Summary: Jake Tattersall comes to the Ponderosa looking for revenge. Will his actions destroy the unity of the Cartwright family?
Rating: PG-13 for violence (15,140 words)
Adam Cartwright, eldest of the three sons of the owner of the Ponderosa ranch, was not in a good mood. It was early morning and he was leaving for the high ranges to the north to check on the herd there. He had already prepared his bedroll, and had loaded food for several days into his saddlebags.
He was in a bad mood because he did not believe that his trip was truly necessary. His father, Ben, had told him to go and look at the herd prior to selling it to the army quartermasters, but this was a job that could just as well be done by any of the experienced ranch hands. Adam felt that his father did not always appreciate him, did not always use his talents to the best effect, but took it for granted that some day he would take over the running of the ranch. He already assisted his father with the day-to-day business, and negotiated and finalised contracts, but then his father would send him out on jobs like this one, which Adam considered to be a waste of his time. He decided that when they were again both at home he would have it out with Ben. He had a few days to think about what he wanted to say, which was just as well as he knew there would be hard words said on both sides and Adam wanted to have his arguments well prepared beforehand.
He was crossing from the house to the barn when he heard the sound of horses approaching, he paused and looked up to see three riders coming towards the house. They pulled up in front of Adam and sat looking expectantly at him.
“Can I help you?” he asked impatiently, frustrated with this interruption, and just wanting to get away and get the job over with.
The trio comprised an older man and two much younger, and it was the elder who replied, “I am looking for Ben Cartwright.”
Adam came to stand beside the man on his horse, but was looking towards the barn and thinking of his horse, Sport, waiting patiently for him. “He’s not here and won’t be back until tonight.”
“And who are you?” asked the older man. Looking down he saw a tall, dark haired, well-built young man dressed all in black.
“I’m Adam Cartwright, his son,” Adam stated, looking up at the man, not really concentrating, expecting these three to leave and, perhaps, return tomorrow. He just wanted to get rid of them and get away.
The man looked at Adam and could see the intelligence in the dark eyes. A new plan was forming in his mind, knowing this was the son of the man he was looking for. But he realised that he would have to be careful with this one, not give him an inch, or he could ruin everything.
Adam was aware that something in the man’s attitude had changed, though he could never be quite sure what it was that alerted him to the transformation. Adam took a step backward, as the man drew his gun and aimed straight at him.
“This gives me an idea,” he said sharply, “get his gun.” This last directed to the younger men, who dismounted and came round behind Adam.
The man holding the gun also dismounted, at the same time indicating that Adam should unbuckle his gun belt and hand it over. Adam slowly undid the belt and held it out towards the man who automatically reached forward, and as he did so Adam brought it round in a sweeping move that caught the gunman on the side of the head. Without waiting to see if he recovered Adam turned on the other two. He sent down the larger of the two young men with a blow driven partly by the impetus of his turn and partly by desperation, but this had allowed the third time to realise what was happening. He now faced Adam, who aimed a blow at the young man’s head but was off balance and the blow did not have the force behind it that would have taken him out. Instead the youth stepped forwards threatening to attack Adam, who stepped back preparing to defend himself, unaware that the older man had recovered, picked up a piece of fire wood from the stack on one side of the yard, and was coming up behind him. Adam felt a tremendous blow in the back and fell to his knees as he lost all strength in his legs. The youngster that Adam had knocked down came up in front of him and aimed a blow at his head. Adam collapsed to the ground and lay there dazed, knowing that he ought to get up, but before he was able to move the same youth kicked him hard, twice. Adam grunted as he felt several of his ribs crack and could only lie there waiting for what else might come.
“That’s enough. Save it for later,” ordered the older man.
It occurred to Adam to wonder what it was that these men wanted. They had come looking for his father but had seemed pleased when they found Adam instead. And ‘save it for later’ did not sound promising. What would have happened if his father had been here, would it have been better, or worse?
“Get up!” said the older man, who had retrieved his gun from where he had dropped it when Adam attacked him. He was the apparent leader of the trio, who could have been father and sons.
Adam groaned and moved his legs experimentally. It seemed that they were working so he got slowly to his knees, and then to his feet and stood swaying slightly, arms clasped tightly across his chest.
“What…what is it you want?” he said between painful breaths.
“Revenge,” stated the man, and Adam could detect a cold glint in the eyes, which were looking at him consideringly. “Get inside, now.”
Adam walked slowly into the house. In the large sitting room he turned to see the men enter behind him and look round.
“Is anyone else in the house?” the older man demanded, looking alert as if he expected someone else to appear in the room.
“No one,” Adam said reluctantly. “Are you going to tell me… what you want?” Breathing was still painful, and he was trying to take short, shallow breaths
The older man ignored him and looked around the room. He seemed satisfied and, while still covering Adam with his gun, went up the stairs to where they formed a half landing. “Tom, bring him over here. Jesse go get a rope.”
Tom, who was well muscled and with a constant look of belligerence, pulled his gun and, pointing it at Adam, indicated that he should move to a position below where the man was standing. There the stairs formed a low wall with the banister rail on the top of it. Adam thought about resisting but Tom was too far away so he went to stand with his back to the wall as Tom indicated. Meanwhile Jesse went outside and quickly returned with the rope and went up the stairs and gave it to the man, who cut a length off it.
“Put your hands up,” ordered Tom and Adam slowly complied. He went cold as he thought for a moment that Tom was going to shoot him, but then his wrists were held from above.
When he realised what was about to happen, and despite the pain from his ribs, Adam fought to get away, but Tom came up to him and jabbed the gun into his stomach and pulled back the hammer. Adam stopped struggling, he knew that if he jogged Tom’s hand the gun might go off, and there was no doubt it would kill him. He looked down at the gun and then at Tom, who stared back with a look of hatred that Adam could not understand. As far as he knew, he had never seen these men before and they had no call to hate him. Meanwhile he felt the rope being fastened round each of his wrists and soon found that he was tied securely and could not lower his arms. He looked up to see that the rope was wound round the banister rail and tied so that his hands were held just above his head, but two feet apart. In this position Adam could feel his broken ribs move with every breath.
The man came back down the stairs and stood facing him.
“When will your father be home?” he demanded.
Adam was feeling the effects of the battering he had taken since these men had appeared so he was not sure, but he thought that he had told them that his father would be back later that night. He had not been paying much attention to the conversation and it seemed that this man had forgotten too. His father appeared to play an important part in what was happening. They said they wanted revenge, but for what and against whom, Adam could only guess. Since it seemed to involve his father, Adam decided that it would be best if they didn’t know exactly when he would be home.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “it might not be until tomorrow.”
Tom came to stand in front of Adam. “When we arrived you said that he would be home tonight,” and with this Tom hit him with a blow to his stomach. Adam doubled over as far as the ropes holding his wrists would allow and tried to drag air into his lungs in shallow breaths, the pain in his side threatening to overwhelm him.
“So, shall we try again? When will your father be home?” the man demanded. Adam straightened up and looked hard at these men who had invaded his life, but his eyes did not want to focus, and his head was swimming.
“OK,” he said, forcing the words out between clenched teeth, “he’ll be back…tonight.”
“What time tonight?”
“I don’t know,” said Adam still trying to be as vague as possible, then he saw Tom clench his fists so he added, “Before dark.”
“Then all we have to do is wait.” And with that, the man stretched out on the large sofa opposite the fireplace. “Keep an eye on him,” he instructed the two young men, and he closed his eyes and gave every appearance of going to sleep.
Adam waited for his head to clear. He was thinking that this was his chance to influence both, or either, of the two youths and despite the discomfort in his ribs tried to make his voice calm and persuasive. He took a couple of steadying breaths. “Why do you have to do everything this man tells you, don’t you have minds of your own? Can’t you see that he is leading you into deep trouble?”
It was Jesse who turned to reply to Adam’s questions. “This man, as you call him, happens to be our father, and we do what he tells us, when he is right. He explains what he is going to do and he allows us to follow him or not as we choose, and this time he wants revenge and we decided he’s right. I’m sorry that you’ve got involved, but Pa’s determined to get some satisfaction.” Jesse was smaller than his brother in every way. Where Tom seemed to react instinctively to a situation, hitting out at anything that got in his way, Jesse was more thoughtful and at the moment seemed uncomfortable with the violence that they had brought to this house.
“But what is he going to do, why is he so determined to wait for my father, what do you want with him?” asked Adam, who was taken aback by the certainty of Jesse’s reply. Was this the kind of relationship that Adam wanted with his father? Was that why the reply had unsettled him? Did Ben explain his actions and then let the boys decide for themselves, or did he make decisions and expect them to follow him? Adam would usually follow where his father led, but what would happen if he didn’t?
Tom interrupted Adam’s train of thought. “He will explain all when the time is right, until then I suggest that you keep quiet, unless you want me to shut you up.” His fists were bunched, ready to strike out, and Adam decided he’d better stop trying to get any information from either man and wait for a more opportune time. He was concerned about what his father was going to walk into when he got home, but there seemed nothing he could do about it at the moment. Adam tried to relax to conserve his strength, which was not what it had been a while ago, and he said no more.
The house fell into a state of quiet expectancy. Adam was perplexed that only a few minutes ago he had been going to ride out to the herd, a quiet few days in prospect, time for thought and reflection, indeed that was the only good thing about the trip. He had been mad at his father and determined to sort out exactly where he stood with him. Now here he was, bruised and hurting, but he had absolutely no idea why. The invaders waiting for one man, Adam desperate to find a way to thwart them before that man appeared. But the pain from his ribs clouded his thinking and he could see no way to get these men to give up their plan, whatever it was. And all the time Adam was thinking about escape. He attempted to get his hands together so that he could free his wrists, but they were tied far enough apart so that, no matter how hard Adam tried, he could not get his hands close enough to reach the rope. He stopped straining and reconciled himself to wait for whatever was to come, but he was ready to take any opportunity that presented itself to get away.
The three men ate lunch, not offering anything to Adam, and spent the afternoon looking round the house, or talking together in quiet tones so that Adam could not hear what they were saying. Sometimes one of them would sit down in the living room if he found a book or other item that he was interested in. But all the time they ignored Adam, not replying if he spoke to them and not looking at him, ignoring his existence altogether. At one point Adam asked for a drink of water, but Jesse just stared at him and turned away.
Adam began to feel the strain of standing still for so long and his back ached where the man had hit him. He was also growing increasingly tired and hungry, but there was nothing he could do about either of those feelings. It was early evening when he heard hoof beats far off but coming nearer. His stomach turned over as he realised that his father was nearly home, now he would find out what this was all about, but he had a good idea that neither of them was going to find it pleasant.
Ben Cartwright had been to Carson City on business and was eager to get home and out of the saddle. It had been a long and not particularly successful trip. The buyers he had gone to see were not interested in paying the price he asked, and Ben knew the value of his cattle and was not going to lower his price too far just to make a sale.
Ben slowed his horse as he approached the house, dismounted and led it into the barn ready to put the horse to rest before he relaxed himself. It was getting dark outside but he did not bother lighting a lamp in the barn. He knew well the interior and led his horse unerringly into its stall. He was tired and not paying any attention to the darker reaches of the barn, so it was not until he had installed the horse and was preparing to leave the building that he looked round for a final check to see all settled for the night. It was then that he saw Adam’s horse in its stall, saddled and apparently ready to leave.
He started out of the barn ready to confront his eldest son about why he had not left for the high ranges hours ago, as they had arranged. It was a job which, Ben knew, Adam thought should be done by the ranch hands, but after a lengthy and heated discussion, they had agreed that Adam should go, and already he had wasted a day. Had Adam decided not to go, in defiance of his father? Then why had he left his horse saddled? No, Adam wouldn’t do that, he must have decided to leave later than they agreed. Adam was sometimes very strong willed, which Ben recognised as a valuable trait in the man he hoped would take over the running of the Ponderosa, but he had never openly defied his father in this way before. Ben had told Adam that he wanted him to look over the herd, and however much Adam did not want the job Ben expected to be obeyed by his sons, not unquestioningly, without thought, but because they respected his judgement. So he now walked towards the house expecting a confrontation with his eldest son, which he could well do without at this time of night.
It may have been because he was angry with Adam and only thinking about the coming argument, that he did not see the three horses standing quietly to one side of the yard. So he was unprepared for what he found as he opened the door. The scene before him stopped his heart for a moment and the blood drained from his face; it was so far from what he expected. The first thing he saw was Adam by the stairs with his hands tied, a man standing to one side of him with a gun pointed at his head, another man on the other side, his hand over Adam’s mouth and a gun rammed into his throat. Then he saw another, older man standing in front of the fireplace.
“What…?” Ben was speechless, totally disoriented by what he saw.
“Good evening,” said the man, “Ben Cartwright, I presume.”
“At last. We’ve been waiting for you since early this morning. Now we can get on.”
While the man was talking, the two younger men had stepped away from Adam’s side. Ben was looking at Adam and could tell that he was in pain. He went over to him. “Are you hurt?” Ben enquired anxiously.
“Just some cracked ribs,” Adam said calmly, “I’m all right.” He lowered his voice so that only Ben should hear him. “Be careful with that one,” he said nodding towards Tom, “he likes to use his fists.”
Ben rounded on the older man. “So, what do you want here?”
“My name is Jake Tattersall, my youngest son was Luke Tattersall.”
He said this as though he expected Ben to recognise the names, and it was clear from his reaction that he did.
“I’m sorry about your son but he brought it on himself. He was lucky to get away with five years, he would have been hanged if the teller had died.”
“Lucky, huh? They sent him to the state prison; do you know what that is like? It has the lowest of the low. Decent people can’t survive there. And Luke was decent and he could not survive. He died two weeks ago.”
“Decent people don’t rob banks. I’m sorry about Luke, but what do you want here?” Ben asked, but with a sinking feeling that he already knew the answer to that question.
“Revenge for Luke,” Jake said bitterly. He went to stand in front of Adam, who just stared back at him. Jake turned again to Ben “I came here to kill you but when we met your son I had a better idea. As I saw my youngest son suffer so I will make your son suffer, and you can watch as I had to watch.”
Ben listened with growing alarm. Adam looked shocked, but his chin went up in defiance and he looked towards his father. “Pa, don’t worry about me.” Suddenly he realised the implication of what he had heard. He looked straight into his father’s eyes willing him to understand; “Just because I’m your youngest son doesn’t mean that these people scare me.”
Ben looked at his son and a wave of emotion poured through him. He remembered his feelings as he walked towards the house a few minutes earlier, expecting a confrontation with a recalcitrant son who was only concerned with what he wanted to do. And here he was faced with that same son, who was reassuring his father that he could face whatever was to come. At the same time, Ben realised, Adam had thought about Little Joe and Hoss and what it would mean if these men found out that Ben had other, younger sons than Adam. Ben thought that he had never loved and respected Adam more than at that moment, and he did not contradict him.
“Brave words,” said Jake looking at Adam. It had just occurred to him to ask which son this was and now it seemed he had the answer, and even better, the answer he wanted. He would have been prepared to wait for Cartwright’s youngest son to appear but now he did not have to. It obviously did not strike him as strange that Ben’s youngest should be called Adam, a name usually given to a man’s first born. “But we’re not here to scare either of you. Its very simple really, I just want your father to appreciate what he did to my son, by watching it happen to you.” He pointed at Ben and spoke to Tom and Jesse, “Tie him to that chair.” He indicated a very solid looking chair behind the big desk in the office alcove.
Jake pulled out his gun and aimed it at Ben, who started to walk slowly towards the office. As he reached the corner of the desk, he turned unexpectedly and hit out at Jesse, who was following close behind him. Jesse hit the floor with a thud and Ben turned on Tom, ready to take him on as well.
“That’s enough,” shouted Jake. Ben looked up and saw Jake holding the gun to Adam’s head. “Unless you want me to finish him now you’ll sit down.” Ben hesitated, so Jake pulled back the hammer of the gun. “It’s your choice,” said Jake coldly. Ben, knowing that he had no choice, let go of the front of Tom’s shirt and turned back to the desk.
“Oh no, not so fast,” said Tom as he grasped Ben’s shoulder, turned him round, and hit him in the stomach. Ben doubled over, gasping, but then straightened as though ready to have another go at Tom.
“Pa, leave it, they’re not worth it.” Adam was concerned that his father should not be more hurt.
Jake pushed the gun harder against Adam’s head, and when he spoke, it was with a vicious tone in his voice and a malicious look in his eyes, “What do you mean, ‘not worth it’. You think you are so much better than us, don’t you? Well just think, I’m the one standing here with the gun and you’re the one who can do nothing about it.” With this, Jake hit him. Adam tasted blood and his hands bunched into fists as he strained against his bonds, wanting to fight back, but Jake was right, he could do nothing about it.
Jake turned back to Ben, “Now will you sit down?” Ben’s shoulders dropped and he went to sit in the chair behind the desk. “That’s better,” said Jake and handed the rope to Tom, who tied Ben’s wrists securely to the arms of the chair.
“Go make us something to eat,” Jake told Jesse. “You hungry?” he asked Ben, seeming to put aside Ben’s attack on Jesse and Tom.
“Are you giving Adam anything?” asked Ben who noticed that Adam had not been asked.
“No, Luke was always hungry. Every time I saw him he asked me to bring him food.”
“Then I don’t want anything.”
“Pa,” said Adam, “there’s no point in both of us going hungry.”
“Do you really think that I could sit here and eat in front of you when I know you must be starving? So no, thank you.”
“OK, your loss. Jesse, go get something.” Then Jake cocked his head in Adam’s direction. “Tom, now,” he ordered.
Ben could not for a moment think what this last referred to until Tom went over to Adam and hit him, hard, in the face. Adam’s knees buckled from the unexpected blow, and he took his whole weight on his wrists, jarring his ribs. He groaned and got slowly back to his feet, avoiding his father’s worried gaze. Adam was no lightweight, tall and strongly built as he was, and it felt as though he would pull his arms out of their sockets, and spring more than a few ribs when he collapsed. He was having trouble concentrating on anything other than the pain in his arms and chest, and now he could feel blood oozing from a cut on his cheek. He took a deep, careful breath.
“What…what was that for?” he asked, unable for the moment to think of anything that he or his father might have done to justify the blow.
“Oh, nothing in particular. Luke told me that the guards would beat the inmates just when they felt like it, and no one would stop them. The governor thought that it improved discipline if the prisoners were kept on their toes. So you will find that it happens any time, usually when you least expect it.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed and his wrists strained against the ropes holding him. “You bastards,” he said, his voice a mixture of anger and helplessness.
Adam was shocked to hear his father utter such words; he realised how deep were his feelings.
Eventually Jesse came out of the kitchen and the three of them sat down round the table and tucked in greedily to the meal the young man had prepared. Adam could not look at them; he was both hungry and thirsty, having had nothing since the morning. But, of course, these men were not concerned with his comfort. Ben looked intently at Adam trying to give him strength but unable to touch him, it hurt him deeply to see a son of his suffer like this. Adam raised his eyes and met his father’s gaze and smiled to reassure him, and nodded his head trying to convey that he understood that they must not give in to these men who were trying to destroy them.
Ben was feeling totally drained by his inability to help Adam. Jake had been describing to Ben some of the things that Luke had to endure in prison. The filthy conditions, the other inmates, the corrupt guards whom he had had to bribe for even the basic requirements. Occasionally Tom would go over to Adam and hit him, sometimes in the face, sometimes in the stomach, sometimes seeming purposefully to aim at his ribs. All of which was taking its toll on Adam’s strength, and Ben died a little inside every time they hurt his son.
It seemed to Adam that Jake’s attitude was changing with every passing hour. At first he would have said that Jake was very deliberate about what he intended to do, but as time went on he seemed to take greater pleasure in the suffering he was inflicting, both on Adam and on Ben.
Now he was standing in front of Ben describing how Luke had been stabbed in a fight in the jail. He was going into graphic detail of the fight and Luke’s injuries. With a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach Ben knew what would follow, and he was proved right as Jesse came out of the kitchen carrying a six-inch boning knife. Ben knew that Hop Sing, his cook and house keeper, kept all his equipment in excellent condition and he was under no illusion about the sharpness of his knives.
Adam could only stare at the knife in Jesse’s hand, his breath coming faster as he looked at the blade, which seemed to occupy his vision totally. He could see nothing else. He knew what was going to happen but could do nothing to prevent it. He had been stabbed once before but that had been in the heat of a fight and it was more as if he had been punched than stabbed, indeed it was not until afterwards that he had realised he was bleeding from the wound. But this man was doing it in cold blood and Adam could only stand and wait for it.
As Jake approached, Adam kicked out in frustration and caught him a heavy blow on the thigh. Tom stepped forward and hit Adam twice, once on the side of the head and once in the gut. Adam doubled over but he could not ease the pain, nor the worry that eventually Tom was going to do permanent damage to his already injured ribs.
“Do that again and your father gets it instead. It’s up to you.”
Adam realised that he and his father were powerless all the time these men could play one of them off against the other. Neither wanted to see the other hurt.
“All right,” he gasped, trying to get air into his lungs, while at the same time trying to move his ribs as little as possible, “don’t… touch… my father.”
Jake approached Adam again and stood in front of him, considering. It seemed as though he might be trying to decide where to strike, or it could have been that he was just trying to prolong the agony of waiting. Adam’s heart was pounding in his chest in expectation of what was to come. Jake seemed to be taking great pleasure in Adam’s discomfort, a small smile catching at the corners of his mouth. Suddenly he drove the knife, almost up to the handle, into Adam’s left thigh.
Ben shouted “NO!” horrified by what he was seeing.
Adam cried out and collapsed as Jake withdrew the knife. As he hung there, he felt a sharp shiver of pain go through his body, though his left leg had gone completely numb. Adam knew that soon the pain would come, but in the meantime, he was grateful that he felt nothing. Slowly, cautiously, he forced himself to stand on his uninjured right leg. He looked straight at Jake and gave every indication of not caring that he was hurt, though in fact he did not know how long it would be before he found it impossible to stand. Jake didn’t like Adam looking at him so defiantly. He moved closer and held the knife to Adam’s throat, then pressed it against the skin until blood trickled down Adam’s neck. “You want more? That’s fine by me.” Adam carefully shook his head.
As Jake took the knife away, Adam looked at him. “Can I have…a drink of water?” he asked. He thought that he already knew the answer but he was heartily sick of these men trying to intimidate him and his father, and he just wanted to show them that he wasn’t afraid of them and that he could not be cowed by them.
“A drink of water? Is that what you want?”
Adam looked steadily at Jake and nodded. Adam was surprised to hear Jake tell Jesse to go to the kitchen and get a glass of water. Jesse soon came back and handed the glass to Jake, who took it and stood in front of Adam, offering it to him. Adam looked longingly at the glass. He had not had anything to eat or drink since breakfast, more than eighteen hours ago, and now his throat was dry and he was having trouble swallowing.
“Well, if you want it take it,” Jake said, holding the glass out towards Adam knowing that with his hands tied there was no way he could hold the glass. “So you can’t want it that much then, eh,” and with that he poured the water over the floor at Adam’s feet. Adam looked at him and pulled savagely against his bonds. A wave of fear washed over him, not fear of Jake, or his sons, but fear because he felt such hatred as he had never known before in his life. His was fearful because he realised he was capable of doing the unthinkable. If he had not been securely tied, he knew, he would have torn this man apart with his bare hands.
“Haven’t you done enough?” demanded Ben desperately. He did not know how either of them was going to survive this experience. He did not know if Adam could survive the physical punishment these men were determined to inflict, but he also did not know if he himself could survive the mental torment of seeing Adam put through this, knowing that it was his actions that had placed them both in this predicament.
“You don’t like seeing your son like this, eh?” sneered Jake, putting the knife down on the desk in front of Ben, who could see that it was red with Adam’s blood. Ben swallowed hard and looked up into Jake’s eyes, which stared back, full of hate. He was leaning across the desk looking down at Ben. “Well I had more than a year of seeing Luke suffer. How do you like it? Perhaps now you realise the consequence of what you did when you caught Luke and turned him over to the law. Perhaps if you had known what it would lead to you would not have done it, perhaps you would have let him go?”
“No,” said Ben with certainty; “No, I would not have let him go. He helped rob that bank and he paid the price. The law is not something that you have at your convenience, to use only when it suits. Many people have paid a high price to uphold that law and if we have to be added to that list then so be it.”
“Brave words, but I wonder if your son would agree.” Jake turned to Adam. “Would you agree with your father?”
“He’s right,” was all Adam said, but it conveyed what he felt.
“You don’t mind that your father’s actions are directly responsible for you being in this position? That he did not for one moment think what they might lead to for other people? It’s all very well being an upright, law-abiding citizen with high and mighty principles when it doesn’t affect anyone else, but you are here because of the decisions that your father made.”
Adam glanced at his father, who was looking at him intently uncertain how he would answer. Adam was feeling exhausted and just wanted to close his eyes and forget what was happening to him, but it seemed that was not to be. His brain was enveloped in a fog of pain and he was not sure that he would be coherent, but he would try. Adam took a deep breath to steady himself before he answered.
“I am in this position as a direct result of your actions, no one else’s,” Adam said slowly, “I will back my father’s actions because they are based on decisions he has made after weighing all the facts.” Adam remembered his anger with his father about the decision to send him to look at the herd, but no matter how he felt he would always defend his family against outsiders who threatened them. He took another deep, careful breath and continued; “My father takes decisions based on his principles, which he has instilled in us, and on experience, of which he has far more than we do. I will support those decisions because I know they are made without prejudice and from a sense of what’s right and just. He will not compromise his principles just because they are inconvenient, nor under threat from you or anyone else.”
Somewhere at the back of his mind, Adam realised that he had just argued himself into a corner. He could not now berate his father for sending him to look at the herd when he had just stated that his father’s decisions were well taken. He was also somewhat surprised to realise that he really meant what he had said. At the same time, he became aware that feeling was returning to his leg and the pain was spreading from hip to knee. He could feel the blood running down his leg and into his boot. Those few sentences had drained him and he said no more.
Ben sat and stared at Adam because he had never heard him talk like this before. His sons tended to do what Ben told them, but he had never thought about how they felt in doing so, or why they did. They were all grown men now, especially Adam who had always been more independent than the others, probably as a result of being so much on his own as a boy. Ben appreciated that Adam followed him out of choice, that if he wanted to go off and make his own life one day he would, but in the meantime something kept him here with his family. Perhaps it was the feeling that his family needed him that stopped him leaving, or perhaps Adam needed his family more than he would admit. He had always been the quiet one, an outsider looking in, seldom joining in his brother’s games as children and even now, he would stand aside and observe their horseplay from a distance, not disapproving but indulgent of their antics. Now Ben realised that the two of them were a pair, father and son, with a mutual respect, supporting each other and together they would have to try to overcome whatever these men had planned for them.
Outside it was nearing dawn, another day was beginning. Inside the house Ben was standing, staring in disbelief at Jake Tattersall. Jake had eventually released Ben so that he could bandage the wound in Adam’s thigh. Ben suspected that it was only because he did not want Adam to bleed to death before he got his revenge, but whatever the reason Ben was glad to be able to do it.
“You can’t be serious, you can’t mean it!” Ben was almost speechless at what was being suggested.
Jake had been telling them how Luke had been sentenced to fifty lashes for stealing some bread from the kitchen. Jake had been to visit him two days after the sentence had been carried out and was shocked to see the result of the beating. Luke had never recovered, and in the end it was blood poisoning from the flogging that had killed him.
“Oh, but I do,” insisted Jake. “But I’ll make a bargain with you, do it and we leave. Whatever you may think of me, I am a man of my word.”
Ben looked at Adam, who seemed equally taken aback but was perhaps in a better position to be objective, to see that this might be the only way out and he was willing to take it.
“Do it, Pa. He will kill me if you don’t,” said Adam with a sudden certainty.
Ben went to stand near Adam, he did not want the Tattersalls to hear their discussion, and they seemed prepared to stand back and wait for the outcome.
“You don’t know what you’re saying. Do you realise what could happen? The state you’re in I might kill you.” Ben shook his head, “I can’t do it, I can’t take that chance. Never,” he whispered desperately.
“Yes, you can. Listen to me.” Adam was trying to speak reasonably, though he felt far from reasonable at that moment. But he had to convince his father that this was the right thing to do, however difficult it would be for them both, especially for his father.
“I’m willing to take the risk because I can’t see any other way to get these men to leave, can you? And if you don’t do it one of them will, and I would rather it was you, at least I would know it was not being done through any sense of malice. I know how you must feel, you have never laid a hand on any of us,” Adam looked sideways at his father, “at least not when it wasn’t deserved. You need not feel guilty about it. I’m telling you now that I forgive you, that whatever happens from now on is not your fault, this is my decision, my responsibility.” Adam did not add that he might not be in a position to forgive later, but Ben understood. “All you have to do is agree. We’re both equally involved in this, but I think I get the casting vote, don’t you?” At that moment he gave his father a small smile of encouragement. When he saw that smile Ben’s heart ached with a deep love for his son, and he knew he could not hurt him as they were suggesting. But if he didn’t would they kill Adam anyway? Was the only way to save his life to do as they said? But if he did, he might kill Adam. The arguments went round and round in his head until he felt as though he could not think, because thinking meant making a decision. A decision either way would mean hurting his son, possibly killing him and Ben knew he could not do that, but if he didn’t…
“Pa, you said that sometimes there was a price to be paid for upholding the law. If those were not just words, if you truly believe what you said then we must be willing to pay for that law, and perhaps this is our price.” Adam stopped. He was feeling light headed from loss of blood, which was exacerbated by his need for water. He really did not have the strength to say more, he hoped it would be enough.
Ben looked at him, then at Jake, Tom and Jesse. It seemed that he was at a loss to know what to do. He stood for a long time looking from them to Adam and back again.
“Very well.” Ben said the words as though they were being forced from him.
Jake nodded at Jesse who went outside to the horses and returned with a bullwhip. Tom went up to Adam and turned him round so that his back was towards them. Then he took the knife from the desk and slit open the back of Adam’s shirt exposing the skin. Jesse gave the whip to Jake who handed it to Ben.
“Any time you’re ready. Just fifty, that’s how many they gave to Luke.”
Ben stood looking down at the whip in his hand. He was trying to disassociate himself from what was happening but without any success. He walked over to Adam, who turned his head to look straight into his father’s eyes.
“Do it, Pa.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. You must, for both of us. Even if they are lying and don’t leave at least we will have tried. It could be our only chance, we must take it.” Adam lowered his voice, “I have heard that it is the waiting between strokes that is the worst, so do it as quickly as you can.”
Ben nodded, walked away a few paces, and turned. He raised the whip and hit his son squarely across the back. Adam’s head snapped back, his whole body tensed and he gasped in surprise at the pain. Ben stopped. He saw the agony on Adam’s face, and his arm would not move to deliver the next blow.
“I can’t do this, not to my own son.” Ben turned to Jake determined not to continue. He was pleading with Jake to stop the beating, but it was Tom who decided the issue. He went over to Adam with his gun drawn and jammed it into Adam’s throat and pulled back the hammer. Adam choked and tried to turn his head away but Tom just leant harder on the gun until breathing, which for Adam had been painful but simple, became impossible.
“Would you like me to shoot him instead? It’s up to you.”
Ben shook his head, returned to his position, and prepared to continue. He realised that he was caught in an impossible situation. But he also realised that the old saying ‘where there’s life there’s hope’ was never more relevant than at this moment.
“Adam…” he started to say.
Adam coughed as Tom took the gun away. “Pa, I know,” his voice was hoarse. “Can we just get on with it?”
While Adam didn’t want to go through what was to come, if he had to do it he wanted to get it over with. The anticipation of what was about to happen was almost unbearable, but Adam knew that soon Hoss and Little Joe would be back from town and he did not want to think what might happen when Tattersall found out he had been lied to. He just wanted them out of the house as soon as possible, he knew that it was possibly the only way to get rid of these men, if they could be relied on to keep their word, which was by no means certain.
Before Adam knew what was happening another blow struck him, and then another. Tied as he was his arms were crossed in front of his head, stretching the skin of his back, so that as the whip bit into him it felt as though he was being torn apart. He began to feel that nothing existed outside the whiplashes landing on his back. They took over his entire being and he was aware of nothing else, he was not conscious of the knife wound in his leg or of the pain of his broken ribs. All was drowned out by the greater pain, which sent waves of agony through every nerve each time a blow landed. He realised that his legs were beginning to lose the ability to hold him up. He heard Jake say “Seventeen, eighteen,” But the words meant nothing to Adam whose entire world existed now only in the pain in his body. He was not aware of the men who had come to ruin his family, he was not aware of the torture his father was going through.
Jake was sitting on the corner of the desk and staring intently at Ben, studying his face for any reaction. It was as though this was the culmination of all the planning he had put into his revenge, and he wanted to savour every moment of it. He was completely indifferent to the effect it was having on Adam, instead he sat fascinated by what it was doing to Ben, whose stony expression could not hide his true feelings and said more to Jake than any words. He took satisfaction from the fact that Ben was obviously feeling every stroke, as though it was he who was taking the beating not giving it. This was what Jake wanted, to see Ben Cartwright endure the torture of seeing his son suffer, as Jake had had to watch his son, and to be helpless to stop it.
“You’re going too fast, slow down,” ordered Jake. Ben ignored him and continued at a regular pace, remembering what Adam had said about the time between strokes. Jake went up to Ben and held his arm as he raised it for the next blow.
“If you don’t slow down we will have to add a few more, is that what you want? No, I didn’t think so.”
Ben adjusted his speed but still tried to make the strokes regular so that Adam would know when to expect them. However, Adam was far past understanding what was happening to him. His legs were unable to hold him up any longer and he had collapsed, taking all his weight on his wrists and arms. He was now completely oblivious to everything except the wracking pain coming from his back and spreading throughout his body.
“Thirty six, thirty seven, thirty eight.” The count went on.
“Forty nine, fifty. That’s enough,” said Jake. Ben stopped and looked down at the whip in his hand. He opened his fingers as though he had suddenly found he was holding a deadly snake, and the whip dropped to the floor with a clatter. He stood, unable to make himself move when all he could see was Adam, who had collapsed almost to his knees, only the rope round his wrists holding him off the floor.
“Sit down,” ordered Jake. Tom went behind Ben and pushed him towards the chair. Ben, unresisting, sat down and Tom again took the rope and tied him securely, this time tying his ankles to the legs of the chair as well.
“Now how do you feel?” Jake asked but got no reaction. He went round the desk, stood in front of Ben, and repeated the question. Still he got no reaction so he hit Ben with the back of his hand. Ben slowly raised his head and looked Jake in the eye.
“Now how do you feel?” Jake asked again. “Now you know what it means to see your son abused, as I had to stand by and see it happen to Luke.”
“They didn’t make you do it, though, did they?” Ben looked towards Adam, then back to Jake, “Let me help him.” Ben’s voice was subdued, almost a monotone. He was becoming totally divorced from reality as a deep depression settled over him and he felt cold and empty inside.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen now. We are going to leave, as I said I am a man of my word. I am satisfied that I have made you see just what you did to me and my family. You and your son will have to live with the knowledge of what you have done to him, I don’t suppose that he will ever really forgive you, this will always be between you. Every time he looks at you, he will remember. Every time his back aches in the winter he will think of what you did to him.” Jake was enjoying this opportunity to hammer into Ben’s mind the rift that he hoped he had formed in this family. Why should the Cartwrights enjoy stability and togetherness when Jake had lost it all? When Luke died Jake felt that his other sons blamed him for it, for not protecting him better, well now this family would feel the same. Ben Cartwright had been unable to protect his son, and even sweeter to Jake was the fact that Ben had been forced to administer some of Jake’s revenge himself.
“You will stay tied up here until someone finds you. Adam must take his chances. If someone comes in time, then he may be all right, if not…” Jake shrugged his shoulders. “Well, if not, then he will have paid the price for your mistake.” Jake turned to Tom and Jesse, “Get ready, we’re leaving.”
The boys started looking round the house. They locked the rear doors and put out all the lights including those in the sitting room. When they left the house would seem deserted. Tom came over to the desk and picked up the knife. “I think I’d better take care of this, don’t you?”
Some remnant of pity must have been lurking beneath the surface in Jesse as he went up the stairs and adjusted the rope that bound Adam so that he sank to his knees, saving his wrists from taking all his weight. His chin was on his chest and his head was against the wall, he was unconscious.
Jake and his boys went to the front door. “Remember next time the consequences of your actions.” And with that, they left.
Ben sat, stunned. All he could hear was Adam’s rough, uneven breathing, and all he could see was the bloody, pitiful mess that was his son. He sat for a long time just staring, images flashing through his brain of the events of the last few hours. He was trying to see how he could have done anything different, how he could have stopped what happened. It always came back to the same thought. If he had not caught Luke then none of this would have happened, Adam would be out with the herd, and he would be starting another day as normal. But that was not what was happening. Adam was here fighting for his life and Ben could only sit and watch, and wait. Wait for someone to come and rescue them, or wait for Adam’s life to ebb away slowly but surely, as his blood seeped down to the floor with Ben watching and doing nothing. It was his fault, was all that Ben could think, and that thought drowned out all others, as Ben just sat and stared, and sank deeper into a desperate, sorrowful depression.
He was so cut off from the real world that he did not hear the horses pull up outside the house, then footsteps coming to the front door. Footsteps that he would have recognised, if he had been able to hear them.
The door opened and Ben’s younger sons, Hoss and Little Joe, entered the room, trying to be quiet because of the early hour, but clearly they had been in the saloon and had enjoyed a sociable night with a bottle. They were quiet in the way all drunks were quiet, laughing loudly and then hushing each other. Suddenly Joe stood still and stopped laughing. He saw a man on his knees, tied to the staircase, his back covered in blood, but Joe could not see the man’s face. Something about him was very familiar, the right build, the dark clothing, but being the worse for wear Joe could not be sure. He went over to take a closer look, and was shocked into sober silence, when he found his worst suspicion confirmed, it was Adam.
Meanwhile Hoss had spotted his father and gone to him and untied the ropes.
“Pa,” he said, concern clearing away the effects of his night out, “What the devil happened?” Ben looked up at Hoss as though looking at a stranger, and did not answer. Instead he stood and staggered over to Adam, his mind still unaware of what was going on around him, but his subconscious remembering that all he wanted to do was go to his son. He helped Joe to undo the ropes and then lowered Adam carefully, trying to keep his back off the floor. Ben had Adam’s head against his chest as he held him gently in his arms, making soothing noises to him as he stroked his hair. It reminded Hoss and Joe of times when they had hurt themselves as children and their father would comfort them in this way. It seemed that perhaps Adam was comforted by it now, as he opened his eyes and looked up at his father. He moaned as he tried to move to ease the burning pain in his back.
Suddenly Ben seemed to shake himself, and he felt as though he had just woken up from a deep sleep. He looked round at Hoss and Joe, only now registering their presence.
“Joe, go get the doctor, quickly. Hoss, get him a drink of water.” Ben then told Adam, “Don’t talk, you must rest.” He could not look at his son because he could not bear to see the look he knew would be in Adam’s eyes. A look of hatred and blame.
“Yes, they’ve gone,” he stated flatly. Now Ben looked down, and saw the look in Adam’s eyes was one of relief not reproach.
Hoss returned with a glass of water. Ben tipped it gently against Adam’s lips. Adam would have drained the glass in a second, but Ben held it so that he could only sip. Soon the effort to drink became too much, and he collapsed once more into his father’s arms.
“Adam, dear God, I’m so sorry, I can never forgive myself for this.”
“Pa…no need. Talk…later.” Adam closed his eyes again.
“Joe, you must go and get the doctor,” Ben pleaded with his son.
Joe was pleased to be able to tell his father that the doctor was already on his way to the ranch. “He’s about half an hour behind us. He’s coming here to see you about a new teacher for the school.”
“Go and get some towels, we must try to stop the bleeding,” ordered Ben, beginning to take control of the situation. Joe came back after a few minutes and they laid Adam on the towels so that his weight would put pressure on the lacerations in his back.
As Joe had promised, Doctor Paul Martin arrived shortly and was shocked to see what had happened to Adam, and set to work immediately to treat him. Hoss and Little Joe helped the doctor as best they could while Ben stood to one side, his clothes stained with Adam’s blood. He watched despondently, unable to take any positive action. The doctor rebound the wound in Adam’s thigh and then cleaned and bandaged his back, which would also help to support the broken ribs. He was, naturally, curious about the injuries and tried to question Ben, who refused to answer. The doctor was finishing up by bandaging Adam’s wrists where the ropes had cut into them, and as he did so he turned to Ben and tried to get him to talk.
“Ben, will you tell me how this happened? Adam has obviously been maltreated by someone, don’t you want them caught? I can’t believe that you are willing to ignore this.”
“I’m not ignoring it but this is not the time. I’ll see the sheriff when I’m ready. Will he be all right?” he said looking down at Adam, whose dark features were unusually pale between the cuts and bruises, his breathing ragged.
“He’s young and strong, but these injuries are serious, he has lost a lot of blood, and he’s in shock. He’s also very dehydrated.” This last was said as a statement but the doctor raised his eyebrows as though expecting a reply from Ben, but none was forthcoming. “The next twenty-four hours will be critical. If he can survive those then I think he will be all right. You must get as much liquid into him as you can, he won’t want it, but you must make him drink. But you will have to watch him carefully, if there is any sign of a change for the worse let me know immediately. Will you and the boys be able to get him up to bed?”
“Yes, you can leave that to us. Thank you, Paul.”
The doctor left with a promise to return later in the day to check Adam’s condition.
“Adam,” said Ben softly and Adam opened his eyes again. “I want to get you upstairs. Do you think that you can bear to be moved?”
Adam did not answer straight away. At that moment he just wanted to lie there, knowing that he was safe with his family, no one was going to threaten him or harm him any more. Eventually he said, “If you think…it best…then do it.” His breath was coming in short gasps, every movement agony.
“Hoss, Joe, help me, we must get him upstairs where he’ll be more comfortable.”
The two men bent down to help lift their brother. As they did so, Adam cried out and, mercifully, lost consciousness.
The day was wearing on, it was the middle of the afternoon, and Ben was sitting beside Adam, who lay in bed unmoving, as he had been since they had lain him there earlier that morning. The Doctor had returned to check on his patient and declared himself satisfied with Adam’s progress. He told Ben that Adam was holding his own and if he continued to do so then he would probably be all right, but there was still some way to go before he would be out of danger.
Joe and Hoss had not been able to get anything out of their father about how this had happened, though it was obvious that Ben knew who was responsible. They were both busy for the moment seeing to the work outside and Ben was grateful to be left alone.
He took Adam’s hand in his and held it against his cheek. Not for the first time that day, tears ran down his face and between the fingers of both their hands, soaking into the heavy bandage around Adam’s wrist.
“Dear God, I’m so sorry.” His voice broke as he remembered the events of the past hours. “I never meant this to happen. If I’d known what it would lead to, I would never have turned Luke in. I can’t forgive myself for what has happened to you, for what I have done to you.” He stopped and shook his head and came to a decision, “I can’t face you knowing I did this to you. Jake was right, it will always be there between us.” He let go of Adam’s hand and stood up preparing to leave, not knowing where he was going, but he knew he had to get away. He couldn’t face Adam waking up, and the blame he expected to see in his eyes. He had been emotionally drained; he could take no more.
Adam’s eyes were closed but he was aware of his father being there and of what he was saying. He was experiencing the most peculiar sensation. Although his body was weak, hurting and unwilling to move, his mind seemed to be quite clear. Adam was well aware of what had been done to him and he wondered if this was the prelude to death and if so he had to speak to his father before it was too late. He fought to communicate with Ben.
“Adam, don’t talk, rest,” said Ben, surprised to hear his son’s voice.
“No…you can’t…go. Not your…fault.”
Normally with the type of injuries Adam had suffered to his back, the doctor would have had him lying face down to ease the pressure on his wounds. But for Adam this was not possible because of his damaged ribs. This meant that with each breath the skin of his back moved and sent waves of pain through him making every word an effort. But he knew he had to stop his father from leaving. Apart from feeling that if he left now he might never return, Adam wanted the comfort of having his father near him.
At that moment, Joe and Hoss came into the room. They stood on the opposite side of the bed, looking at their father. They were silent for a minute then Joe spoke, “Pa, we can see the extent of Adam’s injuries, he’s been subjected to a vicious attack. Surely, you are not going to ignore it? Do you know who did this? Shouldn’t we get the sheriff?” He got no reaction from his father.
“Dadburn it, Pa. Whoever did this we must go after them and bring them back, they must be made to pay for what they have done,” said Hoss, and Joe nodded in agreement.
“If we leave now we could still catch them. We can’t let them get away with this,” said Joe, desperate to take some action.
“No!” Adam’s voice was weak but there was no mistaking the strength of feeling in it. “This has…to stop. Let the law…handle it” Adam paused to gather his strength and he managed to open his eyes and look straight at his father. He wanted Ben to understand his reasoning without having to put it into words, which would be both emotionally and physically painful. “How…how do you feel?”
Ben knew what Adam was trying to say; how would he have reacted in the same circumstances? Ben would happily go after the Tattersalls now and take his revenge for what they had done. But that would only lead to more bloodshed, and an eternal round of retribution. However weak he was there was obviously nothing wrong with Adam’s thought processes. Ben wanted the Tattersalls to face justice but Adam was right, it had to be the justice of the law, not simple vengeance.
“Pa, I’d still like to know who did this and why. Who it is that we are not to go after?” insisted Hoss.
Ben sat down beside the bed and again took Adam’s hand in his. “You want to know who did this? Who caused these injuries? Dear God, it…it was me. I did this. I supplied the cause and I held the whip, and I can never forgive myself.”
“Pa,” said Hoss impatiently, becoming frustrated at the lack of information they were getting from their father, “are you going to tell us what happened, or are we supposed to guess?” He and Joe looked at each other with a worried glance. What was their father talking about? It made no sense.
Ben could see that he was going to have to tell them something. Adam was watching his father through barely open eyes, wondering what he was going to say, but knowing that it would be better for him to talk about it than to keep it bottled up inside.
Ben got up and went to the window. He stood there, looking out at the far hills, with his elbow on the top of the sash and his chin resting on his hand.
“Adam should be out there now with the herd, not lying here like this. And he would be if it weren’t for me.” Ben was speaking quietly and his sons were listening intently, hanging on his every word. “Last year I was in a small town across the California border. The only remarkable thing about the town was its bank, which, from time to time, held large quantities of gold dust.
“While I was there the bank was robbed and a bank teller was shot, though not killed. The sheriff needed men for the posse, and called on me to help, which I did. I went out with two other men into the hills and it happened that we found three of those who robbed the bank. Two were shot and killed, but one, Luke Tattersall, was taken into custody and was eventually sentenced to five years in the state prison. He died there two weeks ago”
Ben paused and turned back to the room. He was met by the eyes of his three sons, all grown men now, no longer children. Joe young and eager to meet the world, Hoss steady and dependable, and Adam, who had a quiet inner strength Ben knew about but had not truly appreciated until now. He couldn’t bear them looking at him and turned back to the window.
“Jake Tattersall decided that someone had to pay for the death of his son, and I became his target. He came to the ranch to get satisfaction, but when he found the person he thought was my youngest son, his plan changed from revenge to retribution. Jake had decided that I should witness my youngest son suffering all the harm which had been done to his youngest son.”
“But Pa,” interrupted Little Joe, “Why did he think that Adam was your youngest son?”
Ben turned back to face them. “Because Adam told him he was, and Jake had no reason to doubt it when I did not contradict him. He was trying to save you from this.” Ben went over to the bed and looked down at his son. He was remembering his feelings when he heard Adam tell Jake that he was the youngest in the family. Now, despite his injuries, Adam was looking embarrassed.
“I couldn’t…very well…ask them…to wait,” Adam said with an attempt to lighten the mood, but when the others heard how weak he sounded it just reminded them how badly hurt he had been.
“Adam, do you want me to go on?” Ben had an idea of what it would cost both himself and Adam if he told the whole story to Joe and Hoss. But he was prepared for it to be Adam’s decision; he felt he owed him that after what he had gone through.
“Yes.” Adam was convinced that it would help his father to talk about what had happened.
“Very well.” Ben stood and went back to the window. “Jake and his sons inflicted the same injuries on Adam as Luke had suffered in prison, stabbing, deprivation, beatings. But then he made me an offer.” Ben paused remembering, then he took a deep breath and continued.
“Tattersall told me that if I was prepared to give Adam a flogging as Luke had been flogged in jail, then he would be satisfied and they would leave. I did not want to do it, but eventually Adam persuaded me that it was the only way to get rid of them, and to save both our lives.” Ben turned and sat on the windowsill, needing the support. He looked at Hoss and Little Joe and saw the same look of horrified denial on both their faces.
“Pa,” said Hoss, “You don’t mean… you can’t have. Can you?”
“Yes, I did. And I will never forgive myself for it.”
“It wasn’t …your decision.” Adam turned his head to look at his brothers, he wanted to make sure that they understood that what had happened had not been Ben’s fault. He knew that it would be Joe who would find it most difficult to come to terms with the idea of Ben hurting one of them. He reached out to take hold of the hand of his youngest brother but his fingers would not close. Joe took his hand instead and held it reassuringly.
“Pa didn’t want…to do it. I…persuaded him,” Adam finished weakly.
“I shouldn’t have let you talk me into it. I should have been stronger.”
“Tom would have…shot me. You had…no choice. I’m sorry that…I made you…do it. I still…think I was right. It was…the only way.” Adam’s voice was growing fainter; he was having trouble concentrating. The clarity of mind he had experienced earlier was passing, and he felt that his strength was slowly fading.
“We can’t be sure of that. Perhaps they would have left anyway.” Ben was desperately trying to find a way to argue that everything would have turned out all right if he had done nothing. He was ashamed to feel that he had been weak in not resisting Adam’s insistence that it was the only way out, that he had been terribly wrong to beat Adam as he had, that he had had a choice.
Joe and Hoss were sitting in stunned silence. Neither could quite take in what they had heard. Their father had never laid a finger on any of them except rarely as a punishment for a wrongdoing, and here he was admitting to having beaten Adam near to death.
“Whatever Adam says it was my hand that held the whip, my arm that delivered the lashes, my eye that placed them squarely on his back. I can’t shrink from that responsibility, I can’t pretend that I could not have made a different choice. I can’t hide by letting Adam say it was his decision.” With this, Ben stood up. He took several deep breaths and, as emotion threatened to overwhelm him, he left the room.
Adam turned towards Joe, and when he spoke, it was with a note of desperation in his voice.
“Joe…go after him…I don’t know what…he will do. He can’t…forgive himself…for what’s…happened. It was…my fault. I shouldn’t…have done this…to him.” Adam paused trying to find the strength to finish what he wanted to say. “My injuries…will heal. Don’t know…about his. Go…go and help him…pl…” Adam’s voice had been getting fainter as he spoke and he could not finish his sentence as his eyes closed and he slipped into unconsciousness.
While Joe went after his father, Hoss sat with Adam. He gently wiped the sweat from Adam’s forehead, and was ready to tend to him should he need it. He would stay there watching over his brother, and be there for him when he came to again. Hoss shied away from the thought of what would happen to his family should his brother not wake up again. He well knew that should Adam die his father would tear himself apart with guilt, and in the process tear the family apart as well.
Hoss had always been the caring member of the family, not that they did not care deeply for one another, but Hoss had a rapport with any injured creature, seeming to know what would comfort it and help it to heal. It did not matter whether that creature was human or animal, just his presence seemed to be a comfort, and he was determined that this time he would put his whole being into getting his brother well again.
He took Adam’s hand in his. The gentleness of that gesture would have surprised anyone who only saw his size and did not know the man inside his huge frame. Hoss stroked the hand gently and spoke quietly all the time. He did not know whether or not Adam could hear him, he just hoped that somewhere inside his head Adam was able to take in what he was saying or just the feeling behind the words, the love that his family held for him. He told Adam of the things he and Joe had been doing around the ranch that day. He described the view from the north ridge on a fine spring day, the smell of the pine forest in the summer. He reminded Adam of the view over Lake Tahoe in the autumn as the sun set, and the fun they had playing like children in the first snows of winter. Anything that would make Adam picture the fine home and life they enjoyed, anything that would make him want to live and not slip away from them.
Meanwhile Joe was looking for his father. He could not find him anywhere about the house or surrounding buildings, but his horse was still in the stable so where ever he had gone he was on foot. Joe headed towards the lake, which was where his father would usually go when he wanted to think, and sure enough, that was where Joe found him.
Ben was sitting on the bank looking out at the water, which was slowly disappearing into the dusk. He was contemplating what he should do next. He could not go back to the ranch where he would have to face the boys. Now they all knew what he had done he could not expect them to have any respect for him anymore, and he could not run the ranch without that respect. No, he would go and see his lawyer immediately and pass the title of the ranch to Adam in trust for him and his brothers, as he had intended eventually, and then go away. He would let the boys build their lives again without him, they would not have to look at him and remember what he had done.
Suddenly he heard movement behind him. He did not turn, he knew who it would be.
“I suppose Adam told you to come.”
“Adam’s unconscious. He’s not saying anything,” replied Joe, carefully not answering the question.
“That’s not funny.”
“It wasn’t meant to be. What do you think you are doing?”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Ben turning, though he knew what Joe meant.
Joe raised his voice, he was beginning to get frustrated with his father. “I said ‘what do you think you are doing’.”
Ben also raised his voice to counter the beginnings of anger in his son. “I came out here to think about what I should do next.”
“What you do is to stop running away. I have never seen you run from anything, and yet now, when Adam needs you most you run away from him. You should be at home helping him to get better. He’s using all his strength worrying about you when he should be using it to get well. He wants you there, and he needs to see that you are all right. How can you be so selfish?”
“He doesn’t need me. All I’ve done is hurt him, how can I expect him to forgive me or respect me after what I have done to him? Jake Tattersall was right, it will always be between us.” Ben was angry now, both at himself and with Joe who did not seem to understand the reason for him needing to come out here, to get away. Everything was so clear-cut when you were young.
“Do you really think that your relationship with Adam is based solely on the events of the past two days? Do you think that he is so shallow that he can’t see past one moment in his life, don’t you think that you should be able to see past that moment too? Can’t you see that he let this happen, that he persuaded you to do it because he cares deeply for all of us, for you? And yet you assume that he will blame you or hate you for what happened.” Joe stopped and took a breath. He did not want to get angry with his father, but he was finding it difficult not to. He felt that more had probably happened that their father had not told them, but he had to find the words to persuade Ben that he needed to return to them, that they needed him. Adam was the one who could argue most effectively with his father but he was not here, so it was up to Joe to argue for him. He felt the weight of that responsibility fall heavily on his shoulders and knew that he must not fail.
“Adam doesn’t blame you for the beating, or any of the other things Tattersall did to him. If anything he is blaming himself for persuading you to do it and what that put you through.” Joe was trying to talk in a calm and reasonable tone. He knew that it was no good getting angry with his father, that would only drive him further into depression. He had to persuade him to come back to the house so that they could talk this through together; it was his family who would help him recover.
“You don’t understand, you weren’t there,” Ben said almost in a whisper.
Joe came round to stand in front of his father; he needed to make him see that he was not the only one who was affected by what had happened.
“No I wasn’t, but I should have been. It should be me lying there, not Adam. Don’t you think that makes me feel guilty? Knowing that Adam willingly allowed himself to take the punishment that was meant for me, to protect me from those men. But I respect Adam enough to know that he did what he thought was right, and I will just have to live with that. I think that you should respect his decisions, even though you may find the consequences difficult to deal with. You are so used to taking the lead in our lives that you are finding it difficult when the tables are turned. But on this occasion Adam was able to decide something that you could not, and you are going to have to face up to that and carry on you life. And if you are worried about what Adam thinks of you, just remember that he is more concerned about what he has done to you than what you did to him.”
Joe stood facing his father with his hands clenched at his sides, trying to keep himself calm. He had said all that he came to say and perhaps a bit more. He hoped that he had said enough to persuade his father to return home, but not enough to scare him even further away.
As Joe thought back over what he had said he realised that he did indeed respect his elder brother, and the decision he had made. Adam had said he was the youngest because he wanted to defend Joe from those men. Joe knew how protective Adam was of his family, seeing it as his duty as the eldest to keep his younger siblings safe. But he had purposely taken on the Tattersalls knowing what they intended. It had shocked Joe to the core to see the reality of Adam’s protectiveness. He felt guilty, as he had told Ben, that Adam had taken his place, that he, Joe, had not been there instead. He was going to find it difficult to live with the knowledge that Adam had taken this punishment instead of him, but he would come to terms with it.
“Come home, Pa. We need you and I think that at this moment you need us.” Joe put his hand on Ben’s arm and looked into his eyes trying to encourage him to return. Ben turned back to the lake, shaking off Joe’s hand as he did so, but he was touched by the gesture. Joe stood for a moment waiting for his father to say something, but he got no response. He felt that there was nothing more he could say, and slowly returned to the house.
Ben sat for a long time thinking about what Joe had said to him. It was true that he should respect Adam and the decisions that he made, and he did. But there were times when no decision was the right one and this had been one of those times. And was Adam really worrying about what he had put his father through?
Then suddenly, as though a lamp had been lit in front of him, Ben saw and accepted the truth of the situation. He had been so lost in self-loathing that he had not been able to see it before. Adam had said that he would rather Ben wielded the whip than one of the interlopers, that he would be able to handle it better knowing that it was not used with malice. If he had done nothing, then Tom might have shot Adam and all would have been lost. At the very least one of them would have administered the beating and might have killed Adam that way. No, Adam had been right, it was the only thing to do and Ben was just realising what Adam had seen long ago, that he had no choice. Adam had encouraged Ben to take a bullwhip to him, not with any thought of the damage that it might do, but to save both their lives.
Ben returned slowly to the house. He stood in the big room seeing again his son tied and bleeding, saw again the wreckage that Tattersall had tried to make of their lives. He stood straight and squared his shoulders, took a deep breath to dispel the memory, and climbed the stairs. As he approached Adam’s room, he heard Hoss talking quietly. He had heard his son use that tone before when he had found some injured creature and brought it home to nurse back to health. Ben realised what Hoss was doing, and tears started in his eyes. He hesitated before entering the room, trying to regain control of himself.
Joe stood at the end of the bed looking down at his brothers. Hoss looked round at Joe and shrugged, he didn’t know if what he was saying was having any affect. He and Joe listened to the ragged breaths Adam took, his breathing shallow. Then they became aware that gradually the rhythm of his breathing was changing as he came back to consciousness, and the different pains in his body joined together to hammer at him.
Adam slowly opened his eyes and looked at Joe. He felt quite different from the first time that he had woken up. Then he had still felt threatened and, he admitted to himself, afraid. While he slept a feeling of peace and calm had come over him, he couldn’t explain it.
“Did you find him?” he asked, his voice barely a whisper.
“Yes. He was by the lake. I think he was going to leave but I hope that I persuaded him otherwise.”
“Yes, you did,” said a voice from the doorway. Ben had returned, and was pleased to find his sons all together, he had a lot to say to them.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking and taken in what you said, some of which I agree with.” He looked at Joe, who gazed steadily back at his father.
Ben walked across the room to the window. He stood there for a minute gathering his thoughts, and then he turned and began the most difficult speech of his life.
“Joe said that I must respect your decisions, Adam, and I do when I feel they are right. Yesterday I felt that you, and the Tattersalls, had backed me into a corner and that I was being swept along by events over which I had no control. But now I can see that you had realised what was the right thing to do as soon as you knew what they intended. I do not believe that however much they hurt you, however weakened you seemed to them, that you ever lost touch with the reality of what they were doing, or what they intended to be the outcome. You were always looking for a way out, and as soon as you saw one you took it. I was having trouble seeing past what they were doing to you. Every time they hurt you, I concentrated a little harder on your pain, as though I could lessen it for you. But that meant that I could see less and less of the whole picture, I could only see what was happening to you and my inability to stop it.” Ben paused and turned again to look out of the window.
It was dark outside and he could see his reflection in the window. He was slightly shocked to see how drawn his features were. Behind him, in the reflection, he could see his three sons watching him intently, none of them wanting to interrupt him. He turned again to face them.
“Ever since I married Adam’s mother everything I have done has been for the future of my family, you three and your mothers. Every decision I have made, everything I have done, has been geared towards your future. As you all grew, I became used to leading this family, to guiding it through good times and bad, to helping you into adulthood, and beyond. We have a good life here, peaceful, settled, comfortable and a family, which is at peace with itself. Then suddenly that all changes. The peace is shattered and our family is threatened. I am no longer making the decisions. Others dictate every action and I am not able to do anything about it. Then it is Adam making the decisions for me, and worse, he is making decisions that mean I must do something that I have never done before, I must intentionally harm one of my children.” Ben had started to pace back and forth as he spoke.
“I felt, looking back on it, that I had been weak, cowardly even, in letting Adam persuade me to do as Jake wanted. I was so wrapped up in his pain and my guilt that I could not see the sense in what he was telling me, that it was the only way out for both of us. Now I can see that he was right, that hurting him was the only way to save his life. Joe said that I should respect Adam’s decisions, that sometimes I would not agree with them, but that I should always respect them. But it is not just a matter of respecting them but also of learning to live with them when you don’t agree with them.” He paused in his restlessness and looked at his sons.
“I hope that from now on I can let all of you take a part in making decisions for the rest of us, and that you will all let the others make those decisions and stand by them.”
“I’m sure we can Pa,” said Joe. He realised what it must have cost his father to say what he did, to admit to relinquishing some of the control he had over their lives.
“If that’s what you want Pa, then we’ll do it,” acknowledged Hoss, but he wondered if this was the best road to take. He was happy to let his father take the lead.
Ben went to sit on the edge of Adam’s bed. They looked steadily at each other, each remembering the events they had shared which had brought them to this point.
“What about it?” Ben asked.
Adam would happily have taken no part in this conversation. He felt weak and in pain from his injuries, but no longer in danger of losing his life. Now he just wanted to rest and put all that had happened behind him. But it seemed that he was expected to contribute his thoughts, even though he was not sure what they were. He was not certain that he was thinking clearly, and was not sure that he could put his thoughts into meaningful words. But he was willing to have a go.
He took a deep, experimental breath that caused everything to hurt, but he felt that he could manage the pain, and spoke to his father.
“Pa, I don’t want you to give up being the head of this family, none of us do. But I think we all feel that we could help you more than you allow us to do at the moment.” Adam paused and closed his eyes. This was taking more out of him than he would have believed. He opened his eyes and saw his father staring intently at him. Then he took another careful, steadying breath and continued.
“You must realise that while the Tattersalls were here I was in a far better position to see what was happening than you were. My thoughts were not clouded by guilt and regrets, as yours must have been.” He stopped to take a few shallow breaths trying to gather some strength.
“As you must realise it is much easier to be the one on the receiving end of that sort of punishment, than to be the one watching and helpless.”
Adam was silent, remembering what had happened to them both and a shiver went through him. Ben put his hand on Adam’s arm to comfort him and give him support. After a moment, Adam smiled up at his father. He was remembering his thoughts as Jesse was describing his relationship with his father, but now he knew he was satisfied with the relationship they had. If he wanted his independence it was his for the taking, but for the moment, he was happy to work with, and for, his father.
Adam continued, “This place cannot be run by a committee, it has to be left to one person to do it, and as far as I am concerned you are that person.” Adam tried, and failed, to look sternly at his father, “just so long as you take notice of our opinions occasionally, and don’t send me out to do a job that the ranch hands should do.” Adam paused again, there was more he wanted to say, if he had the strength. “I should have been here doing the timber contracts for you while you were in Carson City. I do think that I could take a lot more off your shoulders, if only you would let me, but I meant what I said to Jake about how you reach your decisions and how I will always support you, and I don’t need that to change.”
Adam stopped speaking, he had again run out of energy. He was not sure that what he had said made any sort of sense, but they had wanted his opinion and he hoped he had made clear what he felt.
Ben sat and looked at his eldest son, then across at Hoss and Joe. Jake Tattersall had intended that by making Ben do what he had he would tear this family apart. In fact, it seemed that it would have the opposite effect. Given time, Adam would recover from his injuries, as Ben knew he would recover from the emotional damage, and the two of them could start a new, stronger relationship. Not just as father and son, they would always be that, but more as partners running a business together, one consulting the other, valuing his opinion. The ranch would be stronger for it, as would the whole family. Ben knew Adam was right not to want them to go after the Tattersalls, that way could only lead to more bloodshed and there was no need for it. Adam had again seen things clearly, when he asked Ben if he wouldn’t have felt the same if his and Jake’s positions had been reversed, and Ben had to acknowledge that he would. While he would not have taken the action that Jake took, he could understand the man doing what he had done and was prepared to let it end here.
“Boys,” said Ben quietly, “I am so proud of all of you. I have tried to bring you up to be good, caring people, and I hoped that I had succeeded. But these last two days have made me realise just what a good job I have done, though I think that I can take little credit for it, it has to come from within as well. And it seems that it has come from within all three of you.” Adam’s brow furrowed as he wondered what his father was leading up to. Hoss and Joe both tried to speak at the same time, but Ben would not be interrupted.
“No, let me finish. I have seen Adam protect Joe and Hoss by taking on the Tattersalls. I am aware of the care that Hoss has given to Adam, and I have been on the receiving end of a talk from Joe.” He turned to his youngest son, “I thought that Adam was the silver tongued member of this family, but it seems that he has taught you a thing or two about framing an argument. I heard how desperate you were to keep this family together. It makes me very proud, and humble to think that you all care so deeply for each other, and for me.” Ben’s voice was breaking as he finished. Joe and Hoss came to him and put their arms around him, grateful that they were all together. Ben reached down and took Adam’s hand in his.
He knew now that no matter what happened, no matter what threatened them, his family had a strength that would keep it together, loving one another and supporting each other for the rest of their lives.