Laugh in the Dark (by EPM)

image_pdfimage_print

Summary: Driven by the need for revenge,Adam makes a choice that will effect his life forever.

Rated: K+  (12,500 words)

Laugh in the Dark Series:

Laugh in the Dark
Reflections
A Tree for Maggie

Laugh in the Dark

What have you gotten yourself into now, younger brother Adam Cartwright thought as he turned his eyes away from where Little Joe sat. He exhaled slowly and concentrated on the beer in front of him on the bar. What was it with this boy and cards?

Adam knew the men playing poker with Joe. All saw it as a friendly, Saturday night card game except one. And that one could mean a lot of trouble if Joe wasn’t careful. Gordon McCarrick played cards for a living and on a good day was never considered friendly. Oh great, he thought, now I get to watch over Joe until he decides he’s had enough or he loses everything he’s got. He gave up his beer and decided to move to a table with a pot of coffee. It could be a long wait.

Joe saw his brother out of the corner of his eye. I certainly don’t need him watching over me like I was some kid and I’ll tell him that later Joe thought to himself. But for now he was enjoying the game and he wasn’t about to give it up for a fight with his brother. He had won the last three hands and he had a feeling tonight was his night to go home with money in his pocket, something that happened all too rarely.

Adam pulled his hat lower on his brow, sank down deep into his chair and tipped it back on two legs. He tried to look anywhere but at Joe. He knew the young man would be angry with him and he’d hear about it later. But he couldn’t walk away when he saw McCarrick in the game.

Suddenly, somebody was blocking his view. When he looked up to see who it was, a slow smile spread across his face. “Good evening, Miss Maggie.” He brought the chair down on four legs again and pushed his hat back to its normal position. She smiled back and replied, “good to see you Adam. Watching out over Joe tonight?”

“Please don’t let him hear you say that. The ride home’s going to be long enough”, Adam laughed. “Care for a drink?”

“Only if you’re willing to share your coffee.” She smiled back at him and sat down.

Adam and Maggie had known each other for along time. She had come to the Silver Dollar when she was very young and stayed. At one time, they both thought their relationship could be more then friendship and indeed they had acted upon that thought. But time and circumstance pulled them apart. The love affair was replaced by a mutual respect and understanding of the others needs. It was comfortable for both of them.

“Mr. McCarrick isn’t too happy right now. Your brother seems to have the upper hand.” Maggie glanced at the poker table.

“Yeah, I noticed. I wish that kid would take up something that could get him into less trouble.” Adam gave an exasperated look.

Maggie’s tone turned serious. “Keep a close watch Adam. The man can’t be trusted and he doesn’t like to lose. I know.”

Adam frowned and reached over to take Maggie’s hand. His voice was soft but held an edge, “how do you know that, Maggie?”

“Oh, he wanted more then I was offering, that’s all.” Adam started to interrupt, his frown deepening. ” Now don’t go getting all upset over it; you know I can take care of myself.” The little brunette squeezed his hand and laughed.

“Let me get you out of here Maggie, for good.” Adam leaned forward as he spoke. “You don’t belong here, never did. There will always be men like McCarrick.”

Maggie’s face showed her impatience. “We’ve been through this Adam. I will get out of here but I’ll be the one to do it. I don’t need help. Besides, I have no desire to be known as Adam Cartwright’s kept woman.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted them. She lowered her head and looked away from the man she had just so carelessly hurt.

“Oh, God Adam, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

“It’s alright Maggie. I know what you meant.” His smile reassured her that everything was ok again. “Woman, where did you get that stubborn streak?”

“Maybe from hanging around a certain handsome, black-haired cowboy.” She titled her head and dropped her eyes, hoping the obvious flirting would make him laugh. It did. Suddenly, the crashing of furniture on the floor made them turn toward the sound.

“Boy, nobody wins that many hands in a row without cheating. Not when they’re playing with me!” Gordon McCarrick rose from his chair, tipping it over backward. Joe did the same.

“Who you calling boy?” Joe sputtered. “What’s wrong, finally met somebody who plays poker better than you do?” Joe Cartwright was furious at being called a cheat and a boy.

Adam rose from his seat but did not move forward. He gently pushed Maggie behind him. He simply removed the leather tie that held his gun in place and waited. Adam had to be very careful how he played this. He couldn’t and wouldn’t let Joe get hurt but he needed to give his brother room. Joe wasn’t a baby anymore and Adam wanted to see how he would handle the situation.

“It’s your move McCarrick. We can sit down and finish the game like gentleman or you can walk out the door. Your choice.” Joe’s eyes didn’t waver from his opponent’s face. His hands were steady at his sides.

Out of the corner of his eye, the gambler saw Adam. He knew he might be able to take Joe in a fight but he’d never be able to best his older brother. No, he’d wait and both Cartwright brothers would be sorry for this night. He picked up what money lay in front of him and walked toward the door. “Another time Cartwright” he said, his mouth curling into a sneer.

Adam let out a breath. He looked across the room at his brother and smiled in approval. Joe had thought through his actions and held his temper. Definitely not a “boy” any longer he thought to himself. He and Maggie sat down again and this time they decided a drink might taste good.

“Well fellows, shall we call it a night?” The other card players agreed. Joe picked up his winnings and walked to Adam’s table.

“I’ll buy the next round,” he said as he sat down with Adam and Maggie. “Hello Maggie, how come you’re sitting here with this “old man?” Joe’s beautiful green eyes sparkled with mischief. Maggie laughed softly and responded, “well you know how it is Joe, I felt sorry for him, sitting here all by himself. He sort of looked lonely.”

“Ok you two, enough. This “old man” is tired and needs to head home. You about ready Joe?” Adam reached back, stretched his long arms and yawned.

“I’m ready when you are brother,” Joe said and he headed for the door. “Night Maggie.”

Adam pressed Maggie’s hand to his lips and kissed the palm tenderly. “Thanks for the company Maggie. Remember, the offer still stands.” He smiled at her and left.

As Maggie watched him walk into the night, she couldn’t help but wonder if she and Adam had made a mistake by letting their affair end and friendship take its place. She was glad her night at the Silver Dollar was almost over.
**********

Adam and Joe Cartwright kept a steady pace home to the Ponderosa. The moon lit their way. “Thanks Adam,” Joe said.

“I’m not sure what you mean but you’re welcome.” Adam turned to look at his brother.

” For not interfering; for letting me handle things myself.” Joe’s voice was tight.

“It’s ok Joe. You don’t need me to “protect” you anymore. The only reason I stayed was because I know McCarrick is unpredictable and I didn’t feel comfortable walking away.” Adam took a breath. ” Probably not the best choice of people to play cards with, huh?”

Joe smiled at his brother. He didn’t mind the mild rebuke. “No, probably not.”

Neither sibling saw or heard anything on the rocky outcropping above them. A yellow flash and the sound of a gunshot broke the quiet night air. Adam watched as Joe was thrown backward off his horse. Before he could respond, Adam felt a searing pain that wouldn’t let him stay upright any longer. As he fell to the ground next to his brother, the only sound he heard was a laugh from the rocks above him. Trying to keep his eyes open and his mind from folding in on itself, he reached out toward his brother. “Joe” he uttered.
**********

“Think I’ll take a last look at the mare that’s ready to foal before I go to bed Pa.” Hoss Cartwright got up from his chair by the fire.

“Guess I’ll join you. Hoss, you think she’s tired of seeing us yet?” Ben smiled at his middle son.

“Maybe Pa but it makes me feel better. She sure is a special horse and I can’t wait to see her little one.” They headed outside toward the barn.

“Speaking of little, where do you suppose your “little” brother is?” Ben’s brow furrowed.

“Don’t worry too much Pa. At least Adam is with him and you know Adam, he’s not about to let anything happen to Joe. Those two; I swear if they could only see how much alike they were—.” Hoss was interrupted by the sound of horses coming toward them at a gallop.

Sport turned the corner first with Cochise following immediately. Both were lathered and blowing. Ben and Hoss walked slowly toward the nervous animals. Reaching out, they caught the trailing reins. “I don’t see any blood Pa. ” Hoss’ mouth was set in a firm line.

“No son, neither do I. Wake the hands. Tell them to get ready to ride.” Ben’s mind raced with the possibilities. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart.

One of the hands took Sport and Cochise into the barn. All the others gathered around their boss. “All we know is that Adam and Joe were together in Virginia City tonight.” Ben’s voice was strong and steady now. “You saw their horses. We’ll backtrack from here. I can’t imagine they would take anything but the main trail but three of you cut over by the lake, just in case. Remember, three shots if you find them.” No further instructions were needed and the determined group of men left the Ponderosa in search of two of her sons.

The sun was just beginning to rise. The riders had spread out, hoping not to miss any signs of the missing Cartwright men. Hoss was the first to spot Adam’s red shirt in the distance. He yelled for his father and pointed to what he had seen. They urged their horses forward toward the two downed brothers.

Dismounting quickly, Ben knelt between his sons. The blood was obvious on Joe’s left thigh. It has soaked his pants down to his knee and the grass below his leg. His father pulled out his knife and further opened the ragged hole in his pants. Blood continued to flow steadily. “Charlie, go for the doctor. Hank, go get a wagon. Tell Hop Sing that we’ve found them and we’re bringing them home.” One of the men had ripped off his shirtsleeve and handed it to Ben. He tied it tightly around the wound. Nothing he had done brought a response from Joe.

While his father tended to the youngest, Hoss went to his older brother. Adam lay face down with his arm outstretched toward Joe. There was no sound, no movement from the injured man. Hoss ran his hands down Adam’s arms and legs and across his back. He couldn’t find anything. Carefully he turned Adam over. Looking closer, he saw Adam’s shirt on the lower left side, just above his belt, looked wet. The blood-red shirt had hidden the evidence of his brother’s assault. Hoss pulled the shirt away from Adam’s jeans. Blood oozed slowly from the opening in his side, sliding down and pooling on the ground.

“Somebody give me a clean cloth” he called. One of the men handed him a neck scarf. When Hoss pushed down on the still bleeding wound, Adam instinctively pulled away and groaned with pain.

Ben leaned toward his oldest son, grasping his hand. “Adam—Adam? Talk to me, son.” Ben’s face was taunt, his voice tense.

Adam opened his eyes and blinked, trying to clear his vision. He saw his father’s and Hoss’ concerned faces above him. He reached for his left side, hoping to make the pain go away. Hoss stopped him by taking his other hand. As he started to remember what happened, he was seized with panic. He tried to get up, looking around for Joe as he did but the pain drove him back down. He turned his head and saw the pale, still body of his younger brother. “Oh no, Joe—I’m sorry—I’m sorry Joe.” He looked at his father than turned away, endless sadness reflected in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa” he whispered just before he passed out.

The ride back to the ranch seemed to go on forever. The oldest and youngest Cartwright boys had been carefully placed in the wagon. Hoss held Joe in his arms while Ben did the same with Adam. Neither injured man stirred. “Pa, what do you suppose Adam meant by saying he was sorry?”

“I don’t know Hoss—-we’ll just have to wait until he can tell us.” Ben looked down at the still features of his son’s face and than looked at Joe’s. Hang on boys he thought, just hang on.

The hands helped place the Cartwright sons in their respective rooms and quietly left. They knew they could help the family most by doing their job. Hop Sing, Ben and Hoss stripped the injured men of their clothes and washed away the dirt and blood. Clean bandages were placed on their wounds. Ben walked between the two rooms, taking time to speak soothingly to each of his boys.

Doctor Martin arrived. He quickly assessed Adam and Joe and made the decision that Joe needed to be treated first. With Hop Sing’s help, the youngest of Ben Cartwright’s sons was prepared for surgery. “Ben, you and Hoss need to leave now. Go sit with Adam.” Ben hesitated. “Please Ben.”

Adam’s eyes opened. The first thing he saw was the bowed head of his father. He lifted his hand and held it against the side of his father’s face. Ben looked up and took his hand. “Adam, son—.”

“I’ll be fine Pa, please don’t worry about me.” Joe, tell me about Joe.” Ben could tell by his son’s strained voice that he was fighting the pain.

“Dr. Martin is with him now. We don’t know yet. What happened Adam?” Just than, Hoss returned from the kitchen with coffee for he and his father.

“Don’t really know. We were on the way home. Ambushed—- saw Joe fall, heard someone laugh from the rocks above us. That’s all I remember.” Adam’s breaths were coming in short gasps now.

“Ok son, that’s enough, please just rest now.” The fear in Ben’s voice was growing.

“I’m sorry Pa—sorry I didn’t keep him safe.” Adam closed his eyes. He didn’t want to look at his father or his brother. Once again, a surge of pain hit him and this time he cried out. He fought against it but couldn’t hold it back.
The edges of his vision darkened and he gave in to it.

“That’s what he meant. He thinks that he should have somehow kept Joe from getting hurt.” Hoss looked from Adam to his father. “But that’s crazy—he’s not responsible for this.”

“No, of course not but I’m not sure you can convince your brother of that.” Ben leaned back in his chair. “He’s always felt a profound responsibility when it comes to the safety of his two “little” brothers.” He smiled at his middle son and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Paul Martin entered the room. “Stay seated Ben. I took the bullet out and repaired the wound, but the bone was broken. I’ll put his leg in a plaster when the wound heals. It’ll have to remain that way for at least four months. He lost quite a bit of blood but he’s young and healthy. We won’t really know if he’s going to have any problems walking until we get him up but that’s going to take awhile.”

“As long as he’s gonna be ok, that’s enough for me” Hoss said.

“And me” Ben echoed.

“Good. Now let’s have a look at Adam. Has he come around?” Ben told the doctor what had happened. Paul pulled back the bed covers and examined the wound. “I need to get the bullet out now. Hoss please ask Hop Sing to come in here and you go stay with Joe.”

“Yes sir.” Hoss left for Joe’s room.

“You too Ben. I need to concentrate on what I have to do without worrying about you.” His tone softened “I’ll come as soon as I’m finished.” The doctor turned back to his patient and removed the old bandage. Hop Sing entered the room with fresh hot water, towels and clean bandages. Paul went to the basin to wash before he began looking for his second bullet of the night.

Ben took one more look at his son and left. He stood outside the door to Adam’s room, trying to compose his thoughts and control his feelings. Both of them he thought. Both of my sons struck down by some mad man. How could this happen?

Joe’s eyes opened slowly. “Hey little brother. How ya doing?”

“Hoss what happened—where’s Pa?” Joe’s eyes wouldn’t quite focus.

“He’s coming—he just wanted to be with Adam a little longer.” Hoss held his brother’s hand.

“Be with Adam—why?” Nothing in Joe’s mind seemed clear. He grasped at random pieces, trying to fit them together into a pattern that made sense. Coming home— he remembered coming home from the card game. He and Adam were together—laughing, kidding each other. What had happened?

“Hoss—Hoss, I remember a gunshot.” The shadow of fear now froze on Joe’s face. I remember falling but that’s all.” He stopped. “Adam—-where’s Adam? Hoss tell me—where’s Adam? Panic took over from fear.

“Doc’s with him now. Don’t you worry; he’ll be fine. Hoss tried to comfort his younger brother. Just than Ben entered. He walked to the bedside.

“Joseph— well young man, it’s nice to have you back with us. Ben’s words tried to conceal the worry he felt for his firstborn. He pushed the unruly curls away from his son’s eyes.

“Pa, tell me what’s going on with Adam” Ben looked at his middle son.

“He asked me Pa—I couldn’t lie to him.” Hoss looked from his father to his brother.

“No, no of course you couldn’t. Joe, we don’t know much yet. He was shot just after you were. He was awake and talking to us, asking about you. Paul’s with him now” Ben said.

Joe sank back into his pillow. He was so tired. He closed his eyes and was soon asleep. Ben and Hoss settled down to wait.

It was late afternoon when Paul Martin slipped into Joe’s room. Both Ben and Hoss roused from their light doze. The doctor motioned for them to leave the room with him.

“I got the bullet out Ben. It was in deeper than I thought, but there was no damage to any organs or major vessels. The muscle damage will be painful but I don’t think it will keep him down too long. Both of these young men of yours have lost some blood so we need to make sure they drink and eat and rest for awhile.” Paul turned and headed for the stairs. “I think it’s safe to let them both sleep now. How about some coffee?”

‘Yes, yes of course——thank you Paul for everything. The trio of exhausted
but relieved men headed downstairs. The smell of Hop Sing’s coffee hung in the air.
**********

Three days passed. Roy Coffee had been out and spoken to both the injured men. He scouted the area but found no signs of the person who had ambushed Adam and Joe Cartwright.

Adam was becoming restless. They had told him Joe was fine but he wanted– needed to see for himself. His wound was painful but nothing he couldn’t handle. He pushed back the covers and took a deep breath. Slowly, he moved his legs toward the edge of the bed and pushed himself into a sitting position. Bright lights flashed in his eyes and a fine sheen of sweat formed on his face. He splinted his left side with his right hand. He sat on the edge of the bed until the lights stopped dancing and his breathing returned to normal. Guess I’m a little weaker than I thought not to mention a little more pain than I bargained for.

Hop Sing entered Adam’s room with a lunch tray. “What you do, crazy boy? Why you try to get up—too soon, too soon.” Hop Sing put the tray on the dresser and stood in front of Adam, keeping him from standing up. By this time, he had reverted to his own language as he continued to show his displeasure.

“Now look, Hop Sing. You can bully Joe and you can bully Hoss, but not me. Understand—not me.” Adam’s tone was a mixture of angry young man and whining little boy.

Hop Sing stood back. “Ok, boy want to get up—–go ahead, boy get up.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, watched and waited.

“Fine, I can do this myself. I just need to find a pair of pants. He pulled himself up with the help of the bedpost. Adam gasped as the pain intensified.
He took a deep breath, once the pain allowed it. He stared back at the determined housekeeper and set his mouth in a stubborn line. The battle of wills was on!

Covered only by a pair of short summer underwear and the bandage that reached from his waist to underneath his breastbone, Adam managed to stagger to his dresser. God, he thought to himself, I can’t even manage to
pull open a drawer let alone get into a pair of pants. He looked at Hop Sing whose expression and stance had not changed. No help there! Well that’s just fine he thought, I’ll go as I am.

Walking slowly and leaning on the wall as he went, Adam reached the door to his bedroom. By now, rivulets of perspiration tickled down his face and chest and his breathing was short and broken. With his right hand still splinting his side and his left braced against the wall, simply opening the door became an issue. He didn’t dare look at Hop Sing. He pulled his left hand away from the wall and reached for the doorknob.

Adam felt himself begin to fall and he knew there was nothing he could do to stop it. He made a grab for the wall again with no luck. Just before he hit the floor, his decent was halted and he was being led back to his bed. He didn’t have to look to know who it was. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he glanced upward without moving his head. “Ah—-I guess I do need some help” he mumbled.

“All help crazy boy need is get back in bed—-not get up.” Hop Sing lifted the covers and helped Adam settle into bed once more.

“I’m sorry Hop Sing—-I’m just worried about Joe. I need to see him. That’s all” Adam dropped his head back onto the pillows.

“What’s going on in here?’ Ben’s face looked like a storm cloud when he entered.

“Boy crazy—-you fix” Hop Sing said and walked out, once again reverting to his native tongue.

“Now what’s all this about.” The volume of Ben’s voice had not lessened.

“You heard him”, Adam said, a hint of mischief in his voice. “Boy crazy-you fix!”

“I’ve been trying to fix three crazy boys for along time now but nothing seems to work.” His voice softened and he smiled. It was nice to see Adam’s mood lighten if only for a short time. My proud, self-sufficient, intense son, you’re harder on yourself than any one else could ever be he thought.

“I was trying to get up Pa. Hop Sing didn’t think it was a very good idea but of course, I had to try. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d be lying on the floor right now.”

“Oh, Adam—-you could have broken open that wound or heaven knows what else. What possessed you?”

“Joe—I want to see Joe.” There was a catch in his voice as he looked at his father.

Ben reached for his son’s hand. “Joe is doing ok—really he is. It’s just going to take a long time until he can get around, that’s all. Adam, look at me son.
What is it?”

Staring at the ceiling, Adam replied, “lying there on the ground the night we were shot, just before I passed out; I saw Joe and I was so afraid.” Adam’s body stiffened as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “I was afraid he was dead, Pa and I wanted to be too.”

Ben said nothing. He sat on the bed and opened his arms to his son. Adam looked at his father but held himself back. Finally, in a warm, gentle voice, Ben said, “he’s alright Adam and it’s over.”

Adam let himself sag into his father’s arms. ” No Pa, It’s not over—not until I find out who tried to kill my brother.” Ben was stunned by the vehemence in his son’s voice and he knew then, that indeed, it was not over.
**********

The days that followed were long for everyone. “Help me up, will ya!” Adam’s tone was short and impatient.

“Now just hold on there. You’re beginning to sound just like Joe. I told Pa you two was more alike than different.” Hoss’ normal patience was quickly running out with his “prickly” tempered brother.

“Thank you so much for that comparison. I’ll cherish it. Now help me get dressed and out of this room!” Being angry was part of Adam now. It helped him focus on what he had to do. Somebody had tried to kill his little brother, not to mention himself and he refused to let it go.

Hoss looked heavenward than turned to Adam’s dresser. He pulled out a pair of soft, worn jeans, socks and a red shirt. Turning back, he handed the wardrobe to his restless older brother.

“Thanks.” Looking chagrinned, he added, “I’m sorry Hoss. I just can’t stand being down any longer.” Trying to lighten the moment Adam smiled and said, “Hey look, at least this red shirt doesn’t have a hole in it.”

“Not funny Adam—you could have bled to death out there, you and Joe both.” Hoss had trouble seeing anything funny in his brother’s statement.

Having managed his socks and pants, Adam stood up to put on his shirt, leaving it unbuttoned. ” I know Hoss. Believe me, I know. Forget the boots for now. Let’s go see Joe.” Adam still splinted his left side and walked with a decided tilt in that direction, but staying upright was much easier these days.

Adam’s smile of greeting quickly faded as soon as he entered his younger brother’s room. It was darkened by the pulled drapes and the mixed odors of pain medicine, herbs and sweat assaulted his senses. What the hell is going on he thought to himself, they told me he was doing fine. Adam looked over and saw Joe. He looked so small and pale in the center of his bed, surrounded by pillows and blankets.

Joe’s eyes were closed when Adam sat down on the edge of the bed. He could see the dark circles underneath. “Hey, Joe, they finally let me out” he said in a soft voice. He tried to sound cheerful but wondered if the concern could be heard in his voice. Joe opened his eyes and smiled.

“Thought you’d never show up” Joe said. “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine—just a little stiff but I’ll be ok. What about you?”

Hoss looked at Adam than quietly slipped out of the room, giving the oldest and youngest some time together.

Joe’s vision blurred as his eyes filled. “It hurts Adam, it hurts all the time. The doc says I have to be in a plaster for four months. What am I going to do?” The tears fell as he continued. ” I’ll never be able to do the things I used to—I know it. They won’t come right out and say it but that’s what they mean.” Adam leaned forward and took his brother into his embrace and held him close.

“Sure you will Joe—it’s just going to take some time. I know it’s hard waiting but this will end. I’ve never lied to you Joe.” And he hoped he wasn’t now.

“You know what the worst part is Adam? It’s not knowing why or who did this. And I can’t do anything about it.” The tears had stopped, replaced by anger and frustration. Joe hit the bed with his fist.

“But I can Joe and I promise you I will. I’ll find out who wanted us dead and he’ll pay for what he’s done to you.” Adam stood to leave but before he did, he pushed the shaggy curls away from Joe’s eyes. “I swear he will, Joe.”

Adam was furious when he left Joe’s room. He was angry with his father and Hoss for not telling him how Joe really was and he was angry with himself for letting the whole thing happen in the first place. He headed down the stairs with a purpose.

As his foot hit the bottom step, Adam growled, “How could you hide this from me—why would you even try?” He stared at his father and brother, both fists clenched at his sides. His voice was deceptively quiet.

“You need to calm down, young man.” Ben was not about to be intimidated by his enraged oldest child. “We told you he was going to be alright and he will be—it will just take more time than anybody would like, especially Joe.”

“But you seemed to have left out the part about him being crippled.” Adam’s voice was icy and his words hung in the air. No one had wanted to think that Joe might be crippled, let alone say it but Adam’s rage had torn away the barrier.

Ben crossed the room to stand in front of his eldest. “We don’t know that, you don’t know that! We need to be positive for Joseph.” His anger now matched his son’s. “And if you can’t, than maybe you need to stay away from him!”

Adam was momentarily stunned by his father’s words. When he found his voice again he answered, “I just told Joe I’ve never lied to him and I never will. Not even for you Pa. I think it’s better for everyone if I leave for awhile.” Still clutching his injured side, Adam turned away from his father and walked up the stairs.

Hoss had chosen to remain silent but now felt he no longer could. “Pa, you can’t let him go. He’s not well yet and the real reason he wants to leave is to find out who did this to Joe.” Hoss looked at his father. Ben’s eyes were still bright with fury. “He could get himself killed Pa. You got to stop him.”

Ben’s anger cooled and rational thought returned. “I’ll go speak to him”

“Come in” Adam said as his father knocked on the door. Ben saw that his son was packing a carpetbag with a few changes of clothes and some personal items.

“Adam, think this through. You’re not well yet.”

“I’m well enough,” he said, not stopping his packing.

“Listen son, I’m sorry for what I said. Please stay here.”

” I need to find out who did this. What if they come after him again? Then what, Pa?” Adam was determined and Ben knew there was no reasoning with him. Adam picked up his bag and left his room, heading down the stairs.

Ben tried one more time as Adam carefully buckled his gun belt into place. “You’re the one who always says let the law handle it. Well, what about now?”

“But they haven’t, have they?” answered Adam.

“Just what am I suppose to tell Joe?” Ben was resigned to Adam leaving.

Adam reached for his hat and coat. “Tell him I went to keep my promise.” He opened the door and walked away.

He was glad to see Sport. It had been awhile and he missed his equine companion. “You ready, boy? Now listen, I’m not going to be able to take too much shaking around. You’re going to have to behave yourself.” Adam scratched his friend between the eyes.

“Since when did that horse ever behave himself? Takes somebody in good shape to handle him.” Adam hadn’t heard Hoss walk into the barn.

“He’ll be fine. We both will.” Adam started to tack up his horse.

Suddenly, he turned to face his younger brother. “Why didn’t you tell me”, he hissed.

“Adam, you weren’t well yourself and I was afraid you’d go off half cocked if I told you Joe might have some permanent damage to his leg. And it looks like I was right. Just what do you think you’re gonna do that the sheriff ain’t tried?” Hoss had no trouble facing up to his angry brother.

“I don’t know”, he shouted than he hesitated. His voice became quiet. “I don’t know but I know I have to try.” Adam leaned back against a post. He was suddenly very tired.

“Then I’m going with you”, Hoss said.

“Thanks Hoss but no. Pa and Joe need you. We both can’t walk away.” Adam turned his back on his brother. “Besides I won’t worry so much if you’re here.”

Hoss picked up Adam’s saddle and placed it on Sport’s back. He finished getting his brother’s horse ready while Adam once more leaned against a post. They led Sport outside and Adam mounted.

“You may not have to worry about them, older brother but I’ll worry about you.” Hoss reached out to shake Adam’s hand.

“I’ll let you know where I am. Take care of them” Adam said as he urged Sport forward.

As Hoss turned toward the house, he noticed that the front door was just closing and he knew his father had watched as Adam rode away.
**********

God, would this ride ever end, Adam thought to himself. He wrapped his hand around his side and leaned forward, trying to lessen the pain. Unable to sit still, Adam’s restlessness transferred itself to his horse. Sport began to “dance” and toss his head. Adam pulled back slightly and spoke softly to the agitated horse. “Easy friend, don’t act up now. We’re almost there.” At the urging of his master, Sport once more came down to a flat-footed walk. The outline of Virginia City appeared in the distance.

Several people that Adam knew stared at him as he entered town. Do I look that bad he wondered. He rode on toward the livery stable without acknowledging their presence.

” Bed him down and feed him well. I don’t know how long I’ll be in town so make sure you turn him out every day. Otherwise, you’ll have more horse on your hands than you want, trust me.” Adam untied his saddlebags and carpetbag from his gear.

“Sure thing Adam”, Dave replied. “You staying at the International House?”

“Yeah, if you need me, leave a message there. Thanks Dave.”

“Adam, it’s none of my business but your looking kinda pale. You sure you’re ok?” Knowing the eldest Cartwright son well, the stable owner knew he needed to tread softly.

Without a response, Adam turned and walked away. He wasn’t in the mood to explain himself to anyone and he didn’t care what he looked like.

After checking in at the hotel and enduring more well meant questions, he finally was able to lie down. No bed had ever felt better then this one he thought as he turned on his uninjured side. Sleep came quickly.
**********

A subdued Ben Cartwright sat at supper with his only his middle son to keep him company. Hop Sing moved quietly to and from the kitchen. “Why did your brother think he had to do this himself. It’s just not like him. He’s the one who always wants to leave things to the law” Ben anger was evident as he threw down his napkin.” I just don’t understand!”

Hoss’ reply was thoughtful. ” You know Pa, Adam is the one who always thinks things through and doesn’t lose his head but this is different.” Ben turned and faced his son. The “how” was in his eyes. “It’s family, Pa. That’s the difference.” He went on. “Adam can be reasonable in any situation that doesn’t involve the safety of his family. If it had been me shot or you, he’d be acting the same way. Don’t you see, he only drops that tough shell of his when his family is threatened in some way.” Hoss hesitated, then went on. “It’s like he just couldn’t stand it if something happened to one of us.” Hoss took a slow, deep breath. “Maybe I got it all wrong, Pa.”

“No son, I’d say you got it all right.” Ben put his hand on his son’s arm. “Your older brother just can’t take the thought of losing someone else close to him. I think it would be like losing part of himself.” Ben voice reflected the remorse he was feeling.

“I’ll look after him Pa—whether he likes it or not.” Hoss smiled.

He moved his arm around Hoss’ shoulder. “Thanks son. Now, how about we see if we can cheer up the youngest member of the family?” They walked up the stairs together.
**********
Drifting in the world between awake and asleep, Adam kept hearing the laughter from the rocks above him and Joe. He didn’t try to make it stop. It was his only link to the man who had tried to kill his brother. As the balance shifted toward awake, the laughter faded and Adam opened his eyes. The first conscious thought that came to him was that his side didn’t seem to hurt as much and for that he was grateful. He looked forward to a warm bath and a change of clothes.

By the time Adam had finished and changed into fresh clothes, the shadows of evening were beginning to lengthen. He wasn’t terribly hungry but he knew it would be foolish not to eat. The trouble was, he didn’t want company and the questions that came with it.

Maggie— what if I go to Maggie’s he thought. She’d always somehow sensed his moods and wouldn’t press him. But to be fair, he did the same for her. I guess that’s why it’s so comfortable for both of us he sighed to himself. Just how and when did things change between us? Not the time to think about that now he mused. Adam opened the door to the hotel and moved through the night in the direction of Maggie’s place.

A single light shown through the window as Adam walked up the three steps to Maggie’s front door. He knocked softly. The woman who answered was the woman Adam found so easy to be with, hair down, face devoid of the false color she did not need. She took his hand and led him inside.

“I heard what happened—tell me you’re alright.” The worry could be heard in Maggie’s voice. He smiled at her and sat down with a small grunt in the soft, stuffed chair in front of the fire.

“I’m ok—really I am Maggie. Just a little tired; just a little sore. She came and stood in front of him.

“I wanted to know how you were, to see you but—. ” Her voice drifted away.

He reached up and took both of her small hands in his. “Maggie, Maggie—how many times have I told you? You can come to the ranch anytime you want.” His look told her what he said, he meant.

” I know you have Adam, but we both know I don’t belong there.” Taking her hands away from his she walked across the room, turned back and smiled at him. “Let’s not go into all that again.”

He frowned at her. “You’re the one who thinks you don’t belong, not me or anyone in the family.” He started to get up.

“You didn’t come here to fight with me, did you?” she said. Again, she came to him and gently pushed him back down.

“No, as a matter of fact, Miss Maggie, I came to beg a meal. Think you can help me?” His smile matched hers.

“Well, cowboy, it’s not the International House but I’m sure I can find something you’d like.” She moved gracefully away from him and toward the little kitchen. He moved to follow her.

” Don’t get me wrong Adam, I couldn’t be happier to see you but just why are you at my door begging a meal?” She added some wood to the cookstove.

“Didn’t need a bunch of people asking about what happened and why I’ve moved into the International House.” He cut a piece of fresh homemade bread and covered it with butter.

Maggie looked at him and raised an eyebrow but refrained from asking. She poured some soup into a pan and put it on the stovetop then busied herself with the rest of the meal.

Adam chewed the bread slowly, watching her bustle about her tiny kitchen.
He almost laughed at her obvious agitation then decided he’d teased her long enough. “Of course, it would be ok if you asked.”

Maggie turned away from the stove abruptly, wooden spoon in her hand. Adam took an involuntary step backward. “You, Adam Cartwright, are a pain in the—-.”

“Hey”, he said before she could finish her statement. He held up his hands in surrender. “Can we sit down in peace?” He sat at the table and waited for her.

Maggie put dinner on the table for both of them and sat down opposite her guest. In a soft voice she asked, “What’s going on Adam?”

He ate without saying a word. She could tell he was thinking about how he would answer her question. “Whether I like it or not, Maggie, it appears as if my family is the most important thing in my life. The thought that Joe might be permanently hurt by a random, unprovoked shooting is more than I can comprehend. But I don’t really think it was random and I need to find out who was trying to hurt him and me, for that matter.” Adam’s voice tightened and he rose from the table. He walked across the room to stand in front of the fireplace.

Maggie moved to his side. She placed a hand on his shoulder and was surprised at his response. He turned and took her in his arms—- not as a lover would but rather as a person whose heart hurt and needed comfort.
She closed her eyes and tenderly stroked the hair at the back of his neck. He needed her touch now, not her words. He broke their embrace and turned away from her. She knew his face showed emotions he’d rather others wouldn’t see. Maggie waited patiently. When he faced her again, Adam gave her a tired smile. ” I seem to come to you when I need someone to lean on.”

“Yeah–you do and if I remember correctly, I’ve done the same thing.” Maggie captured his hand and led him to the settee. ” You’re beginning to look done in, cowboy. Why don’t you rest for a little while?” Adam started to object but she hushed him. She helped him take off his boots and covered him with a blanket. “I’ll wake you in time to walk me to work.” Maggie brushed her fingertips along his cheekbone but was gone before he could capture them and say thank you.

When Adam awoke, he was surprised that he had slept at all. Just how much sleep does one man need he grumbled to himself? Sitting on the edge of the settee brought a grunt of pain as he clutched his side.

“Ahh—I see you’re all better. Certainly well enough to be riding all the way in from the Ponderosa to town.” Maggie’s sarcastic wit often matched Adam’s.

“Thank you, doctor”, Adam replied. He rose slowly and stretched.

“Your welcome and speaking of doctors, when’s the last time you saw Doctor Martin?” Maggie asked. She finished getting ready while waiting for an answer. None came and she gave up waiting. “OK, ready to walk a girl to work?”

“Whatever you say, milady!” Adam bowed carefully and opened the door. They walked into the warm Virginia City night. They talked and laughed as they strolled toward the Silver Dollar.

Just as they were about to enter the saloon, Virginia City’s sheriff, Roy Coffee came around the corner. “Adam, you got a minute?”

“I’m walking a lady to work” Adam responded.

“It’s alright Adam—I’ll see you later” Maggie slipped through the doors before he could say anything more.

Adam walked to the nearest bench and sat down. “What did you want, Roy?”

“Heard you was in town and I wanted to see how you was feeling, is all. Why does it sound like you got a chip on your shoulder Adam?” Roy was careful to keep his tone neutral.

“Too many questions from too many people” was the pointed response. Adam’s gaze did not waver from the face of the man who had known him since his youth.

“That include me?” Roy responded.

Adam lowered his head and looked away. He turned back. “No— no Roy not you. I apologize.” He let the tension fall away from his shoulders.

The sheriff came over and sat down on the bench. “I’m not gonna give you a lecture Adam.” Roy grinned. “Of all the Cartwrights, you are the last one I have to worry about when it comes to losing his head and that includes your father. But don’t you tell him I said that, I might lose a good chess partner.” The smile left his face. “We both know this is different for you. Your younger brother could have been killed and I know how close you are to them brothers of yours. I can’t stop you from looking into this Adam, but you need to tell me if you find out anything. Don’t do anything that could ruin your life forever, boy. That ain’t gonna help Joe.” He reached over and squeezed Adam’s forearm and moved away. “Guess I’ll go finish my rounds now.” The sheriff of Virginia City walked on.
**********

“Is he asleep?” Hoss asked looking up from the book he was reading.

Ben sat down with an exhausted sigh. “Yes— finally the pain medicine let him drift off. At this point I’m more worried about his state of mind than his leg. It’s going to be a long summer.” Ben gave his son a weak smile.

“We’ll get through it. How about some coffee Pa? Bet Hop Sing left some on the back of the stove.” They got up together and moved to the kitchen.

“I’m worried about your big brother too. I’m afraid he’ll do something rash because he’s angry.” Ben sipped his coffee.

“Thought I’d go see him in the morning” Hoss said. ” Don’t know if it’ll make him feel better but it’ll help me. Let’s finish this and go to bed.”

“You go ahead son. I want to check on Joe one more time. I’ll see you in the morning.” Ben walked out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

Ben watched for a few minutes while Joe slept peacefully. All my boys are strong and active but this son has been perpetual motion since he was born.
I can’t imagine what it will do to him if he has to give up his normal way of life. He scolded himself. Didn’t I tell Adam we had to be positive for Joe? I’d better practice what I preach. He reached out to touch his boy’s face. “Good night, son. Hoss is right, we’ll get through this.”

Adam sat with the same beer in front of him for the last hour. Just how he was going to find someone based on a laugh was beyond him. Who would want Joe and I both dead, he mused. It hadn’t been robbery; both of us still had money when we were found. If it were only one of us than it might be easier to figure out but why both of us? No matter how he thought about the ambush, the same questions came to his mind. Adam raised the glass to his lips but the pale, yellow liquid was warm and flat. He put it back down.

Hearing a familiar giggle, Adam looked up to see Maggie talking with a group of regulars. They were obviously enchanted by her and wanted nothing more from her than some of her time. That’s what Maggie was there to do, give the customer some of her time. Let them forget for the moment the everyday rhythms of their mundane lives. And she was good at it he thought.

It was crowded tonight, lots of people, smoke and noise. Catching glimpses through the moving bodies, Adam spotted Gordon McCarrick. He was once again plying his trade on the innocent and not so innocent of Virginia City. He remembered back to the last time he had seen the gambler. Yes, he thought; it was the same night he and Joe were shot. His eyes wandered away from the poker table back to his beer. Suddenly, an evil, staccato sound floated above the din of the saloon coming from the area he had just been watching.

In that first terrible moment of realization, Adam Cartwright froze. No, he thought. McCarrick wasn’t that crazy! No one shoots down two men because of a few dollars in a poker game. But than he knew. It had nothing to do with the game. It was because Joe had faced him down and that was bad for business and bad for his ego. Adam turned his head back toward the poker table. His dark, hooded eyes stared through the space between himself and the gambler, seeming to clear a path.

Maggie came and sat beside him. “Adam—Adam”, she called out to him. Slowly he turned his head in her direction. His face held no emotion.

“What is it? Tell me!” Still he did not respond. “You’re beginning to scare me.” She reached out to take his hand—he moved it away.

“The night Joe and I were ambushed—did you see McCarrick after we left?” Adam’s voice, like his face, held no feeling.

“No, I was here until we closed and he didn’t come back in.” Maggie had seen Adam angry before but this went beyond anger. Tears came to her eyes. “You think it’s him, don’t you? Adam, if you really think it is, go tell the sheriff”, she pleaded.

“Based on what, Maggie—-a laugh in the dark?” His words were harsh. “No, I’ll finish what Mr. McCarrick started. I made a promise.” Adam made himself sit back in his chair and try to relax. He had a long wait until the game was over and the Silver Dollar closed. He pushed the glass of beer away. He wanted his wits about him when he confronted the man who shot his brother down and left him to die in the dust.

Maggie moved away. She knew it was no good arguing or pleading. Adam Cartwright was a man she knew as good and kind and honest. But he, like all other men, had a dark side. And while he was all of the good things, Adam could be equally cold and calculating. He would have no trouble matching the evil that sat across the room from him.
**********

Hoss tossed around in his bed, trying to get comfortable. He got up knowing there would be no more sleep that night. He crossed the room and stood in front of his window. A beautiful orange-yellow moon lit the early summer night. I should be sleeping sound after doing my chores and everybody else’s he grumbled to himself. But his thoughts came to rest on his two brothers, one next door in a drugged sleep and the other who knows where, doing who knows what. Well, he couldn’t do anything for Joe that his father couldn’t do better but he could try to help his troubled older brother. Hoss started to get dressed. He had told his father he was going to see Adam in the morning. He figured it was after midnight now. He’d leave his father a note.
**********

Slowly, the noisy, smoke-filled room emptied leaving only the quiet snap of shuffled cards and the ring of coins hitting the table. Finally, only the men who sat with McCarrick remained. Even, the town drunk had staggered off to sleep in the alley behind the Silver Dollar.

Sam, the owner and bartender for the saloon looked at Adam Cartwright and knew this night would see trouble yet. He called Maggie over. “What’s going on Maggie? Adam hasn’t stopped staring at McCarrick since the beginning of the evening.”

“Adam thinks McCarrick is the man who ambushed he and Joe. He’s sure of it and is just waiting to confront him.” Maggie sounded resigned to whatever was going to happen. “I tried to get him to talk to Roy but he said he’d finish what McCarrick started and that he’d made a promise. I didn’t ask him what the promise was or who it was to, but I can guess.” Sam nodded his understanding.

“Maybe you should go along Maggie. I don’t want you caught up in any gunplay and I know Adam wouldn’t want that either.” Sam looked across the bar at the woman whose face conveyed her fears. Fear for the man Sam knew was more than just a friend to her.

She smiled at his concern for her. “Soon Sam, I’ll go home soon.” I can’t just walk away from him she thought. I have to try. Once again, she sat down next to him. “Adam, please think this through, think about what you’re doing.”

“Go away Maggie, go home. I don’t want you in the middle of this. He never took his eyes away from the poker table.

“Go away Maggie, go home—-how dare you!” The anger in her voice made him turn toward her, a surprised look on his face. Her eyes did not leave his. “You’ve turned him into prey, Adam. You’re stalking him as if he was an animal and you’ll drive him into a corner until he fights. Well you may win a gunfight with McCarrick but you’d better think about what you’ll be losing.” Tears came to her eyes. “Just how much are you willing to give up for a promise?” Maggie put on her shawl and walked through the doors. Adam’s eyes followed her.

Gordon McCarrick knew he was being watched. There’s no way Cartwright could know he thought. I was hidden in the rocks and they both were down before I left. Damn him! He shuffled the cards once more. Don’t panic, he’s just playing some game. Adam continued to stare. You want to play, he told himself. We’ll play all right, but on my terms. He smiled and dealt the cards.

Sam was ready to close and told that to all the remaining occupants. “Time to go home folks, I’m closing down.” He walked over to Adam’s table. “Afraid that means you too Adam.” Everyone left in the Silver Dollar got up and started to leave, including Gordon McCarrick.

Adam was the last to go and as he walked into the night, he saw the same bright orange-yellow moon that his brother had been watching. It lit his way.
There was no sign of anyone on the street. His body was weary and his head ached. He started in the direction of the hotel.

Hidden in the shadow of a building, Gordon McCarrick flattened himself against a wall. Come a little closer, just a little closer he said to himself. Gun in his hand, he was ready to dispatch the man who had helped humiliate him in front of everybody in the saloon that night. He and that kid brother of his. Well, he’d heard the kid would be laid up for awhile if not permanently. He’d gotten what he deserved but this one; this one had stopped him from putting a bullet in the kid right away. And now, somehow Cartwright knows and he won’t stop coming after me. Well, come on, just a little further.

Instinct, maybe—-maybe years of learning to pay attention when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Adam didn’t know what made him turn around and look into the space between the two buildings on his right. A single shot hissed past his ear and he dove behind a watering trough. He came to rest on his injured side and his scream tore through the night air. A dark figure crept closer to the light shining down and Adam waited. As a second shot hit the side of the trough, Adam raised himself up and emptied his gun into the shadowed figure at the end of the alley. All sound seemed to cease for an instant.

Hoss was just turning the corner into town when he heard the first shot. He urged his horse forward than stopped abruptly when he saw the outline of his older brother in the moonlight. Adam stood staring into the darkness, his gun still in his right hand even as it wrapped around his left side again. Hoss dismounted and ran to him.

“Adam, you all right Adam?” His brother looked up at him and but didn’t speak. “Let me look at your side.” Hoss saw the blood once again running freely from the newly opened wound. “We need to get you to the doc.”

“No.” Adam started to cross the street and approached the body lying unmoving in the dust. It was McCarrick and he was dead.

Roy Coffee came out of his office and joined the other two men. A small crowd was gathering. “What happened here, Adam?”

Adam told Roy what had happened. Suddenly he leaned heavily against a post, grunting softly as he did.

“Roy, you can ask him more questions later. Adam’s opened his wound again and I got to get him to the doc.” He moved to his brother’s side.

“I’m ok Hoss, just need to rest a little bit.” Adam pushed himself away from the post and stumbled forward. As he fell, he felt Hoss’ massive arms wrap around him and lift him as if he were a child. The last thing he remembered was his head coming to rest on his brother’s broad chest.

“Yeah, you’re ok,” Hoss said as he walked to Dr. Martin’s office.

Roy roused Paul as Hoss laid his brother on the surgeon’s table. “You think Pa’s stubborn, well ain’t nobody in the family got you beat. Had to come into town. Had to find out who shot Joe. Now look what you’ve gone and done to yourself. I just don’t know Adam, ain’t there anybody you listen to?”

“Are you talking to me?” Adam smiled weakly.

“Who else would pull a dumb stunt like this? Gett’n yourself all hurt again. What do you suppose Pa is gonna say?” Hoss wiped the beads of sweat from his brother’s face.

“Please don’t make me think of that now,” Adam replied.

Doctor Martin entered the room. “Well, Adam Cartwright. I thought I left you safely at home. Decide you wanted more excitement in your life?” Paul opened Adam’s shirt and surveyed the recent damage. Adam just grunted in response.

“You’ve reopened the wound and it’s bleeding at a nice pace. Certainly not something you needed.” Paul reached for the chloroform. “I’ll put you out and try to piece you back together again. Hoss you can stay if you want or wait outside with the sheriff.”

“Think I’ll stay, doc.” Adam reached for Hoss’ hand and held it until the anesthetic made him let go.

The surgery was over and Adam lay beneath several warm blankets. Hoss was still at his side. “He’s gonna be alright, ain’t he doc?” Hoss looked up with questioning eyes.

“Yes, he should be fine, if he listens to what I say for once. He’s got to give himself some time to replenish the blood he’s lost”, Paul replied with obvious exasperation. “We need to let him sleep now. Why don’t you go on home and tell your father what’s happened.”

“I don’t relish that task and that’s fer sure, doc.” Hoss shook his head,” but
I guess somebody’s got to do it.” He smiled. “Just wish it was somebody else.”

Paul patted Hoss’ back in sympathy and smiled back. He too knew that Ben Cartwright would be arriving before the morning was over, demanding to know the current damage to his firstborn. Ben was a man usually easy to deal with unless it had to do with the health and welfare of his sons. Than he became fiercely protective. Maybe it had something to do with raising them by himself with little help from the women that bore them. Well, he’d deal with Ben when the time came.

The sheriff said he’d be back when Adam was awake and stronger and Hoss left for home. Paul sat next to his patient, taking his pulse and watching his breathing pattern. He rubbed his tired eyes and decided to close them, just for a little while.

Presently, he thought he’d heard a soft knock on his door but dismissed it as part of some fleeting dream. No, there it was again. Paul got up and went to answer it. Maggie stood before him. “I just need to know if he’s alright” Her anxious hands pulled at her shawl.

“Come on in Maggie. He’s still out after the surgery but he doesn’t seem to be in any danger.” Paul opened the door further.

“I don’t want to be any trouble Dr. Martin; I just had to know.”

“No trouble Maggie, please come in. Maybe the stubborn fool will listen to you when he wakes up. God knows, he doesn’t listen to me!” Paul smiled and led her into the surgery.

Maggie hesitated when she first saw his pale, haggard features. She couldn’t keep the tears from sliding down her cheeks. Paul left them alone.
She moved to his side and placed her lips on his silent ones. “Oh Adam, why did you have to do this to yourself.” She lay her forehead on his and cried.

“Maggie—it’s ok Maggie. I’ll be all right.” She moved away. His golden brown eyes were open and looking back at her. “Please don’t cry Maggie.
Just sit beside me and hold my hand” He drifted off into sleep once more.
She sat at his side, took his hand and held on. She’d keep the vigil until his family came.

Ben Cartwright rode quickly on toward Virginia City and his once again injured son. Hoss had told him that Adam would be well again with rest but he needed to see him, touch him to make sure. He hoped that Adam hadn’t done something that would haunt him in time to come. He urged Buck into the next gait, arriving shortly after sunrise.

“He’ll be fine Ben, with rest and care. You can take him home in a wagon later today.” Ben’s anxious face softened with the doctor’s words. “Can I see him Paul?” Ben twisted his hat in his hands. “Of course you can. Go ahead in.” Ben started for the door to the surgery. “Oh Ben, he’s not alone.” Ben stopped short. He turned to face his friend, a questioning look in his eyes.
“It’s Maggie, Ben, she’s been with him most of the night. Didn’t figure it would hurt.”

“No—no of course not.” Ben continued into the room.

The first thing Ben thought was how young he looked, lying there covered with blankets, his hair in disarray. Maggie looked at Ben and quickly moved away from Adam’s side. “Hello Mr. Cartwright. I was just staying with Adam until someone from his family arrived. I’ll be leaving now.” Maggie picked up her shawl. Ben didn’t take his eyes off his son. “There’s no need for you to leave Maggie. Please sit down. Has he said anything since he’s been here?” “He only spoke once—said he was alright.” She hesitated and looked away from Adam’s father and spoke softly. “He asked me to hold his hand.” Ben smiled at her.

” Maggie, I don’t pretend to know what’s between you and my son but please know I am grateful for your friendship with him. Adam shares very little of his private self with others. I’m glad he has you.” He placed a hand on top of hers.

“Thank you Mr. Cartwright. I’m not quite sure what’s between us either but I know we understand and trust each other, so I guess that’s enough.” Maggie looked at him with tired eyes.

They were both startled when Adam moaned and tried to move. “Maggie—Maggie?” Her name came on a whisper. “It’s alright Adam, I’m here. Your father’s here now.” Ben bent forward, toward his son’s face. “I’m here son. You’ll be going home soon.” Maggie retreated toward the door. “Pa, I’m just a little tired but I’m ok. I want to go home. I need to see Joe.” Ben stroked his son’s cheek with the back of his hand. “We’ll leave soon and I’ll take you home to see Joe.” When Ben turned to speak to Maggie, he found that she was gone. He turned back and continued to speak soft, soothing words.

Joe and Adam recovered together. By the time Adam was ready to be up and around by himself, Joe had his leg plastered. Although there was still lots of time before Joe’s leg would be tested, it was a step forward and he had learned to relish even the small steps. The three Cartwright men and Hop Sing did whatever they could, while still running the ranch, to help Joe recover in mind and body. Ben was proud of the devotion his boys had to each other.

Adam had never really discussed what happened the night Gordon McCarrick died except to explain it to Roy Coffee’s satisfaction. His family
did not ask for any further explanations and Adam didn’t offer any. He hadn’t been to Virginia City in weeks, always finding something else to occupy him when errands in town needed to be done.

Just a hint of the changing seasons touched the air. Ben, Hoss, Hop Sing and most of the hands had left for round up. Adam stayed home with Joe. They shared morning coffee on the veranda. A special reclining chair had been fashioned for Joe’s needs. “Adam—will you answer something if I ask you?”
Joe seemed nervous to Adam and he could only wonder what his younger brother had come up with now.

Adam gave Joe a wary look and answered “Yeah–I guess so. What’s up?”

Joe took a deep breath. “Are you sure McCarrick is the one who ambushed us that night?” He seemed relieved at finally having asked.

Adam turned away but instead of the angry look Joe expected, he saw only a pensive stare. “Maggie told me I had turned him into prey and that I was stalking him as if he were an animal. She said cornered animals fight back.
She was right.” He looked back at Joe. “Yes Joe–I’m sure he was the one but I was wrong in the way I went after him. I set my self up as an avenger.”
Adam’s voice cracked. “I had no right.”

“But Adam if he was the one who shot us—-.” Joe didn’t understand what his brother was trying to say.

Adam looked directly into Joe’s eyes, wanting to make sure he heard every word. “Look Joe, even if I was sure it was McCarrick, I had no right to put myself above the law and that’s what I did. I wanted him to make a play. I wanted to be the one to make him pay for what he did. He died because he gave me no choice but I didn’t give him one either. Now do you understand?”

“Yeah, I guess I do but now you have to live with it and that doesn’t seem fair. You didn’t start this whole thing.” Joe started to raise his voice.

“It is fair Joe. Leave it alone now.” He got up and placed his empty cup on the tray. He smiled. “Let’s get you inside before you catch a cold and Hop Sing blames me.”
**********
A hard frost had hit leaving a thin layer of ice on any water that wasn’t moving and covering the fields with a glistening sheath of white. Inside the ranch house a cheery fire warmed the inhabitants. “Ok Joseph, the plaster has been off for two weeks and you’ve been doing your exercises, lets see
how some weight on that leg feels.” Dr. Martin helped him up. All the Cartwright men watched as Joe rose to his feet and tentatively tested his injured limb. It felt strange at first but with each step he felt more confident and his gait became more normal. He knew that it would improve more with time and for that he was endlessly grateful.

While doctor and father, brother and housekeeper all celebrated Joe’s recovery, Adam stepped out onto the porch. He hugged himself, trying to stay warm. In a moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “OK son?” Ben said.

“Yeah Pa, just thinking” he answered. “Thank God Joe is going to be alright. Now he can put this all behind him.” Adam was still looking out toward the hills.

“How about you Adam, can you put it all behind?” Ben still held his son’s shoulder.

“Never completely and I guess that’s the way it should be but I’m learning to live with it.” He turned back to his father and gave him a smile. “Let’s go back in and join the party.”

Later that night after everyone was asleep; Adam stood at the sideboard and strapped on his gun. He put on his hat and heavy coat. It was a long ride into Virginia City and to the lady he hoped would forgive him.

1/04

 

Next Story in the Laugh in the Dark Series:

Reflections
A Tree for Maggie

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.