Out of The Shadows (by debpet)

Summary: An empty warehouse, a mysterious but vaguely familiar stranger and a blue shirt. Will these things add up to tragedy for Ben Cartwright’s oldest son?  

Rated: K+  WC  10,000

 

Out of the Shadows

PART I: THE STAIN

Ben Cartwright felt very strange as he watched the scene unfolding before him. He saw his oldest son walking down the alley toward the side entrance of the large building. There was an urgent feeling in his mind that he should be shouting out something, but he couldn’t think of what it was. And even if he could have he felt paralyzed, unable to move or to say anything.

Adam paused by the door, glancing up at the small sign above it. Then he drew his gun with his right hand, grasped the handle of the door with his left hand, carefully opened it and disappeared inside.

Somehow, Ben found himself standing in front of the door his son had just gone through. He looked up and saw that the sign above the door read “STEINER & SONS’ WAREHOUSE”. He knew this place. But as he watched his son move deeper into the building he realized that something was very wrong. The Steiners’ Warehouse that he knew was a very active place, renting space to many of Virginia City’s merchants to store their excess inventories and equipment. But the building that Adam was moving through appeared to be completely empty and deserted. The urge Ben felt to call out some kind of warning was taking on an almost desperate intensity, but as hard as he tried he couldn’t manage to translate that urge into action.

And then it happened. A figure stepped out of the shadows near the side wall. The man was short and slim, with sharp features and a penetrating gaze. There was something about him that seemed vaguely familiar to Ben, but he couldn’t quite pin it down.

“Looking for someone, Cartwright?” the man said in a taunting voice.

Adam whirled to face him, but the man already had his gun drawn and, to Ben’s horror, he fired off a shot before Adam could make any move to defend himself.

The sound of the gunshot echoed like thunder in the cavernous building. Adam staggered back against one of the beams that supported the ceiling. A red stain appeared on the upper left part of his chest. Ben continued to look on in shock-induced paralysis as the stain expanded slowly but inexorably, showing up garishly against his son’s light blue shirt. Strangely, in that moment, one idle thought cut through Ben’s shock, bringing the awareness that he had never seen Adam wear that particular shirt before.

The startled surprise in Adam’s eyes faded to vacancy. His body began to slide down the beam, then slid off to the side and rolled over. He ended up on his back, his face frozen in an expression of chagrin at having fallen into his assailant’s trap, his eyes, open but sightless, staring up at the ceiling above him. He took one last rattling breath, then lay there completely still.

Ben stared in agony at the still expanding stain over his son’s heart, and the lifeless expression in his face. He wanted nothing more than to rush to him, take him in his arms and shout out his grief to the heavens.

And still he could do nothing.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the scene changed. He found himself standing at the back of the plain wooden church he knew so well. At the front of the church, before the altar, rested an open coffin of fine, shining mahogany with a lighted candelabra at each corner. Hoss and Joe appeared on either side of him and grasped his arms, helping him to remain upright on unsteady legs. He looked from one to the other, and the open sorrow he saw in their eyes only added to his own pain. After a moment they began to proceed slowly and solemnly up the aisle together.

Ben saw that there was only one other person in the church at that moment, a man, sitting in one of the middle pews on the left. As Ben and his sons passed by where he was sitting the man turned his head to stare at them. The corners of his mouth turned up in a malevolent sneer. Somewhere in his mind Ben recognized him as the man from the warehouse…the man who had killed his firstborn son. And yet, his state was such that he could not even seem to react to that fact. The man’s eyes continued to follow them as they neared the front of the church.

Finally they stood before the bier. Ben gently shook off the hands that supported him and took two halting extra steps forward to stand directly next to the coffin. His eyes stared down at the figure lying there, seeking some sign that this was all some terrible mistake and Adam was not really dead after all. But they found none. The raven hair was combed almost too perfectly. The black suit in which Adam had been dressed emphasized the unnatural paleness of his skin. The expression on his face was too stiff, frozen into what seemed a parody of a peaceful sleep. Ben reached out a trembling hand and touched the ashen cheek, finding it cold and waxen to the touch. He closed his eyes as he bowed his head. “My son,” he whispered. “My son.” Finally, something within him broke. He began to sob unashamedly. And he could feel that Hoss and Joe were weeping with him.

****************

Ben’s eyes fluttered open, and he gradually became aware of his own ragged breathing and the tears coursing down his cheeks. The light from the lamp burning low on the night stand confirmed that he was in fact in his own room. As he took a moment to compose himself he found himself grateful that, in his nightmare, he had evidently not disturbed any of his sons.

Then an urgent impulse seized him, and he quickly got up from his bed. He threw his robe around him and hurried out into the hall. Swiftly but silently he moved to stand by the door to his oldest son’s room. Taking a deep breath he very carefully opened it.

Moonlight streamed in through the half opened window and showed up Adam, lying on his side with his face toward the door where Ben stood. He stirred slightly and the flicker of a smile crossed his sleeping face. Ben wondered if he might be having a dream of his own, a dream of a more pleasant nature than the one that had just awakened his father.

Ben stared down at his son, almost surprised at what he found himself feeling. The sight of Adam, very much alive and perfectly well, did have a calming effect on him, certainly. But it did not completely overcome the anxiety that his dream had aroused. True, it had only been a dream. But this was the third night in a row that this particular strange and terrifying dream had come to him. That had to mean something. But what? His eyes widened as the idea occurred to him that a dream such as this could be an omen, a prediction of something that was actually about to happen. Ben leaned back against the door frame and closed his eyes as he felt a chill of fear pass over him.

“Oh God, no. Please…no…not that!” he whispered.

PART II: DO YOU BELIEVE?

At noon the next day the skies were overcast in Virginia City and a light breeze was blowing. Ben Cartwright emerged from the bank after completing some necessary transactions and began to stride slowly down the street with an abstracted look on his face.

In a way he was grateful that business had required him to come into town today. It had gotten him out from under the curious gazes of his too observant sons. They had noticed his distraction at breakfast that morning, and it had not been easy to satisfy their concern without saying more than he cared to. How could he explain to them what was occupying his thoughts when he couldn’t really understand it himself? Eventually Joe and Hoss had seemed to accept it when he assured them he was simply tired. But Adam had continued to regard him quizzically, even though he said nothing. It had been a relief to Ben to mount up and ride off. As he rode along two questions kept revolving in his mind. Did his dream represent a real omen of danger to his son? And if so…what was he supposed to do about it? Unfortunately, he was unable to reach any definite conclusion on either point.

He was still thinking about these questions and, consequently, not paying attention to where he was going when he bumped into a middle aged woman coming out of the dress shop. With a sound of “oof!” the unfortunate lady sat down on her backside, dropping the package she was carrying. Terribly embarrassed, Ben reached out his hand to help her up.

“Ma’am, I am truly sorry. I’m afraid I wasn’t looking…”

“Come barging down the street like an out of control stagecoach will you? A man your age ought to know how to behave like a gentleman,” she interrupted him in a peevish voice as she steadied herself on her feet. Then she began to brush herself off.

“I do apologize, ma’am,” Ben resumed. He picked up the package and held it out to her, his face reddening. She grabbed it out of his hands and then, with a frown on her face and a stony glare in her eye, she turned and hurried away.

Ben looked after her with a sigh and resumed his walk, vowing to keep his eyes open. And it was then that he noticed several large wagons pulled up a little further down the street. A couple of seconds later it hit him that the building they were pulled up in front of was none other than the Steiner & Sons’ Warehouse…the building that had figured so prominently in his dream. That thought sent a little shiver through him, but he quickly shook it off. He recognized the man who appeared to be in charge, a muscular fellow with thick, curly brown hair named Bob Watson. Watson was looking over some papers and occasionally scribbling something on them with his pencil. Driven by a pressing curiosity, Ben hurried across the street and approached him. Watson did not appear to notice as Ben came up beside him, so Ben reached out and lightly tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hello, Bob,” he said.

Watson turned his head and smiled as he recognized Ben.

“Well, howdy, Mr. Cartwright,” he replied. “Good to see ya.”

“Good to see you too,” Ben responded. “Bob…what’s going on here?”

“Oh, hadn’t you heard? The Steiners are clearing out the warehouse and moving everything to a new location a little ways outside of town. Yes sir, by the end of today this building will be completely empty.”

Ben became very quiet for a moment as he absorbed this news. Finally he gathered himself and decided to pursue the subject further.

“Oh, really? And why are they doing that…do you know?”

“Seems that lately they’re doing a lot more business with some of the mining companies and less business with the merchants right here in town,” Watson replied. “So it makes sense for them to move out nearer to the mining operations. Course, from what I hear, some of the town merchants aren’t too happy about it. But that’s the way things go. One thing’s for sure; this property won’t be left deserted for very long. I understand there are already plans for new development here. I tell you, I’d sure like to be the one who owns this plot of land. Why, with the town growing by leaps and bounds the way it is, it could be almost as good as a gold mine!”

“Indeed,” Ben murmured.

Just then there was a commotion over by one of the wagons. Two of Watson’s men who were attempting to load a large crate had lost hold of it and allowed it to fall to the ground. The top of the crate had come off and some of the contents were spilling out. Now the two men were shouting and gesturing angrily, each of them seemingly attempting to blame the other for the mishap.

“Well, there’s another fine mess I have to take care of,” Watson said in exasperation. “Excuse me, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Of course,” Ben replied. And Bob Watson hurried away to try to break up the altercation.

Ben remained standing there with his eyes cast down. He was feeling the same chill of fear that he had felt the night before as he stood in Adam’s doorway and wondered if his dream was an omen. There had been several circumstances about the dream that had struck him as strange. And it was deeply disturbing to discover that one of those circumstances, the empty warehouse, was actually becoming reality. But even this revelation did nothing to enlighten him as to what he ought to do.

Deep in thought, Ben began to make his way back up the street toward the General Store, where he had to pick up a couple of items before heading home.

As he did so he encountered Dr. Paul Martin, who was just coming out of his office. Dr. Martin greeted Ben cheerfully.

“Well hello, Ben. I was just thinking that I haven’t seen you or your boys for a while. Which I suppose is a good thing, since it means you haven’t had any need for my services. I trust you’re all well and busy as usual.”

“Very well and very busy, thank you,” Ben told him, doing his best to smile.

“Ben, I was just about to go and get some lunch over at Miss Mamie’s. Why don’t you join me and we can chat a bit…catch up on things.”

“I’d like that, Paul,” Ben responded gratefully.

The two men began to chat amiably as they made their way to the small, cozy eating place a couple of blocks off the main street and continued as they enjoyed Miss Mamie’s hearty home cooking. Remembering that he had eaten very little art breakfast, Ben was not surprised to discover that he was actually quite hungry. And talking casually with his old friend did seem to ease the tension within him a little. But not completely. Even as they chatted about other things the subject that had been preoccupying him was never very far from Ben’s mind. At one point a brief silence fell between them, and Ben wondered if he dared bring the topic up with Paul. Perhaps if he raised it in a general way without becoming too personal he might get some helpful insight from the doctor without coming across as a candidate for a mental institution.

“Paul,” Ben ventured tentatively, “do you believe that dreams can accurately predict the future?”

Paul Martin gave him a look of definite interest, tinged with a little bit of curiosity.

“That’s not an easy yes or no question, Ben. As a medical man I pride myself in relying on science and I tend to be skeptical about such claims. But I have known several people who maintained that they have had such experiences. One of them was my great aunt Anna. She used to tell me that several times she had dreamed about someone and very shortly afterward received news that the person had died.” He paused. “Of course, she had to admit that not all of her dreams turned out to be true. There were a couple of times when she had a dream like that and nothing happened. She said that in those cases God must have changed his mind for some reason. And experiences like that aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, from the people I’ve talked to, I’d say that there’s an Aunt Anna somewhere in almost every family.”

“My great grandfather,” Ben said softly, remembering the stories that his mother had told him about the old man. “He was like that too.”

“Well, there you see,” Paul responded. “I never did know exactly how seriously to take Aunt Anna. I’m not about to unquestioningly accept such claims. And yet, I have to recognize that there are a great many things that go on in this world that we just don’t understand, and I can’t simply dismiss them out of hand either.”

“And if you ever had a dream that you thought might indicate someone close to you was in danger,” Ben said hesitantly, “what would you do? Would you try to warn the person? Would you try to do something yourself to block the danger? Or what?”

“I really don’t know, Ben. I suppose it would depend on a lot of things. The person involved and how I thought they might respond to a warning. The exact nature of the danger. And other factors.” Paul Martin looked at Ben curiously. “Is there some special reason you’re bringing this up?”

“Not really,” Ben fibbed. “I was just curious. Something to do with a story I was reading.” The doctor regarded him a little skeptically, but he did not pursue the subject. And the conversation turned in a different direction. But the exchange stayed in the back of Ben’s mind. He only wished that it had been more helpful in resolving his dilemma. He still didn’t know what he should do.

A shot time later they had finished their lunch and they found themselves walking back in the direction of Paul’s office. As they emerged from the side street Ben noticed that the stage was just pulling into the depot across the way. The door of the stage opened and an elderly man emerged. He paused to help a white haired woman, who might well have been his wife, as she stepped down. Then one final passenger emerged. And at the sight of him Ben froze, staring openly, as the cold chill of fear passed over him more strongly than ever before. Because the man who had just arrived in Virginia City was unmistakably none other than the man from his dream…the man who shot Adam!

PART III: TO TELL OR NOT TO TELL

A sudden wave of dizziness struck Ben, the scene before him blurred, and he started to sway on his feet. He felt Paul Martin’s hand seizing his arm to keep him from falling, and heard the doctor’s anxious, demanding voice. “Ben, are you all right?”

Ben squeezed his eyes shut, attempting to stop his head from spinning. “Just give me a minute,” he managed to get out, shakily.

Paul still retained his hold on Ben’s arm. “Ben, we’re very close to my office,” he said. “Why don’t you …”

“No Paul.” Ben’s voice was strengthening as his head began to clear. He futilely attempted to shake off the doctor’s support. “I need to…”

“What you need to do is come and let me take a look at you. You look as white as a ghost. No argument now. Come along.” And tightening his grip on Ben’s arm the doctor guided his friend in the direction he wanted. At the moment Ben didn’t feel up to resisting.

Ben impatiently endured the doctor’s examination. By this time his head was fairly clear and his strength was almost back. When he was finished Dr. Martin looked at his patient with a puzzled expression. “Well, Ben, I can’t find anything wrong. We just had lunch, so you couldn’t have been about to faint from hunger. I know you sometimes have a tendency to push yourself more than you should, overdo things. Have you been getting enough rest lately?”

“Actually, I haven’t been sleeping very well for the last few nights,” Ben confessed.

“Any particular reason for that?” the doctor asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just generally keyed up, I suppose. We have been quite busy lately.” Ben hoped Paul wouldn’t become too inquisitive on the subject.

“Well, I suppose that could be it,” Paul said thoughtfully. “I’d recommend that you go home right away and try to get a good night’s rest. And if you have any more dizzy spells, let me know.”

“I’ll follow orders, Paul,” Ben assured him as he began to button his shirt. He was eager to get away from the doctor and attempt to track down the mysterious stranger. Exactly what he would do if he did find the man was very much an open question, but he had to try. He stood up, briefly thanked the doctor and started toward the door. But a nagging question at the back of his mind caused him to stop and turn back. He almost hated to ask the question, but at the same time he needed to.

“Paul,” he began a little tentatively, “did you happen to notice the man who got off the stage?”

“You mean the old gent who seemed to be traveling with the woman?”

“No…the other one.”

“Oh, the younger fellow. Not too tall…a little bit weasely looking maybe.”

“That’s him. I don’t suppose you happened to see where he went off to.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t. If you’ll remember, I was paying more attention to you at the time. Is he someone you know?”

“I just thought he might be,” Ben responded carefully. “Good-bye, Paul.” And before his friend could become too inquisitive, Ben slipped out the door.

Once out on the sidewalk, Ben stopped to heave a sigh of relief. At least he had confirmation that the appearance of the stranger was not simply something that his own troubled mind was making up. He was real. So how should he go about trying to find him? Well, a good place to start might be the International House. That was where the greatest number of people arriving in town sought lodging.

Ben hurried across the street and into the hotel lobby. Behind the desk the clerk, Sam Winston, was busy sorting newly arrived mail into the letter slots for the various rooms. Ben tapped the bell on the desk, causing Sam to turn around and greet him with a smile.

“Hello, Ben. What can I do for you?”

“Sam, did anyone who came in on the latest stage check in here?”

“Now Ben,” Sam said, lowering his voice, “you know I’m not supposed to give out information about our guests to just anyone who happens to ask.”

“All I need to know is whether anyone from that stage wound up here.” Ben’s voice also lowered into a conspiratorial whisper. “Please, Sam. It could be very important.”

Sam looked around, apparently to assure himself that he was not being overheard. “Well, there was an older couple.”

“Noone else?” Ben demanded.

“‘Fraid not.” Sam shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

“That’s all right, Sam. Thanks anyway,” Ben said after a brief pause. And he turned away in evident disappointment.

Ben spent the next two hours checking out other places in town where the stranger might have gone, including several boarding houses of varying reputations. He even glanced into some of the saloons and eating places to see if he could catch sight of him. But he was unable to find any trace of the man. If not for what Paul Martin had said he might almost have suspected that what he had seen was merely a product of his imagination.

Eventually, realizing how late it was, Ben was forced to abandon his search. Discouraged and weary, he finally retrieved Buck and started on his way back home. As he rode along his way, he was considering whether it might not be best simply to tell Adam everything. But he had serious doubts as to whether his ever logical son would take his warning seriously. He could just imagine Adam raising an eyebrow and making some pointed remark about confusing dream and reality. He would likely pass off the empty warehouse as a mere coincidence, and the arrival of the stranger as a case of mistaken identity. He would chuckle indulgently at his anxious father, maintaining that he must have simply seen someone who looked generally like the man from his dream, and his mind had tricked him into believing that the likeness was greater than it really was. And Ben had no real proof that such was not the case, only his own experience and his own conviction. No, telling Adam did not seem likely to have the desired result.
Ben thought of finding some excuse to send Adam out of town on some sort of business. But a sudden change of plan based on a transparently inadequate reason would only result in questions that would force him to explain, and he was already skeptical about the wisdom of that. And how long would Adam have to stay out of town anyway? While some of the circumstances of his dream seemed to be falling into place, Ben had no idea how long it might be before events might be expected to come to their denouement. And how could he be sure that whatever danger there was would not somehow follow Adam wherever he might go?

When Ben reached home it was time for supper. Fortunately, his sons all seemed too tired after a hard day’s work to notice how preoccupied he still was. None of the Cartwrights ate as much as usual, much to Hop Sing’s muttered displeasure, and they all opted to retire early.

Ben was almost afraid to go to sleep that night, fearing that the dream would return. But that didn’t happen. In fact he never reached a deep enough sleep to dream at all. Instead he drifted in and out of light sleep, his restless mind awhirl with uncertainty and dread.

It was a little before his usual time to get up, when Ben, watching the hands of his clock move, decided that it was useless to try to get any more sleep. Still tired, he got up, quickly dressed himself and made his way downstairs. Hop Sing was just starting a fire in the kitchen. The cook eyed Ben curiously when he came through the door.

“You up early, Mista Ben,” Hop Sing commented.

Ben nodded in acknowledgement. “I was having some trouble sleeping. I’d very much appreciate a cup of coffee as soon as you can have it ready, Hop Sing.”

“Ready right away,” Hop Sing promised him, taking up the coffee pot. Ben went back out to the dining area and sat down at the table to wait. In just a few moments Hop Sing came out with a steaming cup which he placed in front of Ben. Then he hurried back into the kitchen to get breakfast started. Ben sipped gratefully at the bracing brew as he sat there thinking. When he was finished he requested a second cup. He continued to sit there quietly drinking his coffee and feeling it take away some of his fatigue.

Finally it was just about the usual time for his sons to begin coming down to breakfast. Ben was raising the cup to his lips to get the last sip of coffee when he heard the clatter of footsteps coming down the stairs. Glancing over he noticed Adam reaching the bottom step. The cup never reached Ben’s lips as he froze, staring at his son. Or, more specifically, at what he had on.

Adam was wearing the same unfamiliar blue shirt that Ben had seen in his dream!

PART IV: MESSAGES

As Adam strode across the great room toward the dining area Ben continued to stare at him, mesmerized at the sight of the shirt. Try as he might he could not put aside the image in his mind of that shirt as he had seen it in the dream, stained in blood from a wound to the heart. He forced his eyes down, hoping his reaction would not betray his feelings too blatantly.

But it was no use. Adam tossed a cheerful “Morning, Pa,” at his father as he sat down at the table, then his expression quickly changed as he noticed the look on his father’s face.

“You’re looking a little peaked this morning, Pa,” Adam said, cocking an eyebrow. “Are you going to tell me you’re ‘just tired’ again today?”

“It happens to be true,” Ben replied mildly. And before Adam could pursue the matter, he moved to change the subject. “Son…that shirt you’re wearing…it’s a new one, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is,” Adam answered with a slight chuckle. “Joe was razzing me the other day about wearing black so much, and I guess a change once in a while is a good thing after all, so I picked up a couple of shirts in lighter colors. How do you like it?”

“Very nice, son,” Ben murmured absently.

Just then, there was more clattering on the steps and Hoss and Joe came to join them. They seemed in high spirits and Ben was grateful for the diversion that their chatter provided. Very quickly, all the Cartwrights were busy delving into the plates of ham, eggs and hash browns that Hop Sing had provided. And as they ate, Ben Cartwright was coming to a decision. He took advantage of a momentary pause in his sons’ banter to turn the conversation to their plans for the day’s work.
“You boys were going to work on that bridge over the stream in the north pasture today, weren’t you?” Ben said.

“Yeah, that’s the plan,” Hoss replied.

“Well, Hoss, you and Joe can go ahead with that. But Adam, I’d like to have you stay here with me today so we can work on the bid for the lumber the army needs for the expansion of Fort Churchill.”

“Are you sure about that, Pa?” Adam said, eyeing him skeptically. “That bid doesn’t have to be sent off for about two weeks if I remember right. And I’m the one who knows the most about the work on the bridge.”

“You’ve gone over everything with your brothers, haven’t you?”

“Well, yes, but I’d still like…”

“I’m sure they’ll do fine by themselves, Adam. And I’d really like to get working on that bid. The specifications are rather complex, involving a wide range of sizes and shapes. And we have to figure out how we can schedule the work without disrupting some of the other projects we already have committed to.”

“It doesn’t seem quite fair to Hoss and Joe,” Adam began to protest. But Ben cut him off.

“Adam, I don’t want any argument on this. I’d appreciate it if, for once, you would simply do as I ask without questioning everything,”

The look that Adam gave him then, one of curiosity infused with a dose of angry resentment, unnerved Ben. The equally curious stares he received from Joe and Hoss added to his discomfort. But Ben was determined to keep his oldest son within sight this day, and he would willingly endure a great deal more than some angry looks in order to do it.

“If you insist, Pa,” Adam finally ventured in a cool tone that made his dissatisfaction all too clear.

The rest of the meal passed in an uncomfortable silence. When it was finished Hoss and Joe gathered up their hats and guns and hastily made their way out the door while Adam and Ben retreated to the desk in the alcove to begin their work.

At first the rattling of dishes could be heard in the kitchen as Hop Sing cleaned up from their meal. Then that noise ceased and, for a time, almost the only sound to be heard in the house was the soft murmur of voices as father and son hashed out their plans for their bid on the army project. And so it continued until around ten o’clock or so when Ben and Adam took a break for coffee and one of Hop Sing’s blueberry muffins.

Just as they were about ready to resume their work, there was a knocking at the door. Ben answered it and found a messenger from town who held out an envelope to him. Ben drew some money from his pocket , handed it to the young man and took the envelope in exchange. The messenger thanked him and turned away and Ben closed the door behind him. Still sitting by the desk, Adam looked on with interest as his father drew out the letter and began to read it. He saw a frown cross his father’s face and his eyes take on the far away look of deep thought.

“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked.

“It’s from Marv Trainor, calling a special emergency meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association,” Ben answered him. “It seems Dan Stevens and a couple of his men had an encounter with some Indians yesterday evening. They were Paiutes, and they were apparently trying to steal a few of Dan’s cattle. He and his men managed to drive the Indians off, but one of his men got an arrow in the arm. Now Dan is up in arms and he’s demanding that the Association organize an armed group to respond in case of any further incidents.”

“That’s all we need,” Adam said drily. “The Paiutes must be in dire straits for some of them to try something like that. Someone should go out and talk to Winnemuca, find out what the situation is. If they’re in need then the best way to avoid trouble is to come up with some kind of a fair deal that will help them meet their need without resorting to stealing. Threatening armed retaliation could only inflame the situation”

“I agree with you,” Ben told him. “I just hope that some of the more hot headed members of the Association can be brought to see things that way.”

“What time is this meeting supposed to be anyway?” Adam inquired.

“Half past noon,” Ben replied, glancing at the letter.

“So we’d better be going then,” Adam said, rising from his chair.

Ben did not respond immediately. He stood there completely motionless for several seconds as his son began to wonder what was going on. Then, as though he had reached some kind of decision, Ben stepped next to his son and laid a hand on his arm.

“Adam, I’m going to ask something of you,” he said seriously. “It may sound strange, and I’m afraid I can’t really explain it very well. I hope that soon I will be able to, but for now I can only tell you that it may be very important…and ask you to trust me.”

“I trust you, Pa. You know that,” Adam said quietly.

“Then I want you to stay here at home.” Ben’s voice took on an urgent tone. “I need you to promise me that under no circumstances will you leave the ranch until I tell you otherwise. Can you promise me that?”

Adam looked at his father in confusion. He really did not know what to make of this request. It certainly did sound strange. Apparently there was something going on that his father was not prepared to reveal fully. Still…his father had asked for his trust. And there was only one possible response to that.

“All right, Pa. I promise. I’ll stay here. You have my word. I can find plenty to keep me occupied.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben responded. He took a deep breath and squeezed his son’s arm gratefully. “Now, as you said, if I’m going to make that meeting on time I really need to be going.”

Adam followed him as he moved over to the credenza near the door. Ben quickly strapped on his gun belt and donned his hat. As he did so he regarded his son seriously.

“Adam, you’ve given me your word and I’m counting on you to keep it.”

“I will, Pa,” Adam assured him.

With a smile Ben headed out the door. Adam stood in the doorway and watched as Ben got his horse from the barn, mounted up and headed off to town. Then he returned to the desk, sat down in his father’s chair and, with a sigh, set about writing down the information for the bid on the army contract as he and his father had discussed it.

Adam occupied himself with that work until a little after noon, at which time Hop Sing came to him with a sandwich and a glass of milk Adam took them and set them down on the low table in front of the settee by the fireplace. He grabbed a book off of one of the shelves in the alcove and settled down to do some reading as he enjoyed his lunch.

His peaceful interlude was short lived. He heard the front door open and Hop Sing came bustling in, raising his voice in agitation.

“Mista Adam! Mista Adam!”

Adam turned his head and saw the cook come hurrying across the room toward him, waving a piece of paper in his hand.

“What is it, Hop Sing?”

“I go out to barn with milk for Mista Hoss’ kittens. When I come out I see something hanging on door. Is message addressed to you. Someone put on door and nobody see or hear. This very strange. Message delivered this way mean bad luck. I no like. No like at all.”

“Well, what does it say?”

“I no read. Message for you.”

Hop Sing held the paper out and Adam took it. As he read his eyes widened and he leaned forward in a posture of concentrated interest.

“Is bad news?” Hop Sing asked him

“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Hop Sing,” Adam replied. “Just something I need to think about. Thank you for bringing it to me. You can go now.”

With a nod the Chinaman hurried off to the kitchen, casting several curious glances back at Adam as he went.

Adam stayed sitting on the settee for a few minutes, thinking. Then he got up and began to pace back and forth in front of the fireplace, his whole bearing and demeanor showing profound indecision.

“What am I supposed to do about this?” he was thinking to himself. “I know what I promised Pa. But he can’t possibly have meant for me to ignore something like this…can he? Of course, it sounds like it could very well be some kind of trick. But what if it’s not? Can I possibly take that chance? How could I live with what it might mean?”

Adam continued to pace and his expression grew more and more intense. Finally he stood still for a moment with his eyes closed and his hands clenched. Then he seemed to come to a decision. He carefully folded the paper and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. Then he quickly strode over to the credenza, strapped on his gun, put on his hat and hurried out the door, intent on breaking his promise.

PART V: THE DREAM BECOMES REALITY?

Old Ozzie stood in the doorway of the bunkhouse looking up at the sky, which was beginning to turn threatening after a pleasant morning. Maybe it was for the best that a lingering congestion was keeping him confined to the bunkhouse for one more day. He didn’t relish the idea of being caught out in the open meadow if the weather turned nasty. Feeling a cough coming on he pulled out a handkerchief and raised it to his mouth. When the coughing spell was finished he turned as if intending to go back inside the bunkhouse. But just then he spied Adam Cartwright coming out of the ranch house and crossing toward the barn. Ozzie was struck by the urgency in young Cartwright’s stride and the tension in his whole demeanor. Obviously there was something up, and the long-time hand found himself wondering about it.

“Adam! Hey, Adam!” Ozzie called, trying to catch young Cartwright’s attention.

But Adam didn’t seem to notice. Without even turning his head he strode on and disappeared inside the barn as Ozzie continued to watch him curiously. A slight chill came over the old hand and he quickly went inside. A moment later his face appeared in the bunkhouse window. He watched as Adam emerged from the barn with his horse, mounted up and rode off. The mix of worry and determination in the young man’s face left Ozzie deeply concerned. The Cartwrights were good people to work for, and he had a special regard for Adam, whom he had found to be both fair and firm in his dealings. With a sigh, Ozzie turned away from the window and sat down on a chair next to the bunkhouse stove, holding his hands out to its warmth. He had the uncomfortable feeling that there was some kind of trouble brewing, though he couldn’t say exactly what. For the Cartwrights’ sake he just hoped it wasn’t anything too serious.

************************

It was a few minutes after three when Ben Cartwright emerged from the meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association with a frown on his face. The meeting had been a contentious one and he, along with a couple of others, had been hard pressed to steer the debate to a reasonable conclusion. In the end it had been decided to authorize three of the ranchers who had maintained the friendliest relations with the Paiutes to approach Winnemuca, determine what the situation of the tribe was and come to an agreement that would prevent any future attempts at cattle rustling. In order to achieve this result Ben had been forced to agree to be part of the delegation. “Just one more thing to worry about,” he thought to himself wearily.

As the men coming out of the meeting began to disperse several of them tossed good-byes in Ben’s direction which he returned absently. And then, from a little way down the street, a familiar voice intruded.

“Say, Ben, hold up there a minute!”

Ben turned and saw Sheriff Roy Coffee hurrying toward him.

“Hello, Roy. What’s on your mind?” he said as his friend came up next to him.

“Well, now, I got to hear about this meetin’ and I was kind of concerned that there could be some trouble brewing between the ranchers and the Indians. I was hopin’ you could tell me what went on,” Roy replied.

“I don’t think you need to worry, Roy. It seems that, at least for the moment, cooler heads have prevailed. Three of us are going out to talk with Winnemuca and try to resolve the situation.”

“Well that’s good anyhow.” Roy gave a nod of satisfaction. Then his face turned sober. “Ben, there was somethin’ else I wanted to talk to you about, only I haven’t had the chance before this.” He hesitated, steeling himself to bring up a not very pleasant subject. “It’s about Bill Enders. I heard that his appeal to the territorial governor for clemency was rejected. They’re gonna go ahead with his execution at dawn the day after tomorrow.”

At the mention of Bill Enders Ben’s eyes grew wide and his mind began to race. He thought of the mysterious man who shot Adam in his dream, the man he believed he had seen arrive in town the day before, and suddenly he knew why the man seemed vaguely familiar to him. The man reminded him of Bill Enders! Enders had been convicted in the killing of Toby Barker during a robbery at the Goat Springs stage station, and Adam’s stubborn commitment to justice had been instrumental in bringing that about.* And a man who resembled Enders enough to be related appeared in his dream to threaten his son’s life. There had to be some connection!

Ben was just about to ask Roy if he knew anything about the man who had arrived on the stage yesterday when, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed something that caused his heart to leap into his throat. For there was Adam, striding down the sidewalk on the other side of the street. For a couple of seconds Ben just stared unbelievingly. How could Adam be here? He was supposed to be safe at home. He had given his word! Then Ben saw Adam pause in front of a large building, and something in his chest tightened when it hit him. The building was the Steiner warehouse! He could hardly breathe as he saw his son turn into the alley that ran alongside the warehouse.

Ben felt himself momentarily trapped in the same sense of paralysis that had afflicted him in his dream. But the force of his determination, fueled by his fear, enabled him to break free of it, and he found himself beginning to dash across the street, his heart racing, moving faster than he thought he could.

Alarmed at his friend’s abrupt and unexplained actions, Roy Coffee set off after him, though at a slightly less frenzied pace, calling out “Ben! Ben! What the devil do ya think you’re doin’?”

Ben didn’t hear him. In the middle of the street he barely escaped being run down by a passing buggy. But somehow he made it safely to the other side. He hurried down the street, reaching the head of the alley just in time to see Adam disappear through the side door of the warehouse. Winded as he was Ben was unable to call out to him. Ben took in a quick gulp of air, then set out down the alley as fast as his legs, and his wind, would allow. He was aware that Roy was somewhere behind him, but that barely registered. He was totally concentrated on reaching that side door as quickly as possible.

When he did reach it he was forced to pause in the opening to catch his breath. He saw that Adam had made his way nearly to the center of the building and was standing with gun drawn close to the beam which had appeared in his dream. Ben staggered forward a few steps, reaching for his own gun as he did so, still not quite able to call out.

And then, the mysterious stranger stepped out of the shadows with his gun leveled at Adam.

“Looking for someone, Cartwright?” the man said in a taunting voice.

Adam whirled to face him. And in that split second Ben finally found his voice. “STOP!” he cried.

The man jerked his head around, startled at the unexpected presence of this second individual. Ben started to aim his gun, but the man had the advantage of him and he fired before Ben was able to. The sound of the gunshot echoed like thunder in the cavernous building. Ben felt an explosion of pain at the side of his head, and he felt himself begin to fall backwards. At the same time there was the sound of a second shot. Ben’s last thought before everything faded to blackness was one of fear that he had failed…that, despite all his efforts, the shot which would take his son’s life had still been fired.

(* This, of course, refers to the episode ‘The Ride’, written by Ward Hawkins.)

PART VI: THE END OF THE NIGHTMARE

At first there was only a lightening of the total blackness into a kind of shadowy grayness. Then a kind of light appeared, trying to break through the darkness. At the edge of his consciousness he was aware of a vague murmuring which grew more and more intense until he was able to make out words.

“Come on now, Ben. It’s time you were waking up. Can you do that for me?”

The somehow familiar voice was accompanied by the light sting of a careful hand gently but firmly striking his face. Ben moved his head slightly, trying to avoid it, but it was no use. He attempted to open his eyes, but the light hurt them, and he was forced to close them. He tried again, much more gradually, allowing them to adjust. As his vision became clearer he found that the light was from a lamp on the table beside him. The face of Dr. Paul Martin appeared, looking down at him intently.

“That’s it, Ben. You’re almost there. You can do it.”

With his doctor friend’s encouragement, Ben continued to concentrate on trying to clear his vision, and more of the room came into focus around him. He became aware that he was lying on a bed in the back room of the doctor’s office, a place that he had seen all too often. With returning consciousness came the recollection of what had taken place in the warehouse and the urgent need to ask the question which he was almost afraid to hear the answer to.

“Paul?” he croaked in a raspy voice. “Must tell me…Adam…is he…?”

“I’m right here, Pa.”

The face of Ben’s oldest son took the place of the doctor’s, looking down at him with deep concern, even appearing a little shaken.

“Adam.” Ben sighed deeply with relief and thankfulness. “You’re all right.”

“Of course I am,” Adam responded quietly as he carefully sat down on the edge of the bed and grasped his father’s hand. “The important thing at the moment is that Paul says you’re going to be fine.” He paused briefly and his face became more sober. “Actually, it was a very close thing. The graze you took was about as nasty as they come. The doc says that if the bullet had struck only a couple of inches to the left…you would probably have been killed.”

Ben looked up at him and his eyes were moist. “A small enough price to pay,” he murmured to himself.

“What did you say?” Adam asked him. “I didn’t quite catch that.”

Ben shook his head weakly. “Nothing.” He took a deep breath before going on. “The man in the warehouse… Just before I lost consciousness I heard another shot. I was afraid he had got you too.”

Adam gazed down at him. “No, Pa. I got him. He’s dead.”

Silence fell for a moment. Finally, Ben spoke in a hesitant voice. “Adam, do you know who the man was, or why he might have been after you?”

“Well now, I think I have some information on that very subject.” A voice came from over by the door. And Sheriff Coffee, who had entered unnoticed a few minutes earlier and stood observing the scene, now came over to join the gathering by Ben’s bedside. Dr. Martin, Adam and Ben all regarded him curiously.

“First of all…how are ya doin’, Ben?” the sheriff asked, glancing between Ben and the doctor.

“He’s going to be fine, Roy,” Dr. Martin took it upon himself to answer.

“Now that’s good to hear.” Roy’s bearing seemed to relax a little. “I hafta say, when Adam and I brought you over here I was concerned about the amount of blood I saw on ya.”

“Head wounds are often like that, Roy. You know that,” Dr. Martin interjected.

“Be that as it may, it didn’t look good to me and I’m glad to find you’re gonna be OK. Now, as for that fella in the warehouse…” Roy took a second to gather his thoughts. “Ben, when you went runnin’ off after Adam I followed ya. I got to the side door of the warehouse just in time to see the man shoot you and then Adam shoot him when the man turned his gun back on him. Of course, once I checked and made sure the man was dead, my first concern was to help Adam get you over here to Paul’s office. But after that I went back to check out the fella more thorough and see if there was anything on him to show who he was.”

“And did you find anything?” Adam inquired with just a trace of impatience.

“Oh, I found somethin’ sure enough.” Roy reached underneath his vest and drew out some papers which he had stuck in his belt. “These were in the inside pocket of his jacket. There are three letters…addressed to Dwight Enders.”

“Enders?” Adam said, raising his eyebrows.

“That’s right,” Roy confirmed. “Written to him from prison by his first cousin…”

“Bill Enders,” Adam finished for him.

Roy nodded, handing the letters over to him. “They make pretty interestin’ reading. Seems like Bill and Dwight were pretty close. Grew up together after Bill’s parents died.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a small leather folder. “Dwight had this on him too. There’s a picture in it of the two of them together. Looks like they musta been down in Mexico at the time.”

He opened the folder and handed it to Ben. Inside there was a slightly faded daguerreotype showing two laughing young men, each with a broad brimmed Mexican sombrero on his head and a serape draped around his shoulders. It was not hard to recognize a younger Bill Enders, and there was no doubt about the other person either. Of course, the idea of the relationship between the two was not exactly a complete surprise to Ben.

With the wound to his head throbbing Ben was finding it difficult to concentrate. He wanted to lay his head back down on the pillow and close his eyes. But the voice of his son caught his attention.

“I never realized Bill Enders hated me so much,” Adam was saying quietly.

“What’s that, son?” Ben asked.

“It’s these letters,” Adam replied. “They show a very disturbing picture of Bill Enders. It seems he never thought his appeal for clemency had much of a chance and he had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to be executed. He writes to his cousin that the one thing he wants is to go to his death knowing that I died before him.” He hung his head, obviously troubled by what he had read. “He pleads with his cousin to take on the job of killing me and even gives him a good deal of advice on how to go about it.” Adam shook his head. “And to think that at one time I actually considered him a friend. It’s hard to believe that it came to this.”

“I know it is, son,” Ben said to him. “I think the best way to deal with this is just to concentrate on being grateful that Bill Enders is not going to get his wish, and that you are still alive. That’s what I intend to do.”

Adam sat there looking thoughtful for a moment and finally nodded.

“Well, this explains a lot about what happened.” He stared at his father questioningly. “But what it doesn’t explain is your part in all of this. For the past couple of days or so there has seemed to be something going on with you that you weren’t explaining fully. Today you tried to keep me from coming into town. It was almost as though you knew something. And then you turned up at the warehouse just at the critical moment. Pa, exactly what is going on?”

“I’d kinda like to hear an explanation too,” Roy chimed in.

Ben sighed. “I suppose it was foolish of me not to have talked to you about this earlier. Adam…the truth is…I did have a premonition that something like this was going to happen. I had a dream for three nights running in which I saw you go into the empty warehouse…the man who it turns out was Dwight Enders appeared…and he shot you to death.”

Ben paused. And noone else said a word as they all attempted to absorb what he was saying.

“And then I started to see things falling into place,” Ben resumed. “The warehouse being emptied…Enders arriving in town…even the shirt that I had never seen you in before, except in the dream. I didn’t know what to do.”

“So that’s what that conversation over lunch was all about,” Paul Martin said, and Ben nodded

“I might have been better off just to tell you the whole story, son. Perhaps I was too frightened to be thinking straight about the situation. But I felt I didn’t really understand what was happening well enough to explain properly…and I was afraid that you wouldn’t take a warning based on your old man’s dream seriously enough.”

“I always take you seriously, Pa,” Adam responded, with a trace of a smile.

“In any case, when I saw you today turning down the alley by the warehouse there really was no choice. All I could do at that point was to try to reach you before the worst happened. And, thankfully, my fumbling attempts seem to have diverted the course of events just enough to keep the worst part of my nightmare from coming true.” He gave his son the most piercing look he was capable of at the moment. “And that brings up another question. Young man, just what were you doing in town today after all? You had given me your promise. I assume you must have had some very good reason for breaking it.”

“I did, Pa,” Adam answered in a low voice. He pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “After you left I received this message. Hop Sing found it attached to the door. I’m not sure how Dwight Enders arranged to have it delivered. But I couldn’t ignore what it said. I knew it sounded like it could be some sort of setup. On the other hand, I couldn’t afford not to find out if there was actually something to it.”

Ben took the paper that Adam handed him, opened it and began to read.

DEAR MR. CARTWRIGHT, I HAVE INFORMATION WHICH I AM CERTAIN YOU WILL BE VERY INTERESTED IN HEARING. IT HAS TO DO WITH A POTENTIAL THREAT TO YOUR FAMILY AND TO YOUR PONDEROSA RANCH ITSELF. IF THAT MEANS ANYTHING TO YOU MEET ME AT THE STEINER WAREHOUSE BETWEEN 3 AND 3:30 P.M. THIS AFTERNOON. AND PLEASE KEEP THIS CONFIDENTIAL AS I DO NOT WANT CERTAIN OTHER PARTIES TO KNOW THAT I AM APPROACHING YOU. I WILL LOOK FORWARD TO DISCUSSING THIS MATTER WITH YOU. A FRIEND

Ben looked up to see his son looking a little afraid of being chastised. “Well, son,” he said mildly. “I guess I can’t fault you for responding to something like this. The writer certainly knew how to make his invitation sound plausible.”

“He knew just how to appeal to me all right,” Adam agreed. He furrowed his brows. “There’s just one more thing I’m left wondering about. This dream of yours which seems to have been a kind of warning. How did that dream come to you in the first place? Do you believe it was some kind of providential intervention?”

“Adam, I don’t pretend to understand such things. But I believe that God does work in mysterious ways and I won’t deny the possibility that this was one of them. I simply am, and always will be, immensely grateful at the outcome.”

Ben reached out and grasped his son’s shoulder. They exchanged a long and meaningful look. Then Ben settled back in the bed. He was looking forward to a good, long, healing rest. He no longer feared that it would be interrupted by troubling dreams. His nightmare was over.

THE END

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