Joe briskly agreed.

 

"Heís such a good man, your brother. So much like his father, a true businessman. I donít know what Ben would do without him," Matters stated just before leaving

the desk for a second. He disappeared inside a small back room in order to place the draft in the bankís communal safe.

 

Joe could suddenly feel his heart beat accelerate as his hastily renowned temper started to brew a storm. What he hated the most was being treated like a kid and

thatís exactly how he felt Matters was treating him. Taking a deep breath, Joe decided to count to ten as he waited for the bankerís return. This was neither the time

nor the place to start an argument. He still had business to attend to and Adam needed him home. As soon as Matters showed his square-shaped chubby frame

back into the main room, Joe stated in his most professional and emotionless voice, "Thanks and have a good day."

 

Matters simply nodded not bothering to reciprocate the greeting.

 

With that said, Joe left the bank in a sour mood. Now he remembered why he eschewed this part of the ranchís business. He guessed that both his father and oldest

brother were better at dealing with banks or any professional establishments. He simply didnít have the patience or maybe it was simply Mattersí unprofessional

demeanour that made him shun away from it. Joe couldnít tell.

 

Too preoccupied within his own deep thoughts, Joe paid no or little attention to where he was actually walking. He simply wandered in an automated manner

towards the telegraph office, where he hoped that a message from his father was waiting. Being more than a full month since the Cartwright patriarchís departure to

California, Joe started to yearn for his fatherís presence back at the Ponderosa. The ranch simply wasnít the same without the oldest Cartwright.

 

Just as he was about to cross the slightly busy street, Joe ungallantly bumped into two lovely young women, whom he remembered from school a few years back.

Being the ladiesí man that he was, Joe had indeed dated both of the women before, but unfortunately none had became his one true love. "Iím sorry, ladies!" Joe

exclaimed with his most charming smile as he quickly backed up lifting his hat ever so slightly in a gentlemanly fashion.

 

"Oh, itís perfectly okay, Liíl Joe," the short brunette replied as she openly ogled at the handsome young man standing before her.

 

The other young woman, a redhead whom appeared to be slightly older, was dressed in a light coloured flowing dress with matching a purse. A black lace shawl

was gently placed across her shoulders due to cool weather. Before addressing what certain referred as being one of Virginia Cityís most eligible bachelors, the

redhead gave a stern look of disapproval towards the other womanís flagrant flirtatious attitude. "Joe, so many horrible events have been occurring in this city lately.

Josie Nortonís disappearance is hard enough to handle, but word around town is that Adam was ambushed on the Ponderosa of all places. Is that true?"

 

"Yes, Iím afraid that itís true, Elaine," Joe replied a little grimly.

 

"How is he?" the redhead asked with sincerity.

 

"Got a bit of a headache, but better than yesterday. Heís going to be restricted to the ranch for some time yet though." Joe wanted to be brief with his answer, not

wanting to be too specific with Adamís injuries. Even though he knew that both women wouldnít misuse that type of information, Joe knew that whoever was

responsible was still roaming free.

 

"Thatís so unfortunate," Elaine sadly replied.

 

Rolling her eyes at the other woman, the brunette turned to Joe and said, "Did you hear that Josieís fiancťeís on his way to town from Carson City?" Joe simply

shook his head in response as she continued, "He wanted to arrive yesterday, but was delayed by important business. You do know that his father was just

appointed governor of Nevada territory by President Lincoln himself!"

 

"Andrew was pretty upset about Josieís disappearance considering that their wedding day is only a few weeks away," Elaine added to the conversation as her friend

slightly hesitated, "It would be quite devastating if sheís not found. Youíve heard about the posse, right Joe?"

 

"Yeah, I did. Hossí with them," Joe nonchalantly stated as he uncomfortably shifted his stance. The simple mention of the posse made him suddenly feel agitated and

restless as it reminded him of the fact that his hands were tied, unable to help in the arrest of Adamís assailant or assailants.

 

Neither one of the two young women seemed to notice Joeís abrupt mood change as they suddenly started to disgust amongst themselves presumably forgetting

about their male companion. It was the brunette that spoke first as she turned her attention to other woman. "Elaine?" she asked, "Did you happen to hear that Paul

Gilbert was seen in Virginia City a few days ago?"

 

"Yes, I also heard that Gus Hennigar and him were just released from prison not two months ago. With everything thatís been happening in town, having two

criminals roaming the streets is even more troubling."

 

"I have to agree," Lizzy said with a noteworthy head bob. "Anyway, I also heard that a new play will be playing at the Opera house in a few weeks."

 

"Of course, I know that Lizzy. Iím the one who told youÖ."

 

At that moment, Joe seemed to lose the rest of the conversation into the darkness of his mind as his brainís interest level took a steep decline. He wasnít exactly

interested in hearing city gossip at the moment; he needed to get back to his business, as dawn would soon be approaching. "Excuse me ladies," Joe stated getting

their abrupt attentions, "but I still have a few things to do before heading back home. Adamís probably getting bored being home alone," he halved joked.

 

"Of course, Joe," Elaine stated with a warm smile, "Please give our regards to Adam for us. We hope that heíll be feeling better very soon."

 

"Thanks, Iíll be sure to tell him that. Have a nice day!" With that Joe left Elaine and Lizzyís company as they went back to their casual conversation while heading the

opposite way than him.

 

A few meters away, Joe walked inside the telegraph office. As predicted, there was indeed a telegram from his father patiently waiting for him as well as letters and a

box addressed to Adam. Probably one of his dreadful, boring books, Joe thought to himself as he handled the medium size brown enveloped box. The telegram

from Ben confirmed that he was indeed on the next Overland Express carriage arriving in Virginia City early afternoon. It was with a smile on his face that Joe left the

telegraph office for Territorial Enterprise. He was pleased to hear that Ben was truly coming back home. His father would know what to do next.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 8

 

 

On a cold night and under a cloudless sky, a shadow, due to the quarter moon above, could be seen shifting across the Ponderosa land. The shadow, large in size,

moved slowly and methodically across the kaleidoscopic terrain. It wasnít until the sun started to creep up from behind the Sierra Nevada mountains that the shadow

slowly lost its intensity leaving its humanly source to wander through the land alone. After what seemed an eternity to the rider and its mount, they finally arrived at

their destination. With an exhausted sigh escaping his dry-lipped mouth, the rider tediously dismounted while leaning hard against his saddleís horn for added support

and strength. It had been a long night for Hoss Cartwright. He had managed to sleep only a few hours earlier that night before coming to the realisation that the only

restful sleep that he would get was in his own comfy bed. With the dread of spending yet another moment on the trail, hungry and cold, Hoss knew that no matter

how hard it would be, he had to get home as soon as possible. He needed to see how his older brother was recuperating and to be a supportive shoulder for his

younger one.

 

After leading his horse, Chubb, into the stable and tending to its own needs, Hoss with eyes mid-closed haggardly walked towards the entrance door. He was

famished, exhausted, and to make matters worse, his clothes reeked. As soon as he entered the large welcoming home, Hoss stripped off his outer wear as he yelled

for the family cook.

 

Almost instantly, the small Chinese man came running from the kitchen. Angrily and with his right index against his narrow lips, he stated, "No yelling! Wake up

Number One son!"

 

"OhÖ sorry, Hop Sing!" Hoss whispered in regret. Sparing a quick glance at the dark wood grandfather clock behind him, seeing that it was slightly past breakfast,

he quickly added, "Whereís Liíl Joe?"

 

"At South pasture with other Ponderosa men."

 

After a few seconds of deep thoughts, Hoss simply nodded his approval. Time was of essence when it came down to preparing for winter. The herd needed to be

brought down from the North pasture and hay needed to be stored for them. Even though, the steers could brush away light snow to eat the grass, there would be a

time where even that small gesture wouldnít be enough to keep them properly fed. Hoss inwardly smiled as he thought about how responsible his younger had

become over the years.

 

Suddenly, Hop Sing started to sniff several times as an awful scent had caught his olfactory attention. Seeing that he was the culprit for the unsanitary scent, Hoss

slightly blushed and quickly asked, "Could you start me a bath, Hop Sing?"

 

Hop Sing nodded. "Cook you breakfast!"

 

Hossí face twisted into a sorrowful frown. "Donít talk about food nowÖ" he swallowed the large lump that had mysteriously appeared in his throat before

continuing on, "Iím goiní to regret thisÖ but I need a bath more than food right now!"

 

The small cook simply looked at the middle Cartwright son in amazement. It was a rarity if the young man said no to food. After a few seconds of awkward silence,

he simply respected Hossí wishes and headed back into the kitchen.

 

Hossí winced as he heard his stomach angry growl for what seemed to be the hundredth. It clearly wasnít too pleased to have to wait. Gently rubbing his stomach,

he whispered, "It ainít goiní to be long now."

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Time seemed to be at a stand still for Adam, sitting upright on his bed, as a headache suddenly made an encore presentation with a bang. Due to his literary

devouring of a newly received novel, he was now suffering the consequence of his overindulgence. He had debated about taking headache powder in order to

alleviate the pain, but thought otherwise. He simply had to combat it the natural way, which was with sleep, rest, and utter patience. Without a clock in his room,

Adam could only imagine what time it was as he had been reading for some time without interruption. He quickly deduced that it couldnít be past noontime since

Hop Sing had yet to bring him any lunch. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he then comfortably leaned back into his pillows letting all of his woes and worries to simply

vanish into an intellectual oblivion.

 

Adam was slowly drifting into sleep when he heard a soft, almost hesitant, rap against his bedroom door. Forgetting sleep for the moment, he answered the knock

with a voice just loud enough to vibrate through the door. "Itís open," he had said just before being surprised to see a seemingly shy and uncertain Hoss walked in

and closed the door behind him. Noticing his younger brother was nervously dawdling next to the bed, Adam, jovially, spoke once more, "Hoss! How long have

youíve been back?"

 

"OhÖ about two hours," Hoss replied shrugging. Seeing the pale face of his older brother stare back at him made Hoss slightly hesitant with his answers and actions

as all his previous bottled up emotions started to reach back to the surface. Even though he could tell that Adam was apparently recuperating very well, no matter

how strong the soap, his anger wouldnít be that easily washed away.

 

"So, how was it? You were gone for some time."

 

"We found Miss Josie."

 

"How is she?" Adam said with obvious concern.

 

"I donít really know," Hoss honestly replied, "Her pa took her back to town. She wuz pretty upset." Adam remained silent as he was in deep thought. Hoss took

that time to add, "Sheriff arrested Harry Wilkinson."

 

At the mention of the name, a deep frown of bewilderment instantly plastered on Adamís pale, bruised face. "Harry Wilkinson? Why would Harry kidnap Josie

Norton?"

 

"Donít know, Adam. I ainít talked to the sheriff since I came back home."

 

Shaking his head in confusion despite the subsequent throbbing, Adam added almost amongst a whisper, "It just doesnít make any sense. Why?" Hoss simply

shrugged in response, as he had no answer to his brotherís hypothetical question.

 

Awkward silence suddenly engulfed the warm upstairs room, as both brothers unknowingly became prisoners of their own internal thoughts and questions. A puzzle

laid before their eyes, one which they seemed to be missing most of the pieces and it frustrated both Cartwright sons to no end. An impromptu slamming of the

entrance door downstairs made them violently retrieve control of their own thoughts.

 

"Joe must be back," Hoss simply stated as he hurriedly left his older brotherís room in search of his younger one. As soon as he rounded the corner of the hallway

atop of the stairs, Hoss smiled as his intuition was validated. Joe had his back to him as the youngest Cartwright methodically took off his outwear. "Hi! shortshanks,"

Hoss casually stated, addressing Joe, as he walked down the reverse L-shaped stairs.

 

"Hoss!" Joe exclaimed as he turned to face the man behind the voice. With a grin reaching both ears, he approached his brother and lovingly placed an arm around

his broader shouldered brother. "Glad to see you back!"

 

"Glad to be back, liíl brother!"

 

"How long have you been home? How was it? Did you find Josie? Do you know..."

 

"Whoa... liíl Joe!" Hoss quickly interrupted, "Slow down, one question at a time!"

 

"Sorry, Hoss!" Joe apologetically stated. Climbing up the stairs together, Joe asked again with more pause, "So, did you find Josie?"

 

"Yup, Miss Josieís safe now. The sheriff arrested Harry Wilkinson."

 

"Harry Wilkinson!?" Joe stuttered in a mind-boggling tone as he spared a puzzled look with his brother.

 

"Yup!" Hoss repeated understanding that the suspected manís likelihood of being a kidnapper was slim. But, it was a fact.

 

Joe shook in head in bewilderment as he walked inside Adamís room with Hoss not far behind. "Did you hear about Wilkinson?" Joe quickly inquired to his oldest

brother.

 

"Yeah, Hoss just told me," Adam answered, "I just wished that I could remember. It would shed some light on this whole mess."

 

Joe and Hoss simply shared a guilty look as they both compassionately envisioned how it was frustrating for Adam not to be able to summon up his memories of that

faithful early morning. It wasnít something that they would want to experience first hand. Feeling the roomís mood slightly turn acrimonious, Joe made a conscious

effort to change the subject as he stated, "País scheduled to arrive in a few hours. I was about to head on to Virginia City to meet him."

 

"Iíll go, Liíl Joe," Hoss volunteered.

 

"Why?"

 

"íCause I want to talk to the sheriff..." Hoss replied, "and besides ya need the rest. Ya know takiní care of older brother here and keepiní the ranch run smoothly

takes energy. Yaíre probably plum tired."

 

Joeís eyes showed instant scepticism as they slit-like moved from Hoss to Adam. Feelings of aggravation and gratitude battled inside his mind as he tried to

understand. It wasnít until Adam gave a short nod that gratitude won the battle by a small margin. He never would admit it but the emotional roller-coaster ride of the

last few days had put a physical toll on him.

 

"Fine," Joe reluctantly muttered under his breath.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Rubbing his hands together in order to keep them warm, Hoss stood near the Overland Express stopover station in Virginia City where his father would soon arrive.

Hoss had just arrived back from the jailhouse where he had spoke with Coffee and Devin for several minutes before noticing the late hour. The last thing that he

wanted to do was to be late for his fatherís long overdue homecoming. Ben would reasonably be exhausted from his long trip and impatiently wanting to go straight

home.

 

Hossí short visit with the sheriff had been a slight disappointment since Harry Wilkinson once more cried out his innocence in any illicit activity. The only new

information that he had been able to gather since arriving in the city was that Miss Josie Norton was adamant about testifying against Wilkinson in his trial. However,

it would be several days before a circuit judge would be in town. So, patience was an essence.

 

Hoss kept himself busy by admiring the hectic demeanour of passer-byes. He marvelled at their sheer resolute comportment. As he watched two miners loudly

talking to each other from the other side of the wide street, the distinctive noise of an approaching carriage suddenly caught his attention. The thundering gallops of

the four horses grew in intensity as the brown stagecoach approached his location from the right. Almost immediately, Hoss became warm-hearted. A sensation of

delight circulated through his veins at the pure thought of having his entire family once more back together. With a broad smile across his rounded face, Hoss simply

remained standing as the stagecoach stopped in its tracks.

 

A few seconds later, a older man, dressed in a distinguishing navy coloured suit, walked out the coach, followed by two other gentlemen. With white hair edging the

brim of his pale grey hat, Benjamin Cartwrightís dark eyebrows quickly rose up as soon as he caught glimpse of his middle son. Even though he was a tall and

well-built man, Ben was still a few inches shorter than the strapping Hoss, whom dwarfed the majority of the population. With a warm and expanding smile, Ben

unreservedly approached his son in order to give him a quick affectionate hug.

 

"Welcome home, Pa!"

 

"Thanks, son. Itís good to be home!" Ben replied.

 

"How wuz your trip?" Hoss inquired as he walked passed Ben to the stagecoach in order to retrieve his fatherís luggage.

 

"Good! I was able to secure our timber contracts with both the Bristlecone and Yellowriver mines for another two seasons," Ben stated with enthusiasm clearly

heard through his deep, booming voice.

 

"Geesh, Pa! Thatís great!"

 

As if noticing for the first time, Ben glanced around his son looking for his two other ones. "Whereís Adam and Joe?"

 

"Back at the ranch, Pa," Hoss instinctively replied while lifting the luggage into the back of a small carriage. An inner debate quickly followed suite in his head. One

where he weighed the options about notifying his father of the last few days events now or later.

 

A disapproval frown quickly shaped Benís face as he could tell that his middle son was withholding something as he knew him so well. "Hoss?" he warningly stated,

"Is thereís something that youíre not telling me? What did Joseph do now?"

 

"Er... nuthiní, Pa! Liíl Joe ainít done nuthiní wrong," Hoss intervened in his brotherís defence. He internally cursed himself for his lapse of control over his emotions.

After swallowing the lump that had suddenly materialised in his throat, he instead said, "Itís about Adam, Pa." Benís face sharply fell to show his full bewilderment.

Foretelling his fatherís next pressing question, Hoss added with urgency, "Iíll tell ya on the way home, Pa."

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††Chapter 9

 

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

 

"You had to tell him about Adam right after he got off of the stagecoach?! Couldnít ya at least have waited until he came home?" Joe lectured as he gave Hoss a

disapproval look across the living room making sure that he was out of earshot from his father whom had precipitately ran towards Adamís room upon his return to

the ranch.

 

"Hey!" Hoss slightly yelled with v-shaped eyebrows, "As ya should know by now, liíl brother, ya canít hide nuthiní from Pa!"

 

Upon hearing his brotherís words, Joeís face immediately softened. Their father was no fool, especially when it came to his sons not being straightforward with him.

Realising how truly hard it is to withhold anything from their father and that telling a lie was never an option, Joe apologised in a small boyish tone, "Sorry, Hoss!"

 

"Good!" Hoss replied while nodding away his scowl.

 

"Did you get to see the sheriff?" Joe questioned as he moved towards the living room settee, located directly in front of the massive hearth, where he

unceremoniously sat down.

 

"Yup, I did, liíl brother. Harryís still says heís innocent. Luckily, Miss Josieís goiní to testify at his trail."

 

"When?"

 

"Donít know. We have to wait for the circuit judge," Hoss replied in exasperation as he turned to face the fiery fire that sprinkled hot goblets of air against every inch

of his body. It was said that patience was a virtue. For Hoss, it was more than that, it was an unobtainable aspiration. How he wished that he could have a few quiet

moments with Harry Wilkinson? How he hoped that this whole incident could be erased? However, reality hit Hoss like a ton of bricks. Despite everything, his

hands were tied. The implementation of law depended solely on Miss Josie Norton.

 

"Did Josie say anything about Adam?" Joe carefully asked as if he had been able to peek through Hossí brain and to expose his brotherís most secret thoughts.

 

Joe, from his position, saw his brother lower his head slightly. With hesitant words, the taller, much bigger man softly spoke. "She told Roy that Harry hit Adam with

a log as he came out of the house..." Hoss stated before his voice trailed off into silence. Knowing that his brother was probably battling some profound emotions as

he did himself, Joe didnít dare press his brother for additional information. Instead, he let enough time past for Hoss to recover. When he did, Hossí voice was

stronger and slightly heated. "She also said that he hit Adam again when he started to come to. Josie said that... that she had to plead with Harry not to kill him."

 

Hossí spoken words exploded in Joeís mind like ignited dynamite. His body became suddenly cold despite his closeness to the raging fire as the horrific

contemplation of actually how close he came to losing his oldest brother overcame his train of thought. All of his senses were suddenly stunned. It wasnít until an

unexpected, deep voice boomed across the living room that he snapped out of his daze state.

 

"Boys, whatís the meaning of the piece of paper on Adamís bedside table?"

 

"Pa!?" Joe exclaimed as he slightly jerked upon hearing his fatherís words. Hoss also involuntarily jumped due to the unexpected interruption.

 

"Your brotherís sleeping," Ben carefully explained as he slowly moved down the remaining stairs. His homecoming had been dampened by the news of his firstborn

sonís injuries. Whether his sons were fifty or five, Ben would always worry about their safety and their welfare. It was a parental protectiveness feeling that never

disappeared neither with time nor with age.

 

Seeing the despairing, upset looks upon his two younger sonsí faces, Ben knew to never doubt, despite fights and quarrels between them, that all three brothers

cared and loved each other more than anything. Although it wasnít voiced out loud enough, Ben felt all warm inside knowing that he had raised his sons into

well-adjusted, responsible, caring, and hard-working men. "You didnít answer my question, boys!"

 

Joe shared a hesitant glance with Hoss before returning his gaze to his awaiting father. Clearly his throat free of the large lump that had mysteriously appeared, Joe

replied, "Doc Martin told Adam to write everything that he remembered about his ambush. So, heís writing it down."

 

"Thereís not much on the paper. But a few sentences."

 

"The Doc said that it will take time, Pa," Hoss answered while lowering his eyes in defeat not bothering to add the possibility that his older brother may never retrieve

his memories.

 

"How long?" Ben asked wanting more consolation than clarification.

 

To this question, both brothers simply shrugged as the answer eluded them. Despite gnawing feelings of wanting to ease their fatherís pain, Hoss and Joe didnít seem

to know the magic words or secret handshakes to help lift the mystification before them. Upon hearing their fatherís deep sigh, they both felt a little twinge nib at their

hearts. Both their faces moulded into ones of sorrow and defeat.

 

To Ben, the simple concept that his son would suffer lastingly damage by such a cruel, cowardly act made his blood boil. Broken bones healed, open cuts mend, but

brain damage was permanent. He could only hope that his firstborn would overcome the eerie knowledge of probably never recovering his memory, that a small part

of him would forever be lost. But, he knew that Adam was strong.

 

"One thing that I donít understand is motive," Joe stated as he wrapped his arms around his slim, fit chest finding it unbearable to keep his opinions to himself any

longer. Like a flower under sunlight, they needed to bloom. "Why would Harry Wilkinson kidnap Josie Norton, then bushwhacked Adam?" he persisted, "Itís just

doesnít make any sense. There was no ransom note and thereís no sign that he even tried to pry our safe. Besides, Wilkinsonís been a friend to all of us for many

years. Itís just doesnít make any sense that he would intentionally hurt Adam, even less try to kill him!"

 

"I donít know, Joe," Ben replied with a headshake as he placed his hands in his pantsí pockets. Like the other room occupants, he saw no logical solution to this

mystery. However, Ben kept his optimism by believing that the truth will come out in the impending trial. He just wished that it would come sooner than later.

 

"Rumour around town is that Harry wuz upset that Miss Josie turned him down at last month dance. But, I ainít puttiní much truth to that. Itís a puny excuse to me. I

know Harry, he ainít the type to sway another manís girl affections. Besides, he already knew that sheís engaged to this Andrew Nye fella."

 

"Yeah, Hoss, but youíre not Harry Wilkinson," Ben quickly piped in, "Whatever makes a man like him tick will always be a mystery? Love can make people do

strange and unusual things."

 

Hoss looked down at his feet as his father spoke. Everything about this whole incident just didnít make any sense for the middle Cartwright son as his forehead

crunched into ripples of flesh. Sparing a quick glance at his younger brother, he could tell by Joeís demeanour that he also reciprocated these feelings and thoughts.

Ones of confusion, frustration, irritation, and apprehension.

 

A brief silence engulfed the large living room for several seconds, as all three Cartwrights became unwilling prisoners of inscrutable questions. It was the family

patriarch that broke the chains of tranquillity with a stiff cough, followed by a statement of renunciation. "Well, anyway, I donít think that weíre going to solve

anything right now.... we have work to do before winter sets its toll. So, we better get to it."

 

With respective compliant nods, both Hoss and Little Joe followed their fatherís advice and headed on outside to numerous hours of hard, lingering work. Whether

they like it or not, the sun keeps on setting and rising as usual with never-ending ranch work.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

It had been three days now since the trial of Harry Wilkinson had begun. Due to the fact that his eldest son was still yet unable to make the long travel into town due

to unpredictable headaches and dizziness, Ben had made a promise to himself that he would be present for the trialís entirety. He was going to make sure that justice

was properly rendered. As expected, the Wilkinson trial had become the talk of the town, where everyone openly discussed their thoughts and beliefs about what

should happen to the accused. The whole town seemed to be in a buzz. But for Ben Cartwright, judgement day seemed to be not coming soon enough.

 

In the back of the small courtroom, Ben remained seated in silence amongst other Virginia City citizens. During the past few days, they all had heard various

testimonies, but none as important and detrimental than their astute ears heard at the present moment.

 

Miss Josie Norton, dressed in a pale blue dress, which hugged her slender frame, seemed confident in Benís dark eyes as she painstakingly recalled the past events,

from her kidnapping to her rescue by the Posse almost a month earlier. Ben noticed that she clenched her hands together across her lap at a rhythmic interval as she

spoke, which he deduced to simply be due to nervousness. Even though Ben heard every single word that Josie had previously uttered, his attention only peaked at

its highest level once the mere mention of the Ponderosa reached his ears.

 

"... this is when Harry told me what he was planning to do on the Ponderosa ranch. He said that it was going to be a long trip to California... that we needed money

and food, maybe even a few horses too. He told me that the Cartwrights were rich, that they wouldnít miss anything. I was so scared... I didnít know what to do,"

Josie exclaimed with confidence, yet still visually distraught. After taking a few deep breaths, she continued on with her story about Wilkinsonís diabolic plans. "I

thought that maybe I could yell or something... anything to help me get free and back home, but Harry said that if I spoke that it would be my last words."

 

At the last uttered sentence, a short murmur of astonishment and anger shot across the courtroom, bouncing against the plastered walls in an interminable echo. It

quickly disappeared as Josie proceeded.

 

"I was afraid of what Harry might do.... so, I did what he told me. After we reached the Cartwright ranch, I could see pure evil in his eyes. He was like a wild

animal. I..."

 

"Objection, your honour!" Wilkinsonís defence lawyer stated as he swiftly arose from his chair. "This witness cannot say or imply what my clientís mood or feelings

were at the time of the event."

 

"Sustained," the judge quickly agreed with a nod.

 

The prosecutor, a middle age man whom had been practising law in the city for more than a decade, didnít even seem to bat an eyelash upon hearing the judgeís

decision against him. Experience had mad John Winters one of the best trial lawyers in Virginia City. Instead, Winters took a step forward towards his prime witness

as he tugged at the vest under his impeccable grey suit. After sparing a quick glance towards Wilkinson whom remained seated to his lawyerís left, the prosecutor

continued on with his interrogation. "Please continue, Miss Norton... what happened next? What did the accused do once inside the Ponderosa ranch house?"

 

"Harry broke inside the house through the kitchen door, where he stole some food from the pantry. Then, he went for the safe. He was playing with the combination

when he knocked over something on the floor. I canít remember what, but suddenly we heard noise coming from upstairs. Harry panicked... pushed me back

outside. Told me to be quiet. We waited outside for sometime, enough time that Harry thought that he was in the clear. But... but somehow, Adam Cartwright

walked outside. Thatís when Harry attacked him from behind. Hit him across the head with a log..."

 

Benís face twisted into an angry scowl upon hearing Josieís words. It pained him to hear about Wilkinson had done to his beloved son. Sparing a menacing look at

the accused, Ben took several deep breaths in order to keep his brewing emotions of sweet revenge under his skin. He needed to be strong. He needed to keep a

clear mind. For Adamís sake!

 

"... then, Harry dragged him into the barn. He then started to wildly pace and mutter something that I didnít understand. I didnít know what to do. I thought that he

had killed Adam, until Adam opened his eyes and started to mumble. Thatís when Harry hit him again. I pleaded with him to leave Adam alone, but he wouldnít

listen to me at first. It wasnít until I promise him that I wouldnít run away that he did. I wasnít going to let him kill Adam! I couldnít!"

 

Taking a deep breath, Josie closed her eyes in apparent emotional pain. The courtroom crowd were hypnotised by her every move and at each spoken word while

Benís eyes grew large in astonishment upon discovery how close he came to losing his son. How he owed so much to Miss Josie Norton. How will he ever repay

her?

 

"We then fled the Ponderosa. We were on the trail for a couple of days until the Posse found us. It was the most beautiful day of my life. I was finally coming back

home."

 

"Thank you, Miss Norton," Winters stated with a smug smile as he turned around to view Wilkinson. John knew that he had made his case, a strong one at that. He

didnít even had to call Adam Cartwright as a witness. With the fact that Adam still had no total recollection of his ambush and that Josie was such a strong witness,

Winters didnít had to as his prime witness was serving Wilkinsonís guilty verdict on a silver platter.

 

Ben couldnít help but feel relieved that finally everything was in the open. No more secrets. No more doubts. Finally, the truth was out. He lowered his eyes as he let

a deep sigh escape his now unclenching teeth. As his body relenting some of his anger, he let his eyes roamed the small courthouse room until something odd caught

his attention. Johnny Norton, sitting next to his daunting father a few seats farther on his right, seemed hesitant. Ben could almost swear that the much younger man

was unsettled about something. Was it about what his sister had just said? or was it about something else entirely? Raising his eyebrows in question, Ben couldnít tell

which one was accurate. Maybe my mindís playing games with me! Ben quickly thought as he reluctantly, but still dismissed his questions. Whatever seemed to be

on Johnnyís mind, it was no concern to Ben, right now. He had other more pressing issues to attend to. His oldest sonís full recuperation being the priority one.

 

It had took merely two hours for the jury to come back with a verdict that would alter Wilkinsonís life forever.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Seated behind his fatherís office desk, Adam leaned back against the green leather chair. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to soothe the budding pain between his temples

that seemed to be just around the corner. It had been almost a month now and still he suffered physical repercussions from that faithful, early morning. Doctor Martin

had warned him about the slow healing process of a major concussion, but Adam had never agreed it to be such a long and painful route. Being unable to pull his

weight around the ranch made it more dismal. He felt useless and a burden to his family. Keeping his eyes shut, Adam tried to vanquish the negative thoughts from his

mind. These kinds of thoughts were not going to make his recovery any easier, so Adam thought it best if he could simply move on. He had to start to live in the

present and focus on his future. But, due to recent setbacks, it seemed to be such an unattainable feat.

 

Unbeknownst to himself, Adam felt his body slowly relax while his shoulderís lost some of its tension as his body seemed to mould against the chairís every curve

and crevice. For several minutes, his body knocked on the door of slumber. However, just as the mystical door was about to creak open to let him enter, another

one closed with moderate force in the back of his mind. The brusque noise made him jerk back into semi-consciousness. With eyes mid-closed and after some

hesitance, Adam finally recognised the blurry shadows in the corner of his eyes as his father walking across the living room. "Pa!" Adam croakily greeted still not

completely lucid.

 

Instant worry travelled to Benís face as he heard his sonís seemingly weak welcome. Thinking the worse, he didnít bother to remove his coat and walked towards

Adam in a slight hasten pace. It wasnít until he saw his eldest son try to muffle a yawn that his parental worries slightly dismissed into the background. "How are you

feeling, son?" Ben asked as he leaned against the desk with eyes fixated on the man seated in the chair.

 

Muffling another yawn, Adam slowly stood up. "Iím fine," he replied, "what did you find out in town?"

 

Benís left eyebrow sank in disapproval at his sonís overt effort to side-step any questions about his health. Thinking best to forego Adamís evasion, Ben let it slide

for the time being. "The verdictís in."

 

The mere three words uttered by his father made Adamís eyes grow in astonishment. Now fully awake, he pressed the issue with a quick urging nod.

 

Taking a deep breath, Ben remove his warm jacket along with his black gloves, and placed them both on a nearby chair. After what seemed to be an eternity for

Adam, the older man finally met his sonís eyes and spoke. "The jury found Wilkinson guilty on all four counts," he uttered. As his firstborn son lowered his eyes and

sat back down as his brain tried to register what had been said, Ben continued, "the judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison."

 

With mixed emotions travelling through his body at the speed of light, Adam quietly sat mesmerised by his fatherís statement. He could find no words to help

alleviate this growing sensation of numbness that he experienced. One side of him was overjoyed that justice was finally rendered, while the other left him feeling

uncertain with unanswered questions. With his memory loss, Adam couldnít be sure of what exactly happened that early morning. He truly wanted to believe Josie

Nortonís account, but somehow, it just didnít feel right. Harry Wilkinson had been a friend for some few years and to even envision the possibility of him

experiencing such a metamorphosis of character made Adam remain doubtful. However, despite his feelings, Adam knew that it was out of his hands.

 

Seeing Adam at a loss for words, Ben felt suddenly sad as he recognised the powerful impact of his statement had made on his son. Wanting to comfort him as any

father would, Ben walked around the desk and placed a reassuring hand on his sonís left shoulder. With a gentle squeeze, he hoped to show support and

understanding. "Adam?" he softly asked with quiet worry, "are you alright?"

 

At first, Adam didnít respond to his fatherís question, which made Benís worry grow rapidly in volume. However, after a few seconds of dry and excruciating

silence, he finally let his gaze rise up at his father before returning it back to the desktop. "Yeah, Iím fine, Pa."

 

The lack of enthusiasm within Adamís hushed response made both Benís forehead crease and eyes squint with obvious concern. "Adam! Whatever... you are feeling

or thinking, please let me know," Ben pleaded, not wanting to leave their conversation on an emotional cliff-hanger.

 

"I... I just canít believe that Harry would do this. I know what Miss Josie said about the incident..." Adam hesitated for a split second as he searched for proper

words. After a deep, frustrated sigh, he went on, "... itís just hard for it to sink in. And now with Harry going to prison, it just makes things worse," Adam stated with

hesitance and confusion. As he spoke, he seemed to be bewildered. "I just wish that I... I could remember what happened to me that morning."

 

"Adam, you have to stop beating yourself up about that," Ben gently reprimanded his firstborn son as he gave Adamís shoulder another gentle squeeze. How Ben

desired to transfer his sonís pain and confusion unto him? How he yearned that Adam wouldnít have to face a possible future without not really knowing what

happened that early morning? But, it was wishful thinking and futile.

 

"You donít understand Pa! Itís like having a word on the tip of my tongue. Itís so frustrating. I canít stop thinking about it!"

 

"I know, son! I know, but it will pass, Adam. You just have to let time do its work."

 

Massaging his chin with his right hand, Adam gave a slight nod of understanding. Deep down, he knew that his father was right. "Yeah, I guess so."

 

Even though in Benís fatherly ears, Adam didnít sound confident, he decided to let it be for now as he didnít want to press the painful memories unto his son any

second longer. Deeply sighing, Ben reluctantly left his sonís side and walked towards the blazing fire in the nearby hearth, wanting both some physical and

psychological warmth. It was getting colder outside at each passing day. These past few days made Ben wonder of what the world was heading towards. Some

days, it seemed to be that in the balance of good and bad, the latter was hauntingly winning. Sudden steps from behind quickly made him vanquish the negative

thought swimming in his brain. Twisting his upper body around to view the visitor, Ben quickly recognised their dutiful, loyal cook.

 

"Supper ready in half an hour!" Hop Sing boisterously stated as he lift his hand with only his index finger extended.

 

"Thank you, Hop Sing," Ben replied with a gentle nod. Satisfied with his bossí response, the small Chinese man went directly back to the kitchen while Ben, himself,

led his gaze back to the hypnotising fire. With supper almost at hand, another thought suddenly crept in the Cartwright patriarch's train of thought. Turning around to

face once more his oldest son, Ben noticed Adam unmoved behind the desk. "Adam?"

 

It was a few seconds before Adam answered. "Yeah, Pa?"

 

"Where are your brothers?"

 

Adam shrugged before uttering his answer. "Before they left, they just told me that they were going to finish up around the ranch with winter merely a month away."

 

Despite a staunch inclination to mask it, Ben knew his son too well not to notice the defeat intonation in Adamís voice. He knew that his sonís lagging head injury

was making Adam restless and feeling somewhat useless. Ben could only sympathise with his son. "Look Adam, itís going to take time before youíre back to

normal. Despite what you may think, we need you here. Youíre better at dealing with the endless paperwork than I ever will be. Just be patient. Youíll be alongside

your brothers in no time."

 

Adamís impassive look made Ben worry about his sonís mental state as he spoke. Right at that moment, Ben was brought back to other previous occasions where

his firstborn son would put on an emotional mask that no one could remove. It was a mask which helped his son deal through hard moments of loss and sadness.

Despite Benís stern labour of prevention, the emotional aftermath of fighting unfathomable hunger while travelling Westward, of spending endless hours alone while

his father worked in unfamiliar towns for a quick buck, and of losing his own mother along with two stepmothers had taken a toll on Adamís shoulders. Under that

hard exterior, Ben knew how a sensitive and caring man his eldest son was truly. As he was about to add some additional comforting words, Adam finally broke the

thick fog-like silence between them.

 

"Well, someone has to keep those two in line," Adam stated with a small, mischievous smirk, which quickly followed.

 

At the spoken words, the roomís mood immediately turned for the better as Benís own face forgot its frown, replacing it with an engaging smile of hope. Hope that

soon everything will be as it was ever meant to be. A family of four... together and strong.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 10

 

 

"Hey! brother, wait for me!" Hoss exclaimed as he tried feverously to follow in his big brotherís footsteps.

 

"Come on! Hurry up will ya!?" Adam retorted, not bothering to glance back at his huffing brother, as he tread down Virginia Cityís C Street. Finally, his headaches

had subsided enough for a visit into town and now he was a man on a mission. He had heard for some time about a new play in town and desperately wanted to buy

his ticket before they were sold out. Even though the Ponderosa was of majestic beauty, the many days of solitary confinement on it made Adam almost crawl up the

walls in utter despair and lunacy. He needed some type of break in the monotony of the past several days. And the play was just his rescue.

 

"Come on, Adam! Whatís the hurry?" Hoss complained in a huffed voice as steam escaped at each taking breath. December was barely two weeks from now and

the temperature had remained cold.

 

Adam almost smile upon hearing his brotherís complaint as it sounded so young. But, he wasnít about to be side-tracked. Without bothering to reply, Adam finally

came to his destination: the Piper Opera Houseís ticket counter. Luckily, due to the time of day, there was no need to wait as Adam walked directly to the teller.

"Hi! I would like to buy two tickets for Charles Dickensí play. Preferably this Tuesday nightís performance."

 

"Well, Adam! Itís nice to see out and about," the middle aged man stated behind the desk as soon as he recognised Benís eldest son.

 

"Thanks, Nelson."

 

"Dickensí new play, you say... Tuesday night," Nelson stated as he fidgeted behind the counter. Adam gave the stocky, friendly man a quick guarantee nod as Hoss

came into view behind him, finally being able to catch up with his brother. After a quick search, the man behind the counter lifted back his gaze to his customer.

"Youíre in luck, Adam. I got only a couple of good seats left for that night."

 

"Great! Iíve been waiting for this play to come to Virginia City for some time now," Adam stated with barely contained gleefulness as a night in town was exactly

what the doctor had ordered. After paying for his ticket and giving Nelson a polite and buoyant goodbye, Adam left the opera ticket booth with a smile plastered on

his handsome face.

 

"Whatís this new play that ya want to see?" Hoss asked with picked curiosity as he dutifully followed his brother, once again, through the city streets.

 

"Great Expectations."

 

"I know yaíre lookiní forward to see this play, Adam. But, whatís it called?" Hoss asked with eyes squinted in bewilderment.

 

"Just as I said, Hoss. Great Expectations is the name of the play. Itís based on a book by Charles Dickens about the tribulations of young boy named Pip. "

 

 

"P... ah, what... Peep?"

 

To his amazement, Adam felt such in high spirits that he let a small giggle escape through his lips at his brotherís innocent question. He had never felt better. This

change of venue had indeed been a good idea. "No, Pip!" he corrected, "Pipís the main character in the book. Heís real name is Philip Pirrip... heís just called Pip,

thatís all. Itís just a nickname, like Hoss is for you!" Adam slowly explained as he gave a smile to his puzzled brother as well as a friendly tap on the shoulders.

 

Instead of answering, Hossí slowly nodded his head in understanding as his face remoulded back into a contented pose. Adam and his books!, Hoss stated to

himself with marvel as his brother and him walked side by side. While Adam seemed to lose himself in any one of his endless books, Hoss, on the other hand,

struggled with those fancy writings, never truly understanding what his brother saw in them. Hoss would always prefer the pure, simplistic beauty of mother nature to

the materialistic art in books any day, any time. To each his own, he thought.

 

As both Cartwright brothers silently and contentedly wandered through the city streets in search of their next destination, a moving shadow appeared in the corner of

their eyes as it approach them from the right. "Howdy, boys!" Roy Coffee greeted as he wandered himself in front of his good friendís two oldest sons. Stopping in

their tracks, both Hoss and Adam exchanged pleasant greetings along with smiles with the town sheriff. "Itís mighty good to see ya around town, Adam," Coffee

cheerfully added.

 

"Thanks, Roy. I have to agree."

 

"Yeah, older brother hereís been bounciní off the walls back at the ranch these past few days and driviní every one plain loco. So much that Pa just had to give in."

 

Coffee simply shared a chuckle with the friendly giant on Adamís behalf. It was nice seeing the warmth between the brothers as Adamís face twisted into an artificial

sadden smirk. As being a fortunate close friend of the Cartwright clan, Roy felt privileged to know such a caring, loving, and honest group of people.

 

Sudden silence griped all three men like an invisible wall for several seconds as they were psychologically brought back to the past monthís events separately. The

older man was the one to make it crumble down. "Itís been almost two weeks now since the trial ended. If ya donít mind me askiní Adam-" Coffee stated with

some hesitation. He took a deep breath before continuing on, "... howís yer memory?" Seeing some hesitance in the younger manís dark eyes, Coffee felt the need

to appease any of Adamís worries or woes by quickly adding. "Ya see, townfolks have been worried about ya, Adam, including me."

 

"Itís nice to hear that people care so much about my well-being. My memory about that morning is still not complete, but Iíll be fine. Iím still the same old Adam!"

 

"Ya can say that again!" Hoss joked as he gave his brother a playful wink. Adam, despite his sudden solemn mood, couldnít help but smirk back.

 

As he smiled his gaped tooth grin, Hossí attention was suddenly grasped behind the sheriff by a man approximately of his own age getting ready to embark on a

stage of the Overland Express. Squinting in order to identify the man, it took just a few seconds before his name was divulged. "Hey! Ainít that Andrew Nye?" Hoss

questioned as he gave a subtle nod towards the man besides the stagecoach, making both Adam and Roy spared quick glances in that direction. "It looks like heís

leaviní!"

 

Turning his attention back to Hoss, Royís face quickly displayed astonishment. "Didnít ya know that he and Miss Josie called off the wedding?" Seeing questioning

eyes glare back at him, Coffee didnít hesitate to fill in the gaps for both Cartwright sons. "Andrewís goiní back to Carson City, while Miss Josieís goiní back East to

visit some relatives."

 

Adam was slightly startled. "When did all of this happen?"

 

"Last week," Coffee promptly answered, "I spoke with Miss Josie personally a few days ago. She ainít takiní this whole situation very well. She believes that moviní

away for a while will be good fer her. I had to agree. Sheís been through a lot this past month."

 

"What about her marriage?"

 

"Dunno, Hoss!" Roy answered with a sad shake of the head and a slight shoulder lift. The reason for the marriage cancellation was to remain private, which the

sheriff deeply respected. "It may be simply postponed."

 

"I hope it is just that, Roy!"

 

Coffee nodded his agreement upon hearing Hossí sincere words. Knowing that the brothers were probably in middle of errands, Roy decided to give his quick

goodbye at that moment. "Iíve takiní enough of yer time, boys. Iím sure that ya have other business in town to attend to. So, Iíll leave ya both here. Take care and

say hi to yer father and brother for me."

 

"Will do, Roy. Have a good day!" Adam replied with a tip of the hat as Hoss did the same while Coffee left their location, heading on back to the jailhouse.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

With the sheriffís departure, both brothers strolled once again down Virginia Cityís finest streets. Their promenade led them to the post office, where they collected

awaiting mail, to the bank, where some ranch business had to be attending to, and finally to the Territorial Enterprise office, where a newspaper was their magnifying

glass to local and world news. Before heading back home though, Adam had one more stop that he intended to .

 

"I think that before going back home, Iíll spoil myself to a quick beer. I havenít had one in such a long time that Iím starting to think that I forgot how it taste," Adam

stated blithely as he approached one of the cityís numerous saloons.

 

"Yeah, Iím with you, older brother! Not too mention being a toasty warm building."

 

Just as they were about to enter the Silver Dollar saloon, Adam abruptly stopped in his tracks and turned to face his now puzzled brother. Placing a hand across

Hossí broad chest, Adam spoke with doubt clearly heard between the lines. "Hey! wait a minute! I... I thought that you had to see Jeb Hunter at the mercantile."

 

"Um...er, yeah, I still want to see him... itís just that I..."

 

It was at that moment that Adam threw his metamorphic blindfold harshly onto the ground. He quickly interrupted his brotherís pitiful rambling. "You told me that it

was so important... thatís why you wanted to come into town with me." Despite Hossí best intentions, Adam finally retrieved his eyesight back and recognised a

shrewd plot to keep a watchful eye on him. A plot that could have been initiated only by one man... his father! Seeing that Hoss physically squirm for words to no

avail. Adam decided to spare his brother any more torment. "You donít have to pretend anymore, Hoss. Itís not that hard to see that Pa made you come with me,

so you could hold my hand and make sure that I didnít trip over my own two feet!"

 

"Hey, Adam, that ainít true!" Hoss swiftly replied with resentfulness, not appreciating his brotherís tone of voice or the implication of his spoken words.

 

"Then, explain it to me!"

 

"Well, itís just that Pa... I mean weíre just worried about ya, thatís all. There ainít nuthiní wrong with that!"

 

Adam deeply sighed in exasperation as he listened to Hossí explanation. "Worried about me?" he mockingly echoed with a soft self-jab on his chest for added

effect. As he was about to add some other sarcastic words to his monologue, Adam quickly decided against it at the last second. It was pointless to argue or to be

angry with Hoss, as he was simply following their fatherís instructions. Instead, Adamís annoyance over this whole incident would have to be brought up with the

rightful recipient back at the ranch. Closing his eyes in misery, Adam shook his head just before walking into the saloon.

 

At first, Hoss was slightly hesitant to follow his brother inside, not sure if Adam would appreciate his company. But, after quick ponder, he decided to enter

nonetheless, as his brother didnít seem to be that angry. Just like their father, Adamís temper was known to be usually short lived if not fuelled. So, Hoss decided to

go with the odds. As he walked inside, Hoss immediately noticed that his brother had already taken a seat at a round table. Adam seemed to be deep in thought, as

he didnít even noticed the bigger manís approach. Just as Hoss was about to address his older brother, a voice regrettably interrupted him as the bartender asked

him what he wanted.

 

"A beer, Sam!" Hoss absently replied with a quick wave of the hand just before taking a seat adjacent to his brotherís. Removing his gloves from his dry hands, he

soaked up the atmosphere around him.

 

The Silver Dollar saloon, amongst others in town, was visited by miners and cowboys intertwine. A piano could be heard playing a strident version of a typical

saloon melody in the background, while various saloon girls circulated the room in search of supplementary business for their boss in more than willing clients. As

well, behind a elongated dark wooded counter, Sam, the bartender, tended to alcoholic needs and listened to every day town gossip. However, despite the every

day bustling of a saloon, a thick silence engulfed the two brothers. Adam, with hat in hands, move it around his long fingers over the table, while Hossí blue eyes

fixated on his brotherís nervous tick-like movement. Around the table, there was such an uneasiness that Hoss started to doubt his decision. It wasnít until Sam

walked to their table and handed them each a large glass of beer that some tension evaporated.

 

With a quick glance up, Adam gave the bartender some money to pay the tab. As Hoss was about to do the same for his own beer, Sam gave him a short

headshake before heading on back to the bar. It was then that Hoss knew that he had been forgiving, as quickly as that. With a smile, he then turned his attention

back to a smirking Adam.

 

"How can I stay mad at a face like that?" he stated with a wink, mentioning Hossí hurt puppy looking eyes. After they shared quick smiles, Adam added in a falsified

imposing tone, "Now, drink your beer!"

 

With a smile that almost matched the range of the vast Lake Tahoe, Hoss did just that as he gobbled down some refreshing beer in a long, swift swig.

 

With neither rhyme nor reason, Adam became suddenly engrossed with the entrance of two low-life cowboys, which he quickly recognised as recently released

convicts. The scruffy looking man on the right, Adam quickly established as Paul Gilbert, a man of unseasonably low self-maintenance and refinement. From his

sweat stained Cowboy hat to his scuffed, severely worn Cowboys boots, Gilbert portrayed a man of lowly, human worth. With dark blue eyes glistering like a

childís toy marble reflecting no warmth and with medium length brown hair clumped in half-hazard masses due to scarce washings, the released convict mirrored his

companion. On Gilbertís right stood an even more uncouth man that everyone knew as Gus Hennigar. With tobacco spewing from his mouth at every cow-like

chew, Hennigar simply stared inside the saloon with fingers encased around his gun belt, which hung low around his square, bony hips. They had both been recently

released from prison after !been found guilty for masterminding the robberies of numerous banks throughout the whole Nevada territory, which include Virginia City.

 

Needless to say that the two fresh free-birds were not welcomed in The Silver Dollar saloon as both abrupt vocal and physical stillness filled the room upon the

notice of their entrance. On the other hand, Adam simply continued to stare at the two newly saloon clients with hypnotic awe as something about the man on the

right made instant shivers originating from the base of his spine travel to his head with lightening speed.

 

"Ya ainít welcome!" Sam exclaimed with a crude, jerk of his hand to his two new customers.

 

Gilbertís mouth simply snaked into a conceited smirk upon hearing the bartenderís harsh words, while Hennigarís brown eyes darkened a shade. In a slow stride,

Gilbert moved towards the bar amidst deaf and dumb patrons in order to come face to face with the man behind the recent voice. With an almost toothless grin, the

meager Cowboy finally spoke. "Itís a free country, Sam. Ya ainít goiní to kick me outta of here! Besides, I..." he stated just before reaching down against his pants,

making some several saloon girls gasped upon thinking the worse. However, Gilbert raised his hand back in order to harshly plant a silver dollar on the dark wooden

bar, "have money!"

 

"Yaíre money ainít no good here, Gilbert!" Sam defiantly responded.

 

As Hennigar was about to make a move for Sam, Gilbert immediately stopped him in his tracks with a firm, commanding hand on the manís shoulder. With a smile

doubled in previous width, he instead said, "Hey! I ainít lookiní for trouble. Me and my friend here just want a beer and then weíll be on our way."

 

A silent standstill quickly aroused between Sam and Gilbert as they stared at each other for an unknown amount of time. To every oneís misery, but not surprise, it

was Sam who was the first to give in. "Donít cause no trouble or Iíll get the sheriff!"

 

"Ainít no worry about that, Sam. Like I said, weíll be on our way soon!" With that said, both Gilbert and Hennigar boorishly leaned against the bar and waited to be

served.

 

As sudden as it had occurred, the saloon ambience kick back up to speed as if nothing had previously happened. The piano man became once more engaged into a

rhythmic melody as various clients re-intermingled with shouts of glee and stupor.

 

Rubbing his temples, Adam, now eyes closed, unsuccessfully tried to alleviate the sudden intense pain reverberating against his skull as he had lost most of the

conversation between barman and lawless man. At first, Adam didnít realise his abrupt gesture. It wasnít until he heard his brother utter a few seemingly distant

words that he opened his eyes. He was taken aback by Hossí expression, which displayed alarm. "What!?" Adam asked trying to mask his lapse into optical

vacancy. It failed.

 

"I asked ya whatís wrong?"

 

"Nothing!" Adam responded with forged assertion. Noting that his brother wasnít in the least bit satisfied with his feeble answer, Adam knew that he had to make up

a more appropriate excuse as soon as possible. "Iím just tired, I guess. Itís been a long day!" Even though, it had been a better answer, Adam could tell within his

brotherís blue eyes that it still wasnít up to par.

 

But instead of bringing forth his older brotherís brazen lie, Hoss simply accepted Adamís reply with a short, curt nod. He could tell that something wasnít right.

However, never one to use force to get his brotherís to open up to him, Hoss simply remained silent, but with the intent to make his brother divulge his troubles in the

very near future.

 

Something about the two Cowboys made blurry, incomprehensible images float in Adamís mind like leafs on water with but the simple water currentís yen for

direction. Incomprehensible words kept on resurging in his thoughts as a spoken word from one of the low-life Cowboys made a spark materialise in his mind like a

lightening strike. His wits suddenly became chaotic, with seemingly no signification in sight. There was definitely something about Hennigar and Gilbert that seemed

familiar to Adam. He just couldnít put it into words, or even into simple thoughts.

 

"Maybe we outta go back home, Adam?" Hoss stated with obvious concern both heard in his voice and seen across his face.

 

Despite his intentions of masking his brewing emotions, Adam couldnít help but feel that Hoss had hit the spike square on the nose. With a quick gulp, he nearly

finished his drink in a futile effort to calm his senses; then, quickly arose from his chair. "Yeah, itís getting late," he quickly agreed, desperately wanting instant

solitude.

 

Mimicking his oldest brother, Hoss finished his beer in a long, breathless swig. Then, without speaking another word, both Cartwright brothers expedited their exit

from the lively saloon oblivious to the two sets of eyes that followed them out. It was with continuing silence that they retrieved their respective horses from the

townís livery and headed on back home while leaving unspoken words of concern and incomprehension left to be heard.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 11

 

 

The trip back to the ranch had been a painful one for Adam as incomprehensible images and thoughts rummaged through every one of his brain cells. A headache

was quickly making an encore presentation, even though it wasnít as strong as previous ones. It was more of headache of confusion than one of pain. He desperately

needed to spend some time alone in order to clarify this whole conceptual, mental riot. As he sat atop of his horse, Sport, Adam could see in the corner of his eyes,

blue ones staring at his every move. He knew that Hoss was still not satisfied with his explanation about his abrupt behaviour at the saloon. But, deciding to let things

simmer for the present time as he was in no mood for a discussion, Adam pretended like he hadnít notice his brotherís inquiring glare.

 

As well, Hoss felt it hard to remain mute as he could see a flagrant, emotional distance in his brothersí chestnut eyes. It was something that he loathed the most.

Being such a compassionately gifted person since birth, Hoss hated to see one of his brotherís emotionally close up like a clam. And this was one of these moments.

However, knowing that persistence at this stage of the game would only lead to more withdrawal, he decided to let his brother sort whatever was bothering him by

himself for the time being.

 

Finally, after a long ride back home, the ranch house came into view to both Cartwright sons. They quickly led their horses into the nearby stable and tended to their

needs. Afterwards, without a second thought, Adam head on towards the ranch house, quickly followed by a perplexed, silent Hoss. Opening the main door, he was

immediately welcomed by a pair of curious, yet caring eyes, whom were both seated amidst the emitting heat from the nearby hearth. It was his father that spoke first

as he put down his delicate, coffee filled, China cup back on the coffee table. "Adam! So, how was your time in town?"

 

Putting his best facial mask on, Adam slightly reciprocated his fatherís smile as he replied, "Good! Iíve nearly forgotten how busy it can be."

 

"Did you get the tickets that youíve wanted?"

 

"Yeah, I did, Pa. I was lucky. I got the last good tickets."

 

"Tickets!" Joe exclaimed with a mischievous grin plastered on his youthful face, orally putting emphasis on to the plural sense of the word. "Who do youíve got

planned to take with you, Adam?"

 

"That, little brother, is none of your business!" Adam replied without neither anger nor annoyance detected in his voice. With a slight smug smile, he simply wanted to

squash any further questions from the ever curious young man. With his youngest brother being such a ladiesí man, Adam wasnít about to divulge any of his romantic

interest of the female persuasion.

 

In response, the corner of Joeís mouth twitched into a slight curvaceous smirk. Despite having his curiosity suddenly been picked, he decided to let it be at the

present time. There would be plenty of time later on to spy on his big brother.

 

"So, whatís for supper?" Hoss asked as he broke his silence and headed on towards the settee, passing a still standing Adam, in order to take a seat on his younger

brotherís right.

 

Ben let short laughter escape his mouth as soon as he heard Hossí words. "Nice to see ya back home too, Hoss!" he said with a touch of amusement, "Iím glad to

see that your priorities are still in check."

 

"Always thinking with your stomach, ainít you?" Joe stated with a teasing elbow poke against Hossí strong arm.

 

Not letting his middle son respond to Joeís teasing, Ben quickly intervened as he could foretell a bickering discussion between his two youngest sons. "About

another hour."

 

"I donít know if I can wait that long, Pa!" Hoss exclaimed as he rubbed his stomach for added effect.

 

"You big ox! You would eat twenty-four hours a day, if you could!" Joe exclaimed at his older brother with a smile that showed a white wall of teeth.

 

The familiar, loving interaction between his brothers and father seemed lost to Adam. With yet a need to be alone, Adam tried to make quick, inconspicuous exit

towards his bedroom. However, he should have know that his father wouldnít be that easily fooled.

 

"Is everything alright, Adam?" Ben asked with questioning worry.

 

With both feet on the stairsí landing, Adam sighed in disappointment before turning around to face his family. Both Ben and Joeís eyes displayed utter puzzlement,

while Hossí showed sincere hope. Adam suddenly cleared a lump that appeared in his dry throat before offering an explanation. He had to think fast on his feet. "Iím

fine, Pa. Just wanted to read some before supper."

 

Benís face instantaneously lost its inquisitiveness and softened into a smile upon hearing his sonís words. "Well, then, why donít you come down and read with us."

 

"Well, Pa... I also want to go over some preliminary plans of next year new installations. Thereís no better time to start than the present. Right?"

 

As quick as he had vanished before, Benís face twisted back into a curious frown. Something about what his firstborn son words and physical deportment wasnít

right. However, despite his best fatherly knowledge and experience, Ben was at a lost of what it might be as he knew that Adam had felt so much better these last

few days. Desperately not wanting another physical setback for his son, Ben hoped beyond hope that it wasnít the case. "Thatís fine, son. Weíll see you at the

supper table then."

 

With a nod of gratitude towards his father, Adam walked up the stairs in search of solitude and answers while the rest of the family wanted merely the latter.

 

Silence engulfed the room like suffocating smoke as soon as the oldest Cartwright son reached the upstairs landing and disappeared around the wall. Noticing how

uncomfortable it was becoming, it was Joe whom broke it in a concerned intonation. "Whatís wrong with Adam?"

 

"I donít know, Joe," Ben responded with eyes downcast, vacantly staring at his cup of coffee as if it hold the ultimate solution. It wasnít until after hearing an

uncomfortable grunt that he glanced back up. Seeing his middle son visibly squirm in his seat, Benís dark eyebrows quickly arched upward. "Hoss? Did something

happen to your brother in town that youíre not telling us?"

 

"No... yeah... well, I donít really know, Pa."

 

"What kind of answer is that?" Joe angrily stated with accusing eyes directed at his older brother.

 

"Joseph!" Ben quickly scolded his youngest son. He knew that Hoss was trying to be accurate while also trying to make sense of it all. Joe lowered his eyes slightly

in shame upon his fatherís reprimand, while Hoss simply tried to put his thoughts and observations into mere words. Trying to not show his impatience, Ben tried to

help his son along in an understanding tone. "Well, Hoss, what is it? Did or didnít something happen?"

 

"Well..." Hoss finally started after a few more seconds of doubt, "everythiní wuz fine until we were at the saloon. He just seemed to... to... I donít know, it just

looked like he wuz haviní another headache. I asked him what was wrong. But, being his old stubborn self, he wouldnít tell me nuthiní! So, we just left and came

right home."

 

Raising once again the cup to his lips, Ben took a tentative sip of his coffee as his mind tried fruitlessly to register his middle sonís explanation and his oldest sonís

questionable behaviour. After swallowing the warm liquid, Ben gently shook his head. "Heís been so healthy these last few days. Even Paul said that he was

recuperating very well... I just hope that heís not suffering another setback from his concussion. Itís either that or something must have set him off."

 

"Well, thatís going to be easy. Getting into older brotherís head!" Joe stated with an evident sarcastic meaning. Since his earliest memories, Adam had always been

one to withhold his emotions in fear of being hurt. It wasnít always easy to brake down the barriers.

 

"Weíll just have to be patient with him. Heís been through a lot these last few months," Ben said to his younger sons as he thought of his oldest. "Heíll come around."

I hope, Ben secretly added to himself.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Laying on his back, Adam tried feverously to mould his body into every one of his feather mattressí folds. Instantaneously, despite his best efforts, his mind started to

wander through the saloon images as a ravenous animal would attack meat. He squinted his eyes shut as lightening like images shot across the back of his eyelids. It

felt like an out of body experience displaying everything like a tragic Shakespearean play. As if he was ten years old again, he could feel his whole body tense up at

the mere inkling of inexplicable fear brought on by the simple sight of two of Virginia City lowlifes. Just as other previous glimpses into the unexplained few early

morning hours of more than a month ago, Adam was left with more questions than answers. It was unsettling and becoming increasingly frustrating.

 

As seconds passed, more and more information seemed to leaked through into his recollection. Various unintelligible words echoed against his ear drums as he could

eerily remember laying down on his stomach on a hard, cold surface. Then, it came! The images suddenly stitched back together to form something comprehensible

and coherent...

 

Unable to see clearly around him due to glistening dots against his retina, he then concentrated on hearing every sounds around him; however, something

kept him from understanding as everything seemed to be a continuous, incomprehensible blabber. A woodpecker seemed to be pecking against his skull.

Even after exhausting every last ounce of energy, his body remained motionless flat on its stomach, unable to move even an inch in any direction.

Suddenly, he could have sworn that he saw a shadow move across his optical perception. Then, without warning, he felt acute pressure on his right side

as ribs were being brushed against each other. Letting a soft moan of protest escape his tight lips, Adam closed his eyes in pain. That was mistake number

two! Upon hearing his protest, someone grabbed him without mincing harshness and raised his upper body from the floor. Something was being yelled to

him. Finding courage to open his eyes to view his assailant, Adam squinted in hopes of meeting the man whom was responsible for his injury eye to eye.

But...

 

Out of the blue, he could feel himself truly been, at first, gently shaken from side to side. However, the more he resisted, the more the movement became vigorous

with sudden whispers of words being added. In a sudden flash, he opened his eyes as they vigorously searched from side to side in hopes of finding the culprit for his

awakening.

 

"Adam? Are you alright?"

 

"Wh... what?" Adam confusingly replied before eventually laying eyes on his youngest brotherís frightened face. Straightening up in his bed while waving Joeís hands

away, he annoyingly added, "what do you do that for? What do you want?!"

 

Mimicking his brother, Joe also straightened his stance as well as taking a step or two back. Neither expecting what he had saw nor Adamís present harsh attitude,

his face lost some of its concern as he countered, "Pa wanted me to get you for supper. Besides, you looked like you were in the middle of a nightmare."

 

"Iím fine, Joe," Adam fibbed, suddenly coming to the realisation that he had been asleep for the better part of an hour. How it had seemed to be so short.

 

"Is that the best you could do! Come on, Iíve lied better than that when I was just a kid. You didnít look fine just a few seconds ago. I had to rattle you pretty hard

for you to wake up. Come on Adam! I donít know who you trying to fool, but it ainít going to be me! As far I can remember, you were always a light sleeper."

 

With hands firmly pressed on the bed, Adam failed to respond to his brotherís claims and arose from his bed. "Look, Joe. Iím telling you that Iím fine. Now, letís

get some supper."

 

Suddenly finding some inner courage, Joe did something that he rarely did in situation like theses. He didnít back down. He wasnít about to let this chance slip from

his fingers. Standing firm in front of the bedroomís lone door, Joe planted his fist on his hips and stood ground preventing his oldest brother from parting. "Adam! Iím

not letting you leave until you tell me what this whole nightmare was about. After what Hoss just told us, you ainít been acting like yourself these last few hours."

 

Coming to the realisation that he had been firmer that he had truly intended, Joeís voice soften a bit as he continued his speech to a befuddled Adam, "Listen, I just

want to help... as do Pa and Hoss. You remember when I was so gung ho about doing things on my own, not wanting to be under you and Hossí shadows anymore.

Wanting to prove to myself that I was... a man. Pa taught me a lesson that day."

 

Searching through the room, Joe soon found what he needed to help demonstrate to his brother that a family standing together stands strong. Brushing against an

astounded Adam, Joe walked to his brotherís desk and picked up four short piece of splintered wood that Adam undoubtedly was using for his miniature model of

one of his new architectural projects for the ranch. With the four sticks firmly in his hand, he then turned to face his brother once more. Outstretching his arm

forwards, he enticed his brother to take them. "Try to brake them."

 

The sticks between his palm felt alien to Adam as he reluctantly did has his little brother asked him. With a firm grip, he then tried to brake them. Unsuccessfully.

 

"See," Joe started as he took them back from Adamís hands, "together, they canít brake. But, by itself, one can!" Taking only one of the wooden sticks, Joe easily

broke it two as he exerted light force on each separate end.

 

"Joe-"

 

"You see, Adam. Together as a family, we Cartwrights canít be broken... but alone, weíre as vulnerable as this stick! We need you as much as you need us!"

 

"Joe-" Adam somewhat pleaded.

 

"Adam, I wonít stand seeing you doing this to yourself. Tell me whatís going on."

 

"Fine, Joe... you win," Adam said unenthusiastically accepting defeat with a flare of his arms. It wasnít often that in situations like these, he would be finish up on the

wrong side of the stick. But, he had to give credit to his brother for being as stubborn as he was. "I did have a nightmare."

 

Noticing Adamís reluctance to go any farther, Joeís mood darken somewhat. "About what? What kind of nightmare?"

 

"You know, Joe, youíre as bad as a dog with a bone!"

 

Joe wasnít deterred. "I may be like a dog with a bone, but youíre a stubborn as a mule."

 

Feeling no other choice, Adam had to lie. He didnít want to, but he couldnít face what he had just experienced right now. He needed more time. "It was blurry. It

didnít make sense." At least, it wasnít a full blown lie. Pinching his nose, Adam closed his eyes and added, "must be the headache," he replied trying to swerve the

conversation away from what he presently dreaded.

 

Joeís expression soften upon seeing his brotherís evident discomfort. "Why donít you come down to supper? Maybe a good meal will help you." Joeís worry was

evident as he spoke. Touching his brotherís shoulder, he tried to entice him to join the rest of them at the dinning room table.

 

"You know that only works on Hoss," Adam stated with a slight grin that was quickly reciprocated by his youngest brother, but nonetheless let Joe lead him out of

his room, and towards the stairs.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††********

 

Seated adjacent to his father and across the table from his brothers, Adam kept to himself as he, instead, immersed himself in trying to enjoy the casual chatter of

both Hoss and Joe. Moving his food from side to side along his plate, he tried feverously to portray consumption of food while he truly had lost his appetite several

minutes earlier.

 

"I heard that there snow in the mountains, Pa," Joe stated as he chewed on a delicious piece of chicken leg.

 

"Joseph! Where are your manners? You must have lost them somewhere between this morning and now Ďcause they are sure not here at the table. Donít talk with

your mouth full!" Ben quickly reprimanded his youngest.

 

"Sorry, Pa," Joe replied in a voice mimicking a two year old while lowering his head slightly due to the warning.

 

"Snow in the mountains already!" Hoss exclaimed upon hearing his brotherís words, "If thatís truth liíl brother, weíre headed for a mean winter!"

 

Suddenly, a burst of insight flashed before Adamís eyes like a lightening bolt of immeasurable energy. Thatís it! , he told himself over and over as if seeing the light

for the first time. Finally, after what seemed to be a life long search, he had found the missing piece of the puzzle. Due to great odds, his memory was finally once

more whole. It wasnít until that moment did he truly realise how tensed he had been since that early, faithful morning. He now felt so fresh, anew, like he had been

reborn. The muscles behind his neck and running down his back seemingly released off their tension like steam flowing off from heated water. He needed to tell the

proper authorities as soon as possible. He needed to prevent such a harsh injustice. He needed to go to Virginia City.

 

Caught in his own thoughts, Adam never noticed that the table conversation had turned to his direction. His fatherís callings hadnít registered, until someone grasped

his right forearm and gave it a slight squeeze.

 

"Adam!" Ben stated with alarm once he became aware of his oldest sonís abrupt movement, "Adam! Is everything okay?"

 

Adam blinked several times before being able to meet first his fatherís dark probing eyes, then each ones of his brothers before his own eyes shifted back to the

Cartwright patriarch. With his mouth slightly open due to astonished relief, he gave a slight nod in Benís direction. "Yeah, Iím fine, Pa... I just... just need to see the

sheriff!" Adam stated as he gave himself a quick push up against the dining room table forcing his father to let go of his hold. Then, he immediately headed for the

door.

 

Without any hesitation, Ben Cartwright arose from his chair as well, while both Hoss and Little Joe remained seated as they shared puzzled glances. "Adam! What

do you mean you have to go see the sheriff? What for? You havenít even finished your supper!" Ben tried with all of his might to keep the apprehension that he felt

from penetrating down to his voice as he spoke. His oldest sonís recent actions were making him grow concern.

 

Not bothering to glance back at his flabbergasted family, Adam reached for his gun belt, black Cowboy hat and his warm coat. Reaching for the door latch, he

managed to spare a fleeting look back. "I just need to, Pa," he stated just before opening the door and closing it behind him.

 

It took a few seconds for Ben to react to his sonís abrupt and sudden departure. Throwing his napkin down back on the table, his anxiety slowly turned into

frustration. Adamís wasnít acting like himself and it seemed that the more he probed, the more his son fled. Ben tried to be patient, but he couldnít anymore.

Without glancing back, Ben followed in his firstborn sonís steps in hopes of shaking some answers from him.

 

As another clank of the door was heard, both Hoss and Joe seemed like loss puppies as they continued to seat at the dining room table, not able to make a decision

of what to do next. Should they follow their father or should they let him talk some sense into their older brother?

 

"Joe? Do ya reckon we should go after them?"

 

After thinking things over, Joe simply shrugged in indecisiveness. "Donít know, Hoss. One thingís for sure is that if anyone is going to get through older brother, itís

Pa!"

 

"Yeah, I reckon too!" Hoss replied despite his face being creased in doubt.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††********

 

"Adam! Adam!" Ben yelled as he hurried in order to follow his sonís hasten pace leading to the ranchís barn. "Adam... wait!" Once inside the stable, Ben quickly

noticed Adam busying himself with the preparation of his horse for his eventual trip into town. With a quick impulsive move, Ben took hold of his firstborn sonís left

shoulder just as he spoke once more, "Adam! Whatís this all about? Whatís so important that you have to gallivanting into town? What arenít you telling me?"

 

As soon as he had uttered the words, Ben felt his sonís let out a deep sigh in response before managing to face his fatherís distressed eyes. Something in Adamís

eyes caught Ben off guard as soon as he caught sight of them. They were unfamiliar. Something about Adamís demeanour seemed different as well. Somehow,

contrary to the past few week comportment, Benís eldest son appeared more certain and resolute, as if he had found answers to his most recent, plaguing questions.

 

"Adam-" Ben repeated in despair leaving his words of concern left unsaid but clearly heard nonetheless.

 

Knowing that he was only hurting his father by claming up, Adam decided that it would be best if some of his burden could be release by discussion. Throughout the

years, both his father and himself had always shared a close relationship, one of friendship, mutual respect, and most importantly, one of deep, unconditional love.

And Adam wasnít about to jeopardise that. Sparing a hesitant but quick glance at his boots, he slowly raised his head forcing himself to meet dark pleading eyes.

Swallowing the lump in his throat and leaving a faint grin creased the outskirts of his lips, Adam finally answered his fatherís interminable question with two words

that he himself had a hard time believing were true.

 

"Pa... I remember!"

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 12

 

 

Since their departure from the Ponderosa, sunset had come and gone leaving numerous glistening stars in the cloudless sky above as well as a cool, brisk breeze

bristling through the trees. As both Cartwrights rode in silence, the mere sound surrounding them was that of air brushing against trees, making its branches toss from

one end to another like a titter-totter. As it did so, it eerily sounded like someone was whistling in the darkness of night. However, the drastic drop in temperature

didnít damper Adamís ultimate need too see Coffee in search of proper justice. In contrast, the frosty air filling his lungs at every breath invigorated him to edge his

horse forward.

 

As they rode, side by side, both men kept to their own thoughts. Despite his innate need to know, Ben reluctantly kept his impatience in check. He knew that his son

would soon explain his actions. Out of love and understanding, he didnít want to extort information from Adam. Instead, words of patience re-circulated between his

eardrums.

 

Finally at their ultimate destination, father and son quickly dismounted and consequently tied the reins of their respective horses around a nearby pitching pole. As

soon as he had walked up to the jailhouseís door, Adam knocked, turned, and pushed. With his father at his heels, he walked under the doorframe into the small

stale room. Immediately, Adam squinted before his eyes became accustomed to the change in luminosity. As his chestnut eyes roamed the room, Adam let a soft

swear escaped though his narrowed lips; soft enough that even Benís astute hearing didnít manage to register. Frustratingly, the room was devoid of any occupant as

well as the several jail cells on their nearby left.

 

"I wonder where Roy could be?" Ben asked out loud as he closed the door behind him, sparing his own quick, fleeting look across the jailhouseís main room.

 

With his mouth open about to answer his fatherís question with another question, a new voice quickly interrupted Adam as it said, "Well, thisí a surprise! Ben...

Adam! What can I do for ya?"

 

With a friendly smile, Ben turned to face his long time friend. It was only after shaking the sheriffís hand that he answered, "Hi! Roy. We hope that we can have a

talk with you."

 

"Sure, what about?"

 

With a shift of his dark eyes towards his son, Ben kept silent while coaching Adam to answer the sheriffís question. Clearing his dry throat with a quick, contained

cough, Adam did just that as he approached the seated Coffee. "You must set Harry Wilkinson free!"

 

Both Roy and Benís faces forehead respectively scrunched downward in puzzlement. But it was Coffee whom pressed for more details by stating, "I canít do that,

Adam, ya know that. Besides, a judge found him guilty in a court of law."

 

"Thatís just it...he didnít do it!"

 

"Adam! weíve been through this before," Ben stated as he quickly cut in, "We all know that youíve been having a hard time believing that Harry could have hurt you,

but-" Adam shook his head as his father spoke showing his flagrant difference of opinion, but nonetheless didnít interrupt him just then, "Josie Norton said he was the

one that-"

 

"Josieís lying!"

 

Ben and Roy exchanged astonished looks upon hearing Adamís startling proclamation. Taking a step towards his son, Ben planted his hands on his hips as his face

twisted into a scowl. "Adam! Thatís a pretty severe statement. Why would Josie lie? What has she to gain from it? Even more why would she say that Wilkinson did

it?"

 

Slightly annoyed that his own father doubted his words, Adam bit his lower lip instantaneously squashing a bitter retort. Instead, he pinched the bridge of his nose in

frustration; a gesture that Ben, proudly knowing his firstborn son so well from his childhood nightmares to his mannerisms, instantly recognise it as being a sign of

truth.

 

"Adam," Ben stated with subtle gentleness in which Adam clearly heard it as being an apology, "you told me before we left that you remembered what happened that

morning. What happened?"

 

"Harry Wilkinson did not hit me in the head!" Adam reiterated before sharing his sudden insight of that faithful early day for the first time. As predicted, he had now a

captivated audience. "Iíve always been having some... I donít know what to call them, letís say dreams, but nothing that would help me understand what truly

happened that early morning. I was starting to prepare myself that I would never remember...

 

Well... that was what I thought until earlier today. It all started when I was in town sharing a drink with Hoss that something clicked in my mind. Back then, I couldnít

put two and two together, but as soon as I saw Gilbert and Hennigar walk into the saloon, my head started to spin.... something about the two men just... just didnít

feel right." Adam ever so slightly shivered as he retold his feelings and emotions of earlier in the day. With eyes downcast unable to meet anyoneís sympathetic

countenance, he slowly walked towards a window. Staring at the artificially lit road ahead through a tad dirty windowpane, Adam rested his hands on his hips. After

taking a deep breath in hopes of calming his nerves, he continued, "I wasnít myself when I got home."

 

"That was apparent, Adam. I knew that something was eating you up inside, but as stubborn as you are, you wouldnít open up to me."

 

Adam turned to glance at his father for a brief second before returning his gaze outside. "I couldnít, Pa! How was I going to explain it to you when I didnít even

understand it myself?"

 

Ben nodded in understanding. "Go on, Adam. What happened next?"

 

"I needed some time alone. I needed to think," Adamís mouth curved into a soft grin as he remembered how hard it had been to get his wishes. Nothing would limit

his fatherís protectiveness or his worry about anyone of his sons, not even time or age. "It was then, that I had a vision. It suddenly came to me like a play acted out

before my very own eyes. I remember waking up in the barn. I donít really recall feeling any pain, but I had a hard time focusing. After a few seconds, I could hear a

discussion between two men. Someone or... something touched my ribs, I remember that I grunted which notified to them that I wasnít unconscious anymore. So,

someone grabbed me from the floor and pulled me up. That is when I opened my eyes.... I saw Hennigarís face scowl at me. He said something that I canít

remember. Before I could even react, he hit me once more and I lost consciousness again."

 

Coffee, whom had been silent for the past few minutes, uncomfortably shifted in his stance. He was about to ask a question that he wasnít perfectly fond of even

asking, but had to nonetheless. It was his job. "Adam," he started with some hesitance, "ya did say that ya were a little dazed from that hit to yar head. What assure

me that what ya say ya saw is what ya really saw?" Seeing that Ben was about to angrily protest his line of questioning, Roy quickly silenced any retort with a raise

of the hand. "Iím not sayiní that Adam hereís lyiní, Ben. I just have to be sure that it pans out."

 

"Itís alright, Roy," Adam stated as he in turn validated the sheriffís doubts and dismissed his fatherís annoyances, "how can you really trust someone who had his

head in the sand for over a month?"

 

"Itís not a question of trust, Adam. I do trust ya! Itís just that... that Iím not sure that a judge will believe ya, thatís all!"

 

To that, both Cartwright men remained silent as they knew what their good friend told was true. Showing signs of losing hope, Adam turned to face the two older

men, which showed both incertitude and conviction. Knowing that his testimony alone wouldnít stand up in court due his present history of memory lapse. It would

end up being his word against Miss Josie Nortonís. To prove that she lied on the stand would take more than a simple say so. Adam needed more evidence. He just

didnít know how to attain it. "Whatís our next step? Maybe if I could get someone to confirm what I remember?"

 

"How?" Coffee questioned as his forehead creased forming furrowed lines on his seasoned face.

 

"I donít know. There just has to be a way!"

 

"Yeah, Adam, but what?"

 

"Maybe if we-"

 

"I think I know how!"

 

Both Adam and Roy abruptly stopped their conversation as soon as their ears gripped onto the words spoken above theirs. Sharing a confused glance, both their

faces displayed puzzlement. Had they heard right or was it simply wishful thinking on their part? "What?" Roy exclaimed, speaking up for the both of them. "What

did ya say, Ben?"

 

"I think I know how!" Ben gladly repeated with a slight smile on the corner of his mouth. His delight was clearly evident, like one of a child upon seeing a candy free

to grasp. Without speaking another word, Ben bolted for the door, passing a stunned Adam and leaving a curious Roy behind.

 

Knowing what their next logical step would be, Adam and Roy did just that as they quickly followed the lead and went after a determined Ben.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 13

 

 

Under barely lit Virginia City streets and amidst scarce citizens, Ben Cartwright, followed by his eldest son and the town sheriff, briskly walked towards his intended

targeted house, a light blue, vast house on the other edge of the city surrounded by a white picket fence. The Mayorís house.

 

Three steps later, he approached the door and without hesitation knocked twice. On the corner of his eye through the modest sized window on his immediate right,

Ben could see some almost ghostly shadows moving across the white, laced curtains. Someone was definitely at home. After a few seconds, the door handle finally

opened revealing an older woman, whom appeared to be in her early fifties. Wrapping her greyish shawl more securely against her firm shoulders for added warmth,

the womanís liquid brown eyes displayed her surprise as she recognised the callers.

 

"Yes?" She hesitantly asked as her eyes squinted into slits of uncertainty.

 

Displaying one of his most charming smiles, Ben politely nodded in sign of politeness. "Mrs. Norton," he started, "Iím sorry to bother at this late hour, but I was

wondering if we..." Ben said as he nodded towards his two allies whom immediately acknowledgement their female company, "could speak with your son, Johnny."

 

Curiosity quickly followed by suspicion flashed across Mrs. Nortonís furrowed face. Although very curious as to the nature of her sonís future conversation with the

trio before her, she bit back her questions as simple courtesy overruled her desires to know. Instead she stepped aside in order to let them enter. "Ah... sure, Mr.

Cartwright, heís inside in the study with his father. Please do come in."

 

"Thank you, Mrs. Norton," Ben replied while removing his hat as soon as he crossed under the doorframe. Coffee and Adam mimicked him as they followed suite

inside.

 

In total silence, Mrs. Norton led the three visitors across a long white wood planked, elegantly decorated hallway lit by two large wall lanterns before finally reaching

its last door, to its left. Gently knocking, she opened the door in a slow, swift movement. Leaning with her back against the door, she introduced the visitors to her

perplexed husband and son, whom had been seated across from each other on brown leather chairs. "Johnny, these men are here to see you."

 

"Well, Mr. Cartwright.... Sheriff Coffee.... Adam? What do we owe this honour?" James Senior stated as he gingerly rose from his chair and approached them in

order to shake each of their hands.

 

While shifting his hat through his hands like a hot potato due to uneasiness, Ben forced a smile across his face, as an answer was about to reach his lips. However,

just as he was about to utter the reason for his abrupt and unexpected visit, the mayor quickly interrupted him as he addressed his wife. "Louise, my dear, could you

have Martha bring some coffee for these gentlemen?"

 

"Thatís very generous of ya, Mayor, but thereís no need. We wonít take too much time," Roy Coffee explained as he spoke for the first time since he left the

sanctuary of his jailhouse.

 

"Nonsense, Roy," James uttered with a dismissal swift of the hand. Once again looking over Adamís left shoulder, he addressed Louise, "Go see Martha."

 

With a nod of approval, Louise quickly left the moderate sized study. As soon as the sound of the door closing behind him reached his ears, Ben took a step

forward as he decided to quickly broach his planned topic of conversation. "James... we were wondering if we could speak with your son for a moment... alone."

 

Mr. Nortonís gleeful smile quickly left his aged face as his eyebrows shifted downward upon hearing Benís words. Sparing a quick, questioning glance at his son,

James let his eyes set once more on his visitorís. "Whatís this all about, Ben? Whatís wrong?"

 

"Nuthinís wrong, Mayor. We just need to have a talk with Johnny here. Itís about some friends of his," Coffee quickly explained as he once more jumped into the

conversation. He needed for the younger men to freely open up to them; therefore, he needed for his dutiful, disparaging father to leave the room. However, finding a

polite way of doing so was the hard part.

 

"I donít understand?"

 

"Itís okay, Pa," Johnny said as he himself arose, trying to hide an uproar of nervousness through a makeshift smile. Shifting from one foot to another, he managed to

glance up at his father. "Itís okay," he repeated, "Donít worry, I can take care of this."

 

With a scowl upon his face and a questionable glance towards each of the visitors, James quickly nodded his accordance despite his extreme reluctance. "Iíll be in

the living room if you need me son," he uttered just before leaving the study in a slight huff.

 

As the door clanked closed, Jimmy shifted his gaze from his boots to each of his callers respectively. Trying to mask his emotions which included fear, he

immediately led the trio to a seat with a jerk of his right arm, which they gratefully obeyed.

 

For the first time since entering the study, Ben had the opportunity to view the majestic bookshelves and exquisite paintings across the four wallpapered walls. Along

side them stood a large pair of windows on the houseís South side, which in daylight led to a view to well tended shrubbery gardens. Between the two curtained

windows stood an imposing, stoned fireplace, that emanated grateful heat across the roomís every square inch. Being mayor of a city the size and wealth of Virginia

City had its perks; the house was definitely one of them. Amidst the townís mines and ranches, aristocracy yet prospered through its nooks and crannies. Getting his

mind back on track, Ben cleared his throat as he crossed his leg over a knee and relaxed against the comfortable wing chair. "Johnny, we need to talk to you about

your sister, Josie."

 

Johnny could hear his heartbeat speed up at an alarming rate as his brain registered Benís uttered words. "Sure," he managed to say despite his heart reacting like a

wild horse, "whatís this all about?"

 

"We discovered sum new evidence about her kidnappiní," Coffee volunteered, "Evidence that contradicts her court statements."

 

This time, Johnnyís heart skipped a beat. "Wh- what do you mean new evidence? What new evidence? I donít know what youíre talking about?" The words

flooded out of his mouth like raging water over a high peaked waterfall.

 

"The new evidence is that I remember what happened to me that morning," Adam stated as his eyes never left Johnnyís blue ones in hopes of digging a hole into the

younger manís conscience.

 

Shock was the only emotion that Johnny felt at this moment as his mouth slightly opened and his eyes enlarged like one of a howl. "You.... you remember!"

 

Adam slowly nodded. "Yes, I do. Why donít you tell us what truly happened that night in your own words? An innocent man was wrongfully convicted!"

 

"I donít know what you talking about. My sister was kidnapped by Harry Wilkinson. For crying out loud, he even tried to kill you, Adam! I canít believe that youíre

turning this thing against me!"

 

Letting his leg fall back to the ground in a thud and leaning forward as he rested his elbows on his knees, Ben inquisitively stared at Norton. He could see that the

young man was nervous about something, something that seemed to lead to the fact that he was withholding some information, maybe even lying. "Look, Johnny,

weíre only here to talk, thatís all. As I recall, you seemed to be quite nervous during your sisterís trial. I could have sworn that you were disappointed with your

sisterís testimony. You seemed to be-"

 

"Are you nuts?" Johnny retorted as he rose from his chair in a flash, interrupting Benís flagrant statement. His voice was kept low, but his intonation clearly wanted to

show deep rooted frustration. "Look here, Mr. Cartwright, I donít have a clue what youíre referring to. I... I was glad that scumbag was found guilty!"

 

"Words are just words, Johnny! Expressions donít lie! I could tell then as I can tell now that something eating you from the inside," Ben stated as calmly as possible.

He didnít want his own emotions to get in the way of searching for the truth. Ben allowed a few seconds to pass before continuing on with his interrogation. Seeing

Johnny pass a nervous hand several times over his blond hair smoothing it down to the scalp made the older Cartwright almost beamed with satisfaction. He was

starting to get through the young manís conscience. He just needed to push a little bit more. A little farther. "The only way to lift this awful feeling off your shoulders,

Johnny, is to tell the truth. We know that you werenít a willing partner in this whole scheme. We can help! Please, believe us when we say we want to help you."

 

To this, Johnny let himself fall back in his chair. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths. As he did so, he became unaware of the three sets of eyes glued to

his every move as his chest rose and fell at a high interval. His mind was suddenly a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. Trying to find some type of bearing, his face

twisted with concentration. His next step would be detrimental to his life, either way.

 

"Let your conscience be your guide, Johnny!"

 

As soon as the foreign words were spoken, Johnnyís eyes opened in a flash. Eyeballing the older man behind the words, he felt like to a kid again, wanting to run

away from home without looking back. Unable to contain his brewing, yet conflicting sentiments, it was him that finally broke the optic spell as his gaze shifted back

to his hands, suddenly finding them of most interest.

 

Feeling that his instincts had been wrong when it came to the young man, Ben felt his will power slightly deflate. Johnny, whether he was involved or not, didnít

seemed to be breakable. Reluctantly willing to accept defeat, Ben exhaled once deeply with a quick shake of the head. As he was about to rise from his chair in

order to give his indisposed goodbyes, a voice immediately stopped him in his tracks.

 

"Josie wasnít kidnapped!"

 

Bewilderment swept through the other three men like a gale wind as Johnnyís astounding proclamation seeped through from their tingling skin to reach their stunned

ears. Sharing astonished glances with Adam, and Roy, respectively, Benís mouth slightly opened in utter surprise. Even though, he knew from his eldest sonís

recollection that Wilkinson had seemingly no part in the more than a month old crime spell, young Nortonís statement made him fell like someone had hit square in

the gut. Unsure that he had heard correctly, he managed to find his voice before asking, "Wha- What did you say?"

 

"Josie wasnít kidnapped," Johnny repeated as his bemused eyes lifted up from his arm extremities. Looking a like a frightened four year old, he added, "It wasnít

supposed to happen like it did. I donít know what happened... they must have panicked. I donít-"

 

"They?!" Adam interrupted as his left eyebrow raised in wonder. With every inkling of his being, Adam hoped beyond hope that what the slightly younger man was

about to tell would confirm everything that he remembered. Although he felt assure that his memory was accurate, he still needed that icing on the cake. He needed

to be validated, proved that he hadnít truly lost his mind. "Who exactly are they?"

 

A permanent ashamed expression found its home on Johnny face as Adam spoke. Not able to meet anyone eyes, he unconsciously licked his dry lips as he gathered

his thoughts. After a bold pseudo-wind swept through his veins, young Norton finally found his voice again stating, "Paul Gilbert and... and Josie."

 

"Ya mean to tell me that yar sister was directly involved in all of this," Coffee stated incredulously as he had a very hard time believing that a seemingly innocent

young woman without any inkling of criminal behaviour could take part, if any, in such a horrible act as attempting murder and robbery. It just made his skin crawl in

awe, and in fear.

 

"You donít understand... she... sheís in love with Gilbert. Almost obsessive about it. She would do anything he tells her."

 

"What about her engagement to Andrew Nye? Is that why itís off?"

 

Johnny gave a curt nod towards Adam to show concurrence. "Josie doesnít want to marry Andrew. This whole marriage was our País idea. He thinks that it will be

good for the family if weíre related to the Governor. We tried to convince him, but heís so adamant about it. He loves his daughter so much..." Johnny stated with

open sarcasm, "that his willing to force her into a loveless marriage for political profit."

 

Sheriff Coffee rubbed his chin as he tried to bring light to the whole situation. This whole mess was getting more complicated at each passing second. "So, what can

ya tell us about what happened early that morniní?"

 

"Josie was planning on running away with Gilbert to California. She left willingly with him late that night. She slip out through her bedroom window as I kept watch

for her."

 

"How was she planning on hiding this from your parents?"

 

"Itís simple, Mr. Cartwright. I was to tell them that she left to visit some relatives on the East coast as she had already told them. Of course, she had no plans of

going East. But by the time that our parents would have figured out the whole scheme, she would have be far enough away. It was then going to be my responsibility

of telling them the truth."

 

"That was going to be mighty hard for ya to do so. Why do it at all?"

 

"Sheís my sister... I love her!"

 

Ben uneasily shifted in his seat as he found a more comfortable groove in the leather chair. What the young man was stating was surprising, to say the less. It was

startling. Imagining that a young, ostensibly sweet, young woman, like Josie, could be involved in such a harsh crime made every one of his skinís hairs ripple in awe.

There was simply no answer other than love, which could made you do strange and unusual things. Clearly his dry throat in a quick cough, Ben decided to broach

another subject that had been assaulting his conscience for the past few minutes. A subject that he couldnít foresee Johnnyís reaction. "Johnny... what happened that

morning on the Ponderosa? Why did they attack Adam? What went wrong?"

 

Ben immediately saw Johnny sink a little farther down the chair in hesitation, an action that he had so repeatedly saw when reprimanding one of his sons for

mischievous behaviour. Somehow, Johnnyís reaction made Benís stomach churned.

 

Young Norton mastering some nerve shifted his glance towards Adam as guilt quickly swept through every cell of his body from the hair atop of his head to his

toenail on his pinky toe. He almost choked on his own saliva as a large gulp of it descended his oesophagus. With guilty eyes, he simply stared at the oldest

Cartwright son for several awkward seconds, before finally divulging what little his knew of that dreadful early morning. "All... all that I know is that something went

wrong. Paul wasnít even supposed to stop at the Ponderosa. I... I guess that he got greedy. What Josie said about him trying to open the safe was all true... itís just

that she wasnít as unwilling as she said she was. But you have to understand that sheíll do anything he would say! He has a hold on her that Iím never seen before."

 

"Why did they hit Adam? Did they really try to kill him?" To Ben, his uttered words seemed to be coming from afar as his mind couldnít seem to venture down that

route of unimaginable grief and anxiety.

 

"I truly donít know..." Johnny replied as he managed to spare a sorrowful look up at Adam. "Maybe... maybe things didnít go on as planned. Maybe they just

panicked."

 

To that, Adam snorted his scepticism. "Of what I remember, I was more like an opportunity," he bitterly stated as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Both Ben and

Roy spared a compassionate look at the psychologically and physically wounded younger man. After a few seconds of inner battle, Adam quickly vanquished his

sorrows deep inside. Once more meeting Johnnyís nervous eyes, he added, "One thing that really bothers me is why implicate Harry Wilkinson? Where does he fit in

this whole picture?"

 

Johnny visibly shifted in his seat, clearly Wilkinson was a fretful topic for the young man. "I donít know why they did that to Harry. I warn Josie not to go along with

it, but she didnít listen to me... I guess that Gilbert has more hold on her than I do. If Harry said that he was on his way to Sacramento to visit some relatives and get

some work, I have to agree."

 

"So what you are telling me is..." Adam confirmed, "is that Harry simply was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is that correct?"

 

"I guess so."

 

"Another opportunity!" Adam angrily cloaked under his breath.

 

"Thatís some mighty coincidence," Coffee remarked at Johnnyís explanation. To the scepticism detected in the sheriff voice, young Norton simply shrugged finding

no words to supplement his story as he had none.

 

"So whereís yer sister now? Is she truly back East or is she with Gilbert?"

 

"I donít know... really, I donít know!" Johnny replied to the sheriff, displaying the mannerisms of a small frightened child. "They squashed their plans about going to

California. Josieís headed back East, but I donít know where Paul and Gus are... I swear! They may be meeting up somewhere, but I donít know where or when?"

 

As if summoning the end of the interrogation, a small knock was heard on the library door before a middle-aged plump woman, deduced to be Martha, entered

bearing a tray holding a silver plated coffee dispenser and matching cups. In a soft voice, the woman spoke as she laid the tray unto a nearby mahogany,

hand-carved table. "Does anyone care to have some tea?"

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††Chapter 14

 

 

By the sheriffís trot down the city sidewalk from one the townís many saloons, both Ben and Adam determine that the seasoned lawman had no good news to tell. It

wasnít until they shared a quick deflated look that Coffee joined them.

 

"So, what did you find out?" Despite fearing the answer that was so easily seen across the sheriffís face, Ben needed to hear out loud nonetheless.

 

"Nuthiní, Ben," Roy replied with regret clearly detected in his deep voice along with an exasperate shake of the head. "They were at the saloon..." he said with a nod

back towards the saloon that he had just exited merely two minutes earlier, "early last night sharing a few drinks, or so Sam says. No one seems to know where they

could be right about now. For all we know, they could be on their way to Mexico by now... How about ya two?"

 

Feeling disappointed of having wasted the better part of what was left of the day searching across the town for the two wanted men, Ben Cartwright wasnít the

slightest in the best of moods. Realising that Hennigar and Gilbert could possibly get away with the cowardly ambush of his eldest son made his blood boil in rage.

Like any father, he wanted to protect his sons at any cost as well as circumstances. It pained him to relive the last weeks of torment. He needed to do something to

make them repay. Something. Mimicking his good, long-time friend, Ben instead simply shook his head in resignation as he answered, "the same... nothing to point us

in the right direction."

 

"They must have suspected something was up. Iím surprised that they even stayed in town this long," Adam thought out loud.

 

"One thing that Gilbert is, Adam, besides being a worthless piece of muck, is that heís an arrogant worthless piece of muck! With yar memory loss, he most

probably thought that he would get away with it."

 

"Well, he wonít!" Ben stated with an outmost confidence. He had seen pain in his sonís brown eyes concerning this matter one minute too many. He wasnít about to

let that happen again.

 

Roy couldnít agree more. Having the guilt of arresting the wrong man was looming over his head. A small voice kept on reminding him that he had only done his job

at the best of his abilities at that time. But somehow it didnít seem right, nonetheless. "Iím gonna distributed a wanted poster for both men. Also, Iím planniní on

wiring nearby towns so they keep an eye out fer them. Without a lead to start, thereís no point of settiní a posse just yet."

 

"What about Wilkinson?" Adam wasnít about to forget about Harry, whom right now was wrongfully rotting in jail as they spoke. He could only imagine what the

other man must be going through or must be feeling for that matter.

 

Coffee shrugged. Due to the late hour, there was nothing to be done until the sun rise again. "Iíll have a talk with Winters early tomorrow. See what he says?"

 

Disappointed but yet resigned, Adam gave a short nod of gratitude.

 

"Itís getting late, Roy," Ben affirmed as he rubbed his temple in fatigue, "Adam and I should be heading on back to the Ponderosa. Hoss and Little Joe will probably

send out their own posse if we donít get home soon."

 

"Thatís fine, Ben," Coffee replied in accordance, "itís too late to do anythiní else anyhow."

 

"ínight then, Roy!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Wrapping his housecoat tight against his shivering frame, Ben cursed under his breath at the abrupt disturbance. From his bedroom, he had been immediately

awoken by the noise of thunderous knocks coming from downstairs. "Who in tarnation can that be?" he loathed to himself as grumpily reached for his lit oil lamp and

headed for his bedroom door. Noticing that the sun had yet showed its presence for the new day, he could only imagine who could be paying a visit. Upon reaching

the hallway, Ben was immediately greeted by three pairs of sluggish eyes. Not surprisingly, his three sons had also awoken from the chaotic noises coming from the

front door.

 

"Go back to bed," he immediately ordered as he could tell that none of his sons were completely awake. Joe profusely yawned as he leaned heavily on his bedroom

frame, while Hoss simply did the former. On the other end, Adam, through the shadows of the flickering flame, seemed to be the more lucid of the three as he

rubbed the back of his neck letting his inquisitive eyes meet his fatherís. "Boys, you have a long day ahead of you.... Iíll take care of this. Thereís no reason for all

four of us to go downstairs."

 

Begrudgingly all three sons did as they were told, although Adam was more reluctant as he only returned to his room after his father gave him an assuring nod. After

three doors closed almost instantaneously, Ben headed down the hallway. The flame from his lamp slightly flickered inside its glass encasing as Ben descended the

stairs, making amorphous shadows being bombarded against the milk coloured plaster walls.

 

Three more quick, hard knocks echoed against the large living roomís walls, which made Ben let another swear slip between his teeth. "Iím coming... Iím coming!"

he said in hopes of preventing his ears from another acoustic assault. Finally, with his lamp in one hand, he opened the front door. After bracing himself against the

sharp, cold wind that instantly reached his body, Ben quickly recognised his caller. Quizzically, he let him inside as he took a few steps aside. "Roy.... whatís the

matter? Did something happen?"

 

Before answering, Coffee quickly entered in search for some warmth, but was disappointed to see that the fire in the imposing hearth was merely a pitiful excuse for

a blaze. Instead, he simply brushed his arms up and down with his gloved hands in hopes of getting some circulation back into his numbed arms.

 

"Iíve got some news. Iím on my way to Oak Town."

 

"Oak Town?!"

 

"Yeah, I got a wire not two hours ago from the local sheriff, a man named Harry Meadows." Coffee stated as he followed Ben to the immense hearth. As Roy took

a seat on the settee, Ben placed his oil lamp on the nearby coffee table and started to add more wood to the fire. It was indeed getting nippy in the house. With

staunch silence, Ben awaited for his good friend to continue.

 

"Well, Ben... it seems that our wanted men got into a bit of trouble on their way East."

 

To this, Ben stopped mid-stride, as he was about to place a log onto the ginger coloured ash and half-burnt logs. Coffee had his complete attention. Benís right

eyebrow raised in question, desperately wanting to hear more. "What kind of trouble?" he tentatively asked, knowing that it had to be of some consequence for the

sheriff to show up at this early hour.

 

"Gilbertís dead."

 

This time, both eyebrows arose as the news took Ben by complete surprise upon hearing the news of Gilbertís demise. "Dead?!.... what happened?"

 

Coffee simply shrugged. "What Meadows tells me is that Gilbert got into a bar fight... then into a dual. Gilbert apparently lost."

 

Benís eyes grew in size as his whole body became numb. He couldnít tell if he was pleased or disappointed that Gilbert was about to be six-feet under. Dropping

himself into his favourite leather chair, Ben let a sigh escape his lips. A sigh of relief. Then suddenly a thought materialised in his head. Jerking his head towards his

good friend, he said, "But... but what about Hennigar?"

 

A small smile made an appearance under the sheriffís grey moustache as he replied, "Meadows has him locked up. It seems that he also got into a saloon brawl, but

obviously his outcome faired much better. Iím on my way to collect him. Itís a mighty ride to Oak Town. I have Andy takiní care of business in town while Iím

away."

 

"You... you mean that itís finally over."

 

Coffee nodded. "Yup, Ben. Itís all cuminí to an end."

 

"What about Josie Norton?"

 

To their surprise, both Ben and Roy were caught off guard by the third voice that reached their eardrums. Unbeknownst to both of them, a third man had been

listening to their whole conversation, since the beginning, amidst the shadows at the top of the staircase.

 

"Adam!?" Ben slightly exclaimed trying to mask his surprise of his sonís sudden appearance. He was only partially successful. "I thought I told you that I was going

to handle it. Why didnít you go back to bed?" Ben wanted to side-step any sensitive conversation right at the moment. He had hoped that he would have been able

to talk to his oldest son in private at first light with both of them had a few more hours of sleep behind them. But it wasnít too be.

 

To his fatherís minor scolding, Adam remained silent. Instead, he slowly descended the stairs leading to the great room. His face, clearly drawn in apprehension,

slowly came into views amongst the dancing shadows as he walked closer to the burning oil lamp.

 

Shifting in his seat atop of the settee, Coffee let a cough escape as he fought to clear his throat. With Adam now present, the sheriff suddenly felt more nervous as he

spoke candidly of what heíd been told. "Well, Adam... she wuz there too," he answered with slight reluctance. Again, Adam remained silent as the tension grew

tenfold. Sparing a quick glance at Ben, Roy found his voice again as he met the younger manís probing eyes. "She apparently met with Gilbert. The information that

Meadows gave me ainít much... but I reckon that she wuz definitely a part of all this plot."

 

It took a few seconds for Adam to respond as his mind registered the implications and corroboration's behind the words. After all that he had been through, to think

that his existence, as well as another personís, had almost been razed by twisted love, pure evil, and blatant apathy made Adam fell more burning anger pass through

his veins. Sometimes, the truth hurts more than lies. Finally, he gave a short nod of understanding to the sheriff.

 

"I reckon that sheíll be cuminí back to Virginia City as well. Winters ainít gonna appreciate knowiní that she lied on the stand," Coffee added.

 

Adam bit his lower lip. "She is as much as responsible for my injuries than Gilbert or Hennigar are. As far as Iím concerned, she should get what she deserved."

Surprisingly, after Johnnyís plea for his sister blind innocence in the whole affair and now having the events of that morning beyond doubt confirmed, Adam didnít

feel a bit of sympathy for the young woman.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

The first of December came to the Carson Valley in full force as huge flakes of snow descended from the hazy, thick clouds to land on the cold, frozen terrain. The

slight Northern wind merciless guide the snowflakes to their predestined earthbound destination. Since the snow had been steadily falling for almost an hour now, the

land and everything either growing from it or raised atop of it was a blanket of pure white. Rubbing away the vapour from the long, narrow office window with the

sleeve of his right arm, Ben Cartwright marvelled at the beautiful fresh and clean landscape reflecting back at him through the windowpane.

 

He could almost swear that the majestic image before him was message from high above stating that it was a new beginning for the Cartwrights, especially for his

firstborn son. With Hennigarís quick trial and subsequent sentence behind them, all four Cartwrights could let a sigh of relief escape their mouths. Without his

ringleader at his side, Gus Hennigar had shown no sign of confrontation, and had easily confessed to the events of that faithful morning. He had been simply Gilbertís

brawn as much as Gilbert was Hennigarís brain. Without Gilbert, Hennigar had almost seemed like a lost puppy to everyone relief. As for Harry Wilkinson, the last

few days had been quite the opposite in relation to his prospective future. He had finally been release from prison and had spent a day or two back in Virginia City.

But feeling like he wanted to start anew, he didnít stay long. Harry had decided to start his new chance at life somewhere else, away from the painful memories.

Luckily, he had managed to spend some time with Adam before he departed for a destination still unknown. They had managed to re-ignite their friendship and mend

tender wounds.

 

Miss Josie Norton, on the other hand, had managed to escape from any consequences. After a display of raw emotions, she had persuaded the judge that she had

been forcibly led by the deceased Paul Gilbert. But after her performance at the previous trial of Wilkinson, who could be sure of her true innocence. It was

rumoured that the mayor had a dirty hand in helping no convictions stick to his daughter. Her acquittal had taken a few people by surprise and is still the main topic

of conversation in the city to date.

 

"What are ya lookiní at, Pa?"

 

Ben smiled upon hearing his middle sonís soothing voice at it made him think of much happier thoughts. Turning around, his smile grew to reach his dark eyes. "Just

the snow, Hoss, just the snow! Itís falling quite steadily out there right now," he stated as he walked towards his son, whom was standing next to the table that hug

the backside of the settee.

 

"I told ya that it was gonna be a mean winter and all. ĎSpecially since Little Joe said that there wuz snow in the mountains way back," Hoss stated between taking

bites of an already half-eaten apple.

 

Wrapping a loving arm around his big sonís frame, Ben nodded. "No one ever doubted you, son."

 

Chewing, Hoss simply gave a curt nod of acknowledgement as his father gave him a gentle pat on the back before braking his hold in order to head towards the

hearthís raging fire just ahead.

 

"Where are your brothers?" Ben asked suddenly as he picked up the fire poker and began moving the logs around.

 

Hoss shrugged just before swallowing some apple morsels. "Theyíre both in their rooms, I guess."

 

"With that snowstorm, you donít expect us to work outside... do ya?" Another voice light-heartedly stated from the staircase landing.

 

Glancing up from his task, Ben saw his youngest son descended the remaining stairs in a gleefully manner, almost child-like. Joe was definitely in a good mood. "No,

I guess not, Joe! But be prepared to shovel all that snow once the storm is finished though."

 

To that, Joeís face instantly lost some of its enthusiasm. Foreseeing a few back-braking hours shovelling snow, his mood slightly dampened. However, meeting his

fatherís humorous eyes, his pleasant mood resurfaced. "Yeah, but that most likely wonít be until tomorrow. So why worry about it now? Right?"

 

"If so say so, li'l brother," Hoss replied sceptically. Leave it to his younger, carefree brother not to worry about the future. Hoss immediately thinking the worse and

deduced that Joe had something up his sleeves. However, he decided to let it be for now.

 

"Do you want to play some checkers, Hoss?" Joe asked as he headed for the table containing the game.

 

Hoss shrugged once more. There was still four hours until supper with nothing to do. "Sure, but Iím black this time."

 

"What do you mean, you want to be black? Iím always black!"

 

"That just it, Joe. Yaíre always black. It ainít fair."

 

Joe was flabbergasted. "Itís just a colour, Hoss. Whatís the big deal anyhow?"

 

"Exactly! Whatís the big deal? If itís just a colour... then why canít I be black?"

 

"Because..."

 

"Why donít you two play some cards instead?" Ben suggested as he interrupted Joeís retort as he could foretell the start of a dispute commencing. Finished with his

mending of the fire, Ben took a seat in his favourite leather chair, picked up the nearby newspaper, and awaited for the compromise.

 

Both sons simply spared a look first at their father and then onto each other. Both Hoss and Joe were visibly getting upset over the dispute, but decided to take on

their fatherís proposal. "Okay... fine, weíll play cards instead," Joe affirmed as he put back the checkerboard and fetch the cards in its place. Hoss nodded his

consensus as he took another bit of his apple.

 

Taking a seat directly in front of his brother, Joe shuffled the cards. "Letís play gin."

 

To this, Hoss was not happy. "But ya always win at gin. Letís play sumthiní else."

 

Joe immediately stopped his task and lowered his shoulders in aggravation. "Thatís not my fault that I always win. You just ainít paying attention close enough, thatís

all."

 

An angry scowl appeared on Hossí usually peaceful chubby face. "I do pay attention!... sumtimes I wonder if ya ainít cheatiní."

 

Joe immediately arose from his chair making a screeching noise as his chair legs rubbed against the hard wood floor as they were violently pushed back. "Hoss

Cartwright, take that back! It ainít so! I do not cheat!"

 

"Boys!? Thatís enough!" Ben reprimanded as he scrunched his newspaper against his chest in order to get a closer view of his two disgruntled sons. How could

such a innocent proposal turn so wrong? he thought to himself. "If you two canít get along, maybe you shouldnít be in the same room!"

 

Joe gave a menacing side glance at his brother. "Well, I ainít leaving. Hoss should go somewhere else!"

 

"I wuz here first, little brother. I ainít goiní anywhere. If anyone is leaviní, itís ya!"

 

"I said it first! I ainít leav-"

 

"ENOUGH!" Ben yelled just after rolling his eyes in bafflement. Raising from the chair, he pointed an accusatory finger at both of them. "I am trying to read the

newspaper in peace. I donít need to hear your bickering! If neither one of you can act civilly, maybe you both should leave... and go to your respective rooms. If

you two can act like adults, then I might as well treat you like children!"

 

Hoss and Little Joe simply glared at one another from across the table, almost as if they were watching each other to see who would make the first move.

 

"Do I make myself clear?!" Ben added upon hearing but silence from his full grown sons, who acted well below their ages.

 

"Yes, Pa." They both mumbled together, resigned to follow their fatherís wishes. Satisfied, Ben let himself drop back into his chair.

 

At that moment, Adam came down the stairs, book in hand, but clearly annoyed about something. "What is all this bickering about?" he asked addressing his father.

Pointing to his two brooding brothers, he added, "I can hear these two numbskulls from my room!"

 

Ben raised his chest in a swift move letting compressed air escape his lungs, upon hearing his oldest sonís annoyed words. "You think that it was loud from upstairs,

imagine from down here!"

 

Surprisingly neither Hoss nor Joe reacted to their older brotherís remarks. They seemed to be too immersed in their non-substantial spat to register Adamís

displeasure and injurious words. Instead, they both walked away from the table and headed, in separate ways to the living room. Not wanted to see next to Hoss on

the settee, Joe made a move for the blue velvet chair adjacent to the hearth, but Adam beat him to it as he hurriedly let himself fall into the comfortable chair. Slightly

exasperated, Joe resigned himself to take a seat on the settee, but made sure that there was plenty of room between him and Hoss.

 

Silence engulfed the large room as all four Cartwright men became immersed in their own endeavours and thoughts. Ben quickly went back to his newspaper, Adam

opened his book and began to read, Hoss simply stared at the fire and let himself daydream, and Joe simply tried to get his mind off his quarrel with Hoss, thinking

about a girl always did the trick.

 

Suddenly, Hoss decided to speak up as his conscience make him regret his accusations. "Iím sorry, Joe. I didnít mean to call ya a cheater!" With hurt puppy looking

eyes, he glanced to his right and stared at Joeís profile, waiting for a response from his brother. Hoss never liked to fight, and the odd chance when he did, he usually

was the first one to apologise.

 

Looking at Hoss with eyes only, Joeís mouth twisted for a second or two as if contemplating. "Apology accepted, Hoss.... Iím sorry too."

 

"Good! Maybe we can have some peace and quiet around here from now on," their father stated, quite pleased, upon hearing his sonsí reconciliation. With a crisp

shake of his newspaper, Ben became once again engrossed into the daily events and town gossip.

 

"Hey! Adam, what ya readiní?" Hoss suddenly changed the subject towards his older brother as if he only noticed his presence for the first time.

 

Barely rising his eyes above the bookís rim, Adam seemed annoyed at the interruption. In a swift cough, he cleared his throat. "A Dickensí novel," he simply stated

just before letting his eyes fall back onto the worn out pages.

 

"Oh.... ya mean like that play that ya went to see.... ya know..." Deep lines formed on Hossí forehead as he concentrated to remember, "Great... Great..."

 

"Expectations," Adam filled in, "Yes, itís from the same author."

 

Upon hearing the words of the play, Joeís face twisted in a disappointed glare as memories reminded him of how he had been unsuccessful in the spying of his oldest

brother. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, he hadnít been able to find out the identity of Adamís mysterious guest to the Dickens play. He had to

curse himself that day. How he had wished to surprised his brother and make a fuss, but he hadnít been able to leave the ranch. Joe secretly wondered if his father

had anything to do with his failure, but he would never know for sure. But with a twinkle in his green eyes, Joe spared a peek at his unsuspecting oldest brother. With

determination, he would find out the mysterious womanís identity. It was just a matter of patience and time.

 

Suddenly a loud growl was heard coming from Hossí stomach, which made the big man slightly blush in coyness, as the three other men stare at him in wonder.

 

"What was that? What did you eat, Hoss? A bear."

 

Hoss caught his little brotherís sneer in the corner of his eyes. "Just a apple, Little Joe," he casually replied as he twirled the core of his apple between his grubby

fingers.

 

"Just an apple!" Joe echoed in mockery. "You could have fooled me. Why donít you feed that thing? It sounds angry."

 

Hoss wasnít about to disagree. "Maybe I will, li'l brother. Maybe I will," he replied with conviction as he rose from the settee.

 

>From behind the newspaper, Ben didnít bother to raise his eyes, as he knew by instinct what his middle son was plotting. "May I remind you, Hoss, that you better

not spoil your supper."

 

"Spoil his supper, Pa!" Joe repeated incredulously. Giggling, he continued, "that will be that day. Hoss not eating supper! Yeah, right!"

 

Hoss simply ignored his younger brotherís banter as he glanced at his father. "I ainít gonna spoil my supper, Pa. Iím just gonna have another apple."

 

"Good! Because you know how Hop Sing gets when his food is not appreciated. He puts a lot of time and effort into every meal. The least we can do is enjoy it."

 

"Yes, Pa."

 

With that said, Hoss continued on his trek towards the kitchen. To his disbelief and annoyance, he caught the sight of Joe following him. Stopping mid-stride, Hoss

gave his little brother an anger saturated frown. "Why are ya followiní me?" His voice didnít hide his discontentment.

 

Joe simply gave his brother one of his biggest boyish grins. "I want an apple too!"

 

Hossí nostrils suddenly flared in exasperation. "Why?" He asked through clenched teeth, as he knew that his mischievous brotherís reason was more devious, "If I

jumped off a bridge, Joe, would ya jump too?"

 

Joe face dropped into a confused demeanour. "Now why would you want to jump off a bridge, Hoss?"

 

Knowing that his brother was being serious, Hoss simply rolled his eyes and continued his journey in search of another snack, consequently turning his back on the

still baffled younger man.

 

Joe quickly followed in tow. "Now, Hoss, you didnít answer my question! Why would want to jump off a bridge? Would Betsy Sue Hightower be after you, or

something? If that was the case, I would understand that. But if it wasnít, then why would..."

 

Once the ramblings of both his brothers disappeared around the corner of the dining room wall as they keenly entered the kitchen, Adam couldnít help but smile. He

felt like a feather amidst the gentle wind. These last few months had been hard, but right now, he never felt so good or so refreshed. With a finger as a book mark,

Adam closed his book, letting his chestnut eyes turned to watch his father still pleasantly reading the Territorial Enterprise. He cleared his throat. "Remind me to

thank them."

 

"What?!" Ben questioned as his sonís remark made him forego his present preoccupation. With an eyebrow raised in wonder, he repeated, "Iím sorry, I didnít hear

you properly. What did you say, son?"

 

A soft smile marked Adamís handsome face. "I said remind me to thank Hoss and Joe."

 

Ben let himself chuckle in confusion. "What for?"

 

"Normalness," Adam simply replied as his grin became crooked, lifting to the right side.

 

Understanding the undertones of his firstborn sonís words, Ben could only beam back and nod in agreement as he found no words to supplement what all of them

presently felt deep inside.

 

Getting back to a normal life and a regular routine was so little, yet meant so much for Adam Cartwright. In his eyes, the mundane ways of every day life, right now,

was simply heaven sent. The past few monthsí events had taking a toll on him, as well as his family. It felt so good to get back on the saddle, both figuratively and in

reality. It was like oxygenated blood to circulate through his veins; like fresh snowfall to cover the earthís scars, like novel thoughts to fill his conscience; like first

daylight to vanquish the darkness, and like babyís first footsteps to open up a new perspective on life. The past was something that Adam would ultimately learn

from, but nonetheless leave in the past. He had to live for the future.

 

"And Pa..." Adam added, getting his fatherís attention once more. With a grin that showed a wall of white teeth and unguarded admiration and love, he declared, "...

thank you!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† The End

 

Return to the Bonanza Fan-Fic Round-Up.†††††††††††††† 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.

 

†††††

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Early One Morning

 

 

††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††Chapter 1

 

 

Adam Cartwright woke up in a shudder. It took his eyes several seconds to get used to the darkness that was now engulfing his bedroom, as it was devoid of any

light. It was yet another moonless and unseasonably cold fall night on the Ponderosa ranch. Rubbing his temple to clear his still dazed state, Adam couldnít

remember a colder night as goose bumps suddenly appeared on his forearms. If it wasnít for the lack of light, his heated breath could have easily been seen as he

slowly exhaled. Noticeably, Adam deduced that the smouldering fire downstairs in the large living room was now probably only a mere memory with ashes as the

sole evidence of its existence. He immediately resisted the urge to snuggle back into the warmth and coziness of his bed as he suddenly remembered what had

woken him up from his deep, restful sleep. It had been a loud bang arousing from the house. He couldnít be sure of its origin or its cause. However since his father

was out! of town on business, Adam felt the need to investigate the noise as visions of his two younger brothers appeared in his mind still peacefully sleeping in their

respective bedrooms. Even though he knew that both Hoss and Joe could very well take care of themselves when the situation required, especially Hoss, as he was

taller than him with a much bigger frame, he nonetheless felt the need to be the one in charge. That meant for better as well as for worse.

 

After a few blinded attempts, Adam found some wooden matches on his night table and quickly lit the oil lamp. Slowly, his room came into view. As soon as he

arose from the bed, he suddenly regretted the responsibility of being the eldest as his feet were rudely welcomed onto the bitterly cold wooden floor. Letting out his

annoyance with a slight whispered swear, he quickly walked towards his bureau in search of wool socks and his warm housecoat. After successfully finding both,

Adam then debated on whether or not he should bring his gun along with him, but decided against it stating that he was getting paranoid in his old age. After

wrapping his robe around his fit, muscled frame, he noiselessly ventured into the hallway while holding the oil lamp at shoulder height. Noticing no light filtering

through either one of his brothersí doors, he decided to keep it that way. There was no need to awaken them. Itís enough that one Cartwright wouldnít get a

good night sleep tonight, he thought. A small smile plastered on Adamís face upon hearing his brotherís slight snore as he walked by Hossí bedroom.

 

When Adam reached the stairsí platform, he noticed nothing amiss as he quickly glanced amidst the large room. The area containing his fatherís desk, among others,

was undisturbed. It was just like he had left it the previous night. Also as predicted, the fireplace was devoid of any fire. Being already up, he made the decision to

start it up again after his careful search throughout the house. Getting his mind back on track, his first instinct was to search the kitchen next. Maybe, he thought, Hop

Sing, their loyal Chinese cook, is already up and working on breakfast. It was plausible even if it was unlikely as Adam glanced at the grand father clock next to

the main door. It was merely 3 oíclock in the morning. Not even Hop Sing as devoted as he was, would have been up this early. Coming around the corner of the

dining room and into the kitchen, Adam through the idea of Hop Sing being the culprit out the window. The kitchen, as the rest of the house, was lacking any

illumination or any sign of disturbance. Retracing his steps, he quickly deduced that it was probably nothing more than the wind as he could hear it suddenly gust

outside. After careful deliberation, Adam unlocked the front door in order to sneak a peak in the yard. He immediately regretted his decision as the bitter cold hit him

in the face. It felt like someone had slapped him square in the jaw. Braving the fierce sudden wind, he glanced outside in direction of the barn as he lifted the edges of

his housecoat around his neck with his free hand and reflexively squinted due to the iciness in the air. The last thing he wanted now was to succumb to a cold; he had

enough to do now with his father away for a few days without being another man short. Unfortunately, besides the blowing flaming coloured leaves that nonchalantly

danced in the wind, everything seemed, as it should be. Frustrated, Adam quickly but quietly closed the front door and replaced the bolt. The noise that had woken

him was unfortunately destined to remain a mystery.

 

He let out a slight sigh of frustration escape his mouth as he slowly walked towards the small pile of wood that was neatly staked by the immense hearth. At least his

little excursion wasnít going to be a complete loss. Setting the lamp on the dark wood coffee table, which stood nearby, he started to methodically placed some

splinted wood inside the hearth until suddenly a male voice, which sounded younger that his own, called out his name to his right. It made him jump in surprise,

almost dropping the wood that he held. Turning around, it took a few seconds to recognise the intruder that had startled him. As the light emitted by the lamp

flickered as it swayed from the circulating air, Adam barely recognised the young man that stood on the stairís last step. The manís disorderly short brown curls and

bright green eyes were now visible to the older man. "Joe! What are you doing up?" Adam started at his youngest brother. Even though he! kept his voice low,

annoyance and slight anger was clearly detected in it. Without letting a reply come, he continued, "You nearly scared me to death! Donít ever sneak up on me like

that ever again!"

 

Joe simply shrugged in response. Luckily for Adam, he was too tired to notice any sign of hostility in his brotherís tone. Joeís volatile, but short live temper was

renowned in the Cartwright household. It was a trait that he had inherited from his Louisiana Creole mother and probably also from his father. Rubbing his eyes, he

simply said, "I heard a noise and saw some light." After a quick glance across the room, Joe added, "Whatíre you doing, Adam?"

 

Suddenly, all of the irritation that Adam had felt vanished as a small smile pleasantly creased his face. His brother, clad in a white night-shirt that barely reached the

bottom of his knees at this moment looked more like a young child than his 22 years of age. It made his mind become the victim of an onslaught of pleasant

memories: ones where Joe would adamantly request Adam to read him a book or make his bedroom ghosts vanish, basically any excuse to delay bedtime. "Iím

starting a fire," he casually replied as he came back to the present, "Why donít you go back to bed? Weíve got a lot of work to do before Pa comes back from San

Francisco the day after tomorrow."

 

Joe unsuccessfully tried to nod as a yawn sneak upon him. Wrapping his arms around his slim waist as a shiver merciless crawled down his back, he stated, "Is it

ever cold in here!"

 

"Thatís why Iím starting a fire, little brother," Adam pleasantly responded.

 

"Glad itís you and not me, older brother. Ďnight!"

 

"ínight, Joe," Adam reciprocated as he watched his brother run up the stairs two steps at a time. Shaking his head in amusement, he went back to the task at hand.

The fire wasnít going to start itself.

 

It wasnít long before the large room was once again becoming warm and inviting. While seated directly in front of the hearth on the coffee table, Adam unknowingly

became hypnotised as he continuously stared at the growing fire. He could have almost swore that itís arm-like extensions were dancing in front of his brown eyes to

a music that no else could hear. He remained unmoved for several minutes before finally braking the spell as he rubbed his eyes just before passing his hands through

his raven hair. It was only after he started to profusely yawn that he made the decision to head on back to his room. The warm air radiating from the fire was

becoming so tempting that he had to really force himself back on his feet. But, he still had a long day ahead of him and best was to get some sleep or he would be

unbearable to work with. Sleep deprivation brought up the worse in his temper and thought best to spare his brothers of that unfortunate consequence. Reaching !for

his oil lamp, Adam started for the stairs.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

 

"Come on, Liíl Joe! This ainít a good time to sleep in!"

 

Grunting, Joe simply ignored the older manís demand as he remained in bed. It couldnít be morning already, he told himself as rolled onto his back. He had never

been an early riser and wasnít about to start now. After a few seconds and still not having heard the manís departure from his room, Joe slightly opened his right eye.

His brother Hoss already dressed for the dayís work simply stood at the foot of his bed with his hands on his hips. Even though Hossí mere physical appearance

would have enticed a paralysed stranger to walk, Joe knew better. Under that large broad frame and strong muscular arms stood a kind and gentle man whom found

the true meaning of life in itís simplicity. To his brother, Hoss was a human paradox. There was no wonder that his nickname was ĎLittle Joeí as him being the

shortest member of the family stood a head shorter of Benjamin Cartwrightís second son. But as soon as he !caught the determined glare in his older brotherís blue

eyes, Joe knew that he meant business. But being true to himself, he decided to test Hossí limits as he always tried to do with success most of the time. "In a minute,

Hoss," he nonchalantly replied closing his eye back shut.

 

Hoss grunted in disapproval before saying with a little more urgency, "Joe! Ya war there last night when Adam gave our shores for the day. The last thing I want is

fer ya to make him cross."

 

"What else would be new?" Joe sarcastically whispered. Older brother Adam had always been a sucker for punishment in his opinion when it came to physical

work. Unfortunately, the two brothers had butted heads over the subject several times in the past. If only Adam could loosen up a little, Joe internally thought.

 

"Dadburnit, Joe! How manyÖ"

 

"Okay, okay, Iím up," Joe replied as he gave up the fight. Hoss was right. The day was already going to be long. There was no point in making it any more miserable

than by alienating Adam as well. It was only when Joe fetch his pants and started to put them on that Hoss silently left the room satisfied with his small victory.

 

In a matter of a few minutes, Joe was dressed and ready to present himself to the breakfast table. He had shaved and combed his tangled mess of hair. His father,

since day one, had always been a stickler when it came to personal hygiene at every meal saying that living out West didnít mean that they should act uncivilised

around the table. Even with his fatherís absence, it was expected. Before venturing downstairs, Joe took a few seconds and enjoyed seeing the sun slowly rise up

above a nearby mountain through his bedroom window. It was such a breathtaking scene that he remained mesmerised for a moment. It promised to be a nice sunny

and, hopefully, warm day. Since most of the dayís chores required being outdoors, Joe hoped that the weather would be cooperative.

 

Slowly but surely, Joe descended the stairs. At every step, the warm air in the room increasingly embraced him. A large fiery fire was raging in the living room stone

hearth. It was a welcoming sight. Glancing around the room as he approached the dining room area, Joe noticed that Hoss was already seated at the table. Hop Sing

had once again outdone himself as the youngest Cartwright glanced across the table seeing mouth-watering pancakes, sausages, and hot coffee among other things.

"Couldnít wait? Could you, Hoss?" Joe jokingly stated as he took his place beside him. Hossí reputable appetite was renown across the whole Carson Valley. He

would eat practically anything, except cheese that is.

 

"I have to keep my strength up, liíl brother. Iíve nearly fainted outta hunger," Hoss replied between bites. Over the years, he had gotten used to the casual jokes

made about his eating habits, which not surprisingly, primarily came from his baby brother. Hoss knew that no harm was intended on the part of Joe and deduced

that the teasing was simply an example of brotherly love.

 

Joe let out a soft giggle at his brotherís response. Hoss, Joe deduced, acted like clockwork, always predictable. It was only as he poured himself some coffee that

he saw the empty chair and untouched cutlery across the table. Glancing across the large living area, Joe asked, "Whereís Adam? Heís usually the first one up."

 

"Donít know! I ainít see him."

 

"Maybe heís in the barn already doing the morning chores," Joe said answering his own question, secretly hoping that it was true. The more that Adam did the better.

Not that Joe dislike work, on the contrary, he worked as hard as anyone else did. He, with his brothers, had helped their father build a family empire, which was

now known as the Ponderosa. He just thought that he could spend his morning doing something more pleasant and interesting, like sleeping in. His father always told

him that everything demands sweat and hard work; Joe now knew that it was literally true. Nodding towards the hearth, he added, "I can see that he put some more

wood in the fire."

 

"Wrong on that one, liíl brother!" Hoss nonchalantly corrected the last part.

 

"What do you mean by that?"

 

"I saw Hop Sing put some logs in the fire when I came downstairs."

 

Joeís face twisted into a disconcerted frown. Seeing neither hind nor hair of Adam in the morning was unusual, at least, without knowing where he was. Seeing Hop

Sing enter the dining room carrying some more hot biscuits in a napkin-clad basket, Joe took the opportunity to question him. "Hop Sing?" As soon as he got the

small Chinese manís attention, he continued, "Did you see Adam this morning? Do you know where he is?"

 

Hop Sing vigorously shook his head, as he replied, "No, not seen Mista Adam all morniní." With that said, he quickly went back to the kitchen with his hands

clasped behind his back.

 

This was getting stranger by the minute. Joe couldnít shake the irrational feeling that something wasnít right. He knew that he was probably overreacting, as it wasnít

the first time that Adam hadnít been present at the breakfast table. But, a voice in the back of his mind was telling him different. Decided to act on it, Joe quickly ate

a biscuit before rising from his chair.

 

"Where are ya going? Ya ainít finished your meal," Hoss confusingly said as he held his brotherís arm in a strong yet painless grip, not letting him leave without an

explanation.

 

"Iím just going to make sure that older brother didnít sleep in," Joe said as nonchalantly as possible. He didnít want to worry Hoss. As soon as he uttered his

spoken words, he could see Hossí expression change from confusion to worry. He knew as well as Joe did that Adam had never overslept in his entire life. Cursing

himself for his lack of hindsight, Joe forced a smile in order to lighten the tense mood that was now being felt across the room. He quickly added, "Adam was up

very early this morning. I think that he was having trouble sleeping. He told me to go back to bed, but I donít think that he did the same." After a few seconds, Joe

wasnít sure that Hoss had bought his act, as he remained unmoved. However, Hoss simply shrugged and let go of his grip and went back to his breakfast.

 

As his brother turned around and headed for the stairs, Hoss could have sworn that he heard Joe sigh in relief, but he couldnít be sure. He knew that his little brother

hadnít been completely forward with him. To outsiders, Adam and Joe seemed to never be on the best of terms considering their frequent spats and most of all their

age difference, which span a little more than a decade. But Hoss knew better. Under the gruff relationship were two men who loved one another very much and had

the deepest respect for each other. Joeís obvious concern for Adam at the moment was a pure example to that. Hoss let a small smile slip onto his face as he thought

about how fortunate he was, having such a caring and loving family. Caught in pleasant thoughts, he didnít hear Joe call for him from upstairs until the second yell.

Clearing detecting fear in his brotherís voice, Hoss quickly dropped his fork and rose from the table. "What?" !he yelled back.

 

"Come up here now!"

 

Hoss didnít need to be told twice. As fast as his legs could, he raced upstairs in search of Joe. He could only imagine what would entice his brother to yell for him in

the manner that he did. Suddenly, he felt tension grow in his gut as a thought that maybe something was wrong with Adam. After a few seconds of search, Hoss

found Joe in their older brotherís bedroom. Fearing what he would see, he quietly walked into the room. In his first glance, he noticed that Adamís bed contained no

occupant and that it was left unmade. Turning his head a few degrees to the right, he caught sight of Joe. Hoss couldnít be certain if it was fear or shock or both that

was plastered on the youngest Cartwrightís face. Shifting his eyes downward, Hoss noticed that Joe was holding something, which happened to be black clothing

and dark boots. Suddenly it registered in Hossí mind; the clothes belong to Adam. His mouth fell open, but no sound came out.

 

"I searched the whole upstairs, even País room," Joe started, "I couldnít find him."

 

"WhÖ where could he be?" Hoss managed to say as he slowly regained control of his emotions. They both knew that it was too cold for anyone to be outside

without proper clothing, besides wearing no boots. If Adam was not in the house, but still wearing his night-shirt, then where could he be?

 

"I donít know!" Joe sadly said while shaking his head and depositing what he held on a chair adjacent to Adamís large desk, which contained various architectural

plans among other things. "His gun belt is still here," Joe continued as he pointed to a bed post, "He couldnít have gone far."

 

Hoss desperately tried to figure out the mystery as he scratched his head. Besides Adamís unexplained absence, everything seems to be in order. Suddenly

something occurred to him as he stated, "Ya said that ya saw him early this morniní."

 

Joe nodded as he replied, "Yeah, it was sometime before sunup."

 

"How did he seem?"

 

Joeís face creased in confusion. He couldnít understand where his brotherís question was leading to, but felt the need to answer nonetheless as he tried to recall the

scene. "The same. He was putting some logs in the fireplace. Said that he was starting a fire," Joe finished saying in a slight trance. After shaking his head in order to

clear it, he quickly added, "I donít know about you, brother, but Iím not going to stand here and do nothing." With that said, he abruptly brushed against Hoss as he

left the room.

 

"Where are we goiní?" Hoss asked as he followed his brother downstairs deliberately including himself in Joeís scheme. He wasnít about to be excluded especially

when it came down to finding Adam. Growing up, his older brother had always been there as far as Hoss could remember; always lending a hand, reading him a

book, helping him with his homework, being a shoulder to cry on, and so on. There was simply no way that Hoss was going to let anything happen to his big brother.

No way.

 

"To find Adam!"

 

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

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 2

 

 

In a swift movement, Joe grabbed his green coat and Cowboy hat that hung by the door. Hossí face sagged a little when he noticed that Joe had also wrapped his

gun belt around his waist and consequently placed his gun securely inside. It was hard to tell whether or not that last action had been simply a reflex or was Joe really

expecting trouble. Instead of questioning his brotherís intentions, Hoss mimicked Joeís actions.

 

However, as soon as the younger Cartwright reached for the door latch, Hoss quickly grabbed Joeís left arm and held him back. Seeing brewing worry that was

slowly turning into anger in the green eyes which squarely stared back at him, Hoss thought best to immediately explain his abrupt action. "The door is unlocked," he

simply stated as he physically pointed to the opened latch.

 

Joeís face had moved swiftly with his brotherís hand as if it had been attached to it via puppet strings. At first, Joe nonchalantly dismissed his brotherís uttered

words. Then, suddenly it hit him. He precisely remembered Adam locking the door just before retiring for the night. Adam never liked having the door unlocked

during the night, especially when their father was absent. There was simply one explanation; Adam had ventured outside during the night and had never returned for

some unknown reasons. Joe started to visualise his brother clad only in his nightwear in the freezing cold night, alone, hurtÖ. He quickly mentally shook his head of

negative thoughts, which were starting to unfold like a terrible nightmare. He needed to have a clear mind in order to find out the location of his brother and Hossí

quick intervention proved him that wasnít the case.

 

Hoss was also experiencing ever changing emotions as they were being visibly displayed across his face. He had always been someone whom could be read like an

open book. He quickly closed his eyes for a few seconds in order to calm down as his emotions were suddenly getting the better of him. Then suddenly, without

uttering a single word, Hoss extending his long arm, touching Joeís chest in the process, as he reached for the door. Leading the way, he ventured outside with his

kid brother directly at his heels. Despite the increasing heat that the vibrant orange sun was now emitting as it slowly climbed the stairs to heaven, the air was yet

frosty as it caught both Cartwrights by surprise. Even though, the wind had considerably calmed down from the previous night, it was still crisp as well as unflinching.

Both of them tried to ignore their slight shivering as they had more important things on their mind. Unable to determine where to begin their search, it was Hoss

whom! took the initiative and headed for the large barn, which held the familyís horses. But as soon as he started to walk, he abruptly stopped in his tracks making

Joe bounced off his back like a ragged doll.

 

"What theÖ"

 

"Liíl JoeÖ ainít that one of our oil lamps?" Hoss carefully stated as he pointed with his head in the direction of the porch.

 

At first glance, Joe saw nothing out of the ordinary as he took sight of the two chairs and table that occupied the narrow area. It wasnít until he glanced at the

wooden floor that his heart skipped a beat. Near one of the legs of the farthermost chair lied a lopsided iron-cased oil lamp with a visible crack, which resemble a

haphazard spider web, on its glass chimney. After a few silent seconds and a shared glance, Joe slowly approached the lamp as if it was a dangerous rattlesnake

ready to strike, while Hoss remained back simply unable to move. Getting a closer view as he lowered a knee onto the ground, Joe could see that the wick had

thankfully been extinguish before impact, probably by the wind and that the lampís encasement displayed an inward bulge but no fissure leaking kerosene. Even

under the tense situation, Joe let out a soft sigh of relief as thoughts of burning wood popped into his head. Luckily the weather and durability of iron saved the

Ponderosa ranch as well as its sleeping occupants of an unavoidable doom. It wasnít until carefully cradling the lamp like a new-born baby that he suddenly came to

the realisation that Adamís welfare was proving to be more and more questionable. Quickly, he verbally displayed his doubts, "Hoss? Do you remember seeing an

oil lamp in Adamís room?"

 

After a few seconds of deep thought, a response came. "No."

 

"I know and I clearly remember seeing him using one earlier this morning," Joe said with conviction. Since most lamps in the house were similar in construction, it was

hard to determine where it was being used. However, everything pointed to it being Adamís.

 

In an instant, Hoss bolted for his intended goal before the interruption. He wasnít about to waste precious minutes while Adam was cold and probably hurt

somewhere on the ranch. It being the largest ranch in the whole Carson valley was a feat in itself, but Hoss wasnít one to let himself worry about odds or numbers.

He just wanted to find his brother.

 

As soon as Joe saw his brother hurried towards the barn, he placed the lamp onto the table and jumped down the porch, which thankfully lacked any type of

banister. Joe rushed to catch up with him. "Hoss?" Joe called, "Maybe, you should check around the house and Iíll ask the hands if any one saw him."

 

As quickly as he had started, Hoss abruptly stopped in his tracks. His little brother was right. Best to start inward then expand from there. It was the best and most

logical way to search for their elder brother. "Fine," he simply replied with intense blue eyes. Back tracking, he then headed for the house, while Joe hurried on

towards the bunkhouse where many of their hired men slept.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Hoss had been looking for what seemed the better part of an hour, but knew different. Looking at the yet rising sun, he determined it to have been barely a half an

hour. Suddenly, grief caught up with him as he choked back a tear. Adam had been the one whom had taught him how to tell time by the sun so many years ago.

How he long for that brotherly advice now! Before allowing grief get the better of him, he quickly moved on with his search. As he peered through and behind

anything that could keep a large man hidden, Hoss was caught by surprise as a clearly agitated Chinese man walked towards him from the nearby outside kitchen

door. "Hop Sing? Whatís wrong?" he automatically asked wondering what could have made the small man so crossed.

 

Hop Sing angrily said some few words in his native language, which Hoss believed to be Chinese swear words before finally saying in broken English, "You not eat

breakfast! Throw it away! Hop Sing cook for nothing! Will goÖ"

 

"Calm down, Hop Sing," Hoss quickly interrupted the manís tirade. It wasnít until after making sure that he had Hop Singís full attention that he continued, "Me and

Joe ainít hungry now. Adamís misÖ"

 

"Mista Hoss not hungry?" Hop Sing incredulously interrupted in turn not believing his ears. Having been the familyís cook for more than two decades, he had never

seen Benís middle son neither missed nor not finished one meal. Ever.

 

"We got to find Adam first. We donít know where he is."

 

Suddenly, Hop Singís face twisted from anger to surprise to fear. He wasnít sure that he had heard was correct. Adam is missing. He must have misunderstood. So,

he carefully asked, "Mista Adam missing?" Seeing that Hoss simply nodded in response, Hop Sing quickly added, "Hop Sing help search!"

 

Hossí quick reaction stopped the man in his tracks by grabbing onto his arm. "No, Hop Sing. Me and Joe can take care of that. Ya go back inside." Seeing

stubborn determination in the manís dark eyes, Hoss felt the need to be persuasive. Even though his heart felt warm realising the true devotion and compassion that

their servant felt towards the whole family, Hoss knew that it was best if Hop Sing held the fort and consequently remained inside. "Please!" Hoss lovingly

demanded. Even though he could still see refusal in Hop Singís eyes, he let out a deep satisfying sigh as the smaller man quickly turned back inside, flinging his long

pony tail in the process. The door was shut louder than usual.

 

"Whatís wrong with Hop Sing?" a voice suddenly asked from behind.

 

Hoss turned to see his brother standing directly in back of him with hands resting squarely on his hips barely above his gun belt, which hung loosely around it. Joeís

expression was one of a small child. "Nuthin," Hoss answered as he shrugged. He didnít have the energy to explain everything at the moment. Changing subjects, he

quickly continued on, "Find anythiní?"

 

It was Joeís turn to simply shrug, but this time in defeat. "None of the men have seen Adam since yesterday." With eyes of a young lost child, Joe simply looked at

his brother, hoping beyond hope that Hoss had found something, even though, he could tell through body language that wasnít the case.

 

"I looked everywhere and anywhere, liíl brother, except the barn area," Hoss answered knowing what was left unsaid. As he was about to head for his next target,

Joe swiftly but softly placed a hand on his older brotherís chest.

 

"No need."

 

Hoss violently pushed Joeís right hand away as he stated with anger detected in both his demeanour as well as his tone of voice, "Get outta my way, Joe." Hoss

couldnít understand why his brother wasnít allowing him to proceed.

 

Joe flinched slightly at Hossí harsh words. He knew that he was only seconds away of being on the receiving end of a blow if he didnít explain himself soon. He

should have know that Hoss would be as protective of Adam as he was. "Hoss, I already searched that whole area before I came to find you. Adamís horse is still

in the stable, butÖ still no sign of him."

 

Hoss lowered his head in defeat. Whereís Adam?, he kept on asking himself over and over. He couldnít have simply disappeared. There had to be an explanation

and Hoss was going to find it even if it meant looking behind every bush and under every rock in the whole state of Nevada. It was only Joeís unintelligible words

that brought him back to the present and consequently made him look up. "What?"

 

Joe exhaled deeply before repeating, "I said that we should go into town and talk to the Sheriff. Maybe Roy can help us."

 

"Yeah," was the only word that Hoss voiced just before starting to walk side by side with his brother towards the barn. With shoulders slumped forward, Hoss

silently followed Joe inside the large wooden building.

 

Joe, by reflex, lifted his hat in order to pass a hand through his thick hair as he walked towards his pinto horse named Cochise. He had welcomed the slight heat as

soon as he had entered the barn. It was slightly heated by a medium sized wood stove in the far right end corner in order to keep the horses warm and content. He

managed to affectionately pat the neck of Cochise before joining his brother and fetching his saddle, which hung on the shoulder height partition that separate his

horse with Adamís. Both Cartwright brothers prepared for their long and painful journey into town in total silence. Words escaped them both, as there was nothing

that could have been said, which would miraculously solve the mystery of Adamís sudden disappearance. Joe, especially, felt sorrowful as it occurred to him that he

had been the last person whom actually had seen the eldest Cartwright son. Sparing quick glances at Adamís own horse was like driving a knife into his !heart every

time. What made things even worse was the knowledge that their father was soon to arrive back from his trip in San Francisco and Joe couldnít think of any good

way of telling him Adamís fate. Benjamin Cartwright had been through enough grief throughout his lifetime as he had lost three wives, and Joe wasnít prepare to

witness his fatherís ultimate mental collapse if Adam wasnít to be found. They had barely a few days before they would have to face the Cartwright patriarch. So,

Joe knew that they had no other choice but to find Adam and soon.

 

Joe started to lead his horse outside, when he suddenly heard a painful grunt emitting from behind him. It made him immediately stop in his tracks just barely two feet

from the door. Looking back, he questioned his brother who had been quietly following him, "Hoss, whatís wrong?" Seeing blue eyes filled with confusion stare

back, he added, "Why did you make that grunting sound?"

 

"What the heck are ya talking about, liíl brother?" Hoss replied, "I ainít opÖ"

 

"ShhhÖ" Joe interrupted as he placed his left index finger on his lips.

 

After a few seconds, another grunt could be painfully heard over the neighing of the horses. This time, both of them had heard it coming from somewhere inside the

barn. Hossí eyes shot right wide as he came to the realisation that they werenít alone. Leading Chubb, his own horse, back into its stall, Hoss commenced his search

of the building with Joe not far behind. It wasnít until a more distinct groan had been heard that they had any substantiating knowledge of where it originated. Hoss

led the way with his hand freely on the butt of his gun in direction of their father horseís empty stall, where a large bundle hay started to move. As he slowly crept

one foot at a time inside the eerie stall, Hoss felt the back of his hairs rise up like a jackrabbitís ears upon hearing some strange noise. He could also feel his brother

tense up beside him as well. In a courageous act, Hoss kneeled down and brushed aside the hay. He knew that Joe was ready! to back him up if need be. It wasnít

until most of the hay was pushed aside that Hossí face lit up in recognition.

 

"Adam?" he immediately exclaimed as he, helped by Joe, removed most of the dry and prickly hay from their eldest brotherís seemingly immobile body.

 

Adam was lying on his side with his face facing towards the outside wall. His eyes were still closed shut, yet with no sign of a quick awakening as his eyelids didnít

flicker. Hoss carefully placed Adamís head on his knees as he and Joe rolled their brother onto his back. Besides being slightly dirty, Adamís robe and night-shirt

looked undisturbed. A colossal and broad bump, which colours resembling the one of stormy clouds, could be seen on his forehead; it had undoubtedly grown in

size since the original impact. Joe let his hands scrutinise every inch of Adamís body in search of any sign of possible wound. Luckily, he found none. However, his

smile quickly disappeared as he took notice of Hossí expression, which was one of dread. Frowning in confusion, it was only when he looked down onto Hossí

hands that his face dropped to the floor. Both of Hossí palms were covered in red substance that Joeís first reaction was to refuse to acknowledge it as blood.

 

For several seconds, Hoss and Joe remained completely speechless as both felt like they had been physically kicked in the gut. It was Joe whom broke the

awkward silence by stating, "Iíll go and get the Doc." Even though Joe didnít want to leave his wounded brotherís sight, he felt less assure of leaving the

responsibility of finding Doctor Martin to a hired hand. Without uttering another word, Joe bolted for Cochise and hurriedly left the barn for help. As he starting

losing sight of the ranchís house, Joe whispered a prayer for his brother.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 3

 

 

Seating slightly upright in his bed, Adam Cartwright rubbed his temple in a futile attempt to alleviate its growing pressure and increasing pain. Doctor Paul Martin had

been gone now for over two hours. This was the first time he had been somewhat lucidly awake since his ambush, which now was more than 14 hours ago. Adam

had assure Martin that he would religiously follow his instructions of bed rest and to later take the medication that the much older man had left at his bedside. Due to

close examination and medical expertise through experience, Martin had come to deduce that there was no fracture underneath the swelling. However, he was

mystified to learn that because of the now stitched up large gash behind Adamís head, the oldest Cartwright son had no recollection of what had occurred to him

during the early hours of the morning. His memory of his accident was a like a bottomless pit in which he could fetch no information. And to make matters worse was

the knowledge that the large bump emitting from his forehead would be the leading cause of two future black eyes as blood would slowly drain from it into his eye

sockets. He could only imagine how he would look like during the following days, probably like a monster fit for Halloween or worthy of Mary Shellyís

Frankenstein. There was no way he would be able to hide the incident from his father now, even though he had never made a decision to do so anyway.

 

Even though he hated to admit it, Adam was undoubtedly going be stuck in his bedroom for several more days, or at least until he could stand on his own two feet

without feeling either nausea or disorientation. He already felt like a caged animal now; he could imagine what his mood would be knowing that he wouldnít be able

to help with all the work that was still left to be done before winter. Already, he slightly pitied his brothers as well as his father. Joe was the only human being that

took bed rest worse than Adam. He couldnít help but smile through the pain as he saw two hurt puppy looks gazed at him across the room. Hoss and Joe had

nervously been silent since Martinís departure. "What wrong?" Adam asked as he unsuccessfully tried to scratch an itch behind his head bandage, which was

consequently wrapped around his head covering both of his injuries. He needed for his brothers to talk as Adam hated silence in moments just like these as much as

fingernails across a blackboard.

 

"Nuthin," Hoss finally replied as he scratched behind his right ear. He wanted to tell his brother how much he was happy to have him back, but couldnít find the right

words. Since his older brother was a university graduate, Hoss didnít feel to be on the same playing field as Adam was when it concerned words or school for that

matter. Adam seemed to consume books like dry desert ground would absorb first rainfall, while Hoss, on the other end, would have to reread pages several times

before finally understanding. But, to Hossí delight, Adam had never ever treated him like an inferior because of it, which made his heart swell up even more.

 

"Come on, will you two take those worried looks of your faces? Iíll be okay. You both heard the Doc, I just need some rest," Adam stated as he dropped his arms

by his side in a sign of impatience.

 

Joe nervously cleared his throat as he broached a still unanswered and slightly taboo question, "What about your memory, Adam? Will you ever be able to

remember anything?"

 

Adam was silent as he thought about the answer that he would eventually have to give his brother. Even though his stomach twisted into a knot at the very possibility

of never remembering the events that were responsible for his injuries, he was somewhat relieved of the darkness that presently engulfed them. Maybe it was best if

he didnít remember. But if they were to find whoever was responsible and give them their well deserved retribution, he had to regain his memory and soon. Seeing

that Joe was impatiently awaiting, Adam simply shrugged as he honestly answered, "I donít know, Joe."

 

"Donít you want to find out who was responsible for this?" Joe animatedly said, clearly not satisfied with the answer, "and why?"

 

Before Adam had an opportunity to answer, Hoss quickly stepped in, "Joe, if Adam could remember, I reckon he would. Like the Doc said, itís just goiní to take

some time."

 

"But how long?" Joe almost whispered back. He didnít like seeing Adam at a physical disadvantage. He couldnít wait to get his hands on whoever was responsible

for his big brotherís injuries. He would show them a little about Western hospitality.

 

Just as Adam was about to try to lessen his youngest brotherís worries, a loud knock could be heard downstairs. Looking at each other, all three Cartwright

brothers were perplexed as who could be making a visit to the Ponderosa. "I wonder who that could be," Adam replied as he self-cautiously touched the lump on his

forehead. It better not be a visitor of the female persuasion, Adam quickly thought.

 

"Iíll go and see," Joe volunteered as he left the room. He took the stairs two at a time as he quickly descended. Whoever it was he would have to politely but hastily

ask them to leave. Adam needed his rest and several chores where yet to be done before sundown. Joe let a small smile cross his face as soon as he realised that he

was thinking just like Adam. Who would have thought that he would be worried about work at a time like this? In a long swift move, Joe reached the door and

opened it. He was slightly caught by surprise as soon as he recognised the two callers coming into view. "SheriffÖ Deputy, how did you find out about Adam being

ambushed? I went to see you when I was in Virginia City to get the Doc, but you werenít in town," Joe blurted out as he let the two men walk inside.

 

"News travels fast," The sheriff nonchalantly replied as he took his hat off in sign of courtesy. Roy Coffee was a man of Benís age, slightly build with grey thinning

hair and a small matching moustache. He was deeply respected across town as a man of integrity, whom also happened to be a close personal friend of the

Cartwright family. Beside him stood his newly employed deputy named Andy Devin, who resembled Coffee in features, but nonetheless was fifteen years his junior.

Mimicking the sheriff, he had also taken his Cowboy hat off, which revealed his balding blond hair. "We were wondering if we could speak with Adam," Roy quickly

asked as he glanced across the large living space.

 

"Heís in his room right now. Doc told him to rest."

 

"Donít worry, Little Joe, I ainít going to keep him long," Roy persisted detecting slight reluctance in the young Cartwrightís voice, "Andy and I just want to ask him a

few questions."

 

"HumÖ okayÖ but you wonít like his answers," Joe responded as he led both men upstairs. Since Adamís bedroom door had been kept opened, Joe simply

walked inside with the two visitors in tow.

 

It was Roy whom spoke first, "Good-day AdamÖ Hoss," he politely stated as he acknowledged them both. Both of them simply nodded back, even though Adam

grimaced in pain immediately after doing so. Taking a seat adjacent to the bed, Roy quickly went on, "I heard from local folks that youíve taken a beaten. I can

clearly see that they werenít mincing words."

 

Adam slightly smirked at the sheriffís remark as he rubbed the side of his pounding head. "Yeah, itís definitely looks like it," he replied with a touch of sarcasm. With

his amnesia, that was about all he knew. He felt like a student being tested on a book, which he had never even read. It was unnerving.

 

"Do you have any idea who did this to you, boy?"

 

"I donít know, Roy."

 

"Did they take anythiní? Was it a robbery?"

 

Adam quickly glanced at Hoss and Joe, respectively, hoping that they would know if anything had been stolen from the house. But to his dismay, they simply

shrugged. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Adam repeated, "I donít know."

 

"How many jumped you?" This time the question came from the deputy, who casually leaned against the bedroom doorís frame with his arms folded across his

chest, temporary covering his badge in the process.

 

The answer was the same.

 

Hoss and Joe exchanged amused glances as they could see that the sheriff was getting disappointed with Adamís answers. He obviously knew nothing of Adamís

present condition. It wasnít often that they would see Roy get mad out of simple frustration; it was quite a scene to watch. They knew that if their father had been

present, this whole interrogation would have never gone this far.

 

Oblivious to the hidden smiles, Roy kept on with his interrogation, clearly getting agitated, "Do you know what time you were bushwhacked?" Before Adam even

had the opportunity to open his mouth, the sheriff quickly sarcastically added, "No, donít tell meÖ you donít know. Ainít it so?"

 

Adamís face remained unreadable. He didnít like the tone of voice in which the last question had been asked, but let it go by anyway. It was clear that the sheriff as

well as the deputy were still in the dark concerning the true extent of his injuries. Instead of feeling annoyed, he suddenly felt his eyes droop as his body was once

again losing a battle with persistent slumber. Quickly, he stated, "As a matter of fact Roy, I clearly remember that a loud noise woke me up at 3. But, thatís the last

and only thing. The rest of it is a total blank. The last thing I knew I was waking up here in my bed with Hoss looking over me."

 

Roy looked so confused that Joe felt the need to enlighten him. "Doc Martin said that Adam is experiencing some type of memory loss caused by the serious blow to

his head. Thereís simply no telling when his memory will come back."

 

Both the sheriff and the deputyís faces slightly dropped to the floor as soon as their brains registered the information. This was any lawmanís worst nightmare. How

would they be able to solve this crime with neither a witness nor any solid evidence? Getting over the shock, Roy decided to ask one final question to Adam before

going on with his business. But as soon as he turned his head towards the bedís occupant, he quickly let out a grunt in sign of annoyance. Adam was fast asleep,

being the victim of his own bodyís medicine - rest.

 

"I guess that Iíll have to come back later," Roy said as he slowly rose from the chair. Nodding to Devin, he quickly exited Adamís bedroom. Quietly closing the

door behind him, Hoss along with Joe followed suit, leaving their older brother to pleasant dreams and to well deserve quietude for now knowing that they would

have to keep a very close eye on him during the next few days.

 

It wasnít until Coffee and Devin were at the bottom of the stairs that Roy spoke again. "Tell me what you two know about the attack on your brother."

 

"Liíl Joe, ya know more about it than I do," Hoss replied after he spared a quick glance towards his younger brother. The consecutive incidences that eventually led

to the discovery of Adam were not something that Hoss like to think about, even less talk about.

 

Joe waited until all four men were facing each other near the ranchís entrance door before indulging the older manís wishes. Just like Adam, he knew practically

nothing that could possibly help the sheriff in the investigation, which consequently made him very angry with himself. After letting a loud sigh escape his mouth, he

answered as accurately as possible.

 

"WellÖ," he started, "before dawn, I found Adam putting wood in the hearth to start a fire. It must have been around 3 like he said, but I canít be sure. I didnít

really pay attention to the timeÖ Anyway, I went back to bed thinking that Adam did the same. It wasnít until Hoss and I were seating at the breakfast table that I

noticed his absence. Hop Sing hadnít seen him all morning too. So, I went upstairs thinking that he had simply overslept. I went to find his room empty, his bed

unmade and his day clothes were still hanging over his deskís chair. Thatís when we knew something was wrong," After taking a deep breath, he continued to a now

captivated audience, "It was then that we continued our search outside. Hoss noticed Adamís oil lamp dented and laying under one of the chairs on the porch. We

then decided to split up in our search. Hoss went to search around the house and stable while I asked our men if they had seen Adam. Both of us came out empty. It

wasnít until we were ready to give up and go into town to talk to you that we noticed Adam beaten and covered in hay in the corner of the barn. Thatís when I went

into town to fetch the doctor and Hoss brought Adam insideÖ Thatís it."

 

"So, he was bushwhacked sometime between 3 andÖ 6 or 7. Right?" Coffee asked as a thought had occurred to him.

 

"I guess so," Hoss answered with a slight shrug, not understanding the importance of time.

 

"He must have been led outside for some reasons. If it was a lone attacker, Adam was probably ambushed from behind, which would be supported by his injuries.

On the other end, he could have simply be outnumbered."

 

"Which leads us to what?" Joe impatiently asked the sheriff. If only he knew where Coffee was leading to with his hypothetical questions, then maybe he could help

him find clues to the identity of the culprit or culprits.

 

"It was probably robbery," Devin casually stated as he shared a look with Coffee, whom nodded in response. "Probably a horse or something that would help them

made a quicker get-a-way." Once again, Coffee agreed with his deputyís way of thinking. They spoke as if they were the only ones taking part in the discussion.

 

Both Joe and Hoss simply shared a confused glance. It was as if the two lawmen spoke a different language. Nothing that they were saying was making any sense to

either Cartwright men. "Roy? Whatís this all about?" Hoss asked as he frowned making his forehead wrinkle into wave-like lines.

 

Coffee suddenly stopped fidgeting with his hat that he held in his hands when he saw two men gazing at him. Noticing that he had lost two of them along the way, he

patiently explained it all as he said, "Mayor James Norton youngestí daughterís had disappeared. The mayor just reported it less than an hour ago."

 

"What?" Hoss quickly stated, not believing his ears. Looking at his brotherís shaken demeanour, he could tell that his brother was experiencing the same feelings,

ones of shock and confusion. "Miss Josieís missing?" He asked thinking that he had misunderstood.

 

Once again, Devin jumped into the conversation. "Yes. We believe that she was kidnapped."

 

"Kidnapped?" It was Joeís turn to interrupt. His voice had been slightly elevated as he suddenly realised the true seriousness of the incident. Who could have done

such a thing? Joe asked himself still under the shock. Then, it suddenly hit him. He was starting to understand bits and parts of the conversation that the sheriff and

the deputy had earlier had. The clouds hanging over his head were slowly starting to pull apart, letting sunlight break through. Without letting either lawman answer,

he quickly added in a more controlled and serious voice, "You think thatÖ that whoever kidnapped Josieís also responsible for Adamís attack."

 

Coffee slowly nodded in response. "Thatís what we think, but beliefs wonít hold up in court. We need evidence."

 

"Roy, whatíre ya planning on duiní now?" Hoss asked as his body started to tense up due to its inactivity. He needed to do something fastÖ anything that would

keep his mind off Adam recuperating upstairs and the injustice of it all. Whatever the sheriff had in mind, he wanted to be part of it, at any cost.

 

"Well, we have a posse waiting to follow a trail. We think that they are bringing Miss Norton to California through the Ponderosa. To be honest boys, we ainít got

much to go on."

 

Both of Hoss and Joeís shoulders slumped in slight defeat. This wasnít going to he easy to solve. With a human life hanging in the balance, they both knew that

something had to be done, but couldnít fathom what that was exactly. With determination emitting from his pale blue eyes, Hoss stated in a strong decisive voice,

"Roy, Iíll come with ya. Joe can stay here with Adam and wait until Pa gets back." He could see that his little brother was about to voice his disagreement over the

idea, but Hoss quickly stepped in to avoid any argument, "Joe, Iíve made my decision. Besides, Hop Sing canít be left alone. Theyíre still work to be done, liíl

brother and someone gonna have to take care of Adam."

 

Joe reluctantly nodded. Even though he hated to admit it, his brother was right. Someone would have to stay with Adam, as he would demand constant care and

attention during the next few hours due to his rickety physical status. Joe quickly came to conclusion that he might as well be him staying back since Hoss was the

best tracker that he had ever known. If someone was to find whoever was responsible for this chaos, it sure was to be his older brother. "Fine," was all that the

youngest Cartwright managed to say.

 

"Good, then itís settled," Hoss said as he rounded the corner in direction of the kitchen, "Iíll be right out, Roy."

 

 

††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††********

 

All around him, vibrantly coloured leaves fell to the ground at what seemed to be at every breezeís whim. Some of them even reached his face as he slowly rode on

Chubb, just ahead of the posse, down a slightly used path in the south-western part of the Ponderosa. If it hadnít been for the true reason for his venture outdoors,

Hoss could have really enjoyed the majestic beauty that was now enfolding in front of his eyes just like a painting. In Hossí eyes, the contrast of colours was so

vibrant during this time of year that it made fall definitively one of his favourite seasons. It was serene and peaceful. Like his father has said at many different

occasions, heaven would have to come some to beat the thousands of square miles of the Ponderosa. His heart suddenly swelled up as he graciously thank God for

carrying the Cartwright surname. However, Hoss knew that he had to keep his mind on his tracking. He couldnít be swayed from his work as so much hanged in the

balance. Josieís safety. Adamís revenge. He needed to be focus and alert. Unfortunately, his stomach had started to growl a way back down the trail, but he

begrudgingly tried to ignore it for the time being. It was hard to do. Not knowing how long he would have to look for that needle in the haystack, he had wisely

asked Hop Sing to prepare a lunch for him. But, deciding against making a stop now, Hoss kept on as the other members of the posse silently followed suite.

 

As he glanced upwards, Hossí face twisted into a dubious frown. What lied ahead was making him regret even volunteering in this search for justice. In the northern

part of the sky stood a dark grey retching looking wall of clouds, which was slowly approaching the posse from a distance. It was eerie to watch as it ferociously

and indiscriminately swallowed the blue sky as it crept forward. He quickly calculated about two hours before doomsday. With his fingers sprayed open, Hoss lifted

his arm, bending it at the elbow with his hand lifted towards the sky. It was the automatic sign for stop.

 

Sheriff Coffee approached Hoss as he leered his own horse forward. "That sky donít look too good, Hoss."

 

Hoss simply nodded in response. Lifting his ten-gallon, light tan hat backwards, he passed a gloved hand over his sweaty brow. He should have know that a storm

was brewing at the first feeling of the temperature getting warmer. He cursed the timing of it all. Or maybe, itís was to their advantage. With a storm close by, it will

undoubtedly slow down the travels of whoever was responsible for Josieís capture. But, it was still a double-edged sword, as it would also stall their rescue efforts.

 

"I think we should find shelter before that storm hits," volunteered the deputy, whom had silently joined the two men ahead. The last thing he wanted was to get

drenched and get pneumonia.

 

"We canít stop now!" came of raised voice from behind them. The voice belonged to the mayor of Virginia City and consequently Josieís father. Seated upon a

black stallion, James Norton stood tall and distinguished. Norton, an ageing man in his late fifties, looked refined with a neatly trimmed greyish moustache and

piercing blue eyes. He mirrored dignity as well integrity.

 

Coffee didnít like insolence when he was in charge of a posse, even if it was coming from such a man as important as Norton. Quickly, he regained control of the

situation. "MayorÖ Iím in charge here and I happen to agree with Andy. Those clouds, over there, are mean looking. WeíveÖ"

 

"Youíre not going to stop the search, are you? Roy, this is my daughter t-"

 

"Mayor! Iím only goiní to say this once more. Iím in charge here! If yaíre not happy with the way itís done, then I suggest ya go back into town." Coffee waited for

Norton to get a grip on his emotions. Seeing that the mayor was angrily leaning back in his saddle in defeat, Roy felt the need to add in a calmer voice, "Iím not

sayiní to weíre stopping the search for your daughter. I just believe that if we intend on continuiní on, which I do, then we need to find some shelter before that

storms hits."

 

James Norton discontentedly agreed with the sheriff.

 

While the sheriff and the mayor were disagreeing on the next tactics of the posse, Hoss had taken the opportunity to inspect the surroundings more carefully. After

something caught the corner of his eye, he broke the silence that had suddenly tensely enveloped them. He had never been one that liked confrontations. His father

had always told him that he was a great mediator, especially since he had great practice being one during most of his brothersí everlasting arguments. "Roy, I think

that weíre on the right track. See those branchesÖ" Hoss stated as he pointed with his right hand towards the lower branches of a tall fir tree, "it looks like someone

been here lately." In fact, the branches had been snapped off at what seemed to be the right height of a horse riding through the area. Finally, a lead, Hoss told

himself in relief. Maybe the previous four hours and more of search wasnít a waste of time.

 

"What tells you that it ainít the wind?" Devin asked slightly dubious.

 

"It ainít the wind!" Hoss automatically replied as he quickly dismounted his horse with a touch of annoyance detected in his voice. If he needed to prove his ability,

then so be it. Squatting down under the broken branches, he pointed towards a small u-shaped burrow marking the ground like a scar would to the skin. Brushing

aside some debris around the edges, Hoss carefully examined the imprint with intense blue eyes. Looking back towards the sheriff, he carefully laid it out,

"Horseshoe printÖ no doubt. Fresh too."

 

Norton let a small grunt escape his mouth. Even though, he very much wanted to find his daughter. He still didnít want to follow a wild goose chase and the pit of his

stomach was saying it was just that. A wild goose chase. But to his surprise, neither the sheriff nor the deputy agreed with him.

 

"Letís go," Coffee stated having the outmost respect for Hoss Cartwrightís tracking ability. He was the best. If he couldnít find the ones responsible for Miss Norton

disappearance and Adamís injuries, then no one would, especially in his own backward. All four Cartwright men knew the Ponderosa like that back of their hands.

It was good to have them on their side. Always good.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 4

 

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

 

The axe, hanging in mid air, was above his head for a split second before Joe let it come down in a long swift movement, letting the shear gravity takes its toll on the

merciless piece of wood below. Splitting in two, the wood had stood no chance. Having been at it for close to two hours, Joeís back was starting to ache, but

continued on nonetheless. He felt a certain responsibility of keeping the ranch running as smoothly as possible. Thankfully, Hop Sing had graciously volunteered to

watch over Adam for a few hours while Joe executed his family duty.

 

Hard work and sweat. Whack. Sweat and pain. Whack. Pain and anger. Whack. Anger and Revenge. Whack. RevengeÖ. ĎJooossseeephhí he could almost hear

his father yell in his mind, as his subconscious wouldnít allow him to go down that destructive path. Letting the axe drop next to the tree stump, Joe rubbed a balled

fist into his lower back as he slowly walked towards a wooden barrel, which contained water, ever refreshing water. As he sipped some water from a long stemmed,

wooden ladle, Joe contemplated on the chores that were yet to be done. Considering the turn of events, it was best if he concentrated working around the house for

today. Venturing off towards the South pasture in order to fix the fence was simply out of the question. He needed to be nearby, besides that was a day job for at

least two. After quenching his thirst, Joe wiped his mouth with his gloved left hand. Even though the air was still cool, he had foregone his jacket due to his! increased

perspiration and his hat due to its awkwardness. Despite his present physical exhaustion, it felt good doing something constructive and physical, as it helped alleviate

some of his ever-growing frustration and brewing anger.

 

Having kept the entrance door slightly open, Joe simply backed into it in order to enter the large ranch house. Tired beyond words and aching everywhere, Joe

simply let his bundle dropped from his hands in a loud thundering noise next to the hearth. He had chopped enough firewood for the night. With what seemed to be

his last drop of energy, Joe sluggishly let himself fall into his fatherís favourite brown leather chair, which was located adjacent to the hearth, on its left. Eyes closed,

Joe simply let the warmth of the nearby smouldering fire caressed his face as sleep suddenly started to invade him. It was useless to attempt a defence against it, as

his heart was simply not in the fight as every muscles of his aching body had given him their walking papers. It had been a long day, emotionally as well as physically,

and all that Joe wanted to do now was rest.

 

Seconds after sleep won the battle, Joe was already amidst a dream, a pleasant restful one at that. He could see himself seating in a large canoe on an immense

lake between two other men with a fishing pole in his hands. Above him, the vibrant sun shined upon his head on a perfect cloudless blue sky. It seemed to

be summer as he could see the trees, in their full blossom, delicately move with the slight, warm Southern wind. He could even hear birds sing their love

songs in a distance. Smiling, he embraced the welcoming and soothing sight of both of his brotherís broad smiles as they talked about who would catch

the biggest fish. He heard a bet being put on the table: free beer for the winner during their next trip to Virginia City. Joe couldnít help but to mimic their

good mood as a smile crossed his face. Sharing a laugh with Hoss and Adam, he quickly threw his fishing pole in the calm mirror-like water that gently

whooshed under him in hopes of a great hooking. However, his smile suddenly ran away from his face as the canoe was being shaken from side to side.

After he shared a concerned look with both of his brothers, he still didnít know who was responsible for the canoeís brusque movement as he glanced at

the still calm water below. Yelling at whomever was responsible to stop before the canoe would capsize, splashing all three excited fishermen overboard

in the process, Joe was about to get really angry when suddenly he could feel someone physically shaken him awake. Big brown eyes were staring back at

him as soon as his vision improved and shadows disappeared to reveal actual forms. He automatically recognised the large living space of the Ponderosa ranch. He

hadnít moved from the leather chair. Blinking several times, Joe simply remained silent.

 

"Hop Sing cook supper. Mista Adam awake and asking for you," the Chinese man stated as he let go of Joeís shoulders and stood straight, putting his arms behind

his back waiting for a response from the youngest Cartwright.

 

Joe slightly grinned at the shorter man, as he suddenly realised that sitting down made him be at a height disadvantage with the small man. "YeahÖ okay, sure. Iíll go

upstairs."

 

Hop Sing slightly bowed showing his agreement and left in direction of the kitchen without speaking another word.

 

Begrudgingly leaving the comfort of the warm fire and comfortable chair, Joe lifted himself up, putting all of his weight onto the armrests. Rubbing his eyes back

awake, he half-blindly walked up the stairs as his handsome young face twisted into a large yawn. He couldnít tell how long he had been asleep. All that he knew

was that it hadnít been long enough. Standing just outside his oldest brotherís closed bedroom door, Joe stretched his arms before entering, not bothering to knock.

I never did, so why start now, he quickly told himself. As soon as he walked in, he noticed that Adam wasnít laying against a pillow like he should have been, but

instead was seating up on the side of his bed with both feet on the floor. Joe could clearly see that his brother wasnít feeling well as Adam held his head between his

hands with elbows solidly planted on his knees.

 

"Adam? Whatís wrong?" Joe worriedly asked as he sat down on the bed next to his still silent brother, whom hadnít even appeared to notice his entrance. It felt

strange for Joe to be the grown-up, the protector as it had always seemed to fall upon Adamís broad shoulders before today. Strangely, it also felt good to have the

roles reverse. He needed to show his gratitude for those times. Adam deserved that muchÖ and more.

 

"HumÖ nothing. My stomachís just dancing to the music playing in my head," Adam responded as he slowly straightened his back and removed his hands from his

head, "I think itís a waltz."

 

Joe let a small grin creased the side of his face. At least, he could see that Adamís dry sense of humour was still intact. "Well, brother. Letís just hope that they call it

a night soon." Surprisingly without any protest coming from Adam, Joe led his brother back into bed. After carefully tucking him in, he added, "Hop Sing said that

you were asking for me."

 

Adam rolled his eyes, in mock surprise, at his brotherís uttered words. Obviously, Hop Sing had subliminally enticed the younger man to check up on him. He could

have never been so pampered in his life, even if his father had been home. Every time that he had awakened from his light sleep, the caring cook had been at his side

with a glass of water in his hands. At first, Adam was reluctant to drink anything as his stomach was yet unsettled, but gave up the fight after a few fruitless tries as

Hop Sing was a stubborn as he was. "I was just wondering what you were doing all day?" he nonchalantly asked, knowing that his brother would have climbed the

walls if forced to stand still for two seconds. Joe had been like that since he took his first breath. It made him what he was now, always unpredictable, which made

Adam, at times, slightly envious of his youngest brotherís easier childhood and consequently his joyful life outlook. But, fate was fate and he had to accept it as is

was, because in life, unfortunately, thereís no dress rehearsal.

 

Under other circumstances, Joe would have thought that his brother wanted to keep record on his daily activities, making sure that his work was done as asked. But

he knew that this wasnít the case, as no sign of hostility was detected in Adamís tone of voice. Indulging his older brotherís wishes, he walked towards the

bedroomís lone window, which faced the bed. With thumbs hooked under his belt, he told him of his daily endeavours as he stared through the window seeing dark

clouds that slowly slithered towards the ranch swallowing what little light remaining outside. He gladly told him about completing the normal supper chores and fixing

the barnís roof small leak. To Joe, it sounded monotonous and boring, but he knew that to Adam it was a change of scene. Figuratively, a breath of fresh air, as it

surely beat looking at four walls all day.

 

"Is Hoss still not back?"

 

Turning only his upper body in Adamís direction, Joe released his left thumb from its leather shield in order to pat down his hair. Shrugging, he answered, "Not yet,

but I reckon that itís going to take time tracking-" Lifting his chin towards the window, he finished, "especially in this weather."

 

Adam lifted one eyebrow, questioning.

 

"The clouds look mighty dark across the Sierras, older brother," Joe quickly explained as he spared another glance through the window, "Looks like rainÖ maybe

even thunder and lightening. I just hope that the posse finds some shelter in time."

 

Adam simply nodded in agreement as he kept his eyes downcast suddenly finding his blanket of most interest. At the mere mention of the posse, Adam suddenly felt

his whole body tense up. Every moment that he lay awake in bed, his brain had kept on searching in the dark corners of his mind for the hidden memories, but

somehow, nothing could be found. Something was preventing him of unleashing the memories that seemed to be behind a lock door, a door in which he had lost the

key. The more time passed, the more it depressed him, as it was not under his control. Like Martin had carefully told him before, he may or may not fully regain his

memory and that very thought, now, frightened him. Unfortunately, the human brain was still very much an enigma for scientists and time would only tell if Adam

would be truly whole again.

 

Adam unconsciously pinched the bridge of his nose in a futile attempt to relieve the still ever present throbbing pressure radiating from his head. Even with the

medication, he still felt like hiding under a rock and never coming out. His selective memory lost was simply just the icing on the cake. He knew that he was walking

in uncharted territory and it scared him more than he wanted to admit to himself. But as he had done throughout his life, he wasnít about to burden his family with his

seesawed emotions. Even though Adam could feel sleep just around the corner, his body was unrelenting.

 

Noticing the sudden invisible wall that sharply materialised around his oldest brother, Joe carefully approached the bed determined to break through Adamís

emotional barrier.

 

In the corner of his eye, Adam saw his brother walked towards him with a face scarred by worry. Not wanting to broach any emotionally bountiful subject matter at

this time, Adam made the conscious decision to change the subject. "Joe?"

 

Joe gently pressed his hand on Adamís forehead just enough time to notice his brotherís skin was still warm but not feverish, before it was annoyingly swatted away.

"Yeah?" Joe answered as he crossed his arms across his chest.

 

"PaulÖ Paul shaved the back of my head in order to stitch me up. How bad is it? Do you know?" With a touch of feigned wounded pride, Adam knew that he

would have Joe wrapped around his little finger.

 

It took a few seconds for Adamís words to register in his mind. As soon as they did, Joe burst out giggling. This was truly unexpected. "OhÖ I donít know, Adam.

MaybeÖ maybe if you put a handkerchief over your head, but I donítÖ I donít think that will impress any of the girls," he painfully managed to say between laughs.

Seeing wounded complacency on his brotherís face was priceless for the youngest Cartwright.

 

"Very funny."

 

"Hey!" With a large grin plastered on his face, Joe lifted his hands in a mock sign of surrender and added, "Youíre the one that wanted to know, brother."

 

"Yeah, I should have expected that type of answer from you," Adam replied, shaking his head in feigned disbelief. However, his task had been a success.

 

"Supper is probably ready," he stated with a touch of grief detected in his voice. With Hoss and Pa both gone and Adam bedridden, Joe didnít have to be a math

whiz to know that he would have three empty chairs around the dining room table to keep him company for supper. Joe let his chin unceremoniously drop onto his

chest.

 

"Joe, I wouldÖ"

 

"No, itís okay, Adam. I wouldnít want to eat in front of you... you know with how you feel and all. I guess Iíll survive." Joe started for the door, but just before

reaching the latch, he turned back to face his brother as a thought had just occurred to him. Grinning from ear to ear, he said, "Maybe eating alone ainít such a bad

idea after all."

 

"What made you change your mind?"

 

"Well, Iíll finally have some peace and quiet. BesidesÖ with Hoss not here, I wonít have to fight for any seconds."

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

A resounding, low-pitched gurgle was clearly heard coming from Hossí stomach as it voiced its gluttony necessity for what seemed to be the umpteenth time. The

lunch that Hop Sing had prepared for him was now only a mere faint memory. With only a small ration of beef jerky and tea remaining, Hoss knew that they would

have to find Josieís kidnapers soon. How he longed for Hop Singís dumplings or even his mouth-watering pork chops. His mouth salivated at the mere thought of it.

Unfortunately, it would have to wait. In fact, Hoss had other more important problems that kept his mind busy and body miserable. The previous nightís storm was

one of the worst that he had seen so far this year. Luckily, despite looks, the thunder and lightening lasted only a few minutes. Having found refuge in a small slightly

abandoned house nearby, Hoss and the rest of the posse, all seven of them, tried to keep warm despite numerous leaks in the rotted roof and shattered !windows.

The house, which once comprised of two small rooms, was now barely recognisable as been habitable. Being abandoned for several years now, itís four walls

barely withstood the violent wind that mercilessly shook trees from side to side and the cold raindrops that managed to seep through the gaps in the aged wood

boards. Frankly, Hoss had been pleasantly surprised that the shack had indeed survived the night.

 

Patting down his slightly damp light brown hair, Hoss let out a small grunt of frustration escape his mouth. With no functioning chimney or reasonably dry wood

available, all eight men had huddled together during the night in the centre of the largest room dreaming of a warm and dry night. Needless to say, Hossí clothes had

seen drier and cleaner days. Thankfully, the storm had finally withdrawn an hour before dawn fell across the mountains, leaving a beautiful blue sky and an inviting

sun behind. As soon as Hoss carefully exited the house, he felt somewhat rejuvenated as fresh air filled his lungs and warm air extirpated his goosebumps. Seeing the

sheriff and the deputy sharing a few words near the horses, Hoss decided to join them as he slowly approached them placing his hat on his head in the process.

 

"íMorning, Hoss," the sheriff said as soon as he saw the tall broad shoulder man in the corner of his eye.

 

"Nice day, ainít it sheriff?"

 

"Yeah, Hoss, nice day for tracking," Roy Coffee stated after glancing across the large valley to his right, "It finally looks like the weather will be cooperating."

 

Hoss nodded in agreement. He was confident that last nightís torrential rain and powerful wind had probably erased any old tracks but were going to leave new ones

stick out like sore thumbs. It was simply a matter of time before the posse was successful. Like he had mentioned to the sheriff, the now chaste land would make his

job that much easier. Just before the posse had to seek refuge due to the brewing storm, Hoss knew with certainty that they were not far behind their human prey,

whom would also have had to find a dry place to keep dry and warm. As his stomach hungrily and loudly protested once again, Hoss shyly smiled as both the sheriff

and the deputy looked at him with amused eyes.

 

"Weíre wasting time!" a gruff voice uttered behind them. No one had to turn to recognise it, as they had they had heard numerous times since their search began the

day before.

 

Deep irritation could be unequivocally seen in Roy Coffeeís eyes as he slowly turned to face the person who had just uttered another of his seemingly endless

complaints. Coffee could only imagine the powerful emotions that the man was going through with his daughterís disappearance, but the sheriffís own emotional

borders where being tested. Letting a sigh of frustration escape his mouth, Coffeeís blue eyes turned a little colder as he said, "Mr. Norton, like everyone else here,

youíre probably hungry, cold, and frustrated. Itís understandable. But, understand one other thing, Iím in charge of this posse. I donít want to rush anything, besides

Hossís the best tracker in the whole Carson valley," Hoss smirked another shy smile as Coffee continued on, "Weíll find your daughter, that I guarantee that."

 

Hossí smile suddenly vanished ever so slightly at the last remark. He knew that their chances of finding Miss Josie where good, but he didnít like the pressure that

the sheriff had unintentionally put on his shoulders.

 

"The sheriff is right, Pa!" another voice suddenly said coming from above and to the right. James Nortonís oldest son was a younger version of his father. He was a

twenty-six year old attractive man with blue eyes and blond hair, which Hoss had gone to school. A man of Little Joeís stature, medium height and thin but yet

muscular and of Adamís scholastic demeanour, also being a university graduate. As his father, James Norton Jr., known as Jimmy, displayed airs of a more fortunate

upbringing, dressed in a stylish long grey coat and a similar tinted Cowboy hat. Seeing that the older Norton was blankly staring at him in a sign of betrayal, Jimmy

cleared his throat as he uncomfortably shifted in his saddle before adding, "We need to keep our heads on straight, PaÖ For Josieís safety, we need to stay calm

and a step ahead."

 

"Listen to your boy there, Mayor," Coffee added in hopes of a truce.

 

After a tense moment of silence, Norton reluctantly agreed to let Coffee lead the posse as he saw fit. Without speaking a word, the mayor quickly arose onto his

horse.

 

"Good!" Coffee said at last as he mimicked Norton and prepared to lead the posse back on the kidnappersí tracks. "Hoss, lead the way," he said just before the

posse started where they had left off, hurriedly galloping towards a valley edged by two large powerful looking mountains.

 

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

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 5

 

 

"I look like a damn racoon!" Adam annoyingly whispered to himself as he looked into an oval mirror attached by two long wooden posts on a delicate table. Seating

on a chair, he firmly planted his elbows on the table that contained all of his toiletries and continued to stare at his reflecting image. Various blemishes marked his

handsome face. The most apparent ones were his two ever-darkening shiners caused, as predicted, by the drainage of blood by his bulging swelling branded on his

forehead. The black eyes look ten folds darker due to the unusual paleness of his skin. Carefully touching the soiled bandage covering the extruding lump, Adam

winced as he suddenly felt a shot of pain. "If it hurts when you touch itÖ then donít touch it!" he verbally reprimanded himself due to his lack of hindsight. Then, his

hands move southward as he gently rubbed his unaccustomed two-day-old beard that encased his long face. He knew that it! had to go. At least, it was something

about his image that he could immediately improve. Besides, he felt better today as he experienced resurgent energy travel throughout every muscle of his body. His

headache was merely a constant, but dull pain now, nothing that he hadnít dealt with before. As well, his nausea had disappeared as soon as he sat down.

 

Saturating his face with soapy water, he then gently grasped his narrow and sharp razor between his right index and thumb and carefully started to scratch away the

unwanted dark hairs. After a few seconds, his hand undesirably flinched as he pushed it down into his left cheek making the sharp blade pierce his skin releasing

warm oxygenated blood in the process. Suddenly, his eyes glazed over as a dark wall appeared before him without warning.

 

He couldnít understand it but he felt cold all of a sudden as his hairs arose on his neck. He could see a small lamp illuminating before him as he slowly

recognised trees tossing from side to side, but could neither hear the wind nor any other sound. He felt his body tense up as it realised its eerie

predicament, but kept on moving forward. That was mistake number one! Unexpectedly, a strong and unrelenting force was felt across his back, sending

him downward onto the quickly approaching wooden floor.

 

Then, as fast as it had occurred, Adam was once again back in his room with nothing but his disconcerted reflection keeping him company. Blinking several times, he

simply remained unmoved as he ferociously tried to grasp any logical meaning to his pseudo-dream. Was it a dream orÖ am I starting to remember? he asked

himself as he tried to reason with his conscious. Logic proved it to be more than simply a dream; it had to be a glimpse into his locked memories.

 

"AdamÖ Adam, are you all right?"

 

The worried foreign voice that reached his conscience made Adam come back to the present. Slightly shaking his head, he painfully attempted to control his brewing

emotions. It was only a matter of a split second before he was successful. He hadnít heard the several knocks on his bedroom door and consequently his visitorís

entrance. "Paul... Paul, what are you doing here?" Adam quickly asked after he nervously cleared his dry throat.

 

Doc Paul Martin had known the Cartwright family since their first arrival in Nevada. A man of Benís age, dressed in a grey suit and black tie, Paul looked

distinguished and noticeably commanded respect. His pale blue eyes intensely stared at his patientís own chestnut ones in hopes of seeing deep into Adamís train of

thought. Knowing the oldest Cartwright son since he was merely a young energetic lad, he could easily see that the younger man had, at this moment, established his

ever-used emotionally barren mask. He had seen it before, especially when he tried to mask his true painful feelings; the worse case was when Benís third wife and

Little Joeís mother had passed away so many years ago. Adam had kept his feelings to himself about Marieís tragic death then and he was hiding something now as

well. He knew that Adam was never openly truthful with his feelings, but if Martin was to help him, he needed to break down the emotional barrier. Placing his

medical bag on the bed, he then carefully approached his patient and softly asked, "You didnít answer my question, Adam? Is something wrong?"

 

Adam immediately shook his head.

 

Martin let out a soft sigh before changing his tactics. "Thatís a nasty cut," he said as he pointed towards the blood slowly zigzagging down Adamís right upper cheek,

"maybe Little Joe can help you shave."

 

Adam simply rolled his eyes in disapproval. No matter his predicament and unlike Hossí trusting soul, he would never let Joe come ten feet near him with a sharp

blade. He would rather go unshaved. "I would rather disturb a bee hive!" he jokingly answered as he automatically grabbed a nearby towel and absently cleaned the

stinging cut.

 

"Okay, I can help if you-"

 

"Itís okay, Doc. I can manage. IÖ I just gotÖ a little distracted."

 

"A little distracted?" Martin replied incredulously as he took a few steps forward. Raising a eyebrow, he continued, "I knocked and called out your name twice

before you even noticed that I was hereÖ I call that being more than a little distracted!" Adam simply remained silent as he innocently stared back. Knowing that his

patient wasnít going to let him win without a fight, the doctor frowned. A fight it will be! "You shouldnít be out of bed, Adam!" He reprimanded as he lifted the

younger man up by his left armpit.

 

Adam reluctantly stood as his head started to feel like it was on a boat bouncing amidst extreme waves in a horrendous storm. It wasnít until his head stop spinning

that he voiced his objections. "Paul! I have to finish shav-"

 

"Iíll do it. You just stay in bed!" Martin threatened as he pointed at him. He then carefully placed Adam under the covers. Satisfied that his patient wasnít going to

disobey any of his direct orders, he then brought the small water filled basin and Adamís shaving paraphernalia to the bedside.

 

"Did you see Joe or Hop Sing?"

 

Paul once again let his eyebrows twisted into a v-shape frown, as he didnít known where Adam was leading to with his question. "Yes, I did. Hop Sing opened the

door. Said that he was busy preparing lunch. Told me that you were feeling a little better this morningÖ" he carefully answered between strokes, "Your brother, on

the other end, was cleaning the barn when I arrived. He told me that you still haven't regained your memory. Heís worried about you." After that exchange of words,

the bedroom was once again filled by an awkward and strained silence, which span for several minutes. It wasnít until Adamís face was clean shaved and that the

basin and all were back where he found them, that Martin noticed the strange glare in the younger manís eyes. Paul suppressed growing shivers as he took notice of

Adamís unsettling, blink deficient stare. As he waved his hand before Adamís face, Paul stated, "AdamÖ Adam?"

 

It took, for what seemed to be an eternity to Martin, for Adam to respond to his physical cue, as he slowly lifted his eyes. Strangely, he hadnít heard what the doctor

had said, even though he knew that he had spoken. He had been simply caught up in a daze at the first utterance of his forgotten memories. Both men simply

remained mute as they respectively collected their thoughts and calculated their next actions. Adam knew that he would have to break through his innate emotional

defence system and tell the doctor about his eerie vision.

 

"Out with it, Adam! How can I help you if you donít tell me whatís wrong?" Martin stated as he took a seat on a nearby chair. Before any response came forward,

he hastily added as a thought had suddenly occurred to him, "Is it about your memory loss? It is, isnít it?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"I know itís hard, but you must have faith. The odds are that youíll-"

 

"Doc, I had a visionÖ more like a dream. IÖ I donít really know how to describe it," Adam interrupted as his emotions flooded outward, unable to keep them in

check any longer. Seeing that an intrigue Martin wanted him to continue, he did just that as he added more slowly, "It was dark andÖcold. I could tell that I was

outsideÖ The wind was blowing hard. I wasÖ was carrying some type of lightÖ must have been an oil lamp, I donít really remember. Anyway, I was suddenly hit

from behind. The last thing I remember isÖ is hitting the ground."

 

"Do you know what made you go outside?"

 

"ErrÖ no."

 

"Did you see anyone? Recognised anything around you?" Martin quickly asked as rubbed his chin.

 

Adam gently shook his head after a few seconds of internal questioning. "No, I thought that I was alone until someoneÖ or something hit me. But-"

 

"But?" Martin pushed.

 

"But I think that I was outside, here on the ranch."

 

Martin smiled at Adamís last sentence. It was true. His patient was regaining his memory, even though it seemed to be coming in dribbles. Beggars canít be

choosers, he told himself as he leaned forward in his chair. "Adam! Youíre remembering, thatís great!" Suddenly, an idea hit the doctor as he abruptly stood up and

approached Adamís desk. "Do you have some writing paper and a pen around here?" Martin asked as he moved architectural papers and plans amidst a nearby

desk in hopes of finding what he needed.

 

"Yes, in my top left drawer," Adam quickly replied not really understanding what the doctor was leading to with his quest.

 

After successfully acquiring what he needed, Paul then, with paper, ink, and pen in hands, approached the bed. It wasnít until he carefully place everything on

Adamís night table that he spoke, "AdamÖ do me a favour? Write everything that you remember about your flashback and any future ones that youíll have. You

see your memory of the other night is like a puzzle, Adam. Now, you finally got the first piece. Like any puzzle, itís never going to be clear until you have all of the

pieces. So this way, youíre helping yourself remember."

 

"I understand," Adam responded as his face lit up in acknowledgement, "Could you pass me one of my books?" He added pointing to a large collection of books,

which included numerous Shakespeare novels, poetry books, Plato discussions, and various other classics.

 

"Which one?"

 

"Any one. Just need it for support."

 

Doing as asked, Paul approached the dark wooded shelving unit and randomly picked out a hard volume of Hamlet. Astonished at Adamís impressive literary

collection, Paul let out a small whistle, to show his esteem, as he carefully passed the book to its owner. It had always astonished Martin that a son of a cattle

rancher would find anything in common with the more aristocratic part of the world.

 

"Thanks," Adam absently stated as he immediately did as Martin had suggested. He had only managed to write down a few sentences when they were interrupted by

a knock on the door. Without looking up, he simply said, "Come in."

 

The door quickly opened to reveal the ever-faithful cook. In his hands, Hop Sing carried a silver food tray with a tall glass of water and a large red-flowered motif

China bowl balancing on top of it. "Made famous broth for Number One Son!" he said as he passed the doctor and placed the tray at Adamís bedside.

 

"Thanks, Hop Sing," Adam enthusiastically replied even though he had no real initiative of eating. But he knew better than to disappoint the Chinese man, as he had a

feisty temper. Grinning to himself, Adam felt an uncanny feeling that the loving cook had read his mind as he simply stood next to the bed waiting for the

consummation of what he had prepared.

 

Martin took this opportunity to initiate his departure. After completing a slight medical check and replacing his patientís head bandage, he then carefully replaced

everything in his medical bag and heading for the door. Before closing it behind him, he turned one last time to both occupants. First, he addressed Adam as he said,

"Iíll be back in a few days to check on you. I have a few things to do in town."

 

"Sure, Doc."

 

Then, in a serious demeanour Paul Martin addressed the other man. "Hop Sing, I know that I can count on you and Little Joe of assuring that Adam follows doctorís

orders. He needs plenty of rest. Donít hesitate to come and get me if his condition doesnít get any better."

 

Hop Sing simply nodded in response. With that, Martin left as he closed the door and was heard going down the stairs. With a large grin, Hop Sing silently stared at

his bossí oldest son as he patiently waited for him to eat his lunch. Adam felt like a prey being stalked by its predator as he caught a glimpse into the cookís

determined dark eyes. Letting a resigned sigh escape, Adam took the tray in his hands and took a sip of his cool glass of water. With a watchful Hop Sing constantly

at his side, Adam reluctantly ate every bite of his lunch.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Passing through a long narrow path bordered by dense brush and sharp twigs, Hoss Cartwright loudly swore as a thorny, leafless branch snapped back like a

boomerang and squarely hit him on his right cheek. How he wished there was a simpler and easier way of tracking down people. With the rest of the posse silently

following him like trained dogs, Hoss kept on going forward nonetheless. Adamís battered face was the only incentive he needed to keep on going down the trail.

Unfortunately, Hoss also knew that the awful memory of finding Adam in the stable would stay fresh in his memory for some time yet, resurfacing through nightmarish

flashbacks and restless sleep. Shaking his head in order to vanquish his distracting thoughts into oblivion, Hoss kept on ahead. It felt like his body was on automatic.

 

As soon as Hoss cleared the tumultuous path, something, on his farthest right, caught the corner of his eye, which made him simultaneously grin from ear to ear. At

last, he had found a clue. After quickly ordering his followers to stop in their tracks, Hoss then silently dismounted, letting his black horseís reins loosely hang in a

nearby sprouting bush. With his quietest feet, he slowly approached what had caught his attention. A few seconds of utmost silence past as the remaining men

anxiously watched Cartwrightís advancement. Hoss immediately let one knee fall to the cool, moisten ground as soon as he reached his target. There, at his feet, laid

a mixture of ash and incompletely burnt kindling surrounded by a circle of multiple size rocks. Wetness was still detected on the half-burned log, as he gently traced

its rough-edged contours, which made Hoss realise that this is where they had most likely cooked their breakfast meal. The black ash, between his fingers, warmly

stung his skin. "The ashís still hot!" Hoss excitingly exclaimed as he spared a quick glance up towards the other men.

 

In a flash, Roy Coffee, still mounted, joined Hoss at the makeshift cooking stove. "Boys, search the area," he ordered as the bigger man stood up. Without wasting

any split second, the remaining six men, including the deputy, separated and looked for a fresh trail.

 

"They canít be too far ahead, sheriff!" Hoss mentioned as he hurriedly walked towards Chubb. As soon as he sat down in his saddle, a small human-made whistle

caught his attention; it came from the deputyís direction.

 

"What did you find, Andy?" Coffee asked as a frown creased his face.

 

Off of his horse, Deputy Devin was stooped down next a muddy section of ground as he answered, not bothering to look up, "Thereís fresh horse shoe prints here.

Looks like two sets."

 

Hurriedly coming to his deputy side, Coffee dismounted and personally scrutinised the tracks as he crouched besides Devin. "Looks like theyíre headed that way,"

Roy stated as he pointed to where the sun hung in the sky. "South-west," he added, "Weíre right! Theyíre headed for California!"

 

Even before both Devin and Coffee had an opportunity to get back on their respective horses, a loud screeching scream was heard coming from a nearby area. It

was undoubtedly female in origin. It didnít take long before the posse galloping, as fast as their respective horses, fled to where the uneasy feeling sound emanated.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 6

 

 

After a few seemingly long minutes, each member of the posse, one by one, approached the small, enclosed clearing where the female shriek had been heard. Hoss,

in the lead, was the first to take in the sight laid out before them.

 

On bemired, rocky, and pale green grass, a young woman was awkwardly seated, alone, with her back towards them. She wore a navy blue split-skirt toped by a

plain white shirt covered by a long Gary wool coat. As soon as she heard the footsteps approaching her from behind, she abruptly turned her head in its direction.

Soil stains marked her beautiful face, as well as her clothes. Her long light brown hair loosely fell upon her shoulders in a tangled mess. Her face quickly twisted into

a confused frown. Looking nervously around, the young woman seemed to be searching for something or someone. She remained silent as the men carefully stared

at her.

 

It was Mayor James Norton whom dismounted first and slowly walked towards the young woman. "JosephineÖ Honey?" he said with caution as soon as he was

near his clearly distressed youngest daughter.

 

Josie didnít immediately respond to her fatherís heart-wrenching plea. Her face was a barren mask, displaying no visible emotions. After what seemed to be an

eternity to Norton and the rest of the posse, Josie finally broke her silence as she quickly got up and sluggishly ran into her fatherís open arms, saying amidst cries,

"Daddy! OhÖ. daddy!"

 

"Oh! Honey, did they hurt you? Who did this?" Norton quickly asked as he gently released the hug in order to have a closer look at her physical appearance at

armís length.

 

Josie didnít answer as a second burst of tears slid down her delicate face. Nesting her head on her fatherís shoulder, she simply cried out her sorrows.

 

"Boys, look around. Whoever did this, ainít far!" Coffee decreed as he silently broke the speechless spell that had seized the other men upon seeing the emotional

reunion of father and daughter. Everyone did as they were told, except for Jimmy, whom dismounted and silently joined his family.

 

Hoss hadnít realised how much tension he had been carrying during the last day and a half, until he saw Miss Josie safe and sound. His shoulders felt lighter as he

started his search through a nearby trail and bushes with his hand firmly on his gun. But he knew that his mission wasnít yet finished as a vision of his older brother

suddenly haunted him. Without much effort and atop Chubb, he could see fresh marks on the still moisten ground. In hindsight, Hoss knew that the previous

rainstorm had been a god sent.

 

Slowly strolling along on his horse, Hoss kept his eyes intense and alert as he peered through any possible human hiding places, amongst a large rock pile,

comprising stones of various sizes. Some of the crevasses are even big enough for me to hide in, he jokingly thought. After a few minutes of unsuccessfully

searching, Hoss was about to change his tactic and restart his hunt in a different area when suddenly he jerked at the sound of two consecutive gunshots wringing out

a short distance away. Without giving it a second thought, he urged Chubb to a thunderous gallop. Within seconds, Hoss had arrived to his destination. Surrounded

by five other members of the posse, which included both the sheriff and deputy, a tall, young man stood with his arms up above his shoulders. Hoss deduced by the

situation that the man had seemingly giving himself up without too much of a fight. The more Hoss looked at the soon-to-be jailbird, the more the man seemed

familiar. He could have! sworn he had seen the man before, probably in Virginia City.

 

"Well, wellÖ ainít it nice to see you again?" the sheriff sarcastically stated as he carefully dismounted and approached the man with his gun drawn and ready to fire

at the slightest movement.

 

"Sheriff, I ainít done nothing wrong!" the man simply replied.

 

"Yeah! and my nameís ainít Roy Coffee!" the sheriff replied as he urge for Devin to tie the manís wrist behind his back.

 

After doing as told, Devin held the prisoner by his now constrained hands and angrily addressed him, "So, tell me HarryÖ why did you kidnap Miss Josie Norton?"

 

"Iíve got nothing to say!" Harry bitterly replied.

 

"Then, letís go. Maybe some time in jail will get ya talking!" Coffee stated with as much bitterness detected in his voice.

 

"Harry WilkinsonÖ" Jimmy Norton said with tiger-like eyes, ready to strike an unexpected prey, "Josie told Pa and me what you did to herÖ Iím going to kill

youÖ"

 

"Thatís enough!" Coffee said as he stepped in front of the irate young man, blocking his access to their prisoner in the process. "Iím the law here, Jimmy and youíll

do no such thing. Heíll get a fair trial."

 

"He ainít worth spit. I say we hang him here and now!"

 

Roy was now furious as he grabbed the young Nortonís jacket and yelled, "Youíll do no such thing! Do you want to spend some time in jail too, Jimmy?" Seeing

that the rage in the manís eyes slightly died away, Coffee released his hold with a slight shove and quickly added to the rest of the posse but kept his ice cold eyes

still hammered on Jimmy, "Thanks for your help, boys. Me and Andy will take care of it now."

 

After a few seconds of silence and stillness, the remaining members of the posse slowly but surely dispersed and headed back home, to Virginia City. Hoss, on the

other hand, slightly held back as he had been silent since the arrest of Harry Wilkinson, which as he now remembered had been in jail previous times for petty thief

and saloon brawling. Approaching Coffee whom was retrieving Wilkinsonís gear and two horses, Hoss got off of his saddle and nervously cleared his throat to get

the sheriffís attention. It wasnít until Roy turned to face him that he spoke, "Roy, what about Adam?" He needed to know if what they suspected was true and that

Wilkinson had indeed ambushed his older brother. Because if he did, Hoss knew that he would have to be restrained like Jimmy had been. Even though Hoss was

gentle in nature, no one hurt his brother and got away with it. It was that simple.

 

"Donít worry, Hoss. Iíll let you know what I find out," Coffee honestly answered as he placed a supportive hand on the bigger manís shoulder. "You go back home

now to your brothers."

 

Hoss didnít have to be told twice.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Comfortably seated at the dining room table, Joe let a small smile wrinkle his face as his stomach gurgled at the sight of appealing food displayed across the red

checker tablecloth. Joe wasnít one whom had a big appetite, but today was different as he had work himself quite a hunger during the morning. He still hadnít dared

venture anywhere far from the ranch, as protectiveness guilt kept him close at hand. But he nonetheless accomplished quite a few painstaking chores, which his father

and Adam would deeply appreciate.

 

Digging a knife into his steak, he urgently sliced himself a reasonable piece and placed it in his impatiently awaiting salivated mouth. Savouring the delicious taste of

his meal, Joe closed his eyes as a thought of a jealous Hoss casually reached his mind. "Poor Hoss, I reckon that heís mighty hungry right now!" he jokingly said

aloud between bites, "On second thought, when ainít he?" Giggling to himself, Joe didnít notice Hop Singís entrance into the dining room carrying a small basket of

bread rolls. As soon as he did, he quickly turned his attention from the food to the cook. "Oh, Hop Sing?"

 

"Yes, Liíl Joe?"

 

"I was wonderingÖ" he started wiping the side of his mouth with his napkin before continuing on, "País scheduled to be arriving tomorrow from San Francisco. It

would be nice to have a great supper for his arrival andÖ"

 

"Hop Sing always cook great supper!" the cook angrily interrupted.

 

"WhoaÖ whoaÖ calm down, Hop Sing! Thatís not what I meant," Joe quickly said in an attempt to calm down the Chinese manís quick temper. Seeing that he

once again had an attentive audience, Joe went on, "As Hoss told you many times, youíre the best darn cook this side of San Francisco." He could see that his talk

had worked and Hop Sing was back to his jovial self. "What I was trying to say is that your delicious apple pies would be a great dessert. Donít you think?"

 

"Already save apple pie and roast beef for special occasion."

 

"Good!" Joe said with a grin. His face turned serious as he changed the subject before the cook had an opportunity to return to the kitchen. "Hop Sing? Howís

Adam? Did he eat his lunch?"

 

Hop Singís face beamed with pride as he answered Joe. "Made him eat two bowls of broth!"

 

Joe returned the smaller manís smile. Leave it to Hop Sing to make Adam do something that he probably didnít want to do. He once again giggled as a prankish

mood engulfed him. He was so glad that Adam was getting better, physically anyway, that Joe felt on top of the world. "Youíll make a great mother someday, Hop

Sing!" he jokingly teased.

 

Instead of replying, Hop Sing simply uttered a few irritated Chinese words and hurriedly for the kitchen, leaving Joe to his giggling again. He loved teasing the one he

cared for and Hop Sing was one of them. The small Chinese man had been faithful to the family for such a long time and he and Joe had developed a close

relationship. One may say that the youngest Cartwright was Hop Singís favourite. Smiling to himself, he went back to his meal with pleasant thoughts swimming in his

head.

 

A full stomach later, Joe arisen from the table and bounded for the stairs as he wanted to check on his oldest brother. However, before he even had an opportunity

to cross the living room, angry Chinese words could be heard coming from the kitchen. Curiously, Joe scurried towards them and soon found the familyís cook

angrily pacing back and back in the spacious kitchen. Throughout the years, Joe understood some Chinese and knew that the words escaping Hop Singís mouth

were foul. "Calm down, Hop Sing! Whatís wrong?" Joe said trying to appease the smaller manís brewing temper.

 

"No more apple pies! Somebody took them. Made them not more than two days ago. Bread and roast beef are missing too!"

 

"What?" Joe incredulously said, "I didnít touch them and Hoss wouldnít eat anything uncooked!" His brows were set in a downcast position until a thought popped

into his mind. "So, thatís what they stole!" he stated.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 7

 

 

It wasnít long before Hop Sing had settle down. Since food supplies were already running low at this time of the month, Joe had made the conscious decision that if

satisfied with Adamís condition, he would spare a trip into Virginia City in order to prepare for his fatherís arrival. If not, he would simply have to wait for Hossí

return. Everything seemed to fall into place, the more he thought about the stolen food, the more it made sense. So, one reason, if not the only, for Adamís ambush

was that he surprised them stealing food.

 

Shaking his head in order clear his mind of any previous angry, revengeful thoughts about Adamís situation which were coming back to taunt him, Joe slowly walked

up the stairs. Just outside Adamís bedroom door, he slightly hesitated. As usual, without bothering to knock, he slowly opened the door. His first sight of his eldest

brother was one of serenity as he seemed to be peacefully asleep with a book of poetry on his stomach, which was going up and down at every taken rhythmic

breath. Not wanting to wake him up, Joe silently gazed at Adamís battered face for a few seconds, thinking of happier moments.

 

Deciding not to disturb his sleeping brother any further, he headed back for the door. Just as he was about to cross the doorframe, a deep voice held him back.

"What do you want, Joe?"

 

"Iím sorry, Adam. I thought that youíre asleep," Joe remorsefully replied as he backed up into the room, "Did I wake you?"

 

Without bothering to open his eyes, Adamís mouth twisted into a small, almost unnoticeable grin, as he spoke again, "Donít worry, I wasnít sleeping. I was just

admiring the back of my eyelids."

 

"Well, thatís a relief," Joe stated as he involuntary smiled due to his brotherís quick retort.

 

"You didnít answer my question."

 

After he closed the door, Joe took a chair and sat down beside his brotherís bed. Sighing, he quickly asked, "How are you feeling, older brother?"

 

"As good as expected," Adam answered as he vigorously rubbed his eyes. Thanks to a full stomach and pain medication, he felt much better now. He even indulged

himself in some light reading to help past the time. But he knew that he couldnít over do it or he will be back where he started. Finally opening his eyes, he squinted

and asked, "How do I look?"

 

"As good as expected."

 

Adam permitted himself a light chuckle. "Thanks! That really boasted my self-esteem."

 

"Anytime, brother, anytime," Joe stated with added playfulness. It felt good to joke around with Adam, as he often hadnít the opportunity to do so. Unlike his easy

relationship with Hoss, Joe had always felt that there was an invisible barrier between him and Adam on most occasions. Their father had always stated that the

reason why his eldest and youngest sons so often disagreed was simple: They were too alike in nature, which included a sense of peer stubbornness.

 

"What was that yelling that I heard earlier?" Adam asked as he broke the silence that was suddenly reverberating throughout the room, "What could have possibly

made Hop Sing so madÖ except you, that is?"

 

Joe didnít reciprocate his big brotherís smile, as his face unexpectedly became serious. "WellÖ humÖ Hop Sing found some food missing in the pantry. WeÖ I

mean I think that it was probably stolen the other night," he finally explained. With his stomach twisted into knots, Joe impatiently awaited for his brother to respond

and to come to the logical conclusion. He didnít know how Adam would react knowing that he was almost killed for a few comestibles.

 

Surprisingly, Adam simply shrugged as he quickly stated, "I was almost killed before for worse and less meaningful reasons." The motive for the ambush held neither

importance nor any balance on his thoughts. It simply didnít matter. Whatever reason it was, Adam simply hold on to the idea that the person or persons responsible

for this cowardly attack would soon get what they deserved. Seeing that his brother wasnít satisfied with his answer, he continued on, "Joe? Canít you see that it

doesnít matter? No reason could ever validate what happened to meÖ Letís just forget about it."

 

But, Joe couldnít forget about it, even if Adam wanted him to. But something in the glare of his brotherís eyes made the youngest Cartwright respect his wishes.

Bringing up another subject, Joe reluctantly asked, "With País arrival tomorrow, you know that we had a special supper prepared to welcome him back home. So,

Hop Sing wants me to go into Virginia City to get our monthly supplies a few days early."

 

"Then, go. You-"

 

"But, I canít leave you aloneÖ" Joe interrupted as he leaned forward in his chair, "I canít leave all of the responsibility of taking care of you to Hop Sing. JeezÖ I

just wished Hoss would be back."

 

"JoeÖ Iím over thirty. Iíve been taking care of you and Hoss since I was six. I think that qualifies me to take care of myself."

 

"I knowÖ I know, but this is different. Youíre hurt."

 

"Thanks for reminding me," Adam replied sarcastically as he hated being treated like an invalid by his own family. Painfully straightening himself in his bed, he added,

"Look, Iíll make it real easy for everyone. Just help me get myself comfortable downstairs by the fire."

 

Joe immediately shook his head in disagreement. "No, no, the Doc said rest!"

 

"And thatís what Iíll get," Adam replied as he threw the blankets off of him and placed his feet on the chilly floor. Joe quickly stood up, ready to replace his brother

back in bed. But Adam was one step ahead of his younger brother. Gently he pushed Joe away as he stood up. "You either help me or get out of the way!"

 

After contemplating his options, it wasnít hard for Joe to make a choice. His brother could be extremely stubborn when he put his mind to it, and this was one of

these moments. Without any second thought, he gently supported Adam, with an arm around his ailing brotherís shoulders, as they descended the stairs, one step at

a time. Joe, then, helped him unto his favourite blue, velvety wing chair situated next to the living roomís imposing hearth. "Comfy?" Joe asked as he affectionately

stared at his recuperating brother.

 

"All I need now is a warm blanket and a book and Iíll be a content man!"

 

"Your wishís my command!" Joe replied without hesitation.

 

"Since when?" Adam wittingly whispered to himself with a half-smile plastered on his dumbfounded face as he saw his little brother hurriedly head back upstairs. He

was happily gazing into the warm welcoming fire when his brother came back a few minutes later with a wool blanket in one hand and a stack of books in the other.

 

"I didnít know which one you wanted, Adam. SoÖ I picked a few out off the shelf," Joe declared as he gave Adam the blanket and placed the hard cover,

well-read books on the coffee table nearby.

 

"Thatís fine, Joe. Thanks!" Adam replied after wrapping himself in his blanket.

 

Joe speechlessly stood next to the chair, still unsure that he had done the right thing. The doctor had been so adamant about his wishes that Adam stayed in bed for a

few more days, getting complete bed rest. Now, Joe didnít know what to do. Of course he knew that being downstairs would lift his older brotherís spirits, but he

didnít want it to be at the expense of his convalescence. After letting a deep sigh escape his tight lips, Joe finally inquired, "You sure that youíll be okay." He knew as

soon that he had uttered the words that his brother would give him a scorn look, which he did, but he somehow needed that reassurance. "Okay, then," Joe said as

he spared a quick glanced back at the grandfather clock behind him. It was a little past one oíclock in the afternoon. Even with the seasonís ever diminishing

daylight, he would have plenty of time to get what he needed and be back before nightfall.

 

As Joe was about to head for his warm clothing hanging next to the door, Adam held him back as he said, "Joe? I need you to do a few things in Virginia City while

youíre there."

 

"Sure?"

 

"Go check and see if thereís a telegram from Pa. I was going to go yesterday butÖ anyway, see if thereís any mail," Adam stated before slightly hesitating for a few

seconds. This action made Joe come to the wrong conclusion that he was finished, but soon turned his attention back to his seated brother, as Adam continued on,

"In País desk, thereís a draft from the sale of the army horses. It needs to be brought to the bank. Also, when youíre finished with that, drop by Territorial

Enterprises and pick up a newspaperÖ Iím sure that Pa would appreciate it, no less than I would, considering that I canít do anything else but read."

 

"Sure, Iíll be back as soon as I can. See ya later, brother." With that said, Joe put his warm clothing including his gun belt and rushed out the door.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

The ride to Virginia City took a little longer than usual for Joe. He had always been one to boast that his cherished black and white pinto horse was the fastest in the

whole valley, but this time, Cochise had to stay back on the ranch. Seated on the buckboardís hard and unyielding bench, the trip into town wasnít exactly what Joe

would call smooth, as the wheels despite his best efforts seemed to catch every merciless rut in the dirt road. Even though, at every blink, he was visually immersed

into the breathtaking beauty of the Ponderosa land, Joe felt somewhat miserable as he wished for a better way of getting into town. With both Hop Singís list and

money draft securely in his coat pocket and Adamís requests fresh in his mind, Joe slowly approached into the mining city. Virginia City, situated on the eastern

slope of the Sierra Nevada and north of Lake Tahoe, was presently engrossed in a mining boom thanks to the Comstock Lode discovery nearby a couple of years

back, which held extensive gold and silver ores.

 

Despite the cool sunny day, many city dwellers were busily strolling through the narrow streets. Joseph Cartwrightís first order of business was stopping into one of

the cityís dry food stores and immediately placing Hop Singís order. Stopping the buckboardís two strong horses with a gentle pull of the reins in front of

Hammonds, Joe quickly descended and headed inside. After a few minutes of inquiring and casual chitchatting, he left satisfied that the owner, a good friend of the

family, would have everything ready to be packed onto the buckboard within the hour.

 

With this free time, Joe went on to other businesses. With the bank draft in his pocket making him slightly nervous as he walked on the cityís wooden sidewalk, Joe

decided that his next stop would be the cityís bank. Pride suddenly engulfed him as he gave John, whom was the banker, the opulent bank draft knowing that he had

personally tamed the horses for the army contract as he had the bruises to prove it. It was part of his family duty and Joe really appreciate seeing the monetary

dividend of his hard work. It made it so much more rewarding.

 

"Howís your brother, Liíl Joe?" the clean-cut older man behind the counter asked, not bothering to look up, as soon as Joe handed him the draft.

 

Joe felt suddenly reluctant about expressing his worries about his oldest brotherís health. Something in Johnís voice just wanted to make him clam up. He had never

been able to put a finger on it, but John Matters had always made Joe feel uneasy. Maybe it was because he was the youngest Cartwright and not as serious as

either his father or Adam was. But luckily, the ranchís books were primarily his Pa and Adamís responsibility and consequently Joe had quasi-non existent contact

with the apathetic banker.

 

After a few seconds of doubt, Joe went on despite his secretive objections. "As good as expected. Heís moving around."

 

"Good, thatís good to hear. Doc Martin was in a short while ago. Told me that Adam was bushwhacked," Matters stated as he spared a quick glance towards his

customer, "I canít imagine anyone wanting to hurt your brother."

 

"Neither can I," Joe briskly agreed.

 

"Heís such a good man, your brother. So much like his father, a true businessman. I donít know what Ben would do without him," Matters stated just before leaving

the desk for a second. He disappeared inside a small back room in order to place the draft in the bankís communal safe.

 

Joe could suddenly feel his heart beat accelerate as his hastily renowned temper started to brew a storm. What he hated the most was being treated like a kid and

thatís exactly how he felt Matters was treating him. Taking a deep breath, Joe decided to count to ten as he waited for the bankerís return. This was neither the time

nor the place to start an argument. He still had business to attend to and Adam needed him home. As soon as Matters showed his square-shaped chubby frame

back into the main room, Joe stated in his most professional and emotionless voice, "Thanks and have a good day."

 

Matters simply nodded not bothering to reciprocate the greeting.

 

With that said, Joe left the bank in a sour mood. Now he remembered why he eschewed this part of the ranchís business. He guessed that both his father and oldest

brother were better at dealing with banks or any professional establishments. He simply didnít have the patience or maybe it was simply Mattersí unprofessional

demeanour that made him shun away from it. Joe couldnít tell.

 

Too preoccupied within his own deep thoughts, Joe paid no or little attention to where he was actually walking. He simply wandered in an automated manner

towards the telegraph office, where he hoped that a message from his father was waiting. Being more than a full month since the Cartwright patriarchís departure to

California, Joe started to yearn for his fatherís presence back at the Ponderosa. The ranch simply wasnít the same without the oldest Cartwright.

 

Just as he was about to cross the slightly busy street, Joe ungallantly bumped into two lovely young women, whom he remembered from school a few years back.

Being the ladiesí man that he was, Joe had indeed dated both of the women before, but unfortunately none had became his one true love. "Iím sorry, ladies!" Joe

exclaimed with his most charming smile as he quickly backed up lifting his hat ever so slightly in a gentlemanly fashion.

 

"Oh, itís perfectly okay, Liíl Joe," the short brunette replied as she openly ogled at the handsome young man standing before her.

 

The other young woman, a redhead whom appeared to be slightly older, was dressed in a light coloured flowing dress with matching a purse. A black lace shawl

was gently placed across her shoulders due to cool weather. Before addressing what certain referred as being one of Virginia Cityís most eligible bachelors, the

redhead gave a stern look of disapproval towards the other womanís flagrant flirtatious attitude. "Joe, so many horrible events have been occurring in this city lately.

Josie Nortonís disappearance is hard enough to handle, but word around town is that Adam was ambushed on the Ponderosa of all places. Is that true?"

 

"Yes, Iím afraid that itís true, Elaine," Joe replied a little grimly.

 

"How is he?" the redhead asked with sincerity.

 

"Got a bit of a headache, but better than yesterday. Heís going to be restricted to the ranch for some time yet though." Joe wanted to be brief with his answer, not

wanting to be too specific with Adamís injuries. Even though he knew that both women wouldnít misuse that type of information, Joe knew that whoever was

responsible was still roaming free.

 

"Thatís so unfortunate," Elaine sadly replied.

 

Rolling her eyes at the other woman, the brunette turned to Joe and said, "Did you hear that Josieís fiancťeís on his way to town from Carson City?" Joe simply

shook his head in response as she continued, "He wanted to arrive yesterday, but was delayed by important business. You do know that his father was just

appointed governor of Nevada territory by President Lincoln himself!"

 

"Andrew was pretty upset about Josieís disappearance considering that their wedding day is only a few weeks away," Elaine added to the conversation as her friend

slightly hesitated, "It would be quite devastating if sheís not found. Youíve heard about the posse, right Joe?"

 

"Yeah, I did. Hossí with them," Joe nonchalantly stated as he uncomfortably shifted his stance. The simple mention of the posse made him suddenly feel agitated and

restless as it reminded him of the fact that his hands were tied, unable to help in the arrest of Adamís assailant or assailants.

 

Neither one of the two young women seemed to notice Joeís abrupt mood change as they suddenly started to disgust amongst themselves presumably forgetting

about their male companion. It was the brunette that spoke first as she turned her attention to other woman. "Elaine?" she asked, "Did you happen to hear that Paul

Gilbert was seen in Virginia City a few days ago?"

 

"Yes, I also heard that Gus Hennigar and him were just released from prison not two months ago. With everything thatís been happening in town, having two

criminals roaming the streets is even more troubling."

 

"I have to agree," Lizzy said with a noteworthy head bob. "Anyway, I also heard that a new play will be playing at the Opera house in a few weeks."

 

"Of course, I know that Lizzy. Iím the one who told youÖ."

 

At that moment, Joe seemed to lose the rest of the conversation into the darkness of his mind as his brainís interest level took a steep decline. He wasnít exactly

interested in hearing city gossip at the moment; he needed to get back to his business, as dawn would soon be approaching. "Excuse me ladies," Joe stated getting

their abrupt attentions, "but I still have a few things to do before heading back home. Adamís probably getting bored being home alone," he halved joked.

 

"Of course, Joe," Elaine stated with a warm smile, "Please give our regards to Adam for us. We hope that heíll be feeling better very soon."

 

"Thanks, Iíll be sure to tell him that. Have a nice day!" With that Joe left Elaine and Lizzyís company as they went back to their casual conversation while heading the

opposite way than him.

 

A few meters away, Joe walked inside the telegraph office. As predicted, there was indeed a telegram from his father patiently waiting for him as well as letters and a

box addressed to Adam. Probably one of his dreadful, boring books, Joe thought to himself as he handled the medium size brown enveloped box. The telegram

from Ben confirmed that he was indeed on the next Overland Express carriage arriving in Virginia City early afternoon. It was with a smile on his face that Joe left the

telegraph office for Territorial Enterprise. He was pleased to hear that Ben was truly coming back home. His father would know what to do next.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 8

 

 

On a cold night and under a cloudless sky, a shadow, due to the quarter moon above, could be seen shifting across the Ponderosa land. The shadow, large in size,

moved slowly and methodically across the kaleidoscopic terrain. It wasnít until the sun started to creep up from behind the Sierra Nevada mountains that the shadow

slowly lost its intensity leaving its humanly source to wander through the land alone. After what seemed an eternity to the rider and its mount, they finally arrived at

their destination. With an exhausted sigh escaping his dry-lipped mouth, the rider tediously dismounted while leaning hard against his saddleís horn for added support

and strength. It had been a long night for Hoss Cartwright. He had managed to sleep only a few hours earlier that night before coming to the realisation that the only

restful sleep that he would get was in his own comfy bed. With the dread of spending yet another moment on the trail, hungry and cold, Hoss knew that no matter

how hard it would be, he had to get home as soon as possible. He needed to see how his older brother was recuperating and to be a supportive shoulder for his

younger one.

 

After leading his horse, Chubb, into the stable and tending to its own needs, Hoss with eyes mid-closed haggardly walked towards the entrance door. He was

famished, exhausted, and to make matters worse, his clothes reeked. As soon as he entered the large welcoming home, Hoss stripped off his outer wear as he yelled

for the family cook.

 

Almost instantly, the small Chinese man came running from the kitchen. Angrily and with his right index against his narrow lips, he stated, "No yelling! Wake up

Number One son!"

 

"OhÖ sorry, Hop Sing!" Hoss whispered in regret. Sparing a quick glance at the dark wood grandfather clock behind him, seeing that it was slightly past breakfast,

he quickly added, "Whereís Liíl Joe?"

 

"At South pasture with other Ponderosa men."

 

After a few seconds of deep thoughts, Hoss simply nodded his approval. Time was of essence when it came down to preparing for winter. The herd needed to be

brought down from the North pasture and hay needed to be stored for them. Even though, the steers could brush away light snow to eat the grass, there would be a

time where even that small gesture wouldnít be enough to keep them properly fed. Hoss inwardly smiled as he thought about how responsible his younger had

become over the years.

 

Suddenly, Hop Sing started to sniff several times as an awful scent had caught his olfactory attention. Seeing that he was the culprit for the unsanitary scent, Hoss

slightly blushed and quickly asked, "Could you start me a bath, Hop Sing?"

 

Hop Sing nodded. "Cook you breakfast!"

 

Hossí face twisted into a sorrowful frown. "Donít talk about food nowÖ" he swallowed the large lump that had mysteriously appeared in his throat before

continuing on, "Iím goiní to regret thisÖ but I need a bath more than food right now!"

 

The small cook simply looked at the middle Cartwright son in amazement. It was a rarity if the young man said no to food. After a few seconds of awkward silence,

he simply respected Hossí wishes and headed back into the kitchen.

 

Hossí winced as he heard his stomach angry growl for what seemed to be the hundredth. It clearly wasnít too pleased to have to wait. Gently rubbing his stomach,

he whispered, "It ainít goiní to be long now."

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Time seemed to be at a stand still for Adam, sitting upright on his bed, as a headache suddenly made an encore presentation with a bang. Due to his literary

devouring of a newly received novel, he was now suffering the consequence of his overindulgence. He had debated about taking headache powder in order to

alleviate the pain, but thought otherwise. He simply had to combat it the natural way, which was with sleep, rest, and utter patience. Without a clock in his room,

Adam could only imagine what time it was as he had been reading for some time without interruption. He quickly deduced that it couldnít be past noontime since

Hop Sing had yet to bring him any lunch. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he then comfortably leaned back into his pillows letting all of his woes and worries to simply

vanish into an intellectual oblivion.

 

Adam was slowly drifting into sleep when he heard a soft, almost hesitant, rap against his bedroom door. Forgetting sleep for the moment, he answered the knock

with a voice just loud enough to vibrate through the door. "Itís open," he had said just before being surprised to see a seemingly shy and uncertain Hoss walked in

and closed the door behind him. Noticing his younger brother was nervously dawdling next to the bed, Adam, jovially, spoke once more, "Hoss! How long have

youíve been back?"

 

"OhÖ about two hours," Hoss replied shrugging. Seeing the pale face of his older brother stare back at him made Hoss slightly hesitant with his answers and actions

as all his previous bottled up emotions started to reach back to the surface. Even though he could tell that Adam was apparently recuperating very well, no matter

how strong the soap, his anger wouldnít be that easily washed away.

 

"So, how was it? You were gone for some time."

 

"We found Miss Josie."

 

"How is she?" Adam said with obvious concern.

 

"I donít really know," Hoss honestly replied, "Her pa took her back to town. She wuz pretty upset." Adam remained silent as he was in deep thought. Hoss took

that time to add, "Sheriff arrested Harry Wilkinson."

 

At the mention of the name, a deep frown of bewilderment instantly plastered on Adamís pale, bruised face. "Harry Wilkinson? Why would Harry kidnap Josie

Norton?"

 

"Donít know, Adam. I ainít talked to the sheriff since I came back home."

 

Shaking his head in confusion despite the subsequent throbbing, Adam added almost amongst a whisper, "It just doesnít make any sense. Why?" Hoss simply

shrugged in response, as he had no answer to his brotherís hypothetical question.

 

Awkward silence suddenly engulfed the warm upstairs room, as both brothers unknowingly became prisoners of their own internal thoughts and questions. A puzzle

laid before their eyes, one which they seemed to be missing most of the pieces and it frustrated both Cartwright sons to no end. An impromptu slamming of the

entrance door downstairs made them violently retrieve control of their own thoughts.

 

"Joe must be back," Hoss simply stated as he hurriedly left his older brotherís room in search of his younger one. As soon as he rounded the corner of the hallway

atop of the stairs, Hoss smiled as his intuition was validated. Joe had his back to him as the youngest Cartwright methodically took off his outwear. "Hi! shortshanks,"

Hoss casually stated, addressing Joe, as he walked down the reverse L-shaped stairs.

 

"Hoss!" Joe exclaimed as he turned to face the man behind the voice. With a grin reaching both ears, he approached his brother and lovingly placed an arm around

his broader shouldered brother. "Glad to see you back!"

 

"Glad to be back, liíl brother!"

 

"How long have you been home? How was it? Did you find Josie? Do you know..."

 

"Whoa... liíl Joe!" Hoss quickly interrupted, "Slow down, one question at a time!"

 

"Sorry, Hoss!" Joe apologetically stated. Climbing up the stairs together, Joe asked again with more pause, "So, did you find Josie?"

 

"Yup, Miss Josieís safe now. The sheriff arrested Harry Wilkinson."

 

"Harry Wilkinson!?" Joe stuttered in a mind-boggling tone as he spared a puzzled look with his brother.

 

"Yup!" Hoss repeated understanding that the suspected manís likelihood of being a kidnapper was slim. But, it was a fact.

 

Joe shook in head in bewilderment as he walked inside Adamís room with Hoss not far behind. "Did you hear about Wilkinson?" Joe quickly inquired to his oldest

brother.

 

"Yeah, Hoss just told me," Adam answered, "I just wished that I could remember. It would shed some light on this whole mess."

 

Joe and Hoss simply shared a guilty look as they both compassionately envisioned how it was frustrating for Adam not to be able to summon up his memories of that

faithful early morning. It wasnít something that they would want to experience first hand. Feeling the roomís mood slightly turn acrimonious, Joe made a conscious

effort to change the subject as he stated, "País scheduled to arrive in a few hours. I was about to head on to Virginia City to meet him."

 

"Iíll go, Liíl Joe," Hoss volunteered.

 

"Why?"

 

"íCause I want to talk to the sheriff..." Hoss replied, "and besides ya need the rest. Ya know takiní care of older brother here and keepiní the ranch run smoothly

takes energy. Yaíre probably plum tired."

 

Joeís eyes showed instant scepticism as they slit-like moved from Hoss to Adam. Feelings of aggravation and gratitude battled inside his mind as he tried to

understand. It wasnít until Adam gave a short nod that gratitude won the battle by a small margin. He never would admit it but the emotional roller-coaster ride of the

last few days had put a physical toll on him.

 

"Fine," Joe reluctantly muttered under his breath.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Rubbing his hands together in order to keep them warm, Hoss stood near the Overland Express stopover station in Virginia City where his father would soon arrive.

Hoss had just arrived back from the jailhouse where he had spoke with Coffee and Devin for several minutes before noticing the late hour. The last thing that he

wanted to do was to be late for his fatherís long overdue homecoming. Ben would reasonably be exhausted from his long trip and impatiently wanting to go straight

home.

 

Hossí short visit with the sheriff had been a slight disappointment since Harry Wilkinson once more cried out his innocence in any illicit activity. The only new

information that he had been able to gather since arriving in the city was that Miss Josie Norton was adamant about testifying against Wilkinson in his trial. However,

it would be several days before a circuit judge would be in town. So, patience was an essence.

 

Hoss kept himself busy by admiring the hectic demeanour of passer-byes. He marvelled at their sheer resolute comportment. As he watched two miners loudly

talking to each other from the other side of the wide street, the distinctive noise of an approaching carriage suddenly caught his attention. The thundering gallops of

the four horses grew in intensity as the brown stagecoach approached his location from the right. Almost immediately, Hoss became warm-hearted. A sensation of

delight circulated through his veins at the pure thought of having his entire family once more back together. With a broad smile across his rounded face, Hoss simply

remained standing as the stagecoach stopped in its tracks.

 

A few seconds later, a older man, dressed in a distinguishing navy coloured suit, walked out the coach, followed by two other gentlemen. With white hair edging the

brim of his pale grey hat, Benjamin Cartwrightís dark eyebrows quickly rose up as soon as he caught glimpse of his middle son. Even though he was a tall and

well-built man, Ben was still a few inches shorter than the strapping Hoss, whom dwarfed the majority of the population. With a warm and expanding smile, Ben

unreservedly approached his son in order to give him a quick affectionate hug.

 

"Welcome home, Pa!"

 

"Thanks, son. Itís good to be home!" Ben replied.

 

"How wuz your trip?" Hoss inquired as he walked passed Ben to the stagecoach in order to retrieve his fatherís luggage.

 

"Good! I was able to secure our timber contracts with both the Bristlecone and Yellowriver mines for another two seasons," Ben stated with enthusiasm clearly

heard through his deep, booming voice.

 

"Geesh, Pa! Thatís great!"

 

As if noticing for the first time, Ben glanced around his son looking for his two other ones. "Whereís Adam and Joe?"

 

"Back at the ranch, Pa," Hoss instinctively replied while lifting the luggage into the back of a small carriage. An inner debate quickly followed suite in his head. One

where he weighed the options about notifying his father of the last few days events now or later.

 

A disapproval frown quickly shaped Benís face as he could tell that his middle son was withholding something as he knew him so well. "Hoss?" he warningly stated,

"Is thereís something that youíre not telling me? What did Joseph do now?"

 

"Er... nuthiní, Pa! Liíl Joe ainít done nuthiní wrong," Hoss intervened in his brotherís defence. He internally cursed himself for his lapse of control over his emotions.

After swallowing the lump that had suddenly materialised in his throat, he instead said, "Itís about Adam, Pa." Benís face sharply fell to show his full bewilderment.

Foretelling his fatherís next pressing question, Hoss added with urgency, "Iíll tell ya on the way home, Pa."

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 9

 

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

 

"You had to tell him about Adam right after he got off of the stagecoach?! Couldnít ya at least have waited until he came home?" Joe lectured as he gave Hoss a

disapproval look across the living room making sure that he was out of earshot from his father whom had precipitately ran towards Adamís room upon his return to

the ranch.

 

"Hey!" Hoss slightly yelled with v-shaped eyebrows, "As ya should know by now, liíl brother, ya canít hide nuthiní from Pa!"

 

Upon hearing his brotherís words, Joeís face immediately softened. Their father was no fool, especially when it came to his sons not being straightforward with him.

Realising how truly hard it is to withhold anything from their father and that telling a lie was never an option, Joe apologised in a small boyish tone, "Sorry, Hoss!"

 

"Good!" Hoss replied while nodding away his scowl.

 

"Did you get to see the sheriff?" Joe questioned as he moved towards the living room settee, located directly in front of the massive hearth, where he

unceremoniously sat down.

 

"Yup, I did, liíl brother. Harryís still says heís innocent. Luckily, Miss Josieís goiní to testify at his trail."

 

"When?"

 

"Donít know. We have to wait for the circuit judge," Hoss replied in exasperation as he turned to face the fiery fire that sprinkled hot goblets of air against every inch

of his body. It was said that patience was a virtue. For Hoss, it was more than that, it was an unobtainable aspiration. How he wished that he could have a few quiet

moments with Harry Wilkinson? How he hoped that this whole incident could be erased? However, reality hit Hoss like a ton of bricks. Despite everything, his

hands were tied. The implementation of law depended solely on Miss Josie Norton.

 

"Did Josie say anything about Adam?" Joe carefully asked as if he had been able to peek through Hossí brain and to expose his brotherís most secret thoughts.

 

Joe, from his position, saw his brother lower his head slightly. With hesitant words, the taller, much bigger man softly spoke. "She told Roy that Harry hit Adam with

a log as he came out of the house..." Hoss stated before his voice trailed off into silence. Knowing that his brother was probably battling some profound emotions as

he did himself, Joe didnít dare press his brother for additional information. Instead, he let enough time past for Hoss to recover. When he did, Hossí voice was

stronger and slightly heated. "She also said that he hit Adam again when he started to come to. Josie said that... that she had to plead with Harry not to kill him."

 

Hossí spoken words exploded in Joeís mind like ignited dynamite. His body became suddenly cold despite his closeness to the raging fire as the horrific

contemplation of actually how close he came to losing his oldest brother overcame his train of thought. All of his senses were suddenly stunned. It wasnít until an

unexpected, deep voice boomed across the living room that he snapped out of his daze state.

 

"Boys, whatís the meaning of the piece of paper on Adamís bedside table?"

 

"Pa!?" Joe exclaimed as he slightly jerked upon hearing his fatherís words. Hoss also involuntarily jumped due to the unexpected interruption.

 

"Your brotherís sleeping," Ben carefully explained as he slowly moved down the remaining stairs. His homecoming had been dampened by the news of his firstborn

sonís injuries. Whether his sons were fifty or five, Ben would always worry about their safety and their welfare. It was a parental protectiveness feeling that never

disappeared neither with time nor with age.

 

Seeing the despairing, upset looks upon his two younger sonsí faces, Ben knew to never doubt, despite fights and quarrels between them, that all three brothers

cared and loved each other more than anything. Although it wasnít voiced out loud enough, Ben felt all warm inside knowing that he had raised his sons into

well-adjusted, responsible, caring, and hard-working men. "You didnít answer my question, boys!"

 

Joe shared a hesitant glance with Hoss before returning his gaze to his awaiting father. Clearly his throat free of the large lump that had mysteriously appeared, Joe

replied, "Doc Martin told Adam to write everything that he remembered about his ambush. So, heís writing it down."

 

"Thereís not much on the paper. But a few sentences."

 

"The Doc said that it will take time, Pa," Hoss answered while lowering his eyes in defeat not bothering to add the possibility that his older brother may never retrieve

his memories.

 

"How long?" Ben asked wanting more consolation than clarification.

 

To this question, both brothers simply shrugged as the answer eluded them. Despite gnawing feelings of wanting to ease their fatherís pain, Hoss and Joe didnít seem

to know the magic words or secret handshakes to help lift the mystification before them. Upon hearing their fatherís deep sigh, they both felt a little twinge nib at their

hearts. Both their faces moulded into ones of sorrow and defeat.

 

To Ben, the simple concept that his son would suffer lastingly damage by such a cruel, cowardly act made his blood boil. Broken bones healed, open cuts mend, but

brain damage was permanent. He could only hope that his firstborn would overcome the eerie knowledge of probably never recovering his memory, that a small part

of him would forever be lost. But, he knew that Adam was strong.

 

"One thing that I donít understand is motive," Joe stated as he wrapped his arms around his slim, fit chest finding it unbearable to keep his opinions to himself any

longer. Like a flower under sunlight, they needed to bloom. "Why would Harry Wilkinson kidnap Josie Norton, then bushwhacked Adam?" he persisted, "Itís just

doesnít make any sense. There was no ransom note and thereís no sign that he even tried to pry our safe. Besides, Wilkinsonís been a friend to all of us for many

years. Itís just doesnít make any sense that he would intentionally hurt Adam, even less try to kill him!"

 

"I donít know, Joe," Ben replied with a headshake as he placed his hands in his pantsí pockets. Like the other room occupants, he saw no logical solution to this

mystery. However, Ben kept his optimism by believing that the truth will come out in the impending trial. He just wished that it would come sooner than later.

 

"Rumour around town is that Harry wuz upset that Miss Josie turned him down at last month dance. But, I ainít puttiní much truth to that. Itís a puny excuse to me. I

know Harry, he ainít the type to sway another manís girl affections. Besides, he already knew that sheís engaged to this Andrew Nye fella."

 

"Yeah, Hoss, but youíre not Harry Wilkinson," Ben quickly piped in, "Whatever makes a man like him tick will always be a mystery? Love can make people do

strange and unusual things."

 

Hoss looked down at his feet as his father spoke. Everything about this whole incident just didnít make any sense for the middle Cartwright son as his forehead

crunched into ripples of flesh. Sparing a quick glance at his younger brother, he could tell by Joeís demeanour that he also reciprocated these feelings and thoughts.

Ones of confusion, frustration, irritation, and apprehension.

 

A brief silence engulfed the large living room for several seconds, as all three Cartwrights became unwilling prisoners of inscrutable questions. It was the family

patriarch that broke the chains of tranquillity with a stiff cough, followed by a statement of renunciation. "Well, anyway, I donít think that weíre going to solve

anything right now.... we have work to do before winter sets its toll. So, we better get to it."

 

With respective compliant nods, both Hoss and Little Joe followed their fatherís advice and headed on outside to numerous hours of hard, lingering work. Whether

they like it or not, the sun keeps on setting and rising as usual with never-ending ranch work.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

It had been three days now since the trial of Harry Wilkinson had begun. Due to the fact that his eldest son was still yet unable to make the long travel into town due

to unpredictable headaches and dizziness, Ben had made a promise to himself that he would be present for the trialís entirety. He was going to make sure that justice

was properly rendered. As expected, the Wilkinson trial had become the talk of the town, where everyone openly discussed their thoughts and beliefs about what

should happen to the accused. The whole town seemed to be in a buzz. But for Ben Cartwright, judgement day seemed to be not coming soon enough.

 

In the back of the small courtroom, Ben remained seated in silence amongst other Virginia City citizens. During the past few days, they all had heard various

testimonies, but none as important and detrimental than their astute ears heard at the present moment.

 

Miss Josie Norton, dressed in a pale blue dress, which hugged her slender frame, seemed confident in Benís dark eyes as she painstakingly recalled the past events,

from her kidnapping to her rescue by the Posse almost a month earlier. Ben noticed that she clenched her hands together across her lap at a rhythmic interval as she

spoke, which he deduced to simply be due to nervousness. Even though Ben heard every single word that Josie had previously uttered, his attention only peaked at

its highest level once the mere mention of the Ponderosa reached his ears.

 

"... this is when Harry told me what he was planning to do on the Ponderosa ranch. He said that it was going to be a long trip to California... that we needed money

and food, maybe even a few horses too. He told me that the Cartwrights were rich, that they wouldnít miss anything. I was so scared... I didnít know what to do,"

Josie exclaimed with confidence, yet still visually distraught. After taking a few deep breaths, she continued on with her story about Wilkinsonís diabolic plans. "I

thought that maybe I could yell or something... anything to help me get free and back home, but Harry said that if I spoke that it would be my last words."

 

At the last uttered sentence, a short murmur of astonishment and anger shot across the courtroom, bouncing against the plastered walls in an interminable echo. It

quickly disappeared as Josie proceeded.

 

"I was afraid of what Harry might do.... so, I did what he told me. After we reached the Cartwright ranch, I could see pure evil in his eyes. He was like a wild

animal. I..."

 

"Objection, your honour!" Wilkinsonís defence lawyer stated as he swiftly arose from his chair. "This witness cannot say or imply what my clientís mood or feelings

were at the time of the event."

 

"Sustained," the judge quickly agreed with a nod.

 

The prosecutor, a middle age man whom had been practising law in the city for more than a decade, didnít even seem to bat an eyelash upon hearing the judgeís

decision against him. Experience had mad John Winters one of the best trial lawyers in Virginia City. Instead, Winters took a step forward towards his prime witness

as he tugged at the vest under his impeccable grey suit. After sparing a quick glance towards Wilkinson whom remained seated to his lawyerís left, the prosecutor

continued on with his interrogation. "Please continue, Miss Norton... what happened next? What did the accused do once inside the Ponderosa ranch house?"

 

"Harry broke inside the house through the kitchen door, where he stole some food from the pantry. Then, he went for the safe. He was playing with the combination

when he knocked over something on the floor. I canít remember what, but suddenly we heard noise coming from upstairs. Harry panicked... pushed me back

outside. Told me to be quiet. We waited outside for sometime, enough time that Harry thought that he was in the clear. But... but somehow, Adam Cartwright

walked outside. Thatís when Harry attacked him from behind. Hit him across the head with a log..."

 

Benís face twisted into an angry scowl upon hearing Josieís words. It pained him to hear about Wilkinson had done to his beloved son. Sparing a menacing look at

the accused, Ben took several deep breaths in order to keep his brewing emotions of sweet revenge under his skin. He needed to be strong. He needed to keep a

clear mind. For Adamís sake!

 

"... then, Harry dragged him into the barn. He then started to wildly pace and mutter something that I didnít understand. I didnít know what to do. I thought that he

had killed Adam, until Adam opened his eyes and started to mumble. Thatís when Harry hit him again. I pleaded with him to leave Adam alone, but he wouldnít

listen to me at first. It wasnít until I promise him that I wouldnít run away that he did. I wasnít going to let him kill Adam! I couldnít!"

 

Taking a deep breath, Josie closed her eyes in apparent emotional pain. The courtroom crowd were hypnotised by her every move and at each spoken word while

Benís eyes grew large in astonishment upon discovery how close he came to losing his son. How he owed so much to Miss Josie Norton. How will he ever repay

her?

 

"We then fled the Ponderosa. We were on the trail for a couple of days until the Posse found us. It was the most beautiful day of my life. I was finally coming back

home."

 

"Thank you, Miss Norton," Winters stated with a smug smile as he turned around to view Wilkinson. John knew that he had made his case, a strong one at that. He

didnít even had to call Adam Cartwright as a witness. With the fact that Adam still had no total recollection of his ambush and that Josie was such a strong witness,

Winters didnít had to as his prime witness was serving Wilkinsonís guilty verdict on a silver platter.

 

Ben couldnít help but feel relieved that finally everything was in the open. No more secrets. No more doubts. Finally, the truth was out. He lowered his eyes as he let

a deep sigh escape his now unclenching teeth. As his body relenting some of his anger, he let his eyes roamed the small courthouse room until something odd caught

his attention. Johnny Norton, sitting next to his daunting father a few seats farther on his right, seemed hesitant. Ben could almost swear that the much younger man

was unsettled about something. Was it about what his sister had just said? or was it about something else entirely? Raising his eyebrows in question, Ben couldnít tell

which one was accurate. Maybe my mindís playing games with me! Ben quickly thought as he reluctantly, but still dismissed his questions. Whatever seemed to be

on Johnnyís mind, it was no concern to Ben, right now. He had other more pressing issues to attend to. His oldest sonís full recuperation being the priority one.

 

It had took merely two hours for the jury to come back with a verdict that would alter Wilkinsonís life forever.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Seated behind his fatherís office desk, Adam leaned back against the green leather chair. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to soothe the budding pain between his temples

that seemed to be just around the corner. It had been almost a month now and still he suffered physical repercussions from that faithful, early morning. Doctor Martin

had warned him about the slow healing process of a major concussion, but Adam had never agreed it to be such a long and painful route. Being unable to pull his

weight around the ranch made it more dismal. He felt useless and a burden to his family. Keeping his eyes shut, Adam tried to vanquish the negative thoughts from his

mind. These kinds of thoughts were not going to make his recovery any easier, so Adam thought it best if he could simply move on. He had to start to live in the

present and focus on his future. But, due to recent setbacks, it seemed to be such an unattainable feat.

 

Unbeknownst to himself, Adam felt his body slowly relax while his shoulderís lost some of its tension as his body seemed to mould against the chairís every curve

and crevice. For several minutes, his body knocked on the door of slumber. However, just as the mystical door was about to creak open to let him enter, another

one closed with moderate force in the back of his mind. The brusque noise made him jerk back into semi-consciousness. With eyes mid-closed and after some

hesitance, Adam finally recognised the blurry shadows in the corner of his eyes as his father walking across the living room. "Pa!" Adam croakily greeted still not

completely lucid.

 

Instant worry travelled to Benís face as he heard his sonís seemingly weak welcome. Thinking the worse, he didnít bother to remove his coat and walked towards

Adam in a slight hasten pace. It wasnít until he saw his eldest son try to muffle a yawn that his parental worries slightly dismissed into the background. "How are you

feeling, son?" Ben asked as he leaned against the desk with eyes fixated on the man seated in the chair.

 

Muffling another yawn, Adam slowly stood up. "Iím fine," he replied, "what did you find out in town?"

 

Benís left eyebrow sank in disapproval at his sonís overt effort to side-step any questions about his health. Thinking best to forego Adamís evasion, Ben let it slide

for the time being. "The verdictís in."

 

The mere three words uttered by his father made Adamís eyes grow in astonishment. Now fully awake, he pressed the issue with a quick urging nod.

 

Taking a deep breath, Ben remove his warm jacket along with his black gloves, and placed them both on a nearby chair. After what seemed to be an eternity for

Adam, the older man finally met his sonís eyes and spoke. "The jury found Wilkinson guilty on all four counts," he uttered. As his firstborn son lowered his eyes and

sat back down as his brain tried to register what had been said, Ben continued, "the judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison."

 

With mixed emotions travelling through his body at the speed of light, Adam quietly sat mesmerised by his fatherís statement. He could find no words to help

alleviate this growing sensation of numbness that he experienced. One side of him was overjoyed that justice was finally rendered, while the other left him feeling

uncertain with unanswered questions. With his memory loss, Adam couldnít be sure of what exactly happened that early morning. He truly wanted to believe Josie

Nortonís account, but somehow, it just didnít feel right. Harry Wilkinson had been a friend for some few years and to even envision the possibility of him

experiencing such a metamorphosis of character made Adam remain doubtful. However, despite his feelings, Adam knew that it was out of his hands.

 

Seeing Adam at a loss for words, Ben felt suddenly sad as he recognised the powerful impact of his statement had made on his son. Wanting to comfort him as any

father would, Ben walked around the desk and placed a reassuring hand on his sonís left shoulder. With a gentle squeeze, he hoped to show support and

understanding. "Adam?" he softly asked with quiet worry, "are you alright?"

 

At first, Adam didnít respond to his fatherís question, which made Benís worry grow rapidly in volume. However, after a few seconds of dry and excruciating

silence, he finally let his gaze rise up at his father before returning it back to the desktop. "Yeah, Iím fine, Pa."

 

The lack of enthusiasm within Adamís hushed response made both Benís forehead crease and eyes squint with obvious concern. "Adam! Whatever... you are feeling

or thinking, please let me know," Ben pleaded, not wanting to leave their conversation on an emotional cliff-hanger.

 

"I... I just canít believe that Harry would do this. I know what Miss Josie said about the incident..." Adam hesitated for a split second as he searched for proper

words. After a deep, frustrated sigh, he went on, "... itís just hard for it to sink in. And now with Harry going to prison, it just makes things worse," Adam stated with

hesitance and confusion. As he spoke, he seemed to be bewildered. "I just wish that I... I could remember what happened to me that morning."

 

"Adam, you have to stop beating yourself up about that," Ben gently reprimanded his firstborn son as he gave Adamís shoulder another gentle squeeze. How Ben

desired to transfer his sonís pain and confusion unto him? How he yearned that Adam wouldnít have to face a possible future without not really knowing what

happened that early morning? But, it was wishful thinking and futile.

 

"You donít understand Pa! Itís like having a word on the tip of my tongue. Itís so frustrating. I canít stop thinking about it!"

 

"I know, son! I know, but it will pass, Adam. You just have to let time do its work."

 

Massaging his chin with his right hand, Adam gave a slight nod of understanding. Deep down, he knew that his father was right. "Yeah, I guess so."

 

Even though in Benís fatherly ears, Adam didnít sound confident, he decided to let it be for now as he didnít want to press the painful memories unto his son any

second longer. Deeply sighing, Ben reluctantly left his sonís side and walked towards the blazing fire in the nearby hearth, wanting both some physical and

psychological warmth. It was getting colder outside at each passing day. These past few days made Ben wonder of what the world was heading towards. Some

days, it seemed to be that in the balance of good and bad, the latter was hauntingly winning. Sudden steps from behind quickly made him vanquish the negative

thought swimming in his brain. Twisting his upper body around to view the visitor, Ben quickly recognised their dutiful, loyal cook.

 

"Supper ready in half an hour!" Hop Sing boisterously stated as he lift his hand with only his index finger extended.

 

"Thank you, Hop Sing," Ben replied with a gentle nod. Satisfied with his bossí response, the small Chinese man went directly back to the kitchen while Ben, himself,

led his gaze back to the hypnotising fire. With supper almost at hand, another thought suddenly crept in the Cartwright patriarch's train of thought. Turning around to

face once more his oldest son, Ben noticed Adam unmoved behind the desk. "Adam?"

 

It was a few seconds before Adam answered. "Yeah, Pa?"

 

"Where are your brothers?"

 

Adam shrugged before uttering his answer. "Before they left, they just told me that they were going to finish up around the ranch with winter merely a month away."

 

Despite a staunch inclination to mask it, Ben knew his son too well not to notice the defeat intonation in Adamís voice. He knew that his sonís lagging head injury

was making Adam restless and feeling somewhat useless. Ben could only sympathise with his son. "Look Adam, itís going to take time before youíre back to

normal. Despite what you may think, we need you here. Youíre better at dealing with the endless paperwork than I ever will be. Just be patient. Youíll be alongside

your brothers in no time."

 

Adamís impassive look made Ben worry about his sonís mental state as he spoke. Right at that moment, Ben was brought back to other previous occasions where

his firstborn son would put on an emotional mask that no one could remove. It was a mask which helped his son deal through hard moments of loss and sadness.

Despite Benís stern labour of prevention, the emotional aftermath of fighting unfathomable hunger while travelling Westward, of spending endless hours alone while

his father worked in unfamiliar towns for a quick buck, and of losing his own mother along with two stepmothers had taken a toll on Adamís shoulders. Under that

hard exterior, Ben knew how a sensitive and caring man his eldest son was truly. As he was about to add some additional comforting words, Adam finally broke the

thick fog-like silence between them.

 

"Well, someone has to keep those two in line," Adam stated with a small, mischievous smirk, which quickly followed.

 

At the spoken words, the roomís mood immediately turned for the better as Benís own face forgot its frown, replacing it with an engaging smile of hope. Hope that

soon everything will be as it was ever meant to be. A family of four... together and strong.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 10

 

 

"Hey! brother, wait for me!" Hoss exclaimed as he tried feverously to follow in his big brotherís footsteps.

 

"Come on! Hurry up will ya!?" Adam retorted, not bothering to glance back at his huffing brother, as he tread down Virginia Cityís C Street. Finally, his headaches

had subsided enough for a visit into town and now he was a man on a mission. He had heard for some time about a new play in town and desperately wanted to buy

his ticket before they were sold out. Even though the Ponderosa was of majestic beauty, the many days of solitary confinement on it made Adam almost crawl up the

walls in utter despair and lunacy. He needed some type of break in the monotony of the past several days. And the play was just his rescue.

 

"Come on, Adam! Whatís the hurry?" Hoss complained in a huffed voice as steam escaped at each taking breath. December was barely two weeks from now and

the temperature had remained cold.

 

Adam almost smile upon hearing his brotherís complaint as it sounded so young. But, he wasnít about to be side-tracked. Without bothering to reply, Adam finally

came to his destination: the Piper Opera Houseís ticket counter. Luckily, due to the time of day, there was no need to wait as Adam walked directly to the teller.

"Hi! I would like to buy two tickets for Charles Dickensí play. Preferably this Tuesday nightís performance."

 

"Well, Adam! Itís nice to see out and about," the middle aged man stated behind the desk as soon as he recognised Benís eldest son.

 

"Thanks, Nelson."

 

"Dickensí new play, you say... Tuesday night," Nelson stated as he fidgeted behind the counter. Adam gave the stocky, friendly man a quick guarantee nod as Hoss

came into view behind him, finally being able to catch up with his brother. After a quick search, the man behind the counter lifted back his gaze to his customer.

"Youíre in luck, Adam. I got only a couple of good seats left for that night."

 

"Great! Iíve been waiting for this play to come to Virginia City for some time now," Adam stated with barely contained gleefulness as a night in town was exactly

what the doctor had ordered. After paying for his ticket and giving Nelson a polite and buoyant goodbye, Adam left the opera ticket booth with a smile plastered on

his handsome face.

 

"Whatís this new play that ya want to see?" Hoss asked with picked curiosity as he dutifully followed his brother, once again, through the city streets.

 

"Great Expectations."

 

"I know yaíre lookiní forward to see this play, Adam. But, whatís it called?" Hoss asked with eyes squinted in bewilderment.

 

"Just as I said, Hoss. Great Expectations is the name of the play. Itís based on a book by Charles Dickens about the tribulations of young boy named Pip. "

 

 

"P... ah, what... Peep?"

 

To his amazement, Adam felt such in high spirits that he let a small giggle escape through his lips at his brotherís innocent question. He had never felt better. This

change of venue had indeed been a good idea. "No, Pip!" he corrected, "Pipís the main character in the book. Heís real name is Philip Pirrip... heís just called Pip,

thatís all. Itís just a nickname, like Hoss is for you!" Adam slowly explained as he gave a smile to his puzzled brother as well as a friendly tap on the shoulders.

 

Instead of answering, Hossí slowly nodded his head in understanding as his face remoulded back into a contented pose. Adam and his books!, Hoss stated to

himself with marvel as his brother and him walked side by side. While Adam seemed to lose himself in any one of his endless books, Hoss, on the other hand,

struggled with those fancy writings, never truly understanding what his brother saw in them. Hoss would always prefer the pure, simplistic beauty of mother nature to

the materialistic art in books any day, any time. To each his own, he thought.

 

As both Cartwright brothers silently and contentedly wandered through the city streets in search of their next destination, a moving shadow appeared in the corner of

their eyes as it approach them from the right. "Howdy, boys!" Roy Coffee greeted as he wandered himself in front of his good friendís two oldest sons. Stopping in

their tracks, both Hoss and Adam exchanged pleasant greetings along with smiles with the town sheriff. "Itís mighty good to see ya around town, Adam," Coffee

cheerfully added.

 

"Thanks, Roy. I have to agree."

 

"Yeah, older brother hereís been bounciní off the walls back at the ranch these past few days and driviní every one plain loco. So much that Pa just had to give in."

 

Coffee simply shared a chuckle with the friendly giant on Adamís behalf. It was nice seeing the warmth between the brothers as Adamís face twisted into an artificial

sadden smirk. As being a fortunate close friend of the Cartwright clan, Roy felt privileged to know such a caring, loving, and honest group of people.

 

Sudden silence griped all three men like an invisible wall for several seconds as they were psychologically brought back to the past monthís events separately. The

older man was the one to make it crumble down. "Itís been almost two weeks now since the trial ended. If ya donít mind me askiní Adam-" Coffee stated with

some hesitation. He took a deep breath before continuing on, "... howís yer memory?" Seeing some hesitance in the younger manís dark eyes, Coffee felt the need

to appease any of Adamís worries or woes by quickly adding. "Ya see, townfolks have been worried about ya, Adam, including me."

 

"Itís nice to hear that people care so much about my well-being. My memory about that morning is still not complete, but Iíll be fine. Iím still the same old Adam!"

 

"Ya can say that again!" Hoss joked as he gave his brother a playful wink. Adam, despite his sudden solemn mood, couldnít help but smirk back.

 

As he smiled his gaped tooth grin, Hossí attention was suddenly grasped behind the sheriff by a man approximately of his own age getting ready to embark on a

stage of the Overland Express. Squinting in order to identify the man, it took just a few seconds before his name was divulged. "Hey! Ainít that Andrew Nye?" Hoss

questioned as he gave a subtle nod towards the man besides the stagecoach, making both Adam and Roy spared quick glances in that direction. "It looks like heís

leaviní!"

 

Turning his attention back to Hoss, Royís face quickly displayed astonishment. "Didnít ya know that he and Miss Josie called off the wedding?" Seeing questioning

eyes glare back at him, Coffee didnít hesitate to fill in the gaps for both Cartwright sons. "Andrewís goiní back to Carson City, while Miss Josieís goiní back East to

visit some relatives."

 

Adam was slightly startled. "When did all of this happen?"

 

"Last week," Coffee promptly answered, "I spoke with Miss Josie personally a few days ago. She ainít takiní this whole situation very well. She believes that moviní

away for a while will be good fer her. I had to agree. Sheís been through a lot this past month."

 

"What about her marriage?"

 

"Dunno, Hoss!" Roy answered with a sad shake of the head and a slight shoulder lift. The reason for the marriage cancellation was to remain private, which the

sheriff deeply respected. "It may be simply postponed."

 

"I hope it is just that, Roy!"

 

Coffee nodded his agreement upon hearing Hossí sincere words. Knowing that the brothers were probably in middle of errands, Roy decided to give his quick

goodbye at that moment. "Iíve takiní enough of yer time, boys. Iím sure that ya have other business in town to attend to. So, Iíll leave ya both here. Take care and

say hi to yer father and brother for me."

 

"Will do, Roy. Have a good day!" Adam replied with a tip of the hat as Hoss did the same while Coffee left their location, heading on back to the jailhouse.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

With the sheriffís departure, both brothers strolled once again down Virginia Cityís finest streets. Their promenade led them to the post office, where they collected

awaiting mail, to the bank, where some ranch business had to be attending to, and finally to the Territorial Enterprise office, where a newspaper was their magnifying

glass to local and world news. Before heading back home though, Adam had one more stop that he intended to .

 

"I think that before going back home, Iíll spoil myself to a quick beer. I havenít had one in such a long time that Iím starting to think that I forgot how it taste," Adam

stated blithely as he approached one of the cityís numerous saloons.

 

"Yeah, Iím with you, older brother! Not too mention being a toasty warm building."

 

Just as they were about to enter the Silver Dollar saloon, Adam abruptly stopped in his tracks and turned to face his now puzzled brother. Placing a hand across

Hossí broad chest, Adam spoke with doubt clearly heard between the lines. "Hey! wait a minute! I... I thought that you had to see Jeb Hunter at the mercantile."

 

"Um...er, yeah, I still want to see him... itís just that I..."

 

It was at that moment that Adam threw his metamorphic blindfold harshly onto the ground. He quickly interrupted his brotherís pitiful rambling. "You told me that it

was so important... thatís why you wanted to come into town with me." Despite Hossí best intentions, Adam finally retrieved his eyesight back and recognised a

shrewd plot to keep a watchful eye on him. A plot that could have been initiated only by one man... his father! Seeing that Hoss physically squirm for words to no

avail. Adam decided to spare his brother any more torment. "You donít have to pretend anymore, Hoss. Itís not that hard to see that Pa made you come with me,

so you could hold my hand and make sure that I didnít trip over my own two feet!"

 

"Hey, Adam, that ainít true!" Hoss swiftly replied with resentfulness, not appreciating his brotherís tone of voice or the implication of his spoken words.

 

"Then, explain it to me!"

 

"Well, itís just that Pa... I mean weíre just worried about ya, thatís all. There ainít nuthiní wrong with that!"

 

Adam deeply sighed in exasperation as he listened to Hossí explanation. "Worried about me?" he mockingly echoed with a soft self-jab on his chest for added

effect. As he was about to add some other sarcastic words to his monologue, Adam quickly decided against it at the last second. It was pointless to argue or to be

angry with Hoss, as he was simply following their fatherís instructions. Instead, Adamís annoyance over this whole incident would have to be brought up with the

rightful recipient back at the ranch. Closing his eyes in misery, Adam shook his head just before walking into the saloon.

 

At first, Hoss was slightly hesitant to follow his brother inside, not sure if Adam would appreciate his company. But, after quick ponder, he decided to enter

nonetheless, as his brother didnít seem to be that angry. Just like their father, Adamís temper was known to be usually short lived if not fuelled. So, Hoss decided to

go with the odds. As he walked inside, Hoss immediately noticed that his brother had already taken a seat at a round table. Adam seemed to be deep in thought, as

he didnít even noticed the bigger manís approach. Just as Hoss was about to address his older brother, a voice regrettably interrupted him as the bartender asked

him what he wanted.

 

"A beer, Sam!" Hoss absently replied with a quick wave of the hand just before taking a seat adjacent to his brotherís. Removing his gloves from his dry hands, he

soaked up the atmosphere around him.

 

The Silver Dollar saloon, amongst others in town, was visited by miners and cowboys intertwine. A piano could be heard playing a strident version of a typical

saloon melody in the background, while various saloon girls circulated the room in search of supplementary business for their boss in more than willing clients. As

well, behind a elongated dark wooded counter, Sam, the bartender, tended to alcoholic needs and listened to every day town gossip. However, despite the every

day bustling of a saloon, a thick silence engulfed the two brothers. Adam, with hat in hands, move it around his long fingers over the table, while Hossí blue eyes

fixated on his brotherís nervous tick-like movement. Around the table, there was such an uneasiness that Hoss started to doubt his decision. It wasnít until Sam

walked to their table and handed them each a large glass of beer that some tension evaporated.

 

With a quick glance up, Adam gave the bartender some money to pay the tab. As Hoss was about to do the same for his own beer, Sam gave him a short

headshake before heading on back to the bar. It was then that Hoss knew that he had been forgiving, as quickly as that. With a smile, he then turned his attention

back to a smirking Adam.

 

"How can I stay mad at a face like that?" he stated with a wink, mentioning Hossí hurt puppy looking eyes. After they shared quick smiles, Adam added in a falsified

imposing tone, "Now, drink your beer!"

 

With a smile that almost matched the range of the vast Lake Tahoe, Hoss did just that as he gobbled down some refreshing beer in a long, swift swig.

 

With neither rhyme nor reason, Adam became suddenly engrossed with the entrance of two low-life cowboys, which he quickly recognised as recently released

convicts. The scruffy looking man on the right, Adam quickly established as Paul Gilbert, a man of unseasonably low self-maintenance and refinement. From his

sweat stained Cowboy hat to his scuffed, severely worn Cowboys boots, Gilbert portrayed a man of lowly, human worth. With dark blue eyes glistering like a

childís toy marble reflecting no warmth and with medium length brown hair clumped in half-hazard masses due to scarce washings, the released convict mirrored his

companion. On Gilbertís right stood an even more uncouth man that everyone knew as Gus Hennigar. With tobacco spewing from his mouth at every cow-like

chew, Hennigar simply stared inside the saloon with fingers encased around his gun belt, which hung low around his square, bony hips. They had both been recently

released from prison after !been found guilty for masterminding the robberies of numerous banks throughout the whole Nevada territory, which include Virginia City.

 

Needless to say that the two fresh free-birds were not welcomed in The Silver Dollar saloon as both abrupt vocal and physical stillness filled the room upon the

notice of their entrance. On the other hand, Adam simply continued to stare at the two newly saloon clients with hypnotic awe as something about the man on the

right made instant shivers originating from the base of his spine travel to his head with lightening speed.

 

"Ya ainít welcome!" Sam exclaimed with a crude, jerk of his hand to his two new customers.

 

Gilbertís mouth simply snaked into a conceited smirk upon hearing the bartenderís harsh words, while Hennigarís brown eyes darkened a shade. In a slow stride,

Gilbert moved towards the bar amidst deaf and dumb patrons in order to come face to face with the man behind the recent voice. With an almost toothless grin, the

meager Cowboy finally spoke. "Itís a free country, Sam. Ya ainít goiní to kick me outta of here! Besides, I..." he stated just before reaching down against his pants,

making some several saloon girls gasped upon thinking the worse. However, Gilbert raised his hand back in order to harshly plant a silver dollar on the dark wooden

bar, "have money!"

 

"Yaíre money ainít no good here, Gilbert!" Sam defiantly responded.

 

As Hennigar was about to make a move for Sam, Gilbert immediately stopped him in his tracks with a firm, commanding hand on the manís shoulder. With a smile

doubled in previous width, he instead said, "Hey! I ainít lookiní for trouble. Me and my friend here just want a beer and then weíll be on our way."

 

A silent standstill quickly aroused between Sam and Gilbert as they stared at each other for an unknown amount of time. To every oneís misery, but not surprise, it

was Sam who was the first to give in. "Donít cause no trouble or Iíll get the sheriff!"

 

"Ainít no worry about that, Sam. Like I said, weíll be on our way soon!" With that said, both Gilbert and Hennigar boorishly leaned against the bar and waited to be

served.

 

As sudden as it had occurred, the saloon ambience kick back up to speed as if nothing had previously happened. The piano man became once more engaged into a

rhythmic melody as various clients re-intermingled with shouts of glee and stupor.

 

Rubbing his temples, Adam, now eyes closed, unsuccessfully tried to alleviate the sudden intense pain reverberating against his skull as he had lost most of the

conversation between barman and lawless man. At first, Adam didnít realise his abrupt gesture. It wasnít until he heard his brother utter a few seemingly distant

words that he opened his eyes. He was taken aback by Hossí expression, which displayed alarm. "What!?" Adam asked trying to mask his lapse into optical

vacancy. It failed.

 

"I asked ya whatís wrong?"

 

"Nothing!" Adam responded with forged assertion. Noting that his brother wasnít in the least bit satisfied with his feeble answer, Adam knew that he had to make up

a more appropriate excuse as soon as possible. "Iím just tired, I guess. Itís been a long day!" Even though, it had been a better answer, Adam could tell within his

brotherís blue eyes that it still wasnít up to par.

 

But instead of bringing forth his older brotherís brazen lie, Hoss simply accepted Adamís reply with a short, curt nod. He could tell that something wasnít right.

However, never one to use force to get his brotherís to open up to him, Hoss simply remained silent, but with the intent to make his brother divulge his troubles in the

very near future.

 

Something about the two Cowboys made blurry, incomprehensible images float in Adamís mind like leafs on water with but the simple water currentís yen for

direction. Incomprehensible words kept on resurging in his thoughts as a spoken word from one of the low-life Cowboys made a spark materialise in his mind like a

lightening strike. His wits suddenly became chaotic, with seemingly no signification in sight. There was definitely something about Hennigar and Gilbert that seemed

familiar to Adam. He just couldnít put it into words, or even into simple thoughts.

 

"Maybe we outta go back home, Adam?" Hoss stated with obvious concern both heard in his voice and seen across his face.

 

Despite his intentions of masking his brewing emotions, Adam couldnít help but feel that Hoss had hit the spike square on the nose. With a quick gulp, he nearly

finished his drink in a futile effort to calm his senses; then, quickly arose from his chair. "Yeah, itís getting late," he quickly agreed, desperately wanting instant

solitude.

 

Mimicking his oldest brother, Hoss finished his beer in a long, breathless swig. Then, without speaking another word, both Cartwright brothers expedited their exit

from the lively saloon oblivious to the two sets of eyes that followed them out. It was with continuing silence that they retrieved their respective horses from the

townís livery and headed on back home while leaving unspoken words of concern and incomprehension left to be heard.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 11

 

 

The trip back to the ranch had been a painful one for Adam as incomprehensible images and thoughts rummaged through every one of his brain cells. A headache

was quickly making an encore presentation, even though it wasnít as strong as previous ones. It was more of headache of confusion than one of pain. He desperately

needed to spend some time alone in order to clarify this whole conceptual, mental riot. As he sat atop of his horse, Sport, Adam could see in the corner of his eyes,

blue ones staring at his every move. He knew that Hoss was still not satisfied with his explanation about his abrupt behaviour at the saloon. But, deciding to let things

simmer for the present time as he was in no mood for a discussion, Adam pretended like he hadnít notice his brotherís inquiring glare.

 

As well, Hoss felt it hard to remain mute as he could see a flagrant, emotional distance in his brothersí chestnut eyes. It was something that he loathed the most.

Being such a compassionately gifted person since birth, Hoss hated to see one of his brotherís emotionally close up like a clam. And this was one of these moments.

However, knowing that persistence at this stage of the game would only lead to more withdrawal, he decided to let his brother sort whatever was bothering him by

himself for the time being.

 

Finally, after a long ride back home, the ranch house came into view to both Cartwright sons. They quickly led their horses into the nearby stable and tended to their

needs. Afterwards, without a second thought, Adam head on towards the ranch house, quickly followed by a perplexed, silent Hoss. Opening the main door, he was

immediately welcomed by a pair of curious, yet caring eyes, whom were both seated amidst the emitting heat from the nearby hearth. It was his father that spoke first

as he put down his delicate, coffee filled, China cup back on the coffee table. "Adam! So, how was your time in town?"

 

Putting his best facial mask on, Adam slightly reciprocated his fatherís smile as he replied, "Good! Iíve nearly forgotten how busy it can be."

 

"Did you get the tickets that youíve wanted?"

 

"Yeah, I did, Pa. I was lucky. I got the last good tickets."

 

"Tickets!" Joe exclaimed with a mischievous grin plastered on his youthful face, orally putting emphasis on to the plural sense of the word. "Who do youíve got

planned to take with you, Adam?"

 

"That, little brother, is none of your business!" Adam replied without neither anger nor annoyance detected in his voice. With a slight smug smile, he simply wanted to

squash any further questions from the ever curious young man. With his youngest brother being such a ladiesí man, Adam wasnít about to divulge any of his romantic

interest of the female persuasion.

 

In response, the corner of Joeís mouth twitched into a slight curvaceous smirk. Despite having his curiosity suddenly been picked, he decided to let it be at the

present time. There would be plenty of time later on to spy on his big brother.

 

"So, whatís for supper?" Hoss asked as he broke his silence and headed on towards the settee, passing a still standing Adam, in order to take a seat on his younger

brotherís right.

 

Ben let short laughter escape his mouth as soon as he heard Hossí words. "Nice to see ya back home too, Hoss!" he said with a touch of amusement, "Iím glad to

see that your priorities are still in check."

 

"Always thinking with your stomach, ainít you?" Joe stated with a teasing elbow poke against Hossí strong arm.

 

Not letting his middle son respond to Joeís teasing, Ben quickly intervened as he could foretell a bickering discussion between his two youngest sons. "About

another hour."

 

"I donít know if I can wait that long, Pa!" Hoss exclaimed as he rubbed his stomach for added effect.

 

"You big ox! You would eat twenty-four hours a day, if you could!" Joe exclaimed at his older brother with a smile that showed a white wall of teeth.

 

The familiar, loving interaction between his brothers and father seemed lost to Adam. With yet a need to be alone, Adam tried to make quick, inconspicuous exit

towards his bedroom. However, he should have know that his father wouldnít be that easily fooled.

 

"Is everything alright, Adam?" Ben asked with questioning worry.

 

With both feet on the stairsí landing, Adam sighed in disappointment before turning around to face his family. Both Ben and Joeís eyes displayed utter puzzlement,

while Hossí showed sincere hope. Adam suddenly cleared a lump that appeared in his dry throat before offering an explanation. He had to think fast on his feet. "Iím

fine, Pa. Just wanted to read some before supper."

 

Benís face instantaneously lost its inquisitiveness and softened into a smile upon hearing his sonís words. "Well, then, why donít you come down and read with us."

 

"Well, Pa... I also want to go over some preliminary plans of next year new installations. Thereís no better time to start than the present. Right?"

 

As quick as he had vanished before, Benís face twisted back into a curious frown. Something about what his firstborn son words and physical deportment wasnít

right. However, despite his best fatherly knowledge and experience, Ben was at a lost of what it might be as he knew that Adam had felt so much better these last

few days. Desperately not wanting another physical setback for his son, Ben hoped beyond hope that it wasnít the case. "Thatís fine, son. Weíll see you at the

supper table then."

 

With a nod of gratitude towards his father, Adam walked up the stairs in search of solitude and answers while the rest of the family wanted merely the latter.

 

Silence engulfed the room like suffocating smoke as soon as the oldest Cartwright son reached the upstairs landing and disappeared around the wall. Noticing how

uncomfortable it was becoming, it was Joe whom broke it in a concerned intonation. "Whatís wrong with Adam?"

 

"I donít know, Joe," Ben responded with eyes downcast, vacantly staring at his cup of coffee as if it hold the ultimate solution. It wasnít until after hearing an

uncomfortable grunt that he glanced back up. Seeing his middle son visibly squirm in his seat, Benís dark eyebrows quickly arched upward. "Hoss? Did something

happen to your brother in town that youíre not telling us?"

 

"No... yeah... well, I donít really know, Pa."

 

"What kind of answer is that?" Joe angrily stated with accusing eyes directed at his older brother.

 

"Joseph!" Ben quickly scolded his youngest son. He knew that Hoss was trying to be accurate while also trying to make sense of it all. Joe lowered his eyes slightly

in shame upon his fatherís reprimand, while Hoss simply tried to put his thoughts and observations into mere words. Trying to not show his impatience, Ben tried to

help his son along in an understanding tone. "Well, Hoss, what is it? Did or didnít something happen?"

 

"Well..." Hoss finally started after a few more seconds of doubt, "everythiní wuz fine until we were at the saloon. He just seemed to... to... I donít know, it just

looked like he wuz haviní another headache. I asked him what was wrong. But, being his old stubborn self, he wouldnít tell me nuthiní! So, we just left and came

right home."

 

Raising once again the cup to his lips, Ben took a tentative sip of his coffee as his mind tried fruitlessly to register his middle sonís explanation and his oldest sonís

questionable behaviour. After swallowing the warm liquid, Ben gently shook his head. "Heís been so healthy these last few days. Even Paul said that he was

recuperating very well... I just hope that heís not suffering another setback from his concussion. Itís either that or something must have set him off."

 

"Well, thatís going to be easy. Getting into older brotherís head!" Joe stated with an evident sarcastic meaning. Since his earliest memories, Adam had always been

one to withhold his emotions in fear of being hurt. It wasnít always easy to brake down the barriers.

 

"Weíll just have to be patient with him. Heís been through a lot these last few months," Ben said to his younger sons as he thought of his oldest. "Heíll come around."

I hope, Ben secretly added to himself.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Laying on his back, Adam tried feverously to mould his body into every one of his feather mattressí folds. Instantaneously, despite his best efforts, his mind started to

wander through the saloon images as a ravenous animal would attack meat. He squinted his eyes shut as lightening like images shot across the back of his eyelids. It

felt like an out of body experience displaying everything like a tragic Shakespearean play. As if he was ten years old again, he could feel his whole body tense up at

the mere inkling of inexplicable fear brought on by the simple sight of two of Virginia City lowlifes. Just as other previous glimpses into the unexplained few early

morning hours of more than a month ago, Adam was left with more questions than answers. It was unsettling and becoming increasingly frustrating.

 

As seconds passed, more and more information seemed to leaked through into his recollection. Various unintelligible words echoed against his ear drums as he could

eerily remember laying down on his stomach on a hard, cold surface. Then, it came! The images suddenly stitched back together to form something comprehensible

and coherent...

 

Unable to see clearly around him due to glistening dots against his retina, he then concentrated on hearing every sounds around him; however, something

kept him from understanding as everything seemed to be a continuous, incomprehensible blabber. A woodpecker seemed to be pecking against his skull.

Even after exhausting every last ounce of energy, his body remained motionless flat on its stomach, unable to move even an inch in any direction.

Suddenly, he could have sworn that he saw a shadow move across his optical perception. Then, without warning, he felt acute pressure on his right side

as ribs were being brushed against each other. Letting a soft moan of protest escape his tight lips, Adam closed his eyes in pain. That was mistake number

two! Upon hearing his protest, someone grabbed him without mincing harshness and raised his upper body from the floor. Something was being yelled to

him. Finding courage to open his eyes to view his assailant, Adam squinted in hopes of meeting the man whom was responsible for his injury eye to eye.

But...

 

Out of the blue, he could feel himself truly been, at first, gently shaken from side to side. However, the more he resisted, the more the movement became vigorous

with sudden whispers of words being added. In a sudden flash, he opened his eyes as they vigorously searched from side to side in hopes of finding the culprit for his

awakening.

 

"Adam? Are you alright?"

 

"Wh... what?" Adam confusingly replied before eventually laying eyes on his youngest brotherís frightened face. Straightening up in his bed while waving Joeís hands

away, he annoyingly added, "what do you do that for? What do you want?!"

 

Mimicking his brother, Joe also straightened his stance as well as taking a step or two back. Neither expecting what he had saw nor Adamís present harsh attitude,

his face lost some of its concern as he countered, "Pa wanted me to get you for supper. Besides, you looked like you were in the middle of a nightmare."

 

"Iím fine, Joe," Adam fibbed, suddenly coming to the realisation that he had been asleep for the better part of an hour. How it had seemed to be so short.

 

"Is that the best you could do! Come on, Iíve lied better than that when I was just a kid. You didnít look fine just a few seconds ago. I had to rattle you pretty hard

for you to wake up. Come on Adam! I donít know who you trying to fool, but it ainít going to be me! As far I can remember, you were always a light sleeper."

 

With hands firmly pressed on the bed, Adam failed to respond to his brotherís claims and arose from his bed. "Look, Joe. Iím telling you that Iím fine. Now, letís

get some supper."

 

Suddenly finding some inner courage, Joe did something that he rarely did in situation like theses. He didnít back down. He wasnít about to let this chance slip from

his fingers. Standing firm in front of the bedroomís lone door, Joe planted his fist on his hips and stood ground preventing his oldest brother from parting. "Adam! Iím

not letting you leave until you tell me what this whole nightmare was about. After what Hoss just told us, you ainít been acting like yourself these last few hours."

 

Coming to the realisation that he had been firmer that he had truly intended, Joeís voice soften a bit as he continued his speech to a befuddled Adam, "Listen, I just

want to help... as do Pa and Hoss. You remember when I was so gung ho about doing things on my own, not wanting to be under you and Hossí shadows anymore.

Wanting to prove to myself that I was... a man. Pa taught me a lesson that day."

 

Searching through the room, Joe soon found what he needed to help demonstrate to his brother that a family standing together stands strong. Brushing against an

astounded Adam, Joe walked to his brotherís desk and picked up four short piece of splintered wood that Adam undoubtedly was using for his miniature model of

one of his new architectural projects for the ranch. With the four sticks firmly in his hand, he then turned to face his brother once more. Outstretching his arm

forwards, he enticed his brother to take them. "Try to brake them."

 

The sticks between his palm felt alien to Adam as he reluctantly did has his little brother asked him. With a firm grip, he then tried to brake them. Unsuccessfully.

 

"See," Joe started as he took them back from Adamís hands, "together, they canít brake. But, by itself, one can!" Taking only one of the wooden sticks, Joe easily

broke it two as he exerted light force on each separate end.

 

"Joe-"

 

"You see, Adam. Together as a family, we Cartwrights canít be broken... but alone, weíre as vulnerable as this stick! We need you as much as you need us!"

 

"Joe-" Adam somewhat pleaded.

 

"Adam, I wonít stand seeing you doing this to yourself. Tell me whatís going on."

 

"Fine, Joe... you win," Adam said unenthusiastically accepting defeat with a flare of his arms. It wasnít often that in situations like these, he would be finish up on the

wrong side of the stick. But, he had to give credit to his brother for being as stubborn as he was. "I did have a nightmare."

 

Noticing Adamís reluctance to go any farther, Joeís mood darken somewhat. "About what? What kind of nightmare?"

 

"You know, Joe, youíre as bad as a dog with a bone!"

 

Joe wasnít deterred. "I may be like a dog with a bone, but youíre a stubborn as a mule."

 

Feeling no other choice, Adam had to lie. He didnít want to, but he couldnít face what he had just experienced right now. He needed more time. "It was blurry. It

didnít make sense." At least, it wasnít a full blown lie. Pinching his nose, Adam closed his eyes and added, "must be the headache," he replied trying to swerve the

conversation away from what he presently dreaded.

 

Joeís expression soften upon seeing his brotherís evident discomfort. "Why donít you come down to supper? Maybe a good meal will help you." Joeís worry was

evident as he spoke. Touching his brotherís shoulder, he tried to entice him to join the rest of them at the dinning room table.

 

"You know that only works on Hoss," Adam stated with a slight grin that was quickly reciprocated by his youngest brother, but nonetheless let Joe lead him out of

his room, and towards the stairs.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Seated adjacent to his father and across the table from his brothers, Adam kept to himself as he, instead, immersed himself in trying to enjoy the casual chatter of

both Hoss and Joe. Moving his food from side to side along his plate, he tried feverously to portray consumption of food while he truly had lost his appetite several

minutes earlier.

 

"I heard that there snow in the mountains, Pa," Joe stated as he chewed on a delicious piece of chicken leg.

 

"Joseph! Where are your manners? You must have lost them somewhere between this morning and now Ďcause they are sure not here at the table. Donít talk with

your mouth full!" Ben quickly reprimanded his youngest.

 

"Sorry, Pa," Joe replied in a voice mimicking a two year old while lowering his head slightly due to the warning.

 

"Snow in the mountains already!" Hoss exclaimed upon hearing his brotherís words, "If thatís truth liíl brother, weíre headed for a mean winter!"

 

Suddenly, a burst of insight flashed before Adamís eyes like a lightening bolt of immeasurable energy. Thatís it! , he told himself over and over as if seeing the light

for the first time. Finally, after what seemed to be a life long search, he had found the missing piece of the puzzle. Due to great odds, his memory was finally once

more whole. It wasnít until that moment did he truly realise how tensed he had been since that early, faithful morning. He now felt so fresh, anew, like he had been

reborn. The muscles behind his neck and running down his back seemingly released off their tension like steam flowing off from heated water. He needed to tell the

proper authorities as soon as possible. He needed to prevent such a harsh injustice. He needed to go to Virginia City.

 

Caught in his own thoughts, Adam never noticed that the table conversation had turned to his direction. His fatherís callings hadnít registered, until someone grasped

his right forearm and gave it a slight squeeze.

 

"Adam!" Ben stated with alarm once he became aware of his oldest sonís abrupt movement, "Adam! Is everything okay?"

 

Adam blinked several times before being able to meet first his fatherís dark probing eyes, then each ones of his brothers before his own eyes shifted back to the

Cartwright patriarch. With his mouth slightly open due to astonished relief, he gave a slight nod in Benís direction. "Yeah, Iím fine, Pa... I just... just need to see the

sheriff!" Adam stated as he gave himself a quick push up against the dining room table forcing his father to let go of his hold. Then, he immediately headed for the

door.

 

Without any hesitation, Ben Cartwright arose from his chair as well, while both Hoss and Little Joe remained seated as they shared puzzled glances. "Adam! What

do you mean you have to go see the sheriff? What for? You havenít even finished your supper!" Ben tried with all of his might to keep the apprehension that he felt

from penetrating down to his voice as he spoke. His oldest sonís recent actions were making him grow concern.

 

Not bothering to glance back at his flabbergasted family, Adam reached for his gun belt, black Cowboy hat and his warm coat. Reaching for the door latch, he

managed to spare a fleeting look back. "I just need to, Pa," he stated just before opening the door and closing it behind him.

 

It took a few seconds for Ben to react to his sonís abrupt and sudden departure. Throwing his napkin down back on the table, his anxiety slowly turned into

frustration. Adamís wasnít acting like himself and it seemed that the more he probed, the more his son fled. Ben tried to be patient, but he couldnít anymore.

Without glancing back, Ben followed in his firstborn sonís steps in hopes of shaking some answers from him.

 

As another clank of the door was heard, both Hoss and Joe seemed like loss puppies as they continued to seat at the dining room table, not able to make a decision

of what to do next. Should they follow their father or should they let him talk some sense into their older brother?

 

"Joe? Do ya reckon we should go after them?"

 

After thinking things over, Joe simply shrugged in indecisiveness. "Donít know, Hoss. One thingís for sure is that if anyone is going to get through older brother, itís

Pa!"

 

"Yeah, I reckon too!" Hoss replied despite his face being creased in doubt.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

"Adam! Adam!" Ben yelled as he hurried in order to follow his sonís hasten pace leading to the ranchís barn. "Adam... wait!" Once inside the stable, Ben quickly

noticed Adam busying himself with the preparation of his horse for his eventual trip into town. With a quick impulsive move, Ben took hold of his firstborn sonís left

shoulder just as he spoke once more, "Adam! Whatís this all about? Whatís so important that you have to gallivanting into town? What arenít you telling me?"

 

As soon as he had uttered the words, Ben felt his sonís let out a deep sigh in response before managing to face his fatherís distressed eyes. Something in Adamís

eyes caught Ben off guard as soon as he caught sight of them. They were unfamiliar. Something about Adamís demeanour seemed different as well. Somehow,

contrary to the past few week comportment, Benís eldest son appeared more certain and resolute, as if he had found answers to his most recent, plaguing questions.

 

"Adam-" Ben repeated in despair leaving his words of concern left unsaid but clearly heard nonetheless.

 

Knowing that he was only hurting his father by claming up, Adam decided that it would be best if some of his burden could be release by discussion. Throughout the

years, both his father and himself had always shared a close relationship, one of friendship, mutual respect, and most importantly, one of deep, unconditional love.

And Adam wasnít about to jeopardise that. Sparing a hesitant but quick glance at his boots, he slowly raised his head forcing himself to meet dark pleading eyes.

Swallowing the lump in his throat and leaving a faint grin creased the outskirts of his lips, Adam finally answered his fatherís interminable question with two words

that he himself had a hard time believing were true.

 

"Pa... I remember!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††Chapter 12

 

 

Since their departure from the Ponderosa, sunset had come and gone leaving numerous glistening stars in the cloudless sky above as well as a cool, brisk breeze

bristling through the trees. As both Cartwrights rode in silence, the mere sound surrounding them was that of air brushing against trees, making its branches toss from

one end to another like a titter-totter. As it did so, it eerily sounded like someone was whistling in the darkness of night. However, the drastic drop in temperature

didnít damper Adamís ultimate need too see Coffee in search of proper justice. In contrast, the frosty air filling his lungs at every breath invigorated him to edge his

horse forward.

 

As they rode, side by side, both men kept to their own thoughts. Despite his innate need to know, Ben reluctantly kept his impatience in check. He knew that his son

would soon explain his actions. Out of love and understanding, he didnít want to extort information from Adam. Instead, words of patience re-circulated between his

eardrums.

 

Finally at their ultimate destination, father and son quickly dismounted and consequently tied the reins of their respective horses around a nearby pitching pole. As

soon as he had walked up to the jailhouseís door, Adam knocked, turned, and pushed. With his father at his heels, he walked under the doorframe into the small

stale room. Immediately, Adam squinted before his eyes became accustomed to the change in luminosity. As his chestnut eyes roamed the room, Adam let a soft

swear escaped though his narrowed lips; soft enough that even Benís astute hearing didnít manage to register. Frustratingly, the room was devoid of any occupant as

well as the several jail cells on their nearby left.

 

"I wonder where Roy could be?" Ben asked out loud as he closed the door behind him, sparing his own quick, fleeting look across the jailhouseís main room.

 

With his mouth open about to answer his fatherís question with another question, a new voice quickly interrupted Adam as it said, "Well, thisí a surprise! Ben...

Adam! What can I do for ya?"

 

With a friendly smile, Ben turned to face his long time friend. It was only after shaking the sheriffís hand that he answered, "Hi! Roy. We hope that we can have a

talk with you."

 

"Sure, what about?"

 

With a shift of his dark eyes towards his son, Ben kept silent while coaching Adam to answer the sheriffís question. Clearing his dry throat with a quick, contained

cough, Adam did just that as he approached the seated Coffee. "You must set Harry Wilkinson free!"

 

Both Roy and Benís faces forehead respectively scrunched downward in puzzlement. But it was Coffee whom pressed for more details by stating, "I canít do that,

Adam, ya know that. Besides, a judge found him guilty in a court of law."

 

"Thatís just it...he didnít do it!"

 

"Adam! weíve been through this before," Ben stated as he quickly cut in, "We all know that youíve been having a hard time believing that Harry could have hurt you,

but-" Adam shook his head as his father spoke showing his flagrant difference of opinion, but nonetheless didnít interrupt him just then, "Josie Norton said he was the

one that-"

 

"Josieís lying!"

 

Ben and Roy exchanged astonished looks upon hearing Adamís startling proclamation. Taking a step towards his son, Ben planted his hands on his hips as his face

twisted into a scowl. "Adam! Thatís a pretty severe statement. Why would Josie lie? What has she to gain from it? Even more why would she say that Wilkinson did

it?"

 

Slightly annoyed that his own father doubted his words, Adam bit his lower lip instantaneously squashing a bitter retort. Instead, he pinched the bridge of his nose in

frustration; a gesture that Ben, proudly knowing his firstborn son so well from his childhood nightmares to his mannerisms, instantly recognise it as being a sign of

truth.

 

"Adam," Ben stated with subtle gentleness in which Adam clearly heard it as being an apology, "you told me before we left that you remembered what happened that

morning. What happened?"

 

"Harry Wilkinson did not hit me in the head!" Adam reiterated before sharing his sudden insight of that faithful early day for the first time. As predicted, he had now a

captivated audience. "Iíve always been having some... I donít know what to call them, letís say dreams, but nothing that would help me understand what truly

happened that early morning. I was starting to prepare myself that I would never remember...

 

Well... that was what I thought until earlier today. It all started when I was in town sharing a drink with Hoss that something clicked in my mind. Back then, I couldnít

put two and two together, but as soon as I saw Gilbert and Hennigar walk into the saloon, my head started to spin.... something about the two men just... just didnít

feel right." Adam ever so slightly shivered as he retold his feelings and emotions of earlier in the day. With eyes downcast unable to meet anyoneís sympathetic

countenance, he slowly walked towards a window. Staring at the artificially lit road ahead through a tad dirty windowpane, Adam rested his hands on his hips. After

taking a deep breath in hopes of calming his nerves, he continued, "I wasnít myself when I got home."

 

"That was apparent, Adam. I knew that something was eating you up inside, but as stubborn as you are, you wouldnít open up to me."

 

Adam turned to glance at his father for a brief second before returning his gaze outside. "I couldnít, Pa! How was I going to explain it to you when I didnít even

understand it myself?"

 

Ben nodded in understanding. "Go on, Adam. What happened next?"

 

"I needed some time alone. I needed to think," Adamís mouth curved into a soft grin as he remembered how hard it had been to get his wishes. Nothing would limit

his fatherís protectiveness or his worry about anyone of his sons, not even time or age. "It was then, that I had a vision. It suddenly came to me like a play acted out

before my very own eyes. I remember waking up in the barn. I donít really recall feeling any pain, but I had a hard time focusing. After a few seconds, I could hear a

discussion between two men. Someone or... something touched my ribs, I remember that I grunted which notified to them that I wasnít unconscious anymore. So,

someone grabbed me from the floor and pulled me up. That is when I opened my eyes.... I saw Hennigarís face scowl at me. He said something that I canít

remember. Before I could even react, he hit me once more and I lost consciousness again."

 

Coffee, whom had been silent for the past few minutes, uncomfortably shifted in his stance. He was about to ask a question that he wasnít perfectly fond of even

asking, but had to nonetheless. It was his job. "Adam," he started with some hesitance, "ya did say that ya were a little dazed from that hit to yar head. What assure

me that what ya say ya saw is what ya really saw?" Seeing that Ben was about to angrily protest his line of questioning, Roy quickly silenced any retort with a raise

of the hand. "Iím not sayiní that Adam hereís lyiní, Ben. I just have to be sure that it pans out."

 

"Itís alright, Roy," Adam stated as he in turn validated the sheriffís doubts and dismissed his fatherís annoyances, "how can you really trust someone who had his

head in the sand for over a month?"

 

"Itís not a question of trust, Adam. I do trust ya! Itís just that... that Iím not sure that a judge will believe ya, thatís all!"

 

To that, both Cartwright men remained silent as they knew what their good friend told was true. Showing signs of losing hope, Adam turned to face the two older

men, which showed both incertitude and conviction. Knowing that his testimony alone wouldnít stand up in court due his present history of memory lapse. It would

end up being his word against Miss Josie Nortonís. To prove that she lied on the stand would take more than a simple say so. Adam needed more evidence. He just

didnít know how to attain it. "Whatís our next step? Maybe if I could get someone to confirm what I remember?"

 

"How?" Coffee questioned as his forehead creased forming furrowed lines on his seasoned face.

 

"I donít know. There just has to be a way!"

 

"Yeah, Adam, but what?"

 

"Maybe if we-"

 

"I think I know how!"

 

Both Adam and Roy abruptly stopped their conversation as soon as their ears gripped onto the words spoken above theirs. Sharing a confused glance, both their

faces displayed puzzlement. Had they heard right or was it simply wishful thinking on their part? "What?" Roy exclaimed, speaking up for the both of them. "What

did ya say, Ben?"

 

"I think I know how!" Ben gladly repeated with a slight smile on the corner of his mouth. His delight was clearly evident, like one of a child upon seeing a candy free

to grasp. Without speaking another word, Ben bolted for the door, passing a stunned Adam and leaving a curious Roy behind.

 

Knowing what their next logical step would be, Adam and Roy did just that as they quickly followed the lead and went after a determined Ben.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††Chapter 13

 

 

Under barely lit Virginia City streets and amidst scarce citizens, Ben Cartwright, followed by his eldest son and the town sheriff, briskly walked towards his intended

targeted house, a light blue, vast house on the other edge of the city surrounded by a white picket fence. The Mayorís house.

 

Three steps later, he approached the door and without hesitation knocked twice. On the corner of his eye through the modest sized window on his immediate right,

Ben could see some almost ghostly shadows moving across the white, laced curtains. Someone was definitely at home. After a few seconds, the door handle finally

opened revealing an older woman, whom appeared to be in her early fifties. Wrapping her greyish shawl more securely against her firm shoulders for added warmth,

the womanís liquid brown eyes displayed her surprise as she recognised the callers.

 

"Yes?" She hesitantly asked as her eyes squinted into slits of uncertainty.

 

Displaying one of his most charming smiles, Ben politely nodded in sign of politeness. "Mrs. Norton," he started, "Iím sorry to bother at this late hour, but I was

wondering if we..." Ben said as he nodded towards his two allies whom immediately acknowledgement their female company, "could speak with your son, Johnny."

 

Curiosity quickly followed by suspicion flashed across Mrs. Nortonís furrowed face. Although very curious as to the nature of her sonís future conversation with the

trio before her, she bit back her questions as simple courtesy overruled her desires to know. Instead she stepped aside in order to let them enter. "Ah... sure, Mr.

Cartwright, heís inside in the study with his father. Please do come in."

 

"Thank you, Mrs. Norton," Ben replied while removing his hat as soon as he crossed under the doorframe. Coffee and Adam mimicked him as they followed suite

inside.

 

In total silence, Mrs. Norton led the three visitors across a long white wood planked, elegantly decorated hallway lit by two large wall lanterns before finally reaching

its last door, to its left. Gently knocking, she opened the door in a slow, swift movement. Leaning with her back against the door, she introduced the visitors to her

perplexed husband and son, whom had been seated across from each other on brown leather chairs. "Johnny, these men are here to see you."

 

"Well, Mr. Cartwright.... Sheriff Coffee.... Adam? What do we owe this honour?" James Senior stated as he gingerly rose from his chair and approached them in

order to shake each of their hands.

 

While shifting his hat through his hands like a hot potato due to uneasiness, Ben forced a smile across his face, as an answer was about to reach his lips. However,

just as he was about to utter the reason for his abrupt and unexpected visit, the mayor quickly interrupted him as he addressed his wife. "Louise, my dear, could you

have Martha bring some coffee for these gentlemen?"

 

"Thatís very generous of ya, Mayor, but thereís no need. We wonít take too much time," Roy Coffee explained as he spoke for the first time since he left the

sanctuary of his jailhouse.

 

"Nonsense, Roy," James uttered with a dismissal swift of the hand. Once again looking over Adamís left shoulder, he addressed Louise, "Go see Martha."

 

With a nod of approval, Louise quickly left the moderate sized study. As soon as the sound of the door closing behind him reached his ears, Ben took a step

forward as he decided to quickly broach his planned topic of conversation. "James... we were wondering if we could speak with your son for a moment... alone."

 

Mr. Nortonís gleeful smile quickly left his aged face as his eyebrows shifted downward upon hearing Benís words. Sparing a quick, questioning glance at his son,

James let his eyes set once more on his visitorís. "Whatís this all about, Ben? Whatís wrong?"

 

"Nuthinís wrong, Mayor. We just need to have a talk with Johnny here. Itís about some friends of his," Coffee quickly explained as he once more jumped into the

conversation. He needed for the younger men to freely open up to them; therefore, he needed for his dutiful, disparaging father to leave the room. However, finding a

polite way of doing so was the hard part.

 

"I donít understand?"

 

"Itís okay, Pa," Johnny said as he himself arose, trying to hide an uproar of nervousness through a makeshift smile. Shifting from one foot to another, he managed to

glance up at his father. "Itís okay," he repeated, "Donít worry, I can take care of this."

 

With a scowl upon his face and a questionable glance towards each of the visitors, James quickly nodded his accordance despite his extreme reluctance. "Iíll be in

the living room if you need me son," he uttered just before leaving the study in a slight huff.

 

As the door clanked closed, Jimmy shifted his gaze from his boots to each of his callers respectively. Trying to mask his emotions which included fear, he

immediately led the trio to a seat with a jerk of his right arm, which they gratefully obeyed.

 

For the first time since entering the study, Ben had the opportunity to view the majestic bookshelves and exquisite paintings across the four wallpapered walls. Along

side them stood a large pair of windows on the houseís South side, which in daylight led to a view to well tended shrubbery gardens. Between the two curtained

windows stood an imposing, stoned fireplace, that emanated grateful heat across the roomís every square inch. Being mayor of a city the size and wealth of Virginia

City had its perks; the house was definitely one of them. Amidst the townís mines and ranches, aristocracy yet prospered through its nooks and crannies. Getting his

mind back on track, Ben cleared his throat as he crossed his leg over a knee and relaxed against the comfortable wing chair. "Johnny, we need to talk to you about

your sister, Josie."

 

Johnny could hear his heartbeat speed up at an alarming rate as his brain registered Benís uttered words. "Sure," he managed to say despite his heart reacting like a

wild horse, "whatís this all about?"

 

"We discovered sum new evidence about her kidnappiní," Coffee volunteered, "Evidence that contradicts her court statements."

 

This time, Johnnyís heart skipped a beat. "Wh- what do you mean new evidence? What new evidence? I donít know what youíre talking about?" The words

flooded out of his mouth like raging water over a high peaked waterfall.

 

"The new evidence is that I remember what happened to me that morning," Adam stated as his eyes never left Johnnyís blue ones in hopes of digging a hole into the

younger manís conscience.

 

Shock was the only emotion that Johnny felt at this moment as his mouth slightly opened and his eyes enlarged like one of a howl. "You.... you remember!"

 

Adam slowly nodded. "Yes, I do. Why donít you tell us what truly happened that night in your own words? An innocent man was wrongfully convicted!"

 

"I donít know what you talking about. My sister was kidnapped by Harry Wilkinson. For crying out loud, he even tried to kill you, Adam! I canít believe that youíre

turning this thing against me!"

 

Letting his leg fall back to the ground in a thud and leaning forward as he rested his elbows on his knees, Ben inquisitively stared at Norton. He could see that the

young man was nervous about something, something that seemed to lead to the fact that he was withholding some information, maybe even lying. "Look, Johnny,

weíre only here to talk, thatís all. As I recall, you seemed to be quite nervous during your sisterís trial. I could have sworn that you were disappointed with your

sisterís testimony. You seemed to be-"

 

"Are you nuts?" Johnny retorted as he rose from his chair in a flash, interrupting Benís flagrant statement. His voice was kept low, but his intonation clearly wanted to

show deep rooted frustration. "Look here, Mr. Cartwright, I donít have a clue what youíre referring to. I... I was glad that scumbag was found guilty!"

 

"Words are just words, Johnny! Expressions donít lie! I could tell then as I can tell now that something eating you from the inside," Ben stated as calmly as possible.

He didnít want his own emotions to get in the way of searching for the truth. Ben allowed a few seconds to pass before continuing on with his interrogation. Seeing

Johnny pass a nervous hand several times over his blond hair smoothing it down to the scalp made the older Cartwright almost beamed with satisfaction. He was

starting to get through the young manís conscience. He just needed to push a little bit more. A little farther. "The only way to lift this awful feeling off your shoulders,

Johnny, is to tell the truth. We know that you werenít a willing partner in this whole scheme. We can help! Please, believe us when we say we want to help you."

 

To this, Johnny let himself fall back in his chair. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths. As he did so, he became unaware of the three sets of eyes glued to

his every move as his chest rose and fell at a high interval. His mind was suddenly a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. Trying to find some type of bearing, his face

twisted with concentration. His next step would be detrimental to his life, either way.

 

"Let your conscience be your guide, Johnny!"

 

As soon as the foreign words were spoken, Johnnyís eyes opened in a flash. Eyeballing the older man behind the words, he felt like to a kid again, wanting to run

away from home without looking back. Unable to contain his brewing, yet conflicting sentiments, it was him that finally broke the optic spell as his gaze shifted back

to his hands, suddenly finding them of most interest.

 

Feeling that his instincts had been wrong when it came to the young man, Ben felt his will power slightly deflate. Johnny, whether he was involved or not, didnít

seemed to be breakable. Reluctantly willing to accept defeat, Ben exhaled once deeply with a quick shake of the head. As he was about to rise from his chair in

order to give his indisposed goodbyes, a voice immediately stopped him in his tracks.

 

"Josie wasnít kidnapped!"

 

Bewilderment swept through the other three men like a gale wind as Johnnyís astounding proclamation seeped through from their tingling skin to reach their stunned

ears. Sharing astonished glances with Adam, and Roy, respectively, Benís mouth slightly opened in utter surprise. Even though, he knew from his eldest sonís

recollection that Wilkinson had seemingly no part in the more than a month old crime spell, young Nortonís statement made him fell like someone had hit square in

the gut. Unsure that he had heard correctly, he managed to find his voice before asking, "Wha- What did you say?"

 

"Josie wasnít kidnapped," Johnny repeated as his bemused eyes lifted up from his arm extremities. Looking a like a frightened four year old, he added, "It wasnít

supposed to happen like it did. I donít know what happened... they must have panicked. I donít-"

 

"They?!" Adam interrupted as his left eyebrow raised in wonder. With every inkling of his being, Adam hoped beyond hope that what the slightly younger man was

about to tell would confirm everything that he remembered. Although he felt assure that his memory was accurate, he still needed that icing on the cake. He needed

to be validated, proved that he hadnít truly lost his mind. "Who exactly are they?"

 

A permanent ashamed expression found its home on Johnny face as Adam spoke. Not able to meet anyone eyes, he unconsciously licked his dry lips as he gathered

his thoughts. After a bold pseudo-wind swept through his veins, young Norton finally found his voice again stating, "Paul Gilbert and... and Josie."

 

"Ya mean to tell me that yar sister was directly involved in all of this," Coffee stated incredulously as he had a very hard time believing that a seemingly innocent

young woman without any inkling of criminal behaviour could take part, if any, in such a horrible act as attempting murder and robbery. It just made his skin crawl in

awe, and in fear.

 

"You donít understand... she... sheís in love with Gilbert. Almost obsessive about it. She would do anything he tells her."

 

"What about her engagement to Andrew Nye? Is that why itís off?"

 

Johnny gave a curt nod towards Adam to show concurrence. "Josie doesnít want to marry Andrew. This whole marriage was our País idea. He thinks that it will be

good for the family if weíre related to the Governor. We tried to convince him, but heís so adamant about it. He loves his daughter so much..." Johnny stated with

open sarcasm, "that his willing to force her into a loveless marriage for political profit."

 

Sheriff Coffee rubbed his chin as he tried to bring light to the whole situation. This whole mess was getting more complicated at each passing second. "So, what can

ya tell us about what happened early that morniní?"

 

"Josie was planning on running away with Gilbert to California. She left willingly with him late that night. She slip out through her bedroom window as I kept watch

for her."

 

"How was she planning on hiding this from your parents?"

 

"Itís simple, Mr. Cartwright. I was to tell them that she left to visit some relatives on the East coast as she had already told them. Of course, she had no plans of

going East. But by the time that our parents would have figured out the whole scheme, she would have be far enough away. It was then going to be my responsibility

of telling them the truth."

 

"That was going to be mighty hard for ya to do so. Why do it at all?"

 

"Sheís my sister... I love her!"

 

Ben uneasily shifted in his seat as he found a more comfortable groove in the leather chair. What the young man was stating was surprising, to say the less. It was

startling. Imagining that a young, ostensibly sweet, young woman, like Josie, could be involved in such a harsh crime made every one of his skinís hairs ripple in awe.

There was simply no answer other than love, which could made you do strange and unusual things. Clearly his dry throat in a quick cough, Ben decided to broach

another subject that had been assaulting his conscience for the past few minutes. A subject that he couldnít foresee Johnnyís reaction. "Johnny... what happened that

morning on the Ponderosa? Why did they attack Adam? What went wrong?"

 

Ben immediately saw Johnny sink a little farther down the chair in hesitation, an action that he had so repeatedly saw when reprimanding one of his sons for

mischievous behaviour. Somehow, Johnnyís reaction made Benís stomach churned.

 

Young Norton mastering some nerve shifted his glance towards Adam as guilt quickly swept through every cell of his body from the hair atop of his head to his

toenail on his pinky toe. He almost choked on his own saliva as a large gulp of it descended his oesophagus. With guilty eyes, he simply stared at the oldest

Cartwright son for several awkward seconds, before finally divulging what little his knew of that dreadful early morning. "All... all that I know is that something went

wrong. Paul wasnít even supposed to stop at the Ponderosa. I... I guess that he got greedy. What Josie said about him trying to open the safe was all true... itís just

that she wasnít as unwilling as she said she was. But you have to understand that sheíll do anything he would say! He has a hold on her that Iím never seen before."

 

"Why did they hit Adam? Did they really try to kill him?" To Ben, his uttered words seemed to be coming from afar as his mind couldnít seem to venture down that

route of unimaginable grief and anxiety.

 

"I truly donít know..." Johnny replied as he managed to spare a sorrowful look up at Adam. "Maybe... maybe things didnít go on as planned. Maybe they just

panicked."

 

To that, Adam snorted his scepticism. "Of what I remember, I was more like an opportunity," he bitterly stated as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Both Ben and

Roy spared a compassionate look at the psychologically and physically wounded younger man. After a few seconds of inner battle, Adam quickly vanquished his

sorrows deep inside. Once more meeting Johnnyís nervous eyes, he added, "One thing that really bothers me is why implicate Harry Wilkinson? Where does he fit in

this whole picture?"

 

Johnny visibly shifted in his seat, clearly Wilkinson was a fretful topic for the young man. "I donít know why they did that to Harry. I warn Josie not to go along with

it, but she didnít listen to me... I guess that Gilbert has more hold on her than I do. If Harry said that he was on his way to Sacramento to visit some relatives and get

some work, I have to agree."

 

"So what you are telling me is..." Adam confirmed, "is that Harry simply was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is that correct?"

 

"I guess so."

 

"Another opportunity!" Adam angrily cloaked under his breath.

 

"Thatís some mighty coincidence," Coffee remarked at Johnnyís explanation. To the scepticism detected in the sheriff voice, young Norton simply shrugged finding

no words to supplement his story as he had none.

 

"So whereís yer sister now? Is she truly back East or is she with Gilbert?"

 

"I donít know... really, I donít know!" Johnny replied to the sheriff, displaying the mannerisms of a small frightened child. "They squashed their plans about going to

California. Josieís headed back East, but I donít know where Paul and Gus are... I swear! They may be meeting up somewhere, but I donít know where or when?"

 

As if summoning the end of the interrogation, a small knock was heard on the library door before a middle-aged plump woman, deduced to be Martha, entered

bearing a tray holding a silver plated coffee dispenser and matching cups. In a soft voice, the woman spoke as she laid the tray unto a nearby mahogany,

hand-carved table. "Does anyone care to have some tea?"

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 14

 

 

By the sheriffís trot down the city sidewalk from one the townís many saloons, both Ben and Adam determine that the seasoned lawman had no good news to tell. It

wasnít until they shared a quick deflated look that Coffee joined them.

 

"So, what did you find out?" Despite fearing the answer that was so easily seen across the sheriffís face, Ben needed to hear out loud nonetheless.

 

"Nuthiní, Ben," Roy replied with regret clearly detected in his deep voice along with an exasperate shake of the head. "They were at the saloon..." he said with a nod

back towards the saloon that he had just exited merely two minutes earlier, "early last night sharing a few drinks, or so Sam says. No one seems to know where they

could be right about now. For all we know, they could be on their way to Mexico by now... How about ya two?"

 

Feeling disappointed of having wasted the better part of what was left of the day searching across the town for the two wanted men, Ben Cartwright wasnít the

slightest in the best of moods. Realising that Hennigar and Gilbert could possibly get away with the cowardly ambush of his eldest son made his blood boil in rage.

Like any father, he wanted to protect his sons at any cost as well as circumstances. It pained him to relive the last weeks of torment. He needed to do something to

make them repay. Something. Mimicking his good, long-time friend, Ben instead simply shook his head in resignation as he answered, "the same... nothing to point us

in the right direction."

 

"They must have suspected something was up. Iím surprised that they even stayed in town this long," Adam thought out loud.

 

"One thing that Gilbert is, Adam, besides being a worthless piece of muck, is that heís an arrogant worthless piece of muck! With yar memory loss, he most

probably thought that he would get away with it."

 

"Well, he wonít!" Ben stated with an outmost confidence. He had seen pain in his sonís brown eyes concerning this matter one minute too many. He wasnít about to

let that happen again.

 

Roy couldnít agree more. Having the guilt of arresting the wrong man was looming over his head. A small voice kept on reminding him that he had only done his job

at the best of his abilities at that time. But somehow it didnít seem right, nonetheless. "Iím gonna distributed a wanted poster for both men. Also, Iím planniní on

wiring nearby towns so they keep an eye out fer them. Without a lead to start, thereís no point of settiní a posse just yet."

 

"What about Wilkinson?" Adam wasnít about to forget about Harry, whom right now was wrongfully rotting in jail as they spoke. He could only imagine what the

other man must be going through or must be feeling for that matter.

 

Coffee shrugged. Due to the late hour, there was nothing to be done until the sun rise again. "Iíll have a talk with Winters early tomorrow. See what he says?"

 

Disappointed but yet resigned, Adam gave a short nod of gratitude.

 

"Itís getting late, Roy," Ben affirmed as he rubbed his temple in fatigue, "Adam and I should be heading on back to the Ponderosa. Hoss and Little Joe will probably

send out their own posse if we donít get home soon."

 

"Thatís fine, Ben," Coffee replied in accordance, "itís too late to do anythiní else anyhow."

 

"ínight then, Roy!"

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ********

 

Wrapping his housecoat tight against his shivering frame, Ben cursed under his breath at the abrupt disturbance. From his bedroom, he had been immediately

awoken by the noise of thunderous knocks coming from downstairs. "Who in tarnation can that be?" he loathed to himself as grumpily reached for his lit oil lamp and

headed for his bedroom door. Noticing that the sun had yet showed its presence for the new day, he could only imagine who could be paying a visit. Upon reaching

the hallway, Ben was immediately greeted by three pairs of sluggish eyes. Not surprisingly, his three sons had also awoken from the chaotic noises coming from the

front door.

 

"Go back to bed," he immediately ordered as he could tell that none of his sons were completely awake. Joe profusely yawned as he leaned heavily on his bedroom

frame, while Hoss simply did the former. On the other end, Adam, through the shadows of the flickering flame, seemed to be the more lucid of the three as he

rubbed the back of his neck letting his inquisitive eyes meet his fatherís. "Boys, you have a long day ahead of you.... Iíll take care of this. Thereís no reason for all

four of us to go downstairs."

 

Begrudgingly all three sons did as they were told, although Adam was more reluctant as he only returned to his room after his father gave him an assuring nod. After

three doors closed almost instantaneously, Ben headed down the hallway. The flame from his lamp slightly flickered inside its glass encasing as Ben descended the

stairs, making amorphous shadows being bombarded against the milk coloured plaster walls.

 

Three more quick, hard knocks echoed against the large living roomís walls, which made Ben let another swear slip between his teeth. "Iím coming... Iím coming!"

he said in hopes of preventing his ears from another acoustic assault. Finally, with his lamp in one hand, he opened the front door. After bracing himself against the

sharp, cold wind that instantly reached his body, Ben quickly recognised his caller. Quizzically, he let him inside as he took a few steps aside. "Roy.... whatís the

matter? Did something happen?"

 

Before answering, Coffee quickly entered in search for some warmth, but was disappointed to see that the fire in the imposing hearth was merely a pitiful excuse for

a blaze. Instead, he simply brushed his arms up and down with his gloved hands in hopes of getting some circulation back into his numbed arms.

 

"Iíve got some news. Iím on my way to Oak Town."

 

"Oak Town?!"

 

"Yeah, I got a wire not two hours ago from the local sheriff, a man named Harry Meadows." Coffee stated as he followed Ben to the immense hearth. As Roy took

a seat on the settee, Ben placed his oil lamp on the nearby coffee table and started to add more wood to the fire. It was indeed getting nippy in the house. With

staunch silence, Ben awaited for his good friend to continue.

 

"Well, Ben... it seems that our wanted men got into a bit of trouble on their way East."

 

To this, Ben stopped mid-stride, as he was about to place a log onto the ginger coloured ash and half-burnt logs. Coffee had his complete attention. Benís right

eyebrow raised in question, desperately wanting to hear more. "What kind of trouble?" he tentatively asked, knowing that it had to be of some consequence for the

sheriff to show up at this early hour.

 

"Gilbertís dead."

 

This time, both eyebrows arose as the news took Ben by complete surprise upon hearing the news of Gilbertís demise. "Dead?!.... what happened?"

 

Coffee simply shrugged. "What Meadows tells me is that Gilbert got into a bar fight... then into a dual. Gilbert apparently lost."

 

Benís eyes grew in size as his whole body became numb. He couldnít tell if he was pleased or disappointed that Gilbert was about to be six-feet under. Dropping

himself into his favourite leather chair, Ben let a sigh escape his lips. A sigh of relief. Then suddenly a thought materialised in his head. Jerking his head towards his

good friend, he said, "But... but what about Hennigar?"

 

A small smile made an appearance under the sheriffís grey moustache as he replied, "Meadows has him locked up. It seems that he also got into a saloon brawl, but

obviously his outcome faired much better. Iím on my way to collect him. Itís a mighty ride to Oak Town. I have Andy takiní care of business in town while Iím

away."

 

"You... you mean that itís finally over."

 

Coffee nodded. "Yup, Ben. Itís all cuminí to an end."

 

"What about Josie Norton?"

 

To their surprise, both Ben and Roy were caught off guard by the third voice that reached their eardrums. Unbeknownst to both of them, a third man had been

listening to their whole conversation, since the beginning, amidst the shadows at the top of the staircase.

 

"Adam!?" Ben slightly exclaimed trying to mask his surprise of his sonís sudden appearance. He was only partially successful. "I thought I told you that I was going

to handle it. Why didnít you go back to bed?" Ben wanted to side-step any sensitive conversation right at the moment. He had hoped that he would have been able

to talk to his oldest son in private at first light with both of them had a few more hours of sleep behind them. But it wasnít too be.

 

To his fatherís minor scolding, Adam remained silent. Instead, he slowly descended the stairs leading to the great room. His face, clearly drawn in apprehension,

slowly came into views amongst the dancing shadows as he walked closer to the burning oil lamp.

 

Shifting in his seat atop of the settee, Coffee let a cough escape as he fought to clear his throat. With Adam now present, the sheriff suddenly felt more nervous as he

spoke candidly of what heíd been told. "Well, Adam... she wuz there too," he answered with slight reluctance. Again, Adam remained silent as the tension grew

tenfold. Sparing a quick glance at Ben, Roy found his voice again as he met the younger manís probing eyes. "She apparently met with Gilbert. The information that

Meadows gave me ainít much... but I reckon that she wuz definitely a part of all this plot."

 

It took a few seconds for Adam to respond as his mind registered the implications and corroboration's behind the words. After all that he had been through, to think

that his existence, as well as another personís, had almost been razed by twisted love, pure evil, and blatant apathy made Adam fell more burning anger pass through

his veins. Sometimes, the truth hurts more than lies. Finally, he gave a short nod of understanding to the sheriff.

 

"I reckon that sheíll be cuminí back to Virginia City as well. Winters ainít gonna appreciate knowiní that she lied on the stand," Coffee added.

 

Adam bit his lower lip. "She is as much as responsible for my injuries than Gilbert or Hennigar are. As far as Iím concerned, she should get what she deserved."

Surprisingly, after Johnnyís plea for his sister blind innocence in the whole affair and now having the events of that morning beyond doubt confirmed, Adam didnít

feel a bit of sympathy for the young woman.

 

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††********

 

The first of December came to the Carson Valley in full force as huge flakes of snow descended from the hazy, thick clouds to land on the cold, frozen terrain. The

slight Northern wind merciless guide the snowflakes to their predestined earthbound destination. Since the snow had been steadily falling for almost an hour now, the

land and everything either growing from it or raised atop of it was a blanket of pure white. Rubbing away the vapour from the long, narrow office window with the

sleeve of his right arm, Ben Cartwright marvelled at the beautiful fresh and clean landscape reflecting back at him through the windowpane.

 

He could almost swear that the majestic image before him was message from high above stating that it was a new beginning for the Cartwrights, especially for his

firstborn son. With Hennigarís quick trial and subsequent sentence behind them, all four Cartwrights could let a sigh of relief escape their mouths. Without his

ringleader at his side, Gus Hennigar had shown no sign of confrontation, and had easily confessed to the events of that faithful morning. He had been simply Gilbertís

brawn as much as Gilbert was Hennigarís brain. Without Gilbert, Hennigar had almost seemed like a lost puppy to everyone relief. As for Harry Wilkinson, the last

few days had been quite the opposite in relation to his prospective future. He had finally been release from prison and had spent a day or two back in Virginia City.

But feeling like he wanted to start anew, he didnít stay long. Harry had decided to start his new chance at life somewhere else, away from the painful memories.

Luckily, he had managed to spend some time with Adam before he departed for a destination still unknown. They had managed to re-ignite their friendship and mend

tender wounds.

 

Miss Josie Norton, on the other hand, had managed to escape from any consequences. After a display of raw emotions, she had persuaded the judge that she had

been forcibly led by the deceased Paul Gilbert. But after her performance at the previous trial of Wilkinson, who could be sure of her true innocence. It was

rumoured that the mayor had a dirty hand in helping no convictions stick to his daughter. Her acquittal had taken a few people by surprise and is still the main topic

of conversation in the city to date.

 

"What are ya lookiní at, Pa?"

 

Ben smiled upon hearing his middle sonís soothing voice at it made him think of much happier thoughts. Turning around, his smile grew to reach his dark eyes. "Just

the snow, Hoss, just the snow! Itís falling quite steadily out there right now," he stated as he walked towards his son, whom was standing next to the table that hug

the backside of the settee.

 

"I told ya that it was gonna be a mean winter and all. ĎSpecially since Little Joe said that there wuz snow in the mountains way back," Hoss stated between taking

bites of an already half-eaten apple.

 

Wrapping a loving arm around his big sonís frame, Ben nodded. "No one ever doubted you, son."

 

Chewing, Hoss simply gave a curt nod of acknowledgement as his father gave him a gentle pat on the back before braking his hold in order to head towards the

hearthís raging fire just ahead.

 

"Where are your brothers?" Ben asked suddenly as he picked up the fire poker and began moving the logs around.

 

Hoss shrugged just before swallowing some apple morsels. "Theyíre both in their rooms, I guess."

 

"With that snowstorm, you donít expect us to work outside... do ya?" Another voice light-heartedly stated from the staircase landing.

 

Glancing up from his task, Ben saw his youngest son descended the remaining stairs in a gleefully manner, almost child-like. Joe was definitely in a good mood. "No,

I guess not, Joe! But be prepared to shovel all that snow once the storm is finished though."

 

To that, Joeís face instantly lost some of its enthusiasm. Foreseeing a few back-braking hours shovelling snow, his mood slightly dampened. However, meeting his

fatherís humorous eyes, his pleasant mood resurfaced. "Yeah, but that most likely wonít be until tomorrow. So why worry about it now? Right?"

 

"If so say so, li'l brother," Hoss replied sceptically. Leave it to his younger, carefree brother not to worry about the future. Hoss immediately thinking the worse and

deduced that Joe had something up his sleeves. However, he decided to let it be for now.

 

"Do you want to play some checkers, Hoss?" Joe asked as he headed for the table containing the game.

 

Hoss shrugged once more. There was still four hours until supper with nothing to do. "Sure, but Iím black this time."

 

"What do you mean, you want to be black? Iím always black!"

 

"That just it, Joe. Yaíre always black. It ainít fair."

 

Joe was flabbergasted. "Itís just a colour, Hoss. Whatís the big deal anyhow?"

 

"Exactly! Whatís the big deal? If itís just a colour... then why canít I be black?"

 

"Because..."

 

"Why donít you two play some cards instead?" Ben suggested as he interrupted Joeís retort as he could foretell the start of a dispute commencing. Finished with his

mending of the fire, Ben took a seat in his favourite leather chair, picked up the nearby newspaper, and awaited for the compromise.

 

Both sons simply spared a look first at their father and then onto each other. Both Hoss and Joe were visibly getting upset over the dispute, but decided to take on

their fatherís proposal. "Okay... fine, weíll play cards instead," Joe affirmed as he put back the checkerboard and fetch the cards in its place. Hoss nodded his

consensus as he took another bit of his apple.

 

Taking a seat directly in front of his brother, Joe shuffled the cards. "Letís play gin."

 

To this, Hoss was not happy. "But ya always win at gin. Letís play sumthiní else."

 

Joe immediately stopped his task and lowered his shoulders in aggravation. "Thatís not my fault that I always win. You just ainít paying attention close enough, thatís

all."

 

An angry scowl appeared on Hossí usually peaceful chubby face. "I do pay attention!... sumtimes I wonder if ya ainít cheatiní."

 

Joe immediately arose from his chair making a screeching noise as his chair legs rubbed against the hard wood floor as they were violently pushed back. "Hoss

Cartwright, take that back! It ainít so! I do not cheat!"

 

"Boys!? Thatís enough!" Ben reprimanded as he scrunched his newspaper against his chest in order to get a closer view of his two disgruntled sons. How could

such a innocent proposal turn so wrong? he thought to himself. "If you two canít get along, maybe you shouldnít be in the same room!"

 

Joe gave a menacing side glance at his brother. "Well, I ainít leaving. Hoss should go somewhere else!"

 

"I wuz here first, little brother. I ainít goiní anywhere. If anyone is leaviní, itís ya!"

 

"I said it first! I ainít leav-"

 

"ENOUGH!" Ben yelled just after rolling his eyes in bafflement. Raising from the chair, he pointed an accusatory finger at both of them. "I am trying to read the

newspaper in peace. I donít need to hear your bickering! If neither one of you can act civilly, maybe you both should leave... and go to your respective rooms. If

you two can act like adults, then I might as well treat you like children!"

 

Hoss and Little Joe simply glared at one another from across the table, almost as if they were watching each other to see who would make the first move.

 

"Do I make myself clear?!" Ben added upon hearing but silence from his full grown sons, who acted well below their ages.

 

"Yes, Pa." They both mumbled together, resigned to follow their fatherís wishes. Satisfied, Ben let himself drop back into his chair.

 

At that moment, Adam came down the stairs, book in hand, but clearly annoyed about something. "What is all this bickering about?" he asked addressing his father.

Pointing to his two brooding brothers, he added, "I can hear these two numbskulls from my room!"

 

Ben raised his chest in a swift move letting compressed air escape his lungs, upon hearing his oldest sonís annoyed words. "You think that it was loud from upstairs,

imagine from down here!"

 

Surprisingly neither Hoss nor Joe reacted to their older brotherís remarks. They seemed to be too immersed in their non-substantial spat to register Adamís

displeasure and injurious words. Instead, they both walked away from the table and headed, in separate ways to the living room. Not wanted to see next to Hoss on

the settee, Joe made a move for the blue velvet chair adjacent to the hearth, but Adam beat him to it as he hurriedly let himself fall into the comfortable chair. Slightly

exasperated, Joe resigned himself to take a seat on the settee, but made sure that there was plenty of room between him and Hoss.

 

Silence engulfed the large room as all four Cartwright men became immersed in their own endeavours and thoughts. Ben quickly went back to his newspaper, Adam

opened his book and began to read, Hoss simply stared at the fire and let himself daydream, and Joe simply tried to get his mind off his quarrel with Hoss, thinking

about a girl always did the trick.

 

Suddenly, Hoss decided to speak up as his conscience make him regret his accusations. "Iím sorry, Joe. I didnít mean to call ya a cheater!" With hurt puppy looking

eyes, he glanced to his right and stared at Joeís profile, waiting for a response from his brother. Hoss never liked to fight, and the odd chance when he did, he usually

was the first one to apologise.

 

Looking at Hoss with eyes only, Joeís mouth twisted for a second or two as if contemplating. "Apology accepted, Hoss.... Iím sorry too."

 

"Good! Maybe we can have some peace and quiet around here from now on," their father stated, quite pleased, upon hearing his sonsí reconciliation. With a crisp

shake of his newspaper, Ben became once again engrossed into the daily events and town gossip.

 

"Hey! Adam, what ya readiní?" Hoss suddenly changed the subject towards his older brother as if he only noticed his presence for the first time.

 

Barely rising his eyes above the bookís rim, Adam seemed annoyed at the interruption. In a swift cough, he cleared his throat. "A Dickensí novel," he simply stated

just before letting his eyes fall back onto the worn out pages.

 

"Oh.... ya mean like that play that ya went to see.... ya know..." Deep lines formed on Hossí forehead as he concentrated to remember, "Great... Great..."

 

"Expectations," Adam filled in, "Yes, itís from the same author."

 

Upon hearing the words of the play, Joeís face twisted in a disappointed glare as memories reminded him of how he had been unsuccessful in the spying of his oldest

brother. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, he hadnít been able to find out the identity of Adamís mysterious guest to the Dickens play. He had to

curse himself that day. How he had wished to surprised his brother and make a fuss, but he hadnít been able to leave the ranch. Joe secretly wondered if his father

had anything to do with his failure, but he would never know for sure. But with a twinkle in his green eyes, Joe spared a peek at his unsuspecting oldest brother. With

determination, he would find out the mysterious womanís identity. It was just a matter of patience and time.

 

Suddenly a loud growl was heard coming from Hossí stomach, which made the big man slightly blush in coyness, as the three other men stare at him in wonder.

 

"What was that? What did you eat, Hoss? A bear."

 

Hoss caught his little brotherís sneer in the corner of his eyes. "Just a apple, Little Joe," he casually replied as he twirled the core of his apple between his grubby

fingers.

 

"Just an apple!" Joe echoed in mockery. "You could have fooled me. Why donít you feed that thing? It sounds angry."

 

Hoss wasnít about to disagree. "Maybe I will, li'l brother. Maybe I will," he replied with conviction as he rose from the settee.

 

>From behind the newspaper, Ben didnít bother to raise his eyes, as he knew by instinct what his middle son was plotting. "May I remind you, Hoss, that you better

not spoil your supper."

 

"Spoil his supper, Pa!" Joe repeated incredulously. Giggling, he continued, "that will be that day. Hoss not eating supper! Yeah, right!"

 

Hoss simply ignored his younger brotherís banter as he glanced at his father. "I ainít gonna spoil my supper, Pa. Iím just gonna have another apple."

 

"Good! Because you know how Hop Sing gets when his food is not appreciated. He puts a lot of time and effort into every meal. The least we can do is enjoy it."

 

"Yes, Pa."

 

With that said, Hoss continued on his trek towards the kitchen. To his disbelief and annoyance, he caught the sight of Joe following him. Stopping mid-stride, Hoss

gave his little brother an anger saturated frown. "Why are ya followiní me?" His voice didnít hide his discontentment.

 

Joe simply gave his brother one of his biggest boyish grins. "I want an apple too!"

 

Hossí nostrils suddenly flared in exasperation. "Why?" He asked through clenched teeth, as he knew that his mischievous brotherís reason was more devious, "If I

jumped off a bridge, Joe, would ya jump too?"

 

Joe face dropped into a confused demeanour. "Now why would you want to jump off a bridge, Hoss?"

 

Knowing that his brother was being serious, Hoss simply rolled his eyes and continued his journey in search of another snack, consequently turning his back on the

still baffled younger man.

 

Joe quickly followed in tow. "Now, Hoss, you didnít answer my question! Why would want to jump off a bridge? Would Betsy Sue Hightower be after you, or

something? If that was the case, I would understand that. But if it wasnít, then why would..."

 

Once the ramblings of both his brothers disappeared around the corner of the dining room wall as they keenly entered the kitchen, Adam couldnít help but smile. He

felt like a feather amidst the gentle wind. These last few months had been hard, but right now, he never felt so good or so refreshed. With a finger as a book mark,

Adam closed his book, letting his chestnut eyes turned to watch his father still pleasantly reading the Territorial Enterprise. He cleared his throat. "Remind me to

thank them."

 

"What?!" Ben questioned as his sonís remark made him forego his present preoccupation. With an eyebrow raised in wonder, he repeated, "Iím sorry, I didnít hear

you properly. What did you say, son?"

 

A soft smile marked Adamís handsome face. "I said remind me to thank Hoss and Joe."

 

Ben let himself chuckle in confusion. "What for?"

 

"Normalness," Adam simply replied as his grin became crooked, lifting to the right side.

 

Understanding the undertones of his firstborn sonís words, Ben could only beam back and nod in agreement as he found no words to supplement what all of them

presently felt deep inside.

 

Getting back to a normal life and a regular routine was so little, yet meant so much for Adam Cartwright. In his eyes, the mundane ways of every day life, right now,

was simply heaven sent. The past few monthsí events had taking a toll on him, as well as his family. It felt so good to get back on the saddle, both figuratively and in

reality. It was like oxygenated blood to circulate through his veins; like fresh snowfall to cover the earthís scars, like novel thoughts to fill his conscience; like first

daylight to vanquish the darkness, and like babyís first footsteps to open up a new perspective on life. The past was something that Adam would ultimately learn

from, but nonetheless leave in the past. He had to live for the future.

 

"And Pa..." Adam added, getting his fatherís attention once more. With a grin that showed a wall of white teeth and unguarded admiration and love, he declared, "...

thank you!"

 

 

The End

 

 

RETURN TO LIBRARY