By Lyn Robinson

Adam was heading home from Virginia City, taking it easy with most of the jobs completed for the year. For once everything was under control although with the weather beginning to close in it was a good thing. Hop Sing had Hoss working hard at cutting wood and salting meat so Adam was in no rush to get home and join him. He saw a young man riding towards him but not expecting trouble, Adam just acknowledged the other man “Can I help you stranger, you lost?”
The other rider pulled up right in front of him and to his surprise asked, “Are you Adam Cartwright?”

Adam nodded, “I am. What can I do for you?”

The man already had his gun out, hidden by his coat, and now he pulled it into view. “Get off your horse.”

Adam was furious with himself for being taken unawares; he just hadn’t been expecting trouble. Everything had been peaceful lately and he wasn’t carrying any money. He knew better than to argue with a gun and he did as he was told. “I’ve only got about ten dollars on me.”
The man just laughed and told him to turn round. Adam did so and the man hit him with the butt of his gun and Adam crumpled unconscious to the ground. The man managed to heave his dead weight up onto Sport, with some difficulty, as the restless chestnut wouldn’t stand still.

Eventually Adam was lying face down over the saddle and the man tied him on before leading Sport off into the hills to join up with his friends.

It was several hours later before Adam came round with a pounding headache and feeling sick. For a moment he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see and was close to panic but as he tried to lift his hand to find out why he realised that he was tied up and blindfolded. He fought against the nausea, with a gag he had no choice. For a while he lay still and tried to get his thoughts sorted out, just what had he landed himself in. Slowly he began to feel slightly better and tested his bonds, but it only took him a few moments to know he wasn’t going to be able to get free, whoever had tied him up, knew what they were doing. His hands were tied behind his back and his legs tied together and just to ensure he stayed put he was also tied to a tree. He seemed to be alone for the moment and, deciding that there was nothing he could do for now, he tried to settle to get some rest. He could only assume he had been kidnapped for ransom, there was no particular problem with anyone at the moment. The odds of his survival might be slight and he would need to be at his best to take any half chance, so he slipped into an uneasy sleep, knowing he had at least a slight concussion.

Ben and Hoss waited dinner for Adam but after an hour Ben decided that they’d better eat before it spoilt. He was slightly puzzled knowing that Adam had intended to be back soon after lunch but there hadn’t been any trouble in months and his son wasn’t carrying money. Hoss shrugged “He probably met some pretty gal in town and decided to stop over.”

Ben laughed; his big son might well have hit the nail on the head. Little Joe was in San Francisco and not due home for another three weeks and Adam had been working hard, he had earned a day off.

As the evening drew on, still without any word of Adam, Ben began to get restless and Hoss asked if his father wanted him to go to town and find his brother. Ben shook his head but it was with a sense of relief that he heard a horse coming in. Ben went out to look for his son and was surprised to see Sport just standing by the barn door, waiting to be let into his stall. The unease that he’d felt all evening flared into real fear for his eldest son and he yelled to Hoss to bring out a light. By it they saw Adam’s hat and gunbelt tied to the saddle. For a moment neither man could move and then Ben picked up his son’s hat, all too aware of the blood on it. Hoss saw a note pinned to it and he pulled it off and gave it to his father. Ben unfolded it and read the demand for $100 000 in exchange for his son. Wordlessly he handed the note back to Hoss and walked inside still holding Adam’s hat close to him.

Hoss read it and scared for his eldest brother he busied himself seeing to Sport, talking to the chestnut promising that his master would soon be home to look after him. When he went into the house his father was just sitting staring into the fire. And Hoss went and poured out two stiff drinks before joining his father. For a moment they sipped the brandy in silence and then Ben asked to read the note again. It was short and to the point. They were to collect $100 000 in cash, small bills, and await further instructions. Any attempt by them or the law to find Adam would lead to his immediate dispatch.

Hoss asked worriedly, “Can we find the money?”

Ben nodded, “It may take a couple of days, the bank doesn’t usually keep that much cash but we can get it. The trouble is even if we pay there’s no guarantee they’ll let Adam go. If he’s seen them they daren’t.”

Hoss knew that as well as his father although he’d been trying to ignore it. Ben said, “I’ll go into town tomorrow morning and arrange for the money, but I’ll insist on seeing Adam before I hand it over.” It was all he could do but they both knew it was no guarantee that Adam wouldn’t be killed the minute Ben had seen him. For a while they sat in silence and then Hoss said, “Are you going to send word to Joe?”

Ben shook his head, “It will all be over before he can get home and there’s nothing he can do anyway. We’ll let him know when Adam’s safely home.” He persuaded his son to go to bed but neither of them got much sleep and at dawn Ben headed for town.

The bank manager Harris was worried when Ben asked for so much cash and Ben told him about the ransom demand. Harris was a good friend and he arranged for one of his clerks to go and fetch Roy, bringing him in the back door.

Ben needed to talk to Roy in private and Roy slipped in ten minutes later demanding to know what was wrong. Ben explained and showed him the note; Roy was silent for a minute and then asked what Ben wanted to do. Ben turned slightly away to stare out of the window, finding it hard to face even such good friends. “Adam’s worth much more than $100 000. I’ll try a straight swap, I daren’t risk his life, but if they harm him I won’t rest until they are dead. I just wanted you to know, in case, but let me try first.”

Roy nodded “Sure Ben. I reckon we can put a small mark on a number of the bills so we can trace the cash, without them finding it”

Ben hesitated unsure whether it put Adam at a greater risk, but knowing that if the worst happened, it might be the only way to get his son’s killers. He tried to swallow round the great lump in his throat at that thought and could only nod agreement. Roy gripped his arm in sympathy, “You send word, anything I can do. Adam’s a good friend.”

Ben went down to the Palace saloon, feeling the need for a drink and as he did so a kid stopped him with a note. Ben questioned the young boy as to who had given him the note, but all he got was a strange cowboy, which didn’t help. The note told him to bring the money at noon, to the entrance of an abandoned mine on the outskirts of town. Ben had no intention of handing over any money without some sign that Adam was alive. He went onto the Palace looking for Dan de Quille, the reporter for the Territorial Enterprise and more to the point a very good friend. Ben found his friend as usual writing his column at a table in the corner of the bar, with a beer at his elbow.

Dan knew all the Cartwrights very well and could see from Ben’s whole attitude that something was very wrong. He also knew Ben well enough to back off when Ben asked him not to push his questions yet. Ben sat down heavily but refused a drink “I can’t stop I have an important appointment, but could you look after an important parcel for me?”

Dan looked at him, “Valuable?”

Ben nodded and Dan grinned, “It will be here when you want it and anything else I can do, just ask.”

Ben rubbed his aching eyes, “Thanks Dan. I’ll be back later.” Then he headed off to the mine as he had been ordered. He was there rather early but as he approached a voice said, “That’s far enough.”

Ben stopped and the voice demanded the money. Ben said “I have the money available but it’s in town. I want to see my son before I hand over any money.”

There was silence for a minute but the demand was obviously not unexpected and a further note, wrapped around a stone, was thrown out to land at Ben’s feet. Ben heard noises as the man moved further into the mine. He knew that the whole hillside was honeycombed with tunnels, with many entrances so he didn’t bother to try and chase the man.

He read the note, which told him to wait, unarmed, in a box canyon on the outskirts of the Ponderosa, and once they were sure that he was alone he would be able to see his son. Ben knew the canyon well and rode over there. He dismounted and took off his gunbelt, hooking it over the saddlehorn before walking into the entrance of the box canyon. Then he could only wait and see what happened.

Despite full realisation of the danger of his predicament and the discomfort of being tied up, his head wound had weakened Adam sufficiently for nature to ensure he got a fair night’s sleep. He woke feeling stiff and sore but much more clear headed that he had been the previous day. He could hear two men talking and banged with his feet to attract attention.

One of them came over and removed his gag and fed him some water. Adam drank gratefully and then as the canteen was removed he asked, “What do you want?”
The man laughed “You know that as well as we do. We want money. Your Pa has been told we’ll swap you for $100 000.”

Adam swallowed at that, before saying calmly “You value me very highly.”

The man laughed again. “No not us, but by all accounts your Pa does.”

Adam felt the man close as he squatted down next to his prisoner, “I’ll hold some bread and cheese for you, you just eat nice. We’ll keep you tied and blindfolded, it really is fer your own protection.”

Adam knew when it was a waste of time making a fuss and he gratefully ate the bread and cheese and accepted some more water before trying to relax against the tree, conserving his strength until he could do something useful. He knew that he’d already seen one member of the gang and this emphasis on blindfolding seemed likely to be just a ploy to keep him quiet, but there was nothing to be gained by arguing. The morning passed slowly until eventually a third man rode in to tell them of Ben’s demand. It wasn’t unexpected and the man who had fed Adam and seemed to be in charge, sent the other two to check that Ben was alone at the box canyon.
Half an hour later he untied Adam’s legs and pulled him to his feet. Adam could hardly stand and the pain was excruciating as the blood circulated back into his feet. It was nearly ten minutes before he could stand unaided and limped slowly as he was led over to a horse. His hands were still tied behind him but with help he mounted and a natural horseman he moved easily with the horse as it was led out. After about an hour they stopped and he was told to dismount. The man said, “Your Pa is waiting to talk to you just the other side of these trees. Now don’t you do anything stupid, we’re gonna have both of you covered with rifles all the time and we can hear every word that’s said.”

Adam nodded, he wouldn’t do anything to risk his father’s life and the man smiled. He had read this Cartwright right; Adam was behaving exactly as he had predicted.

Adam was led forward to the edge of the tree line and then the man slipped into cover and told Adam to take two more steps into the open. Once Adam had done so the man called to Ben. Ben turned and saw his eldest son; he moved forward quickly and would have gone to Adam, seeing the blood caked on the side of his head. When he was about twenty yards away, the order came “That’s far enough.”

Ben stopped but anxiously studied his son, “Are you alright Adam?”

Adam forced a smile, “So far. Be careful Pa we’re covered on all sides.”

Ben raised his voice “I’ll pay the ransom and provided my son is released unharmed, we’ll let you leave in peace. But if you harm him in any way, we’ll hunt you down and kill you, however long it takes. You have my word on that.”

The man next to Adam spoke up. “We have no need to kill your son. He’s been kept blindfolded. I give my word we will release him unharmed. You hand over the money at the mine in three hours and we will release Adam in forty-eight hours, once we’re well clear of here. You just put the money inside that mine entrance and leave. If there’s any attempt to follow us, well then I can guarantee old Adam ain’t gonna like it.”
Ben stood there, doubt very clear on his face, and the man laughed. “Yeah I can see you don’t like it much but you ain’t got no choice, I’ll keep my word. The last thing I want is vengeful Cartwrights on my trail. But if you break your agreement then I’ll know and Adam will be killed.”

Ben realised that he had no choice, much as he disliked the idea and he slowly nodded. Then ignoring everyone else he said, “God be with you Adam.”

Adam swallowed hard, conscious of a sudden lump in his throat, “I’ll see you in a few days Pa. Give my best to Hoss and Joe ... and you.” He couldn’t say anymore but Ben knew what he meant and barely able to see through the sudden mist in his eyes, Ben went back to Buck stumbling slightly. He rode out, feeling sick; knowing that Adam could have been killed as soon as he was out of sight.

He was back under control, but very heavyhearted, as he rejoined Dan in the saloon to collect the money. He found Hoss there too. Hoss had been unable to wait for word at the ranch any longer and once the main chores were done he had followed his father to town. Hoss hadn’t told Dan anything either but Dan knew that something was badly wrong and he handed Ben back his parcel and then excused himself; leaving father and son alone.

Hoss went and got two brandies and then waited for his father to tell him what had happened. Ben sipped his brandy “I saw him an hour ago. Obviously had a bang on the head but he was okay then, sent his best to you.”

Hoss nodded seeing the same fear he felt, in his father’s eyes. As Ben explained what he had had to agree to, Hoss downed the brandy in one and went to get another one, horrified at what he had heard. He could see that his father had had no choice but this way their hands were tied for two more days, while the men got away. Then even if the men kept their word and released Adam it would take him the same time to get home while all they could do was wait. Ben could see the same fears he was living with written so clearly on his big son’s face and knowing Hoss’ need to do something he suggested. “ Go and see Hop Ling, ask him to get a few of the Chinese out grubbing for roots round that mine and the other entrances. Noone will notice them, there’s often some out there and maybe they will be able to tell us which direction the man with the money goes. Then as soon as the time is up we’ll be able to track them.”

Hoss nodded slowly, “It’s worth a try, provided the weather holds.” Then very sombrely he added, “But we may be too late to help Adam.”

Ben shook his head “Don’t even think that. It’s all we can do and anyway....” his voice tailed away and Hoss knew his father had been going to say that maybe it was already too late. He couldn’t imagine his life without his eldest brother. It had been hard when Adam was back east at college, even then there were frequent letters, and apart from those years his eldest brother had been there to answer his questions, help him when needed, for all his twenty-three years of life. He couldn’t believe that Adam could just vanish and he straightened his shoulders and standing up, he gripped his father’s shoulders “He’ll be okay. Old Adam got nine lives, he’ll slide out from under this.” Then he left on his errand.

Ben sat alone for a while, the expression on his face keeping his friends away and then he slowly headed up to the mine, praying that he was doing the right thing. Roy had gone through with his plan to mark some of the notes, as the only way to track down the killers in case the worst happened. Now Ben began to worry that the marks were too noticeable but it was too late to do anything about it now. As he rode in Ben saw that the Chinese had answered their call for help.

There were men all around busily grubbing for roots to sell as firewood. They took no apparent notice of him and although Ben, who knew them well recognised the incongruity of some of the men on the hill, he was well aware that to most white men, one Chinese was just like any other.
There was no sign of anybody at the mine and he put the parcel inside, just visible from the hillside and then left as he had been told.

Back in town, Ben joined his big son and the two men sat nursing a beer, by the window in the saloon until they saw Hop Ling hovering outside. They drained the beers and followed him down the street into an alley where they could talk in private. Hop Ling reported that a man had collected the money and had gone northwest. Three of the better trackers amongst the Chinese had followed him and found where his horse had joined up with three others. Then all four had headed west-northwest up into the mountains. He explained exactly where they had found the tracks and then brushing off Ben’s thanks, Hop Ling went back to his shop.

Ben and Hoss went down to the gaol to fill Roy in, at least now they had a starting point. They found Dan sitting chatting with Roy and as they came in Dan got to his feet “Do you want me to go?”

Ben shook his head “You’ll learn soon enough anyway, you might as well hear it from me. Its out of my hands now.”

Roy came over and poured out some coffee “Sit down Ben have some coffee.” Ben sank into a chair and Hoss perched on the corner of the desk. Ben didn’t want the coffee but it was something to do with his hands and he stared into the cup as he spoke. “Adam has been kidnapped, yesterday sometime, on his way home from town. We found Sport with his hat and gunbelt last night, in the yard. There was a ransom note pinned to his hat, $100 000. I got the money this morning, in that parcel you looked after for me. I got a note telling me to take it to the old Bluecross mine. I didn’t take the money but demanded to see Adam before I paid. They were ready for that and threw out another note telling me to go to the box canyon, just this side of Washoe Lake. I went and they brought Adam. He’d had a bang on the head, well we knew that, there was blood on the inside of the hat, but he insisted that he was okay. He had his hands tied behind him and was blindfolded. They told me to go back to the mine and leave the money in three hours time and that if I didn’t try and do anything Adam would be released in 48 hours. Try anything and they would kill him.” Ben felt quiet and his old friends looked at him in silence. They all knew that the odds were Adam was already dead and for a long moment noone knew what to say.

Dan tried to be optimistic “If he’s been kept blindfolded all the time, they have no need to kill him. He’s no bigger threat to them than you are anyway.”

Ben nodded, “That’s what I hope. I daren’t make a move yet.”

Roy got up and walked over to the window but it needed to be said. “It probably makes little difference as far as Adam is concerned. To be brutal he’s either dead already or they will keep their word. The only difference will be in your chances of catching the men and getting your money back.”

Ben nodded slowly “That’s how I read it and those are secondary considerations.”

Hoss went over to his father “Come on Pa, let’s go home. We must get some rest.”

Ben nodded tiredly, “There’s nothing we can do here.”

Roy said “I’ve sent notification of those marked notes to all the likely towns. We’ll get word when they are used. I know you only care about Adam but I want those men. Especially if they have broken their word.”

Ben sighed heavily but got to his feet, “Thanks Roy. We’ll be in touch.” He rode home with his big son in virtual silence, each man haunted by his own fears.

Meantime Adam had heard his father ride away with a feeling of loneliness and fear greater than he could ever remember, He instinctively braced himself for the thrust of a knife knowing full well that now he was just excess baggage. It was with a sense of profound relief that he obeyed the order to remount and felt himself tied onto the saddle. They went about four miles and he was untied and ordered to dismount. Once again he was tied to a tree and again fed some bread and cheese and given water. Then they all awaited the return of the third man with the money. The wait seemed never ending and Adam could hear one of the men pacing up and down. Eventually he heard a horse approaching and a moment later a loud whoop as the third man rode in “I’ve got it, all of it.”

Adam heard the three men exclaiming over the money and waited tensely to see what they intended doing with him. Common sense said that he was no longer needed and in the next few minutes he would be dead and he prayed that his family would be alright and not grieve too long over him. Every sense we on the alert and he heard the third man ask, "What about him, we don’t need him any longer.”

The one who seemed to be in charge said, “Just tie him on his horse. It’s time we made a move and we may still need a hostage.”

Adam heard the other man complain, “It’s alright for you, he’s never seen you. Don’t forget he saw me when I grabbed him.”

The leader shrugged “I haven’t forgotten, but just in case we are doing nothing until we are well clear. Now let’s move.”

Adam felt almost weak with relief he hadn’t expected to survive more than a few minutes and he would take any time he could, maybe a miracle could still happen. He was glad of the help up onto a horse and once more he was tied onto the saddle and his horse was led out. It was impossible to adjust properly to the movement of the strange horse, tied on with his hands tied behind him, unbalancing him, not in control and unable to see. By the time they stopped in the foothills later than evening, he was very stiff and sore. The men weren’t taking any chances with him and he hadn’t had even a glimmer of an opportunity to escape. Just once they had untied his hands so that he could answer a call of nature, once the feeling had come back into his hands. Even then two of them had a gun on him, as he had been told, and he had not risked trying to remove the blindfold, even if it didn’t mean much. He knew his chances of being allowed to live more than another day but at least for now they continued to feed him, some beans this time, and they gave him water. He lay awake all that night, forming and discarding impossible plans for escaping. He knew that his family’s hands were tied, any move they made would just sign his death warrant.

Adam was glad when the morning came and he was retied on the horse, anything was better than sitting waiting for a knife in the back. They kept moving at a fair speed throughout that day. When they camped again high in the mountains, the argument about Adam broke out again. The one man he’d seen tried again, insisting that Adam was no more use and just a danger. It wasn’t until Adam heard the leader tell him to shut up and get some sleep that he realised just how tense he’d been. He felt almost sick as he relaxed and it was mind over matter as he concentrated on breathing deeply not wanting to be physically ill. At least it had one advantage, once he had won control he felt exhausted and got at least some sleep that night.

The following morning he was again untied and it took fully ten minutes before he had enough control over his hands to use them. The pain as the blood circulated back into his hands had him gritting his teeth, determined not to give these men the satisfaction of hearing him cry out in pain. A few minutes later he was tied back onto the horse and once again they moved off deeper into the mountains. Mid-morning they stopped to rest the horses and the third man suggested that the culvert under the trail below them was ideal for burying a body and Adam was dangerous, he had seen his face. The leader agreed, “I haven’t forgotten.” He told the man to get Adam down from his horse and Adam said a silent prayer for his family, as he believed that this was the end for him. He tensed against the bullet he expected, although he knew it would do no good.

He heard two shots and could hardly believe the lack of pain and the fact that he was still on his feet, neither of the bullets had come anywhere near him.

He could only stand there and wait until he sensed someone standing close to him. He recognised the leader’s voice and the man sounded amused, “I gave your father my word that I would release you unharmed. I keep my word. We’ll leave you here. You’ll be tied and on foot, by the time you reach help we’ll be long gone. That culvert won’t be wasted. You only saw Pete and he was always excess baggage, he’ll fill it. We’ll say goodbye, it’s been a profitable acquaintanceship.”

Adam heard them bury the third man and then leave. When he could hear no more he sunk to his knees, weak with relief, so thankful to find himself still alive. For a few minutes he was unable to do anything but offer a prayer of thanks, feeling so weak but slowly he pulled himself together. He wasn’t out of the woods yet. He was still tied up and the first thing he had to do was to get free. He knew that his family would be looking for him but there was no guarantee they would be able to find him even with Hoss’ ability in tracking. The gang must have done their best to hide their trail and Adam couldn’t help feeling a sneaking admiration for the leader’s planning, as far as Adam could see he had pulled off an almost perfect kidnap. Apart from a familiar voice Adam hadn’t any idea who the man was or where he might be going.

Having decided his next move, Adam began to feel around for some sharp stone to try and cut the ropes on his wrists. He had spent the last days working at the ropes but all he had achieved was sore and swollen wrists, It took him several hours to find a sharp rock edge and then it seemed to take forever as he sawed away at the bonds. His whole arms seemed to be on fire and he didn’t seem to begetting anywhere, but he couldn’t give up, knowing that his life depended on getting free. Eventually he felt the bonds loosen slightly and it was a little easier to get at the ropes without further damaging his hands. He went on with renewed vigour.

Then suddenly he tensed as he heard the ominous rattle of a snake close by. He couldn’t see and didn’t know where it was, just somewhere close and he sat as still as a statue, praying it would go away. The fury of the snake seemed to increase and Adam strained at the bonds round his wrists. Then as the snake struck at his leg, Adam heaved convulsively and finally broke free. He pulled at the blindfold and able to see, albeit blurrily, he threw the snake off and heaved a rock at it. The snake decided it had had enough and retreated and Adam hastily searched for a sharp stone. He yanked his pants down and tied to cut across the two pinpricks left by the rattlesnake on his thigh. Having at least succeeded in getting the blood flowing, he sucked at the wound to try and get rid of the poison, spitting the blood out.

Eventually he sank back having done all he could. He was shaking like a leaf, his hands and wrists on fire, as was his leg. The horizon seemed to float round him and the sky was going black. Adam rested his head on his knees, fighting against faintness and nausea. Some time later he sat up again and managed to tear off part of his shirt to bandage his leg, before pulling his pants back up, Then he considered his position. At least he was now free, although he knew he still had to face the effects of the snakebite. He knew more or less where he was, although it was a part of the mountains he wasn’t very familiar with. Weakened as he was, he knew it would take him at least five or six days to walk home. Deciding that the first thing he needed was water he pulled himself to his feet and began walking down hill.

Meanwhile at the house Ben and Hoss had waited, not daring to break their word. The atmosphere around the house was funereal, neither of them were eating much or sleeping much and they had talked the subject out. The only encouraging news came from Roy. He had organised a thorough search, round the box canyon where Ben had seen his son, round the mine and round the point where the Chinese had seen the four horses join up. In none of them had he or his men found a body, a grave, or any sign of blood. Roy was optimistic that, at least at first, Adam had been taken along.

Finally at dawn on the second day Ben decided that he’d waited long enough and with Hoss, José and three other hands who were good trackers, he rode out to pick up the trail. It was some forty hours old and not too easy to follow, but after a while Ben and Hoss had both come to the conclusion that one horse was being led. It could be a packhorse but seemed heavily laden for that and the chances were that it was Adam. Praying that their conclusion was correct they followed the trail up into the mountains. Mid-afternoon they lost the trail on a patch of shale and hard rock. They separated and cast around until dark but had no success. They camped for the night and then the next day quartered the area but couldn’t find any sign of a trail. The only encouraging thing was that they didn’t find any sign of a grave either. After the second day of fruitless searching, Ben admitted defeat. José, speaking for the others, said, “We don’t mind trying again tomorrow.”

Ben managed a smile “Thank you but you know as well as I do that it’s no use. If we couldn’t find the trail two days ago, it will be even more impossible tomorrow.”

José asked, “What are you going to do?”

Ben sighed heavily and turned away unable even to face his foreman “Go home, wait and pray.”
Hoss put his arm round his father’s shoulder, the only way he could help. He knew there was nothing else they could do, but he also knew the odds against Adam being alive.

José said, “Don’t give up hope, Senor Adam he is a survivor.”

Ben half smiled at his foreman, “I think it was Pope who said, ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast.’ It’s one of Adam’s favourite quotes.”

For the next three or four days they were relatively hopeful. Guessing Adam would be left on foot, if he’d been released as promised. It would take him time to get home.

Roy came out a few days later, word had gone to all likely towns to look for the marked money and he was determined to get the kidnappers. He knew that if there had been any word from Adam, Ben would have let him know and now after ten days he could only believe that his old friend was dead. It didn’t take Ben long to realise what his old friend believed and he knew most of the hands thought the same. Roy told Ben that as word spread round town, most people assumed that Adam was dead. Ben turned away to go and stare out of the window, “We don’t know that Roy.”

“I know that Ben but maybe you have to accept that you might never know for sure.” Roy bit his lip, hating having to say that to his old friend. “The mines where he has stock are wondering what happens to that stock, he has been real important to some of them.”

“Adam and I have each other’s power of attorney. I’ll act under that until we hear one way or another.”

Roy tried again to get his old friend to accept the reality of the situation. “It’s almost certain he’s dead or we’d have heard by now. The chances are his body will never be found.”

Ben straightened his shoulders and turned back to face Roy, “I know the odds, but Adam is not a statistic. Until I see his body I can’t accept it, totally. Even after the legal seven years I think I’ll wonder whether just maybe he lost his memory again or something.”

For a while Roy didn’t speak and then he said quietly “At least you’ve still got two fine sons.” Ben nodded and then firmly changed the subject.

Over the next days Ben retired into a shell and only occasionally in the evenings, alone with Hoss, did he even mention Adam.

As the days passed Hoss slowly tried to accept that his brother was dead. His main worries were firstly how they were going to tell his little brother. Joe just nineteen had gone to San Francisco for the first time to handle business for the ranch and he had telegraphed word of complete success. He would be coming home so pleased with himself; delighted that he had fulfilled the trust his father and his eldest brother had put in him. Adam had argued for a long time to persuade his father to let Joe try his hand on this important contract and the two brothers had been getting on better than they had for several years. Now Adam was gone and Joe hadn’t even been told he was missing. Hoss knew his father was right, even if Joe had been there he couldn’t have done anything, but it was still going to come very hard on his little brother. His other concern was to find the kidnappers. It wasn’t so much the money although the loss of $100 000 had hit the ranch hard, or even revenge, it was the need to know. The kidnappers were the only people who could tell them what had happened to his beloved elder brother. Hoss desperately needed to bring Adam home, even if, as he feared, it was only his body.

Three days before Joe was due home, Roy came back out to the ranch and to Ben’s surprise handed him a parcel. Ben puzzled undid it, to find that it was full of money. He sat down heavily in his usual chair by the fire and Roy joined him, answering the question so clear on Ben’s face. Hoss had just come in seeing Roy but his father was oblivious of his big son.

Roy said “It’s nearly all there, about $700 missing, Two men rode into Green River together. Two days later they had a major argument in the saloon and killed each other. The sheriff found the money in their hotel room and wired me. Clem collected it yesterday.”

Ben turned the parcel over and over, considering what Roy had said; “They are both dead?”

Roy nodded. Ben got to his feet and went over to the window “So they are dead, now maybe we’ll never know what happened to Adam.”

Roy didn’t know what to say and after a few minutes Ben won back to control. He turned back to Roy, “Thank you for all you have done.”

Roy put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, “You know how sorry I am. Adam was a close friend, an awful lot of people are going to miss him, he was always there to help. A very good, kind man.”

Ben nodded and went to pour out a couple of drinks.

Later that evening having told Hoss about the money and the men’s death, Ben saddled up and rode up to the Lake to his wife’s grave. He sat there staring unseeingly over the Lake trying to accept that his eldest son, his partner for so many years since they walked west together with Adam just a child, was gone. Even worse his body was lying out there somewhere in the mountains and maybe in a hundred years someone would stumble over his bones. His head and all reason agreed with Roy and the others but his heart insisted ‘no’. Adam was a survivor; somehow, somewhere he was still alive. Eventually cold clear through Ben headed home although he knew he wouldn’t sleep that night and maybe not for many nights to come.

Adam had soon started a fever from the snake-bite and he knew little of what he was doing. He had stumbled across a stream and had stayed by it. He was never sure later how long he’d been out of his head but some two or three days later he woke up at dawn, clear headed although feeling deathly weak. He pulled himself over to the stream and had a drink and washed his face. Then he carefully examined his leg and the rope burns round his wrists. Although still very sore, everything seemed to be clean and beginning to heal. He was very sore and stiff, to say nothing of cold and hungry and he knew he had to move on or he would die where he was. He eased himself to his feet and held onto a tree until the dizziness passed and he had his balance and then rather slowly, using trees to steady himself when he could, he moved off heading downhill. Later in the day he found some berries to eat but he couldn’t get very far before his weakness betrayed him and he fell. He knew he had to rest. An hour later he got back to his feet and forced himself on a little further but increasingly often he needed to rest.
The following day was a repetition of the previous one but, without food and with the penetrating cold, he was weakening fast and by the afternoon he was finding it increasingly difficult to make it back to his feet when he fell, sometimes every few yards. There came a time when he could no longer make it even to his knees and he sunk into unconsciousness. He would have died where he’d fallen if it hadn’t been for a dog, a scrawny, friendly mongrel, which barked excitedly. It was early in the morning and the dog smelling him had come to investigate. He sniffed round the unconsciousness man, barking for his mistress but when that got no reaction, the dog sat down close to Adam’s face, licking it once or twice and then howled loudly.

The dog’s owner was a young girl Anna, and she came over to investigate her pet’s unusual behaviour. As she drew close she saw the body and ran over to kneel by Adam. She felt for his pulse and saw that his chest was moving slightly so leaving him she ran back to find her father. The pair were travelling with seven wagons, carrying seven Mormon families. They had been run out of California after an upsurge of prejudice. There had been fighting and two of their number and three local farmers had been killed. The law had been set on them and they had no choice but to flee and, despite the weather, try to get across the Sierra Nevada to Salt Lake City and their brethren. There were seven families but only six men and three teenage boys with 34 women and younger children. They had already found bad weather and they were in trouble, none of them experienced in the mountains.

Anna’s father Pete Rente sighed heavily as he knelt down by the unconscious man. The last thing that they needed was an extra burden at the moment. Anna looked up at her father “We can’t just leave him here to die, we have to help him.”

Rente was the unofficial leader of the party and knew an unconscious man would increase their troubles but he couldn’t leave him to die. He told his daughter to go and fetch some of the others to help carry Adam to the wagons. There they tried to find out what was wrong with him. They couldn’t find any identification but found the signs of snakebite and the swollen torn wrists. Rente re-bandaged his leg and wrists and then sat back and exchanged worried looks with the other two men, John and Mike, Anna poked her head into the wagon, “How is he?”

Her father shrugged “I’m not sure. I think he’s been snake-bit and he’s been tied up. Otherwise there’s nothing obviously wrong.”

Mike considered him “You reckon he’s a gunman?”

Pete shook his head, "He’s not even wearing a gunbelt and anyways his hands ain’t gunman’s hands, well callused. Reckon all we can do is keep him warm, try and get some water and broth into him and wait fer him to come round.”

The men left Anna to watch him and went outside where Mike and John queried the sense of taking on a sick stranger. Pete shrugged “I couldn’t leave him to die, anyway he looks strong. If he recovers maybe he’ll help us, we need more men.” The others accepted his decision and the wagons moved slowly on. The mountains were already snow covered and they weren’t on a recognised trail, they hadn’t dared to take one scared of the law. Their progress was painfully slow, four miles a day at best, as they continually had to pull the wagons up and down hill.
Adam and her mother tended Adam; keeping him warm and persuading him to drink a little water and even some broth. Even so for two days he didn’t stir deeply unconscious as his body started to repair itself. Finally at dawn two days after they had found him Adam woke up. Anna was sitting by him but as she saw his eyes open, she called her parents and then lent over him “Take it easy, you are safe here.”

Adam looked up at her puzzled, for the moment he couldn’t remember what had happened. He felt desperately weak without food for a week and with the snakebite and fever draining his strength. Anna lifted his head and held some warm broth for him and Adam sipped it gratefully and slowly everything swum back into his memory, or nearly everything, but he didn’t know these people. He tried to sit up but Rente gently help him still, “Rest easy stranger, you’re still pretty weak.”

Adam managed to focus on the man “Where am I?”

Pete said, “My name is Pete Rente and this is my daughter Anna. Her dog found you unconscious on the mountainside two days ago. We have seven wagons on their way to Utah.”

Adam considered that for a moment and managed a faint smile “My luck was in.”

Rente said, “If I prop you up do you reckon you could manage the rest of this broth.”

Adam nodded but he needed all the help he could get to make it to a sitting position against the pillows that Anna pushed to support him. His hands were very stiff and sore and he had trouble holding the cup but Anna hadn’t overfilled it and Adam drained it twice, feeling better for some food.

Rente asked “Do you feel up to telling us what happened?”

Adam nodded “My name is Adam Cartwright, I’m part owner of a ranch near Virginia City, with my father and two brothers. I was kidnapped and held for ransom. My father paid the ransom and the kidnappers took me along to ensure their getaway. They left me up in the mountains, bound and on foot but at least alive. I was trying to get free when I heard a rattlesnake and got bitten. I remember finding a stream and then I tried to walk downhill but after that everything’s muddled.”

Rente said “Take it easy, you need some more rest and some food. We haven’t much but you are welcome to share what there is.”

Adam murmured thank you before his heavy eyelids slipped down and he went back to sleep. For the next two days he slept most of the time and was too weak to worry about his family or these people.

Meantime Little Joe was on the last leg of the journey home. He hadn’t heard of any trouble but he was uneasy. Nothing definite just a vague feeling that something was wrong. He tried to tell himself it was imagination but he couldn’t resist the urge to get home as soon as possible and rode late into the night. He headed straight to the ranch and arrived home the day before he was due home. He tied Cochise to the hitchrail and went in yelling for his family “Pa, Adam, Hoss.”
It was nine in the evening and Ben and Hoss were sitting by the fire, as always now seemingly lost in their thoughts. They came to their feet as Joe came in the door and Joe looked from one to the other and went over to pour himself a large brandy “I knew something was wrong all the way home. I kept telling myself that it was just imagination but I knew it wasn’t. What’s wrong? Where’s Adam?”

Ben and Hoss had discussed endlessly over the last days how they were to tell Joe but now the moment had arrived neither of them could find their voices.

Joe looked from one to another, panic so close to him and he demanded “For God’s sake tell me, where’s my brother?”

Ben sank back into his chair and stared into the fire, “We don’t know Joe. He was kidnapped they asked for $100 000. I saw him and apart from some bruises he was alright. I paid the ransom. They insisted they were taking Adam along for 48 hours and told us not to follow or they would kill him. They promised to let him go unharmed if we followed their rules, he was blindfolded and they said he was no threat. I had to agree.”

Joe bit his lip, “When is the forty eight hours up?”

Hoss said gruffly, “That was three weeks ago Joe. We followed the trail but lost it. There ain’t been no word.”

Little Joe lost all trace of colour as he realised what his father and brother were saying and Hoss poured his brother another drink and handed it to him wordlessly.

For a few minutes Joe sipped the drink in silence staring into the fire, then he looked at his father “You think Adam’s dead, his body out there somewhere?”

Ben said, “There’s been no word. The odds against him being alive lengthen every day. Everyone in town believe he’s dead.”

Joe got to his feet and went over to the window “No! I won’t believe it. Not like that.”. Ben and Hoss looked at each other it had been bound to come as a shock. They had lived with the idea for three weeks now but it was new for Joe. Joe swallowed hard “I’ll see to Cochise.” He hurried out, needing to be on his own to come to terms with what he’d heard. His father and brother weren’t surprised when he didn’t reappear for over an hour. When he came in he was very pale but calm.

Joe went and got some coffee and then joined them by the fire and asked for details. It had taken Ben all his time to break the news and it was Hoss who filled his little brother in on the little more that they knew, including the return of the ransom and the death of the kidnappers.
Joe bit his finger and staring down unable to even face his family he said, “So we may never know what happened.”

Hoss nodded “That’s the worst of it. If they had to kill him they might at least have left us his body so we could bury it proper.”

Joe stared into the fire “Have you....” he swallowed hard “Have you looked for a grave?”

Hoss nodded “José has taken four men to look again but its hopeless up in the mountains they could have taken any route.”
Joe nodded, knowing his brother was only telling the truth but after a few minutes he excused himself, he was going to bed. When Ben went up half an hour later he heard Joe moving around in his brother’s room. He could understand how his son felt and left Joe to find his own way through, knowing if he could help Joe would turn to him.

For the next two days Joe stayed off on his own, apart from reporting to his father on the trip, he hardly spoke. He knew he couldn’t have reached home in time to have done anything or indeed even if he had been there done anymore than his father and brother. Even so it was very hard to learn of it weeks later and even harder to accept that the elder brother, he had always relied on, was dead. After two days he achieved a measure of acceptance and resignation and could face his family again.

On the fifth day after he’d been found Adam woke up feeling stronger and seeing his clothes he got dressed and let himself gingerly down out of the wagon. He walked slowly over to join Rente and his family by the fire. They were surprised to see him out of bed but Adam insisted he was feeling much better. Rente introduced his wives Martha and Abigail and watched Adam carefully to see how he took it. Adam had already guessed that wagons heading for Utah at this time of the year almost certainly meant Mormons fleeing from persecution. While he personally didn’t like the idea of multiple marriages he respected the right of others to their own faith, their own views. Thus he acknowledged the introductions without a quiver and admired the children. After eating he borrowed a razor and having washed and shaved felt much better.

The wagons moved on and Adam was still not strong enough to walk and sat up beside Anna as she drove the wagon. With a little prompting she told him the story behind their flight. Adam listened with sympathy, He had seen enough of the upsurge of feeling against the Mormons in California over the least year, led by a campaign in a leading San Francisco newspaper, to know that they were right in their fears. They would get little protection from the law and the only place they would find safety was with their own people in Utah, despite the perils of the journey at this time of the year.

Adam watched the people that day and quickly realised they had no real idea of how to cope in the mountains. They had no saddle horses and no way for anyone to act as a scout, even if anyone was capable of it. He asked Anna if they had a scout but she shook her head. She told him they had all come to California by sea and didn’t have the experience of crossing the continent by wagon train.

Adam was anxious to get in touch with his family, he knew they must believe he was dead and be mourning him, but there was no way to let them know that he was safe. There wasn’t a horse he could borrow and they were many miles from any town with a telegraph. Apart from that he owed his life to these people and the way they were going on they were going to die in the mountains.

That evening the six men were poring over a map trying to decide where they were. Adam went over and listened for a minute to two. What he heard confirmed his opinion, these were the original babes in the wood and would die, along with all the women and children, He had been shocked at how few full-grown men there were. He waited until the men fell silent and then said “I don’t want to intrude but that map is a long way from being accurate, especially for this part of the mountains away from the main trails.”

Rente turned to Adam, “You live near the mountains, do you know where we are?”

Adam said, “ I don’t know the mountains very well round here but near as I can tell you’re about forty-five to fifty miles south of Virginia City, on the east slope of the Sierras. I can just make out Mount Davidson which is near my ranch.”

It was what Rente had feared and he asked anxiously, “But that would mean it over five hundred miles to Salt Lake City.”

Adam nodded, “I’m afraid so.”

The men looked at each other and then Mike said “We’ll never make it, we’ve been lucky to make five miles a day.” They all looked at Rente and he turned to Adam “Can you help us, none of us know anything about the mountains.”

Adam grinned, “I had noticed. You are stuck with too few men and this is the worst time of the year to be travelling, but you do have somethings going for you. At least you’re on the right side of the divide and once you reach Reno there’s a good trail to Salt Lake City, It will be frozen ruts at this time of the year but you can’t get lost.”

The men looked at each other, then Rente said haltingly, “You know we are Mormons, I think you had better know why we are here.”

Adam smiled, “I know. Your daughter told me all about the trouble, but you are in Nevada now. It would be silly to make yourselves too conspicuous. I know that feelings have been running high recently but I have enough influence round Virginia City and Reno to be able to protect you.”

Rente stared at him “You’re not a Mormon?"

Adam shook his head “No I’m not.”

“Why would you help us?”

“I reckon I have two good reasons. Firstly you saved my life and secondly you need help. I agree with Voltaire when he says ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death you’re right to say it.’”

They looked at him almost as though he had two heads, except for Rente who had at least heard of Voltaire and even he looked at the cowboy in a new light. He asked, “What do we do?”

Adam said, “How are your supplies?”

“We have about a month’s supply of flour, sugar and coffee but virtually no meat left.”

Adam nodded, “I’ll borrow a gun and go out at dawn, try for a deer, I saw sign this afternoon. We should make my ranch easily enough within a month and you can re-provision there. From there to Salt Lake City is fairly flat and easy. The tough part is to reach the Ponderosa.” It was the first time he had mentioned the name of the ranch and all the men looked at each other. They had heard of the Ponderosa and even of the Cartwrights, but even knowing Adam’s name they hadn’t associated him with the ranch.

Rente was the first to recover “I guess yours wasn’t the only luck that was in when Anna found you. We should be fairly safe with the Ponderosa behind us."

Adam grinned, realising the effect of the name of the ranch; all the men were very ready to accept his help and advice now they knew who he was. Adam took one of the wagon horses at dawn and scouted ahead, looking for the easiest route for the wagons. On the way back he was in luck and spotted a big buck. It was a long shot with an unfamiliar gun but he downed the animal. Although he had to admit to himself he’d been lucky; he’d aimed for a headshot and shattered the buck’s front leg. He quickly put the animal out of its misery and loaded it over the horse to return to the wagons. They were all delighted and Adam’s scouting also paid dividends as they made over seven miles without too much strain.

Unfortunately despite all Adam’s efforts in scouting out the easiest route and shooting some game, their progress was still painfully slow over the next two weeks. There was nothing he could do to counteract the effects of the weather, the lack of men and lack of experience. He was very restless, longing to get home to his family, knowing they must think him dead, but there was no way he could leave these people alone. He owed them his life and without him they might not survive. He tried to hide his feelings from them and succeeded in the main but Anna sensed how he felt. She was amazed at the difference this one man had caused. The whole party had come to depend on him and trusted him to get them safely to Utah.

Anna felt that it was unfair to burden this outsider, he had already done so very much to repay any help they had given him. One night she tried to apologise for her people but Adam shushed her; he was more than willing to help. He tried to explain that he was only restless because he knew how his absence would be upsetting his father and two brothers. They had no way to know he was fine and he couldn’t let them know. Then as her father came over he firmly changed the subject.

At the ranch the others seemed to have come to terms with his disappearance and were carrying on as normal, even if each of the Cartwrights had times when they disappeared off alone. Ben to his wife’s grave; Hoss to Adam’s favourite thinking place where his eldest brother had always gone for peace; and Joe most frequently into his eldest brother’s room. There Joe found some solace in handling Adam’s books and looking at the meticulous drawings and the animated sketches which were so much a part of his brother. None of them had been able to face any celebration of Thanksgiving, they had nothing to say thanks for that year and despite Hop Sing trying to tempt them with some of their favourites, not even Hoss managed much of a meal.
Ben was beginning to make a few arrangements for Christmas, now less than five weeks off, although he was dreading it.

One Saturday Hoss had gone to visit an old friend who was laid up with a broken leg and Joe had gone into town to collect the mail and attend the dance. Ben rode up to the Lake, as he did so often feeling closer to his son there, and he didn’t come back until it was dark. He went into the house and was surprised to see his youngest son sprawled out on the sofa. Ben took his coat off and went over to join his son, “Is anything wrong Joseph? I thought you were going to the dance.”

Joe shook his head, “No Pa. I just didn’t feel much like it so I came on home.”

Ben looked at the book that Joe was reading. It was a series of biographies of some of the earliest settlers in the United States. Not at all Joe’s normal choice of reading matter, Ben took it from his son and leafed through it “Adam ordered this months ago didn’t he?”

“It had just arrived so I thought I’d better pay for it and bring it home.”

Ben asked, “How much was it?

Joe, rather sheepishly, said, “Ten dollars.” It was elaborately printed with lithographs and had been sent all the way from New York, Ben knew his eldest son would have thought it money well spent, but his youngest never had much spare money and ten dollars was a far cry from his normal dime novels. “Dan was talking to Adam about it not that long ago, he was considering ordering a copy himself.”

Joe got up and went over to the window, “Yeah Dan offered to take it.”

Ben said gently, “It’s not really your taste Joseph.”

Little Joe was silent for a long time and then he turned to face his father and defensively he said, “Alright I’m a fool, I know that. Adam waited such a long time for that book and I bought it, just in case....” His voice trailed off and Ben went over to put his arm round his son’s shoulders “You know the odds against him being alive Joseph, it’s been nearly five weeks.”

Joe nodded “I know Pa, I thought I’d accepted it but then in town everyone was so careful. A few people like Dan and Roy said how sorry they were but everyone else avoided any reference to him, almost as though he never existed. They were so awkward; I just couldn’t take it. Then the book came up, Dan offered to take it but I couldn’t let him, so I bought it and came home.” He was silent for a minute and then looked up at his father “My head says he’s dead, reason insists he must be but somehow I don’t feel it. All the way home I knew something was wrong and it didn’t really come as a surprise that Adam was in trouble but I just don’t feel he’s dead. I always thought I’d know if any of you were dead. It may just be that we haven’t found his body but in my heart I don’t believe he’s gone. You don’t have to tell me I’m a sentimental fool, I know but...”

Ben smiled at his son “I know what you mean Joe, make that two sentimental fools.” Neither of them had heard Hoss come in through the kitchen but he had been listening for several minutes and now he came over to join them, “You underestimate. There are at least four of us.”

Ben and Joe looked at him and he grinned, “I just went by the bunkhouse. José is taking bets at odds of ten to one that Adam will be back within a month, He was getting a bit worried about the amount being bet so I took half of it.”

Ben sank into a chair, for once not even considering telling his son off for betting. He considered his younger sons, he had thought they had accepted Adam's death and although he knew they had no more idea than he did, he was warmed to find he wasn't alone in feeling Adam was still alive. He grinned at his sons, "Well if we are wrong at least we’re in good company, all fools together.” A few minutes later he said, “I think I want to go to church in the morning. Will you join me?”

Hoss and Joe knew exactly why their father suddenly felt the need to go to church and nodded they would go and add their prayers to his.

Meanwhile Adam and the wagons had been getting slowly closer to the Ponderosa. On the Thursday night prior to these events they had camped in a small hollow some eighteen miles south-west of the house. They were now in country that Adam knew well and he no longer needed to scout to find the best route, he knew the land well enough to be able to see the route in his mind’s eye. He was even more eager to get home now and with any luck at all three more days should do it. That night one of the younger boys, a fourteen year old called Mark was guarding the horses. He got scared when he heard wolves and the horses were very restless so he decided to go and get his father. The horses were a little way from the wagons and it took him a minute to wake his father. His father wasn’t very pleased to be woken and he was slow to go with his son. When they got back the horses were gone. At first his father just thought that Mark had made a mistake about the place but Mark showed him fresh droppings and so he raised the alarm.

Adam was the first to reach them, more used to waking immediately than the others. He insisted on them getting under cover while they argued, blaming the boy for leaving the horses.
Adam left them to it and scouted around on his own and soon found traces of Indians. Eventually he was sure that a party of five Indians had driven off the horses. He went back to join the others, who were all blaming Mark and the boy was close to tears. Adam put his arm round the youngster’s shoulders “It wasn’t Mark’s fault. If he had done anything else he might well be dead. We’d better get back to the wagons, Indians took the horses.”

The men were all taken aback at that and they hurried back to the women and children. They gathered round the fire and Adam told them to stay together, he’d be back in a few minutes. He checked carefully but was sure that the Indians had taken what they wanted and were long gone from the area. He went back to the fire half an hour later to find everyone huddled round the fire, barely speaking.

Rente spoke as Adam came up “What next?” His voice sounded despairing and as Adam looked round he could see hopelessness etched deep in the faces of all the adults. Many of the kids were crying, knowing something was wrong and sensing the fear in their parents.

Adam said, “Come on cheer up, it’s not that disastrous.”

Rente looked at him as though he was mad, “Isn’t it?”

Adam said, “As far as I can make out it was a small band of say half a dozen renegades. There’s no sign of them now and I would think they have got what they wanted and are putting as much distance as they can between them and us. I’ll check in daylight but I’ll be very surprised if we see anymore of them.” Adam sat back and waited while the men took in what he’d said and then one of the older men John sighed heavily, “Even so we are stuck here. Some of the women and children can’t walk very far and we only have two weeks supplies at most.”
Adam smiled “Its not as bad as all that. I’m nearly on my own land here I could find my way home blindfold from here. It’s about eighteen miles and it will take me two or at the most three days. I can be back in five days at worst and you have plenty of supplies until then.”

Rente protested “We can’t ask you to go, it’s too dangerous.”

Adam grinned, “In three miles I’ll be on my own land. Do you think you could stop me from going home now I’m this close?”

Rente frowned, seeing the eagerness, but still worried. “ At least take someone with you.”

Adam knew that none of them were physically capable of keeping up the pace he could over the rough land and he shook his head. “I know this land and I’m very used to being on my own. If I can borrow a gun, I’ll be fine. I suggest you all get back to sleep. John if you and Mike keep watch for now and then call a couple of the others, just in case. Although I’m sure we have nothing to worry about.”

They nodded and slowly all the others began to head back to their blankets apart from Rente and his daughter. Anna asked anxiously “Are you sure you’ll be alright?”

Adam nodded and smiled, “I’m sure, I may not bring the horses back myself. If I don’t my brother Hoss will. You can’t miss him, he’s a couple of inches taller than I am and about 300 pounds. He wears a great tall hat and you can trust him absolutely. His heart is as big as he is. I will be fine and I need to see my family.”

They didn’t bother arguing further but Rents offered his hand “I just wish there was someway to say thank you.”

Adam shook his hand “No need for thanks, you saved my life.”

The next morning Adam checked around but there was no sign of the Indians and he reassured them that the Indians were most unlikely to reappear and once more promising to have help back in five days, a week at the most. Just in case he had the wagons formed into a circle and helped them barricade it, trying to reassure them that it was most unlikely to be needed. Then taking some biscuits and strips of venison, he borrowed a gun and set out.

Everyone watched him go and a pall seemed to settle down over the camp. Rente made a deliberate effort to change the mood and suggested that they pray for Adam’s success and an easy journey, Everyone joined in very willingly and seemed happier afterwards as they settled to a few necessary chores and waited for Adam’s return. They were all sure that he’d have help here in the time he had said. Anna was amazed at the change in her people and the degree of trust they were putting in Adam. Those same people had sworn two months earlier that that noone, who wasn’t of the Mormon faith, could be trusted, even when you watched their every move.
Adam was making the best time that he could, eager to see his father and brothers, but the snow was thick and powdery so he couldn’t hurry. He reckoned that he’d made nearly nine miles by the time it grew dark and he was hopeful that he would be able to reach home the following day.
Adam didn’t dare push on in the dark there wasn’t even a moon and he made camp. He made himself a fire and huddled in his coat by it but he was too cold to sleep and was anxiously awaiting the dawn. He had deliberately taken a longer route than the direct route, knowing that it would be easier on foot, and so he still had some eleven miles to go.

As soon as there was some light Adam set out again, chewing on some venison as he went. He was making good progress, the prospect of seeing his family sufficient to keep tiredness at bay. Then shortly after noon, he missed his footing and he fell badly. For a moment he was both stunned and winded but after a few minutes, he pulled himself to his feet, only to find his ankle wouldn’t support him. He didn’t dare take his boot off, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to get it back on again, but he was fairly sure it wasn’t broken and guessed it was just sprained. Adam hopped over to a tree and managed to cut himself a branch to act as a crutch. It wasn’t ideal but it was better than nothing.

Adam straightened his shoulders, he had just over seven miles to go and he couldn’t hobble at any sort of rate, but he would get there. He managed to keep going throughout the afternoon, until dark but he was still more than three miles from the house. He was worn out with the struggle to walk and lack of sleep and was glad to see a lightning struck tree that he had been aiming for. He used the dry kindling to make a fire and sat down to rest until daylight. He didn’t dare go to sleep, knowing that it was dangerous in the bitter cold, and it was a long hard fight. By daylight his eyes lids felt as though they were lined with grit but he was buoyed up by the knowledge that he could get home that day. His ankle was even more painful than the previous day but leaning heavily on his makeshift crutch, he hobbled on.

Adam was less than two miles from the house as his family headed for church. They rode in silence all deep in their own thoughts. Ben was wondering if they were all living in a fool’s paradise, not accepting the simple fact that Adam was dead. He knew his sons had to be wondering the same thing despite their avowed certainty that Adam was still alive. Ben knew that everyone else believed Adam was gone and that their old friends didn’t quite know how to treat them. The uncertainty with no body and without the closure of a funeral, left everyone feeling awkward, not sure what to say, especially as those who knew them best sensed that none of them had really accepted Adam’s death. The vicar greeted Ben and his sons and offered his sympathy. It was the first time Ben had appeared since word spread of what had happened.
Ben was very glad when the service started and he could ignore the looks of friends and neighbours and seek consolation from the one infallible source. Ben offered his prayers and gained a certain degree of space and could see that Hoss at least felt the same. Joe was restless; he hated the side looks they got from other people. He couldn’t pray in this confined space, he had already said his own prayers for his brother, up at Lake Tahoe, the view that both of them loved. He was very glad when eventually the service finished and avoiding people they headed straight home.

Adam had finally reached the ranch and going into the house found it deserted. He’d lost count of the days and he was so very tired that he couldn’t face doing anything more for the moment. He poured himself a drink and sunk down on the sofa to wait for his family to come home, sure that at his time of the year someone would be there soon. He lent back and put his feet up and quickly slipped into sleep, relaxing now he was home.

Hop Sing was in town and as they rode into the yard Joe offered to go and make coffee. Hoss jumped at it and Ben waited for him to realise that he had just volunteered to take care of Cochise. It took five minutes before the penny dropped then Hoss shook his fist at his little brother and remarked ruefully to his father “Had again!”
Joe safely on the far side of his father, just grinned and Ben nodded “Afraid so Son.”

Thus when they rode in Joe went into the house alone, while the others took the horses into the barn. He was taking off his coat when he suddenly realised he could hear someone else breathing, a sound he had known all his life. Hardly daring to believe his own senses, Joe turned and moved over towards the fire and stood still, staring down at his sleeping eldest brother. He swallowed hard and blinked scared that Adam would vanish but he didn’t. Joe traced the signs of strain on his brother’s face but Adam was alive. Joe was never sure how long he stood there hardly daring to believe the evidence of his own eyes. Then turning away with an almost physical effort, he went to the door and yelled “Pa, Hoss get in here.”

Both men sensed the urgency in his voice and leaving the horses they ran for the house. Joe was still by the door and they could read the truth on his face, Joe pointed to the sofa and Ben went over to kneel by his eldest son. Joe got four glasses and the brandy before joining Ben and Hoss. Ben laid his hand on Adam’s forehead as though he needed physical contact to convince himself of the evidence of his own eyes. Adam stirred and Ben somehow managed to find his voice,

“Wake up Son.”

Adam forced himself to wake up but seeing all his family he grinned very broadly, “Hello Pa.”

Ben helped him to sit up “Are you alright?”

Adam took his father’s hand, needing the physical contact as much as his father. “I’m fine. I think I’ve sprained my ankle and a bit short of sleep. I am so sorry that I couldn’t get in touch before.”

Ben hugged him “It doesn’t matter, nothing matters. Thank God you’re safe.”

Hoss said, “Amen to that.” He gripped his brother’s shoulder, grinning broadly as Joe slipped in to sit next to Adam, easing close as he had as a child.

Adam grinned at his brothers covering Hoss’ hand and resting his other arm round Joe’s shoulders. Then he asked “Hoss will you do something for me. I left seven wagons back in the hill, full of people, mainly women and children, Renegades ran their horses off a few nights back. Take seven teams out and some provisions and bring them in for me.”

Hoss nodded “Sure I can. Where are they?”

Adam said, “In a hollow about two miles south-west of Old Jack’s mine.”

Hoss frowned for a moment and then light dawned, “You mean where we found that fawn with a broken leg?”

Adam nodded “That’s it Hoss, They are Mormons running to Utah from trouble in California. They are scared and touchy, only six men out of over forty people. Take a few men along to help, and real easy with them. I owe them my life.” Hoss hugged his brother for a moment then straightening up said “I’ll bring them in don’t you worry. You rest up and I’ll see you in a day or so. Welcome home brother.”
Adam shook his brother’s hand and Hoss left on his errand of mercy. A couple of minutes later they heard the cheer from the bunkhouse as Hoss told the men of Adam’s return.

As Hoss went out Ben turned his attention to Adam’s foot. He told Joe to get bowls of hot and cold water and some bandages. Then he cut Adam’s boot off ignoring his son’s complaint that they were comfortable boots. Once he was able to examine the ankle Ben had to agree with Adam that there was no sign of a break although the ankle was so swollen that he couldn’t be sure.

Joe got coffee and then disappeared to cook some steak for his brother. Adam settled back his ankle soaking and sipped his coffee, looking at his father, “You must have thought I was dead. There was just no way to get in touch.”

Ben smiled “Everyone in town thought so and reason said they were right, but somehow I just didn’t feel that you were dead. Your brothers said the same and José was even taking bets that you’d be home within a month. It’s been a miserable few weeks but it doesn’t matter, you’re home now. You can tell us all about it later. For now have some food and then you’d better catch up on some sleep.”

Adam nodded, now that he’d reached home and relaxed, he was fighting to keep his eyes open. He ate his steak and then let his father help him upstairs to his own bed and was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, Ben stood staring down at the son, who had been given back to him, for several minutes.

Eventually Ben went downstairs to find Joe standing looking at the book he’d bought the previous day, grinning widely, his eyes gleaming. He asked, “If you don’t mind Pa I’m going into town to tell Roy and Dan and all the others.”

Ben grinned, “Certainly Joseph but if you still look like that you won’t have to open your mouth!”

“I don’t care he’s home safe. At first I was scared he was just a mirage.”

Ben put his arm round his youngest son’s shoulders “I know Joseph we’ve been so very lucky yet again, Go on I’ll see you later.”

Little Joe went to Beth’s house first and told her. She was very fond of all three boys and loved Ben. She was delighted knowing how much it would mean to her old friends and loving Adam himself, so often he had been there to help her.

Then Joe went down to the Palace and joined Roy and Dan who were having a drink together. He got a beer and sat down at their table, not saying a word but he couldn’t hide the grin or the sparkle in his eyes. Dan and Roy looked at each other and then Dan said “You look a different fellow from the woe-begotten specimen, who was in here yesterday. What’s happened? Found a gold mine?”

Joe just grinned and Dan hardly dared ask, “You don’t mean Adam’s....”

Joe grinned, even more widely, “He was asleep on the sofa when we got back from church. A mite thin, sprained ankle but otherwise fit and well, “

Roy and Dan both let out a yell at that and demanded whisky to celebrate. Word soon spread and Joe was loaded up with messages for his brother to welcome him home. Roy wanted to know what had happened but Joe wasn’t able to enlighten him and invited him to join them for lunch the following day to see Adam.

Dan begged to join him and Joe agreed but drew the line there. Adam had seemed exhausted and needed some rest, not hordes of visitors.

When Joe got home he found his father sitting reading his bible. Adam hadn’t stirred and Ben didn’t think he would until morning, Joe told him the reaction in town and they headed up to bed feeling happier than they’d been in weeks. Neither could go to bed without just looking in once more on Adam and Ben just smiled at his youngest son as opening the door to Adam’s room he found Joe just about to leave.

Hoss reached the wagons just before lunchtime the following day and introduced himself. He had brought food and fed them all well. He reckoned with the fresh horses that he’d brought and the experienced teamsters that they would be at the house the following day. They had trodden down the snow on the way out and there was a reasonable trail. They made about five miles before Hoss camped again and as he was lighting a fire, Anna commented to her father that she could see what Adam had meant about his brother, so kind and gentle.

Adam had hobbled downstairs on Monday morning and having greeted Hop Sing he settled down to an enormous breakfast. Once he’d finished he allowed his little brother to help him to his blue chair and with his feet resting comfortably on a cushion on the table, he told his father and brother exactly what had happened to him. In return he learnt of the death of the kidnappers and the return of the ransom money.

Later in the morning Roy and Dan arrived and once they had congratulated him on his safe return, Adam filled in an abbreviated version of things from his side. Despite his large breakfast, Adam was more than ready for Hop Sing’s excellent lunch as the little man celebrated number one son’s return in his own way.

The following day Hoss arrived with the wagons and Ben was able to offer his own heartfelt thanks for the help they had given Adam. Ben ensured that the group had everything that they could possibly need and invited them to rest at the ranch for a couple of days.

Adam was just very grateful to have both his brothers and his father with him and could barely even take his eyes of them to read. He got out his guitar and the family relaxed together singing all their old favourites.

Adam was pleased to see the Mormon group so much more relaxed and with the provisions his father had given them and the group of men under José, who were going along to help out, they would have no trouble in reaching Salt Lake City.

As he went back in Joe rather sheepishly gave him the book that he’d bought. For a moment Adam looked at it and his little brother, able to read what had happened by the expression on Joe’s face. He was delighted to have the book but even more so by the sentiment behind it and for once he just pulled his little brother close and gave him a hug, to Joe’s delight.

Then the four Cartwrights settled to plan Christmas in earnest, a complete family again after the last week’s of uncertainty.