"The Question"

Follow Up to "Words"

by Lewie

"Now what the Sam Hill are you doin' in here, Adam?" Shelby demanded dropping the rag she'd been using to scrub some of the more disgusting stains off the bar.

It had been two weeks since the hostage situation right here in this room, two weeks since the kid had been shot and she had thought she was going to have to tell Ben Cartwright that his oldest boy was dead. If she lived, herself, that is.

She took a good look at him. He was still pale, leaning a little to the right side, favoring it as if it still hurt. She reckoned that it did. It had been a bad wound. He was lucky to be alive, much less riding into town two weeks later. That ride had evidently taken something out of him too, for he looked about ready to drop, and she kicked a chair out with one booted toe.

"Come on, sit down before you fall down. You'll give the place a bad name if there's bodies all over the floor all the time. Want a cup of coffee?"

"Please, Shelby, I'd love one," he said, his voice a little strained as he sank gratefully into the chair, pulling his gloves off.

She headed back to the bar, snagged two cups and the pot and brought them over to the table. The saloon was still empty. It was only ten o'clock in the morning and even the most dedicated drinkers had to sleep sometime. Dropping into a chair opposite him, she poured out two cups and slid one across to him.

"On the house," she said, the words slightly garbled around the cigar in her mouth. "But don't get used to it, Adam, I'm still trying to get all the blood off my floor."

If it was possible, he paled even further; she sat up straighter and reached out a hand, placed it on top of one of his. "I was just kidding, Adam. Guess it's a little early to kid about this, ain't it." She sat back again and took a sip of coffee, appraising him with that special talent she had developed after years of reading people for intention and mood.

"I'm surprised your pa let you ride all the way to town this soon," she said.

Adam's expressive eyes shot up to her and then down again to study his coffee. "He doesn't know I'm here."

"Ah."

"I was..."

"Adam," she laid her hand on his again, "we went through a rough time together. It means we can talk square to each other. It's some kind of Code of the West or something."

Finally he smiled, shyly, faintly, but it was a smile.

"I wondered if he said anything. Mr. Booker. Before... before they killed him."

Shelby sighed, gnawed on the cigar and sat back in the chair, not sure she wanted to talk about this. Not with anyone. Especially not with this boy.

"Such as?"

Some of the paleness shifted as color rose up in Adam's face. "I'm not sure exactly. I just wondered... I mean, he... it seemed like he wasn't... completely bad." He looked up at her then, his eyes pleading for understanding. Then, "I don't know how to feel about him, Shelby. Part of me wants to be glad that he's dead, but... but I keep feeling that it's wrong that he had to die. That he didn't deserve it. Maybe something... or someone... made him like he was, that it wasn't entirely his choice..." He faded off with a sigh, shrugged his shoulders and winced as broken ribs reminded him that they were still there.

"He was a grown man, Adam. No one put that gun in his hand. He was a hard man."

"Was he?"

Now it was her turn to sigh. "Adam, you go on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt all your life and you're gonna get hurt at the least, at the most you're gonna get dead. And that would be a waste. A real waste."

"They said, some of the riders from Margaret's said that you were angry at them. That you said he was surrendering. Was that true?"

Shelby glanced up at the door, almost wishing someone would come in and interrupt their conversation, but the street was quiet.

"Yes," she told him honestly, "it was true."

"What did he say?"

"He didn't get a chance to say anything, Adam, that stupid kid from Maggie's spread shot him dead in the chest before he got a chance to tell them anything."

"No," Adam shook his head, "what did he say to you?"

"Ahh." She was quiet for a long moment, considering her coffee as if the answer were swimming around in there. Finally she looked up at him, at blue eyes searching hers, seeking answers that she might not be able to give. Adam wanted a reason. She wasn't sure there was one.

"He said he was sorry," she finally said. "Said he'd managed to make it to his age, doing what he did, and hadn't killed anyone before." She saw the confusion on his face and explained, "He thought you were dead by then." She dropped the cigar onto the table. "Hell, Adam, so did I. You were looking bad. Only good thing I could think about if he killed me was not havin' to face your daddy and tell him I'd let you die there on the floor of my saloon."

"It wasn't your fault, Shelby," he assured her. "None of it was your fault."

"That don't matter. It felt like my fault so it was. That's the way it works sometimes. You sayin' it ain' don't change things."

Adam searched her face with wondering eyes, then nodded, concentrating on his untouched coffee. He wrapped his hands around the cup. It was warm and felt good, and safe.

"I came for another reason," he said finally.

She lounged back in the chair and watched him. "What's that?"

"I-I-" He flushed red, ducked his head away, then tried again, "I wanted to thank you for saving my life. You and Ruth, you kept me alive."

"Oh, hell, Adam, what did you expect, we'd let you bleed to death there? Besides, Ruth's all soft on you Cartwright boys for some reason." But the bravado hid emotion and they could both see it. Shelby snorted, then leaned forward. "I like you, Adam. I think you're a good boy and you're going to make a good man real soon here. I'd like you to call me friend. But I'd have done the same for anyone, so don't be worrying about it."

"Hop Sing said that Booker helped you."

It was her turn to glance down. "Yeah, he did. I guess you owe him part of your life too. If he'd been a different kind of man he'd be around to collect on that. But he's not, and you gotta quit fretting on it. You worry things to death, Adam. It's one of them... what does your pa call them... character flaws."

He laughed. "You're probably right." He settled more to the right in the chair, suddenly tired and sore. "I just wanted to thank you, Shelby. And tell you that I'm sorry about Booker."

The doors opened and they both looked up. Ben Cartwright didn't look mad, he didn't even look worried. He crossed the room and placed a hand gently on his son's shoulder.

"You ready to go home now, son?" he asked gently.

"Yes, sir, pa."

Shelby stood when Adam did, noticing that his father had to steady him. Before Adam could turn or speak, she circled the table and took him carefully in her arms. She held him for a moment, then whispered, "I'm sorry he's dead, Adam, but I thank God you're alive." She didn't give him a chance to answer her, just pushed him back and gave Ben a lopsided smile.

"Take your boy home, Ben. He's earned a rest today."

Ben placed an arm around Adam's shoulders, nodded to Shelby, and said, "I think that's a good idea, Shelby. Thank you." His eyes said more and she bit down on the cigar, then tipped her head at him.

Shelby watched them leave. She was grateful that Adam was alive, more grateful than she had words to express, but there was a hole there where a stranger had been. She still ached that the cost was his death.

Then suddenly she realized that she might, after all, have the answer to Adam's question, the question that drove him to ride all this way still only half healed. "Adam," she called, stopping them at the door, "sometimes there ain't a reason for life and death. Sometimes it just is. And you have to accept that."

Adam glanced at his father who nodded, then looked back at Shelby. "Thanks, Shelby." He hesitated, lost for how to express what he meant, what it all meant to the both of them. He settled for, "Thanks for the coffee too."

She gave him a grin, teeth gouged into the cigar and watched them leave, Ben's arm draped gently, supportively, around his son's waist, and wished she'd had family who loved her. When they were gone, she tipped a generous dollop of bourbon into her coffee, lifted the cup, said, "To you, Booker," and drank it down.