Out of the Darkness (by Sierra Girl)

Summary:  The murder of a friend, and the ensuing trial, lead an exhausted Adam to confront deeply buried fears and long-held guilt about events in his past. Will he come out the other side unscathed and able to face up to his father?

Rating: T   Word Count: 23,980 words

 

Out of the Darkness

He would not—could not—open his eyes.

If he did, he would see the devil.

The figure lingered on the edge of his vision; a shadow that tore out of view if he moved his head and looked directly at it. It was close enough for him to know it was there, but like a dog chasing its tail, he could have turned round and round on the spot and the figure would always be a jagged presence, a blur, never in focus, forever on the threshold.

The first time the figure had let him take a proper look he was so terrified at what he saw, he vowed never to open his eyes again. But he failed to keep his vow because the devil had tempted him and he had stolen a glimpse.

Now it was standing in the corner of his cell, unmoving, its body turned towards him. Burying his head in his arms, he cursed himself for being weak, feeling the fear crawl over his flesh and the hairs on his arms tingling as they stood erect.

No, he could not open his eyes, because if he did, he would see the devil.

Unfortunately for Adam, though, smothering his vision was not enough to end the torment.

For the devil had a voice.

*****

“Mr. Cartwright, please take a seat in the witness chair.”

Adam Cartwright removed his hand from the Bible and moved to the chair the judge had indicated. He glanced around the courtroom, seeking out the familiar figures of his father and brothers seated a few rows back amongst the spectators. His father nodded, sending silent assurance across the room. Adam saw faith in his father’s expression; faith that gave him strength. He took a deep breath and squeezed his lips together as he waited for the court to settle.

Jacob Barley, the accused, was slouched next to his lawyer, one elbow resting on the bar separating the onlookers from the officials. He stared hard at Adam, who assumed Barley was trying to unnerve him. It did not work. Adam merely gazed back at the businessman, observing with disdain how the buttons of the man’s flashy brocade vest were straining to confine the bulge of his belly.

Barley’s countenance was one of cool detachment. His top lip pulled up half his face into a permanent sneer; heavy eyelids hung low over sharp eyes that barely blinked as they bored into Adam. His lawyer leaned over and whispered a few words in his client’s ear, and all the while Barley never stopping staring at Adam. He barked a laugh which made the flesh beneath his chin wobble as he swivelled around to share the joke with the men seated behind the bar. His words were met with scornful laughter from his assembled cohorts who threw snide looks at Adam. It was only the sound of the gavel hitting the striking board that drew Barley’s attention back to proceedings and silenced the throng.

Judge Farrell, the circuit judge who considered himself most misfortunate to have been assigned to one of the circuits in the barbarous country west of the Mississippi, peered over the top of his wire-rimmed spectacles at Barley’s defence attorney. The implication was clear: control your client or there would be hell to pay. Having received the expected compliance, he nodded at Silas Oates, the prosecutor, to begin the questioning of Adam Cartwright.

Oates placed his hands in the small of his back and took a step towards his witness.

“Mr. Cartwright, please be so kind as to tell us what you saw on the night of Theodore Barley’s death.”

The town’s prosecuting attorney had a voice that, when he wanted, could match Ben Cartwright at full volume. It was a voice Silas Oates had assumed as a young man when it became apparent he had stopped growing at the diminutive height of five feet and four inches. And for a determined law student keen to make his way in the uncompromising world of the judicial law courts, a voice that could cut down a belligerent defendant, or could subdue an unruly crowd, was a distinct asset. Yet Silas was also skilled at the soft tone, the one he used on tearful ladies to empathise and commiserate; or, equally, to coax facts and details from witnesses desperate to keep the truth hidden. Until Silas Oates wheedled it out of them, that is. For Adam Cartwright, he chose another timbre, that of an equal, a business associate, a voice that demonstrated respect for his witness.

Adam sat up straight in his chair and took a deep breath. “Well, I was leaving town, riding along C Street sometime after eight o’clock, when I noticed Theodore Barley on the balcony of the International House where he has some rooms.”

“What was he doing?”

“He was standing with his back to the railings, arguing with someone.”

“Could you see who he was arguing with?”

Adam turned his head towards the defendant. “I could see very clearly. It was Theodore’s son, Jacob Barley.”

The court erupted into a riot of noise as Jacob’s supporters jumped to their feet, punching the air with their fists, protesting Adam Cartwright’s evident lies. Their shouts were answered by Jacob’s detractors who were crowded into the courtroom, eager to see the man at last receive his comeuppance. The pounding of a furious gavel, echoing through the chamber, eventually restored order. Adam had not stopped looking at Jacob during the uproar and a cold chill crept down his spine when a pair of cold-black eyes lifted to meet his.

“Tell us what you saw,” prompted Oates.

Turning to the prosecutor, Adam took a long breath. “Well, there was a lot of shouting on both sides. Theodore kept pointing at Jacob as though accusing him—”

“Objection, Your Honour.” Casper Buchanan, acting for the defendant, was on his feet in an instant. “Speculation. Mr. Cartwright can’t possibly know what Theodore Barley’s gesticulations meant.”

“I agree. Mr. Cartwright, please just state the facts without your interpretation of events.”

Oates bowed his head slightly towards the judge. “Apologies, your Honour.” He returned to Adam. “Please continue, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Well, like I said, there was lots of shouting and pointing by Theodore. There was a struggle and then…” Adam paused. He looked towards Jacob, who was slumped back in his chair, studying the backs of his hands.

“And then?”

“And then I saw Jacob Barley push his father off the balcony.”

Once more the courtroom was filled with the cries of the spectators. There were jeers from Barley’s supporters, and shouts of indignation and rage from those who believed him guilty. The gavel was again forced into action.

“Order! I will have order in my court.” The shouts turned to mutterings and then whispered quiet. “Just as I expected in uncivilised country like this; a rabble unable to keep their sentiments under control.” The judge glared at the assembled throng before turning his attention back to the prosecutor. “Please continue, Mr. Oates.”

“Mr. Cartwright, would you tell us what happened next.”

Adam’s fingers tightened on the rim of the hat resting in his lap. “I jumped off my horse and ran over to Ted, uh, Theodore, but he was dead. When I looked up to where he had fallen from, Jacob was standing there looking down.”

Murmurs fluttered through the courtroom but a single strike on the gavel hushed the onlookers.

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. No more questions, your Honour.”

“Your witness, Mr. Buchanan.”

Casper Buchanan slithered out of his chair and sidled over to Adam. A tall, thin-limbed man, Buchanan had been unhappily blessed with a protruding midsection, which, together with a pair of heavily lidded eyes, lent him the appearance of a desert iguana.

“Mr. Cartwright, can you tell us what you were doing in Virginia City that day.”

Adam frowned. What had this to do with the death of Theodore Barley?

“I, uh, came in to see Doc Martin.”

Buchanan blinked slowly. Adam could have sworn both the man’s upper and lower lids moved like a lizard’s.

“Do you normally visit the doctor so late in the day?”

“I don’t make a habit of it, no. The doctor’s a family friend. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Uh-huh.” Buchanan turned his back on Adam, looked out over the spectators and addressed Adam over his shoulder. “And the reason for your visit to Doctor Martin?”

Adam turned to the judge.

“Is this really relevant, your Honour? I don’t see what this has to do with—”

“Your Honour, my client is facing the gallows for allegedly murdering his father. I think as the only witness to the supposed offence, it’s only fair to ascertain the reason for Mr. Cartwright’s visit to the doctor.” A smile edged around Buchanan’s lips. “Maybe he’s having problems with his eyes. He could be having trouble seeing in the dark, perhaps?”

There was a titter of laughter in the court which was silenced by a scowl from the judge.

“Please answer the question, Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam looked towards his father who was leaning forward, clearly as puzzled by the line of questioning as he was. Adam sighed.

“It’s a busy time on the ranch—”

“Not uncommon for the time of year, surely?” interrupted Buchanan.

“No. But this round-up has been particularly strenuous. The recent drought meant our cattle strayed higher than usual looking for water, so I’ve been spending long hours in the saddle.” Adam shrugged. “And then in the evenings I’ve been catching up on ranch business.” He turned to the judge, embarrassed at having to share his affairs with a roomful of strangers. “There’s been a lot to deal with and, because of that I’ve been having a few headaches and some trouble sleeping. I was hoping Doc Martin could give me something to help me sleep.”

A quick glance to his father showed Ben scrutinising the back of his hands, unable to look at his son. Adam recognised the stirrings of guilt in his father’s manner.

“So, you’re tired, not sleeping well. Is that right?” It was apparent from Buchanan’s tone that he felt no pity for Adam’s quandary.

“Yes.” The answer sounded like a question.

Buchanan turned to face the jury. Rising on his toes, he clasped his hands behind his back and took a moment to look over every one of the gentlemen seated before him.

“Let me tell you a story, Mr. Cartwright. I once worked seventy-two hours on a case in Carson City. That too involved a man accused of murder.” Buchanan peered over his shoulder casting a long look at Adam. “He was acquitted.” He turned back to the jury. “But before I secured that man his freedom, I was working every hour God sent, foregoing all sleep, and I started seeing things. I was standing then, like I am now, addressing the jury, when I became certain my Great Aunt Millicent was sitting amongst the jurors. She was doing needlework.” Buchanan smiled at the floor as the crowd laughed. “The brain can play tricks—”

“I know what I saw.” Adam had not intended to speak as harshly as he did. He softened his tone and faced the jury. “I know what I saw. Jacob Barley pushed his own father to his death. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“Of course. With your own eyes. That’ll be all, your Honour, no further questions.”

*****

Thirty minutes later, Adam was slumped over a beer in the Silver Dollar Saloon, his father and brothers sitting beside him. The upright stance he had managed to maintain in the stuffy courtroom had dissolved the moment he had walked out into the late September air. His head felt heavy on his neck.

He took a long draught of beer and slammed the half-empty glass on the table top.

“They were trying to make out as though I didn’t know my own mind.”

“Adam, son, this is what defence lawyers do. If they can discredit the witness it’ll put doubt into the jury’s mind.” Ben’s logical and open-minded response caused an eyebrow to arch on Adam’s tired face. “This isn’t the first time you’ve testified in a court of law, you know the system. Why are you so angry now?”

Hoss had been lounging back in his chair surveying the saloon’s clientele, but at his father’s words, leaned in over the table.

“Yeah, Adam, why’re you so het up? You told the court what ya saw, they’d be fools not to believe you.”

Adam breathed a long sigh and folded his hands around his beer glass.

“Because Ted Barley was a kind old man who never hurt a soul in his life. He was one of those rare people who was willing to help anyone who needed it. And he seemed to know instinctively when someone needed help but was too proud or afraid to ask.” His chair creaked as he sat back, his eyes fixed on the beer glass in his hands. “When I started to develop an interest in the workings of mines, I knew nothing. But somehow, and I don’t know how he knew, he sought me out and set me in the right direction. I made good investments because of what he taught me.” Adam smiled. “He knew mining like Hoss knows horses, as though he was born with an innate knowledge of how everything below ground works.”  As quickly as it had come, Adam’s smile faded. “But most of all, he was my friend, who regrettably had the misfortune to spawn a rattlesnake.”

Adam shifted his gaze to his father. Ben’s eyes were sympathetic, studying his son closely. Adam knew what he was seeing, and thinking. He would be observing Adam’s sluggish, tired eyes, the rounded shoulders and wilting head, and berating himself for letting Adam work himself to the bone over the last few months. He would be asking himself, as Adam was, why Theodore Barley had to go and die right in front of him. The pressure of a court case could not have come at a worst time. But no matter how physically exhausted he was, or how slow the workings of his brain had become, there was no way he was going to let the old man down. Because he was right about Jacob, a more vile, contemptible, son-of-a—

“Who yer calling a snake, Cartwright?”

Ben, Hoss and Joe twisted in their seats. Standing behind them, holding his chin high and clenching his fists, stood the slight figure of Isaac Barley, the teenaged son of Jacob. Adam stayed slumped over his beer; only the slow blink of his eyes as he lifted the glass to his lips conveyed his awareness that they had company. Ben was on his feet.

“Now, Isaac, you know you can’t be seen talking with Adam.”

Isaac turned narrowed eyes on Ben.

“I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to your son, the tattler.” The boy’s hand hovered inches over his gun. Joe rose to his feet, his own hand dropping to his holster.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Isaac.”

Isaac’s eyes shot to Joe. “What have I got to lose, huh? My grandpappy is dead and your stinking brother is accusing my father of killing him. If he goes down for it, he’ll hang. I’ll have no one. All because the upright Adam Cartwright said he saw something which didn’t happen. You’re a liar, Cartwright, a lowdown dirty liar.”

Adam stayed in his chair, his back to the boy. His eyes closed as Isaac finished his tirade.

“You can’t even face me. You won’t even look me in the eye. Yer yella.”

Pushing past Hoss, who was starting to rise out of his seat, Isaac reached out towards Adam. The boy lunged with his fists but Adam was faster, standing so abruptly his chair skidded across the floor. He grabbed Isaac’s wrists and the boy’s eyes widened in shock as Adam shook him and leaned in close.

“I know what I saw, Isaac. Your father killed your grandpa. It’s a sight I’m not going to forget until my dying day. And if my testimony sends your pa to the gallows, then I’m sorry for you. But I’m not sorry for Jacob.” He released his grip on the boy. Isaac looked down, rubbing his sore wrists, but did not move away.

“Ain’t…ain’t there a chance? Are you so sure it was my father?’ Isaac’s eyes pleaded, hope brimming beneath raised eyebrows. Adam’s brow creased momentarily as he remembered that night and the figure that had so violently pushed the old man over the railings. It was Jacob. He knew it. He had seen the two men grappling; watched Ted fall backwards over the balcony; seen Jacob standing there with his hands gripping the railings, a look of calm deliberation on his face. But Adam had taken too long in his recall and noticed the boy frown as he stared at him. Adam sat back down at the table and lifted his beer. “Go home, Isaac,” he said, before taking a mouthful of the now lukewarm liquid.

The boy stood his ground for the length of a breath and then turned on his heel, pushing his way through the men who had gathered around to witness the scene. The crowd watched the boy depart and turned back towards the remaining participant. But Adam stayed immobile and expressionless with his beer suspended before him, and realising there was no more fun to be had, the men returned to their drinks and poker games.

Adam sagged forward over the table, his eyes closed and head drooping. He could sense his father bristling beside him.

“Young fool,” blustered Ben. “He should know better than to come in here throwing insults around.”

“It’s just words, Pa.” Adam’s voice was drawn out and jaded. Releasing a long nasal breath, he rested his head against a clenched fist. Before long a yawn escaped him and he felt someone tap lightly against his forearm.

“Come on, son. You’re almost dead on your feet. Let’s get you back to the ranch and to bed.”

“It’s the middle of the afternoon.”

“And you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Come on, your brothers can handle your chores.”

Joe and Hoss looked at each other. “Nothing new there,” quipped Joe with a twinkle.

*****

Despite his exhaustion, Adam had spent a restless night squabbling with his blanket and punching his pillow until he had eventually succumbed to a broken sleep. His disgruntled father had glowered at him over the breakfast table when Adam proclaimed his intention of returning to see Jacob Barley’s trial out to the end. “You need rest,” his father had bellowed. “Not to be traipsing back and forth to Virginia City.” But his recalcitrant son had won out, and so it was that less than twenty hours after leaving town with his family, Adam was back, alone, this time in the Bucket of Blood, once more nursing a cool beer. With his long fingers holding the glass in front of him, he found his mind wandering back to the courtroom he had not long exited, recalling the only witness the defence was calling to the stand. Jacob Barley himself.

Adam had sunk onto a bench in the back row of the court where he had a decent enough view of proceedings. At being called to the witness chair, Barley had risen sedately, and with a tug to pull his suit jacket down over an expanding belly, had walked with his chin up and a crooked smile playing on his lips. After he had taken the oath, Barley lowered himself to the seat, looking to all intents and purposes as though he was settling back in an easy chair for an evening of discourse and pleasantry. All that was missing was a cigar and a glass of pure French brandy.

Casper Buchanan was proving to be worth every cent Jacob was paying him. He began by ascertaining exactly where Jacob purported to be on the night of the murder.

“My father was in his parlour, that’s the room which opens out onto the balcony. I was in our private dining room, alone, having my first meal of the day since God knows when.” He turned unblinking eyes in the direction of Adam. “Mr. Cartwright is not the only one on the Comstock to work unbearably long hours.”

Scattered whispers echoed off the walls of the room which Buchanan quickly silenced by raising his voice to ask his next question. “Was there anyone else in the rooms with you?”

Barley rested an elbow on the arm of the chair and lifted a hand to his brow. “Sadly, only my father and I were in the suite. I’m afraid my,” and here he sighed dramatically and paused, “my boy was not at home, despite my protestations that he spend more time with his grandfather and less with that half-breed savage he likes to call friend.”

Buchanan turned to face the courtroom and looked at the assembled faces as he directed his next question.

“You refer to Amos Crow?”

A murmur trickled amongst the spectators, prompting the jarring sound of the judge’s gavel to resound through the room. The crowd immediately quietened, and Adam rolled his eyes as Jacob sighed heavily once more and bowed his head as though ashamed of his son’s choice of companion.

“Yes.” He then cleared his throat and shook his head, opening his eyes wide as he faced the courtroom. The man could be on stage, thought Adam. “So, yes, I was alone with my father in the hotel that night.”

Adam’s hovering beer glass hit the table with a jolt, causing liquid to slosh over his fingers. He swore under his breath, wiped his hand down a pants’ leg and then pushed the dregs of the drink away in a brief fit of temper as he remembered Jacob’s performance in the dock.

Buchanan had asked Jacob what happened on that fateful night.

“You must understand my poor father had not been himself. I took it to be the degrading effect of old age. His mind—” Jacob’s fingers waggled airily at the side of his head. “It hurt me, more than you can know, to see him become so…unlike himself.”

Adam shifted in his seat. He recalled running into the old man only a couple of weeks earlier on one of his numerous and draining trips into town. Theodore had been in fine fettle, greeting Adam with exuberance. Displaying the gusto he was well-known for, he had sympathised heartily with Adam’s substantial workload. Ted had promised not to hold him up for long, but when Adam had time, could they sit down over a warm brandy and talk through a new business venture he was establishing. It involved the shipping and supply of pumps to the mines in the region, and would Adam perhaps consider becoming a shareholder. They had parted with Ted Barley pumping Adam’s arm up and down vigorously, slapping him several times on the back and then spotting yet another acquaintance to greet with enthusiastic volume. As far as Adam was concerned, that was not a man who was starting to lose his mind; far from it, his wits had been very much intact.

Jacob’s voice broke into Adam’s memories. “I heard my father shouting and ran to his room. His door had been locked so I tried kicking at the wood to break through. I’m not a strong man, your Honour, so I ran back to my office where I knew there was a spare key. As I entered the room I saw my father was on the balcony. I think I took one step…” Jacob paused, the back of a clenched fist rising to his mouth. He cleared his throat and began again. “I had taken one step into the room when he just fell, toppled over the edge. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I was scared of what I would see when I looked over the railings. When I was able to get my feet to move, I walked to the balcony and saw my father lying on the ground. It was horrifying, simply horrifying.”

The courtroom was silent.

He’s got this audience wrapped around his finger.

After a moment, the lawyer spoke again.

“Adam Cartwright maintains he saw you push your father to his death.”

Jacob looked down. “I love…” He closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. “I loved my father. I would never have harmed him. I’m not sure what Adam Cartwright thought he saw, but it certainly wasn’t me killing my own father.”

“Are you saying Mr. Cartwright is lying?”

“I would never presume to say Adam Cartwright is a liar. However, he admitted, in this very courtroom, and under oath, that he has not been feeling well. I can only assume, therefore, that Mr. Cartwright did not see what he thought he had.”

Adam had become aware of faces turning towards him, but refused to shrink before their accusing stares. He had sat up straighter and met their looks with a stern one of his own. But the first stirrings of doubt had risen in his mind. He was tired; he was not at his most alert. Had he imagined Jacob pushing Ted? Had he conjured up this murder to explain the death of his friend?

The morning’s session was complete, the jury having retired to decide Jacob’s guilt, and here Adam was, crouched over an empty glass of beer, going over and over what he had seen that night.

He became aware of a figure at his side. It was Jacob’s son.

“What do you want, Isaac?”

The boy had two glasses of beer in his hands.

“I wanted to apologise, for yesterday. I was out of order. I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

Adam’s fingers slowly turned the empty glass in a circle. “Don’t worry about it. This isn’t an easy time for anyone. Things get said.”

“Well, I, I got you a beer.” He placed the drink on the table. “A peace offering.”

Adam leaned back in his chair. “You know this could be seen as a bribe to get me on side.”

Isaac shrugged. “It’s just a beer. I, uh, don’t mean nothing by it.”

He turned away and Adam watched him take a seat in the far corner, joining his friend Amos Crow. Adam studied the fresh glass of beer and looked up to see Isaac watching him. Raising his glass, Isaac tipped it in Adam’s direction. Adam acknowledged the boy by doing the same, and together they took a sip. At least this was one less thing to worry about, he thought.

*****

It had been twenty-seven minutes since Isaac had placed the beer glass on the table in front of him. Twenty-seven minutes since he had taken his first sip. Had it taken him so long to drink such a small quantity of liquid? Adam realised he had been staring at the clock over the bar for some time, and shaking his head to snap himself out of his lethargy, lowered the empty glass to the table and rose to his feet. He momentarily lost his balance, reaching out to the bar to steady himself, and it struck Adam that it had been hours since he had last eaten. Two glasses of beer on a stomach devoid of food was clearly having an effect on his ability to function. With a nod to Pete, the barkeep, he hit the batwing doors with a snort and walked out into the hubbub of town.

As he stepped off the sidewalk and into the road, the fresher air revived him, and he began to cross the thoroughfare, heading towards the livery stable to collect his horse. Someone called his name, but he was not in the mood for conversation so carried on without responding. The voice called to him again, and with a sigh and eyes raised to heaven, he halted and turned around. Mrs. Landis, one of Virginia City’s most stalwart citizens and member of the townswomen’s guild, was crossing behind him, weaving in-between the passing horses and wagons. Adam waited patiently for the woman to catch up, but she passed him by with a swift nod of acknowledgement. Adam frowned and turned in a full circle to see who had been trying to get his attention, but everybody went about their business ignoring the man peering curiously at passers-by. Well, whoever it was must have changed their mind about talking to him, so with a shrug, he headed to the sidewalk. A grunt escaped him as he almost tripped up the steps; for some reason his legs felt decidedly uncooperative.

The door to the sheriff’s office was open as he passed. Adam glanced in and continued on his way. But then he heard his name being called, and after a moment of considering whether to ignore the summons and carry on to the livery stable, he sighed and dropped his head, turning back to the sheriff’s office.

“Clem?”

“Howdy, Adam.” Clem was filling his coffee mug at the stove. “What can I do yer for?”

Adam was too beat for joshing. “Did you want me for something, Clem?”

Clem’s eyes widened as his eyebrows rose. “No,” he dragged the word out. “Didn’t you want me for something?”

“Come on, Clem, stop fooling, you called my name as I walked by.”

Clem took a sip of his coffee. “No, I didn’t.”

There it was again. His name. A faint whisper. Adam whirled around, eager to catch the culprit who was plaguing him, but the office was empty save him and Clem. Adam strode quickly to the open door but the sidewalk immediately outside was deserted. Turning on his heel he crossed the room to the cell area. The cells were empty. He wrenched open the door to the sheriff’s overnight room, eliciting an indignant exclamation from Clem. It, too, was empty. Adam stopped in the middle of the room and raised his hand to the back of his head.

“You okay, Adam? You’re looking a bit peaky around the gills.”

“I, uh…” Adam stopped. For some reason his heart was pounding in his chest. He looked down, convinced he would see his shirt vibrating in time to his heartbeat. He noticed the skin on the back of his hands looked flushed and he became conscious of heat rising up his neck and over his cheeks. Why was he suddenly so darned hot? With flesh that felt like it was burning and a head seeming to weigh less than a hummingbird, Adam reached out a hand to Clem’s desk to steady himself, his eyes clenched shut to stop the room from spinning.

“Adam?”

An arm was around his waist and he was lowered into a chair.

“I’ll get some water.”

A cool glass was placed in his hand and after a tentative sip, he chugged it back, unaware until then of how thirsty he had been.

“I’ll fetch the doc—”

Adam raised his head, quicker than he thought he would be able. “No, no doc.”

“But Adam, you looked like you were about to pass out.”

Adam pushed himself out of the seat. In truth, he did feel a little better. His temperature seemed to be almost back to normal and he no longer felt as though the earth was rushing up to meet him. He smiled, trying to appease the worried deputy before him. “I’m fine, Clem, just tired. I should’ve known better than to have a couple of beers without any food in my belly.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay.” But Adam could hear the query of concern in Clem’s voice.

All Adam wanted was to get out of that room, out of town and back home. He must be more exhausted than he had thought, what with hearing voices and then nearly blacking out.

Clem followed him to the door and Adam continued on his way, aware of the deputy’s eyes boring into his back.

Reaching the livery stable without any further incidents of light-headedness, he quickly put his aural misadventures out of his mind. But within moments of leading Sport from the stable and mounting up, the mysterious voice spoke again. And right in his ear this time. Adam flinched back in surprise and twisted furiously around in his saddle. He caught a glimpse of a dark figure on the periphery of his vision and pulled hard on Sport’s rein, twisting the animal around to get a better look. The figure—a man in black, he was sure of it—moved, staying out of his line of sight. Adam whipped his head in the opposite direction, peering over his other shoulder, but could not get a proper look. Sport was beginning to prance, aware of his master’s tense mood.

“Show yourself, come on. If you’ve got something to say, come out where I can see you properly.”

Silence greeted him. Adam frantically twisted in his saddle to look over one shoulder and then the other, but there was no sign of his persecutor.

“Coward! Come out and face me!”

But no dark figure moved out of the shadows to stand before him. And the only people staring at Adam were those with puzzled expressions, wondering at the Cartwright who was shouting into thin air in the middle of the street.

With a hard jab to his flanks, Sport bolted forward and Adam moved at speed down the main street. In his anger he was not aware of the people who scurried to move out of his way as he charged down the thoroughfare towards them.

But then, the voice began to whisper his name again. Only this time it started to say more. “You know it was your fault, don’t yer?” it whispered. “Your life ain’t worth theirs.”

Adam yanked Sport to a halt and leapt from the animal’s back. “For God’s sake, stop playing games with me.” His tormentor had returned, staying out of Adam’s field of vision, dark, not in focus. Adam spun to face him but the figure was no longer there. He froze, stilling his eyes and then, there, there he was, on the opposite side to where he had been seconds earlier.

“Adam?” Clem was walking out of his office. “Who yer talking to?”

Adam faced Clem with an angry look. “Who d’yer think?” He could feel his skin reddening as heat once more raced through his body. He pointed behind him to where he could see the man in the corner of his eye. “This…gentleman…has been goading me since I left the saloon.”

“Who, Adam? There’s no one there.”

Adam closed his eyes and started to breathe heavily. “Don’t you play games with me too, Clem. Him!” He pointed to where the figure had been lingering, but it had shifted sides again and Adam had to spin to locate him. “Him! He has something to say but just won’t say it!”

Clem walked down the wooden steps to the road and approached his friend as though he was edging towards a skittish mustang. “Adam, why don’t you come with me, I’ll get yer a coffee and yer pa to come take yer home.”

If it was possible for Adam’s face to blush any redder it did as he glared at Clem. His voice was barbed. “I don’t need you to get my father. I just need him to leave me alone.” He pointed at the figure that was hidden in a haze of darkness behind Clem. Adam squeezed his eyes closed. Damn it, why couldn’t he focus, why couldn’t he see who it was?

Clem took a step closer, holding his hand out to him. “There’s no one there, Adam, unless it’s one of these folks bothering yer.” He nodded at the small crowd that had started to gather. It was not every day a Cartwright started making a scene in Virginia City’s main street. Adam pulled his eyes away from the dark blur and took notice, for the first time, of the onlookers watching him with blank faces, or with gleeful expressions at one of the lofty Cartwrights making a fool of himself, or with plain curiosity at what would happen next.

“No.” He spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m not talking about one of them, I’m talking about him!” He pointed at the figure that was starting to edge closer into his vision. Adam realised if he stopped struggling to focus, the man became a little clearer. He squinted and cocked his head as he tried to identify the shape who was dressed in black from head to foot, but whose face was nothing more than a jagged blur. Why the hell couldn’t he focus?

Without warning the blur seemed to flicker and jumped so close to Adam that for a brief, heart-stopping moment he saw its face. The heat that had been flooding his body, drained in an instant. His skin paled, the hairs on his flesh prickling as his body was bathed in an icy chill. Adam stumbled back, fumbling to wrench his Colt from its holster. He could not a grip on the butt. But then it was in his hand. Only his thumb seemed too large to pull back the hammer. The figure fluttered backwards and again to the extreme edge of his vision. Adam swung around, his gun a dead weight in his grip, his legs struggling to keep him upright. There were gasps and exclamations from the crowd and a woman screamed as Adam’s weapon swerved towards her. But Adam could see no one but his tormenter. He did not see the menfolk pressing their women behind them and backing away. He did not see the anxious eyes focussed on a manic man pointing aimlessly with his gun. He did not notice the weapons being drawn and levelled directly at him. Adam’s world had shrunk to only him and the one who baited him.

“Ah, Adam?” Clem was inching forward, his arm outstretched before him, the other waving the crowd back as Adam spun from one side to the other with the loaded weapon. “Wotcha doin’ there? Nobody here wants to hurt yer. Just hand me yer gun and we’ll get the doc to take a look at cha.”

Adam no longer heard Clem. Or saw him. Or saw the crowd. There was only him and the phantom that haunted him. Because what he had seen could not be real. The face was…Oh God! He clamped his eyes closed, shaking his head vigorously to clear his mind of what could not be. Wobbly legs threatened to buckle beneath him and his arm felt like lead as he struggled to hold the gun steady. His vision was a haze of distorted forms and fuzzy contours as he strained to follow the pulsating apparition with his weapon.

It jumped again. Adam fired. A woman screamed.

For a fleeting moment Adam was back on C Street, aware of people around him. His persecutor had disappeared and Bill Hardy, a cowpoke from the Flying Eagle Ranch, was on the ground, a hand clutching the top of his arm. Adam took a stumbling step towards Clem, his eyes wide in confusion. He became aware of the gun in his hand and let it drop to the ground as though it had flared red hot. But then a sharp pain coursed up the back of his skull. His vision shattered into a thousand shards of diamond light and Adam fell, dropping hard onto his stomach. As his pain-filled head flattened against the earth and he saw several pairs of boots running towards him, his last memory before he faded was of a dark flickering shadow that hovered above him and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

*****

Ben Cartwright almost wrenched the door off its hinges as he thundered into the sheriff’s office, Hoss and Joe hard on his heels. Clem was standing in the entrance to the cells and barely had time to move into the main office and close the door behind him before Ben was bearing down on him.

“What’s all this tomfoolery about Adam being locked up? The man you sent said Adam was in jail and that we needed to get down here, then rode off without a bye your leave.”

“Ben, if you’d just—”

“You know my son, Clem. You know he’s no lawbreaker. I want to see him.”

Ben took two paces towards the cells but Clem side-stepped to block his path, his hands raised to stop him.

“Ben, there are things you need to know before I let you go in there.”

Ben visibly swelled, growing taller as his temper threatened to get the better of him. He took another step but a hand on his arm stayed him. Angling his head, he recognised Hoss’s large fingers resting gently on his sleeve. He took a deep breath.

“Well? What are these…things…I need to know?”

“I think you should sit down.”

“I don’t want to sit down, I want to see Adam.”

“Pa.” It was Joe’s soft tones. “I think we should listen to what Clem has to say.”

Ben shot a sharp look at Joe, but seeing the worry on his youngest boy’s face, he sighed and took the offered seat.

Clem perched on his desk. “I’ve been in court all week for the Theodore Barley murder case.”

“What’s that got to do with Adam being locked up?”

“Pa.”

Ben heard the admonition in Hoss’s voice and, after a pause, looked back at Clem.

“Go on.”

“I heard what Adam said about seeing Doc Martin for headaches and not sleeping. Has he been…” Clem threw a glance at the three men and pursed his lips. “Has Adam been acting himself lately?”

“What do you mean acting himself? Of course he’s been acting himself. He’s Adam. What are you talking about?”

“Has he been complaining of…seeing things, or maybe acting a bit more…confrontational?”

Ben rose sharply from his seat.

“What are you talking about, Clem? Adam’s been fine, a little tired perhaps, but…” The guilt which had been gnawing at Ben’s soul since Adam’s admission in the courtroom, flared into denial. They had all been working so hard these last few weeks, some days they hardly exchanged two words over the dinner table. And now Clem was daring to suggest there was something amiss with Adam, something he not seen with his own eyes. Ben’s guilt made him truculent. He started to move towards the cells. “I want to see my son.”

Clem shifted off the desk.

“Adam went crazy in the street this afternoon, Ben. He shot Bill Hardy.”

Ben froze, and turned to meet Clem’s steady gaze.

“He did what?” Ben’s eyes sought out those of Hoss and Joe. He saw reflected there the thoughts going through his own mind. It could not be true, there had to be some mistake. Not Adam. Not stoic, sensible Adam.

“Just as I said.” Clem moved to stand in front of Ben. “There didn’t seem any reason for it. ‘Ceptin’ he was seein’ things that weren’t there. He pulled his gun, fired off a shot and hit Bill.”

Ben’s eyes flickered from side to side, unable to focus, unable to think. He opened his mouth to speak but no words would form. And the same refrain repeated over and over. It can’t be true, it can’t be true, there had to be some mistake.

Hoss’s voice sounded loud in the office.

“Is Bill…?”

“Ah, he’s fine, Hoss, it was just a flesh wound in the arm. But it was then that Cletus from the Assay Office took his chance and whacked Adam on the head with his Remington. Knocked him out cold.”

Ben roused from his stupor. “Are you telling me my son is injured?”

“Doc’s been in, but…” Clem paused.

“But what? What aren’t you telling me?”

Clem sighed. “I think it’ll be easier to show you.”

He led Ben to the cells, opening the door cautiously. Joe and Hoss exchanged a look and followed.

What greeted Ben was a vision of such unexpected disorder that he was brought to a halt in the doorway and had to rest a hand on the jamb for support. Facing him was a locked cell with a cot tipped over on its side and the remains of a wooden stool scattered in pieces across the floor. In the corner, sitting on the floor against the wall, squeezing his knees into his chest was Adam. His head was lowered, his face hidden from view, but there was no escaping the rivulet of blood that had trickled down his neck, or the flush on his skin. One white-knuckled hand clasped a piece of wood.

Hoss and Joe moved to either side of Ben, their gazes fixed on their brother, and Ben saw the shock he felt mirrored in their faces.

“What happened here?”

“He wasn’t out long, Ben, just long enough for us to fetch him in here. He was calm at first, just lay there holding the back of his head till Doc Martin arrived. But that’s when the trouble started. Doc asked him to open his eyes and then he just…well you can see what happened. He took one look at the doc and went for him. Doc lost his footing, went down hard, Adam was on top. I had to get in quick to get him off but he started on me too. I got the bruises to prove it. It took both of us to get him onto his stomach and when he seemed to have calmed down, we got out as quick as we could.”

“And the cot?”

“As soon as I pulled the door too, Adam jumped up and tried to get out. I swear, Ben, I don’t know where he got the strength from. It took everything I had to hold the door shut and lock it at the same time.” Clem sighed. “He was begging me to open the door but I just couldn’t risk it.” Clem’s voice grew quiet. “I never thought I’d see Adam beg for anything. He then took himself into that corner, upturned the cot and broke up the stool. You can see he’s holding one of the stool legs in his hand. He’s not moved from there since.”

Ben had not taken his eyes from Adam during Clem’s account, and edged slowly towards the bars.

“What’s happened to him? He was okay this morning. Yes, he was tired, but this…” Ben turned suddenly to Clem. “Where’s Paul Martin? He should be here.”

“The doc left just before you arrived. He said he wanted to consult his medical books.”

Ben looked back to Adam who had not moved from his spot in the corner. He had not acknowledged the arrival of his father or brothers. Was he even aware they were there? Ben’s fingers curled around the bars and gripped them tightly.

“Adam? Adam, son?”

Adam wrapped his arms over his head, burying his head deeper into his knees.

“Adam, please look at me.”

There was no response.

“Adam!” Ben’s tone grew sharp. If gentle words would not generate a response then the voice his boys all knew so well may work. It was the voice they had known since boyhood. The voice they tried to avoid. The voice that signified displeasure, disapproval, disappointment.

It only served to make Adam curl further into a ball. Ben released his grip from the cell bars.

“Open the door, Clem.”

“Ben, I—”

“Clem, until you’re a father yourself, don’t tell me I cannot be with my son. Now open the cell door.”

*****

Pain. Tight crawling pain in his scalp. He probed, the tips of his fingers were wet. Blood. Don’t move. To move caused more pain to lance, his brain to press harder against his skull. How long had he been unconscious? He remembered the street, grit on his lips as he fell, faces staring as the blackness swallowed him. There was sand glued to his cheek. And something else, another sensation against his skin. His fingers reached out. A blanket. Rough. Where was he?

He called to mind something else. Something he did not want to remember. A figure. A man. Toying with him. Plaguing him. Was he real? He had thought so, until… The thing had jumped. No man moved that way. It had skipped to within inches from his face in the time it took to blink. But worse than that. He had seen its face, and, oh, the fear!  He had not been that scared since he was a small boy.

Now his eyes were closed, his hand hugging the back of his head, and it was silent. No voices.

Someone touched his hand, moving it away from the wound on his scalp. They were speaking to him. Doc’s voice. Then others. The room was filling with voices, and they wouldn’t stop asking, pleading, begging, shouting, whispering for him to open his eyes. He didn’t want to. But they were so loud. They wouldn’t stop. He tried to block them out; he thrust his hands over his ears. But the voices were echoing in his head and the only way to make them stop…

He opened his eyes.

And looked into the face of the devil.

Fear crawled up his spine and bound itself around his senses. A cry crawled its way up from his gut, and he launched himself at the face staring back at him. He punched and clawed at the figure. It was real, so real. Fists connecting with solid flesh. Fingers groping for the throat. And then he was being forced back, away from his tormentor. He had had him. The figure was getting away. He turned on the one who held him but this one was stronger and he was soon overpowered. The voices returned. Saying his name over and over. And he was powerless against them.

He was free. He could move his arms again. And when he looked up, his mind cleared and he saw where he was. In a cell. Clem was there. Clem, his friend. Adam scrambled to his feet and grabbed at the cell door. But Clem was pulling it shut and locking it.

Locking Adam in.

Then the voice spoke.

He snapped his head to one side. In the corner of his eye the shadowy figure flickered. A dark shade in the dim cell. A jagged-edged blur hovering like a wraith. He turned to the door. Fingers clutched metal bars and there were shadows on the other side. And for the first time in his life, he begged. He pleaded with the shadows. Let him out. He didn’t belong here. Please let him out. The figure jumped forward and he saw its face. All he could do was slide to his knees and grip the bars with all his strength. Tears began to seep from his eyes and he lost the ability to speak.

The thing jumped to his side. Cold fear sucked the air from his lungs and he threw himself as far away as he could go. The corner. The cot became a barricade. The blur drew near again. He needed a weapon. The stool. He smashed it against the wall. It wasn’t much, but enough.

Closing his eyes, he could pretend the devil wasn’t in the cell with him.

If only he could shut out the voices.

*****

Ben glared at Clem. “You’ve gotta let me in there. I need to…” His voice faded. What did he need? All Ben knew was his son needed him, needed his touch. “I have to talk to him, without a wall of metal bars between us. Clem, please open the door.”

“I can’t do it, Ben, you didn’t see him. I can’t take the risk of you getting hurt. Roy’d have my hide.”

“He’s my son. I know him better than anyone. He won’t hurt me.”

Clem hefted the ring of keys in his hand, measured their weight, and then sighed.

“This goes against my better judgement.” He thumbed through until he found the key he was looking for and inserted it into the lock. Pausing a moment, he looked intently at Ben. “Be ready, Ben; he didn’t recognise me or Paul Martin, he may not know you. So just be on your guard.”

Ben bristled. This was Adam, his son. Not a caged wild animal that could attack without provocation. Clem turned the key and the door opened with a metallic creak.  Moving into the cell, Ben did not see the nod Clem gave to Hoss and Joe to follow. He stepped over the cot and lowered himself to his haunches in front of his eldest boy.

“Adam,” he whispered.

Ben could see Adam tense. There was a hitch in Adam’s breath and the arms clutching his legs pulled tighter around his knees.

Ben laid a hesitant hand on his son’s arm but Adam jerked away from the touch.

“Adam.” Ben threw a despairing glance at Hoss and Joe.

“No.” Adam shook his head, his voice muffled.

“Talk to me, son, you must—”

“No!” Adam lifted his head and, before Ben could react, had pushed with all his might at his father. Ben fell back, stunned by his son’s speed. Adam was on his feet, treading over Ben, kicking the cot aside, heading for the open cell door. But he did not account for his two younger brothers who each grabbed an arm and battled to keep their resisting sibling under control.

“Pa, get outta here,” shouted Hoss as Adam squirmed within his grasp. Ben dragged himself to his feet and shoved past his sons to the safety of the outer cells.

“Yer ready, Joe?”

“Yep!” Joe’s voice was strained from restraining a brother who seemed to have tripled in strength.

“Now!”

They both released their hold on Adam and gave him a robust push before making a sharp exit through the cell door where Clem was waiting with his key.

Hoss leant back against the wall as Joe bent over, catching his breath. “Dadburn, but he’s stronger than he looks.”

But Ben was not concerned with Adam’s strength. His heart was breaking at the sight of his eldest boy lying stunned on the cell floor, having fallen backwards over the cot. Ben took an unwitting step back as Adam hauled himself upright and thumped against the bars, enclosing the cold metal in a white-knuckled grip.

“You have to let me out.” Adam threw a glance over his shoulder into the cell. As he turned back, Ben saw his son’s eyes glistening with fear. “Please let me out.” He spoke quickly, quietly. There was another glance over his shoulder. “Please.” Ben had never heard his son beg before. All any of them could do was stare as Adam pleaded for release. But his appeals went unheeded and abruptly his tears turned to anger. With eyes spitting white-hot rage, he demanded, insisted, screamed to be let out. And using all the strength he had, he rattled the bars as if brute force could rip the door from its hinges.

Ben’s soul was a cauldron of bubbling despair and it was only as he reached the door to the cell area did he realise his two boys had been gently, but steadily, steering him away from Adam. Clem closed the door behind them, but Adam’s angry cries could still be heard echoing from the walls, and deep into Ben’s fragmented heart.

***** 

A new voice had spoken not long after he’d crawled into the corner of the cell and armed himself with the shattered stool leg. A voice that made his breath catch in his throat and his lips part in hopeful anticipation. It was the voice of his father. Only, when he’d looked up, all he could see was the devil in the corner and his father was nowhere to be seen.

“Adam, son.”

“Where are you, Pa?”

“I’m here, boy.”

He’d peered all around him, but only the shadow spoke, and he had buried his head once more in his arms.

“You’re not my father. You’re not real.”

“I’m real, boy.”

He had lifted his face and seen the devil’s shimmering feet. Jerking his head away he’d quickly chanced another look around him.

“I can’t see you, Pa.”

“You keep looking right at me.”

“No, you’re not my…” He’d buried his head in his knees. “What’s happening to me?”

“Don’t you realise, boy. It’s your day of reckoning.”

*****

Ben fell into a seat, his eyes glazed. “What’s happened to him? He was fine this morning. But, he didn’t know me.”

“Did you see his eyes?” Joe’s voice cut into Ben’s numbness.

“What?”

“His eyes. His pupils were huge.”

“What’s that about his eyes, Joe?”

A new voice punctured through the room. Doctor Paul Martin stood framed in the doorway, his medical bag in hand.

Ben was on his feet in a second. “Paul, thank God. Adam, he’s, he’s…”

Doctor Martin laid his bag on the table and placed a comforting hand on Ben’s arm. “I know, Ben. I saw him when they brought him in. I bear the bruises to prove it.” His mouth curved into a wry smile.

Ben lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Paul, you know this is not Adam. I can’t…I don’t understand.”

Paul Martin led Ben to his chair. “Sit down, Ben.” He took in the faces of Hoss and Joe, diagnosing in an instant the shared distress, the disbelief, the evident shock that something so out of character was happening to their brother. “I need you to tell me everything that’s been going on with Adam recently. When I saw him yesterday he complained of trouble sleeping and headaches. Has he been acting strangely, complaining of seeing things? Talking of which, Joe, you said Adam’s eyes were dilated?”

“They were huge, Doc. Made his eyes look completely black.”

“There are lots of reasons for the pupils to become dilated. It can signify a brain injury or that he’s imbibed a medication or poison.”

“You think Adam’s been poisoned?” Ben was on his feet again, his chair skidding backwards from the impetus.

The doctor’s open face widened as he pinned comforting eyes on Ben. He gently grasped his friend’s upper arms and steered him back into his seat. “I’m not saying that, Ben. At the moment, we don’t know why this has happened.”

He looked around at the faces staring back at him. “Tell me about Adam.”

Hoss shifted away from where he had been leaning against the wall, arms crossed across his chest, his light blue eyes dark beneath sunken brows. “I ‘spect Adam told you he’s been workin’ really hard these past weeks. He’s been pushin’ himself too hard, in my eyes.”

Joe’s fingers were worrying the corner of the desk. “And the court case has been getting to him. Theodore Barley was a friend of his. He’s taken his death hard, all the worse because he witnessed it.”

“Has he spoken about it?”

Joe snorted. “You know Adam.”

Ben leaned forward. “Adam has never been one to share his feelings. He locks them away, hides them.”

“Well he’s not hiding them now.” The doctor sighed. “Before I make a diagnosis I’d like to examine my patient.”

Clem pushed away from his desk. “Well, now, Doc, I don’t know if—”

“Don’t worry, Clem, I learned my lesson the last time. I’ll stay on this side of the bars.”

***** 

“A reckoning?”

“Yes, boy. For what you’ve done.”

What had he done that required a reckoning? He had killed, they all had, but that was the way of the West. And he’d only killed to defend his family, to defend the land.

“Your mother.”

Oh God.

“If it wasn’t for you, boy, Elizabeth would still be alive.”

His heartbeat, already rapid, began to race even faster. He was hot, so hot. He tore at his shirt, tugging at the buttons. A few ripped away, pinging onto the floor. The blurry figure was too close. He staggered to hands and feet and lurched across the cell to the other side. Collapsing against the cell door, he let his head fall back. Breathe, breathe, he needed air, needed to cool down.

“You should have died, boy, not Elizabeth.”

“No, Pa!” His anguished voice reverberated around the cell. “You always said it wasn’t my fault.”

“What I say and what I feel are as far apart as the top of the mountain and the bottom of the sea.”

His head rocked from side to side, knocking against the fist holding fast to a metal bar. If he let go he knew he would collapse to the floor. “It’s not my fault.” His voice was stifled against his fist.

“Whose fault is it then? You killed her, boy. She died to give you life.”

“Please, Pa.” He could feel saliva dampening the back of his hand.

“Was her life worth yours?

He clenched his eyes shut to stop the tears from falling.

*****

Paul Martin closed the door softly behind him and with his hand still on the handle, observed his patient. It had been just over two hours since Adam had let out an ear-splitting cry and launched himself at the doc. Paul put a hand to his throat, knowing he would bear the tender flesh for days to come. Adam was calmer now, sitting with his back to the cell door, his head leaning back against the bars. Paul edged closer so he could see Adam’s face. His patient’s eyes were fixed on the corner of the cell, barely blinking, red and bloodshot as a result. Paul spoke his name and Adam’s head moved towards him, but his eyes did not stray from the corner of the cell.

“Adam, it’s Paul Martin.”

There was a rapid-fire blink and a breath hitched in Adam’s throat.

“Doc.” Adam spoke slowly and then a half-smile graced his features. “And now it’s the doc.”

Paul Martin lowered himself to the ground.

“Do you know where you are, Adam?”

There was a sigh.

“Jail.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

Adam took a hasty breath. “Because of him.”

Paul frowned. “Who, Adam?”

“Him.” He turned back to face the corner of the cell.

It was with a heavy heart that Paul heard Adam’s reply. From what Clem had told him of the incident in the street, and following his own, bruising, encounter, he had concluded Adam was suffering from hallucinations. And now, Adam was staring hard at someone—or something—that was not there. He took heed of one of the textbooks he had referred to when he had hurried back to his surgery. Assume a different aspect, one that enforces respect and attention from the insane. A penetrating eye will appear to search into their hearts, and arrest their thoughts as they arise. Thus, establish a dominion, which is afterwards employed as a principal agent of cure[1].

Easier said than done, thought Paul. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound.

“Adam, I want you to look at me.”

“Why? You’re not there. You’re just a voice.”

Paul frowned. “I’m here, Adam. Look at me, you’ll see.”

There was a slight shake of his head. “It’s a trick. He’s the only one here. Everyone else…just voices.”

As Paul had surmised, establishing a rapport with Adam in this state was not going to be easy. Well, if Adam refused to stop looking at whatever he could see, it was time to try a different approach.

“What do the voices say to you, Adam?”

There was a momentary twitch around his patient’s eyes, smoothed away as quickly as it appeared.

“The truth.”

“The truth about what?”

The twitch flickered again. There was a pause.

“Me.”

Paul suppressed a sigh.

“And what is the truth?”

Adam blinked, his chest started to rise and fall rapidly. “Can’t say; they don’t want me to say.”

“Who, Adam, who doesn’t want—”

“The voices, all the voices!”

Another rapid-fire blink followed. Paul could see Adam was starting to get agitated so he waited a moment, allowing his patient to calm down.

“It’s okay, Adam, it’s okay.” Paul risked reaching through the bars to place a comforting hand on Adam’s arm, but Adam flinched away. Paul dropped his hand and sighed. He would try one last time.

“Adam, you really need to look at me.”

A furrow creased Adam’s brow. “I can’t,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Why?” Paul asked softly.

Adam took a quivering breath. “It’ll move. Get too close. It says…bad things.” He swallowed. “I need to know where it is.”

“He won’t say anything to you, Adam, not while I’m here, I promise. Please look at me.”

There was a brief movement of Adam’s head as he turned it towards the doctor, but his eyes stayed trained on his invisible persecutor.

“Trust me, Adam.”

Adam heaved in a long breath but then a pair of tired, red-rimmed eyes flicked to Paul. Huge, black pupils had stripped them of all colour.

“That’s good, good.” Paul’s jubilation could be heard in his voice. He shifted forward onto one knee. “Just look at me, Adam, nowhere else. Keep looking at me.”

But Adam’s vision was only fixed on Paul for a matter of seconds before he began to focus his attention on the room behind the doctor. He squeezed his eyes closed and drew his legs up to his chest, and with his hands clasped to his ears began to murmur. “Ah, no, no, no, not again. Stop, stop talking, leave me alone.”

Only, it was not Paul whom Adam could hear, and it was with despair the doctor climbed to his feet and left his friend muttering on the cell floor.

*****

Nothing stopped the voices. Eyes closed. Eyes open. He heard them no matter what.

The dark shade stopped moving if he stared at it for long enough. But fighting the instinct to blink brought dry, red, sore, painful eyes.  And nothing stopped it talking. So what did it matter? Let them do what they will, say what they will. The worst had been said. His heart was already broken.

His father blamed him for his mother’s death. He had always known this fact. It had been buried, unspoken, deep down. But for the first time he had heard his father telling him so. Only, his father did not stop there.

“What do you think happened to Ruth Halverson?” his father’s voice quietened the others.

“Ruth?” He had not heard her name, or thought about her, in a long while. “She went with the Shoshone.”

“I know, but after, when she had been unable to save the lives of their people?”

“Who’s to say she didn’t?”

“Don’t argue, boy. She never came looking for you; the Shoshone would have seen she wasn’t a spirit woman, that she was flesh and blood. She’s most likely dead.”

“No!” He forced himself to his knees, onto legs that did not want to hold his weight, swinging his makeshift weapon in a wide arc at the shady figure. It flickered, shifted. He whipped around to face it, teeth gritted, and swung again. Once more it was gone. It hovered now near the door. He hit out with the stool leg but lost his balance, toppled, hit the ground with a groan. He lay with his head on his arms.

“Most likely dead,” whispered his father’s voice.

“No.”

“Dead.”

“Don’t say that.” His voice was muffled.

“Yet another woman who gave their life to save you. Are you worth so many lives?”

“Please, Pa. I loved her.”

“You’re worth nothing, boy.” 

*****

“Gentlemen, from what I’ve witnessed, Adam appears to be suffering a form of psychosis.”

Paul had exited the cells to be confronted with a sea of hopeful faces. He had lowered his head, and they had known straightaway he could not tell them what they wanted to hear.

Ben stood. “Paul, what are you saying?”

Doctor Martin looked at each man in turn. “Sit down, Ben, boys.”

Ben grunted and then took the chair Paul was indicating. Hoss and Joe moved to stand behind their father. Facing a wall of Cartwrights would be enough to unnerve the hardiest of doctors, but these people were his friends. He had treated their illnesses, injuries and more gunshot wounds than he could count. Beating around the bush was not an option. They needed the hard truth.

“It’s as I feared after my earlier visit, Ben. Adam has experienced what my medical associates are now calling a psychotic event.” Blank looks met his words and Paul took a deep breath. “Adam is suffering from hallucinations, he’s hearing voices, he’s in a state of heightened emotion. He doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t.”

Ben shook his head, his lips parting. “I don’t understand, Paul, how could this just happen?”

“There are many reasons. Grief, disease, anxiety. Adam has been under a lot of pressure lately and not sleeping. I’m inclined to believe that is the cause.”

Hoss straightened up from where he’d been leaning on the desk. “Are you sayin’ that a lil’ bit of hard work and no sleep has made Adam lose his mind?”

Ben turned sharply in his chair. “Don’t say that!” Dark eyes bored into Hoss’s blue ones. Ben relaxed his rigid stance. “Your brother has not…lost his mind. This is just temporary. Isn’t it, doctor?”

Paul Martin sighed. “In truth, I don’t know. But I’ve had no experience of, or read about a patient who had one attack, and then returned to a normal life after. I’m sorry, Ben, but this is only the beginning.”

Ben’s gaze turned inward. Similar looks of disbelief were painted on the faces of Hoss and Joe. Clem had dropped his head, his expression hidden. But then Ben was on his feet.

“No, Paul, I refuse to believe it, this is Adam we’re talking about. He’s been through worse than this. Remember what he experienced in the desert, we lost him for two weeks, he was broken when we found him. But he pulled through because he’s strong in body. And in mind.”

Paul nodded. “That’s true, Ben, but remember the proverb: it’s the straw that will break the camel’s back. Maybe Adam’s been strong too long.”

And with those words, Ben’s world came crashing down on him.

***** 

He had been staring at the devil again. His eyes were dry and sore. He had to blink. And in that infinitesimal moment when the world was dark, the devil disappeared. He stared hard, his eyes fixed on the spot where the devil had been. But it was empty. He took a chance, blinked again. Still empty. He felt such relief that a long breath quavered in his chest. Then the heels of his hands were in his eyes, rubbing away the soreness, rubbing away the redness and yet making his eyes redder. He didn’t care. He could feel his eyes tearing up and the wetness was like salve on a cut, soothing and refreshing. He sighed.

When he opened his eyes once more, the bars of the cell were moving. At first undulating ripples up and down the metal. He stared in wonder. It was so calming he could feel his heart slow. Then the bars began to spin. Everywhere he looked the bars were swirling into a myriad of infinite colour. He was becoming lost in a kaleidoscope of whirling patterns and sparkling hues. The fear that had gripped him faded, replaced by euphoria that warmed his body and made his flesh tingle. A grin opened his face from ear to ear and then he could no longer contain the pleasure that sought to explode from within.

*****

Adam was laughing.

At any other time, Adam’s throaty laugh would have not have sent his father and brothers running. But this was like no other time, and they burst through the door into the cell area as though being chased by an angry grizzly. They came to an abrupt halt and cautiously approached the cell.

He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his eyes wide as he gazed up at the bars. His face was lit with wonder as he laughed at what only he could see.

Ben lowered himself to one knee, grasping the bars in front of him. “Adam?”

His son did not respond.

“Adam, son, can you hear me?”

Adam looked towards the door, but his eyes were floating from one area to the next.

“Paul?”

Doctor Martin had followed them into the cell block and dropped down to Ben’s level. “If I didn’t know any better, Ben, I’d say Adam is in a state of bliss.”

Ben’s head snapped sharply to face Paul. “But how could this be? Only moments ago he was terrified of everything and everyone, and now look at him.”

“Ben, the way the mind works is still as much a mystery as it’s ever been. They are making great advances in helping people in Adam’s condition—”

“Condition!” Ben snorted. “Adam doesn’t have a condition.”

Paul laid a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Ben. Look, this may be an opportune time to get the cell cleaned up and him on the cot. I don’t think there’s any worry he’ll fight back.”

Clem had been leaning in the doorway, and after a nod from Paul, and with Hoss and Joe at the ready, unlocked the cell.

Adam was gently raised to his feet and the cot righted and quickly made up. Ben swiftly gathered what was left of the broken stool and tossed them out the door. And all the while, Adam gazed in open-faced joy at the space around them. Joe tried to take the stool leg which Adam still held in his hand, but his grip was too tight and the attempt was soon abandoned. After being lowered to the cot, Paul finally had a chance to check his head wound—“it’s just a scratch. Scalp injuries can sometimes seem worse than they are. I’ve told you before about that thick Cartwright skull,”—and take a good look at his eyes.

“Incredible. I’ve seen dilated pupils before but never to this extent.” Paul rose to his feet. “Just what is going on in that mind of his?” He shook his head, dismissing the thought.

“Can you give him something, Paul? Perhaps if he could sleep?”

“I’d rather not do that, Ben. I don’t know what affect a sleeping powder, or laudanum, would have on his already tangled mind.” He looked down at Adam. “Lift his legs, we’ll lay him down. He may fall asleep on his own.”

Adam let the two men arrange him onto his side, but moments later he had shifted onto his back, his eyes still open and now staring at the ceiling.

One by one the men filed out into the office, Ben turning at the door to give his son a final look. It was with a heavy sigh that he pulled the door too behind him.

*****

A sheaf of papers fluttered to the ground, sending Silas Oates into a flustered flurry, snatching to retrieve them before passing boots and hooves trod them underfoot. With his recovered wad of notes clutched close to his chest, the prosecutor hurried on his way, shouldering into hapless pedestrians as he scurried down the sidewalk. He burst into the sheriff’s office with such violence that five faces turned to him in stunned amazement. Silas held out an appeasing arm as he spied Little Joe Cartwright instantly draw his six-shooter halfway out of its holster. Shoving away from the wall, Hoss Cartwright’s lowered brows cast his eyes into shadow and Silas had an instant impression of an angry she-bear moving forward to protect her cubs. Ben Cartwright twisted in his seat, black eyes blazing as his conversation with Doctor Martin was so rudely interrupted. The only man who did not move was Clem. He was clearly used to people bursting through his office door at all hours of the day and night.

“Gentlemen, please, I did not mean to make such an entrance.”

“What do you want, Oates?” Ben thundered.

Silas flinched at the volume. He was used to dealing with crabby old judges from all territories, and having abuse flung at him by those he was prosecuting and their families, but even Silas Oates quailed at the forcefulness inherent in a furious Ben Cartwright.

“I’ve just this minute left the courthouse and was accosted by that drunkard Colly Ruthers who, after breathing his foul whisky breath all over me, said that Adam Cartwright had shot up the town and been locked up.”

Observation was the key to Silas’s success; being able to read the faces of witnesses and defendants. He had sent more than one miscreant to the gallows on the strength of a fleeting glance towards a spectator, or the look that said you can’t touch me, but which only served to make Silas work harder to prove their guilt. The faces arrayed before him showed him everything he needed to know, and his heart sank. Hoss and Joe fired meaningful glances at each other and turned away. Ben’s lips pursed as he rose to his feet and Clem was an open book as he scratched at his temple. Only Doc Martin’s face remained inscrutable. He would make a great poker player, thought Silas.

“Adam did not shoot up the town, what nonsense.” Ben bristled. “There was an incident—”

“Bill Hardy was shot.”

Ben fixed a cool gaze on Silas. “It was an accident.”

“Colly said he was seeing things, pointing his gun at nothing.”

“Colly Ruthers is a drunk who spends too much time wearing his boots out on brass rails.” Ben took a step towards the door. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“So, you’re telling me Adam is not locked up in a cell back there?”

“I’m telling you it’s none of your business,” Ben gripped Silas’s arm and steered him towards the door. “Now, if you would kindly leave—”

A laugh echoed through the office. Adam’s laugh. Ben froze. Silas watched his shoulders lower, as though in defeat, and saw him catch the eye of Hoss and Joe.

“That’s Adam,” said Silas, pulling out of Ben’s grasp and moving towards Clem. “So it is true. That’s my chief witness you’ve got locked up back there. Without him the whole case will collapse.”

Ben bore down on Silas in one long stride. He grabbed the little man by the collar, lifting him up onto the tips of his toes.

“Do you think I care about your court case? My son is…” Ben released him, allowing Silas to squirm out of his reach. “My son…” Ben’s voice trembled as he collapsed back into a chair, his face a mask of anguish. “Please, just go,” he said, shielding his eyes with a hand.

Silas’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t understand. Is Adam hurt?” He turned to the doc. “If he’s hurt, why aren’t you tending to him?” He saw the stricken faces. “What aren’t you telling me?” He was met with silence. “If Adam is discredited in any way, then Jacob Barley will go free.”

Joe took a slow step towards him, his hand dropping to his revolver. “You heard my father, go.”

The implicit threat was not lost on the lawyer. He quickly gathered together his bundle of papers, collected his bag and with a last look at the huddle of men, backed out of the office.

***** 

He had slept. But it was a sleep beset with horrors.

He was on a wagon journeying ever westward, his father smiling down at him by his side. A round-brimmed hat shaded his eyes from the sun. Looking out across the wide-open prairies, he had gazed with wonder at a landscape of never-ending verdant grass dotted lilac with Blazing Star. A smile of delight had transformed his solemn face, lighting up his eyes at the beauty of the world before him. He had turned back to share his pleasure with his father, but it was no longer his protector sitting beside him, but a figure in black, a creature with a human shape, distorted and jagged. With eyes that bulged with terror, he looked up at the figure’s face, but what he saw filled him with such fear that he jumped from the moving wagon, jarring his outstretched hands as he hit the hard ground. He ran, ran as fast as his small legs could carry him. And when he turned, the wagon was gone and he was alone. In every direction there was nothing but barren desert, parched rocks as far as the eye could see. Where was his pa? “Pa?” His voice was weak, his words stuck in his throat. Swallowing back the saliva that soaked his tongue he cried out for his father. But his cries echoed back from the rocks and his pa didn’t come. He turned round and round, not knowing where to go, what to do. And then he understood he was alone in the world, and sank to his knees and cried.

*****

Joe had no idea what time it was, just that it was early evening sometime; the lanterns had been lit an hour since as night drew in early this time of year. Adam was quiet. He had been since their pa and Doc Martin had laid him down, praying he would find relief in sleep from his torments. And he might be sleeping, but none of them wanted him to be alone. An hour earlier Joe had shooed his father out of the cell area, under duress, but he knew that Ben would be pacing the office outside, unable to sit, unable to settle, his mind trying to make sense of the affliction that had taken over his son. The doc had returned to his surgery; there was nothing more he could do at the sheriff’s office for now. And not long after the lawyer had left, Hoss had left too. After a few quiet words with his pa, Hoss had run out, a determined look darkening his face.

Spinning the chair round that his pa had vacated, Joe straddled the seat, resting his arms on the chair back. He observed the back of his brother’s shoulder rise and fall with every slow breath. When Adam was still, Joe would lower his head upon his arms. He dropped off on a few occasions; coming too with a start when his arms slipped off the chair back. Once he had awoken to find a blanket draped over him. He had smiled, knowing without being told that his father had been unable to stay away. But Joe was not kidding himself that his brother was in a dreamless sleep, for Adam would grow restless, muttering indecipherable words, his shoulder twitching as he dreamed. And that is when Joe would raise his head and lean forward over the chair and wonder what had caused his brother to lose his mind so abruptly.

Lose your mind. How could that be? Adam had the cleverest brain of the lot of them, what with all that studying and poetry. Heck, Pa must have been right: education did mess with your thinking. A grimace of a smile graced Joe’s lips and he raised his eyes at that thought. This was no laughing matter. From what the doc said earlier, if Adam stayed in this state, he might end up in a lunatic asylum. Joe buried his face in his arms, tears dampening the sleeves of his shirt. A lunatic asylum! How could they have woken up that morning, and not known, just not known Adam was sick, that his mind was teetering on the edge of insanity? There must have been signs. How did they miss them? Adam had been working all hours. Joe had lost track of the number of times he had gone to bed and Adam and his pa had still been poring over a wordy contract or ploughing through figures. And when he had arrived at the breakfast table, Adam was already saddling up and ready to ride out, impatient to get going. He had been bad-tempered and grouchy. Was that a sign? Gee, if it was, then Adam had been about to blow since the day Joe was born.

Joe slipped off the chair and sat on the floor outside the cell. Adam’s face was hidden, curled into the blanket and all Joe could see was his head of thick black hair. But Joe was closer to him, and that’s all that mattered.

“Come on, Big Brother,” he whispered, “this ain’t you.”

He reached a hand through the bars and tentatively touched Adam’s head. There was no reaction to Joe’s touch, but Adam was growing twitchier as dreams once more started to assail him.

And then Joe’s heart broke, because Adam began to weep as he slept. “Oh, Adam,” slipped from Joe’s lips. He could count on one hand the number of times he had seen his brother cry. The last time had been after the incident in the desert when Adam had fallen into his father’s arms, heaving great sobs. This was different. This was quiet; a low broken moan, muffled as Adam wept into his blanket, and with shoulders that shook gently. Joe stroked his brother’s hair, hoping his touch would soothe him. But Adam continued to weep, unaware of the cell, or Joe, or the rough blanket beneath his cheek. He was lost in a dream world, and Joe could not even begin to guess what was making his brother cry with such raw intensity.

***** 

He cried until there were no more tears left, and with shoulders slumped and his head curled into his chest, he whimpered and sniffed. He was alone. Abandoned.

Unwanted.

But then a shadow darkened the ground, and with a surge of joy he knew his pa had found him. His eyes lit up as he lifted his head. But the smile illuminating his face swiftly faded, his skin lost its colour and his chin began to tremble. For it wasn’t his pa standing there, but the thing he had so desperately run from. He was frozen to the ground, the hair on his body spiking in fear.

The figure shimmered before him, a black streak with indefinable edges. Yet the more he stared, the clearer the figure became. When he saw its face, he found his voice and let out a cry, scrambling to his feet. He turned, but the figure was suddenly in front of him. He moved in another direction but it was there. Everywhere he went, the figure hovered before him.

“Go away,” he cried. “Leave me alone.”

But the figure only drifted closer.

“How can I go away,” it said, “when I am inside you.”

He was too small, too young to understand.

“I am you, I am inside you. Free me, and I will go.”

He cried out, scared, wanting his pa.

But then he understood. To be free of it, he had to let the devil inside him out. He looked down at his thin arms and began to claw at his skin.

*****

“Pa! Pa!”

Joe’s urgent cry brought Ben running.

“We gotta get in there, Pa, he’s hurting himself.”

Ben followed where Joe was pointing to see Adam sitting on the bunk, using the splintered end of the stool leg to cut into his arm. Blood dripped onto his leg and onto his blanket, but he paid it no mind, only kept digging into the fresh wound.

An anguished look to Clem and the deputy did not hesitate. He thrust the key into the lock, turned it with a sharp twist of his wrist, and then Ben was pushing past him, grabbing the makeshift tool from Adam’s hand.

There was no reaction. Adam merely sat slumped on the bed, his palms turned up, and his head lowered. Fingers moved to pick at his wound, but Ben gently moved his hand away.

“What’s wrong with him?” muttered Clem from his place in the doorway.

Joe ran a hand through his hair. “I dunno, one minute he was lying on the bed…” He paused and glanced quickly at Clem. The deputy had been with them since the beginning of Adam’s ordeal, but he could not bring himself to reveal Adam’s tears. “Next he just sat up and started on his arm with the stool leg.” Joe lowered himself to the bunk next to Adam. “Pa, I think Adam’s still asleep. I think he’s dreamin’.”

Ben dropped to his haunches and gently raised Adam’s head so he could see his face. Adam’s eyeballs were twitching behind closed lids.

“I think you’re right, son.”

Ben held Adam’s face in his palm, keeping it upraised so he could gaze upon his boy’s sleeping visage. With his other hand he pushed Adam’s damp hair from his brow, observing the silent repose. It was not fair. Adam was suffering in his waking hours and even whilst he slept. Was there to be no escape from the tricks his mind was playing on him?

Adam looked as he always did; it was the same face Ben had gazed upon every day as the boy had grown into a man. It was a face he had grown to depend on. His right-hand man: steadfast, resilient, robust in body and in mind. In mind? Was that no longer true? Had Adam been harbouring a weakness quietly within; waiting for his defences to be at their lowest before breaking him? Or had he done this to him? Had he worked him too hard, depended on him too heavily? Ben shook his head. No, it was not that. Adam had been afforded plenty of opportunity to fly the nest. And he always came back because no matter how strenuous, how arduous the work could be, the Ponderosa, the land, it was in his blood. So, why? Why? The word repeated itself like a mantra in his mind as he looked upon Adam and ran his hand down the side of his boy’s face.

He became aware of a voice saying his name. It was Joe.

“His arm, Pa, we can bandage his arm.”

With a clean dressing on Adam’s wound, he was laid back onto his side, and Ben prayed his dreams would be silent ones.

*****

Silas Oates had travelled the length of two blocks when a voice called out to him and he turned to see Hoss Cartwright running up the sidewalk.

“Mr. Oates…Mr. Oates!” He came to a lumbering stop, towering over the small lawyer. “Is there somewhere we can talk quietly?” Silas looked at the big man breathing hard, bowing slightly with his exertions, or was it a different weight he was carrying on his shoulders, wondered Silas.

“Of course, my office is just a few minutes away.”

They walked in silence to the office of Oates, Fremont and Eyre, Attorneys and Counsellors at Law, where Silas bade Hoss take a seat whilst he signalled to an assistant to furnish them with coffee.

“My pa knows I’m here, Mr. Oates. I told him we oughta let you in on what’s happenin’ ‘cause, I tell you, somethin’s stickin’ in my craw about the whole business.”

“Mr. Cartwright, Hoss, you’ll need to start at the beginning so I can understand what you’re trying to tell me.”

There was a knock on the door, and two fresh cups of coffee were delivered into the office. Hoss took the dainty cup in his large fingers and held it for a few moments before placing it on the desk untouched.

“My brother, Adam, he’s always been the strong one. The one with the answers. Whenever me, or Little Joe, was in trouble, he’d be the one to get us outta trouble.” Hoss quirked a smile. “More often we’d go to him, rather than Pa. It’s not that he wouldn’t give us a whippin’ over whatever we’d done, but he was our brother, ya know, he’d see things as we did, and the whippin’ wouldn’t be so hard.” He stood, too restless to stay cooped up in the small hard chair, and paced across the room. “And my brother Adam, he’s been through it. He’d had to deal with more than me or Joe ever had to by the time he was only five years old. He lost his own mama, then mine, and he’d seen things no little fella should ever see.”

Silas shifted in his chair. “Why are you telling me this, Hoss?”

Hoss gripped the back of his chair and leaned forward. “Well, sir, I reckon what Adam had to go through as a young un’ has made him like he is today, sorta reserved, seemin’ unfriendly even. But he ain’t like that, no sir, not once you know him. I know some folks think he don’t have no feelings, but that ain’t true, he just chooses not to show ‘em, not unless he’s real riled up.”

“And?” Silas’s eyebrows arched upwards.

Hoss sighed. “And my brother is back in that jail cell right now, cryin’ his eyes out one minute, laughin’ like he’s jest heard the best joke the next, terrified of somethin’ only he can see, and hearin’ voices only he can hear.”

Silas sat forward. “What are you saying? Are you saying your brother is craz—”

“Don’t say it!” Hoss’s fingers clenched the chair-back as he glared at Silas. “Don’t say that word, my brother ain’t…” He paused. “He jest ain’t.”

Hoss closed his eyes and dropped his head, the strain of the last few hours too much to hold in. Silas rose to his feet and laid a hand on the big man’s back, guiding him to the recently-vacated chair. He placed Hoss’s coffee cup into his hand and, turning away to a nearby cabinet, returned a moment later with a bottle of whisky, a slug of which was poured into the dark liquid.

“Drink; you need it.”

Silas poured a shot of whisky into his own glass, enjoying the bitterness of the coffee and the heat of the spirit as it warmed his stomach. Hoss smiled, his eyebrows rising in appreciation, and Silas was gratified that his medicine had done the trick.

“Doc says Adam’s having a, what did he call it, a psychotic event and once it takes a hold of someone, it don’t ever really go away. A bit like Adam’s pal, Ross Marquette. You weren’t here when that happened, but that don’t matter no how. Enough to say that Ross got sick in the head and ended up killin’ his own wife before Adam had to…well, he had to deal with it.”

Hoss thrust the coffee cup back on the desk and rose to his feet again. “But Adam ain’t Ross, and what’s happenin’ now, it just don’t make no sense. How can a man be fine one minute, and the next be seeing things that jest ain’t there?”

Silas sat back in his chair, watching the big man as he paced to and fro in front of his desk.

“But you have a theory?”

Hoss’s eyes flashed across to meet Silas’s.

“Adam’s eyes look kinda weird, all the colour is gone, they’re pretty much all black now.”

“His pupils are dilated?”

“Yeah, I think that’s what doc said. He said one of the things that can make that happen is poison. I think someone’s poisoned my brother.”

Silas frowned. “But why?”

Hoss came to stand in front of the desk and resting clenched fists on the table surface, leaned over the lawyer.

“Because of the murder of Theodore Barley.”

Silas stared up into the blazing eyes of Hoss Cartwright and saw the determination to help his brother etched into every worried line on his face. When he spoke, Silas’s voice was nearly a whisper.

“What are you saying?”

“That other darned lawyer, Buchanan, made out Adam was imaginin’ things; that he was too tired to think clearly, that he’d been mistaken about what he saw. What if…someone slipped somethin’ inta Adam’s food, or inta somethin’ he drank, somethin’ that would make it look as though he was…” Hoss paused, he did not want to say the word but quickly gulped down his aversion, “something that would make him seem mad.”

Silas was on his feet, moving around the desk.

“Without Adam we have no case; he was the sole witness to the events of that night.” Silas snapped his fingers and could not stop the smile that brightened his previously gloomy countenance. “Thunderation, I think you’re right. With Adam discredited as a reliable witness, Jacob Barley walks free. It has to have been one of Jacob’s cronies and if we can prove it, we’ve got them.”

“I’m more concerned about which one of those cretinous, sorry sons of…” Hoss stopped himself. “I just wanna know which one of them did this to my brother.”

Silas was jubilant. There was still a chance the trial could continue. His mind whirled nineteen to the dozen, surmising the possible charges that Barley and his cohorts faced due to this new evidence. Oh, but wait, there was no evidence yet. But there would be, of that he had no doubt. So what sentence would the judge pass? Distracted, it was a few moments before Silas realised he had not responded to Hoss’s pronouncement. “Yes, yes, I understand, but first you must understand, we need to work out who did this. And when.”

Hoss sat back against the desk, folding his arms across his chest. “He was fine last night and this morning, so it must have happened today. He left early to get to the court house.”

“Was he going to see anyone before the court opened for business?”

Hoss snorted. “Knowing the mood my brother was in this mornin’, it would have taken a miracle to have gotten a friendly conversation outta him. No, he would’ve gone straight to the court.”

“So it had to have happened afterwards. The court adjourned just before midday…”

“And we got the message to get inta town at about 2:30, and it takes about an hour to ride out to our place.”

“So we have to presume it happened sometime between midday and 1:30. Your job is to find out where your brother was in that hour and thirty minutes, my boy, where he went, who he spoke to, retrace his steps.”

Hoss picked his hat up from where he’d left it on a side cabinet and moved towards the door.

“Mr. Oates, would ya do one thing for my brother?”

Silas frowned. “Of course, Hoss.”

“Keep the trial alive. I don’t know how long Adam’s gonna be the way he is, whether he’s ever gonna be my big brother again, but if I find whoever did this to him, that’d be enough, wouldn’t it, to put the whole kit and caboodle behind bars?”

Silas pushed his shoulders back and stuck his chin in the air. “You find me the guilty party, Hoss, and I promise you, I’ll throw so many charges at them, they’ll need more than one neck to hang them by.”

*****

Hoss stood on the sidewalk outside Oates’s office and pondered Adam’s movements of earlier that day. He gazed upon the imposing courthouse that loomed over one end of the street and upon the establishments nestled in the large building’s shadow. Nothing but a hay and feed stable, a couple of lawyer’s offices and sundry stores. According to Oates, and assuming Hoss’s theory was right, there were only ninety minutes in which someone had to have tampered with something Adam ate or drank. With that in mind, Hoss set off towards C Street where many of the saloons could be found.

The Sazerac was as rowdy as ever. Hoss elbowed through to the bar and had to shout to be heard over the raucous laughter and hoots greeting Old Ned Coombe’s rendition of Root Hog or Die; the old man wobbled precariously on a chair, the contents of a glass of Fiery ‘59 splashing over the cheering onlookers. At any other time, Hoss would have joined in the merriment, but today, after the barkeep shouted in reply that Adam had not been seen in the Sazerac, a low frown settled over Hoss’s face and he pushed his way to the exit.

It was the same story in the Delta, Sawdust Corner and the Silver Dollar, the last of which Hoss had held out high hopes for. So it was with an optimistic demeanour that Hoss entered the last saloon he knew his brother to frequent, the Bucket of Blood.

He let the batwing doors of the saloon come to an abrupt halt against his back as he stood in the doorway observing the clientele of this favourite haunt of the Cartwrights. He saw the gambling tables to one side, with the silent, slouched figures of professional gamblers and cowpokes entrenched so far into their games not even a charging bull would distract them from their cards.

There were groups of men nursing beers around tables, enjoying the attention of painted ladies sashaying through with a touch here and a stroke there. A few men propped up the bar, doing what Hoss was doing, observing faces; perhaps looking for a fight or simply losing themselves in a beer after a hard day’s work.

Heads turned towards him, and Hoss knew they were waiting for some sort of reaction. Blue Brassington stopped as he was leaving and looked up at the big man.

“Sorry abouts ya brother, Hoss. I never figured he’d end up with nuffin beneath his hat but hair.” And then he was gone, pushing through the doors, leaving Hoss with his mouth half open, ready to reply. Someone did this to him he had been about to say. But then, perhaps it was best he did not air his suspicions too publicly, lest the culprit started running for the nearest skunk hole to hide.

“Pete.” Hoss nodded at the barkeep. “I’ll have a beer.” He kept his eyes on the crowd of men in the saloon.

Pete reached below the bar top and filled a glass with his best warm beer.

“Heard about Adam, Hoss.”

Hoss twisted around and, resting a boot on the foot rail, leaned heavily over the wooden surface.

“Is there anyone who hasn’t heard about Adam?” He took a long gulp of his drink.

Pete ran a cloth over the spotless counter. “It’s the talk of the town.”

The beer glass was laid to rest on the shiny surface and Hoss’s brows lowered as he stared into the barkeep’s eyes.

“And what exactly is being said?”

Pete gulped slightly and pulled down the towel which had been resting on his shoulder. Already sparkling glasses were wiped over with fevered zest. “Uh, well, as I heard it Adam was threatening to kill Clem Foster and took Bill Hardy hostage in the street. And he was shooting at things that weren’t there. Florrie Leachman told her husband Wilbur who told me Adam was seeing the ghosts of dead miners and it was them he was shootin’ at.”

“And who did Florrie Leachman hear that from? Santa Claus?”

Hoss swigged back another mouthful of beer, watching as Pete lowered his head and rubbed harder at the beer glass that had been shone to within an inch of its life.

“Look, Pete, was Adam in here earlier today?”

Pete heaved a sigh, his face breaking out in a relieved smile. “He sure was, sitting over there by the door.”

Hoss straightened up.

“Was anyone with him?”

“No, he was alone. Drinking slow in that way he has of making one drink last all night.”

Hoss could not avoid the look of disgruntlement that crossed Pete’s face. He would have smiled if circumstances had been different. But Pete’s answer had not helped. Adam had been here, but alone, which means he must have been slipped something somewhere else. But where? Someone had once told Hoss there were more saloons in Virginia City than in San Francisco, Placerville and Carson City combined. There was no way he could search through every single low-down dive, flea trap and gambling house in town.

“I don’t know how he does it,” Pete was chattering to himself. “He takes a gulp of beer and the level on the glass just don’t go down. Half an hour later, it’s the same, and yet he’s drinking away.” He shook his head.

Hoss donned his hat and nodded at the barkeep who was still rambling. “I’ll be seeing ya, Pete.”

“I guess when it comes to settlin’ up, Adam’s a good bet to have around; the tab wouldn’t be too big at the end of a night.” Pete chuckled. “And when you got friends like Isaac Barley to buy you beers, dang, Adam’s got it made.”

Hoss froze, and turned back to the bar.

“Isaac Barley bought him a beer?”

Pete was occupied with a new customer. “What? Oh, yeah, the young Barley lad bought him a beer. He’s still here, in the corner, see? A bit worse for wear but—”

But Hoss was no longer listening. A handful of long strides and he was standing over a giggling Isaac struggling to stay upright in his seat; his friend Amos Crow dribbling into his sleeves having fallen asleep across the table.

In a movement that made Isaac appear as light as a sack of feathers, Hoss grabbed the boy by the collar and hoisted him to his feet. Isaac’s feet dragged as he laughed drunkenly.

“What did you do to my brother?”

His reply was nothing more than a cackle of laughter from the alcohol-soaked Isaac.

“Tell me!”

Bleary eyes opened on a head that lolled from the boy’s shoulders.

“Your…broth…” Isaac’s hands loosely gripped Hoss’s. “I dunno know who your brother is.” Isaac giggled.

“Adam.” A hard shake rocked the boy’s head back and forth. “Adam Cartwright.”

Isaac’s head rolled back and heavy-lidded eyes opened wide. “Oh, the tattler.”

Hoss’s temper was starting to get the better of him. “What did you do to him? What did you give him?”

Isaac’s smile was replaced with a scowl.

“I didn’t do nuffin to ‘im. Nuffin he didn’t deserve.”

Hoss swung the boy around and forced him back hard against the bar.

“My brother is in a jail cell not knowin’ what day of the week it is, and you say he deserves that.” He pushed down harder and Isaac moaned as pain penetrated through his drunken haze.

The saloon had grown quiet, even the poker players had looked up from their games to watch the scene play out before them. Pete edged up one foot at a time into Hoss’s field of vision.

“Now, Hoss, I don’t want no trouble, y’here.”

“And you won’t get none, if this lowdown dirty lickspittle tells me what he did to my brother.”

“I didn’t do nuffin—”

“Tell me!”

“I swear on my granddaddy’s grave.”

“You’re lying!”

The boy was bent almost double over the bar. Isaac cried out again and hands were suddenly tugging at Hoss’s arms and shoulders to pull him away. Hoss merely shrugged them off, spun Isaac away from the bar and lifted the boy off his feet. He shook the boy like a child’s rag doll.

“Tell me!”

“It wasn’t me. It was Amos Crow!” Isaac cried. He dropped his head to his chest, his voice becoming muffled. “It was Amos Crow gave him it.”

Hoss lowered the boy’s feet to the floor, and glanced over at the lad still sleeping off his beer, before drawing his gaze back to Isaac. “Why? Why’d you do it?”

“I heard the lawyer tell my pappy if Adam Cartwright really was seeing things then he’d be a, a…” Isaac looked inwards as he sought for the term he had heard. “Unreliable witness, that was it.” He gulped. “And then my father would go free.” A wobbly head lifted to gaze blearily at Hoss. “I was trying to help my father.”

“Well, you’ve done more than help your pa. You’ve done landed him a trip to the gallows and you and Amos a spell in jail.”

He let Isaac go, letting the boy sink to the floor. Hoss left him there whilst he lifted the out-cold Amos Crow and hoisted him over one shoulder, securing him there with one broad hand. With his other he hiked Isaac off the floor and propelled him ahead of him, out of the saloon and towards the sheriff’s office. The saloon crowd followed to the sidewalk, watching this giant of a man take his two prisoners to jail. With a shake of their heads they returned to the heat and light of the saloon, fresh gossip was an excellent appetizer.

***** 

Oblivion. How sweet it was. No visions, no voices, just darkness. He was aware, so was he awake? Or was he dreaming of a blissful void of pure nothingness? His state of consciousness was a mystery, but he didn’t care. The emptiness soothed him.

The darkness that surrounded him began to fade, and the room was infused with light. A shiver of fear ran through him when he saw the figure was still in the corner. Only now it was defined, its blurred lines contained. The figure, a man, walked over to him and hunkered down on his haunches, cocking his head to one side as he looked at him. Adam saw the man for who he was and understood what he had been running from. Recognition blew away the last remnants of fear and the figure faded before his eyes. He blinked and listened and knew the voices had gone and he was alone at last.

Sleep was reaching out to claim him so Adam laid his head back on the pillow, closed his eyes, and fell into a dreamless sleep.

*****

The door burst open and two bodies landed on the floor in a heap, followed by a large angry Hoss. Clem’s elbow slipped off the arm of his chair in the hullaballoo and, collecting himself, he rose to his feet. Joe appeared in the doorway of Clem’s overnight room, his revolver in hand, ready to face whatever had presented itself. Moments later, Ben ran into the room from where he had been sitting with his sleeping son.

“Hoss? What’s this all about?”

“Adam ain’t gone mad, Pa, he drank somethin’ that had been slipped in his beer by these varmints.”

Ben took a farther step into the room. “What are you saying?”

“He was drugged, Pa, so folks would believe he was seeing things and his testimony wouldn’t count at Jacob Barley’s trial.”

Isaac sat on the floor, his legs sprawled out in front of him. Amos Crow did not move from where he had been thrown, still out cold from drink. Joe was on top of Isaac in seconds, yanking the boy to his feet, his fist pulled back. Isaac flinched, whimpering.

“Joe!” His father’s voice cut through Joe’s unseeing rage.

“He did this to my brother, Pa.”

Ben moved closer. “I know, son, and he’ll pay for what he did.” He laid a hand on Joe’s clenched fist, slowly pressing it down. Isaac crumpled to the floor.

Clem had moved out from behind his desk. “We’ll lock ‘em up.”

“Wait.” Hoss’s voice was sharp. “Shouldn’t we find out what they gave Adam, and then get the doc?”

Clem did not need telling twice. He spooned a ladle of water from his water butt, and took pleasure in pouring it over the face of the insensible Amos Crow. The lad came to with a splutter, his head leaping from the floor with a start, and he gazed blearily up at the four angry faces staring down at him.

“Wha…? Where am I?”

Clem knelt beside him. “You’re about to spend a night in one of Virginia City’s finest establishments. A nice bed, a bucket in the corner, and protection right outside your door.” He hauled him to his feet and thrust him into a chair. Amos Crow regained his wits remarkably quickly and made to rise, but a hard shove from Joe sent him squirming back into the chair.

“What did you put in my son’s drink, Amos?”

“I didn’t do nuffin.”

Hoss folded his arms across his chest, towering above the winded Isaac Barley. “I’m afraid your friend here has already pointed the finger right at you, boy.”

Ben looked deep into the black eyes of the Indian. “You may as well come clean. I’m sure Deputy Sheriff Foster will go easier on you if you tell us what we need to hear.”

Amos Crow fixed his gaze on the stove in the corner, his mouth set in a straight line.

Ben straightened. “Clem, what charges do you think they’ll bring against young Crow here?”

Clem leaned back against his desk and folded his arms. “Well, perverting the course of justice for one, assault and battery.” He pursed his lips. “Being drunk and disorderly.”

“I’s not been disorderly!” shouted Amos Crow, jumping to his feet. His chair clattered to the ground behind him.

Clem looked pointedly at the chair and then at Ben. “Looks disorderly to me, wouldn’t you say, Ben?”

“I would, Clem, I would.”

Amos Crow glared at the two men. But then Hoss’s large hand pressed him back down in the righted chair.

“And what do you think would happen to him, Clem?”

“My guess? Reservation.”

“No!” The half-breed sat up straight in his chair. “No, not the reservation. They’ll make me a slave. I am not one of the people to them, I am nothing.” He nodded at Isaac, leaning heavily on one hand against the floor, his head dropping. “I only did what he asked me.” At Amos Crow’s accusation Isaac climbed to his knees and grabbed the arm of the chair.

“That’s a lie. It was his idea.”

Amos Crow twisted in his seat and slapped Isaac hard across the face, sending him tumbling to the floor. Quick as a flash, Hoss grabbed the young Indian and pinned him in the chair.

“That’s enough!” thundered Ben. “I don’t care who is to blame. Right now all I want to know is what you gave him.”

Amos Crow slumped back in his chair and dropped his head to his chest, his long black hair hiding his face from view. Ben straightened and sighed.

“Toloache.”

Ben turned. “What did you say?”

“Toloache.”

Ben cast a quick look around the room, noticing puzzled expressions that matched his own. “What is toloache?”

Amos Crow crossed his arms, black eyes peering up through his straggly hair. “It does things to your head.”

Ben’s mind was immediately made up. “Joe, get Doctor Martin. Hoss, Clem, lock these miscreants in a cell.”

Joe was already at the door, hat on his head, when Amos Crow spoke.

“You don’t need no doctor. I can tell you what you wanna know.”

Ben considered for a moment, but then nodded at Joe who left the office running.

“Why do you want to help us all of a sudden?”

Amos Crow shrugged. “I think, maybe you help me.”

Ben and Clem exchanged a look. “Well, I can’t promise anything, but I can put in a word.”

The Indian gazed at Ben and clearly believed what he had been told. “Toloache, the sacred datura. You call it jimsonweed.”

Ben gasped. “Jimsonweed!” He flashed a glance at Hoss. “When I was in Boston it was known as Jamestown weed. Back when Virginia was a colony a group of British soldiers ate some, thinking it was a food. Everyone thought they’d gone mad.” He took a step towards Amos Crow. “And that’s why you gave it to my son, to make him look like he’d gone insane?”

Amos Crow gazed back up at him through sullen eyes. “Worked, didn’t it?”

Isaac tittered but not for long. Solid hands hoisted him to his feet and he was hauled across the office to the cell area. Hoss deposited him none to gently in the remaining cell; Clem followed with his ring of keys.

Ben was alone with Amos Crow. “What will it do to him, this weed?”

The boy shrugged. “He’ll see into his soul.” A pair of black eyes blinked up at Ben. “And he won’t like what he sees.”

“How much did you give him?”

There was a pause.

“Enough.”

Ben leaned over Amos Crow, his hands tight on the wooden arms. The Indian sat up sharply, recoiling away from the large presence looming over him. Ben’s voice was calm, quiet. Deadly.

“If my son doesn’t come out of this unscathed, unbroken, whole, I will personally see you spend the rest of your life as a slave to the Indians from whom you are so keen to escape. No more hanging around on street corners, no more leeching off others, no more saloons. I understand the Bannock people like to chop the toes off their slaves to stop them escaping.”

“I’m not Bannock,” stuttered Amos Crow.

“I don’t care.”

Fuming eyes bore into the equally dark eyes of the Indian, capturing the lad in the intensity of his glare. Ben’s lips were a hard line, his nostrils flaring as he breathed. Amos Crow blinked rapidly, tearing his eyes from Ben’s face.

The door opened and Doctor Martin stood framed in the doorway, observing the scene before him. A frown pulled the doctor’s brows together. Ben straightened and turned away from Amos Crow, aware of eyes burning into his back.

“Ben?”

Paul’s questioning tone pierced Ben’s outrage. “It’s okay, Paul.”

Joe squeezed in behind the doctor, a quizzical expression plying his features as his gaze travelled from his father to Paul to the quivering Amos Crow. The sight of his youngest tempered Ben’s anger and brought him back to earth. This was no example to be setting. His shoulders dropped and a smile graced his lips.

“It’s okay,” repeated Ben with a reassuring look to Joe, and with a warm hand on the doctor’s elbow, he steered Paul into the cell area, filling him in on what he had been told.

It was not long before Amos Crow was locked up with his erstwhile friend, Isaac Barley, and with the agreement of Doctor Martin, Adam was moved out of the cell and to Clem’s small overnight room.  Ben did not want the two culprits anywhere near his eldest boy. So Adam was rocked gently into semi-consciousness and with his eyes closed and head lolling, his two brothers walked him to his new bed where he was asleep before his head even hit the pillow.

Hoss became Adam’s first night-watchman, squashed into a small wooden chair too narrow for his sturdy build. He soon abandoned it, choosing to sit on the floor and rest his back against the opposite wall instead. It was early for sleep, but Hoss doubted that he would have slept anyway, too concerned was he by his brother’s state of mind. Adam’s cot was dragged out of the cell and into the office in preparation for the long night to come. And whether they sat numb in a chair, paced the floor or tried to coax their mind to sleep, time seemed to slow to a crawl, and the night stretched out interminably before them. Only the morning would tell if their prayers had brought the resolution they prayed for.

*****

Adam blinked open his eyes, and looked at a brick wall. Why was…where was…what was going on? The outline of each brick was double-edged and fuzzy. He pressed his eyes together and opened them again. This time the bricks were less blurry. He started to turn over. Oh, that was a mistake. His head felt like a cannonball; only when he moved, his brain did not, choosing to follow in its own sweet time. A groan escaped him as he fell onto his back. But then a hand touched his shoulder and a soft voice said his name; a voice that used to bring brought comfort and warmth. A voice he had known his whole life. It had been both mother and father when he had been a child, comforted him when he had been sad, laughed with him when happy. It was a voice he had once held onto during the dark times.

“Help me up, Pa.” His throat felt like it was coated in grit.

Firm hands held his arms and manoeuvred him up. Adam’s elbows slid his onto his knees; he clutched his head, his eyes clamped shut.

“Son—”

Adam cleared his throat. “Can I have some water?”

A cup of water was pressed into his hand. He poured it down his throat before letting his head roll back down to his chest. He felt his father’s hand on his forehead pushing the damp hair away from his face, but he flinched away from the touch. His father’s voice had said words to him he did not want to remember, things he never wanted to think about again.

“Son, I just want to look at your eyes.”

If this was real, everything before was a nightmare. Wasn’t it? Adam slowly lifted his head and prized open his eyes. His father was a cloudy blur, the shape of his body a hazy impression. Memory ignited like a spark and Adam desperately blinked, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. When he opened them again his vision was clearer. He sighed in relief.

“Your pupils are still dilated, but not as much as they were.”

A hint of a smile edged around Adam’s lips. “When did you start talking like Doc Martin?”

Ben laid a warm hand on Adam’s arm. “Since my eldest boy decided to get drugged with jimsonweed.”

Adam’s eyes widened. He nodded his head and sighed.

“What do you remember?”

Adam sucked in his lips and lowered his gaze.

“Everything.”

*****

A sprinkling of overnight snow had frosted the scrubby dirt of Boot Hill. For the first time this fall, Adam noticed his breath misting as he exhaled. The weather was on the turn, winter would soon be upon them. The sound of the ice crunching under his boots prompted Adam to tug his collar up higher around his neck. Another chill shivered through his body, though Adam did not know whether it was due to the nip in the air, or the ghostly touch of the spirits who wandered Virginia City’s mountain cemetery. An icy blue sky looked down in all its immensity over a sprawl of tiny buildings that crawled up the slopes of Mount Davidson and across the valleys surrounding the town. The workings of the silver mines scarred the landscape. The hills were sliced, diced and eroded, all because of man’s insatiable quest for wealth. Chimneys belched out smoke next to triangular headframes that stood sentinel over the mineshafts beneath. Adam could even make out the tiny box-like cages spewing forth rows of miners, like ants dispersing from the dark depths of their nests. The distant echoes of machinery, clanging and banging, drifted towards the hilltop where Adam stood.

His gaze shifted to the two graves at his feet. In a plot enclosed by elaborate metal railings, an ornate stone monolith announced the final resting place for Theodore Sherman Barley. Its unassuming epitaph read: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ Theodore had been prepared for when his time came, having already purchased the plot and monument several years before. Adam doubted Jacob had been ready; the man was too arrogant to assume he would be inflicted with a sudden, premature and violent death. But even if Jacob had looked beyond his mortal life, no one in town was prepared to place a monument of equal size and standing next to that of old Ted. So a wooden marker was all that indicated the grave of Jacob Barley; a marker inscribed with his name and two stark words—his abiding legacy for future visitors to look at and wonder. The inscription simply read, ‘Jacob Barley, Legally Hanged.’

Adam lent his elbows on the railings and hung his head. A father and son. That a son could want to kill his own pa was abhorrent to Adam. How could their relationship have got to such a point? Yet Ted had never even so much as hinted things were not right between them. Unless he had never known; unless Jacob had harboured a secret loathing for his father.

Adam pulled in a breath and released it slowly. Secrets. Words unsaid. Adam was under no illusion he had the perfect relationship with his own father. As in all families, they had experienced times when they had not got along. As a youth—before he came to his senses, as his father liked to put it—Adam had been a handful, chasing around with tearaways and getting into all sorts of trouble. His pa had told him later that, although Adam had been impossible to live with, it had not been unexpected—Adam had been rebelling, just as he had done when he was two. But they had endured. Shouting matches had evolved into measured conversations; necessary talks in the barn became a thing of the past. And as Adam matured, instead of defying his father, Adam had confided in him, sharing what was playing on his mind, or heart. These days, Adam had a tendency to keep his innermost thoughts to himself, but he knew he could always talk with his pa about anything that was troubling him.

Except this.

Adam wanted to talk to his pa, but he was scared, plain and simple. Scared of what his father would say if he revealed what was haunting him. Adam kicked at one of the rails. Damn this fear! He had known too much of it of late. The terror that had enveloped him when under the influence of that cursed weed plagued him in his dreams. Only hours since, Adam had snapped awake in the dark hours before dawn, his sheet pulled taut between hands clutching like claws at the material. His pillow and bed clothes were damp with sweat and his bedding bedraggled from where he had thrown himself about. But like all the nights before, he had no memory of the dream, only a sensation of immense fear, of being unable to escape the unseen horror that hounded him.

In the days that followed Adam’s experience at the hands of young Barley and Amos Crow, the prosecuting attorney, Silas Oates, had honoured his promise to Hoss and kept the trial alive. Amos Crow’s admission of guilt had tarred Isaac, and by association, Jacob. And so, in an afternoon of high drama at the Virginia City Court House, Isaac and Amos Crow were handcuffed and removed there as new witnesses. Adam had stayed away—unwilling to return to the place which conjured so many unsettling memories—but his brothers attended, keen to see that the men who had hurt their older brother pay the price for their crimes.

That evening, Hoss and Joe had stood warming their backs against the fire, and enthusiastically related to Ben and Adam the events of the afternoon. Hoss began with how Jacob had denied all knowledge of his son’s actions; at which Joe had passionately re-enacted the moment when Isaac had jumped to his feet and called his father a dirty rotten liar and many other derogatory euphemisms hinting at carnal activities with particular farmyard animals. Isaac earned himself a new charge, and Joe a dressing-down from his outraged father. Adam smiled as he recalled Joe’s face during their father’s reprimand. His little brother’s eyes had squinted as they had wandered the room, reacting to every boom and bellow from his father’s lips. A final blast from Ben caused him to flinch and a pained look to flash across his face.

But it had been no time until the animated account of the trial had been resumed. Jacob Barley had leapt to his feet at his son’s insults and called him an irresponsible, bone-idle, weak-minded, deceitful little ingrate; that everything he had ever done had been for him. To which Isaac had parlayed back that Jacob was as much a disappointment as a father, and what did he expect from a man who would kill his own pa. At which Jacob screamed he had only done it for Isaac. The courtroom had erupted into uproar—Hoss took great pleasure in acting out Jacob’s reaction of collapsing back limply into his chair—and it had taken many minutes, and much pounding of the gavel, to calm the spectators and counsels down.

The remainder of the trial had determined that Jacob’s motivation had been greed, nothing more. His own business endeavours were a dismal failure, and combined with a lifestyle increasingly beyond his means, led to an abortive attempt to have his aging father sign his profitable business over to the less than competent son. Unsurprisingly, that had come to nothing and in a moment of impetuosity he had seen an opportunity and taken it. He had not counted on a witness to his rash action riding home late that night. Jacob was subsequently charged with murder and sentenced to hang in seven days.

That had been three weeks ago, and now Jacob Barley lay next to his father. His cohorts had melted back into the dark places they had crawled out from, and both Isaac and Amos Crow had left in the back of a prison wagon en route for a stretch in a chain gang.

Ben had been needling him for days to ride into town with him, to get back to some semblance of normality, and after raised voices and an exasperated plea, Adam had finally relented, if only to get his pa off his back. Once Ben appeared sufficiently preoccupied, sorting through their post at the mail office, Adam had taken his chance and ridden out of town the mile or so to the cemetery. He noticed the curious looks from the townspeople who stopped and stared at him as he rode past. The role Isaac had played in Adam’s mental collapse was common knowledge, but he knew they were watching, hoping against hope that maybe a Cartwright would create a spectacle in the streets of Virginia City once again.

And now, as he looked upon the grave of his friend, Adam wondered if he would ever be the man he was before. He felt different. He was different. He had stayed quiet about what he had experienced that night, wanting to keep it buried deep within. But the emotions and memories that had been stirred went round and round in his mind until he had wanted to hit his head against a wall and knock out the thoughts that constantly harassed him.

Joe had asked a day or so after returning to the Ponderosa what Adam had seen when under the influence of the jimsonweed. And Adam had paused and answered, ‘ghouls and goblins’. He knew Joe would feel he was getting the brush off, but his brother merely said, “pretty scary, huh,” to which Adam had nodded and the conversation had moved on. It had not been alluded to since. But it had been hard to avoid the glances and the halted conversations when he entered a room. Most difficult had been the look of hurt that would cross his father’s face when they found themselves alone together, and Adam would make his excuses and walk away. He knew he was hurting his pa, but he was struggling with the ideas that had been so firmly planted in his mind, and no matter how much he acknowledged his unreasonable attitude, he could not shake off his newly unearthed guilt.

The Ponderosa’s silence had not helped, for it had been like thunder in his ears. He could not escape from the roar of his family’s whispers or from the pounding of their boots as they trod softly around him. As they exchanged looks behind his back, it was as though a lightning bolt split his heart in two. Yet here, at Ted’s grave, in the solitude of the cemetery, Adam found the peace he had been craving.

The crunch of a footstep sounded behind him. Adam angled his head and recognised the solid shape of his father. He turned back to gaze at the stone grave with a slight shake of his head and his cheek dimpling.

“You following me, Pa?”

“I saw you ride out of town, figured I’d find you here.”

“I could have carried on going, headed up to Lake’s Crossing.”

“You forget, I know you, better than you know yourself sometimes.”

A pair of gloved hands curled around the pointed rails topping the iron balustrade as Ben moved to Adam’s side. Adam straightened out of his lean, his gaze fixing on nothing in particular.

“When are you going to stop avoiding me, son?

Adam’s brow furrowed. What could he say? He could not deny it, because it was true. Adam sighed deeply and mirrored his father, gripping the rails with gloved hands. He pushed back with straight arms, letting his head drop.

Do it now. Don’t hide from it any more. Face it.

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

He sensed Ben looking towards him.

“For what?”

How to say it? Straight out, just straight out.

“For my mother.”

“For…” Ben frowned. “Son, I don’t understand.”

Adam raised his head but could not bring himself to look at his father.

“Do you blame me, Pa? For my mother’s death?”

Ben started. “Is that what this is all about?” He pulled Adam around to face him. “Adam, son, I have never blamed you for Elizabeth’s death. I never will and you know that. Why now, why after all these years?”

Adam removed himself gently from his father’s grip and walked to where the hill began its slope down to the town.

“That day, when I…lost control…I saw things, heard things.” He paused, bringing to mind the rumbling tones of his father, “you killed her, boy. She died to give you life.” Adam threw a glance at the sky.

In a handful of strides, Ben was next to him, staring with concerned eyes at his son. “What, Adam?”

“You, Pa. I heard you. You said it was my day of reckoning, that I had killed my own mother. You blamed me for Ruth, too, you remember, the woman the Shoshone thought was a spirit woman. You said these people had died for me, and asked, was I worth it.”

A quick glance and Adam could see cold shock on his father’s face. Ben’s mouth hung open and his eyes were fixed on Adam as he digested his son’s words.

“I said this?”

Adam nodded. “I was aware of a…shape, a thing…always in my sights from the very start. At first I couldn’t get a clear look, but later I could see it better. A shape, like a man, only not a man.” Adam shook his head quickly as he tried to make sense of his visions. “It was just…there, the whole time, in the street, in the cell. In my dreams.” His mouth quirked upwards, his dimple coming to life briefly. “But the voice, your voice, seemed to come from it.”

“And it was this…thing…that told you about your mother, about Ruth?”

Adam looked at his father, and nodded again.

“But you know it’s not true. Son, Elizabeth’s death couldn’t be helped. She was not strong and giving birth to you took away the last of her strength. But it wasn’t your fault. How could the innocent child she carried be to blame? And as for Ruth, how do you know she died—”

“She would have come looking for me.”

“Son,” Ben gripped Adam’s arms, “she went willingly to the Shoshone—”

“To save my life!”

“Adam, she made that decision of her own free will. Yes to save you, but, from what you’ve told me, to help the sick too.”

Adam sucked in his lips, unknowingly wearing the same look he had worn when he had been discovered injured and feverish in Ruth’s small camp. Despite the women he had known since his fleeting encounter with the white buffalo woman, his heart was still fractured from her sudden disappearance. Their love affair had been so brief. They had fallen in love, made an oath to be together always and then been wrenched apart in what seemed like only a heartbeat. Now, all he had to remember her by was the recollection of the soft sensation of her hair beneath his fingers and her sweet tender kiss. He felt his father stir beside him.

“Tell me about the figure you saw, your vision.”

Adam was pulled from his memories of Ruth. Walking back to the grave of Theodore Barley, he gazed across at the monument.

“At first, it was a blur. It moved unnaturally.” He snorted. “Terrified me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in all my life.” He wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly cold.

“It’s okay, son. You weren’t…yourself.”

Adam found a smile. “You could say that again. A couple of times I saw its face properly and decided it was the devil. I was so scared, Pa.” He twisted around, seeking out the reassuring presence of his father. “Later, in a dream, I saw the face again, only, by then, I wasn’t scared anymore.” His hand unconsciously moved to the sleeve which covered a long, jagged scar on his forearm.

Ben moved to stand in front of Adam and took a deep breath. “What did…the devil look like?”

The silence in the cemetery drew down around them like a shroud. Even the distant machinery could no longer be heard.

Adam looked into his father’s eyes, his voice a whisper.

“Me, Pa. The devil wore my face.”

*****

Ben reined Buck to a sudden stop, prompting Adam to do the same a few strides along. Circling Sport around, he loped back to where his father was waiting, his face a quizzical mask.

“What’s up, Pa?”

Ben took a long look at his son.

“Adam, you say when you came face to face with the devil, it was you?”

Adam squinted. “Yeah?

“And you now know what you were seeing and hearing wasn’t real; it was the effects of the jimsonweed on your mind.”

Adam’s eyebrows tightened.

“What are you getting at, Pa?”

Buck tossed his head and Ben leant down to give his mount a pat. “It seems to have taken the death of a good friend and the subsequent messing with your mind to bring a long-buried guilt to the surface.”

“Now, Pa—”

“Don’t you ‘now, pa’ me, boy,” Ben retorted sharply. “You asked me back at the cemetery whether I blamed you for your mother’s death. I always thought you knew the answer to that. From the time you were old enough to understand I drummed it into you that you must never feel blame, that I never held you responsible. But now it seems that you never accepted my word. Perhaps you thought you did, but deep down…”

Adam looked away from Ben, his temples flushing red.

Ben sighed. His voice softened. “You said this devil, this creature that terrified you, looked like you. Well, what if you were seeing that which frightens you the most, your own guilt. You’ve always been one to let the weight of the world settle on your shoulders. You don’t face it; you bury those thoughts and feelings which will hurt the most. But that night you suddenly had to confront it, and it terrified you.”

Adam scratched his ear. “Well if that’s the case, why did I hear your voice, why didn’t I hear my own?”

Ben’s eyebrows rose. “I never hid the truth from you about your mother’s death. And I’ve never blamed you, son. But it’s clearly a burden you’ve carried with you your whole life. You feel guilty because of me, so I think that guilt revealed itself in the only way your mind could handle, by hearing my voice.”

Adam pouted, thinking over what his father had told him.

“And what of Ruth? You never even met her.”

“No, but it was me who stopped you going after her. I imagine you feel some lingering anger towards me for that.”

“No, Pa, I—”

“It’s okay, Adam. It’s out now. It’s no longer eating away inside of you. And we will talk about this further, whether you want to or not.”

Adam’s cheek dimpled as he pictured the conversations to come.

Ben wheeled his horse around so he was next to Adam and reached over to squeeze his knee.

“But believe me, son, I don’t hold you responsible for anything that’s happened in the past, most of all Elizabeth’s death. It was at the will of a being a lot more powerful than you or I, and we must not question His will.”

He nudged Buck out into the road and twisted around in his saddle.

“Now, are you coming? Or are we just going to sit out here in the middle of the road talking all day.”

Adam smiled. “Coming, Pa.”

And as Adam followed on behind his father, he felt a sudden lightness take hold, as though a mantle that had encumbered his shoulders had been lifted and taken flight. The deeply buried guilt within him had fought its way to the surface through years of stubborn denial and was, at long last, set free. For the first time, Adam could look at his father without a powerfully veiled sense of shame masking his vision. Watching his pa’s back sway from side to side ahead of him, Adam recognised his father’s losses had made him who he was; they had made him stronger. The death of Elizabeth had meant Inger had come into his life, and given them the warm and sensitive Hoss. And the tragedy of Inger’s killing during an Indian attack had led his father to find Marie, resulting in the passionate and boisterous Little Joe. The shutters had come off, and now Adam knew in his heart there was no time for regrets, for allowing events he had no control over to consume him. Life was good, it was to be celebrated.

He kicked Sport’s flanks, and whooping into the cold air, he spurred his mount into a gallop and sped by his father at speed. As he heard his father’s laughter fade behind him, Adam knew they were going to be okay, more than okay. He laughed as he brought Sport to an abrupt halt, the animal rearing slightly onto its hind legs. And as Adam waited for his father to catch up, he looked out over the land that had been his parents’ dream and breathed deeply. With a newly discovered peace in his heart, Adam greeted his father and they rode towards home.

 

[1] Altered text from ‘Observations on Madness and Melancholy’ by John Haslam, 1809

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19 thoughts on “Out of the Darkness (by Sierra Girl)”

  1. Don’t mind you making him suffer a bit, just don’t kill him off. Now that would upset me, don’t know where you get your ideas from but love what you write

  2. Excellent story, loved every bit of it, it kept me from my sleep as I wouldn’t put it down until I had finished it. You like to make our boy suffer, great stuff I’m waiting for your next story now.

    1. Thanks Chrish, I’m so glad you liked it. You know me, I do make him suffer a tiny bit. He’ll probably suffer in my next story, but perhaps not as much!

  3. Sierra Girl – excellent work bringing us into Adam’s mind as he fell into mental illness. Your descriptions of his hallucinations made it feel even more real. I also think you were right on with Adam’s guilt and insecurity finally coming to the surface during this stressful time. A dark story with an enlightened ending. Bravo!

    1. Thanks so much HA! It was a dark story. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in Adam’s mind when he was having those hallucinations. Oh hold on, I wrote it, so I sort of was… 😀

  4. In fan fiction, Adam seems to suffer a lot more from guilt than he ever did in the series. But that is part of our tendency to torture the man, I suppose. 🙂 This was a riveting story, Sierra Girl. I knew right away what was happening and why, but it still held my interest. Five stars for your brilliant opening and evocative descriptions. Well done!

    1. Thanks so much for your wonderful comments JC. I love how some people got straightaway what was happening, others didn’t. I will admit I’m as guilty (ahem!) as the next person of inflicting guilt on poor Adam. And I have no idea why! But you’re right, it’s all down to a propensity to make the guy suffer. I wonder who gets tormented more in fanfic – Adam or Joe!

    1. Thanks for reading jojay – I love those types of story too, the ones which are unputdownable. If mine is like that too, then I’m on cloud nine!

  5. This was a very exciting story. I stayed glued to it all the way. Adam went through so much. You certainly kept me guessing what was making him have those visions and nightmares. I’m glad Ben is there by his side. The two of them will finally be able to put those final fears and guilt feelings to rest.

    1. I’ve come to realise that I quite often tackle guilt in my stories, particularly Adam’s guilt about, well, anything! But I hope that after what he endures in this story, that he and Ben can put those thoughts and feelings to bed, once and for all. At least, until I come up with something new for him to feel guilty about. LOL!

  6. This was no less confronting the second time around. You wrote Adam’s ordeal so intensely that it made me shiver at points. I hate to think what you’d do to Adam if you didn’t like him!!!!

    1. If I didn’t like him, I wouldn’t write about him, and yet I do make him suffer don’t I! They say we hurt the ones we love. Gosh, what does that say about me. Heehee! Thanks so much for reading Q, and for tackling it a second time too.

  7. Fantastic story!
    Poor Adam, I’m glad there was a happy ending!
    Your descriptions were amazing; it felt like I was living the story.

    Thank you so much!

    1. Thanks so much LuvAdam! When people like my descriptions I see that as the highest compliment and I’m really glad you got into the heart and soul of the story. 🙂

  8. Now this was a creepy, hair-raising story! Brrr…once the goose pimples go away I may have enough of a brain to leave a proper review, but until then, I’ll just say I loved it!

    1. What does it say about what is going on in my head if I can come up with a creepy ‘villain’ such as the one Adam has to face up to. I’m getting worried about myself now, heehee! I’m really glad you liked it sandspur.

  9. Excited to see this here! You know how much I like it, but I’ll say it again — great story! 😊 Poor Adam really does need a good vacation after this one …

    Thanks for writing!

    1. Thanks PSW! I think poor Adam needs to take a very long vacation, or go into hiding so I can’t find him, and make him suffer again! 😀

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