xxxXXXxxx

Big Dan took one look at Adam, huddled in the blankets beside the fire, and said, "I'll ride for the doctor, Ben, he's at the Morgan place. I can have him here in a few hours." And he was gone into the darkness and the rain.

Eli stepped through the doors, slowly, almost reluctantly, not knowing what to expect after the barrage of gunfire. He'd lost both children to this country. If it took Ruth too...

And there she was, on her knees beside the Cartwright boy, her eyes on Adam's pallid, still face. As if feeling his presence, she brought her eyes up, met his almost disbelieving gaze, and gave him a smile. She had barely made it to her feet before he was across the room and swept her up into his arms, swinging her around in a full circle.

"Oh, my love," he whispered in her ear, "my love."

And then, finally, Ruth cried.

Horses, at a full gallop, then sliding to mud-slick stops, were audible even inside the building, just before Margaret stepped through the door, one hand on Hoss' arm, trying to hold the boy back in case there was still danger inside. One look at his father and brother, though, and her entire crew of vaqueros couldn't have held Hoss back. He went to one knee beside his brother, his face stricken, then looked up at his father.

"Pa?"

"He will be all right, Eric," Ben said firmly, but the fear was scrawled over his own features. Not a person in the room didn't know that Ben Cartwright was facing the possibility of losing his first-born son and the doctor was at least five hours away by buggy.

"It is not as bad as it look, Mr. Cartwright," Hop Sing said then, "there was much blood and pain, but Adam will recover. He is young, strong, and he has will to live. He will be fine, as you say."

Ben gave him a grateful, sickly smile, but it was clear that he wasn't anywhere near as convinced. Ruth kissed Eli one more time, then held his face in her hands for a moment. Just a moment. Then she said, "We will need more wood for the fire. It would not be good to move him until the doctor has had a chance to examine him and we must keep him warm."

"Stay with Mrs. Orowitz," Dan said, "Frenchy and I'll get the wood and stoke up the fire. You stay with your wife." He wasn't sure why he'd not gone with the posse, perhaps because there had been more than enough riders–Margaret's men hadn't stopped, but had headed in that direction too–or perhaps he simply felt his loyalty lay here with a man he respected who was afraid he was losing his son. Either way, he shoved Frenchy toward the wood pile and started working the fire up into something that would provide enough warmth to keep Adam as comfortable as possible and shock at bay.

Eli enveloped his wife in his arms and started to lead her over to a chair, half afraid she was going to collapse herself, she was trembling so hard and her face the color of parchment.

"No," she protested at the gentle urging, "Adam, I must stay with Adam."

"Shh, my love," Eli cooed in her ear, "Ben is here, his father is here. You have kept him safe for Ben to arrive. Now it is your turn to rest. Come, sit. We will not be far away."

She allowed him, then, to pull her away from the boy's body and settle her into a chair close enough to the fire to feel its warmth but not near enough to Adam to see if the youngster were to die in the next few minutes. What he wanted was to get her home, put her in their own bed and hold her in his arms until she stopped shaking and finally fell into a healing sleep, but he knew she wouldn't leave Adam until she knew... well, whether he would live or die.

Poor Ben, he thought, seeing the man's tortured features, mutated by the dancing colors of the flames. Eli knew very well what it felt like to lose a child. He wrapped his arms around his wife and prayed for the boy lying beside the fire, and for his father who watched him in agony.

"Pa?" Ben's head jerked up at the too familiar voice. "Pa, he's gonna be all right, ain't he?"

Sighing, he wondered why on earth Margaret had allowed the boy to ride with them, why she hadn't left him at the safety of her ranch with Little Joe. But then one look told him the answer. Hoss wasn't a child anymore. Maybe not a man yet, but at that awkward stage with one foot in both worlds. He had the right to be here with his brother.

Ben lifted a hand and settled it gently on his son's shoulder. "He'll be fine, Eric," he said and prayed he wasn't lying to him, "Daniel will get here with the doctor and he'll be fine. We just have to wait. And pray. It would be good to pray."

Hoss smiled faintly at that. "I can pray, Pa. I can sure do that."

xxxXXXxxx

When Dr. Stevens pulled Ben aside, he could have sworn the entire saloon full of people moved with them and not a person breathed while he spoke.

"He's lost a lot of blood, Ben," he said gently, "but it looks worse than it is. Your Hop Sing did a fine job of packing the wound. I don't think we're going to be looking at infection here because of his treatment, I could use him as an assistant to tell you the truth."

Now, he could swear that the entire room let out that breath of air en masse.

He offered Ben a smile, placed a hand on his shoulder. "He's going to be laid up for a while, don't take me wrong. It's a bad wound, but he's young and strong and he's going to be fine."

"Yes!" Big Dan said, then stepped behind the bar. "I don't think Shelby will mind and we got enough money on the table there to pay for it anyway thanks to the generosity of our fine banker. I need a drink and I reckon most everyone else could use one too. Even you, Ben."

Ben breathed long and slow, then looked over at the bar. "Even me, Daniel," he said finally, "and make it a big one."

Dan whooped out a laugh and started pouring, making sure the first two went to Ben and the doctor. Even Eli and Ruth joined in, though Hop Sing assured them that he would have a cup of tea when they returned to the ranch. Ben clinked his glass against the doctor's, drained it dry, then settled back to a seat on the floor beside his son while Ruth, insisting on doing it herself, made up a room for Adam upstairs.

Hoss hadn't wanted to leave but Ben sent him with the Orowitz's to get what was left of a night's sleep while he sat vigil with Adam.

After the doctor had treated the ugly wound, wrapped broken ribs, and gone home himself for the rest of the night, Ben curled up in a chair beside the bed. Adam woke only twice during the rest of the night.

Ben had almost drifted off himself when he heard a faint voice, "Pa?"

He startled awake and sat straight up in the chair, then leaned over toward the bed, managing a smile in spite of the pallor of his son's face, the confusion he read there in the usually sharp eyes.

"I'm right here, Adam, right here. You rest now, son."

"Is everyone okay?" The words were pushed out with effort against pain and drugs.

"Everyone is fine now," Ben skirted around the truth.

"Shelby?"

He sighed, having hoped that Adam had been unconscious for that part of the night. "They'll bring her back, son. Don't worry about her. You know Shelby. She'll have him begging her to let her go."

The weak attempt at humor sailed right over Adam's head. "He wouldn't want to hurt her, Pa."

I hope not, Ben thought, but didn't dare say. "No, he won't, Adam, she'll be fine."

"'mm, be fine," Adam slurred. "Love you, Pa."

Ben's eyes flooded and he cupped his now sleeping son's face with his hand. "I love you too, son," he whispered.

The second time he woke was nearly an hour later and Ben was still watching his still face.

"Shelby?" Adam croaked, looking over Ben's shoulder.

Ben turned and started to get to his feet.

"No, no, stay where you are, Ben," Shelby said, standing there in a pool of water, her hair hanging lank and damp around her face. "I just wanted to check on Adam, see I if he was all right."

"Shelby," Adam fought off sleep, trying to sort out what had happened in a drugged mind, "he took you. Did he... are you... did he hurt you?"

She laughed but Ben could hear the strain in the sound. "Me? You gotta be kiddin'. Take more than a washed up bank robber to hurt me, kid. I'm fine. I just wanted to check on you, then I'm going to take a hot bath and get me some shut eye. You go on to sleep, you, too, Ben, you look almost as rough as Adam there."

"Shelby–"

"They killed him, Ben. He was going to surrender and they killed him."

And before Ben could answer, she was gone. He almost followed her, but Adam's hand on his arm stopped him. "I think he was once a good man, Pa," he said, just this side of sleep. "I think something happened that changed him."

Ben sighed and brushed Adam's hair out of his face, leaving his hand there against his son's pallid cheek as he slipped away into sleep.

xxxXXXxxx

Shelby wasn't quite sure what she was doing here. It had been weeks, it was over now. The hole in the floor was repaired, the banker was appeased with the return of his money... well, all except for the cost of the celebratory drinks, but even he didn't dare say a word about that when it was Big Dan who returned the money and explained the shortage. Even bankers have a sense of self-preservation.

Booker had been laid to rest in a grave with a simple marker, again at the expense of the town and Margaret's young ranch hand had basked in the glory of killing the notorious outlaw for as long as anyone would listen.

Adam Cartwright had healed with that almost miraculous ability of the young and healthy and though he wasn't out wrangling horses or building fences yet, he was out of bed and taking walks and the occasional short ride.

So here she was at the grave of a man who had tried to rob her, threatened to kill her, kidnapped her and been the near cause of a boy's death. What on earth was she thinking?

She heard the rustle of wet leaves, the swish of an overcoat, but she didn't turn to see who was coming up behind her.

He stood there for a few minutes, silent, breathing a little harder than the walk should have required and finally Shelby turned and looked at him.

"You look like hell, Adam, you shouldn't be here."

He nodded. "I came to pay my respects."

A laugh, harsh, guttural. "For him?" She snorted out another sharp laugh. "I'd think you'd be glad to see him in the ground, Adam."

Adam ducked his head, grunted as the movement pulled something she couldn't see beneath his coat, his clothing, bandages. It reminded her.

"You really should be in bed, Adam. Your pa know you're out here?"

"Oh, he will by now," Adam said cryptically.

"Your brothers?"

"Oh they'll tell him in a heartbeat," he said with a laugh, but it was the careful laugh of a man who knew it could hurt. "So what are you doing here?"

She laughed then too. "Same thing as you, I guess. I don't reckon anyone else in this town or anywhere else will do it. Guess it's up to you and me."

"Yeah," he said softly, and put an arm around her shoulders, "I guess it's up to you and me."