Knight Errant by Lyn Robinson

Adam reached town just before lunch and spent an hour with Fair and Mackay. They were pleased with the job he’d done and if Adam reckoned they’d get the verdict that was good enough for them. When he finally got away Adam went to deliver lists of stores which he would collect later and then dealt with routine chores at the Bank and the stockbrokers. Several queries had come up, most of which he was able to deal with on the spot, but three he put on one side to discuss with his family.

Eventually Adam got away and went for a beer before heading to Jess’. As usual Dan was sitting scribbling away with a beer beside him and Adam went over to join him. Philip saw him and came over too; he’d heard of illness at the ranch and wanted to know how everyone was. Adam was able to give good reports of everyone and the friends were just chatting when a boy came in to the saloon looking for Adam. He’d been sent from the telegraph office. Adam had ordered some equipment earlier so they knew he was in town and a telegram had just arrived for Mr Cartwright.

Adam gave the boy a quarter and then sat back to read his telegram. At first as he read it, it made no sense and he frowned. It was almost abrupt. “You saved my piney woods. Said to send if’n I needed help. I do. Carrie Picket.” Adam read it twice and then the phrase ‘piney woods’ penetrated and he remembered years earlier when he had bought Joe’s share of the Ponderosa for a dollar, leaving Joe free to file on a critical quarter section which held access to Crescent Mountain. A timber operator Milbourne was trying to get all the timber rights on the Mountain. His method was the usual one of logging everything in sight and in this area it would have ruined the watershed for the Carson valley. Joe hadn’t been very fit, not long recovered from a bullet in the back and the betrayal by Emily Anderson, a girl he once loved but now married to a deputy US Marshall. Even so they had let Joe go as it was so important to stop Milbourne. He had found an old lady living on the quarter section. Adam hadn’t met her but he remembered Joe’s description of the cantankerous but indominitable old woman, badly hurt with a bite which had given her blood poisoning, but refusing to let Joe register her land. She had been scared of bureaucracy but found in Joe the gentleness and love of the land she’d known in her husband. She had become very special to his young brother very quickly and now she was in trouble again and asking for help. The problem was that Joe now had a wife and child of his own and after the scare with Adam he was needed at home. Adam sat staring at the telegram, the memories going through his mind. He was brought back to the present as Philip asked anxiously, “Bad news?”

Adam put the telegram away and smiled, “Nothing serious I hope.” Then almost flippantly, never dreaming of the long term consequences he said, “Chance for me to play knight errant.”

His words were overheard by some store owners sitting behind them and one commented, “Maybe he’s getting restless, after what five years married.” The others laughed and forgot about it, at least for the time being.

Meantime Adam finished his beer and decided it was time to get on. He rode out to Jess’ ranch, where Liza had a superb meal waiting for him. Adam relaxed after it with a brandy and brought them up to date with news from the ranch. As usual news had travelled fast and they knew all about the illness which had hit the Ponderosa, that reminded Adam of the telegram he’d had. The sooner he made his way down to Crescent Mountain and found out what was wrong, the sooner he would be back. He’d had a decent night’s sleep the previous night and Blackie was fit and eager, so with a full moon, Adam decided to head straight there from Jess’. He asked Jess to send a hand over to Carole with a note as he was going to take a detour on the way home. Jess considered him suspiciously, asking what he was up to.

Adam grinned, “I’m standing in for my little brother, acting knight errant.” Then more seriously he went on, “Joe’s needed at home just now so I’m relying on you to cover for me Jess. I’m not sure how long I’ll be but it may be a few days.”

“You sure there ain’t no trouble?”

“Nothing serious, just a friend needs a little help.” Adam grinned, “Ye of little faith! I can look after myself.” Adam refused to go into more details; it was a long story which predated Jess’ arrival at the ranch. He found the same problem in writing to Carole. He was fairly sure that she had never heard of that particular incident and in the end he decided to explain in person when he got back. He kept it brief, just saying that he was going to the assistance of an old friend of Joe’s as she had asked for help and Joe was needed at home. He couldn’t say how long he would be but promised that he would be back as soon as possible and he asked her to cover for him. He’d explain in detail when he got back. Jess sent one of his hands over to Adam’s house with the note and the stores which Adam had collected in town.

Adam turned his attention to the job he had come over for and went through the accounts with his friend. Then with those done he accepted a brandy before looking at the tax return. Jess had never done one before and Adam went through it with him step by step. It had seemed so very complicated but as Adam led him through it the return began to make sense, although Jess couldn’t imagine coping on his own. He said as much but Adam laughed. “I’ll be around but I wouldn’t mind betting in three or four years you’ll do it, probably without even bothering to get it checked.” That seemed very unlikely but Jess relaxed, if needed his friend would be there and he knew that Adam didn’t mind helping.

Adam finished up just before ten and scrounged a few basic supplies including a refill for his hip flask before heading out on his errand. Jess was still concerned but Adam laughed at him. Adam had been stuck in the house with paperwork for too long and he was rather looking forward to a couple of day’s break from all the details, all his responsibilities. With a broad grin Adam swung up on Blackie, a ride would clear the cobwebs and although cold it was a clear and beautiful night. He’d been tied to the house for a long time and this escapade fitted his mood and he almost looked younger.

Adam rode out never dreaming of the construction that even his friends were putting on it. A Knight Errant always rescued beautiful young women, not old cantankerous backwoods women. Adam rode through the night, he was acting out of character in just riding off so impetuously but he intended getting back as soon as he could and taking up the reins of his responsibilities. He didn’t even realise as he rode through the beautiful high country of his ranch that he loved, that he hadn’t actually told anyone where he was going. There was a full moon and Adam kept going until 4 a.m. when in the pitch dark just before dawn he pulled up for a couple of hours sleep. He made himself some coffee but although he had food with him, he wasn’t hungry after Liza’s magnificent meal and he decided to leave food until he arrived.

Even without a map Adam knew exactly where he was going, he had been the one to spot the importance of the one quarter section which gave the only access to the higher slopes of Crescent Mountain. In the bright light of day Adam pushed on faster, wanting to know just why she had called for help after all these years.

Carole had been very surprised to get Adam’s note, mainly because there was so little detail. She could understand why he’d felt the need to stand in for his little brother, certainly Nita needed Joe more than she needed Adam just at the moment. She had had his company for several months and he was fit, if a little short of sleep. She would cover for him as he asked to stop Joe going off the deep end and await his explanation, but she wasn’t going to admit to anyone just how little she knew about what he was up to. Normally he told her everything and she was a little piqued at him disappearing off with no more explanation than the short note.

In fact noone noticed his absence the next day. Carole had been round to check on all the invalids and so Adam’s failure to visit caused no comment. Ben was at home working on the Ponderosa tax return, he had another day’s world before it would be ready for Adam to check. He always liked two of them to go through it, just in case of errors.

Adam arrived at the cabin mid-morning, it was exactly where he’d expected to find it, but at first as he called out there was no reaction. Adam automatically eased his gun in its holster, although he wasn’t really expecting trouble. Then the door opened a crack and a shotgun was held on him, “Who are you? What do you want?”

Even from those few words Adam could hear the weakness in her voice and his light-hearted mood fell away as he began to fear that he understood why she’d sent for Joe. “Mrs Picket. I’m Adam Cartwright, you sent a telegram.”

The door opened wider and she lent against the door jamb, barely able to hold the shotgun steady, “You ain’t Joe.”

“I’m his brother. Joe’s son isn’t well, he couldn’t come, so I’ve come for him.”

“Joe’s only a boy, he ain’t got no son.” She said suspiciously. Adam wasn’t about to argue, she belonged in bed and he carefully took off his gunbelt and placed it on the ground. “Look I don’t mean you any harm. I’ve come to help.” He moved forward cautiously, unsure how clearly she was thinking, ready to throw himself to the side, but the gun fell as though she couldn’t manage the weight of it any longer. Adam took it from her gently and then lifted her up and carried her into the bed. She was so frail that she seemed to weigh no more than Mark or David and he could feel the fever burning in her.

Adam straightened the bed, found a dry pillow and pulled a blanket over her. Then he went and got some cold water from the lake and put a cold compress on her forehead. She watched him not speaking as Adam checked her meagre supplies and then went and got his own pack and put some broth on to cook. As he came back over to change her compress she smiled, “Guess you are Joe’s brother at that. Don’t look too alike, but you both have a deal of gentleness in you, just like my Amos.”

Adam sat down on the bed and took her hand, “My little brother grew very fond of you Carrie Picket but he’s needed at home. He has a wife and a child now, a child they nearly lost a few days ago. Thank God he will live but Joe can’t leave them.”

“Wouldn’t be right, not in my Joe. But I ain’t got no claim on you.”

“Of course you have. I’m just standing in for Joe, doing what he’d want to, if only he could. My wife and children are fine so I’m free to help. Now you rest.”

Carrie gripped his hand as tight as she could. “Move my bed so I can see.”
Adam nodded and pulled her bed over to the window, pulling back the shutters and cleaning it so that she could look out on the woods she loved. He pushed an elytra pillow to support her so that she could sit up a little more, “They are magnificent.”

She considered him, “You understand too.”

“Your love of the woods? Sure I do, I’ve lived here most of my life, heard the wind singing in the trees most nights as my lullaby. I know from Joe that you share our love of the woods, of course I understand.”

She stared out and allowed Adam to feed her a little broth but then she pushed the spoon away and patted the bed, “Sit down Adam Cartwright, we need to get some things straight.”

Adam did as she asked and studied her face, wrinkled, drawn, the pain very obvious, but it was her eyes which kept his attention. Despite the fever they were clear and met his gaze. She could see the same compassion in his dark hazel eyes that she remembered in Joe’s green ones and she smiled gently, “Very like my Joe. Adam Cartwright I’m dying. Will you bury me next to my Amos? Promise me?”

Adam saw no point in arguing, he’d known almost as soon as he saw her and gently stroking her hand he nodded “You have my word.”

“You’ll stay?”

“Just as long as you need me. That was why you sent for Joe?”

“Always scared of dying alone. Don’t mind going, time I joined my Amos but not alone. Need someone to put me in the earth next to him. Maybe say a few words.”

Adam lent over and kissed her forehead, “You can count on it Carrie.”

She was quiet for so long that Adam thought she had fallen asleep but then she said, “In the cupboard two things. My shawl Amos bought me. I want to be buried in it and my will. It’s all legal, I got it drawn up in town, all witnessed proper. My piney woods they’re for Joe, he’ll look after them.”

Adam nodded, “I’ll see to everything, just rest easy Carrie.” She did fall asleep then. Adam sat by her dozing on and off all night, He could understand just why his little brother had come to feel so close to her, he reacted just as Joe had. It felt as though he’d known her a very long time but Adam was a realist ands the mark of death was clear on her. He doubted if she had more than a few hours.

Soon after dawn she woke again, very much weaker as though she had done the last thing she needed to in summoning company for her final hours and now she was content to go. Adam bathed her face and gave her some water, but when she didn’t want food he made n attempt to force her. He sat by her, holding the old woman’s hand. Listening as she spoke of her Amos and her love of the land, but most of the time she was content to just look at him. The compassion and affection that she’d seen in Joe was equally obvious in this older man and she was at peace. Mid-afternoon she sighed quietly and slipped sideways against Adam and he knew that she’d gone, gone to join her Amos. Very gently he laid her down and then, for the first time in hours he stood up and stretched, very stiff and sore. He made himself some coffee and stood staring out at the pines. It was an effort to pull himself together but eventually he went out and found the old grave, still tended, on a small knoll overlooking the woods. He found a spade and began digging a new grave next to it. The ground was very hard and it took quite a while but Adam didn’t even take a break until the job was done.
Having put the spade away, he went in and washed up before going back to Carrie. She looked totally at peace and Adam wrapped her in her shawl before carrying her out to lie next to her Amos. He filled in the grave and then stood bareheaded, with the wind she loved blowing through his hair. Alone, miles from anyone, he felt very close both to Carrie and to God as he spoke quietly, commending her soul to her Lord, quoting his two favourite passages over the grave, the 23rd psalm and the passage from Ecclesiastes. Eventually Adam went back inside. He’d done the job he had come for, now he had to get home.

Adam spared time for a meal and packed up the perishable supplies, leaving all the tinned stuff in case anyone ever had to take refuge in the cabin. He put the will in his pocket, she was right it was legal, so Joe now owned this section. The woods on Crescent Mountain and the Carson watershed were safe, just as they had planned so long ago, if not quite in the way they had planned. Adam was slightly melancholy but not really upset. Carrie had made it very clear that she’d had what she wanted from life and was happy to leave it, just as long as she wasn’t alone. After one last look around, Adam went out to Blackie to head home. He hadn’t had much sleep but intended to ride for as long as he had light. He would be home early Monday morning only a couple of days absence.

Blackie was fit and eager to stretch his legs and Adam swung aboard with one last look at the two graves, praying she had indeed found her Amos. Then he headed on home eager to see Carole and wanting to explain to his little brother what he had done and why. The track was easy to follow and Adam let Blackie find his own path, his thoughts far away, not that it would have made any difference anyway as disaster struck out of the blue.

The woods had never been logged and one great old pine chose that moment to come to the end of its life. For no apparent reason it came crashing down. Adam heard the crack but before he could react the tree hit them, knocking both horse and rider over. Adam was swept down a slight slope and mercifully he caught his head and was knocked cold as the great monster brought other smaller trees down with it. Blackie was brought down but managed to struggle to his feet and pulled back along the track, limping badly, whinnying for his master.

It was several hours before Adam came round and dark. For a minute he couldn’t remember and then it all came back and he felt cold as he realised the real horror of his situation. He was on his own, miles from anyone and for the first time he’d given no real hint to anyone just where he was going. Even if his family got worried, if telepathy warned them that he was in trouble there was noway they could know where to start looking. Adam bit his lip, he was in considerable pain and all on his own, trapped in the dark and he could have given into self pity but that wouldn’t do any good and with a conscious effort Adam got control of himself.

Adam tried to move but only his right arm would move and even that slight effort brought pain to his chest. He considered each limb in turn, his left arm felt alright although he couldn’t move it but his legs were totally numb. Adam swallowed hard and then told himself one step at a time, first task get both arms moving. He slowly began to throw off some of the smaller debris, branches and leaves. Every move he made seemed to tear at his chest and he had to keep resting, hardly able to breathe. He was sure that he had broken at least a couple of ribs but there was no blood when he breathed so he assumed his lungs were undamaged, He knew that any strenuous movement could change that but he didn’t really have any choice. Eventually he had both his arms free and he attempted to prop himself up a little, see what was still holding him, the moon giving just enough light. His first attempt hurt so much he was on the verge of passing out again, but slowly Adam got control of himself and gritting his teeth he tried again. Better prepared for the pain he was able to cope and he was able to feel around. There appeared to be one big branch trapping his legs. They were numb but maybe not actually damaged and if he could lift the branch maybe he could pull free, at least he prayed he could.

Adam rested for a few minutes, trying to gather his remaining strength. He knew he had to act or he’d die where he was and slowly he collected the branches within reach and began to jam them under the big branch, hoping to lever it up and get the weight off his legs. He never knew how many hours it took him, continually the pain threatened to overwhelm him and he had to rest but eventually he forced himself to try again. It was full daylight so that he could see what he was doing, albeit everything was very blurred. He guessed that he had concussion, seeing double with everything spinning round him and nausea threatening. Somehow he kept going and it was almost a surprise when he found there was clear space above his legs. They were still numb but it was time to move and he forced himself to edge back, using his arms to pull himself clear. He could only make inches at a time but slowly he did make distance until finally he realised he was free. That realisation was the last straw and with a small moan Adam gave in to the darkness which had been threatening to engulf him for so long.

At the Ponderosa Carole was still the only person who knew that Adam was off on some ploy of his own and she was the latest victim of the cold. She only had a heavy cold but so did Marie and David. Between feeling miserable herself and run off her feet with two thoroughly irritable children and one bored little boy missing his playmates, she didn’t have time to think about her husband.

Joe did feel a little uneasy but as his son had now become a little snivelly as the remnant part of the cold showed in a more orthodox fashion, he put his unease down to concern for young Adam. All of them assumed that Adam was at home with his wife, even if they hadn’t seen him for a day or two. It wasn’t particularly unusual and if anything was wrong Carole would tell them, therefore they discounted the odd feelings of unease that came to all three Cartwrights. Even if they had realised there was nothing that they could do.

It was mid-afternoon when Adam came round again and he knew he was running a fever. He was desperately thirsty but there was nothing he could do about that yet. He tried to take stock of his injuries at least now he was free and maybe Blackie had run home and would bring help. Hoss could backtrack the stallion and they’d find him. Adam realised he was talking aloud and for a moment he shut his eyes on the verge of giving up, he couldn’t cope. Then into his mind came the image of his wife and his four children, he had far too much to live for to just give up. He licked his dry lips, “Right one step at a time. Make it.” The first thing he had to know was the extent of his injuries. He was sore and bruised all over, but although his groin and side were very sore there wasn’t any really bad pain and he was sure it was just bruising, not serious. His ribs he knew were broken but he’d had both that and concussion before and both would heal and his arms weren’t hurt. Then he realised that he was just putting off considering the thing that scared him. A broken leg might well be a death sentence and something was badly wrong with his right leg. His legs were no longer numb but that was a mixed blessing, his right leg felt on fire.

Slowly Adam managed to pull himself up against a nearby tree until he was sitting up, dragging his useless leg after him. He wasn’t even aware that he was moaning, but once he was propped up he had to rest as he fought to regain control of his breathing. Then he looked at his legs, the left one was bruised and torn, blood clotting on it, but although sore nothing seriously wrong. That was far from the case for his right leg, it was very swollen and his lower leg was at an obviously unnatural angle. Adam forced himself to feel it but he couldn’t find any break, his breathing became laboured as his body reacted against the pain and eventually he had to lean back and fight for control, “Not broken, maybe dislocated. Dislocated....” His mind went back over the years to an old Mountain Man, Joseph Walker, an early explorer along the Humboldt. The older man had a badly damaged leg and was glad of the young boy’s company as he stayed at the Ponderosa while it healed. He had told Adam many stories of his travels, some of them Ben was sure were exaggerated but he certainly knew the area very well, far better than they did as they had only settled on the ranch the previous year. Walker said that he had dislocated his knee and described graphically how he’d put it back, certainly the joint was very swollen and he had been unable to leave for several weeks to Adam’s delight. If Walker could put his own knee back then Adam decided that he would have to do the same.

The mere thought of inflicting more pain on himself made him shudder and he couldn’t help moaning. Maybe Blackie was already home and the search party on the way, then Doc would cope. For once in his life Adam would have welcomed drugs to put him out, every time he breathed there was a sharp pain in his side, every part of his body ached and his leg was on fire. His head was pounding and his vision blurred, but just when he desperately needed help noone would be able to bring it, because of his own stupidity, unless his black stallion brought it. Adam wasn’t even aware of saying his horse’s name but the stallion heard his master.

Blackie hadn’t moved very far with a very swollen and bruised back and foreleg, but now hearing his master’s voice he limped towards it. At first Adam thought that he was imagining things as the black stallion came through the trees and then had a surge of hope, was Blackie bringing his family. Then as he realised how badly the horse was limping, he knew that there would be no help, if he wanted to live then he had to help himself. For the moment that realisation was too much and in his weakened state with so much pain, he just gave way closing his eyes as the tears trickled down his cheeks and a sob escaped, feeling so desperately alone. Blackie came and nuzzled his master and even though he knew the horse could no more fetch help than he could, Adam was grateful for his presence. He buried his head against Blackie’s warm neck, just grateful for another living being. Slowly Adam got control and very carefully checked Blackie’s leg. To his relief it wasn’t broken but the horse was going to take as long to recover as he was, if not longer.

Having finally accepted that he was on his own and couldn’t expect any help barring a miracle, Adam faced practicalities. It was bitterly cold and unless he wanted to die of exposure he had to get under cover as soon as he could. The only place anywhere close which he was sure about was Carrie’s cabin, where he’d come from. Adam tried to think, work out just how far he’d come before the accident. He hadn’t been paying much attention but he was sure that it was less than a mile, probably only about three-quarters of a mile. In his current state that might as well be as far away as the moon, there was noway that he could crawl there and for a moment Adam was close to giving up. He had Blackie but the horse could no more carry him than he could walk.

Memories of the past again came to his aid and he remembered a time when circumstances had ganged up on his little brother, a thunderstorm and a crazed horse. Joe had been alone on the Ponderosa and badly injured, a damaged leg, a kick from the horse injuring his arm leading to the onset of gangrene. Joe had struggled to stay alive even facing the idea of amputating his own arm. Then telepathy had alerted his family and they had known where Joe was likely to be so help had arrived but Joe had been prepared to fight for life, and Adam couldn’t do any less.

Adam realised his canteen was still on Blackie’s saddle and he managed to reach that and took a drink. It helped him to get a grip on himself and he faced the fact that if he wanted to live he had to deal with his leg. He had some brandy in his hip flask on the saddle and he felt he needed some of that before he could face the pain of trying to put his leg back. Blackie stood still at his command and by pulling on the saddle and putting all his weight on his left leg, Adam made it to his feet. Even doing that much had him gasping for breath as pain knifed through his body but slowly he brought his breathing under control. He reached over for his hip flask and took a drink, hoping it might at least dull the edge of the pain. He had a few basic medical supplies with him but nothing that would help his immediate problem. Knowing that if he fell he might not make it back to his feet Adam balanced carefully and looked around for anything which would help him put his knee back He had to be able to jam his foot solidly so that he could apply pressure. For the moment he only allowed himself to think of practicalities, if he once allowed himself to think about pain he wasn’t sure he’d be able to act.

Eventually Adam saw a raised tree root some twenty yards away, it wasn’t ideal but the only possibility and he knew it was going to be hard enough to make it that far. Blackie was totally obedient to his master but even so when Adam tried to hop along beside the horse, Blackie moved too fast and in trying to stay with him Adam caught his injured leg and fell, pain searing through his body. For a few minutes Adam was only conscious of pain, all thought of what he needed to do had gone, but then as Blackie nuzzled at him Adam remembered. He forced himself to breathe deeply, Carole’s face clear in his mind and he could almost hear her voice saying, “You can’t give up, we need you.” Having won back to control he began to crawl, infinitely slowly, dragging his useless right leg, trying to ignore the sharp agony in it every time he moved. It took the injured man the best part of an hour to reach the tree he’d seen. Adam only managed to get that far by cutting himself off from his body; he seemed to be hovering over this poor aching wreck of a body, the pain almost irrelevant as he forced himself to concentrate On Carole and his children, an act of will. Eventually he reached the root but he could only lay still. He was soaked in sweat, running a high fever and for the moment his limbs didn’t seem to belong to him so there was nothing he could do.

It took nearly half an hour before Adam was able to collect his wits and his strength but then the point came when he realised if he didn’t act now he never would and he’d die where he was. The prospect horrified him but he said “Walker did it and so did Joe, so can I.” He wasn’t even aware that he’d spoken aloud, nor was he aware of his moans and cries as he bent forward to jam his foot under the root. Even that job seemed nearly beyond him and it took three goes before his foot was effectively jammed. That effort had cost him severe pain and he was breathing in short pants, his chest and his leg on fire, the scene swaying dizzily round him. For a few minutes he could only stay still, waiting for the world to settle, not even aware that he was sobbing with the pain. Then with an effort, which was as much mental as physical, Adam prepared to try and force the joint back into position. He could hear Walker’s almost dispassionate explanation of how he’d forced the joint back as though the old Mountain Man was standing next to him. Walker had survived so could he. Adam remembered Walker saying that at the first attempt the pain had been so severe he’d had to give up but then he’d told himself he now knew what to expect and he took it or died. Thereafter he’d carried on until the joint slipped back, knowing that if he stopped again he might never have the will to restart. Adam murmured to himself, “Whatever must carry on.” Unsure that if he stopped once he could ever start again and he lifted his left leg into position, gritting his teeth he began to push. The swollen joint was painful to the slightest touch and this was agony. Lights danced in front of his eyes and nausea gripped him but Adam carried on, ignoring his damaged ribs he lent forward to grip his thigh, try to exert the maximum pressure. He prayed wordlessly that the joint would go back and kept pushing. How long he lay there straining Adam didn’t know but he suddenly felt something move and there was a loud click and his leg straightened as the joint slipped back in. As he realised Adam gave way and passed out.

Ben had spent the weekend doing the tax return for the Ponderosa; now with it complete he wanted Adam to check it. He waited until lunchtime, expecting his eldest son to come over but it hadn’t been a firm arrangement and he decided to go over to Adam’s house, assuming that something had come up to keep him there. He had been busy all morning and although feeling a little uneasy he’d dismissed the thought. His sons were just up the road with their wives and if anything was wrong he’d have been told. To keep Hop Sing happy Ben had his lunch before leaving and as he ate the feeling that something was wrong strengthened. It didn’t make much sense but these feelings were usually reliable and he felt one of his sons was in trouble, in pain. For the moment it was too nebulous even to be sure which of his sons was involved, but that was easily settled and he decided to go by each house in turn.
Sue was downstairs although Hoss would have preferred her to stay in bed a little longer, but he was making sure that she didn’t lift a finger. Preoccupied with his wife, kept busy by his young son who wasn’t entirely sure that he approved of this break in routine, Hoss had had no more than momentary twinges of unease which he’d totally discounted. Ben wasn’t about to worry his big son, Hoss, short of sleep, looked drawn anyway. He had always needed more sleep than his brothers. Ben stayed for ten minutes or so glad to see Sue rather brighter and then headed onto Joe’s.

Joe was sitting on the hearthrug by the fire, just watching Nita feed his son. He was very tired after all too many broken nights and too many nightmares when he did sleep but he was content now. He didn’t even realise that his father was uneasy and Ben only stayed a moment. There was obviously nothing wrong now with his youngest son and he didn’t want to intrude.

Ben walked onto Adam’s and went in to find Marie in tears with Carole trying to soothe her daughter while David was curled up in a chair nearby, very heavy eyed and obviously unhappy. Mark, bored, was running around being a horse, not understanding why his brother wouldn’t play. Ben grabbed his boisterous grandson who came running over for attention and with him in one arm went over to Carole. He kissed her forehead, “I see you have succumbed too. David?”

“Yes, he and Marie both have it. Not too serious but they’re both a bit miserable, just about describes me too.”

“I won’t bother you Carole. Is Adam in the study I want him to check this tax return.”

Carole slowly straightened up. She had been getting more and more convinced all morning that something was seriously wrong with her husband and yet Adam had asked her to cover for him. She wasn’t sure what to do, his note had said that he might be a few days and it was only three days. She realised Ben was frowning and rather noncommittally she said, “Adam’s not actually here just at the moment.”

Ben was puzzled by her attitude and wondered if they’d had a row, so he was very careful not to seem to pry. “I can leave the papers, if Adam has any queries he can pop by later.”

“When do you need them?”

Ben frowned, “They should be in by Wednesday at the latest.”
To his surprise Carole put Marie down and called for Kam Su to watch the children and then led the way into the study. Ben was practically convinced by now that there was some solid basis for his unease and that it was Adam who was in trouble, but he still couldn’t imagine what. He knew Adam wasn’t at his brothers’ so if he wasn’t at home he assumed Adam was in town. Remembering the past he was thinking in terms of mine cave-ins or such like.

Carole was almost glad to be forced to confide in her father-in-law, increasingly worried she needed to talk it over. She consoled herself that she’d been basically asked to cover up for Adam in front of Joe. She stirred the fire and then turned to Ben, “You’d better not rely on Adam checking the return, he may not be back by Wednesday.”

“Where is he? I didn’t know he was planning to go away.”

Carole found herself unable to meet Ben’s eye and half turned to stare up at the painting of the Lake, “I don’t know.”

Shaken by that comment Ben went over to grip her shoulders, sure now that his fears were justified. Carole straightened up “Adam went into town on Friday, routine business, that submission for the mines, pick up stores, things like that. He was going to have dinner with Jess and help him with his tax return so I wasn’t expecting him until late. Instead one of Jess’ hands came over with the stores and this note from Adam.” She had moved over to the desk and now handed the note to Ben.

Ben read it twice but it didn’t exactly help, his eldest son had disappeared off somewhere to help a female friend of his little brother. He could understand why Adam had decided to go in place of Joe but it wasn’t like Adam to act so impulsively, without giving any details of where he was going. He was very serious as he finished, virtually certain now that his eldest son was in trouble, in pain, but not seeing how to help.

Carole sat down staring into the fire, “Adam asked me to cover for him and I will as far as Joe is concerned but I needed to talk to someone. I’ve had the feeling since yesterday afternoon that something was seriously wrong. You can see from his note he didn’t expect to be back yet and maybe it’s just me, the kids not well and I’ve got a cold, but ....” She looked up at Ben and reading the expression on his face she went on, “You feel it too, don’t you.”

Ben went over to her, “Easy Carole. Adam’s very adept at looking after himself.”

“But you do think he’s in trouble?”

Ben nodded, “I thought something was wrong all morning, kept telling myself it was foolish, that all three boys were safe at home with their wives. That I’d have been told if there was any trouble but even then I couldn’t convince myself.”

“What can we do?”

Ben read the note again but there was nothing to help. “You said he sent this note over from Jess’ place?”

“Yes, he had dinner there.”

“Seems the best place to start. I’ll go by and have a chat with Jess. He can probably tell us what Adam was planning, then we can arrange to go and find him, just in case.”
“He’s in pain.” Carole said very positively, staring into the fire. Ben took her hands, “I know child, but he’s strong, he’ll be fine. Try not to worry.”

She looked up, her eyes full of tears, “Seems I have spent nearly all my married life worrying about him, he’s been hurt so often.”

Ben gently dried her eyes, “You worry about him because you love him very much. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair on you, you deserve better.”

Carole pulled away shocked, “There couldn’t be a better husband than Adam.”

“It’s just that you end up on your own more than I like.”

“The Ponderosa is a working ranch, I’ve always known that and Adam has many responsibilities, he wouldn’t be the man I love if he didn’t do everything in his power to fulfil them. I knew and agreed with him helping Jess and I agree with him going off now to help Joe’s friend. I wouldn’t even have mentioned it if I wasn’t scared that he was hurt.”

Ben pulled her close and kissed her hair, “You’re a good wife, Adam was very lucky the day you came to town. I do understand him too you know. I wasn’t really criticizing him; it’s just that he sometimes tries to do three people’s work at once.”

Carole relaxed against him, “It’s alright Pa, I know you love him too. For now can we keep it just between us? Joe has had enough these last few days without worrying him; it’s the last thing that Adam would want.”

Ben nodded, “Of course, at least until I find out what Jess can tell us. I’ll head over there now, be back as soon as I can. You try and take it easy.”

Ben went over to Jess’ ranch with plenty to think about. He could understand why Adam had acted in his brother’s stead but it was very unlike his eldest son to head off without leaving word where he was going. He couldn’t remember the last time Adam had acted so impulsively and he wondered how Adam had learnt of the need for help. If someone had passed on a message then maybe he could find out who Adam had gone to see. Ben shelved that idea for now; surely Jess would be able to help. At least Carole had made it abundantly clear that, from her point of view at least, the slight niggling doubts he’d had about Adam’s marriage were unnecessary, Ben couldn’t even explain to himself why, in the months since Christmas, he’d been so uneasy about Adam. There hadn’t been anything very obvious, just an underlying restlessness, the same symptoms he had exhibited before heading off back East or to Europe. Ben hadn’t seen him like that since he’d met Carole and it worried him.
Almost before he knew it Ben had arrived at Jess’ and he tied Buck up before heading up to knock at the door. Jess had only just got back from town and was sitting with Liza over coffee, filling her in on the latest gossip. He wasn’t expecting any visitors and was slightly on edge as he went to the door. Jess was very surprised to see his erstwhile boss but invited him in and offered coffee. Even with such a good friend of Adam’s Ben felt awkward, not wanting Jess to think that he was checking up on his son and unable to explain these feelings which warned him of trouble. He waited until they had settled with coffee and he’d made all the usual enquiries about how married life was treating them, but it was very obvious to both Jess and Liza that he had something more on his mind. Liza felt that they might find things easier in her absence and excused herself to the kitchen, she had some baking to do.
When she’d gone Ben put his cup down “Jess I need some help. When did you last see Adam?”
Jess pokered up, his friend has asked him to cover for him and had expected to be a few days, so he blocked the question, “Why do you want to know?”

Ben pressed him, “Please Jess it’s important.”

“He was here on Friday, helping me with my tax return. I haven’t seen him since.”

Ben guessed from Jess’ attitude that Adam had asked his friend as well as his wife to cover for him and if he wanted Jess’ help he was going to have to be straight with him. “Look I know that Adam has gone off on some errand to help a friend of Joe’s. Carole showed me the note he sent her. I can understand that but I need to know where he is.”

Jess relaxed a little, “He expected it might take a few days Mr Cartwright. He took some stores from here to cover.”

“And asked you to keep quiet.”

“Something like that.”

“It’s not like Adam to disappear off without telling anyone where he’s going.”

“He said he was gonna be a knight errant.” Jess poured more coffee as he tried to think how to explain. “He wasn’t expecting any trouble, looking forward to a few days on his own. I don’t know how to explain Mr Cartwright. He almost looked younger, like a kid let out of school unexpectedly. He was breaking free of all ties just for a while and he enjoyed the idea.”

Ben was frowning, worried by what Jess had said, wondering if his son had said anything to his friend that led Jess to this idea of Adam’s motives. Jess lent forward, “Look Mr Cartwright, don’t get me wrong. Adam’s very content with his life. I’m sure of that. It’s just that over the last months, really ever since that fire, he’s been hedged in by people. You know Adam, he’s like me in many ways, guess that’s why we get on so well. We’re both loners, like our own company, like to be alone. What with illness, all the hassle when Virginia City burnt down and a steady stream of visitors, he ain’t had much chance to be alone. This gave him an excuse, do something useful but break away on his own for a few days and he was revelling in it.” Jess sat back, worried at his own presumption in explaining Adam to his own father.

Ben smiled “Easy Jess. I do understand and I agree you two are alike.” Ben sighed, “Do you think I could have a brandy?”

“Of course Mr Cartwright. I’m sorry I should have offered.”

“I don’t usually imbibe this early in the day. Look now that you are a ranch owner Mr Cartwright sounds terribly formal, make it Ben.”

Jess nodded and passed him a brandy wondering what was wrong. Ben sipped his drink and made up his mind. Jess had been very straight with him and it only seemed fair to reciprocate. “I don’t know how much you’ve picked up over the years Jess, but there is a very close tie between me and my sons and between each of them. How it works I don’t know but that it does I have long accepted. Even when we are miles apart we can, on occasion, know how each other feel.”

Jess sipped his own brandy, “Telepathy. Joe knew about that cave-in as it happened. Adam knew on the drive last summer that Hoss was in trouble. Yeah I’ve seen it in action.”

Ben went on, “Then maybe you’ll understand that the only reason I’m checking up on my son is because both Carole and I feel that he’s in trouble, injured and in pain.”

Jess frowned, “He wasn’t expecting any trouble I can guarantee that. In fact he laughed at me for fussing, said he could take care of himself.”

“I know he can, but accidents can happen to the best equipped, especially out here.”

“I wish I could help but I don’t know where he was going. He rode west up towards the mountains when he left here, so I doubt that he was going back to Virginia City but he could have gone anywhere once he reached the road.”

“He didn’t put a name to the person who was asking for help?”

“No just some woman, a friend of Joe’s.”

Ben sat back and stared into his glass, he’d been so sure that Jess would be able to tell him where to start looking. Maybe there was something that Jess hadn’t picked up on and he asked Jess to tell him exactly what Adam had said. Jess did so but none of it helped. The only new fact was that the call for help had come in the form of a telegram. The obvious next stop was the telegraph office in town, to see if they could remember what it had said. With the volume of traffic that the office handled, Ben knew that was a very long shot but decided to head for town and at least try. He promised Jess to let him know what if anything he found out and to get in touch if there was anyway that Jess could help.

Ben rode on into town, seriously worried about his oldest son. He allowed himself to reach out to Adam, try to sense his feelings. He got an overpowering impression of pain and without really thinking he pulled Buck up. He sat staring into space, he could almost hear Adam calling to him, hear his son moan, feel Adam’s pain. He tried to send back to Adam to tell him to hold on, wishing that somehow Adam could let him know where he was, what had happened but all he felt was his son’s pain. Then it cut off almost as though a switch had been pulled. Ben had a drink of water from his canteen, badly shaken by what he’d felt, certain now that his eldest son was hurt and in pain. He prayed that they would be able to find Adam and that his son would hold on until they could do so. Slowly Ben got control of himself, putting his trust in God and in his son’s innate strength and he headed on to town.
Ben went straight to the telegraph office. He wasn’t particularly surprised that with the best will in the world they couldn’t help. One of the men remembered sending a telegram to Adam via one of the town kids on Friday. He had seen Adam in earlier that day ordering some equipment and had guessed he’d still be in town. That explained how Adam had heard but the man couldn’t remember what was in the telegram. It was like most he took down in a day’s work, he just wrote down the words not really taking in the meaning, so many of them were in code anyway, it just became routine. Ben could understand that and realised there was no point in pushing his questions. He thanked the man and decided to go and have a drink before heading home; he felt the need of a drink so worried about Adam.

When he went into the saloon Roy and Dan called him over. Ben wore an efficient mask, to hide his feelings even from these close friends. Dan got him the brandy he’d asked for and then grinning he joked, “Has Adam brought his beautiful lady in distress home yet?”

Ben lent forward “What do you mean?”
Dan was taken aback by the urgency in his voice, “Sorry just joking.”

“You must have a reason for it Dan, will you explain.”

“Sure Ben but why are you so anxious?” As Ben didn’t respond Dan shrugged sipped his beer and then said, “Just that when Adam was in on Friday, he got a telegram. Said it wasn’t serious but he was going to have a chance to play knight errant.”

Ben drained his brandy and then looked hopefully at Dan, “Did he give any indication of where he was going?”

Dan shook his head, “That was all that he said, he wasn’t exactly taking it seriously. Why? Is there trouble?”

“I’m not sure. He went off on this errand without telling anyone where he was going.” Ben rubbed his hand across his mouth, “I just have this feeling that he’s in trouble, but I don’t know where he is.”

Roy looked worried, “Do you want me to telegraph around, see if he’s been seen?”

Ben thought for a moment, twirling his empty glass and Dan signalled for a refill, realising his old friend was seriously worried about Adam. Ben looked up eventually, “Adam will hate it but I’d be grateful Roy. I’m almost positive he’s hit trouble. I’m inclined to doubt you’ll turn up anything but please try.”

Dan frowned, “You really think he’s in trouble?”

Ben nodded, “Hurt somehow. I don’t know how or where but I am sure he’s in pain. There’s nothing I can do unless I find out where.”

Dan was very serious now and said, “I wish I could help Ben but he gave me no idea, just a light-hearted prank, a chance to play knight errant he said.”

“I know. It wasn’t anything serious maybe that’s why he didn’t bother telling anyone where he was going.” Ben forced a smile and finished his drink, “He’ll bounce back as always and probably tell me off for fussing. Forget it will you Dan.”

Dan nodded he wouldn’t say anything but Roy walked out with his friend, checking that Ben did want him to wire round. However he tried to pass it off Ben was very worried. It was already late in the afternoon and Ben wanted to get back to Carole, not that he had much news for her but at least they could worry together.

Adam had been unconscious for several hours after he finally managed to force his knee back into place. When he finally came round he couldn’t remember where he was at first, just aware of pain throughout his body but then as he tried to move the pain knifed up from his right leg. That brought back to him the full realisation of where he was and why. He took a minute or two to get a hold on himself and then very carefully eased his leg out from under the tree root. He called Blackie over and managed to grab his rifle from the saddle, it would have to act as a splint until he could contrive something better. He used his bandana and pieces cut off his shirt to bind the rifle in position as tightly as he could. By the time he’d finished both his leg and his ribs were on fire and he could only lie still, sobbing for breath and waiting for the worst of the agony to ease. He didn’t know that at that moment his pain was crossing the intervening miles and Ben on the road from Virginia City was aware of every painful breath he took. Eventually Adam decided to try and get to his feet again but his first effort was a total failure as his foot slipped and with the sharp agony in his leg Adam passed out again, cutting the contact with his father.

Some time later Adam came round again and called Blackie over. This time he managed to haul himself up to his feet, holding onto the saddle. His right leg would barely take his weight and only at the cost of considerable pain but leaning on Blackie Adam managed to shuffle up to the track. He turned towards the cabin and very slowly made his way towards it. He was holding onto the saddle like grim death, unsure of his ability to get up again if he should fall. Several times he had to stop and just lean against his stallion as the pain threatened to engulf him, with the world swirling around him. It seemed impossible to get enough oxygen but each time he eventually got enough control to move on, knowing he got under cover or he died. In the bitter cold he was grateful for his stallion’s warm strength, despite the fever he was running. Blackie seemed to sense his master’s every move, limping badly and with his own back sore and bruised, he still took his master’s weight as Adam lent heavily on him. Blackie limped on slowly, stopping of his own accord if he felt Adam hesitating. They moved at a snail’s pace and Adam never knew how long it took them to cover the three quarters of a mile back to the cabin, but he did know there was noway he could have done it without his black stallion. In fact it took over five hours until Adam was finally aware that the cabin was looming up ahead of him. Even then it was another twenty minutes before he could grip onto the door jamb and open the door. Inside was a bed but before he could fall onto it, he had one last job to do, he found the strength to take Blackie’s saddle and bridle off, letting them fall on the ground. He couldn’t do anything else to repay his horse for all its help, not for the moment, but with water and feed available Blackie should be able to cope.

Finally Adam grabbed his canteen and then with everything reeling around him he pulled himself across the floor to the bed and collapsed on it. Against the odds he had got himself free, put his knee back, and got under cover. For now that was enough and he lay back and gave way to the lure of oblivion, some respite from pain. Tomorrow he’d think about his next move. He was running a fever and in pain from his injuries so that even in his sleep he moaned, restlessly moving trying to find a more comfortable position, with nightmares of the tree falling trapping him.

Ben went straight back to see Carole. He didn’t even have to tell her how little he’d found out, she could read it on his face. Ben put his arm round her and led her into the study, “He had a telegram, just a light hearted expedition to help out a friend, nothing serious. Jess didn’t know any more than you do, no idea even what direction he was heading, could have gone anywhere when he got to the road.”

Carole buried her face in her hands, so scared for her husband, she had been aware of his pain all afternoon. Ben pulled her closer, “Easy Carole. Adam’s a survivor and we know he’s alive. He’ll make out. Roy is telegraphing around to see if we can pick up any hint where he went. Other than that there isn’t a lot we can do.”

Carole took a deep breath and got a grip on herself, she wouldn’t let Adam down by going to pieces. She even managed a tremulous smile, “He’ll be back soon, Adam’s indestructible.”

“Good girl. I’m going over to Joe’s, he’ll have to check the tax return but then I’ll come back and stay for a day or two until Adam gets back.”

“There’s no need Pa, I’m used to being on my own. I can manage.”

“You’re not very well yourself and the kids are ill. I don’t mind.”

“I know that Pa.” She kissed his cheek “But it’s not necessary and there’s no way we’ll convince Joe and Hoss that everything’s normal if you stay here.”

Ben gave way, promising to come back tin the morning, knowing that Carole would send word if she heard anything, He was very doubtful that they could keep anything from Hoss or Joe anyway, they were as close to their brother as he was. In fact he was surprised they weren’t already fussing. He could only assume that both were preoccupied with their own families. In fact both had been uneasy but assuming that Adam was at home with Carole both had discounted it, taking it for granted that they would be told of any trouble.

Joe was rather surprised to see his father back and even more so when Ben explained his errand, asking Joe to double check the tax return. Joe had helped out once or twice before and knew what to do but Adam did the job regularly and would be much more likely to pick up on anything that was wrong. Joe frowned as he took the packet, rather to Nita’s surprise, “Sure I will do it Pa but why isn’t Adam? He’s more used to it than me.”

“You know what to do Joseph.”

“That wasn’t what I said Pa!” Joe put the papers down, “What’s wrong? You know as well as I do that normally you’d get Adam to check, just because he’s more used to doing it.”

Ben forced a smile. Adam had wanted to cover for his brother and he had to go along with his son. He could see very clearly why, Joe looked drawn and tired. The baby was much better but in a way Joe looked worse, the inevitable reaction/ “I would have asked Adam but he’s not at home just at the moment and these are due in the day after tomorrow.”

Joe stared at his father, anxiety flaring up on the instant as he remembered the unease he’d felt all day, “Where is he?”

“Easy Joe, your brother is entitled to leave the ranch on his own business. He had to go and see a friend, be back in a day or so but maybe not in time for this.”

Joe knew that Carole and the children were unwell and he felt his brother was wrong in taking off. Not fully fit he spoke out impetuously, “He shouldn’t have gone. Carole’s not well he’s needed at home. The kids as well. Selfish.”

Ben was surprised at Joe criticising his eldest brother, normally Joe might say it to Adam but he wouldn’t speak against him to outsiders, not even their father. It just proved how run down Joe was and what good reasons Adam had to go. Ben said mildly, “Carole doesn’t feel that way Joe and it is their own business.”

Joe knew he’d spoken out of turn and he apologized, going over to pour a brandy, promising to finish the check by the following afternoon. Ben decided to leave before his son saw through his act and he was forced to either lie or tell Joe.

Nita had been surprised that Joe was so outspoken against his brother, although she had realised since their marriage that Joe didn’t always agree with Adam. He was always willing to argue with his eldest brother even though he lost more than he won. Now she couldn’t understand why he was staring into the fire looking so worried. She went over and cuddled close, “You can do those tax returns?”
Joe held her close, “Oh yes, that’s not what’s worrying me. Something’s wrong, I’ve known all day but I’ve been ignoring it.” He fell quiet staring into the fire trying to reach out to his eldest brother, but Adam was in a deep sleep and Joe couldn’t feel anything. He kissed Nita, “I’m alright my love but I need to talk to Hoss. I won’t be very long, you get to bed.”

Nita watched him go, she hadn’t got through to him maybe his big brother could. Sue was in bed and Johnny asleep so Hoss was sitting reading by the fire when Joe came in. Hoss was pleased to see his little brother but one look at his face warned Hoss that this was no social visit, something was very wrong. Hoss got to his feet and poured himself a brandy, offering Joe one. Joe shook his head and Hoss frowned, “Right spit it out little brother, something’s bothering you.”

Joe wouldn’t meet Hoss’ gaze, taking a chair he stared into the fire, “Adam isn’t at home off on some ploy of his own.” Joe didn’t say anymore wanting Hoss’ reaction. At first Hoss just stared at his brother but then he tossed off the rest of his brandy and poured another one. Joe knew then that Hoss had felt the same as he had, it wasn’t imagination, “He’s in trouble, hurt.”

“You don’t know that Joe.”

“Yes I do and so do you. I’ve known all day but ignored it because I thought he was at home with Carole. You have too haven’t you?”

Hoss nodded slowly, “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know Pa was almost evasive, just that he had to go and see a friend and would be back in a day or so.”

“What do you think is wrong?”

Joe bit his lip. “I don’t know, I can’t reach him now but earlier he was in pain, bad pain, and I didn’t pay any attention.”

Hoss gripped his shoulder, “Easy Joe, neither did I, and anyways if we don’t know where he is not a hell of a lot we can do.”

Joe looked up at his brother, “Pa must know, why hasn’t he gone?”

“Maybe he don’t know Adam’s in trouble. These feelings ain’t always predictable.”

Joe shook his head, “Not with Adam, sometimes you and I can reach either other better, but you know just how close Adam and Pa are.”

Hoss sipped his brandy not wanting to face the other alternative. Joe went and got himself one and put it into words, “If Pa knows Adam’s hurt and hasn’t gone to him, maybe it’s because Pa don’t know where he is either.”

Hoss fought against accepting that, “Adam wouldn’t go rushing off without telling anyone where he was going. If it had been you then maybe, but not Adam.”

“How else can you explain it?”

“I don’t know Joe but one thing’s real certain we ain’t gonna get any sleep until we’ve talked to Pa.” Hoss got to his feet, “I’ll just warn Kam Ling and then I’m going to see Pa.”

Joe nodded and headed back to tell Nita and fetch Cochise. Ben was still sitting by the fire when his two sons came in. He wasn’t particularly surprised knowing just how quickly all his sons drew the correct conclusion from meagre facts.

As they came over and sat down Hop sing brought fresh coffee and for a moment the three men sat in silence. Then Ben smiled faintly, “I was half expecting you two.”

“Where is he Pa?” Joe demanded.

“That’s the trouble Joseph, we have no idea. I imagine that you two have felt the same as Carole and I over the last day or so. He’s in trouble.”

Hoss nodded, “In pain, severe at times.”

Ben lent back in his chair, “I know Hoss but he can take pain, all too much practice. At least he’s alive.”

Joe impatiently said, “We can’t help him until we get to him. Why did he go off, when and most importantly where?”

Ben told them everything he knew, only holding back the fact that Adam had gone very specifically for his little brother but he did make it clear that the female in question could be a friend of anyone of them, not necessarily a particular friend of Adam’s. The telegram had come to Mr Cartwright and with things as they were at the ranch Adam might have felt he was the freest to go, both his brothers needed more, with wives and children ill.

His sons sat staring into space both trying to find some hint he’d missed, unable to accept that they knew their brother was hurt, in need of help and yet not to able to anything to take that help to him. Even with all the resources of the Ponderosa they couldn’t search the whole state of Nevada and for all they knew he could have left the state. He had had more than three days and his friends were spread widely, it was impossible and Joe got to his feet and went over to the window to stare out at the view that both he and his brother loved. Ben went over to his youngest son and gripped his shoulders, “Easy Joseph, he’s alive and you know Adam, he’s a survivor. He’ll bounce back.”

Joe turned, “There’s not a thing we can do is there Pa?”

Ben shook his head, “No and that’s the hardest part of all, we can only trust in Adam to look after himself and get home somehow. Look after Carole and the kids for him. He’s done it before when everyone has given him up for dead.”

Joe nodded and seeing how worried his father was he forced a smile, “As you say he’s alive and Adam can look after himself. He’ll be home in a few days. Talking of which I’d better get back to Nita.”

Hoss roused up at that, “Yeah, I think I’ll ride into town tomorrow see if Roy’s turned anything up or ....”

Ben thought it most unlikely that there would be any rumours in town and if Roy got anything he would let them know, but he could understand his big son’s need to do something so he just promised to keep an eye on Sue for him. All three men went to bed, knowing that they couldn’t help Adam by sitting around worrying. However it was far easier to go to bed than it was to sleep and all of them had very broken nights,

Adam hadn’t stirred all night and the long sleep had restored a little of his strength, easing the concussion so that he could at least see clearly when he finally awoke, provided he didn’t move too fast. On the other hand lying in one position for hours he had stiffened up so much that he could barely move. Every inch of his body felt bruised and sore and Adam eased himself up against the pillows and then sat staring out at the view of the pines Carrie had loved so much. If he didn’t want to join her he knew he had to do something to clean up his wounds before blood poisoning set in. He could already see one cut on his leg which was suppurating. The few medical supplies he had were on his saddle at the door and he held onto the bed, using it and the wall as he pulled himself over to the door. His right leg was the most important injury; he knew that he wouldn’t have either the physical or mental strength to put it back again if it slipped out. He sat down on the step and broke up some of the wood making up the steps in order to make a proper splint. He had pulled a blanket with him and using his knife cut it into strips so that he could strap his leg firmly once he had cleaned up the cuts as best he could. Eventually having done all he could to help his leg heal he lent back against the wall, sweat streaming off him, breathing in short gasps with everything swimming round him because of the pain but he felt strangely peaceful. He was confident his leg could now heal and although it might take time, with his leg better he would be able to get home. It was more than an hour before he could summon up enough energy to clean up the rest of his injuries, using brandy to wash them out and spreading some cream on the worst bruises, bandaging a couple of cuts that didn’t want to stop bleeding. In fact there was very little that he could do except wait for nature to heal him, on his own he couldn’t even strap his ribs up tightly enough to do any good and so he just ignored them. Eventually at the cost of considerable pain he had done all that he could and he crawled back onto the bed, only wanting to get away to that other world where he could forget his pain at least for a while.

At the Ponderosa, now that they had accepted that Adam was in trouble, Carole Ben and his
brothers were attuned to his every feeling. Joe had gone over to see Carole after breakfast before he could settle to the tax returns. Carole soon realised that he knew but was quick to pick up the one omission in the detail Ben had told his sons. She couldn’t help, despite wracking her brains she had no idea where her husband was. Then suddenly she felt Adam, felt his pain as he tended his leg and almost blindly she put down her coffee and went into the study, not wanting to upset the children. Joe felt it too, all too clearly, and he didn’t need any explanation. He followed her into the study and took her in his arms, “Easy Carole easy.”

“He’s in pain.”

“I know I can feel it too but he’s alive and he’s tough.”

“If only we knew where...”

“Yeah Big brother has paid heavily for acting impetuously for once in his life.”

Slowly Carole relaxed in Joe’s arms and although very conscious of Adam still, the only thing she could do to help him was to look after his children. Hearing Marie cry she pulled away and kissed Joe’s cheek, “Thank you Joe but I’m alright now and you still have a ranch to run.”

“You know where I am if you need anything.”

“Of course and I will ask but he will be home. I know that.”

Meanwhile Hoss had found rather more than he had bargained for in town. Certainly there were plenty of rumours flying around about Adam. It had very quickly spread round that he was missing and that the sheriff, on behalf of the Cartwrights, was trying to find out where he was. The Cartwrights would always be news even if Dan didn’t actually print it. The store owners who had overheard his flippant remark about knight errant hadn’t kept that juicy morsel to themselves. Virtually the whole town had put the same interpretation on it. Adam, after several years of marriage, had thrown off the reins and was shacked up somewhere with some woman. In that rough masculine town few of them blamed him, on the whole the attitude was good luck to him with just a tinge of malicious delight, the saint had clay feet. Noone understood why his family was fussing about him. Adam was having a fling but he would be back in his own time, ready to settle down to his responsibilities again. Hoss picked up hints of the way people were thinking from the Bank, from Jim Fair and from the stockbrokers. None of them were willing to tell him out right the general reading of events, which they all agreed with, a mixture of tact and fear of angering the big man.

Eventually Hoss went into the Bucket O’Blood for a beer, not wanting to talk to anyone for a while. Don McBride left him to sip his beer in peace but as Hoss finished up he seemed to have relaxed and Don came over, “Hope your brother’s having fun.”

“What do you mean?” Hoss asked angrily.

Don industriously concentrated on wiping the bar, “Hell Hoss I don’t mean no harm, just what everyone’s saying. Adam’s taken off for a few days, a bit of fun with some girl after all a wife and four kids under five, a man needs a break sometime.”

“How do you know Don?”

“Rumour spreads you know. Old Timson from the Mercantile heard Adam saying he was off to play knight errant.” Don tried a sickly smile, “You gotta have a beautiful lady to be one of them knight errants.”

Hoss sighed, “Yeah sure you have Don.”

“Real sorry Hoss just what everyone’s saying. Most reckon good luck to him. He’s earnt a fling and he’ll be back when he’s ready.”

Hoss nodded, knowing no denial he could make would have any effect. Virginia City had made up its mind and he supposed from their point of view it made sense. They couldn’t, as he did, feel his brother’s pain. He had had enough of town, just wanting to get to home but he had to check with Roy first and he headed down to the jail.

Roy was just about to go over to the Palace and although he had no news for Hoss, he suggested they checked with Dan, if anything was being said he would know.

Hoss said bitterly, “I know exactly what’s being said, that he’s shacked up with some beautiful girl and we shouldn’t be fussing.”

Roy frowned, “I suppose it isn’t possible?”
“What you too Roy? Don’t you know him better than that? Anyways he’s hurt, in pain. We all know that. I don’t know how these feelings work but I know they do.”

“Sorry Hoss.” Roy led the way over to join Dan but he hadn’t picked up any useful hints, plenty of rumours but nothing to help. Hoss only stayed a couple of minutes and then rode home. Ben was at his house and as Hoss came in he recognized the anger in his son, “Whatever’s wrong Hoss?”

Hoss poured himself a brandy and then sat down by the fire and told his wife and father exactly how Virginia City was reading events. Sue was furious but to Hoss’ surprise his father barely reacted. “It ain’t fair Pa.”

“Easy Hoss, it was probably inevitable. They are just judging Adam by their own standards. We know that it isn’t true and if she should find out so will Carole. Unless it hurts her it really isn’t important, the kids are too young to understand and Carole knows him far too well.”

Hoss slowly relaxed, his father was right, they’d lived with gossip before and doubtless would again. Ben went on “The only important thing is finding him and we still don’t know where to start.” He got to his feet, “I’d better check with Carole and then get on home. Don’t worry too much, your brother is tough.”

Adam had slept for five or so hours and when he awoke he was very thirsty. He finished the last of the water in his canteen and then knew it was time he took stock of his position. He was thinking more clearly than he had since the accident, his fever down a little at least for the moment. He knew that, barring a miracle he was on his own. His family hadn’t any idea where he’d gone and up in the mountains it might be months before anyone came by the cabin. It would be several weeks before his leg had recovered sufficiently for him to walk any distance, so for now he was stuck at the cabin. That thought reminded him of his black stallion, he couldn’t walk but maybe in a few days he could ride, at least as far as the nearest town. He remembered that Blackie had been hurt too but he didn’t know how badly. Maybe the most urgent job was to check his stallion. He noticed a bottle of horse liniment up on the shelf and limped over to get it. His leg wouldn’t take his weight; every time he put the slightest pressure on it shafts of pain went through him. He reached the shelf by dint of holding onto the wall and the furniture but he couldn’t help moaning and he was dripping with sweat from his efforts by the time he did so. Slowly Adam got a grip on himself and lifted down the bottle but one thing was obvious he needed an efficient crutch before he did more damage to himself. He had his knife and he could see a hammer and some nails in the cupboard. He levered off the long timber at the end of the cupboard, it was near enough the right length by the time he had fixed some wood from the wood box to the top and padded it. The job took him a long time, he was so weak that he kept having to rest but finally the job was done.

His fever had risen sharply as he forced himself to act but he couldn’t rest yet. He was desperately thirsty and there was no water in the cabin. The lake the only source of water was some fifty yards away. While he had been nursing Carrie, it had seemed the most minor of inconveniences but now it was a major obstacle and for a moment Adam looked at it in near despair. “Must have water. One step at a time. Joe made five miles, I can.” Adam murmured to himself not even realising he was speaking aloud, remembering how his little brother had saved his life once by walking for miles with a bullet in his leg to get a search party out after his brother, when they’d been ambushed. Slowly leaning heavily on his crutch Adam made his way over to the Lake. He had two canteens, he’d have liked to fill a bucket but knew that there was noway that he could carry it. He was about halfway there when his stallion whinnied and came over to see his master; Adam rested his aching head against his horse’s neck and then half leaning on Blackie he made it over to the water. He slaked his thirst, tying a wet bandana round his neck to cool himself and then filled the canteens. Unable to face the walk back yet he called Blackie closer and began to feel the horse’s damaged leg. It was very bruised and swollen and there was very little that Adam could do. The embrocation back at the cabin might help a little but Adam was realist enough to know that it would be the best part of three weeks before the horse could carry him any distance Adam was close to breaking down at the thought, he felt so desperately alone, hurt and in pain he wanted someone to help him. Preferably his wife or family but any other human being would have done, for the moment he didn’t even have the strength to keep himself fed. For a minute he was close to giving up, why bother fighting it would only postpone the inevitable end, he couldn’t make it.

That feeling of despair, even more than his pain had the ability to cross miles and each of his family in their own ways were aware of him. Carole tried with every scrap of concentration to reassure her husband, tell him to hang on, and in their own way Ben, Hoss and Joe sent the same message, “Hold on, you can make it, you must we need you.” Adam lying by the lake in despair was suddenly aware of them, even drowning out his pain momentarily. He couldn’t just give up he had a wife, kids and a family who loved and needed him. If it meant looking after himself for a few weeks then he would do it. He had plenty of water, at least some food and cover, he’d make it. With renewed determination Adam took his canteens and his crutch and with Blackie’s help made it back to the cabin. He would dearly have loved to slide back into sleep but he had to see to his horse and somehow he found the strength to do what little he could for Blackie’s leg and back. Then leaving the horse to forage for himself, sure that he wouldn’t roam far, Adam turned his attention to getting some food for himself. He wasn’t hungry and couldn’t really be bothered but common sense told him he must have food. He was very weak and he hadn’t eaten since Sunday, he’d get worse if he didn’t eat. He opened a tin and forced down some cold beans, not able to face cooking. Then after a long drink, he finally gave in to the lure of oblivion and settled back on the bed.

At the Ponderosa they had been all too aware of his despair but equally they were aware of his renewed determination and with the feeling that Adam was in control, all four relaxed a little and tired out even managed to get some sleep.

The next day Ben had to take the tax return into town and he had to ask Joe to go down to Carson City to the mine. The next coinage run was due and one of them had to be there, Hoss was going up to the sawmill. Whatever their feelings the work of the ranch had to go on, particularly as there was nothing that they could do to help Adam. In fact Joe was quite happy to go to Carson, it was another place where Adam might have been and it would give him a chance to ask around, maybe pick up a hint. The baby was fine now so he didn’t mind leaving Nita. On the ride down, thinking of all the friends they had down the Carson valley it seemed quite possible that Adam had come this way and Joe was relatively optimistic. He had deliberately left home early to give himself time to ask around but long before he had to go to the Mint, he had realised that he was wasting his time. Certainly word of Adam’s absence had spread from Virginia City but Joe only picked up variants of the rumours Hoss had found. Ben had warned him of those at breakfast so he wasn’t too surprised and managed to hold onto his temper, albeit only just. In the end he was glad to head for the Mint just wanting to finish up and get home. Wherever Adam had gone, it wasn’t to Carson City.
Ben had shut himself up in a shell, he carried out the business he had to do, paid the taxes, dealt with some routine work at Marye’s and handled several queries at their Bank of Nevada. He was so remote that noone made any comment about his son to him. Even Jim Fair was quiet, John McKay kicked his partner under the table to warn him to keep his mouth shut. Ben knew that Roy and Dan would have told him if they had anything to help and since he had completed his business he just wanted to get home.

On the way home Ben rode up by the Lake needing the serenity of their church and wasn’t particularly surprised to see his youngest son’s pint. He stroked Cochise, “Where is he then?” Joe heard his father’s voice and appeared from the point, “Hi Pa.”

Ben considered him, “You didn’t find anything at Carson?”

“No, just the same stories that Hoss picked up. I had a job to keep my temper.”

“Natural enough and they don’t matter.”

“I feel so helpless. He’s out there somewhere, in pain, needing us and we can’t get to him.”

Ben slowly walked up to the point with his son, “Easy Joe. I know he’s in pain, but he’s coping. Whatever is wrong he has it under control. He’ll heal, make his way home.” Ben was surprised himself at how confident he felt that what he’d said was true. Joe stopped and forced his father to face him, studying his face intently, but the confidence he’d heard in his father’s voice wasn’t forced it was there in his eyes too. Joe accepted it and slowly relaxed, “Come on Pa, its cold here. Let’s go back and see if Carole needs anything, scrounge some coffee.”

Ben could see that his son had accepted what he had said and that helped too. He knew how close his sons were and Joe hadn’t felt anything from his brother which proved his father wrong. They rode back down, still very worried but somehow confident that it would pass and Adam would come home. Carole read that confidence in the two men and it helped her to keep calm but she knew that she’d have no real peace until her husband was back, safe in her arms.

Ben went straight home but Joe stopped by Hoss’ first. Sue was by the fire and looked up eagerly as Joe called out, “Joe come on in, is there any news?”

Joe went over and kissed her forehead, knowing Sue like Nita was as worried about his brother as he was. “Not really Sue, we still have no idea where he is.”

Hoss came in from the kitchen and considered his little brother, “There’s something Joe, you ain’t as worried as you were.”

“I came home via the Lake. Pa was up there too.”

“Not surprising I came back that way myself. Explain.”

Joe moved over to warm his hands by the fire, not wanting to face them, “Pa said....” he broke off and Hoss went over to grip his brother’s shoulders, “Go on Joe.”

“Pa admitted Adam’s hurt and in pain but said that he’s in control. Whatever’s wrong he can cope and he’ll be back as soon as he can.” Joe pulled away and turned to face his brother, not even aware of Sue, “He’s right Hoss. Yesterday afternoon Adam was on the verge of giving up but he’s got back into control and today, well he’s still in pain but there’s not the despair.”

Hoss studied Joe’s face and then he turned away “I’m not sure Joe.” He had been very aware of his brother’s pain all day with far too much time to think and feel as he rode up to the sawmill. Joe followed Hoss over to the window and gently touched his brother’s arm, “Look I’m not claiming that everything is alright. I know he’s in pain, alone I think and he must feel very cut off on his own and having to look after himself, but you see he’s managing. He knows we’re thinking of him, praying for him and he understands why we aren’t there. It’ll take time for him to come home but he will, I’m sure.”

Hoss moved and gripped Joe’s arms as his brother fell quiet. It was almost as though Joe had been talking to Adam as well as to his big brother and insensibly Hoss was calmed by Joe’s confidence. It made no sense but Hoss had a feeling that Adam could hear them and agreed with all Joe had said, “Okay brother I believe you.” Joe could see Hoss wasn’t just saying it and he went back to Nita’s feeling more content than he’d expected.

Adam had slept late, but when he finally woke he felt the benefit of it, his fever was down and although very stiff and sore he was much more in control, both of himself and his circumstances. With the aid of his crutch he checked around the cabin finding out exactly what stores he had available and even managed to cook himself a hot meal. It was the last of the bacon that he’d brought with him, the last of the meat, but he put off worrying about that until the next day. For now the hot food seemed to give him a little strength and he managed to tend Blackie but as the hours slowly passed so his temperature began to rise and Adam retreated to bed. His side was very painful and he felt very lonely but all that could be lived through and eventually he’d get home and forget it. Eventually he slept but his rest was disturbed by nightmares a feeling of abandonment, of desolation and he didn’t get much benefit from it. He was awake early but there didn’t seem anything to get up for and already sore he didn’t want to invite the extra pain movement entailed. With pain, fever and insufficient food he was weakening and he felt worse than he had the previous day.
He knew that it was entirely his own fault that noone knew where he was, but even so he found himself blaming his family. They should come to help him as he had so often gone to each of them. Thoroughly miserable he sank for a while into a trough of self pity, almost ready to give up, the effort involved in looking after himself too much to make. It was the fourth day since his accident and the time before he could hope to contact anyone stretched interminably ahead. He didn’t have much in the way of food but he wouldn’t stave to death in a couple of weeks and there was some flour, beans and tomatoes. Adam lay staring out at the pine trees close to despair again, feeling weak, ill, abandoned.

Ben trying to clear some paperwork felt his son’s despair as did Joe Hoss and Carole. All four tried to encourage him, to send back reassurances but Ben and Carole were too scared, wondering what this renewed despair meant, was he worse hurt than they had thought initially? Joe kept the calmest, he’d been so sure yesterday that Adam would be fine that he didn’t lose that certainty. He could understand how at times his brother would know despair trying to look after himself but Adam had to keep trying. Of them all it was Joe’s face which came into Adam’s mind, his little brother’s voice that he could hear. “Easy Adam we do understand, it’s tough to be ill and on your own but you have to keep trying. It will pass and you can make it home. Just keep fighting we need you.”

Adam could hear his brother as clearly as if Joe was in the same room and for a moment he looked around almost expecting to see Joe but he was still alone. Eventually Adam gave way to the tears which had been threatening all morning, tears of pain and loneliness. Slowly he calmed down having let out some of the tension and he did feel better. Anyway Joe was right and all the time his family could reach him like that he wasn’t really alone. Slowly he got control and after a while he forced himself to get up and go and set some traps. It did cost him pain to do it but he could almost ignore it, he was doing something constructive towards his eventual return home. If he caught meat he’d be able to build up his strength instead of slowly weakening.

Over the next days Adam often had moments of frustration, of fierce anger at himself or at the circumstances which had trapped him at the cabin, of bitter loneliness and at times severe pain and fear, but never again the utter despair. He was conscious of Carole and his father, sometimes his brothers and knew that they were all thinking of him, praying for him and worrying about him but never again did he hear them so clearly as he’d heard Joe. Slowly as his injuries began to heal he didn’t get so feverish although sometimes it seemed they were more painful now that they were healing than they had been initially but Adam could see a steady improvement. His leg had settled down to a dull ache unless he put weight on it and his side was slowly easing. The days seemed very long with no books and not able to do anything physical so he had all too much time to think and most of his thoughts weren’t particularly pleasant, often berating himself for acting so impetuously. The trap line wasn’t particularly productive and although he kept his gun handy, he’d only once got a shot at anything. Then frustratingly the duck he shot fell far out of his reach into the lake. He had caught a few rabbits to eke out his meagre supplies and once a blue grouse which did help. Even so he wasn’t really gaining strength and still felt weak and ill. Everyday he tended Blackie but he’d had to reckon on three weeks before he could leave and rationed his food accordingly. Slowly each day blended into the next and the last and Adam wasn’t at all sure how long he’d been there or what day it was. He’d slipped into a state of lethargy, not allowing himself to think, sleeping late, doing the few useful chores that he could and then just waiting for the time to sleep again. At least his physical weakness allowed him to sleep between 12 and 14 hours every night although as his sleep was punctuated by nightmares it didn’t give him that much benefit.

At the Ponderosa as the days went by each in turn had to accept that there was nothing they could do but wait for Adam to find his own way home. Joe was the first to accept it and spent long hours trying to persuade the others that everything would work out fine. Perhaps the person he had the least success with was his own wife. She couldn’t understand how they could just sit and wait, in her heart she wasn’t at all sure that Adam was still alive, although Carole and the men didn’t seem to think that was even arguable. Joe seemed far too relaxed as her imagination persisted in drawing fatal scenarios.

By the Sunday a week after his accident all of them had had to admit that the only person who could help Adam was himself and they had settled on their own ways to fill the waiting time. Ben and Joe concentrated on work and the paperwork and forward planning for the ranch was rapidly getting further ahead than it ever had been. Hoss took to long rides checking every line cabin, every part of their far flung operation before the spring start, not admitting even to himself his faint hope of coming across Adam by accident. He didn’t do so but riding home most nights he was physically tired enough to sleep. The three women buried themselves in the children. Carole with four young children found the days relatively easy but the nights were far worse. She clung to her feeling that Adam was there, his pain easing slowly and therefore her efficient husband was quite capable of looking after himself and eventually making it home.

Jess dropped by one day to see Carole, feeling guilty for not pressing Adam to find out where he intended going. He knew that he would have been told if Adam was back or even if there was any definite news but he had been to town and heard the rumours. He knew his friend too well, they couldn’t possibly be true. Once he’d arrived at Adam’s house Jess didn’t really know what to say. He hoped that Carole didn’t know about the gossip and had no intentions of bringing it up and with the other Cartwrights around she had all the help she could need.
Carole could read him very clearly; she had grown very fond of Adam’s friend. “I’m glad you came by Jess, It isn’t your fault anymore than it’s mine you know.”

“I should have found out where he was going.”

“If Adam didn’t want to say there no way you could have found out.”

“It wasn’t even as though he was trying to be secretive.” Jess frowned as he tried to put it into words, “More that it involved someone I didn’t know and the story behind it was too long or irrelevant to bother me with.”

That made a lot of sense to Carole but while she had Jess there she decided to find out just what rumours were doing the rounds. She had picked up one or two comments from the hands and had a fair idea but didn’t want to force her family to talk, knowing how protective they were. She poured coffee, “Jess will you be honest with me?”

Jess frowned wondering what was coming and she went on, “I want to know what they are saying in town. I think I have the right to know. They think Adam has found someone else don’t they?”

Jess stared into his cup, wishing the ground would swallow him and Carole took his hand, “Please Jess. The Cartwrights won’t say anything/ I’m sorry to embarrass you but I need to know.”

“It’s not true Carole.”

She smiled “I do know that Jess, I know him very well, but for his sake I have to know. When he comes home he’ll have to be warned.”

Jess gave way and told her briefly, emphasizing that even though everyone had jumped to the worst conclusion they still took it for granted that Adam would return to her and the ranch, just sowing a few belated wild oats. Carole wasn’t surprised it was about what she’d expected and she thanked Jess for telling her.

Jess finished his coffee but he couldn’t resist one question, “Are you sure that he will be able to come back?”

Carole smiled, “Very sure. He’s alive. I know that and so does his father and brothers. Don’t ask me how I know because I can’t explain but we know. Whatever was wrong he’s recovering, slowly, but he’s getting better. He was in severe pain but he’s not now. I’d guess Blackie was hurt too or he’d have sent Blackie home but I don’t know for sure. I do know that as soon as he’s fit enough he’ll come home or at least get somewhere he can send a message.”

Jess had seen examples of the uncanny communication between the Cartwrights too often to discount it, even if he couldn’t quite believe it and her certainty did help. He left a little later with her promise to let him know as soon as there was any news.

Carole kept hold of her belief most of the time but on the Friday, two weeks after she had seen him off to town she came close to losing it. Ben came round in the evening, as he had practically every night since his son disappeared, to find her very withdrawn, answering him in monosyllables. He was as content about Adam, as he could be with his continuing absence, sure that his son was coping, no longer in bad pain, but for once Carole couldn’t trust in her father-in-law’s certainty. It was two weeks since anyone had seen him and maybe they were fooling themselves, believing that he was alive because they couldn’t face the thought of his death. She was quite calm just very despondent and Ben couldn’t break through the shell she had put up, a shell which remained over the next days as though she couldn’t let herself feel. Ben remembered for the first time in years her reputation as an ice-cold statue not a woman when she first came. None of the family did any better than Ben at getting through to her and she was only herself when she was alone with her children, Adam’s children.

Adam was slowly improving, he could limp around quite well now, although still using his crutch, not daring to risk further damage. As his bruises eased and he became less stiff and sore with his leg beginning to take his weight, his increased mobility led to more success in hunting. He got another couple of ducks, several rabbits and once a snake so he was able to eat hot meals of meat which improved his strength so that he could try a little further afield. Blackie was still limping but he was improving too and Adam’s spirits improved with his returning strength. He had managed for two weeks while feeling weak and ill, another week wouldn’t be a problem and then with luck he could head home. For now he wasn’t taking any risks staying with the security of the cabin, knowing that neither he nor his stallion were up to travelling far or fast.

Neither Sue nor Nita could accept that Adam would return, much though they wanted to believe it and as the days slowly passed each came to feel he must be dead or he’d be back. Both women knew him too well to even consider the explanation accepted in town. Neither would worry their husbands, knowing just how important Adam was to his brothers, but when they were on their own, Nita couldn’t resist asking Sue what she thought. It was more than two weeks since Adam had been seen and Ben and Joe had ridden into town early on that Monday to carry out some routine business. The two women had their babies down on the rug by the fire in Nita’s house. Each had been over to see Carole but then left her alone as she obviously wanted. Hoss had ridden off to the mine, still finding himself work to do. Sue bent down to Johnny to give herself time before answering Nita’s question. Eventually she sat back, “Hoss believes his brother will be back.”

“That’s not what I asked. Joe does too and Pa I think. I’m not so sure about Carole anymore, but what about you?”

“It’s been a long time, no word at all and Adam wouldn’t just go off and leave us worrying. If he’s not in contact, it’s because he can’t.”

“I think he’s dead.” Nita said almost defiantly, a sense of relief at being able to put it into words. “If he wasn’t he’d be home.”

Sue considered her, “I hope you’re wrong. I admit it’s possible it has been a long time, but this is a wild land and Adam has friends everywhere.”

“They’d have sent word.”

“Maybe not, if it was the Paiutes for instance. Adam has friends amongst them but maybe they would be too wary to get in touch. And then there’s the men’s reaction, they all seem so sure he’ll be back. Hoss just quotes other times when everyone has given up on him and he’s bounced back, says Adam is indestructible.”

“They want to believe that. I know Adam’s done some incredible things, survived when most people would have died but even his luck has to run out eventually and I can’t help being scared that the time has come. The worst part may be that we will never know for sure and I’m not sure what that will do to Joe and the others.”

As Sue had been facing the same thought she couldn’t argue and gladly went to her son who needed a clean diaper. Neither woman reverted to the discussion but both were in their own ways beginning to mourn the brother who had come to mean so much to them.

Meanwhile Adam was slowly recovering and beginning to make plans to head home, not realising just how many rumours were flying around his absent head, nor how far afield they had reached. To get home he needed to either walk or ride, probably some combination, a long way and he was slowly beginning to do some exercises to try and strengthen his leg in particular. It was still very painful and he protested at even the mild exercise he tried but Adam didn’t dare leave the safety of the cabin until he’d at least some faith in his own ability to make a mile or two at a time. Blackie was slowly recovering, not limping now but still a hesitancy in his gait as he favoured his leg, even without the burden of a rider. Adam was impatient but he knew he had to wait a while longer. He wanted to get home; very bored and knowing that he was worrying his family although he was confident they must know he was alive. He knew that he’d been very lucky to survive, he could so easily have been trapped unable to free himself and he wasn’t going to push his luck. So much as he hated the delay Adam accepted it as inevitable and waited with as much patience as he could muster for Blackie to recover and his own leg to strengthen. His birthday was on the following Sunday and irrational though he knew it was, Adam was determined to be home for it, his wife and family the only present he wanted.

As the days went by so slowly Carole retreated further and further into her shell, not willing to admit even to herself that there was any doubt about Adam’s return and yet no longer able to reach him, losing her certainty that he was alive. The only ones she reacted to were her children and seemed almost glad when the rest of the family went away and left her alone. She couldn’t keep up an act, scared she’d lost Adam and yet paradoxically feeling she was betraying him by her failure to keep up the act.

Hoss was very aware of his own wife’s doubts and seeing Carole become more and more morose, he was very worried with his brother out of contact for so long. He was finding it ever more difficult to sense Adam and the only thing sustaining his continued belief that everything would be alright was the certainty exhibited by Ben and Joe. Even they were finding it more difficult to reach Adam but there was no real impression of pain or despair, just a muted feeling as though he was waiting, conserving his strength.

As another week slipped past with no news even Ben became very restless and the Thursday night three weeks since his son had been seen he couldn’t settle and rode up to the Lake. He spent a while tidying the graves, remembering times in the past when he had lived with this same fear, not knowing where his eldest son was, no real proof that he was even alive. Once when Adam was kidnapped** it was more than six weeks before he returned, six terrible weeks when everyone had assumed Adam was dead apart from his sons and José. Then as now he had spent time by the Lake, so scared that his feeling that Adam lived was no more than wishful thinking and had had to face the thought that he might never know what had become of his son, not even a body to bury and mourn. Then he had remembered the time when Adam lost his memory and hadn’t come home but this time Ben discounted that possibility, Adam had reached out to his family, all of them had felt him calling to them. Ben found it more and more difficult to feel any contact from his son and was desperately worried that far from recovering Adam was slowly weakening, maybe unable to feed himself and despite his original survival, of which Ben was still certain, he was now going to die. Even the peace of the Lake failed to calm him and cold Ben wandered along the shore.
Alone of his family Joe remained optimistic and worried about Carole he left Nita reading once Adam was in bed and wandered over to see his sister-in-law. Carole was sitting in the study attempting with little success to lose herself in a book. The children were in bed and with even Anne sleeping through, the long hours until morning stretched interminably ahead. Despite that she would rather have been left alone and was barely welcoming to Joe as he came in. Joe recognized that but he couldn’t just leave her. He went over to the fireplace and stared at the painting of the Lake, “When Adam’s in the sort of mood you are, he always goes up to the Lake.”

“What are you trying to say Joe?”

“Just that you seem pretty despondent the last few days. I know it’s very hard just to wait and I know it’s been a long time but he will be home.”

Carole just stared at him, not sure what to say but doubt clear in her eyes. Joe went over and took her in his arms, feeling the tension, “Take it easy Carole, Adam will be back just as soon as he can, not long now. He’s getting better, nothing like the pain that there was.”

She bit her lip, “It’s his birthday on Sunday. I have some scores he wanted but now.....”

Joe held her closer, “I wouldn’t mind betting he’ll be home for his birthday. I even wrapped his present today all ready.”

Carole pulled away and looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears, “I can’t be sure not now. I was, but I can’t reach him anymore.”

“He’s alive I guarantee it. He’s waiting. I’m not sure why, maybe for something to heal and then he’ll come, soon now. I know the birthday present he’ll want.” Joe watched Carole closely seeing her fighting for control and gripped her shoulders, “A long time ago Carole you came to me up at the Lake and told me that it was time I cried for Marie. I needed it then and you do now. I know the strain you have been under and it will carry on for a little while longer. Don’t give up on him but just give way, let some of it go.” Joe kissed her forehead and Carole rested her aching head on his shoulder. The compassion in his voice was the last straw and she gave way to the tears which had been threatening for days. Joe picked her up and carried her over to the sofa settling down with her on his lap, glad to feel her slowly relax.

As she did so she felt Adam again, as though he in his turn had been aware of her despair and trying to reassure her. Through her tears she smiled at Joe and for the first time in days it wasn’t forced. Joe recognized that and gently kissed her cheek, “He’ll be home for his birthday, get a cake made for him.” Carole could believe that now and after days of insufficient sleep she found her eyelids drooping. Joe saw that, “Go get some sleep my sister.”

“I don’t know how to thank you Joe. I had almost given up. I was so tense I couldn’t reach him. Now I’m sure.”

“No need for thanks, just get some rest so that you’ll be beautiful for him when he comes.” Having packed Carole off to bed Joe went on home but he was very restless and once Nita was settled in bed, he rode out, feeling the need for some fresh air. He headed up to the Lake and wasn’t surprised to see Buck. Tying Cochise up next to his stable mate Joe went in search of his father. Ben turned as he heard Joe approach, tense for a moment, scared it was bad news but he relaxed as soon as he saw his son. Joe’s whole bearing was far too relaxed for it to be trouble. Joe joined him “Hi Pa I was restless too and it’s a lovely night.”

“Nearly the end of March.” Ben said and fell quiet. Joe knew exactly what his father was thinking, “I went by Carole’s earlier, told her she’d better make a cake for Sunday. Big brother will want his birthday presents, to be back with his family.”

Ben turned to study Joe, “You haven’t heard anything?”

“No not directly” Joe shrugged, “I don’t know how Pa but I’ll bet he’s home in the next two days.” He grinned. “Believe me Pa, I’m sure.”

Ben read the certainty in Joe’s eyes and he smiled, “Could be one heck of a party on Sunday young man.”

“It will Pa. It will.”

Adam had made up his mind that he was going home for his birthday, although still sore his leg would take his weight and the swelling had gone from Blackie’s leg. On the Thursday Adam tried saddling his stallion and although still rather bruised Blackie allowed his master to mount and they rode a mile or so. Adam went back to the spot where the accident had occurred. He shuddered as he looked at the tree which had trapped him, he’d been very lucky. After five minutes he turned away and rode his stallion back to the cabin for one last night, at least he prayed it was. He covered in minutes the route which had taken him long pain filled hours when he was first injured. At the cabin Adam slowly dismounted and unsaddled Blackie, waiting to see how the stallion reacted to the ride. Provided he had taken no real harm Adam was heading home in the morning. He intended travelling the most direct route, by the high country. It meant he couldn’t send word but the nearest telegraph was in Carson City and heading there would take almost as long as going home. Adam knew that neither he nor Blackie were up to pushing it and he planned on taking two days over the journey, but it should still get him home on Saturday, ready to celebrate his birthday the following day.

Adam checked Blackie before he settled to bed and was relieved to see there was no apparent reaction to the ride. He fell asleep more content than he’d been in weeks, tomorrow he could start for home and all the aches and pains from his first ride weren’t enough to mar that contentment. .He was awake quite early and spent a while packing up enough food for a couple of days and his bedroll, knowing that he’d have to sleep out at least one night. Then once again he took his leave of the cabin in the pinewoods and headed towards home.
Adam didn’t push his horse past a walk, they had a long way to go and he needed to conserve both his own and the stallion’s strength. After a couple of hours he stopped for lunch. At first he’d been so delighted to be heading home that he was able to ignore his aches and pains but by the time he stopped for lunch his leg was very sore again and his ribs were making it clear that although better they were nowhere near healed. The worst part of riding were the bruised and strained muscles in his groin which had been slowly improving but protested very strongly at this new exercise. Despite his own condition Adam was much more concerned about Blackie, it was the horse which was to get him home for his birthday, on foot it could take four or five days, He watered his stallion and checked him over carefully but so far Blackie seemed to have taken no harm from the ride.

Adam rested for an hour and then moved on, taking another break mid-afternoon. Finally just after six Adam pulled up by a river and made camp for the night, more than halfway home. He was very stiff and sore and it was a real effort to force down some food but he was buoyed up by the thought of seeing Carole and his children, to say nothing of his family, the following day. Blackie was feeding and wasn’t limping so Adam was confident that his stallion would take him home tomorrow. On that thought, tired out, still weakened by his injuries and being forced to tend himself, Adam curled up under his blanket and by eight he was fast asleep.

At the Ponderosa Carole retained her conviction that Joe was right and to Sue and Nita’s astonishment began the preparations for a birthday dinner for her errant husband.
Nita tried to get Joe to talk to Carole only to find him backing his sister all the way. Upset she said, “It’s cruel Joe, can’t you understand. Adam’s lying dead somewhere and you’re encouraging her to plan a birthday celebration. It’s macabre.”

Joe took Nita’s shoulders and forced her to face him, an expression she’d never seen before on his face. “Nita you must believe me. It’s not imagination and I’m not fooling myself. I know you don’t understand and I can’t really explain but sometimes irrespective of the miles in between I can feel my family. I can hear Adam as clearly as though he was in this room. He is on his way home now, He will be here tomorrow and I am as certain of that as I am that you are here next to me.”

“But Joe it doesn’t make sense, you can’t know.”

“I freely admit it doesn’t but its true Nita and over the years it’s become a fact of life that I’ve come to accept, often rely on. I don’t know how it works but I do know that it does and when I feel this sure, then I’m right.”

Nita considered him, it went against all commonsense but she could see her husband’s belief and she sighed, “I just don’t know, but I love Adam and I pray you are right.”

Adam was very stiff the following morning and found it hard to pull himself to his feet but he forced himself to move around and do a few exercises until the worst of the stiffness eased. Then he made himself coffee, using the very last of his coffee. He had been saving it but now seemed the right time, with any luck he would be home today and able to have all the coffee he wanted. He couldn’t face food and once he’d drunk his coffee he saddled up hopefully for the last time. He was so stiff he had to lead Blackie over to a fallen tree too use as a mounting block before he could swing aboard. Blackie seemed a little stiff too and although not actually limping there was a slight hesitation in his gait as they slowly walked on.

Adam recognized every tree, every step back on his own beloved Ponderosa but it was still early in the year and none of the hands were out and about round the ranch to any great extent so Adam didn’t see a soul as he slowly headed on home. Adam was very eager to get there and apart from watering his stallion he didn’t stop. Even so it was nearly three before he saw the road to the houses. He was in two minds, not sure whether to stop at the main house and see his father, clean up and send a message to Carole so that she wouldn’t get too big a shock, or whether to ride straight home. Eventually the stallion made his own mind up heading for his own stable and the lure of Carole and his children was too much for Adam. The urge to see them was so strong that it was an almost physical ache.

In fact all his family had congregated at Adam’s house, even the babies. None of them dared tempt fate by putting into words what they prayed for but all at least partly convinced by Joe’s certainty that his brother would be back that day. Carole knew why they had come, even if noone admitted it, but she had come to believe Joe and she welcomed them, the shell she’d hidden behind all week discarded again. With the women all busy with the youngest children, Hoss being bullied by the twins, while his father read Marie a story, Joe had taken the chance to go out for a breath of air. He was standing over by the corral looking up at the Sierra Nevada superb with their covering of snow, when he heard a horse approaching. Hardly daring to look despite his avowed certainty Joe turned slowly to see the most beautiful sight in the world, his brother was there. Dirty, thin and in some pain but Adam was home and Joe stared at him almost in awe. Then he moved swiftly over to take Blackie’s reins and help his brother down.

Adam was so stiff that he needed Joe’s support and for a moment the two brothers considered each other. Joe traced the signs of pain and long days of loneliness, while Adam saw the worry in his brother’s eyes. Then wordlessly Joe hugged his brother so very tight. He had been sure, proclaimed to all of them his certainty that his brother would be back that day, but he’d also been praying hard that he would be proved right and his prayers had been answered.

For a long moment the two brothers clung to each other and then Joe pulled away, murmuring “Welcome home brother.” and then he led the way in. Adam very stiff needed Joe’s supporting arm but that was forgotten as he went through the door. Carole came to her feet, Anne still in her arms and Adam forgot everything, let go of Joe and in three swift strides went to his wife and held her so close that Anne squealed her protest to the world.
Ben sat and just watched his eldest son, a warm feeling of peace settling on him, while Hoss grinning broadly hugged Sue. Nita was in tears, she’d tried to believe Joe but much as she wanted to her commonsense wouldn’t let her and now he was proved right, Joe went to her and she buried her face in his shoulder, “Thank God you were right.”

Joe kissed her gently but like everyone else his eyes were fixed on his brother. The twins and Marie pushed at their parents, none of them had really understood that he was missing, just away as he was so often, but they had picked up on the tension in their Mummy and the others and were very pleased to see Daddy. Adam was even more pleased to see them and ignoring his sore leg and ribs he went down on his left knee and pulled all three close. Over their heads he looked first at Hoss and Sue and then his father, “Sorry I worried you. It’s so good to be home.”

For a few minutes they could only stare at him tracing the signs of pain on his face as he placated his children but as he tried to struggle back to his feet Hoss moved swiftly to help. For a minute he hugged his brother and then helped Adam over to the nearest chair. Adam sank down into it and Ben suggested that they could all do with some coffee and a drink. Adam nodded but he considered each of his family, every one of them looked tired and had very obviously been under a strain but now they were all grinning with pleasure.

Adam was very glad of the coffee laced with brandy that Joe passed him but he suddenly remembered his horse, “Blackie, he needs feeding. His near fore was damaged I ought....”
Hoss interrupted him, gripping his shoulder, “You just take it easy brother. I’ll look after your horse. My God it’s good to have you back.” Hoss hurried out, quite glad of a few minutes on his own to get control as reaction set in.

Carole came over and perched on the arm of Adam’s chair needing physical contact to reassure herself that he really was home and Adam wasn’t exactly loathe to put his arm round his wife. He sat sipping his coffee, tired and sore but so content to be home.

All of them had a multitude of questions as to what had happened but they could wait, it was enough to see Adam sitting by his own fire, if not exactly fit, at least on the way to recovery.
It wasn’t until Hoss came back in that Adam roused himself, “I’m very sorry to worry you all. It took so long to get back and it was my own stupid fault. Going off without leaving word. I didn’t even realise I’d done it until I was trapped.”

Joe brought his brother a brandy, hearing the slight quiver in Adam’s voice as he remembered. Adam smiled at his brother but now he had to tell them where he’d been and Joe knew him too well not to guess the why. “Maybe you’d better get yourself one little brother.”

Joe looked at him suspiciously and for a moment the two brothers weren’t aware of anyone else in the room, “Just where did you go Adam?”

“To answer a call for help from an indomitable old lady Carrie Picket.”

Joe lost colour as he realised that Adam had gone in his stead and Ben knowing his son so well moved forward and gripped Joe’s shoulders, “Go on Adam.”

“I got a telegram in town, just asking for help. It was addressed to Mr Cartwright.”

Joe broke in, “We knew that and with the baby still not fit you decided to go for me.”

“You were needed here Joe.”

“Got hurt for me.” Joe went to turn away but Adam gripped his arm, “No Joe it wasn’t like that. A pure accident, could have happened anytime anywhere. Two minutes earlier or later and I’d have escaped it, just a matter of circumstance.”

Ben asked “Exactly what did happen? What did Carrie want? A very independent lady as I remember.”

“Sure Pa but she had run out of time. She was dying and she didn’t want to die alone.” Adam spoke to his brother, oblivious of the others, knowing that Joe had cared. “She was content to go, to join her Amos but she didn’t want to be alone. She wanted someone there, company and at the end, someone to put her in the ground next to her Amos and say a few words over her. So she sent for you. Many years little brother but she remembered, spoke of you as ‘My Joe’, spoke of the gentleness she’d found.”

Joe’s mind had gone back over the years to the cantankerous but brave old lady. He hadn’t known her for very long but within hours it had felt as though he’d known her forever, something in him had reacted to the old woodswoman with her love of the piney woods so like his own. Adam went on “I got there on the Saturday and I soon discovered why you found her so special. I wasn’t her Joe but she accepted me and it was as if she had completed the last job she needed to do in this life. She died the following day, three weeks ago tomorrow, very much at peace. She gave me her will before she died, all signed and notarized. She left everything to you Joe.”

Joe pulled away at that and went over to the window, with so many memories. None of the women really understood but they could find out later, for now what was puzzling them, Nita most of all, was how Adam had been hurt. As Hoss took Joe another brandy Nita asked, “If there wasn’t any trouble, how were you hurt?”

Adam smiled up at the blonde, seeing the concern so obvious on her face. “Pure bad luck Nita. I buried Carrie and closed up the cabin and then set out for home. I knew I’d gone dashing off without warning but I thought I’d be back early Monday morning, only a couple of days away.” He fell quiet and bit his lip as he saw again the tree falling and Carole took his hand and kissed him, just to reassure him that whatever had happened he was home and safe now. Adam relaxed, squeezing her hand, “Those woods had never been logged and a tree fell. A massive old Ponderosa pine. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’d barely realised what the noise was when it hit us. Blackie was knocked down and I was carried down a slope. I must have hit my head because it was dark when I came round. I was trapped, partly covered with debris, a great big branch across my legs, I couldn’t even feel them. It was only then I realised what a fool I’d been, not leaving even a hint of where I was going. I’m so sorry.”

Adam seemed to feel that that covered it but Joe came over, “You can’t stop there brother. How did you get free, what damage was there and where have you been?”

Adam realised that he’d have to fill in some of the details but a lot was a blur and some things he didn’t want to remember. He accepted another brandy from Hoss and staring into the fire, not wanting to catch anyone’s eye he said, “It took time but I got free. Blackie was still there, a badly bruised back and leg but he helped me limp back to the cabin. I had some food and she’d left some so I’ve been there ever since, waiting for Blackie to recover enough to ride home.”

Ben said, “How badly were you hurt Adam?”

Adam met his father’s gaze and knew he couldn’t lie to him, “Slight concussion, broken ribs, bruising .....”


“I dislocated my right knee I think. It’s better now but it wouldn’t take my weight for a while.”

Sue stared at him, “How did you get it back? Who did it? Couldn’t they have sent word?”

Hoss held his wife close, “No darling because he did it himself. It’s possible if you have the will power to ignore pain. What was the name of that old mountain men Adam, the one you told me about who did just that?”

Sue looked at Adam in amazement reading the truth of Hoss’ words on his face but she murmured, “It’s not possible.”

Adam smiled, “Anything is possible when you have as much reason to live as I do. I had to get under cover or die of exposure and as Hoss said I knew that it could be done, that man was Joseph Walker. I must admit I remembered him. Anyway it’s all in the past, all healing fine. I paid for my stupidity in riding off without telling anyone. I’m just so very sorry I worried all of you.”

Ben came over and gripped his eldest son’s shoulders, “That was the least important thing. We knew you were alive, just so sorry that knowing you were in pain we couldn’t help. Joe even knew that you’d be home today, in time for your birthday.”

Adam wasn’t particularly surprised but he took issue with one point, “You did help all of you. I could feel you urging me to carry on, praying for me.” He fell silent for a moment, “Just once I was ready to give up close to despair and I could hear Joe’s voice as clearly as if he was in the room. Telling me to fight that I could make it, that the pain would pass and I’d make it home, that you need me.” Joe remembered the occasion as clearly as Adam and he came over to Adam, their gazes locked, “Thank God you did Adam, welcome home brother.”

Ben just checked whether he ought to send for Doc but Adam reassured his father, he was recovering fine and didn’t need Paul. Then as it was obvious that Adam didn’t want to talk anymore at least not yet, Ben decided to leave his son alone with his wife. Hoss and Joe took the hint and headed home too. Adam was very tired but content and he grinned at his family. “You can stop worrying about me. I’m fine. Come back tomorrow afternoon and help me celebrate my birthday.”

Carole nodded her support, “Thanks to Joe I have even got his cake all ready.”

Sue and Nita both came over and kissed him before going so glad to have been proved wrong and to have him home. Both were horrified by the little he had said but in a way their husbands were even more so. They had felt his pain and seeing how thin and drawn he was their imaginations could provide the details that their brother would never reveal. Both knew the cabin even if they hadn’t seen it in years and knew how far the water supply was from the cabin. They could visualize his existence over the last weeks. Both couples talked far into the night but even then neither Hoss nor Joe did more than doze fitfully.

Carole and Adam barely talked about it; he was far more interested in his children and in what she had been doing. He slowly relaxed as the children played round him, his baby daughter in one arm and the other round Carole. He did need some help to get upstairs later and was very glad of a hot bath to ease his stiffness. Carole could see all too many signs of the damage done by the falling tree but didn’t fuss so very thankful that he had survived and come back to her. Later that night with the children all sleeping peacefully Adam proved to her that he’d taken no real harm and Carole slept late so very content after weeks of anxiety, her husband so peaceful next to her.