|The Price of Freedom
Author: Nyx6 PM
When Joe finds a runaway slave sheltering in the barn from a sudden snowstorm, a host of chaos and secrecy is unleashed upon the Ponderosa. One that leads an already overstretched Adam into considerable danger and his brothers and their new friend into a rescue mission. Posted as a whole.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Family/Drama - Adam C. & Little Joe C. - Words: 33,131 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 3 - Published: 08-05-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8395771
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Ok, so this is the first full, original Bonanza story I ever wrote, and, having read it back I feel it might be a little bit rough around the edges – plot-wise and occasionally character-wise. I'm not sure I always got Adam completely right here, but I at least can reassure myself that as a complex character anything is technically possible with him. It's also seems a little bit too 'neat' by the end. Anyway, to save from languishing on my computer for the rest of its life it (and my other three Bonanza stories) is nonetheless going up in its entirety. Please excuse any mistakes, I hope you enjoy it.
Noah Weeks couldn't be sure how far he'd run, or for how long; the thick blanket of snow slowing his already laboured progress and the reflection of the moonlight illuminating the surroundings so vividly that he'd missed the sudden transition from evening to nightfall, not entirely sure there'd been one at all and only alerted to it as the bitter bite of dusk had shifted noticeably to the increasingly sub-zero freeze of darkness.
His toes were all ready numb from hours of trailing through the never-ending drifts and his fingers were fast starting to join them, so icily cold beneath the tattered old gloves that they were becoming physically painful, the tips tingling and his joints locking straight. He needed to find shelter.
His bid for freedom had been a difficult one from the start, blighted by a fierce early winter which had left him with one of two equally unsatisfactory options; keep to the country and allow himself to be slowed by the thick snow, or use the open roads and risk discovery. In the end he'd chosen speed over cover and kept as tightly to the roads as had been physically possible, splashing through the slush and the mud and pushing himself ever onwards.
He came across the sprawling ranch house almost by mistake, his eyes so drawn with exhaustion and his pace so heavy that he barely even registered stumbling into the yard, only looking up to take note of his new surroundings as the soles of his thin and sodden boots scuffed off the pot-holed track and across a more even patch of ground.
The house before him rose up around the tree line like a vast timber stronghold, even more impressive for the brilliance of the snow-covered landscape that highlighted the generous proportions. Beyond the frosty yard light splashed out onto the covered porch, breaking out from the chinks at the windows and bathing the cold, hard ground with a sort of ethereal warmth, orange-hued and inviting. He could almost picture the people inside; a father surrounded by his sons, children playing beside the fierce heat of a big hearth, wife and daughters bringing through food from the kitchen, steaming and so mouth-watering that Weeks could almost smell it being laid before him.
A sudden gust of wind stripped the illusion viciously from his mind, howling through his tattered clothes and raking at his skin like sharp icy fingernails, reminding him anew of his priorities. He'd been running solidly for three days, stumbling across the alien landscape and ploughing desperately through the bitter weather. Now he could go no further – he had to find shelter and he had to rest. In the back of his mind his flight response was still screaming at him, attempting to kick his exhausted body into action like a frantic jockey atop a stationary horse. His rationale however was fast starting to beat it out; dying from hypothermia at the side of the road was no more preferable to the treatment he would receive if caught. Sleep was his only realistic chance.
Reluctantly turning away from the appealing warmth of the house, Weeks instead spun to survey the tall red barn towering up behind him. Here the snow had been cleared away from in front of the doors, allowing a wide sweep of access that spoke volumes about the building's importance; it was obviously used frequently but at the same time appeared big enough to potentially conceal a fatigued and shivering fugitive somewhere inside the deepest recesses. It was going to have to do.
Stumbling towards it Weeks winced sharply, the short stoppage seemingly having frozen his limbs solid, his feet suddenly so heavy it felt as though he were dragging lead weights along underneath him, his progress slowing to little more than a pitiful shuffle.
The blast of hot air hit him the second he drew back the door, a warmth tinged with the smell of horses and fresh hay, a comforting, living kind of heat that surged towards him to cup at his cheeks while the rest clashed head-on with the invading chill and wrestled it bodily back out into the night. In the semi-glow Weeks could pick out the eyes of the horses stalled around him, several heads turned curiously toward him before snorting with indifference and looking away again, the calm apathy as reassuring as anything Weeks could remember having felt; their silent presence providing the escapee his first real sense of companionship in days.
It was to the sounds of this contentment that he feel fast and deeply asleep.
Adam Cartwright was not having a good week.
It had started innocuously enough of course – as it always did – the easy weekend fading effortlessly into the Monday morning that had seen both he and his younger brothers stood out in front of the house to wave a cheerful farewell to their father, off on his bi-annual visit to old friends nestled somewhere in the foothills further north and eagerly awaiting his generous stock of winter provisions. It had started to snow soon after, a pretty flurry of icy specks billowing harmlessly around the surroundings before transforming abruptly into the type of thick flakes that fell so densely they cut out everything beyond them, clinging relentlessly to coats, hats and eyelashes and rendering everything but retreating inside almost virtually impossible.
It was amidst this ferocious onset of winter that the deal with Walter Withens had started to go south; the negotiations Ben had carefully drawn up before his departure suddenly turning as bitter as the weather and, like everything else around them, fast threatening to freeze up altogether. It was also the reason that Adam found himself in Virginia City on the Wednesday morning, cold, stiff, snow-covered and utterly fed-up – with Withens contributing little to his fast deteriorating mood.
He'd let himself into the wiry little man's office without so much as a knock, the look on his face alone stalling Withens' half-uttered protest of annoyance,
"What in blazes – oh…Cartwright."
Adam was moving towards the desk before the greeting was even out, hat in his hands and a dusting of snow fast thawing on the shoulders of his jacket; possibly but not definitely assisted by the hot fury radiating from his expression. Pointedly ignoring the chair vacated before the paper-strewn bureau, Adam instead planted his hands firmly on the well-worn leather inlay, leaning forward until he was looming over the moustached entrepreneur with alarming intensity,
"Now, now – ," the be-suited figure interjected quickly, pushing his chair back a little and wincing as the feet scuffed loudly across the floor, "Now Mr. Cartwright – ,"
Adam beat him swiftly to the bone of contention,
"The contact said April," he began, unnervingly even in tone, "It was agreed with my father that you wouldn't receive the timber until then, and a contract was signed stating the exact same thing. Nowhere did anyone mention March."
"Well, no…no not exactly – ,"
Adam's tone remained hard,
"Not at all."
"B-but things change," Withens replied hesitantly before seemingly finding some inner reserves of confidence and drawing himself upright with renewed conviction, "Now we need delivery by March."
"Or you'll do what?"
The unexpectedly blunt question drew a quick blink of surprise, the lanky industrialist pausing briefly to consider his limited options. Defiance still struck him as the best course of action, and lacing his fingers he sat back and tried to look self-assured.
"Or we'll have to source our timber from elsewhere."
"Renege on the deal?" Adam countered quickly, narrowing his eyes to observe his sparring partner appraisingly. It had to be a bluff – either that or the little weasel was stupider than he looked, "You signed a legally-binding contract Mr. Withens, if you choose to break it then you incur the costs."
The reply was irritably – in fact almost credibly – calm,
"I'll let my lawyers see to that."
Adam smiled back thinly,
"No need to trouble them, I assure you ours will be just as thorough,"
For a second both men simply stared at one another across the desktop, a strange clash of righteous fury and insular obstinacy meeting head-on in their combined narrow-eyed glares. It was Withens who looked away first, shifting across the seat of his chair in a veiled squirm of unease and making Adam's eyes glint in hollow amusement.
"I'm sure," came the eventual acerbic reply.
Outside the snow was continuing to fall, the intensity of the blizzard having lessened off to mere showers of sparkling white but each and every last flake piling upon the gathering mounds of its heralds and further concealing the usually familiar surroundings of Virginia City beneath a thick and relentless carpet. Walter Withens watched it fall with a smirk,
"Terrible weather isn't it?" he asked snidely in the silence, not bothering to take in Adam's guarded frown, "I would hate for you to get stuck out here such a long ride from home…perhaps business will just have to wait for the moment Mr. Cartwright, by which time your father will be home and no doubt desirous to remedy our little impasse."
Adam didn't rise to the bait, suddenly straightening from his menacing loom and watching with a grim sense of amusement as Withens flinched in preparedness for some imagined brawl. Instead Adam merely replaced his hat, tipping his head upwards and moulding the brim casually across the pad of his thumb,
"April was the deal Walter," he offered briskly in the silence before turning and heading from the room, "That's when you'll get your timber. No sooner, no later."
He chose not to shut the door.
Usually the steps outside Walter Withens' office sat six high and flanked by a expanse of black railings, today Adam could only adequately locate three, the others being buried somewhere beneath the blanket of lilywhite that seemed have conquered every last inch of the landscape, fresh new fall already filling in the trenches and channels carved by those struggling up and down the hidden sidewalks. The wind was still blowing fiercely, and, wrapping his coat tight around him and dipping the brim of his hat against the bite, Adam turned in the direction of the livery and began the slow trudge back through the drifts. It was hard going even for him – he considering himself to be young and fit; how the pregnant woman was managing therefore was beyond his comprehension.
At first he didn't see her, his focus fixed firmly on the ground before him and hardly daring to look up for fear of either losing his hat or being blinded by a frozen dart. As he half-collided with her however she came fully into view, staggering backwards with an audible gasp and nearly mistaking her footing as she stumbled off the deeply concealed boardwalk. Acting on instinct Adam immediately lurched forward, one gloved hand catching her outspread arm and the other moving to loop around her back as he stepped in close and pulled her towards his body, providing her both support and shelter from the howling gale and the silence allowing them both to catch their breath.
"Are you all right?" For a moment the woman didn't answer, the mousy haired-head merely bobbing beneath him as she clung to his jacket. It wasn't particularly reassuring and so frowning in concern, Adam tried again, "Are you hurt?"
"No," came the response from somewhere near his chest, the voice so quiet and subdued he had to bend his head in to hear it, "No, I'm fine. Just startled is all. You – you startled me."
Adam smiled somewhat abashedly,
"I apologise, next time I'll be more careful."
Lifting her head she met his gaze hesitantly for the first time, eyes briefly locking before falling back to gaze vacantly at his jacket,
"Next time I think I'll stay inside during a blizzard."
As the woman seeming to regain her sense of balance, her grip upon him faded until she was standing on her own, one of Adam's arms still gently gripping her elbow for fear of the wind carting her off altogether. She was a thin figure, perhaps a few years older than himself although a life of hardships had aged her somewhat prematurely. Her face was pleasant enough though, with thin but upturned lips and soft little crease lines at the corner of her eyes betraying what he suspected to be a generally sunny disposition. It was certainly an agreeable enough vista for him to extend his chivalry a step further.
"A good idea," he replied warmly, "Especially in your condition. May I help you inside?"
Quickly, and still refusing to make eye contact, the woman shook her head,
"No, thank you. I'm not staying in town. My husband is collecting some supplies, our wagon is stopped outside the general store."
"Well in that case let me see you safely there,"
Gaze flickering upwards again the woman hesitated,
"You don't have to, really."
But given that he'd almost knocked her over, not to mention that she seemed unsteady enough as it was, Adam wasn't about to take no for an answer.
She let him lead her quietly, taking position a half a-step ahead and shielding most of the bitter chill as he did. He could see the wagon sitting stationary up ahead, the back shielded by a large rounded canopy, but the ability to see their destination didn't help to speed their journey, the woman, if anything, seeming to struggle more with the benefit of his assistance – although judging from her semi-bent posture and the look of exertion on her face he wasn't sure he had anything to do with the slowness of her condition. Just as he was about to enquire again if she was all right however, a voice rang out at them across the near-deserted street; short, sharp and laden with unspoken accusation,
A man was bustling purposefully towards them through the snow, his heavy-set frame carving a path through the drift and a frowning, well-worn face scowling out at them from underneath a healthy mop of pepper-pot hair half-indistinguishable beneath a scattering of falling flakes. Beside him, struggling quickly through the drifts was an older woman, dressed in a tatty ensemble of rags, her dark skin stark against the brilliance of the snow, and her downcast expression and scarred face giving testimony to a lifetime of hardships. Adam felt himself bristle instinctively. The woman was a slave, nor did her master seem the sort of man to suffer fools gladly, his opening gambit part-accusation, part-threat and all hostility.
"Take your hands off my wife!"
As the man barged towards them to snatch the woman's arm for himself, Adam responded with calm submission, taking a step back and holding up his hands placatingly. He was aware that his proximity to the woman would have been an alarming one for a married man to find his wife in at the best of times, but in an expectant father the defensiveness was likely to be acute. Luckily for him, the woman spoke up first,
"No, Gibbs," her voice drew his attention at once, the eyes snapping down to meet her face but the expression failing to soften and making the woman flinch a little in alarm, "He was just – helping me."
She seemed even more breathless than before, her face now that Adam could see it better appearing utterly exhausted. If her husband noticed however then he didn't react to it, his full attention – and animosity – turned outwards towards the stranger in their midst,
"Didn't look like 'help' to me," he responded darkly. Adam simply gazed back passively,
"I was seeing your wife back to the wagon. The weather seems to have taken its toll,"
"And you are?" the accusatory tone remained unmistakeable, as did Adam's even cool.
"Cartwright, Adam Cartwright – now who might you be?"
For a second the man appeared to debate his options, clearly swinging between civility and offence before grudgingly settling on the former,
"Gibbs. Gibbs Hauer, this here's my wife Claire," as Adam's eyes fell on the averted gaze of the elderly woman however, Gibbs merely continued to glare back, obviously not seeing the added introduction as worthy of his energy and instead letting Claire Hauer speak up in an apologetic half-whisper,
"This is our help, Sasha," she offered gently, hurrying to add a clarification as Adam moved to smile at the maligned party, "She's deaf."
Which explained why she was so quiet, but not why she was so submissive; he could guess that one for himself, and, pushing aside his hitch of involuntary anger, he instead drew a thin smile across his face and attempted to remain affable,
"Pleased to meet you Mr. Hauer, ladies," he offered back, noting that relations remained unavoidably frosty. He pushed on regardless, "You must be new in town, although I can't say you've chosen the best time to visit."
Gibbs however continued to regard him carefully, only breaking their eventual eye contact to cast contemptuous at their buried surroundings before looking back with a shrug of utter indifference,
"We're just passing through is all – following a trail."
"And what kind of trail might that be?"
Hauer gazed back narrowly,
"The kind for me to know."
Which apparently was all Adam was going to get. Beside them, Claire Hauer still seemed to be struggling against the chill, drawing in long breaths, clamping her arms close and belatedly reminding Adam of the vicious weather as she did – not to mention his long ride home, if he made it at all. It was time to make his excuses and, readjusting his somewhat empty smile he reached up and tugged at the brim of his hat,
"Well, it was a pleasure to meet you both," he began not utterly sincerely and watching Hauer's eyes taper suspiciously, "I hope you find your stay in Virginia City a pleasant one."
He didn't wait for a response, turning instead and continuing his trek towards the livery, head full of unsociable newcomers, failed business deals and the million things that would need doing at the Ponderosa over the next few days if the weather continued its brutal trajectory.
It was a terrible week all right, one for the annals – and it was about to get worse.
A ranch the size of the Ponderosa was always busy.
At any given time there were fences to be maintained and repaired, livestock to be corralled, moved or ministered, borders to be patrolled, waterways and drinking sources kept fresh and unpolluted and any number of business deals and agreements to be overseen, delivered and collected upon. Even in beautiful sunshine and mild climes, ranching was a hands-on affair. In the grip of a sudden onset winter and the worst freak snowfall anyone in the territory could ever remember having seen – it became a virtual liability.
Right across the spread and in the midst of blowing gales and patchy blizzards, activity was rife. Ranch-hands braving the weather had battled a path through to the bulk of the herd, splitting across the thickly covered range to pick up and shepherd the stragglers and dragging tools and essentials in their wake; ice-picks to break up the frozen drinking streams, shovels to uncover the grass and cart-load after cart-load of fresh hay hauled painstakingly through the drifts. It was not an enviable task, but then neither was loading the hay up either.
When Hoss and Little Joe had started the eaves had been so full to overflowing with thickly stacked bales that the youngest Cartwright had been working virtually on his tiptoes, so close to the lip of the hayloft that Hoss had been able to see the heels of his boots sticking out over the side, the sight making his alarm rocket,
"Now you be careful up there Little Joe – last thing we need right now is you fallin' out an' breakin' that damn fool head of yours."
What it had lacked in eloquence it had made up for in consideration.
As the hours as trickled on past however the youngest Cartwright had gradually disappeared from view altogether, forced stack by stack to forge deeper into the loft space as height concerns had fast been replaced by the physical logistics of hauling the heavy bales close enough to the opening to hook up and swing down onto the waiting carts below. By the time Hoss had set off with the seventh wagon-full, Joe had been all but exhausted.
Flopping down heavily with a weary sigh, Joe eased his aching back up against one of the few remaining bales, crossing his legs before him and leaning back his head until he was staring up at the vaulted eaves beyond, the sharp blow of the outside weather stingingly cool across his sweat-flushed skin. Briefly, he let his eyes flicker shut, keeping his ears alert for the return of the one of the constantly criss-crossing wagons and letting the sounds of his deep, steady breathing mix with the snorting and pacing of the horses stalled below. Turning his head lazily – aware that falling asleep would not be much welcome given the frantic nature of the day's work – he blinked sleepily into the darkness before him, idly taking in the remaining stacks of hay…and a dark face staring solidly back at him from out of the gloom.
The man moved fractionally faster than Joe did, launching from his hiding space and clearing half the distance of the hayloft in a frenzied stumble before the youngest Cartwright had even managed to find his feet. Hands flying instantly to his hip he cursed silently as they caught hold of thin air, whirling at once towards the thick beam jutting up into the rafters where his gun belt hung casually looped over a rusty nail.
Behind him the intruder was almost at the top rung of the ladder and so, wasting little time, Joe threw himself towards his firearm in a flat-out dive, plucking it free of its holster at the same moment he hit the ground chest first amid a cloud of loose hay and dust. His aim was no less deadly for the aerobatics,
As the dull but unmistakeable click of a gun-hammer echoed around the confined arches, the unknown figure froze at once, back still turned inwards, hands braced tantalisingly against the wooden struts of the vertical rungs. He remained still as Joe hauled himself back onto his feet with a wince and a scowl,
For a moment nothing happened.
"I said turn around!"
Reluctantly the stranger did as instructed.
He was perhaps, Joe assessed, a man of about Adam's years, tall and muscular although covered in a tatty selection of none-too-warm looking apparel, the ripped and battered shirt barely clothing anything other than the man's arms and the slush-sodden pants several inches too short. His skin was a deep shade of black, standing out starkly against the grubby white of his top and the blanket of snowfall framing him in the window of the hayloft. His expression, though wide-eyed and uncertain, seemed cautious and appraising, almost as if evaluating the gun-wielding youngster before him and trying to assess the subsequent level of danger. Joe's own expression remained firm,
"Who are you?"
"Please – ," the man began quietly in response, stepping forward and interlocking his fingers in a gesture of deep entreaty, "I meant no harm – ,"
Countering the movement with the barrel of his gun, Joe interrupted harshly,
"I asked who you were,"
The stranger nodded obediently,
"My name is Noah Weeks,"
"All right, and what are you doing here?"
"I – I needed shelter from the weather, I didn't know where else to go,"
As far as Joe was concerned however, the answer threw up more questions than it resolved.
"Why didn't you come to the house?"
"I…I – ,"
The hesitant pause spoke volumes and instantly Joe's expression darkened again, the grip tightening instinctively around the handle of his gun,
"Who're you running from?"
It was the only option that made sense. Surely anybody lost in a blizzard would have headed straight for the nearest house and implored for food and warmth, a barn was an option only for a fugitive, which also explained his desperate and bedraggled appearance. Weeks too seemed to sense the game was up, his tone taking on a hint of weary defeat as he responded quietly,
"It's not what you think,"
"You don't know what I think. Now who are you running from?"
The single-word reply he got instead was whispered, sincere and utterly beseeching,
The interjection of Adam's voice from somewhere below them caught both men by surprise, Weeks stumbling forward slightly until stalled once more by the unflinching point of Joe's gun.
"Adam?" he called back, projecting his voice above the standoff and out into the wintry world beyond. Before him Noah Weeks still stood quietly, almost as if resigned to some dreadful fate or other. He wasn't like the other fugitives Joe had met in his time – the number of which was probably higher than average for someone of his age – there wasn't the same air of self-righteousness about him, none of the arrogance or wild desperation, instead what he saw was just an ordinary man; tired and shabby maybe, but underneath his exhausted exterior he also seemed pitiable and unmistakeably human. For some reason Joe just couldn't bring himself to feel the animosity he'd expected – his instinct was suddenly in charge, and apparently it wanted to help.
"Joe? You up there?"
It was Adam again, closer this time, having walked fully into the barn towing his horse behind him and glancing up into the hayloft with the full expectation of finding his youngest brother there. Joe however, was moving, acting before he even knew what he was doing, the gun falling to his side as he surged forwards at Weeks, catching the man by the arm as he backed-up in sudden alarm at the burst of speed. Pulling him clear from the line of view, Joe instead spun him on his heel, directing him back into the cover of the few remaining bales and pushing him into a squat before holding up a finger and lowering his voice to a hushed whisper,
"Stay here and keep quiet."
Weeks did as he was told.
Joe met Adam just as the eldest was starting the climb, one foot readying on the bottom rung and only stopping its intended ascent as the overly cheerful tones rung down at it,
Glancing up as a shower of hay floated down around him, Adam blinked in surprise,
"Joe? What's wrong? Why didn't you answer?"
"What?" came the response, almost too shrill with denial and the rest seeming overly flustered, "No – uh, nothing. Nothing's wrong Adam, I just…didn't hear you is all. How were things in town?"
From the day he'd been born, Adam Cartwright had known his little brother like almost no other. After Marie and his father he'd been one of the first people in the world to hold the youngster and from there on in the age-gap had provided him with all the experience he'd required in babysitting. From the outset Adam had virtually raised – often dragged – Joe up into the maturity he now straddled, and along the way he'd picked up every nuance, every trait and every tell the younger had to offer. Which was why, from the moment it had started, Adam had known that the stumbled and overly casual response was one of them. Joseph Cartwright was trying to hide something. Given everything else that needed doing before the sun prematurely dipped beyond the horizon however, it was about the last thing any of them needed.
"What's going on Joe?"
It was a shrug that responded the second time around and, sensing that his careful handling of the situation was not faring as well as he had hoped, Joe swung a leg over the side of the drop and scooted quickly down the ladder, hoping as he did to draw attention away from hayloft.
"Oh, you know," he replied simply, avoiding the steely gaze in favour of brushing the dust from his hands and onto his pant legs – the picture of nonchalance, "Just, unloading hay to take up to the pastures – winter stuff."
"Winter stuff," Adam repeated wearily, one brow arched suspiciously, "That's all, huh?"
Little Joe gazed back innocently,
"What else is there to do?"
"You tell me," began Adam somewhat acerbically, reaching up to pull a loose sprig of straw from his brother's hair, face decidedly unimpressed, "While everybody else has been out working, it looks like you've been taking it easy."
Although it had been issued lazily enough, Joe bristled instantly at the implication, batting away the elder's hand in a gesture of hot denial,
"Now hold on Adam," he snapped, "I've been working just as hard as anyone else around here,"
Breaking away with an exaggerated eye-roll, Adam turned casually to stall his horse, his leisurely response punctuated with mild yet unmistakeable sarcasm,
"Sure you have,"
"All right!" fired back Joe, Adam's cool composure only serving to irritate him more, "Maybe I've not been into Virginia City, maybe I've only been mending fences and unloading hay but what I've done I've done hard and I don't like you saying otherwise."
"Who's saying anything?"
Right on cue, Joe almost erupted, the situation not made any better for the fact that he knew his older brother had been banking on it,
"Adam – ,"
Only he was stopped before he managed to get going, the steady rumble of an approaching wagon cutting him off and the familiar bulk of Hoss appearing from between the stable doors in the nick of time – albeit oblivious to the growing familial tension.
"Hey there older brother," he greeted cheerfully, puffing out his cheeks as he pulled off his gloves and moving one oversized paw to brush a dusting of snow from the top of his head, "How'd you make out with old Mr. Withens?"
Smoothing out a rug across the back of his horse, Adam looked up only to throw out a rueful grimace, heaving a resigned sigh and moving to wipe a weary hand across his eyes. For the first time Joe registered that his brother looked tired, well, more than tired – they were all tired – exhausted. Playing the big boss was obviously starting to take its toll.
"Honestly?" he answered unenthusiastically, "I don't know. I wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind for a business meeting. In fact I probably did more harm than good."
Seeing the despondency however, Hoss moved to counter it with predictable sympathy,
"Aw now, I reckon that ain't true."
"Then maybe you reckon wrong."
Appreciating the deadpan humour, Hoss smiled back widely,
"Ain't happened yet, has it Little Joe?" only Little Joe was still smarting from the earlier barbs, and the vague shrug he offered in return instantly drew a knitted frown, "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," he muttered darkly, watching as Adam blinked and glanced towards him – almost as though coming to from some sort of daze. Frost-related probably.
"Joe – ," he began suddenly, the formation of an apology on his lips. His younger brother however cut him off dejectedly, not quite ready to make nice.
"Forget it Adam," he countered somewhat more harshly than he'd intended before taking in Hoss' confused disappointment and dropping his head, mildly ashamed, "I'm gonna get the wagon ready,"
Adam let him go silently, turning his attentions back to his horse yet still managing to speak without the use of words; he was hurt Little Joe hadn't been willing to accept his apology – and Hoss knew it.
"Hey," catching his youngest brother by the arm as they emerged back out into the chill bitterness of the frosty onslaught, Hoss spun him round bodily, a dense frown furrowing across the usually mild features, "Why're you being so rough on him for? We're all working hard Joe,"
Pulling his sleeve free the youngster let out a dangerously sarcastic-sounding snort,
"Yeah? Well tell that to him."
"Who Adam? Aw come on now Little Joe. He knows you're working just as hard as the rest of us. We're all of us breaking our backs in this weather, Adam 'specially. You know he was up before sunrise this morning – just fixin' what needed doing?"
Stalled by the new information, Joe sobered abruptly,
"No," replied Hoss pointedly, "So just go easy on him all right – and next time he tries to apologise, you take it, y'hear me?"
"Yeah," Joe shot back, anger newly flared by the unnecessarily patronizing tones, "I hear you."
Hoss however didn't, apparently considering their conversation on the matter done.
"Good. Now what in tarnation where you two blisterin' about anyhow?"
A runaway slave in the hayloft? Perhaps not.
"Nothing," Joe bit back instead, stepping pointedly around his brother and heading for the abandoned wagon sitting before them with a final moody retort, "Just leave me alone will ya Hoss?"
Hoss did as he was told, raising his eyes briefly to the continuing storm of flakes before shaking his head resignedly. Their Pa had only been gone for two days and already Adam and Joe were trying to kill each other. Provided the weather didn't get there first of course, it looked like they were set for a heck of a week.
"Yessir," he muttered to himself absently as the snow began to crown his head once more, "A real heck of a week."
The deserted wooden shell had been a godsend of a find. Of the three rooms the building had once possessed, two remained intact, one even possessing its own original door and a distinct lack of windows which – although an admittedly unusual design feature – was an added bonus for two tired nomads seeking shelter from one of the worst winters in living memory.
While Sasha had scavenged wood from around the broken and collapsing little structure, Claire had retreated inside with a selection of pots and pans, her progress slow going and her uncomfortable silence having improved little as the day had worn on. Not that her husband had noticed. Gibbs Hauer was a man on a mission and until it was complete, nothing else mattered.
It had all started a little over two years ago, when, as a fledgling rancher with minimal equity but maximum optimism, he had bought a little spread down in Georgia and five slaves to help him with his enterprise. Claire, for her part, had not been much thrilled with the thought of bought labour, and, while her opinion made and still did matter for little, Gibbs now had to concede that maybe she'd had the right idea. From the start, he'd had nothing but trouble. With the onset of the war, slaves had been fleeing their masters with alarming alacrity, nor, evidently, was he impervious. Two had fled the first winter, although one had been caught and lynched not long later. Another he had lost to some illness or other – its cause he hadn't bothered to identify – and another had crippled her leg in a hefty fall and failed to be of use to him thereafter. By the end only poor deaf-mute and almost blind Sasha and young, strong Noah Weeks had remained – and that was when Noah had made things personal.
Noah Weeks had been the cream of the crop of his little slave unit; big, obedient and hard working. For two years he'd served under Hauer without so much as a glare or a cross word, doing all that was asked of him and more. So crucial had he in fact become, that Gibbs thought nothing of leaving him in charge of the little spread when he had gone away on business, safe in his assumption of Weeks' subordination. His early homecoming one July afternoon however had changed everything. Noah Weeks; his trusted slave, his unflinching minor had been in his bed, with his wife.
Evading the fury-driven gunfire, Weeks had darted off abruptly into the night, blending in as obscure as a shadow and sliding off the property like a spirit. It had taken several days to establish that he had in fact slid off the map altogether, out of Georgia entirely and away, denying Gibbs the chance to beat him senseless and driving his fists to the next best target. The vicious assault on both Claire and Sasha had only stopped with her single hysterical admission,
"I'm pregnant!" He was going to be a father.
With the lack of help however, the ranch – which had been faltering for some time – collapsed and folded entirely in the weeks that had followed, with one final alcohol-fuelled night seeing Gibbs turn on his lifelong dream and burn every last inch of the place to the ground. As far as he was concerned, the destruction of his life was down to one man, and one man alone; Noah Weeks. If he had to follow him to the ends of the earth, then that was what he would do. Sooner or later however, the slave was going to pay for what he had done. He was going to pay with his life.
Ducking in under the low doorway and letting the chill air blast in behind him, Gibbs Hauer crossed to the makeshift little fire, warming his hands before it as Sasha stumbled in under the weight of more wood. Gibbs watching with almost mesmeric intensity as the sparks crackled and hissed beneath the new additions, spitting out tiny morsels of floating yellow heat before whipping them up and away into the encroaching gloom. To one side Claire sat lowered onto her knees, a blanket pulled tight around her and a pinched, pained expression on her face, Sasha taking a place beside her to silently offer a ladle of cool water. Taking a seat opposite, Gibbs picked up one of the discarded fragments of wood, jabbing it in amongst the blaze and stirring at the contents almost like he were swirling a large cauldron of soup. His wife's discomfort didn't even seem to enter his consciousness, the whole intensity of his being focused on one unshakeable point,
"This is it Claire," he hissed eerily, eyes unblinking over the flickering flames and matching the frightening edge in his voice, "He's so close I can almost touch him. This time he's mine."
He was going to get his man.
Little Joe had been acting strangely all afternoon, in fact, ever since the altercation in the barn. Usually after a disagreement with one – occasionally both – of his brothers some prescribed moping from the youngest was to be expected, a few hours of hot anger or else a day or two of self-pity and injured indignation. This time however was different; this time Little Joe seemed neither resentful nor annoyed – he seemed sneaky.
Hoss had first started to notice the difference as the early evening had crept in across the landscape, prematurely chasing away the daylight and replacing it with fast rolling smoky hues. As the temperatures had begun to plummet once more work around the ranch had quickly started to wrap up, everyone instead replacing the heavy drifts and aching bitterness with the safety of bunkhouses and homes and the comforting glow of a roaring fire.
No sooner had the snow been stamped from his boots than Adam was installed behind Ben's desk, fanning papers, statistics and balance sheets out around him like a pack of enormous playing cards and silently knuckling down to the business side of the family's affairs. The expression on his face – caught mid-way between exhaustion, stress and intense concentration – warned fiercely against any type of disturbances, be they audible, physical or otherwise. Everyone knew better than to challenge that look.
For his part, Hoss had planned something of a leisurely evening; perhaps a spot of reading, dinner – of course – desert – without question – and then maybe a round of chequers before bed. Rather than retire to the hearth beside him as expected however, Joe had instead scampered off furtively into the kitchen.
That had been Hoss' first clue; the second had been Hop Sing.
Stalking from the kitchen with a look of utter irritation and muttering something in an incomprehensible, but no less fiery string of Chinese, the scowling little chef had moved moodily around the dining table, the diatribe still flowing and the plates banging down into place thud by pointed thud. Seeing Adam's fingers tense around his pen at the desk, Hoss moved to swell the growing storm quickly, scurrying across the room as fast as his weary legs would carry him and sidling up to the Chinaman with a finger pressed to his lips,
"Quiet Hop Sing!" he hissed quickly, casting a look back over one shoulder to make sure his brother was still scribbling diligently. He was, that was something at least. Turning back to their cook however, Hoss couldn't prevent the puzzled frown that crossed his face, "Now what's got you all riled up?"
"Younger brother," came the short, sharp retort, the chef whirling on the middle Cartwright boy as if the whole disagreeable situation were his fault alone.
"Joe?" Hoss blinked in reply, equally if not more puzzled than he had been before, "What'd he do?"
"Take food from Hop Sing kitchen,"
That was all?
"Aw now Hop Sing," the bigger man drawled in response, smiling a little at the proportions to which the crisis seemed to have been blown and even daring a soft chuckle, "Don't you worry none, a snack before dinner ain't goin' to spoil no one's appetite. Not the way we been working today anyhow."
"Snack?" the Chinaman echoed derisively, his whole expression clouding over as the misunderstanding continued to grow – along with his annoyance, "Hop Sing no mind snack. Number three son took whole food."
The final part of the sentence had been emphasised with a hand wave clearly implying some sort of mass sweeping of the shelves and supplies, which couldn't be right either. Hoss was getting more confused by the minute, nor was the broken English and obvious irritation helping him any.
"Whole food? Wait a minute Hop Sing," he interjected, both hands held up as if in submission and his face screwing into a scowl as he tried to establish the facts, "Are trying to tell me that Little Joe took himself some supplies from the kitchen?"
Hoss took that as a yes.
"Well then…where'd he take it?"
"Take food out to barn."
"The barn? Now why in the world would he do a thing like that?"
Although they seemed to have been at it for longer than it took some business deals to finalize, the conversation still seemed to be flinging up more questions than it was answering, adding to the myriad of conflicting reservations swirling around in Hoss' brain. To Hop Sing however, it was not the particulars causing the most upset but the specifics.
"Don't know," he retorted briskly, laying down the last of the china before turning and prodding the big man in the chest, "You ask," he was heading for the kitchen again before Hoss could even being to form a reply, one final demand clipped sharply back along the hall, "Get Hop Sing ham back."
Blinking after him in vague bewilderment, Hoss nodded to himself absently. Ham. Right.
Outside the snow had started to fall heavily again, the spectacle all the more ghostly for the luminosity with which it fell from the thick blackness above, the cloud cover utterly obscured by the shroud of night and making it seem as though the flakes were simply materializing out of thin air and tumbling earthwards in an unending stream of thick, unavoidable fragments of glittering ice. By the time Hoss had reached the barn he looked more snow-creature than man.
The big double doors sat ajar, bright orange light splashing out onto the cold, hard ground beyond and a rush of warmth seeping with it away into the night. Hoss approached them at a tiptoe, getting close enough to press one eye to the gap and cast into the brightness beyond. Muffled voices drifted out towards him from somewhere inside, but through his limited spy-hole he could see nothing to help with his assessment of the situation. Then he smelt the ham, the unmistakeable odour of cured meat, fresh, succulent and apparently not intended for sharing. It was all the excuse he needed – hooking a finger around the big barn door he pulled it open fractionally wider, carving a path through the already well-worn slush tracks and slipping into the snow-capped structure with a surprising degree of stealth.
Inside out of the perpetual whistle of the draft, the voices spoke up louder, the words undistinguishable – perhaps they were talking Chinese like Hop Sing – but the tone and inflection of one of them utterly unmistakeable in its instant familiarity. Little Joe.
It took Hoss a second to centre on the murmurs, his eyes scouting the dimly lit but easily recognizable surroundings for the source of the light, and finding it tucked in one corner, over beyond the horses and all but hidden behind an unused stall tucked fast against the wall and all but hidden behind the buggy. It was as good a place to conceal a stolen meal as any, after all, the buggy hadn't been using in months, and if the weather continued the way it was going, wasn't likely to be either.
Creeping closer across the barn floor, and cursing the brush of his soles against the heavily hay-strewn floor, Hoss took again to his tiptoes, the voices clearing with each and every step and the conversation seemingly so involved that he even managed to surprise himself by the entirety with which he entered the scene, appearing so suddenly and yet so completely that the two faces that tipped towards him in alarm seemed only a little more surprised than he was.
Joe was on his haunches on the floor, a lamp set before him on the grit and a rolled blanket tucked neatly under one arm. Startled gaze aside however, his younger brother was not the main point of interest; that particular honour instead falling to the figure resting up against the woodwork beside him, wearing muddy boots, an anxious expression and an awfully familiar-looking outfit,
"Hey," Hoss began indignantly with a vaguely dumbstruck point in the direction of the newcomer, "Ain't that my shirt?"
Almost as instantly as the words were out Joe was on his feet,
"Hoss…now just hold on a minute there brother – ," he started hurriedly, tripping over the words a little in his apparent haste to get them out. His elder sibling however was only half listening, eyes still focused squarely on the stranger dressed in his clothes,
"What's going on in here? Who is this feller anyhow?"
By now Joe had closed the distance between them, coming in close to press placating hands to the bigger man's chest – although whether to hold him back or draw his attention Hoss couldn't quite tell,
"His name's Noah," Joe replied keenly and with the merest hint of desperation, "He just needs somewhere to stay tonight, that's all Hoss, just one night and then he'll be gone."
For the second time in as many minutes, Hoss felt himself frown once more at a conversation that didn't seem to make much sense. Turning cluelessly towards the doors, he pointed blankly across the snow-scattered yard.
"What's wrong with the house?"
"Uh – ,"
Apparently it was a question that Little Joe had been hoping he wouldn't ask, his distinct lack of response proving answer enough in itself.
"He's on the run, ain't he?"
"It's not what you think – ,"
Hoss looked a little more than doubtful in response.
"Ain't it? Well what am I supposed to think Joe? 'Cos for a feller who ain't on the run, you sure seem to be going to a lot of trouble to keep him hidden."
It was the same conversation he and Weeks had been just hours before, only this time it was he doing the defending to his sceptical older brother and Hoss taking the role of the doubtful Cartwright son.
"He needs our help,"
As the exchange fast started to go nowhere, a throat cleared gently from behind them, both men turning into the calm expression of the subject of concern himself, raised politely onto his feet and standing placidly between the semi-warring factions.
"Maybe it would be best if I explained to your brother," he offered softly in measured, well-spoken tones that made Hoss blink in surprise. Beside him Little Joe simply threw up his hands in defeat.
You can try…
The fugitive decided to.
"My name is Noah Weeks, and – you are quite right – I am on the run. But not from the law, indeed I have committed no crime. I run from a man by the name of Gibbs Hauer, my master."
His apprehension checked by the eloquence, Hoss' response was cautious yet even,
"Master? You're his slave?"
"I was, I still am."
The serenity of the answer however concealed the bigger question.
"Why're you running?"
Stalling briefly, Weeks paused to glance down at the ground, his hands moving to intertwine nervously as he took a deep breath and steadied himself for the reply knowing that its contents would either make or break his fate.
"My master has a wife," he began eventually, slow and even, "A woman by the name of Claire – as kind as she is beautiful, however Hauer was as cruel in his treatment of her as he was of me. For nearly two years I watched him bully her daily, push her around and talk down to her, and for two years I watched the sadness in her eyes. Little did I know that for two years, she had also been watching the sadness in mine. We fell in love."
The answer had not been what Hoss was expecting, the tale so sad and touching that any shred of reserve he still held melted in the face of Weeks' fatigued sincerity. Seeing that his newfound friend was struggling to recount the hardships of his story however, Little Joe stepped in with a more succinct account of the rest,
"When Hauer found out he tried to kill him, Noah had to run for his life and he's been running ever since – with Hauer not far behind."
"So you see Mr. Cartwright," Weeks spoke up again, quietly and in somewhat defeated tones, "I am a wanted man, but I am no criminal."
"No," Hoss replied gently, "I reckon you're not."
His older brother was crumbling, Joe could see it, falling into a big ball of sentimentality in the face of the harrowing, bittersweet narrative and all ready starting to weigh up their options. Seeing the opportunity, he stepped in quickly to provide the one he thought best,
"All he needs is one night's rest, that's all. Get out of the snow, get his strength back up," hesitating slightly, he glanced up at the bigger man imploringly, knowing that by relying on his baby brother status, Weeks' chances would greatly improve, "What do you say Hoss?"
The pause that followed seemed to stretch out like an eternity.
"Well…" came the gradual reply, still vaguely uncertain but swung by the inherent humanity, "I guess one night couldn't hurt…" he offered reluctantly before moving to counter Joe's premature celebration with a warning, "…but just one night, y'hear me? No more Joe."
But the caveat seemed to fall on deaf ears, the youngest continuing to grin widely as Weeks closed the distance between them to take Hoss' hands in gratitude.
"Thank you my friend."
Hoss' responding blush almost killed his image dead.
"I reckon you're welcome," and then suddenly another thought hit him; a dark-haired figure bent frantically over a mountain of paperwork and all ready so stressed he was liable to explode, "Oh, uh – and Joe?" he added tentatively, watching as his brother's face swung towards his questioning, "We'd best keep this quiet from Adam."
A runaway slave was just about the last thing he needed.
If Adam had been less entrenched in the business of running a snow-bound ranch, he might have better noticed the unusually easy compliance of his younger brothers come the next crisp, bright morning.
Rather than lounging in bed until the last possible moment as was often preferred, both were instead downstairs even before he was; up, dressed and installed at the breakfast table as he was still tucking in his shirt and tugging on his boots. Both were also remarkably chirpy for their dawn awakening,
"Anything you want us to do today older brother?" Joe had asked with alarming perkiness, the argument of the previous day seemingly not only forgiven but apparently totally forgotten. Adam had blinked back at him sleepy surprise,
"Why sure!" Hoss had grinned in a little too widely in response, "We're here to help after all."
Which was not something that their elder brother had ever doubted. Their sudden willingness to be dictated to however seemed to have been newly acquired during the course of the night. Looking back into their eager faces with bewilderment, Adam had nodded slowly,
Nor had the enthusiasm for pitching in stopped with breakfast, as, deciding to saddle his horse and check on progress with the herd in the top pastures, Adam had promptly been overtaken by a Little Joe shaped blur in the snow-covered yard, the boy blitzing past him into the barn with a hastily-voiced shout flung over one fast disappearing shoulder,
"I'll get him for you Adam."
His older brother had paused in the slush with a frown of confusion,
Following hurriedly behind, Hoss had swung around in front of him to block his path before he could continue, still smiling broadly and reaching forward with big hands to fumble with the folds of his eldest sibling's thick winter coat,
"Just get'cha all buttoned up here – don't want you catchin' yer death of colds now," he muttered somewhat absently before catching the expression on Adam's face – vaguely irritated bafflement – and turning towards the barn with nervous-sounding false cheer, "You nearly got that horse ready Little Joe?"
The chestnut had been led out moments later, the youngest's grin matching his middle brother's and drawing the frown tighter across Adam's forehead,
"You two been sniffing varnish this morning?" he asked lazily as he hauled himself atop his mount, one hand struggling to undo the tight top button of his coat and restore the airflow. As Joe shifted awkwardly, Hoss frowned back in genuine puzzlement,
"Huh? No? Why'd you say that?"
For once deciding that ignorance was bliss however, Adam simply threw his eyes skywards and let the moment pass, hoping that if he remained oblivious to their unknown scheme it would require minimal intervention on his part longer-term.
"Oh, no reason."
For various other reasons however, he'd set off soon after.
The operation to feed and corral the herd had been ongoing as Adam had reached the top pastures, the task no less enviable for another night of heavy blizzard conditions but the organisation and diligence of the assorted hands proving an uplifting departure from the staid and uncooperative nature of the bills and drafts he'd been wrestling with at his father's desk until the early hours of the morning. His sleep-deprived eyes would have been happy if they never saw a leaf of paper again. In moderation Adam relished the cat-and-mouse wrangle of the business world, enjoying the chance to test his mettle against some of the most astute money-spinners in the territory and exercise his mind with the intricacies and sophistication of money and entrepreneurial gains. Given the choice however, his favourite roles were those of a more al fresco nature; riding sluggishly through thick winter-dumped drifts; a bitter wind stinging at his cheeks; his breath blowing out hot little pockets of air. There was something different about the Ponderosa under snow, a visible alteration of the landscape that moved beyond the blocking of roads and pathways to reach out and obscure the little-things; landmarks, furrows and patchy undergrowth, marker by well-known marker disappearing from view until their spread stretched out around them vast, beautiful and strangely alien.
Riding down from the higher ground in search of strays, it was Adam who spotted the figure first; crouched down beside a thick-coated gelding and running a hand intently through a patch of snow as if retrieving something buried beneath the blanket; Gibbs Hauer, fully swathed in thick winter furs, his face set into a deep scowl and a rifle propped casually up against one knee. Whatever trail he was following, it was apparently heading their way, and sensing it, Adam wheeled his horse and set off at a gentle trot across the icy outcrop. Hauer saw him coming, rising suspiciously but keeping his gruff tone as light as Adam presumed it would go.
"Cartwright," he drawled laconically, barely making eye contact as he instead favoured a last long drag at a dying cigarette, before flicking the glowing stub casually into the chill. Adam's response was equally non-committal,
"Mr. Hauer. Still with us I see,"
If Adam had been hoping for easy conversation then he clearly wasn't going to get it, not that the brusque tones were going to stop his own sense of curtsey.
"Is Mrs. Hauer feeling better?" he asked fluidly in the threatening pause, trying to sound open but the fierce look he earned in response beating him back a pace.
"Better?" Gibbs snapped sharply, eyes swinging up and narrowing on instinct as a million petty jealousies flitted through his head, "Better than what?"
"Yesterday," Adam replied mildly, "When I met her in town I got the impression she felt unwell."
The response was as quick as it was prickly,
"She's fine. Old Sasha takes good care of her,"
"I'm glad to hear it," although as the conversation fell into abrupt silence Adam would have been glad to hear anything, and, as his patience started to wear thin he couldn't stop the slight snap that crept into his tone as he broke the impromptu stalemate, "Can I help you with something Mr. Hauer?"
Although seemingly impossible given their all ready slit-like proportions, Adam could have sworn he saw the eyes narrow further,
"No Mr. Cartwright, I work alone."
Ah. Of course.
"Still following your trail I presume?"
"I'm close this time."
For a second Adam simply sat back to survey the man before him, attentions turned once more to the snow-strewn ground before them and evidently seeing things that Adam could not from his mounted position. Part of him remained intrigued, after all Gibbs Hauer was a strange character; big and menacing but at the same time so absorbed by whatever it was he was chasing that he seemed almost distant, detached from the reality of the weather, his wife and – perhaps most pressingly – the patch of ground on which he was currently standing. His radiating contempt was doing little to help either, and, seemingly more aware of Hauer's issues than the man in question, Adam promptly ran out of patience,
"Well I'm afraid you'll have to pick it up again on the other side of those hills. This is Ponderosa land."
If he'd been after Hauer's full attention earlier, then he got it now in force.
"Those hills?" the older man barked in furious indignation, jabbing an accusing figure in the direction of the distant peaks, "Why they must be more'n two days ride from here!"
"One day," Adam replied unmoved, "If you take the road towards Virginia City."
"You warning me off, Cartwright?"
As his name was spat disparagingly into the retort, Adam tensed, his tone lightening fractionally but his gaze remaining hard,
"I'm simply informing you about the locality Mr. Hauer. So you don't find yourself in any unnecessary trouble."
"Well," Hauer growled back, barely able to hold onto his swelling disdain and his whole mouth moving to mirror the sarcasm of his response, "I sure do like to be informed. The question is, how informed are you?"
"Are you a political man Mr. Cartwright?"
"I like to think so."
"Consider yourself some sort of liberal-thinker do you?" Hauer continued, pressing with evident scorn, but whether for Adam or the whole democratic system it was difficult to tell, "Treat others equally?"
Ignoring the tone Adam nodded a steady reply,
"I do, but struggle to see what that has to do with you."
Grinning suddenly, the expression alarming as much for its speed as its misplaced appearance, Gibbs chuckled briefly, apparently catching the punch line to some untold joke,
"Oh, it's got everything to do with me," he smirked before glancing away and regaining a sense of cavalier indifference, "You see, it tells me what type of man you are – the lengths you'd be prepared the go to."
Lengths? Adam kept his tone neutral,
"Oh you know," Hauer shrugged back idly, suddenly all apathy, "Friends, compatriots…the less fortunate…"
Adam shook his head; he was completely and utterly lost.
"Mr. Hauer – ,"
It was as far as he got, the older man interjecting casually into the protestation with hands held high in submission and a dark yet eerily amused expression on his age-creased features,
"Don't worry son, I got your warning – consider myself informed and let me tell you something. I've been travelling too long and hard to give up on account of the likes you. I'm a fair man Mr. Cartwright, but I want what I want and this time I mean to get it. I will have what's mine."
"Payback, Mr. Cartwright. He's going to pay."
He? Adam blinked, the verbal slip hitting him right in the gut and twisting about with unease. Who was he? If Hauer registered his mistake however then he didn't react to it, his steady gaze on the mounted figure before him and one hand starting to inch unseen towards the untouched rifle,
As a voice from behind them echoed loudly off the surroundings both men started and swung in towards it, finding out the form of a rider silhouetted on the hilltop beyond; a ranch hand and evidently looking for their adjutant. At once the mood changed abruptly, and as Adam turned back he found Gibbs Hauer suddenly all smiles and disarmingly easy charm.
"Well thank you for your time Mr. Cartwright," he began, to all intent and purposes the harmless stranger, "It was very informative,"
Adam frowned. What was that supposed to mean? Before he could inquire however his name echoed again down the slope towards them, ringing in off the snowy outcrop and emphasised by a waving of arms.
It would have been just his luck if the Ponderosa had burnt down in his absence – although probably not. By the time he turned back again Hauer was all ready plodding away, one hand leading his reluctant mount and a final parting shot ringing back across the snow, amused, dark and eerily singsong.
"Be seeing you around."
He just didn't realise how soon.
Gibbs Hauer was going to make good on his revenge.
The conversation served to unsettle Adam for the rest of the morning, fragments of the exchange ringing around in his head and capturing the majority of his attention as he tried to piece together what he could; evidently Gibbs Hauer was out for revenge on someone – someone he was tracking – but as for who or why Adam couldn't even begin to imagine. Hauer was such a strange and intense presence that as far as he knew it could have been over something as simple as a deck of cards – although that seemed little justification for dragging an elderly deaf woman, not to mention his heavily pregnant wife through such terrible weather without the benefit of real shelter.
'The less fortunate.'
What had he meant by that?
It was a train of thought that took him straight back to the snow again; thick, beautiful and ultimately every rancher's worst nightmare. Ben's intended departure hadn't initially ruffled many feathers, after all, they were all prone to heading off on occasion either for business or pleasure, and the Ponderosa had always ticked over well enough with a man – or even two or three – down. Adam, as something of Ben's right hand man had automatically been expected to take the reins, and had done so willingly, going over the to-dos with his father the night before he'd set off and knowing that in leaving the ranch he'd built up from the ground in the hands of his sons, Adam was trusted with doing a good job. He'd done so numerous times before anyway.
Then however, the snow had started, and with it the all ready hefty list of repairs, chores, duties and paperwork had expanded around them like a sponge hitting water. Every last task suddenly became urgent and, with the thick blanketing cover, would take twice as long to do. Getting into Virginia City alone took almost twice as long as usual, and in travelling back and forth to coerce, threaten and mollify Walter Withens as the occasion dictated, the list of items Adam had planned for himself for the week continued to languish half-started and gnawing at him relentlessly.
With Ben gone – no, worse, probably near enough snowed in to the tiny mountain cabin – they were not only down a big and important pair of hands, they were also without any clue of when they might return. With the weather continuing as it was, the chances of it being any time sooner was growing slimmer by the hour.
Adam's mood had suffered noticeably as a result; falling from its usual considered arrogance to all out short-temperedness, his stress escaping as scathing barbs or retorts and using deep sarcasm and disdain in place of the shouting or ranting that made more impact but probably cut less. Little Joe was more a fan of the latter. Which was another thing; Hoss and Little Joe.
In their own way each of his brothers was helping. They'd certainly been working as hard at the daily grind as anyone, overseeing some of the most pressing jobs and pitching in almost without complaint – he'd known it even when he'd been insinuating otherwise. The problem with them was however that they didn't do any of the book-side of the ranch; none of the calculating, none of the figures, none of the business meetings and none of the networking and smooth talking. As well as his own assigned tasks, Adam was doing those things on top, which, after almost four days of non-stop, snow-related battle-stations and extended 'big-freeze' working hours, was beginning to wear him down. He'd not even so much as looked at a book or any other form of recreational activity since the whole mess had started, and the constant mind-numbing presence of the business added to the constant extremity-numbing presence of the cold was a combination he was fast losing patience with.
He'd ridden back to the house for lunch partly in order to reheat his frozen toes, each one so utterly solid inside his boots that they were almost physically painful, the sharp jolt of iciness each time one touched another making him almost wince with shock. If it was the best that his most expensive winter boots could afford him, then his other options were limited, with the best one being a big thaw in front of the fire and a change of socks before returning once more to the hard graft.
Rather than leave his horse out in the cold, Adam decided to stable him for their probably all-too short recess, hardly having to lead as the big chestnut caught on to their general direction and almost overtook him in his evident haste for food and comfort. Judging by the empty stalls around him, Hoss and Little Joe were still out hard at work.
"Whoa boy," Adam murmured gently as he turned the mount around, moving a hand to pat fondly at the chill-to-the-touch flank and feeling the muscles spasm sporadically underneath his palm, "There."
But don't get too settled.
Turning to go, his head all ready filled with expectation of the hot wonders Hop Sing might produce for his lunch, Adam glanced absently towards the straw-strewn floor, mentally trying to fit sweeping onto his to-do agenda and freezing abruptly as he did.
There, on the ground before him, was a snowy trail of boot-prints; big, fresh and definitely not his own. Following them with his eyes he spun towards their trajectory, weaving around the stalls, past the buggy and off into one of the darkened corners.
"Joe?" it was as good an attempt as any, although taking in the size of the prints once more, Adam amended his guess and tried again, "Hoss?"
No answer, and, the hairs on his neck beginning to prickle in eerie yet instinctive unease, Adam drew his gun slowly and quietly from its holster.
He crossed the ground step by cautious step, not rushing his approach and instead letting his eyes sweep across every familiar nook and chink, finding nothing but refusing to drop his guard. Rounding the final corner however, he came across the object that had set his concern in motion; sitting upright in the straw, wide-eyed and wearing what looked awfully like some of Hoss' clothes. Judging by the spread of the straw he'd been there at least the duration of the night, and, judging by the remains of the food parcel beside him he'd not gone undiscovered either.
The gun still aimed at chest-height but losing some of its tight-gripped intensity, Adam allowed himself a hollow smile as the pieces slipped slowly into place; his brothers early morning rises; their willingness to help; keeping him away from the barn; Hauer.
The other man's alarm-widened eyes never left him for a second, and only blinked as Adam's voice rang out across the enclosed space, slow, amused and weary all at once.
"So, you must be the less fortunate."
Hoss and Joe were in for a world of trouble.
"Y'think Adam suspects something?"
It was Hoss who asked the question first, voice caught midway between curiosity and concern as he broke the eerie silence in which he and his little brother had been riding. Little Joe frowned mildly in response,
"I don't see why he would,"
His older sibling however didn't seem so convinced, face screwing with doubt as he shifted awkwardly in the silence.
"I ain't so sure – you was awful keen to fetch his horse this morning,"
"Me?" bit back the indignant reply, "I wasn't the one buttoning up his jacket like I was his mother!"
"Hey," Hoss began in vague embarrassment, "I was trying to keep him from goin' into the barn after you is all – ,"
Little Joe snorted derisively,
"Well what do you think I was doing?"
"Besides," Hoss continued absently and with a frown bordering on latent concern, "It's been colder n'a polar bear's toenails out here these last few days. Adam could do a whole lot worse than wrapping his self up, 'specially the way he's been working himself since Pa set off for the Atherton's place,"
Still riding steadily beside him, Little Joe briefly fell silent.
"Y'think – ," Hoss began hesitantly, pausing as if to gather his thoughts properly before voicing them fully, "Y'think we shoulda told him?"
"About Weeks?" Joe responded in surprise, watching as his older brother nodded glumly and hurrying to pacify the sudden guilt, "Nah," he offered quickly, the answer all exaggerated off-hand nonchalance but stemming from the youngest's own sudden doubts, "You said it yourself Hoss, Adam's had more than enough things to worry about over the last couple of days what with the weather and Mr. Withens. You think he'd want to have to deal with this as well?"
It certainly seemed to make sense – except for one thing still nagging at the elder.
"Well no, but – don't it feel a bit like lying to you? I never was much good at keeping things from Adam, it's like he can see right through me or something,"
Which they both knew was not exclusive to Hoss alone. It was part of Adam's older brother retinue, the one drawn from having overseen almost every second of their lives and from knowing them both so well. As family and as siblings they all knew each other well, but whereas the others could overlook traits and moods on occasion, Adam was almost faultless in his observations. The fact that Weeks was still hidden therefore seemed nothing short of a miracle.
Hoss was right though, technically they were lying, the problem being that if Hoss knew that for a fact then he might just feel compelled to come clean. Joe was quick to respond,
"No, we're not – we're not lying to Adam, we're just…protecting him, is all,"
If Hoss noticed the stumbled delivery and largely made-up sentiments however then he didn't comment, instead frowning and swinging round to look at his youngest brother, suddenly taking the lead role in their little escapade while he fell back in subordination.
Little Joe nodded vehemently, the gesture making him warm all the more to his own invented justification,
"Well sure! Protecting him from the truth so he doesn't have to deal with it."
Hoss blinked slowly, mind running over the statement's validity himself.
"I don't just think Hoss," Joe chirped back with confidence, "I know. We're helping him."
The ensuing smile told the youngster that he'd done what he'd set out to do, Hoss' grin widening as his own sense of relief grew in accompaniment,
"Yeah," he breathed, clearly pleased with the result, "I reckon you're right Little Joe. What Adam don't know can't hurt him none."
Which was apparently good enough. Joe nodded his agreement,
"Exactly, and by tonight Weeks will be gone and nobody except us will ever know he was even here,"
"Hey," Hoss grinned back at him, so cheered by their conversation he almost chuckled, "You know Little Joe? You can be half smart when you put your mind to it,"
Sensing the mood lighten and joining it with a beam of his own, Little Joe hooked a cocky leg up across the pommel of his saddle, one hand moving to tip the brim of his hat low across one eye,
"Well, that's 'cos there's more to me than just these looks," he smirked, listening to Hoss snort beside him,
"Lucky for you little brother,"
The course of their conversation had taken them right back into the yard, the lifted mood echoing not only the pattern of their discussion, but also the sense of comfort and relief that came with heading home – even if it was only going to be for a short lunchtime reprieve from the snow-covered work. Wheeling his horse into the barn, Little Joe cast back over his shoulder with mock-indignation,
"What? Please, you're just jealous!"
Hoss was right beside him, both dismounting almost simultaneously and the elder reaching over to bat playfully at his brother's hat,
"Oh you reckon Shortshanks?"
As Little Joe moved to rebuff however, the sound of a throat being cleared in front of them made them both pause, each man freezing in a strangely mischievous tableau and the mirth fast fading from their ensuing expressions.
Adam was standing before them with his arms folded across his chest, eyes boring a hole into both his siblings and a strange expression on his face; palpable irritation but hidden beneath a curious sort of wry amusement. Beside him, sat on an errant bale of hay and casting down towards his feet, was Noah Weeks, downcast and shame-faced.
As the silence stretched out before them, Adam tipped his head slowly and moved to raise one slow, appraising eyebrow. His brothers baulked on instinct. They knew that look.
"Gentlemen," he began calmly, "Something you'd like to tell me?"
They installed Weeks at the table in the house – Hop Sing being promptly dispatched into the kitchen to round up sustenance and his disgruntled muttering leaving little doubt as to what he thought of their latent food thief.
'How you expect Hop Sing to cook when he all ready eaten all ingredients?'
Adam had smiled back thinly, his patience only holding on by a mere thread and fast fraying,
'I'm sure you'll manage Hop Sing.'
Perhaps sensing the tone a plate of steaming stew had been brought out not long after, and, leaving the runaway to tuck hungrily into it, Adam, Joe and a wistful-looking Hoss had retreated towards their father's desk in a tense and expectant silence. As expected Adam had broken it first, looking up into the suddenly hesitant expressions of his younger brothers and keeping his voice low yet harsh as he slotted into place behind the bureau,
"Well?" he started simply, "When did you find him?"
Going for cavalier indifference, Little Joe simply shrugged,
"Yesterday?" Adam hissed quickly, a flash of anger darting across his face and seeping into his tone, "And you weren't going to tell me?"
Seeing that the mood was deteriorating however, Hoss stepped in with apologetic cheerfulness,
"Well you see Adam, me an' Little Joe was only trying to help. We didn't want you worryin' none,"
"Oh," replied the eldest scathingly, all mock astonishment, "A fine job you've done there."
As Hoss frowned and dipped his head however, his younger brother's own irritation found its voice. As far as he was concerned, he and Hoss had been doing the only thing they could have done, and frankly Adam's self-righteous indignation was as unwelcome as it was unwarranted - something he stopped just short of saying.
"Come on Adam will you?" he snapped instead, sudden hot-temper catching them all by surprise, "What was I supposed to do, huh? Throw him back out into the snow?"
"Of course not," came the reply, "But the next time you find someone cowering in the barn you could at least tell me about it first. Besides Joe, this isn't just some weary traveller we're talking about here is it? You know what he is."
The sentence made both his younger siblings freeze dead, the youngest blinking in surprise.
"He told you?"
"He didn't have much choice."
"And ain't it just about the most heartbreakin' tale you ever did hear?" Hoss interjected empathically, coming to rest against the edge of the desk with a heavy sigh, "That poor feller..."
"Well if you want to feel sorry for someone Hoss," Adam responded bluntly, eyes finding out Little Joe and holding him in their gaze, "Perhaps you should be feeling sorry for us."
"Us?" they echoed almost as one, the bigger man taking the question one step further.
"What in the world have we got to be sorry for?"
"Because if I'm right," Adam sighed back, leaning back to shut his eyes and rub the palm of one hand across them in absent exhaustion, "Then we are in for a real storm this time,"
"You talking about the snow?" Hoss frowned,
"I'm talking about Weeks," Adam responded, "Or more specifically the man who's hunting him."
"Hunting him?" Joe countered, swinging between surprise and contempt. Adam nodded,
"Gibbs Hauer. I've met him."
"In town yesterday, and again today up at the paddocks."
For information so calmly delivered, it certainly made a big impact, which Hoss choosing to voice the now seemingly obvious,
"He's closin' in on him,"
Joe was equally quick to make his own assessment,
"Then we've got to get Noah out of here,"
The bluntness of Adam's answer caught them both with equal measures of shock, the two men falling briefly into baffled silence as they first exchanged glances then turned to regard their startlingly cool-looking brother sitting staring back at them, fingers laced casually on the desk-top. Joe blinked in confusion,
Adam's response was as measured as it was decisive,
"We're not helping him escape, not in this weather. The exposure alone would kill him and even
with a head start Hauer's got horses and supplies – that man doesn't stand a chance."
"Well then he'll just have to stay here."
"He can't do that either."
Across the desk from them Adam took a deep steadying breath, evidently preparing himself for some sort of hidden onslaught; his reply was not going to make him popular.
"Because like it or not the man is a fugitive, and whether we agree with it or not, Hauer is his
right and legal owner."
Predictably, Little Joe erupted in an explosion of hot anger,
"You're saying we just hand him over?"
Possibly in response however, Adam remained unnervingly calm,
"No. Tomorrow morning I'll ride into town with him and take him to the Sheriff. From there on the
decision will be his to make."
Little Joe shook his head,
"I won't let you do it Adam," he responded, sharing a quick look to his side and speaking for both of them, "We won't let you do it."
Hoss nodded his own agreement,
"It just – don't seem right somehow," Hoss chipped in from behind, his voice full of conviction but also mildly apologetic. Spreading his hands palm-up across the desktop however, Adam glanced between them passively,
"So what would you have me do instead? Wait for Hauer to get the law himself? Wait until we're
locked up for harbouring a fugitive? Or worse – wait for Hauer to come in himself all guns blazing? I don't like this any more than either of you, but if we protect Weeks then we're all in danger."
Joe however was still not convinced,
"If that's the way it has to be – ," he began, his eldest brother cutting him off in newly-sharpened tones,
"Adam – ,"
But apparently they were fast reaching both the end of the conversation, and their more senior sibling's patience reserves, the fist that slammed down onto the mahogany making them both start a little.
"I'm not asking you Little Joe," he snapped back viciously, the retort brooking no further argument,
"I'm telling you. Tomorrow morning I'm taking Weeks into town."
"Then you'll just have to go through me," Joe shot back hotly, not in the mood for argument either - at least not verbally, which was a fact that Hoss noted as he watched his youngest brother's fists begin to ball by his side,
"Joe – ," he moved to interject worriedly before promptly being cut out by the waves of anger radiating back and forth across the table,
"I'm warnin' you Adam, if you do I'll – ,"
"Please," it was the timely intervention of Noah Weeks that stopped the youngest in his tracks, the deep, hurried tones stalling his animosity and drawing the attention of all three men out beyond their tumultuous little corner towards the wide open expanse of the great room where their guest stood, a sorrowful expression on his face and his hands pressed together pleadingly, "Please," he repeated, "No anger. I apologise, I did not intend to stir such trouble between family. Joe, you have been so very kind to me, but your brother is right, it is too dangerous for you to conspire in my concealment any longer. I have run for too long."
"Aw, Noah – ," Hoss began compassionately before tailing off as their guest turned to look at him calmly,
"Is your Sheriff a fair man?"
That was something he could answer,
"Bout the fairest I reckon there ever was."
It was a response that seemed to satisfy Weeks,
"Good," he replied smoothly, nodding his head once as though ironing out the details in his mind and finding them acceptable, "Then I shall have my chance. Mr. Adam, I will be ready to accompany you come the morning."
Adam nodded back,
"Thank you," he paused briefly, "I really do wish that there was another way."
The look he got back was both warm and understanding, and although Adam knew that what he was proposing was the best for everyone - or, if not the best, then the fairest and morally acceptable - it felt good to have the support of the man who stood to lose the most.
"As do I."
Sensing the mood quietening again, Hoss stepped forward quickly, keen to both maintain the truce and remove their guest in case things got ugly once more. Placing a gentle hand on Weeks' back, the big man wheeled him in the direction of the staircase, sweeping a hand up its trajectory and stepping forward like an impromptu tour-guide,
"Come on now Noah," he beamed warmly, trying to take the edge from the severity and replace it instead with nicer things, "You must be plum-tuckered out from all that layin' in the straw. Let me show you up to your room."
Adam and Joe watched them go in protracted silence, the tension stretching out between them, albeit it somewhat lessened. The truth was that neither man was happy with the outcome, neither, after all, wanted to see a man either punished for wanting something as simple as freedom, or returned to the hardships and cruelty of his old life. The difference was that while one was trying to preserve their reputations, business and workload, the other was acting fully with his heart. They were never going to see eye to eye amidst such separation, and, turning back to Adam with his face full of disappointed contempt, Joe shook his head,
"I still think you're a coward Adam."
For once however, his older brother didn't respond with the fistfight the younger was clearly spoiling for, merely sighing as the wave of weariness washed over him once more. Why did he always have to be the bad guy? When had being rational ever become such a terrible crime?
"You think what you like," he responded quietly, "But there comes a time in life Joe when you have to make difficult decisions. You might not thank me for it, but I'm doing this to protect you, both,"
"Protect us?" Joe spat back, his sense of unfairness compounded by his own fierce confusion, "We don't need your protection Adam, and if this is how you do it then I don't want it either. If Pa were here he'd – ,"
This time Adam cut him off sharply,
"Well he's not. But if he were he'd be saying exactly the same thing as I am and you know it. Listen Joe, Hauer is bad news. He's out for trouble and I refuse to let you get caught in the middle of it,"
Joe however didn't want to hear it - truth or not - and, turning away in ill-hidden disgust he made his sentiments clearly felt,
"Yeah well don't worry, I won't. From now on, I don't want a hand in anything that involves you."
Nodding quietly, Adam stood from the desk, trying not to let on how much the sentence had cut into him as he pulled his jacket back on and reached for his hat. His toes were still freezing, his jacket was still wet from melted flakes and he still hadn't had any lunch, but suddenly hanging around to enflame his brother's anger didn't seem like much of a better idea. The best thing he could do was get out and give everyone time to cool down. Maybe then they would see he was doing the only thing he could.
"Have it your way Joe."
Gibbs Hauer had been waiting. As the morning had crept round towards early afternoon, he had continued to wait, the snow blanketing his shoulders and the occasional flake trickling down to slip beneath the collar of his jacket, stinging sharply at his exposed skin like a nail point. He barely even registered it.
Ever since his abortive talk with Adam Cartwright, his mind had been working in overdrive, full of conspiracies, theories and plots, all whirring through his grey matter and clamouring to be heard as they jostled for position over the perpetual whistle of anger rising in his ears.
Hauer was mad, more than that, furious – he was murderous.
For nearly seven months he had trekked back and forth across the country, the few possessions he owned jiggling around in the back of a tattered old wagon, his marriage, dreams and hopes for the future lost and abandoned behind him however much he tried to pretend otherwise. He had lost everything and as far as he was concerned, there was only one man to blame. Now, after pouring his every last fragment of energy into the hunt, he finally had his quarry cornered; only to have Adam Cartwright stand in his way. No slave-sympathising, morally superior rich boy however, was going to stop him, Gibbs Hauer had not travelled so far from home to fail now.
Claire's scream still echoed loud in his ears, like a perpetual ringing he couldn't clear, the terror and passion evident in her voice as she had shouted to the man she loved, grappling with the shotgun in her husband's hands as he'd aimed it at Weeks' head. He'd known then he'd lost her. The baby was his one salvation, the one ray of hope he clung onto to set their marriage back on course, the miracle solution that would bring them closer together; and yet his intense determination to catch his runaway slave had almost sapped the strength right from her, endangering both mother and unborn baby. He could see it, and yet he had no idea how to stop; he couldn't. He was all about the chase, it ebbed through him and seeped into every last fibre and pore of his being until it was the only thing he cared about.
He was getting his man.
Rather than ride from the Ponderosa as instructed, Hauer had instead skirted the lay of the land, familiarising himself as best he could with the uneven ground and tentatively scouting out the main route back to the house, appraising every twist, turn and inch of the surroundings. It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for.
The rocky outcrop sat back from the main thoroughfare to and from the farmhouse and some distance off, framed by a few spindly trees and looking out high above the snow-laden surroundings. The ground seemed to go on for miles under the crisp white covering, stretching out and highlighting any non-winter weather-related movement below them with split second starkness. Climbing down from his horse and shielding it behind the thin brush of tree cover, Hauer took his position behind one of the rocks and waited.
In enacting his plan, Adam had not necessarily been the lynchpin for Hauer – any of the famous Cartwright clan he had been told so much of in town sufficing instead. The fact that it was the distinctive black-and-tan clad figure that happened across the tundra-tinted landscape first however was a definite bonus. Revenge was sweet enough when it had been months in the making, having a two-for-one with the man who seemed bent on preventing that was going to be all the sweeter.
The horse was walking slowly across the deep drifts, hooves sinking heavily and the mount having to be inched across the thicker ground with gentle coercion from its rider. The hesitant pace however provided Hauer with the perfect aim, one eye squeezing shut as the other focused intensely along the barrel of the rifle, locking in on the brim of the flake-covered hat and a grin widening across the face.
The rifle shot crackled loudly across the freeze, the stilled surroundings amplifying the noise with intensity and throwing it back up into the air to rattle across the rocks and trees like an almighty clap of unaccompanied and unannounced thunder. For Gibbs Hauer though the focus remained the lone figure, the grimly rewarding realisation of a shot well-taken spreading as he watched the rider lurch forward across the saddle of the suddenly-jittery chestnut mount before tumbling limply to the snow, landing on one side before rolling fully onto his front, the black hat thudding to ground beside him and both lying deathly still.
Hauer was down from the rocks in less than a minute, towing his reluctant horse behind him, his tread as light-footed as a thief as he practically scampered towards his catch, a deep, raspy chuckle breaking from the throat.
Adam's face lay half-obscured by the drift below, eyes closed, coat and abandoned hat newly dusted with a cursory layer of the sticky, icy flakes that blanketed the backdrop. Across one side of his head running just above the tip of his ear, was the clean sweep of a bullet, the hair and skin grazed off by the glancing blow of the cartridge and an ugly red channel of blood starting to seep from within the wound. Seeing it, Hauer grinned grimly, knowing that had his aim been just a fraction shy of accurate, Cartwright wouldn't have been wearing a head at all. The head-graze was going to be unpleasant – as would the accompanying headache be – but it wasn't life threatening.
It was perfect.
Bending down he flipped Adam roughly onto his back, parting the thick folds of the snow-covered jacket and unbuckling the gun belt, working it free until it hung in his hands. Stepping across the prone figure almost nonchalantly, Hauer paused to scoop up the hat, his fingers running across the newly frayed brim and coming away with a hint of blood, tacky against his skin and dark enough to cause the required amount of alarm.
Calmed by the presence of his own horse, the tall chestnut had stalled to a mere nervous twitch, Hauer careful to soothe the beast as he moved towards it, hands out in passive submission as he carefully caught hold of his reins and pulled the animal in. Reaching into his pocket, he quickly pulled out a piece of paper he'd had crumpled within the folds, transferring it instead into the bowl of the headwear and then hooking the gun belt and hat – note and all – over the saddle.
A quick slap to the rump sent the horse off at a lollop, Hauer shifting until it was turned in the direction of the Ponderosa and moving steadily enough to convince him that was where it was headed.
Smiling to himself in amusement he paused to look down at his injured hostage, lying still and probably frozen in the snow. The thought made Hauer grin wider, squatting down until he was almost level with the unconscious man, and his voice dropping to a low whisper.
"Welcome to the party Mr. Cartwright," he hissed with a self-confident chuckle, "Glad you could join us."
This time he was getting revenge on Noah Weeks. This time he couldn't lose.
Everything was coming together.
Despite his exhaustion – both mental and physical – Weeks had not slept for long. As comfortable as the bed was, and as luxuriant as his surroundings had proved to be, he could not shake the unease he felt being within them. Never in his life had been allowed to make himself at home in such well-appointed quarters, never had he been instructed to treat a grand house as his own. For months he had been living off the land, sleeping under bushes, in deserted caves and unseen in people's barns, the ranch house at the Ponderosa was undoubtedly beautiful – but it just wasn't him; which was why, after a good ten minutes spent looking, Little Joe finally found him outside, sitting on the steps of the porch and gazing around at the frosty landscape.
The youngest member of the family wasted little time in getting to the point.
It was a sentence so firm and so determined sounding that he was frankly more than a little surprised to receive nothing but a mild query in response, Weeks gazing up with the merest furrow of a frown and a quizzical expression in his eyes,
In one hand Joe held a duffel, presumably stuffed with some array of provisions and leaving little doubt as to what the youngster was planning. He nodded decisively by way of reply,
"I'm taking you out of here," he explained evenly before letting his expression darken briefly in a mixture of defiance and aversion, "I don't care what Adam says,"
Weeks blinked back at him lazily,
"You believe he is wrong?"
"Well sure I do," Joe fired back as if it were obvious, "Don't you?"
Pausing slightly to regard his own opinion, Weeks shrugged calmly across in reply,
"I believe he speaks sense,"
Little Joe stared back at him incredulously,
"You want him to hand you over? To Hauer?"
"What else can I do?" Weeks answered, raising a hand as if appealing for another option yet seemingly countering them as they arose, "Keep running? Live a life looking over my shoulder? Joe, I took something which I had no right to take – the love of another man's wife – and yet rather than stand and atone for that, I fled like a dog."
"Because Hauer would have killed you!"
Weeks shook his head,
"I have been a coward,"
The anger however continued to play across Little Joe's face, darkening visibly,
"So you're just going to let him take you back?"
"Adam will defend me as best he can," Weeks nodded steadily, his mind – allowed to wander freely and safely for the first time in months – having reached its own verdict, "And if your sheriff is as good a man as you say he is then he will too. I trust your brother's judgement, if he thinks this is for the best, then I believe that is the case,"
Little Joe snorted,
"Well I don't,"
"You do not think he is well intentioned?"
"Oh, he's well intentioned all right," the youngster replied with heavy sarcasm, his voice pitching with mockery, "He's always doing what he thinks is best for everybody else,"
"I see," Weeks responded mildly, "Is he not right in doing so?"
The assessment however, didn't change a thing; at least not for Noah Weeks.
"Well I believe he is a good man. He cannot for faulted for acting in accordance with his conscience, as I should have done. He is respecting the law, he is maintaining the reputation of his family and your empire. He is protecting you."
Joe tensed at once, the stiffening of his posture and the curl of his fists unmissable by his side,
"I don't need it."
"But is that not what family is supposed to do?" Weeks offered gently, looking up at him with cool, calm eyes, "Will he not always look out for you – would you prefer it if he didn't?"
The slight pause told the slave that he was inching towards the truth, and with it, the complex relationship between the oldest and youngest of the Cartwright brothers. Joe shrugged non-commitally.
"No," came the reply, quick with denial, "Care shows love, you should always treasure that. One day it might not be there anymore."
The sentence made Joe blink, an unexpected chill lacing up his back and across his shoulders as the words hit home. The truth was, as much as he hated and resented it with equal measure, Adam's over-bearing protectiveness was a feature of his eldest sibling, and, in the absence of words to the effect, the daily proof that his brother cared for him deeply. If Adam hadn't cared, then he wouldn't have been so quick to take charge, to act disappointed and to scold and boss. Strange as it was, their fractious relationship was a constant reminder to the other of the love and respect that lay below the sparky emotions. It was how they communicated.
Still, it didn't make Joe any happier about Adam's decisions regarding Weeks. As far as he was concerned his eldest brother was dead wrong this time, they were not handing Noah over, they just weren't, and with Adam gone out again it was the perfect opportunity to sneak their runaway friend across the Ponderosa borders and off to continued freedom. Adam's conscience be damned, he was just going to have to live with it.
The sound of a horse's hooves caught both men's attentions, the usual clip of shoed-feet on the ground muted by the heavy tread of the snow, but the dull thud and the blur of chestnut that followed alerting them to what should have been a returning rider.
Only Adam was nowhere in sight, and, intuition kicking in, Joe was off the porch and across the yard in a second, yelling as he went.
"Hey…hey Hoss!" he reached the horse in a few short strides, reaching up a hand to catch the reins and moving the other to stroke at the white-striped nose as the animal's head launched upwards in alarm, "Whoa boy," he soothed calmly, "Easy."
The fact that the horse seemed so jittery did little to settle his churning alarm either.
"Joe?" the sound of Hoss arriving out on the porch behind filled the youngest with an instant sense of relief, the inner turmoil now able to be shared out as it moved into the hands of his older brother, hurrying out into the yard with a frown, "What's wrong?" he stopped short on seeing both the horse and his younger sibling's face. He knew instantly what it meant, "Adam come in on 'im?"
Swallowing hesitantly, Little Joe shook his head.
As Hoss drew in across the other side, both men stepped back to inspect the animal carefully, eyes roving across every inch of flank and hands running across the short, warm coat. Finally Joe shook his head again, the relief evident in his voice.
"Not as far as I can see."
Hoss however had seen something else, his eyes tracing up towards the saddle and locking on the familiar gun belt looped across the pommel, half-hidden under the dark black brim of a hat. Lifting the headwear free he swallowed despite himself, fingers skirting the rim until they hit upon a area of frayed material, damp and sticky to the touch. The wet redness that came away on his skin made his stomach lurch in fear,
"Joe…" he gulped, the rest of the sentence hanging unspoken as he held up his hands and let the tint speak for himself. His younger brother's face drained instantly of any colour,
"…You don't think – ,"
But neither one could bring themselves to say anything, and instead, turning the hat over in his hands, Hoss came across something else that caught his eye; a piece of paper, screwed in a ball and shoved into the bowl,
"Hey," he began with a frown, his confusion momentarily obscuring his gut-wrenching worry, "What in the world is this?"
Unfolding it somewhat roughly, he let his eyes scan the contents quickly, the scrawled writing it contained making his expression darken and twist and the change not going unnoticed by his younger brother,
"Hoss?" he interjected from across the other side of the horse, eyes flickering briefly to the side to take in Noah Weeks, who had come to stand beside them having sensed the concern, "What?" he got nothing for his troubles and so instead tried harder, his tone sharper and his speech more deliberate, "Hoss, what is it?"
Looking up with an expression about as grave as Little Joe had ever seen, Hoss matched his gaze slowly, the murder he saw radiating through the eyes almost making him blink in surprise but the one-word answer having much the same effect on him.
Adam had been right – the man was nothing but trouble and this time it had come right back around to bite them, savagely. Evidently the old saying was true; no good deed went unpunished, and this time it was Adam getting all the punishment.
The game was on…and they had no idea what to do.
With the release of unconsciousness there were several major discomforts that rushed simultaneously at Adam's sluggish form; pain being a notable one, a sharp stabbing seeming to radiate clean across the side of his head and the slightest hint of movement tugging at what he unfortunately knew from experience to be a tenderly forming scab tentatively gluing whatever part of him it was that needed patching up. Beneath him his own body felt heavy and reluctant, upon him his clothes felt heavy and damp and to top it all off his ears were ringing, whistling and seemingly doing everything except the Viennese Waltz – and letting sound in.
All that however paled in comparison to the pounding. Radiating from inside his skull the steady thumping was providing every other twinge, ache and complaint with a rhythmic beat over which to lay the melody of pain, striking up a partnership with his heartbeat and throbbing so violently that he could feel his temples pulsating in his own head, his eyes as he cautiously slid them open giving him nothing but a mass of blurry sparks and sharpening and fading with the solid thud that underpinned his whole existence.
Drawing in a deep breath as he tried to quell a sudden rush of nausea, Adam let out an involuntary groan, barely audible above the one-man band his head seemed to be creating but unable to keep out the soft voice that floated back across at him.
"Please, don't try to move," it whispered gently, Adam's unfocused eyes just meandering towards sight in time to note the damp cloth moving upwards in his direction, the compass flattening against his forehead moments later and the sharp chill sending a wave of sadistic icy pleasure that momentarily chased out the headache. Above him the soft tones turned vaguely admonishing in the silence, "You'll just make yourself dizzy."
It was as he better came to however that he realised just who the voice belonged to, the blonde hovering in the murky fuzz of background beyond the older, dark-skinned woman gently dabbing silently and carefully at his head-wound with the tip of a rag. The questioning response came out as a low, weary-sounding croak,
Blinking around the room for the first time, Adam's slowly returning senses swung to try and make sense of the their surroundings, noting with some degree of absence that they were not in the warm safety of the Ponderosa as he had naturally assumed, nor indeed were they anywhere warm, the sudden crisp chill making him shudder with cold despite the glowing, crackling presence of a small, orange-fingered fire flickering beside them.
The room itself was barren and drafty, the two small windows fully boarded but inexpertly done so, and letting in a gale of bitter wind that rattled the moth-eaten drapes and whipped the flames of the fire into a dangerous and frantic dance with each new gust. Sitting not three feet from it's meagre heat, Adam had been laid on his back on the ground, the frozen solidity of the floor radiating clean through the back of his thin shirt and up and down his spine, his jacket at some point having been taken off and laid across his chest like a blanket. Claire Hauer leant in beside him, eyes wide with concern and her voice gentle as she oversaw the ministrations, Sasha as silent and stoic a presence as ever.
"How do you feel?" she asked softly, and for the first time Adam became aware of the iciness of slave woman's hands against his face, like someone had pressed an ice block there and left it. She must have been frozen. His response was groggy but flippant, and, to anyone that knew him better, reassuringly Adam-esque.
"Like I've been shot."
It's effect however, was lost on Claire Hauer,
"It was an accident – ," she began quickly, in the silence, a little too quickly Adam thought as he levered himself gingerly onto one elbow and tried to ignore the dangerously violent pitching in his head and the wash of nausea against the back of his throat.
He knew better.
"Where's your husband Mrs. Hauer?"
"He's not here," Claire responded, again fast to an answer and the absence stirring Adam with pricklings of unease. If Gibbs Hauer wasn't there with them, then where was he? Nowhere good, that was almost a certainly, and knowing it, Adam began to lever himself upwards,
"I need to tell the sheriff what's happening,"
Roy Coffee could then at least take over and give him time to nurse his headache. The whole thing was now, more than ever, a case for the law to handle.
"Please," Claire interjected instead, flattening a hand across his chest as her eyes filled with concern and Sasha copying quickly, "You mustn't move yet, take your time, go slowly,"
Easing himself up right into a full if somewhat dizzy sitting position however, Adam shook his head, shuffling backwards a little to let the wall take his weight and trying to organise the conflicting waves of alarm and concussion he felt starting to swirl. He had bigger problems that a head wound,
"I can go slowly later," he replied firmly, squeezing shut his eyes against another storm of sickness and fighting through it to remain methodical, "Right now I need to warn my brothers,"
He was already trying to push himself upright as he spoke, inching up onto unsteady feet, Claire beside him, one careful hand wrapped about his arm and trying to provide both support and dissuasion as Sasha stepped back impassively. Clearly she wasn't about to tend to someone who did not appreciate the effort – she'd probably learned that from Gibbs.
"Please Mr. Cartwright – ,"
Adam however was still on the mental checklist,
" – I need to warn Weeks,"
Instantly Claire Hauer stiffened, her whole body freezing in position and the abrupt change in body language stalling even Adam's efforts to stand so palpable did it seem against the silence,
"Noah?" she breathed back almost disbelievingly, something like wonder lighting up in her eyes as she stumbled over the words, "N-Noah Weeks? You know him?"
"He sought shelter on our ranch," Adam replied mildly, wincing as another sharp pain stabbed across his hairline. Damn it that hurt.
"He's still there now?"
"He was when I left,"
It was fairly nonchalant as answers went, but Claire clung to it nonetheless,
"Is he all right?"
"A little cold, tired maybe," Adam responded evenly, "But considering what he's been through I'd say he's very lucky that's all he is," abruptly however the sigh of relief the woman had quietly been heaving turned into a gasp of what Adam knew to almost certainly be pain, hands shooting to her distended abdomen as she did and making his own health-related concerns quickly pale in comparison, "Mrs. Hauer?"
Her eyes shut as she bent forward, a couple of deep drags of air being sucked in across dry lips as she tried to steady herself. Eventually Claire glanced up and attempted a smile, the thin expression and pain-dulled eyes fooling no one; least of all Adam, bent down beside her and watching closely as Sasha came over and tried to prop her mistress upright.
"It's nothing, really,"
"Somehow I find that hard to believe. How long have you been in pain?"
"Not long," Claire replied, the answer's detachment proving less convincing than intended, "I'm sure it's perfectly normal."
"It didn't seem perfectly normal in town yesterday,"
Which was a fact neither of them could adequately deny. The truth was they both knew that something was wrong, it was just a case of who was going to give in to their defeat first; Adam Cartwright, or the object of concern herself. The trouble was that giving in to Adam meant getting in a doctor, or going into town and possibly being kept in – Gibbs hated that, he hated the thought of her around men, any men and he particularly hated her going out before telling him where and at what time she would be home. She did not need or want a good Samaritan trying to help, she'd all ready gotten herself into enough trouble for a lifetime thanks to her shamefulness, she didn't need any more reasons for Gibbs to hurt or punish her. She was staying quiet.
"I'm fine, really," she replied instead, still utterly unconvincing but managing a smile, "My husband takes very good care of me," her hands moved instinctively to wrap around her bulge, "Of both of us,"
Staring back at her appraisingly and doing a good job of pretending he was only seeing one blurred vision of the downcast blonde, Adam smiled back, the expression kind but hollow,
"If that were true," he countered softly, "Then you would be somewhere warm and safe right now rather than seeking shelter from a blizzard, burning rags for fuel and miles away from your land and your home,"
Claire shook her head sadly,
"We don't have a home, it – ," What? Burnt down? Turned to ashes because of a drunken husband who had appointed himself judge, jury and executioner over the whole sordid affair? Instead of saying any of these things however, Claire simply bit her lip, hung her head and shook the long hair from side to side, "I'm afraid you wouldn't understand,"
Seeing her discomfort, Adam's voice lowered soothingly,
"I understand more than you think. Noah told us what happened,"
At once Claire swung back to face him, her eyes wide with horror and her mouth open in shock. It passed almost as quickly, fading instantly into something much more distressed and embarrassed and her voice dropping to nothing better than a mumble as she sighed shakily,
"You must think me a terrible person,"
Adam shook his head quickly, reaching out one hand to lay gently across hers in solidarity and suddenly feeling intense sympathy for the well-meaning but utterly down-trodden woman before him, stuck, isolated and alone,
"Not at all I assure you," he replied as compassionately as he could through the radiating pulse of his mammoth headache, "I think it must be very difficult to be married to someone you can neither love nor respect."
Faced with the stark assessment however Claire faltered, caught mid-way between agreement and defensiveness,
"Gibbs is…he's a good man,"
Staring at her with almost unnerving intensity, Adam cocked a questioning brow,
"Do you honestly believe that?"
"I have to," Claire replied, hands moving again to her bump and underlining the bleakness of her position once more. She had to cling on to Gibbs Hauer because she had nothing else to cling to. For Adam however, there were more pressing issues at hand besides marital strife and concussion.
"Mrs. Hauer," he began, gentle but firm in the silence, "Your husband means to take his revenge on Noah – he means to kill him,"
Ignoring her horror he pressed on regardless,
"He's using me as bait. He knows my family will agree to an exchange, it's why he wants me alive,"
"He wouldn't, he – he can't!"
"He won't," Adam countered quickly, cutting through her wide-eyed dismay and keen for it not to move into the realms of hopelessness or hysteria. That would be useful to no one, "But I need your help to get to the sheriff, a horse, some time..."
Claire however cut him off just as quickly, hands moving to clap to either side of her cheeks, the idea of both Noah's death and the proposal of going against her irrational husband both terrifying her equally and catching her up in the complex swirl of emotions,
"I can't," she sobbed back, tears starting to pool in her eyes as the desperation hit her.
"If you don't then Noah and my brothers are going to have no choice but to walk into a trap," Adam responded in harsh tones, knowing that he had precious little time to push her into agreement and knowing with equal force that without her providing him a means of getting back into Virginia City or the Ponderosa, and without her giving him the time to do it, then Hauer would win hands down, "Is that what you want Mrs. Hauer?"
The reply was subdued and distraught-sounding, whispered in an almost inaudible mumble of grief,
Suddenly however there was another sharp intake of air, and, this time letting out an actual cry of pain Claire flung arms tight across the sudden deep stabs of pain lacing her abdomen and knowing now without doubt that something was wrong. Adam knew it to, stepping in close and trying to catch some of her weight as she sunk towards the floor with a grimace of pain, Sasha once more appearing by her side and helping lower the woman gently earthwards. Realising that he was fast moving out of his depth, Adam sighed in unrealised relief, instantly glad of the help.
He didn't get much further however, as the door that had been all but lost in the gloom behind them abruptly banged open, letting in a ferocious gust of bitter gale-force wind so strong that it almost knocked Adam off his unsteady feet. Gibbs Hauer, stood before them, silhouetted in the half-light, the fire glow casting strange and ugly shadows across his craggy, hate-filled features. He was smiling,
"Well, well look who's up and about," he sang, disarmingly cheery, seemingly oblivious to the women sitting on the floor between them, "Adam Cartwright. Afternoon son," noting the hard expression that swung up to meet his however the smile promptly widened, Gibbs clearly enjoying the whole game immensely, but his next statement sending a chill through the room that had nothing to do with the weather, "You're just in time."
"Now you just hold on there Little Joe," Hoss' voice rang out across the room, catching the shorter khaki-clad figure just inches from the door and the reprimand holding him in place, "Ain't gonna do any one of us any good chargin' in all fired up, least of all older brother. What we need is some sort of a plan,"
Sitting over by the well-stocked fire, one leg hitched across the other and his whole brow crumpled in careful thought, Hoss Cartwright easily owned the room. In the absence of both the patriarch and the eldest – and in the midst of something of a crisis – Hoss had found himself suddenly wearing the crown of familial authority, the task of co-ordinating their next move down to his say-so and everybody else looking in his direction. Noah Weeks stood awkwardly nearby, watching him intently and waiting for a command, while Little Joe paced the room furiously, too twitchy with pent-up rage to think straight and only just held back from riding out after Hauer himself; consequences be damned.
"Meanwhile," he shot back hotly, glaring across at his older brother but the anger directed elsewhere entirely, "Hauer's still got Adam,"
It was a fact that made even Hoss' largely even temper fray,
"I know Little Joe dadburnit! But we gotta have some sort of a plan worked out…that's how Adam would'a done it anyhow," but channelling his eldest sibling wasn't proving as easy as he had hoped it would, and, heaving a sigh Hoss dropped his head abruptly into his hands, "I sure do wish he was here right about now,"
Little Joe continued to glower,
"Yeah, well he's not."
The note crumpled into the bowl of Adam's hat had caught them all in equal amounts of dismay, the realisation both that their brother was somehow injured and that they were facing a cavernous moral dilemma in getting him back weighing heavier with each passing moment. The instructions however had been simple enough;
Weeks for Cartwright.
The mining cabin at Heron Pass.
Gibbs Hauer was many things, but rambling evidently wasn't one of them. Succinct on the other hand almost certainly was.
They knew the cabin Hauer had chosen well, or at least, well enough to know that cabin was probably too generous an explanation of what the shack actually was. It was little more than a shell, although, to his credit, well flanked by tall craggy rocks that effectively covered it from three sides. One way in, one way out, just how old Jim Stinson had liked it before age, a bad winter and a hefty drinking habit had gotten the better of his health several years ago. Nobody else had taken to the place since – or at least, nobody had.
Choosing to ignore Little Joe's sentiments completely Hoss instead turned inwards, glancing across towards the silent member of their gloomy party, hovering ram-rod straight beside one of the chairs and keeping his somewhat shamefaced seeming gaze averted,
"Noah?" the bigger man began with a hint of hopefulness, "I reckon you know this Hauer feller better'n any of us – any idea what he's up to? Gun power? Anythin' that might help?"
If he was banking on some sort of intricate break-down of both Gibbs Hauer's usual plans of action, temperament and thought processes however, then he was left bitterly disappointed as instead Noah Weeks glanced up hesitantly before shrugging and shaking his head,
"I'm sorry, I honestly don't know,"
Little Joe's quick reply was harsh with annoyance,
"Then start thinking,"
It was a tone that made Hoss frown instantly, surprised by how abruptly the youngest's demeanour had changed. Not ten minutes earlier he'd been practically hauling the runaway across the frozen ground in his haste to disobey Adam, and yet now the slave seemed to be taking the full force of the boy's frustration and sense of helplessness.
"Joe," he countered, frowning a little deeper, "Now this ain't Noah's fault,"
Far from having the desired effect however the blame merely shifted sideways, Little Joe's shoulders drooping and his head dropping to fixate on the floorboards with a look bordering shame,
"I know," he replied bleakly, "It's mine,"
"Joe – ,"
"If I'd have just told Adam in the first place then none of this would have happened,"
Hoss' expression softened almost instantly,
"You can't go thinking like that little brother,"
But not even the comforting moniker could cure the sudden onset melancholia – mixing once more with something ferocious and almost feral.
"If anything happens to Adam – ,"
"Aww, ain't nothing bad gonna happen to him," Hoss interjected more lightly than he felt, desperate to cheer the mood. One of his brothers was already in untold amounts of trouble, the last thing he needed was another one working on a fiery combination of rage and guilt, "You know how hardheaded he is. Ol' Adam'll be just fine, y'hear?"
Looking across the room at him and watching carefully for the scope of the sincerity, Little Joe eventually nodded, throwing an unconvincing shrug into the mix alongside,
"Yeah," he mumbled, reluctantly, "I hope you're right."
From somewhere behind then Noah let out a troubled-sounding sigh, shaking his head as he glanced up at the two men before him and then dropping it rapidly earthwards once more,
"I am so sorry my friends, you have shown me such kindness and this is how I repay you,"
"Now Noah," Hoss replied comfortingly, "I just got through tellin' Little Joe how this ain't anybody's fault and I'm not tellin' you too. All that matters now is getting' Adam back,"
"Then I must sacrifice myself," the runaway continued with a surprisingly resolute expression. Standing behind him however, Little Joe shook his head firmly,
"That's just wants Hauer wants you to do,"
Noah spread his hands wide,
"But if it safely returns your brother, is it not worth it? Besides, it is like I told you before, for too long now I have been a coward. This is my chance to put some of the things I have done right before it's too late. Please, let me help."
Despite the appeal though there were bigger considerations afoot than giving in to Hauer's game, as Hoss duly noted with a surprising degree of insight that Little Joe was instantly ashamed he failed both to remember and register.
"Well, I don't think Adam'd much like the thought of his freedom coming at the price of someone's else's. That sure ain't the way he'd do things,"
It was certainly a valid point, although the sudden mention of their eldest brother's character traits and his fierce sense of law, duty and morals only served the harden the youngest's conviction to retrieve him at whatever cost, the thought of his final angry words eating him up alive. He didn't for one moment think that Adam truly believed them, but neither did he want it to be their last exchange. They were closer than that and yet his memories would always be tainted. He wanted Adam back, he needed Adam back and he was going to make sure it happened – glancing across at his middle sibling to make his point with an inelegant shrug,
"I don't see we have any other choice,"
Hoss' expression moved from doubtful to horrified in two seconds flat, the face rounding to regard his brother with something akin to disbelief and his tone implying much the same emotion,
"Joe!" he hissed quickly, unable to keep from sounding appalled, "You ain't seriously suggesting we let him go back to that Hauer are you? After everythin' that man has done to him?"
"And what about what's he's done to Adam?"
"But Joe – ,"
Seeing the continued shock however Little Joe softened, annoyed both at his brother thinking him so callous and at himself for in actuality not being. It would have made things much simpler, as it was they somehow had to save Adam and protect Noah Weeks from whatever terrible fate Hauer would have in store for him both in one fell swoop.
Neither was going to be easy.
"I'm not saying that Hoss," Little Joe sighed back, tone taking on a vague air of long-suffering before he slowed to clarify his next point, "I'm saying we make Hauer think that we're going through with the trade, at least to begin with,"
It wasn't exactly much of a strategy; much less an idea, but it seemed to offer the best of both worlds without explicitly implying exactly how they were going to be achieved. It contained something they all knew though – they were going to have to walk into Hauer's trap, if only to establish that Adam was…well, alive.
Across the room however Hoss was grinning once more, a gently teasing expression on his face,
"That a plan I hear in there little brother?" he chuckled gently, watching Little Joe shrug back, instantly dismissive,
"No, but right now it's all we've got,"
"Well then," Hoss replied somewhat gravely, "In that case we'd sure better hope it's enough."
The tension poured from Gibbs Hauer in waves; a twitchy, palpable sort of energy that zinged around the room, mixing with the fierce howl of the winter weather and adding a hint of unpredictable danger to the already less-than-comfortable circumstances.
From where he stood across the room, Adam could see the glint in Hauer's eyes – almost wild in anticipation of the hunt, and, in the absence of his primary quarry, focussed fully on his captive bait, now acting as the stand-in trophy prey.
It was not a situation that promised to end well, and so, trying to maintain a, steely, aloof sort of superiority against the blur of concussion around the edges of his vision, Adam instead gazed back impassively, drawling a lazy yet guarded sounding greeting in response,
Sensing the deliberately nonchalant defiance however, Gibbs merely smiled wider, his teeth sparkling eerily white in the semi gloom around them and each renewed silence intersected with the screaming of the wind prowling animal-like about the flimsy structure surrounding them. As Adam continued to stare, Gibbs began to chuckle; he was actually enjoying himself.
"How's the head?"
"It's been better,"
"Luckily for you," the older man growled insincerely, "I'm one hell of a shot,"
Adam blinked back at him coolly,
"I'm not sure 'lucky' is quite how I'd describe it,"
"Maybe not," Gibbs shrugged, "But then that's what you get for hiding my slave,"
Beside them, crouched low on the floor and either having overcome her discomfort or else fallen silent in fear of her husband, Claire Hauer looked up quickly, her sudden interest – not to mention her entire presence – going seemingly unnoticed by the gruff, rifle-wielding figure before her, but not their weary and bleeding captive. Choosing not to draw her any further into the conflict however, Adam simply smirked across the room, his tone sliding easily from its earlier indifference into a more scathing, amused sort of mockery,
"You seem to have gone to a lot of trouble for him,"
Gibbs matched it glare for glare,
"Consider it repayment of a debt owed," he glowered back before darkening briefly, "One your brothers are going to cash in for me,"
At the mention of Hoss and Joe, Adam stiffened instinctively,
"What makes you think he's still on the Ponderosa?"
In fact, if he knew his youngest brother half as well as he thought he did, then he half expected Little Joe to have tried to move Weeks entirely in his absence. He half hoped he'd succeeded too.
"Well for your sake you'd better hope he is," Gibbs shot back, turning to point the barrel of the rifle warningly in his direction and reminding Adam with unnerving enthusiasm that Weeks' departure would possibly not end well for him.
"And what then?" Adam countered evenly, unable to believe that a man as dangerous and unhinged as Gibbs Hauer would ever be satisfied with retribution on one man alone, "A straight exchange?"
Rather than contradict him however, Gibbs simply shrugged,
"Like I said, I'm a fair man,"
"That's not they way I heard it," Adam bit back, dangerously accusing and drawing a momentary flicker of anger in response,
"Then you heard wrong!" Abruptly however the irritation had passed, replaced instead with an almost feral-sounding growl, so low it was almost lost against the gale raging outside, "I told you before Cartwright, I'm getting what's mine,"
Only now they were inching into one of Adam's areas of interest and expertise, and – concussion or otherwise – he was not about to allow the side of rationale and enlightenment go un-argued.
"A man's life is no more yours than it is anybody else's," he began with a prickle of indignation, "It's his own, not something that can be bought and sold. You cannot possess another man's freedom…" pausing briefly he hit his final assault, "…any more than you can possess somebody's love,"
It had the desired effect, Gibbs tensing visibly across the gloom.
"For something that doesn't concern you," he countered quiet but heatedly, "You certainly seem to have a whole mess of opinions on the matter,"
Quirking something of a smug smile in response, Adam shrugged casually, sensing with the other man's descent into anger, a growing moral and emotional advantage that chose to manifest itself in an acerbic brand of cool sarcasm,
"Well I've been shot and now I'm being held prisoner, I don't know about you, but I'd say that definitely concerns me,"
"But my wife does not!" Gibbs hissed, and, as Adam watched the woman flinch instinctively from the corner of one eye, he belatedly remembered her earlier discomfort. Suddenly his verbal sparring with Hauer lost its appeal,
"Actually Mr. Hauer," he replied instead, tone calm but losing some of its bite, "Your wife concerns me the most," he watched the other man bristle with implication, "She appears to be unwell – which you might have noticed for yourself had you not been so intent on seeking retribution for your own wounded pride,"
Strictly speaking the parting insult could probably have been stowed, but, as was often the way with him, Adam's temper spoke the words before his brain could quite censor them, the accusation promptly re-sparking Gibbs' earlier, unpredictable kind of rage as the older stomped the several feet separating them to push a finger into his hostage's chest,
"Cartwright," he hissed with renewed hatred, "I'm gonna tell you one more time and then I'm done talking. My wife ain't none of your business,"
But Adam was on a role, and, despite knowing otherwise, he wasn't about to back down.
"Well given her condition she ought to be someone's."
The back-hander that caught him high across the cheek bone caught both he and Claire off-guard, the pain that lanced across his skin only a minor discomfort to the merry hell it played with his already thumping head, pitching him off balance so that he stumbled backwards into the wall, and sending a pretty wave of dots and sparkles right across his vision to co-inside with the pitching. It was like being aboard a storm-tossed ship, and the resurgence of the nausea and Claire's gasp of appalled shock did little to make him feel better. If Sasha had taken note of the violence however, then she did not react to it – probably just glad it was not directed at her.
Another blow followed the first, and this time Adam began to taste blood at the corner of his mouth. Gibbs Hauer had apparently been unleashed.
It was after the third blow that he felt Claire interject between them, the swish of her winter-sodden skirts brushing past his legs and the broken hitch to her voice moving in closer as she pulled herself up from the floor to beg with her rampaging husband, still shouting like a madman somewhere in front of him,
"I warned you Cartwright, I warned you fair!"
"Gibbs! Stop, please!"
Adam's vision returned just in time to watch the push, the movement not so much a removal of Claire from harm's way as a shove powered by Gibbs' entire pent-up frustration that propelled her bodily from between them and onto the floor with a sickening thud and an audible cry of pain.
Adam watched her hit the ground almost in slow motion, feeling alongside instantaneous outrage, a deep sense of dread as the woman's sprawled form quickly drew up into a tight ball, arms moving to grip tightly around her abdomen and her entire face screwing up into a mask of unspeakable pain as she began to gasp and whimper at their feet. Sasha was beside her in an instant, her movements tentative but her instincts strikingly quick.
Gibbs Hauer changed at once, the fury ebbing away until he seemed as mild as a kitten, his face unfolding until it was lined only with tenderness and the big man instantly folding onto his knees, hands hovering above his wife almost as if afraid to touch her,
"Claire?" he asked, voice shaky and uncertain, "Claire, what's wrong?"
The fact that he clearly couldn't tell made Adam doubt the man's delicate mental state even more. Beneath the gentle gaze however, Claire managed a clarifying gasp, her own fear-strained voice doing little to calm her husband's growing jittery feelings of inadequacy,
"Wha – ,"
"The baby!" she sobbed, breaking off with a hiss of pain. Running his hands through his hair Gibbs continued to remain baffled by the latest turn of events,
"What's wrong with him?" he asked instead, tone taking on a hitch of hysteria in the process, "Claire?"
Straightening himself up however and trying to ignore the wince that flashed across his face at the fierce protest in his head, Adam decided to supply the answer, Gibbs' emotional breakdown once again giving him the advantage,
"I believe Mr. Hauer," he offered laconically, "That your wife is in labour."
The reply was almost comical in its disbelief,
Gibbs Hauer obviously didn't think much to his wife's sense of timing. Adam on the other hand remained suitably grave,
"I'm afraid so,"
The responding ferociousness however was something the oldest Cartwright had not been expecting.
"And how am I meant to do that?"
"I don't know damn it!" Hauer snapped back, rounding on him with renewed intensity, his nerves and his anger seemingly conspire to tip him over the edge, "I don't know!"
Adam however, simply stared back at him, the request not quite processing through the waves of concussion and, despite the danger inherent with answering back a man on the brink, there seeming little else to do. He certainly wasn't about to agree, that was for sure,
"Mr. Hauer, the baby is coming with or without your approval," he snapped back instead, the irritation of his tone undermined by its incredulousness, "She needs a doctor,"
She needs a rational husband.
He stopped just short of that one.
But Gibbs Hauer wasn't about to back down, the rifle point swinging swiftly in Adam's direction as the injured man took a meaningful step forward,
"No!" he yelled loudly, casting around as if addressing an entire audience, "No one leaves!"
Which wasn't going to be a problem for Claire. Raising his hands Adam swallowed uncertainly,
"Mr. Hauer – ,"
"No! I ain't come this far to lose now!"
Abruptly, Adam's levels of disgust rose tenfold,
"You would risk the safety of your child for the sake of revenge?"
The accusation didn't go down very well, Hauer instead lifting the rifle higher and his face crumpling into an ugly visor of hatred, panic and oppression,
"I ain't risking nothing!" he barked viciously, "I'm making sure my kid ain't brought into a world of cheats and backstabbers."
"How does that help your wife?" Adam countered hotly, spreading his hands wide in a desperate appeal for reason. Unfortunately, he wasn't about to get it from Gibbs.
"Well we ain't none of us leaving here until I get Weeks – ," the white-haired former rancher countered defiantly, " – and once he's here I ain't gonna have much use for you or your family no more, so now either you shut up, or I waste you where you stand and gun your brothers down the second they show. That clear enough for you?"
But as it turned out, labour was just the beginning.
As Claire's pain had begun to increase, Hauer had hauled Adam quickly from the room, moving into the only other four-walled part of the little shack and giving him a push towards the wall before motioning at the ground with the rifle. Adam did as he was instructed, after all he'd come too far now to be shot.
Rather than take a seat himself however, Gibbs had instead begun a strange sentry-duty like march up and down the floorboards, the heavy thud of his tread reminding them all of his unflinching proximity.
Hauer hadn't been going anywhere, and evidently neither had they.
Adam had felt impotent; out-gunned and utterly powerless to help Claire, his knowledge extending as far as calves and foals but not beyond and relegating him instead to the slow business of waiting, like a million expectant fathers before him although in this case it was not his child about to born, nor did the rifle-wielding, emotionally-unstable father-to-be stomping around before him and throwing the occasional narrow-eyed glare across the room make for a particularly normal birthing partner.
The labour itself seemed to last an eternity, the dark, shuttered windows letting in so little light that Adam couldn't tell whether they'd moved into dusk, nightfall or early morning and his continued concussion doing little to aid his awareness. For what had felt like hours but was probably only one or two, Claire had writhed, cried and moaned through the walls, each and every last gasp and sound making Gibbs Hauer tense more and more, his hand tightening around the trigger of his rifle each time he did. Despite his entire body screaming at him at give in to sleep, Adam's danger response was doing a good job of keeping him up and alert. As another pained scream had echoed through the little structure however, the stress had become too much and Hauer had turned to put his fist through the flimsy boarding with a snarl,
"What is taking so long?!" he bellowed, whirling almost at once and booting a broken chair halfway across the room to make his point. Adam simply stared back impassively, not sure whether he was required to answer or not and deciding that silence was the best of his meagre supply of weapons. As Hauer turned towards him however, spurred by another yelp of torture from the door behind them, Adam wasn't so sure it had worked,
"You!" came the hiss, punctuated by hatred as if the whole affair were Adam's fault alone, "What's happening?"
Adam blinked back at him evenly,
"I don't know," he replied in steady tones, fighting the urge to be cutting and watching as Hauer continued to pace before him so intently he was sure to be working some sort of groove into the flooring.
"Go and find out."
It was as fierce-sounding as it was surprising, and despite the inherent danger, Adam's response came back in tones of incredulous disbelief,
"Me? You want me to check on your wife?"
It made no sense. At their first encounter, Hauer had almost beaten Adam on the street for merely trying to help Claire through a blizzard, suddenly today however he was insisting Adam intervene in something much more intimate, personal and, quite frankly, explicit. It made absolutely no sense at all, but then, given Hauer's seemingly fragile mental state it was perhaps not completely unexplained.
"You got ears ain't you?" Hauer fired back, stomping across the space and threatening to haul him to his feet altogether. Raising his hands Adam moved himself, fearful that were he propelled upright, his thumping head and none-too-solid footing might deposit him back onto the floor – this time with added unconsciousness – and knowing that with a twitchy Hauer around, it was probably best to remain as cognisant as possible. He needed to be awake.
He opened the door to a scene of controlled chaos, a wash of tension, pain and emotion sweeping out around him, as palpable as the chill winter weather yet cloying and desperate at the same time. As the sparse light from behind him silhouetted the figures on the floor, Sasha looked up, making eye contact with Adam for the first time since they'd met and surprising him with the cool determination he saw there; he had no idea of her background, her life or her experiences but evidently playing midwife was something she had picked up along the way and had obviously taken the trouble to perfect.
Almost as soon as their eyes met her attentions were away again, focused around the upturned skirts of her mistress, hands on the woman's exposed knees and sleeves rolled to the elbows. As Hauer banged the door shut behind them shutting Adam fully into the crisis, the only noise became that of Claire's pain-ridden cries and moans, her perspiration-dotted forehead glinting in the firelight and her hands scrabbling at the ground for a handhold.
Adam was there almost at once, knelt beside the prone and writhing figure, palm gently cupping hers.
"Easy now," he murmured, voice low, calm, and – although she didn't know it – the exact same one he used when trying to calm birthing mares, "Easy, long deep breaths,"
"It – hurts – hurts so much," she panted brokenly from the ground below him, tears welling in her eyes as she looked up.
"I know," he soothed back, "I know – you're doing just fine,"
He watched as she suddenly tried to roll over, the pain forcing her onto her side, her knees drawing up and the movement only stopped as Sasha pulled her roughly back into place, face set firm and a quick glance up at Adam expressing what she needed from him with all the eloquence of the words she did not possess.
Keep her still.
Gently Adam took hold of Claire's shoulders and pushed them back down onto the ground. She let him do it weakly, dull, tired eyes looking up into his searchingly,
"Mr. Cartwright?" she gasped abruptly between bouts of the spasmodic pain. The words, when she got them out, were whispered so softly and with such shame that Adam had to strain to hear them, "I'm so sorry,"
"You have nothing to be sorry for," he responded with a warm smile before offering the tiniest hint of a wink, "Besides, I think we know each other well enough now to be on first name terms. Call me Adam,"
She'd smiled back at him genuinely through her own waves of discomfort,
"Claire," he'd nodded back, "I wish we might have met under better circumstances,"
Another explosion of pain had drawn back her attention and she'd cried out loudly, stifling the noise at the last minute by biting down hard on her lip and instead reaching up another shaking hand. Adam again took it without hesitation,
"Mrs. Hauer – ," he'd stopped himself just in time, "Claire? How long have you been having the pains?"
There seemed little point in continuing to lie,
"My waters broke yesterday,"
Which explained the speedy progression of events at any rate, although, had Adam known he was helping in woman in the early stages of labour the day before then he most certainly wouldn't have just offered her his arm – he'd have marched her straight to Doctor Martin's and refused to take no for an answer. In the absence of a trained physician however, Sasha seemed to be doing a first rate job, which was something at least; checking on their progress and then alternatively rocking backwards and forwards as if in silent prayer, although Adam hoped that wasn't what she was doing.
In fact, so long did the labour seem to last, that the birth itself caught him almost by surprise. Having rocked herself up onto her haunches, Sasha had reached forward to grip at Claire's knees, the movement signalling an abrupt change in the pace and demands of the process, and one to which Claire had acted with instinctive rapidity, her hand tightening around Adam's as she'd propped herself – with Sasha's permission – onto her elbows and begun to push through the last stages of the pain. It took less than a minute after that for the child to appear, the last sixty seconds of the drama reaching a crescendo of noise and intensity, until, almost like a bubble being burst, the expectancy and tension melted away to the first gurgled wails of a distressed newborn. Claire Hauer had delivered a healthy baby boy…
…only Sasha seemed reluctant to hand him over.
"What's wrong?" Claire gulped almost at once, her voice cracked with exhaustion and emotion as she sensed the spreading flicker of unease, "Is it all right?"
Giving her hand a reassuring pat and ignoring the stabbing in his long-bent knees, Adam stood shakily, his vision swirling around him as he rose but his concern for the child pressing him on. It sounded healthy, the birth had gone well, what – if any problems – could there possibly be? It was almost something he dared not think about and yet as he caught sight of the baby in Sasha's embrace, he abruptly realised the reason for the elderly woman's uncharacteristic hesitance;
The child was black, dark curls framing the little face, tiny fingers curled into fists, delicate eyelashes fluttering above big brown orbs and a delicate dusky hue to his smooth, damp skin. He was a beautiful, beautiful child, but in an instant his future had gone from being all but assured to unmistakably uncertain.
He wasn't Gibbs Hauer's. and for that there was going to be hell to pay.
"Adam?" Claire's voice interjected again, quieter now and laced with fear, "What's wrong? Adam? Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine," he responded quietly, his voice reassuring but his eyes not quite reaching round to meet hers, "It's a boy."
Claire's sigh almost filled the room in its delight,
"Oh, I'm so glad. Gibbs is going to be so happy!"
The fact that she wasn't intending to be ironic however, made it even more so, and, unable to keep the revelation from her any longer, Adam reached forward and carefully took the child from Sasha, folding the tiny little swaddled figure into his own strong arms and taking him back to have his first proper meeting with his mother.
It should have been a much more beautiful moment than it turned out to be, Claire's expression at once moving from exhausted adoration to abject horror as the full-weight of the situation hit her with the force of a steam train, her hand flying to cover her mouth and her tear-filled eyes widening in instant fear. Adam moved to intersect her quickly,
"Claire, this is your son,"
And even through the waves of alarm she took him, moving with maternal instinctiveness to cradle her child in her arms, her eyes taking in every last inch of him and loving it all without reserve. The fear however, wasn't about to fade away.
"Adam – ,"
"I know," he responded gently, both of them whispering yet Claire's big round eyes screaming,
"What am I going to do?"
"It'll be all right," he responded gently, knowing that he was lying but trying to add as much firm sincerity as he could, "We'll think of something."
But as the boots outside stomped closer – carried by the pitiful mewls of the youngster – they both knew they'd run out of time. Gibbs Hauer had arrived to greet his son; framed in the doorway by the eerie winter half-light, a sort of innocent-looking joy on his face as he took in his wife, lying exhausted on the floor but with the all precious bundle huddled close to her chest. If it weren't for the rifle hanging ever ready from his fingers, he would have looked just like any other first-time father. He even had the softness of tone to match.
"Claire?" he beamed in a half-whisper, grinning, chuckling and almost stumbling forward in his haste to cross the distance towards them. Copying Sasha in all but the averted gaze, Adam removed himself from Claire's side, stepping back against the wall and drinking in the waft of cool, fresh air trickling in through the badly boarded windows. He was starting to feel sick, hot and very, very nauseous, the simple move from squat to stand alone having taken more out of him than he cared to admit.
"Gibbs – ," Claire began in return, hesitant but managing a thin, apprehensive sort of smile,
"What is it Claire? A girl? A boy?" he countered huskily,
The weary blonde paused,
"A boy!" Hauer whispered back in ill-concealed delight, raising a hand to swipe at the tear tracking a path down his big burly cheek, "A little boy…my son…"
Stumbling the rest of the way towards her, Gibbs Hauer sank heavily down onto his knees, the palm of one hand moving to run gently, almost lovingly across Claire's face, gazing into her eyes adoringly before moving to fold back the blanket shielding his child. Behind him Adam tensed, knowing that when the inevitable violence erupted, he was going to be the only one even half-willing or capable of standing between Hauer, Claire and the baby. Anything stupid or reckless was only going to endanger them more and, until he could somehow get them to safety, he was going to need to be on the defensive rather than the offensive.
As her husband's fingers crept ever closer to the blanket however, Claire moved to deliver the blow herself,
"Gibbs – ,"
Only she was too late, her words fading into nothingness as Gibbs Hauer for the first time looked upon the baby swaddled in his wife's arms; Noah Weeks' baby.
His anger was preceded only by his disbelief, the whole room silently watching as he opened and shut his mouth in utter incredulousness, devoid of anything other than an all-consuming shock that rendered him speechless, motionless and dumbfounded.
"It's – it's…," the fury followed more quickly than they'd hoped, "Why you – ,"
Darting from the shadows just in time to catch the hand sailing through the air towards the woman, Adam was not sharp enough to avoid the rifle butt that swung up at him from the other side, the heavy wooden club catching him across the side of his all ready thumping head wound and depositing him heavily onto the floor in an explosion of bright lights and dizziness. Briefly as confusion overtook him, he struggled to remember where he was,
"Gibbs!" Claire shouted from somewhere behind them, drawing her husband's ire from only a second but providing Adam with the necessary facts.
It did not make for pleasant remembering.
"You, shut up!"
Bending down Hauer grabbed hold of the collar of Adam's shirt, hauling him up onto his feet and slamming him bodily back against the wall, Sasha skittering out of the way as she tried to avoid the violence.
Seeing the fist coming again, Adam just swung his arm up in time to block the blow, moving his own fist to deliver a crunching impact to Hauer's ribs and listening with grim satisfaction through the screaming in his own head as the other man gasped in surprise and pain.
"Gibbs stop!" Claire tried again, although this time it was spoken only through floods of tears, her distress only seeming to spur her husband on in some type of twisted retribution.
As the rifle point swung towards him, the aim floating somewhere around his chest, Adam froze warily, trying to ignore the sensation of blood trickling down through his hairline and blazing a bright red trail across his cheek and jaw line. Gibbs was glaring at him wildly, eyes glinting with anticipation and the gun in his hands evidently itching to be fired.
"I'll get what's mine Cartwright," he repeated darkly, moving one arm to wipe away a bead of sweat before re-steadying himself, "I'll get what's mine,"
And then they all jumped as a gunshot rang out loud and clear above the gale.
For a moment, Adam was convinced he'd been hit; the pounding in his head so ferocious and his entire body so stiff, sore and frostbitten that was wasn't fully sure he'd have noticed a bullet added into the mix, except for the fact that he still appeared to be breathing…and upright.
The biggest clue that he was safe however was that Gibbs Hauer appeared to be as confused as he was, frozen in a strange tableau of bewilderment with his rifle still pointed outwards but mercifully, remaining unfired.
It was another voice that echoed in around them, carried through the rickety little shack by the wind but containing an undeniable frisson of danger. Adam would have recognised it anywhere; Little Joe.
The knowledge made him both heave a silent sigh of relief and tense visibly at the same time. The truth was that he was so bone tired and ache-ridden that the arrival of the familial cavalry was the most welcome relief he'd had in days, on the other hand however, Hauer was so incandescent with rage that he was liable to do something stupid, and, as glad as he was at their timing, as the older brother Adam couldn't help but worry too. As well as Sasha, Claire and the baby, he now had to protect his siblings too.
Across from him Gibbs was still staring, almost as though unsure of where the voice was coming from, although as it rang out again the smirk he had been wearing below fierce eyes started to grow at an alarming rate,
"Gibbs!" Little Joe again, possibly because he was taking charge or else because Hoss was hiding somewhere, "We've done what you asked – now we want to see our brother,"
He sounded firm, angry even, and from his voice alone Adam knew exactly how the youngest Cartwright would be looking when they eventually came face to face, knew the glower he would wear and the hatred with which he would look at the man who dared to hurt family. Little Joe was many things and possessed a great deal of quirks and traits; of all those however, loyalty was undoubtedly one of the best.
The mental retrospective of his youngest sibling was interrupted by the sound of an unamused sounding chuckle, and, his own expression clouding over in response, Adam turned to look at Gibbs Hauer, standing tall and unflinching in the pale light of the doorway and suddenly starting to regain a tentative control of his emotions. The thrill of the hunt was taking hold once more, and everything else was falling away into insignificance; this time however his prey-instinct was amplified by the latest twist in the tale; this time he was baying for blood and for the first time in months, he was within feet of the man on whom he blamed his every last failing. He wasn't about to back down now.
"Well what do you know?" he began, his voice eerily steady against the tension, "Looks like brothers came through," then, gesturing towards the door with his rifle, his expression darkened again, "Out."
Adam did as he was told, greatful to finally be moving the fight away from Sasha and Claire and onto a more even footing. His position might not have been enviable, but Joe and Hoss would at least be armed and suddenly Hauer was going to be the one finding himself out-gunned.
The emergence into the daylight was as shockingly bright as it was cold, both the blinding late afternoon sun and the bitter wind ripping the breath from him as they waged a double assault through his eyelids and the flimsy material of his shirt.
To begin with Adam could see nothing at all past the damaged little porch that faded into the snow beyond his feet – his brothers part of the void of whiteness that took up the rest of his peripherals – but, as Gibbs wrapped an icy hand around the back of his neck and propelled him forwards he began to notice some figures ahead, standing dark against the wintry surroundings.
Noah Weeks stood flanked by Hoss and Little Joe, all three unmoving and glaring across at their shared object of loathing with looks that otherwise may just have killed – and the sight of their elder brother being frog-marched out into the cold with a rifle to his back, bruises to his jaw and streams of blood lacing from a nasty gash on the side of his head, did very little to help their bristling animosity. As it was it took all of their combined willpower not to simply rush in and beat Hauer on the spot. The eldest knew it too,
"Adam?" Little Joe began across the distance, voice still hard with venom but softening marginally in evident concern, "You all right?"
"Yeah Joe," came the responding mumble as Adam squinted across the brilliant surroundings at them, trying to sound casual but his words instead coming out somewhat slurred, "M'alright,"
Judging by the way Joe and Hoss exchanged brief but worried glances with one another, he'd done little to assuage their fears. Feeling that they were getting somewhat off topic however, Gibbs' icy grip around the back of Adam's neck tightened abruptly, the gun pressing deeper into his ribs as the unstable former rancher whet his lips and took back control of the conversation with a feral sounding growl,
"Steady now boys, you can chat all you want later. First I want my slave."
"Not 'til we get our brother," responded Hoss succinctly, drawing himself up tall and managing to cut an imposing figure even across a thirty-foot distance. It was a fact that made Adam smile absently; his big little brother, all fierce and menacing.
"You think I'm gonna give him up that easy?" Gibbs Hauer retorted clearly unimpressed by the offer and not afraid to say why, "For all I know once you boys get your brother you're just gonna start shooting,"
"And you're not?" asked Little Joe flatly, his tone implying cool disbelief. Gibbs spread his free hand wide,
"I'm a man of my word,"
"We know exactly what kinda man y'are – you're the kind that keeps people like animals and shoots folk in the head, that's the kinda man you are."
"I don't expect you to understand son," Gibbs fired back, his grip shifting down away from Adam's neck to ball instead at the material at the back of his collar, "Besides, my fight ain't with you,"
"Well I reckon it is Mr. Hauer, when you got a gun pointed at my brother anyhow,"
For a man not known for his choice of words, Hoss could certainly get across his feelings when the occasion called for it. As, evidently, could Noah Weeks.
Standing between his phalanx of Cartwright bodyguards, Noah had remained quiet and passive throughout the exchange; his face firm but unmoving and his eyes burning in a mixture of fear, determination and guilt. His gaze briefly flickering to Adam, he seemed to make up his mind, taking a breath and moving to step forward,
"Enough," he announced, almost grandly and drawing everyone's attentions before turning to look at Hoss and Little Joe in turn, "I will go,"
Hoss countered him quickly,
"Now hold on there Noah, ain't no one going anywhere – not just yet,"
Evidently however, Gibbs Hauer was just about done waiting.
"I'll give you boys ten seconds to decide," he offered suddenly in the hesitant pause, his voice taking on a renewed confidence, "Then your brother and I are going back inside and you'll be getting him back in a pine box – ," the visible bristle from the youngest Cartwright made him smile wider. Now he was on a roll, "Along with that bastard child too,"
"Child?" Hoss echoed in bafflement, watching with a frown of confusion as Hauer turned a wicked grin towards Weeks and eagerly whet his lips. He was going to enjoy this.
"Well forgive me for not mentioning it earlier. You see fellas, Noah here has just become the absent father to a bouncing baby boy. Ten fingers, ten toes and blacker than the devil himself,"
Glancing across at Noah, Adam watched the taunt sink in, the news catching the man in equal measures of horror and dumbfounded joy. Hoss however, still didn't quite get it,
"Mrs. Hauer," Adam supplied softly, feeling the shirt tighten around his neck as Gibbs gave him a warning tug. He ignored it, "Mrs. Hauer gave birth,"
"Not ten minutes ago,"
"To his child!" Hauer bellowed behind them, the explanation of events again firing the wild anger, "My wife damn it, my wife!"
For Gibbs Hauer, the child had changed everything, he was a man who no longer had a single thing to fight for beyond revenge; no house, no family, no wife. For Noah Weeks however it changed things differently; now he had everything to fight for, and, starting forward uncertainly his defiance promptly began to fade beneath a new wash of compassion and gratitude,
"Please," he began, "Let me see him. Show me mercy – ,"
"Mercy?" Hauer cut him off in incredulousness, "Show you mercy? After what you've done to me? You've stolen everything I ever had – everything, and now you expect me to show you mercy? Where's my mercy Weeks? Where's mine?!"
It was an impassioned shout, one that sank everybody else into something of a respectful silence, the emotional outpouring ringing out around them and echoing back in off the landscape to reverberate in their ears. Had Hauer not been responsible for his current concussed and endangered condition, Adam might almost have felt a frisson of sympathy for him.
Almost as instantly however, the moment was gone.
"You'll see that brat in hell. Once I'm done with you – I'm drowning it."
As Noah Weeks took several steps forwards in instinctive aggression, Gibbs automatically tightened his grip on Adam, raising the rifle to knock the barrel swiftly against the already injured temple. It wasn't as painful as the last time but it was enough to draw a hiss of pain, and seeing it Hoss grabbed hold of Noah and held him in place,
"That's enough!" Little Joe shouted above the thrash of sudden emotions, placing himself between the warring factions with a hand held out warningly to either one, "Let's all just calm down,"
There was no way he or Hoss were risking Adam getting hurt again, although seeing him dabbing gently at the newly re-opened wound didn't do much for their own champing need for retribution.
Gibbs Hauer however was working on his last bit of patience,
"That ain't enough!" he yelled, hand suddenly releasing the chokehold on Adam as he began to step forward past his captive, a new aim in his sights, "That ain't nearly enough!"
As the barrel inched past him Adam saw it move almost in slow motion, knowing that it's new target was the struggling Noah Weeks, but also knowing that Hoss – holding the slave in a restraining grip – and Little Joe – stood in between them – were just as likely to take any hit that Hauer managed to fire, straight or otherwise.
He couldn't let that happen.
Twisting with a turn of pace that startled himself as much as anyone, he automatically clamped his hands around the barrel, pulling the aim off course just as Hauer squeezed the trigger. Before them, Hoss, Joe and Noah instinctively flinched at the explosion of noise that burst out around them, each taking a second to establish that their elder brother had done what he'd intended and sent the bullet astray.
Ignoring his pounding head Adam continued to twist at the rifle, wrenching it from Hauer's grip with a swift elbow to the stomach, the older man's hands releasing to counter the sudden burst of pain. He was back more quickly than Adam expected however, his own spinning vision dulling him to Hauer's quick recovery until the white-headed figure was swinging at him, the rifle rising to block the incoming blow but falling from his hands and skittering off across the floor as he stumbled under the impact and an oncoming wave of dizziness, and fell against the flimsy timber framing with a heavy thud.
Hauer was on him like a dog on a baited bear, both of them tumbling backwards into the shadow of the murky little room and disappearing from out of the brightness,
"Adam!" he could hear his brothers shouting almost at once, could picture them running towards the tumble-down little shack, stumbling across the snow and just too late to help as Hauer picked up a fragment of the broken chair he'd kicked to pieces earlier and swung at his new sparring-partner with a ferocity Adam guessed he'd been cultivating for months. Turning at the last minute it caught him squarely between the shoulder blades, driving him down onto his knees and temporarily robbing him of clear vision as the room blackened and faded around him. He had no idea where Hauer was anymore, and the impairment left him wide exposed as Hauer swung his makeshift baton high into the air for another fiercesome assault.
Little Joe and Hoss reached the doorway in the same instant that the gunshot broke, freezing everyone in an instant tableau of alertness and surprise as the noise crackled off around them as loud as an explosion and just as bewildering. For a second, nobody knew who'd fired or who – if anyone – had been hit.
Gibbs Hauer's limp form thudding heavily to the floor only added to the confusion.
Claire Hauer stood silhouetted in the doorway to the dank, drafty little room that had doubled as her birthing suite, hair in disarray, clothes damp but a steely glint in her eyes that Adam had never seen before; the rifle hanging in her grip.
After years of abuse, and for the safety of her newborn son she had finally gained revenge on the abusive, violent and domineering man she'd been shackled too since her late teens. She had her freedom.
Behind her stood Sasha, impassive as ever and a small, squirming bundle writhing in her arms. It took Noah less than a second to find his way across to them, a word on his lips whispered in awe and relief,
She fell into his arms in a wash of distress, hands gripping at his shirt as the woman finally gave in and began to sob against him, letting him soothe her with gentle words and run loving hands through her hair. They made a good match, and, as Sasha handed over the gurgling child to take in the first adoring looks of his father, Adam realised with some relief that they made for an even better family.
Speaking of which…
"Adam!" Little Joe was the first of his brothers to reach him, dropping quickly into a squat and copied on the other side by Hoss only fractionally later. Placing a gentle hand on his older brother's shoulder, he cupped the chin and turned the head slowly in his direction, wincing absently as he appraised the wound lacing the side of his sibling's head, "Adam?"
"How're y'feeling brother?" Hoss chuckled softly from beside him, the amusement driven by relief but also tinged with worry at how sluggishly the eyes moved, how reluctantly they seemed to focus and how pale the elder looked compared to his usual sun-browned glow.
Adam snorted wearily in response,
"You mean besides the sound of excavating ringing in my ears?" he threw back wryly, managing a hint of a smirk that seemed to prove reassuringly comforting but breaking off as Joe's fingers probed too close to the enflamed and thudding laceration. Seeing the pain as some sort of a confirmation however, the younger's hands tightened purposefully around his brother's arm,
"We should get him to the doctor,"
Hoss nodded in agreement,
Together they hauled Adam to his feet, taking the weight as he wobbled, his legs suddenly failing him in solidarity with his eyesight, which sparkled and fizzed as he moved from slouched to standing faster than his concussion-addled brain could adequately process. It took most of his stoic resolve simply to pretend to be better than he felt, and even then he wasn't sure he was doing a very convincing job. Beside him, one hand patting him gently on the shoulder, Hoss moved to reassure,
"Now don't you worry none Adam," he began confidently, "Ol' Doc Martin'll have you feeling good as new in no time,"
"I hope so,"
"Besides," came the continued cheerfulness, buoyed even further by whatever it was that Hoss had suddenly considered, "You can always look on the bright side,"
Little Joe blinked back at him in return, by now about as baffled as the eldest and sharing a look to much the same effect,
Hoss' responding smile nearly blinded them both.
"It's stopped snowing."
With much head-shaking and wry disbelief Doctor Martin had dutifully patched Adam up again, muttering in incredulous semi-amusement about the various japes and scrapes that the Cartwright family managed to get themselves tangled up in, before delivering some serious advice about the importance of getting plenty of rest. In response Adam had slept for a whole day straight – practically turning out like a light the second his head had hit the familiar comfort of his pillow, his bed providing a haven both from the external cold, and the internal jumble of aches and pains. It was as welcome a sensation as he'd ever felt.
He woke sometime later to the blanketing cover of darkness, daylight hours having slow bled away sometime during his long slumber – possibly more than once – and leaving the world cool and quiet in their wake. Through the partially drawn-drapes the moon shone in gently, reflecting an icy luminescence across the landscape, reflecting back off the thick white snow like some great natural lantern and chasing away the usual deep shadows of night under its bright, frosty glow.
To begin with the only sounds Adam could hear were those sounding in his own head, the perpetual whistle of his battered ears and the ever-present thudding of his heartbeat pounding inside his skull – a happy reminder of his ongoing co-habitation with concussion. Gradually however, and as he began to adjust to the mixture of internal and external noises, he became aware of something else; a low but consistent muttering drifting up from below him; creeping in underneath the gap at the bottom of his door and for the first time drawing his attention to the warm orange glow also seeping through the chink. Somewhere downstairs people were talking, and, judging by the changing pitch, tone and speed of the murmurs, it was a conversation involving more than just Hoss and Little Joe.
Levering himself upright hand over hand, inch by inch, Adam slowly rose into a semi-vertical position, allowing his pitching head to stabilise before tentatively rising to his feet. Out from underneath the warm protection of his covers, his dark room felt bitterly cold, the wooden floor biting at his feet as he padded gently about, trying not to jog his head and half-heartedly shrugging on clothes as he went. Apart from the mussed hair and un-tucked shirt, he looked almost normal, he considered as he absently glanced across at himself in the mirror; apart from the circles under his eyes…and the slowly healing gash on the side of his head, which, due to its awkward – apparently 'impossible' – angle had at least spared him the indignity of a big white strip of bandage. Small mercies and all that.
Stepping out onto the landing the brightness of the glow from downstairs caught him full-on, a warm and brilliant yellow that momentarily blinded him; as fierce as it was welcoming. He took the short walk from his room to the staircase at something of a shuffle, veering off-centre once or twice and banging into the walls before managing to find his stride and a sense of control along with it.
The voices were louder as he tentatively moved out onto the top step, trickling up from below him and invading the dull buzz at the back of his head with a multitude of familiar tones and leaving only his eyes to catch up as he worked his way carefully down the wooden flight.
Hoss was stood at his usual place before the fire, hands thrust into his pockets and a frown on his face – a sign of either deep thought or else concern. Beside him, perched on one end of the hearth sat Little Joe, leaning forward and staring up with interest at the figure pacing behind the couch beyond the small gathering, hat firmly in place and the five-point badge glinting on his waistcoat; Roy Coffee.
It took him a little longer to notice Claire Hauer sitting on the seat before him, baby wrapped in her arms, Sasha hovering nearby with an ever-watchful look on her face, and finally Noah Weeks, sat in one of the free armchairs and looking troubled but resigned. Blinking a little dazedly as he drank in the scene, Adam came to a standstill halfway up the flight, hands braced on either side of the banisters and something of a puzzled smile quirking across his face,
"Well what's all this?" he began, his voice sounding lower, and more gravely than he'd expected but drawing looks of pleasure and surprise.
"Hey!" Beamed Hoss in response, instantly breaking away from his position to hurry over to the foot of the stairs and followed with similar speed by Little Joe, also grinning,
"Look who's up!"
As Adam made his way down towards them his own smile widened wryly,
"Who could sleep through this racket?"
"Well you sure tried," Hoss chuckled back, laying a broad and protective hand on his eldest brother's shoulder, "Been out near enough the whole day – we was, gettin' kinda worried 'bout you,"
Easing himself across the room, his hawk like brothers hovering alongside, Adam lowered himself slowly into one of the armchairs, throwing a cursory nod at the gathered faces staring across at him and smiling through a wince of pain.
"Well if I'd known we'd had company..." he began dryly, sweeping a hand around the room by way of extended greeting.
"Adam," Roy offered back, stepping forward and managing a thin smile, "Good to see you."
"Roy," came the response as, settling back against the cushions Adam became aware for the first time of the growing atmosphere swirling around them, glancing up and taking in the hesitant expressions on Hoss and Little Joe's faces before turning back to the sheriff with a frown, "What's going on?"
For a moment nobody answered, everybody letting the silence string out until Adam had looked at them each in turn. Averting her gaze a little, Claire Hauer cleared her throat,
"How are you feeling?" she asked softly in the pause,
"Better," he responded gently, nodding at the bundle in her arms, "How's he?"
For the first time the woman smiled genuinely,
"Perfect," she whispered, "He's just perfect."
"I'm glad to hear it,"
But there was still something unresolved, and, sensing that the eldest Cartwright wouldn't want to remain in the dark for long, Roy stepped forward, his face hardening into its business expression,
"Adam, I'm afraid I didn't just come here to see how you were feeling – ,"
"I didn't expect you had,"
His face setting into a frown, Joe's gaze flickered briefly towards the troubled-looking lawman,
"He's come to take Noah in,"
Adam blinked heavily,
"What? What for?"
"Murder," replied Hoss, "He...shot Mr. Hauer," by now everybody was staring at him, hard, "You...you remember Adam?"
And suddenly he realised why there was so much tension in the room, and the reason that Noah Weeks had been observing him with such silent intensity. Clearly, he was trying to take the fall for Claire, heap the blame onto his own shoulders and save her and his newborn son the trauma of a trial, a jury and the inevitability of sentencing. Hoss and Joe were obviously in on the deception too, and looking for Adam to follow, the only problem was – concussion or otherwise – Adam Cartwright's conscience wasn't about to be so easily persuaded.
But then again, neither was Roy Coffee, who was also watching him closely through distinctly narrowed eyes. Hoss and Joe had never been natural liars and evidently their lack of expertise was showing them up.
"Adam?" he asked slowly, "Is that how it happened?"
Adam shifted in his seat with another visible wince, suddenly feeling as awkward as he was uncomfortable. He wasn't about to give the game away yet,
"Tell me something Roy," he began thoughtfully instead, eyes settling on no one in particular as he mentally paced his argument, "Were an injured man being beaten, would you agree that the person doing the beating were intent on murder – or at the very least, was unconcerned by the outcome?"
Glancing up he took in the sheriff's considered pause and slow responding nod,
"Probably. But what does that have to do with who shot Hauer?"
"I'm getting to that," Adam replied quickly, still maintaining his steady, questioning cool and aware that all eyes were fully focused in his direction, "Would you then consider that anyone who fired at the attacker would be attempting to prevent a murder? You might say, acting in defence of the victim?"
"Well yes, that's the way I'd see it – 'n I daresay that's the way the law would see it too. But Adam," the lawman pressed, a little terse for the long preamble, "Is that what you're sayin' happened here? Is that why Noah Weeks shot Gibbs Hauer?"
"No," Adam responded flatly, and for a second everybody held their breath. He didn't need to continue however, Claire instead finding out his gaze and beating him to it in conviction of what had to be done,
"It's why I did."
The collective gasp of surprise issued instantaneously from several mouths,
"You?" Roy Coffee frowned back, obviously completely thrown by the latest twist and dealing with it through a series of blinks and half-sentences, "You Mrs. Hauer? But wh – whe – what in the world – ?"
"Claire," Noah breathed beside her in the staccato of speech and pause, moving from his chair to drop to his knees beside her. She silenced him with a cool hand to the cheek, laying her palm across his face and feeling his respond in kind,
"It's going to be fine," she whispered softly, "I have to do this."
Swallowing hesitantly beside them, Hoss glanced up worriedly at the still incredulous sheriff,
"You ain't gonna take her in Roy? Why, I mean, we was just tryin' to protect her, what with her just havin' had a babe an' all – it – it wouldn't be right any other way,"
It took him a moment longer to recompose himself, eventually gazing up and letting out a long sigh,
"Well," he began, looking quickly at each Cartwright in turn and appraising them astutely, "Are we sure that's how it happened this time? Boys, was Mrs. Hauer just protecting Adam?"
"And the baby," Little Joe fired back quickly, both from the memory and in his eagerness to see fair justice, "Hauer said he was going to drown him – he would have too,"
Hoss, as ever, was equally swift to back him up,
"Yeah, an' if she hadn't stepped in for Adam, I'd hate to think what might'a happened,"
In the following silence the man in question himself decided to add the final sobering point,
"I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now, that's for sure. Neither would Noah."
Hit by the barrage of confirmation, Roy Coffee let out another sigh and threw up his hands, apparently giving in to the pleading,
"Well, in that case there's not much else for me to do about it all. Self-defence is self-defence, there ain't a jury in the country that would condemn a woman for protectin' her child. I guess all I got to do now is take in Mr. Weeks here – like I came for,"
"What?!" barked Little Joe, heads swinging towards the sheriff in amazement from all directions of the room. Hoss frowned,
"But Roy – ,"
The lawman held up a silencing hand,
"I'm sorry boys, but Noah Weeks is still a runaway slave. Now I don't like it anymore than you do, but the law's the law,"
"But Roy...you can't – I mean, they're a family – ,"
But suddenly it was Weeks himself who was embodying the calm resignation that he had earlier watched Claire so willingly inhabit,
"It is all right Hoss," in interjected in deep, calm tones, standing to his feet and gazing respectfully across at the Sheriff, "I must follow the law, like any other."
"But surely Roy," Adam spoke up thoughtfully, moving slightly from his pensive position and taking his head from his hands, "A runaway slave is caught to be handed back to his master. With Hauer dead, does his property not move onto his next living relative? Slaves included?"
For a moment nobody spoke, eyes instead meeting one another across the space, and a small, semi-grin crossing Roy Coffee's wrinkled but familiar face,
"Well, I suppose you're right Adam, but the question is who was Gibbs Hauer's closest living relative?" glancing across at the woman, he cleared his throat quickly, "Did he have any surviving children? Brothers?"
Claire shook her head quickly,
"As far as I know Gibbs had no other family. Certainly none he spoke of."
"Well then," Roy smiled, "I guess that settles that, as much as can be. Seems that Noah Weeks belongs to you now ma'am,"
"No," Claire smiled back widely, the weight being lifted from her shoulders, "He doesn't belong to anyone any more," and as she spoke she extended a hand, watching him take it willingly and twisting to involve Sasha in the happy scene, "Neither do you...I free you both,"
Only as everybody else smiled, Sasha began to shake her head resolutely, moving forward and growing more indignant in the process. Interpreting her response with knowing insight,
"Being a slave is all she has ever known," he replied quietly in the emphatic silence, "She is happy with you Mrs. Hauer, she does not want to be parted,"
Smiling warmly at her long-time maid, Claire reached out and took the woman's hand comfortingly,
"Nor will she be. But I refuse to keep any slaves, so we shall just have to settle for being employer and employee...and the closest of friends."
Which, apparently, was all the reassurance that Sasha was looking for.
Sitting back against the armchair, and suddenly feeling very tired again, Adam chanced a look upwards at his brothers, pleased to find each one grinning wide enough to burst. Glancing down, Hoss rested a hand against his eldest brother's shoulder, the gesture thanks enough. Everything was going to be all right after all.
Now all he needed to do was stop the ringing in his ears.
Even with the thick but slowly receding blanket of snow, Ben Cartwright could have made the journey back across the Ponderosa blindfolded, following little more than his nose and the twists, ruts and divots of the well-travelled land beneath him. Across the expanse of the vast spread, the different tracks and roads criss-crossed like bright pulsating arteries, carrying ranch hands, riders, supplies and livestock from one point to the next, and each drawing towards the big, warm and comfortable house sprawled in its centre and overseeing it all; the heartbeat of the whole operation. Home.
He was going to be especially glad to see it this time around.
Usually, his annual visits to the Atherton's were little more than excuses to kick back for a few days under the careful but calculated pretence of delivering the elderly couple essential winter supplies – which he did. The fact that Bunny Atherton then saw fit to reward him with a shower of homemade pies, cakes and stews while her husband sat with him in the comfy chair by the fire and regaled him with nostalgic tales and fond memories, was entirely their own prerogative. Besides which it would have been rude to refuse such kindly intended hospitality.
This visit however, things had been different, and the snow up in the foothills – indeed, across the territory as a whole – had played an inordinately large part in the noticeable shift. Rather than taking his cosy seat beside the hearth and accepting plateful after plateful of homemade faire, the days had instead seen Ben alternating between trying to dissuade seventy-eight year old Kenny Atherton from shovelling the snow from his roof himself, and comforting Bunny whose husband's dare-devilry had provided her with a series of 'turns' rendering her weak, drained and certainly in no mood for any sort of cooking. Having finally convinced Kenny against climbing, the job of shifting snow from the frail little roof – not to mention chopping wood, stocking the fires, cooking and draft preventing – had fallen instead to him, and so, far from providing the rest and relaxation he had been expecting, Ben had found himself working harder than ever, and, consequently, missing the help and company of his sons.
It was the reason his steady trot into the familiar yard turned into a joyful half-canter, stopping short only as he almost collided with a covered wagon slowly peeling away from the side of the house and being waved off enthusiastically by his two youngest children. It took him a second longer to find Adam, sitting on the porch, coat drawn so high up his neck that it almost obscured the bottom half of his face, and his hat pulled down so low it completed to look for the rest, with only his shadowed eyes even vaguely visible.
Drawing his horse to an uneven stop beside the hitching post, Ben swung down with a frown, face turned fully towards the slowly departing cart, his confusion evident as his younger sons stepped up to greet him, their widening smile implying that his arrival had merely buoyed the already jubilant mood.
"Well hiya Pa," Little Joe half-shouted in tones of loud exuberance, drawing in to pat his father fondly on the shoulder and seemingly missing the resulting bafflement. Hoss – either in ignorance or close accompaniment – continued the cheerful obliviousness,
"Good to have you back Pa – everything all right with Mr. And Mrs. Atherton?"
"Uh…yes Hoss," came the absent reply, Ben's eyes not quite finding out either one of his children as a heavily gloved hand instead extended across the cold, "Who was that?"
Blinking back at him, Hoss similarly gestured after the wagon,
Right from the start Ben could tell there wasn't going to be a simple explanation.
"Yes," he replied shortly, still pointing, "The man, woman and child. I've never seen them before,"
Hoss shrugged casually,
"Oh, well that's Noah an' Mrs. Hauer with their newborn babe," he paused briefly to smile and exchange a knowing look with Little Joe, "Name's Adam,"
"Adam?" Ben repeated in surprise, slowly aware of some subtext he was not quite getting,
"And Sasha," Joe put in helpfully from beside them, "Don't forget Sasha."
"Their slave," Hoss supplied simply, before hurrying to correct himself, "Or at least she was…Mr. Hauer's slave anyhow, only Mrs. Hauer freed her just last night…Noah too for that matter,"
If it was possible for Ben to get anymore lost in translation, then he couldn't envisage it.
"Don't worry about him Pa," Little Joe added quickly, "He's dead."
"Claire shot him,"
"Well she had to," Hoss interjected, drawing Ben's bafflement back in his direction, "He was going to kill Adam,"
"No, not the baby Pa," Joe replied, gesturing instead towards the house with some vagueness, "Adam,"
"What?" Although as Ben's mood quickly swung from confusion to out and out concern, Little Joe and Hoss' own cheer slowly started to falter,
"Well…" Hoss continued, somewhat more awkwardly, "He was hittin' him anyhow, and what with having been shot in the head and all – ,"
The narrowing of Ben's eyes cut him off cold,
"Shot in the – ," taking a deep breath and trying to hide his growing irritation, Ben steadied his nerve, "Who was shot in the head?"
Little Joe and Hoss exchanged a hesitant look, the youngest eventually shrugging,
"He was what?!" As Ben's temper promptly exploded, caught by a wave of anxiety that didn't quite match the buoyant merriment of his younger sons, his head swung frantically towards the porch, heart lurching as the coat clad figure he had half-noticed before failed to appear in his line of vision. He had gone altogether, "Adam!"
He was stumbling towards the house before he even realised his legs were moving, carried by paternal angst and very little else as Hoss and Joe belatedly moved after him,
"Pa – ," the youngest was offering in placating tones, "Pa it's all right,"
"Doc Martin says he'll be fine," Hoss was adding alongside, "He told us himself…"
But their father wasn't listening, and as all three stalked across the yard and up onto the wooden planks, their attempted mollifications stalled, replaced instead by a fierce metallic click as the latch snapped upwards and sound of boots trampling hard and fast across the floorboards. So fast was their arrival, that they almost collided with the object of concern himself, busy shrugging off the hat and jacket beside the door and obviously startled by the abruptness of their arrival,
"Pa," he blinked in vaguely baffled welcome, a hint of a smile playing across his lips, "How was your trip?"
As he turned to place his hat on the dresser however, Ben caught sight of the gash for the first time, the clean trajectory making him take an involuntary breath,
"Adam…" he hissed in horror, hands moving up to grip his son's face and turn the head where he could better examine the wound. It was much the same gesture as Little Joe had employed, the two suddenly mirror images of concern albeit one a little belated. Standing back, Hoss and Joe let their father worry, "How did this happen?"
Stepping back and escaping the prying hands with cool ease, Adam instead headed slowly for the couch, easing himself down and trying to underplay how tired the short excursion out to wave off the newly-formed Weeks family had made him. His father followed him like a shadow, eyes demanding explanation,
"I was bushwhacked," he offered eventually, skirting the resultant burst of anger by sitting back and dropping a hand across his eyes,
"Bushwhacked! By who? That man out there?"
Looking up briefly, Adam frowned,
"That one!" Ben hissed back, flapping a hand towards the door, "That man I just saw leaving with the women, and the child!"
"Aww, no Pa," Hoss stepped in, quick to absolve Noah entirely, "That ain't Mr. Hauer – it's like I said to ya earlier, Mr. Hauer is dead,"
Although the revelation didn't seem to make Ben all that happier.
"Well then perhaps someone would like to tell me why he shot your brother in the first place!"
In a funny way – even through the headache – it felt good to have him back, blistering, furious and already heated despite having been in their company for less than five minutes. It felt comforting, and, realising it, Adam settled back further and shut his eyes in response to the wash of exhaustion. Behind him somewhere, Hoss was still trying his best to explain,
"Now, you see Pa, Mr. Hauer was using Adam, sorta like…bait…"
"Yeah, for Noah…"
"You remember Pa, that feller in the wagon – ,"
"Then why shoot Adam?!"
"Because we were hiding Noah in the barn," Little Joe's voice added quietly, the guilt still obviously weighing heavily.
Sleepily, Adam made a mental note to address that with him later,
"Hiding him in the barn?" Ben snapped back, "Why were you hiding anybody in the barn?"
"It was for his own protection Pa," Hoss again, shifty but defensive, "Hauer was out to kill him, and he was so cold n' hungry when Joe found him and – ,"
"Hold it. Why was this Hauer trying to kill him at all?"
"On account of the baby…well, we didn't know it was his baby then – fact we didn't know there was a baby at all but that's the way it turned out anyhow."
"Baby?" Ben again, still incredulous, still angry, "The baby in the wagon?"
"Adam helped deliver him," Joe put in, sounding strangely proud,
"That's why they called him Adam," added Hoss – and bizarrely he sounded proud too, which made Adam smile as sleep grabbed a tighter hold on him, briefly obscuring Ben's terse reply and sapping his own ability to answer.
"Adam?" he heard dully above him, Ben's suddenly concerned sounding query barking out quickly only to be soothed by Hoss' gentle response,
"He's all right Pa, just sleepy is all,"
"I'm not surprised," Ben snorted back, although some of the harshness had left his tone,
"You go and fresh yerself up Pa, me and Little Joe will take care of Adam,"
"Yeah," added the youngest gently, and the couch compressed beneath him, presumably under Joe's weight and watchful eye, "He'll be fine."
And then, as the voices turned to vague murmurs, Adam gave himself up to the warm embrace of sleep and let them fade completely. No doubt there was going to be one hell of argument when the whole story came out, not to mention the issue of Mr. Withens and the business deal gone awry, but right now, things were as they should be.
His brothers were safe, his father was home and the snow was melting. He could sleep in peace for a while yet.